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In the fifth line from the third stanza of "A German Requiem", the word waistcoat is modified by leering. I can understand waistcoat is personified as a person here. Is this person the priest? And why is this person leering? I cannot get any clue from the context. So I was thinking maybe there are some cultural background behind this?

Below is the stanza:

How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.
As on those special days, ladies and gentlemen,
When the boiled shirts gather at the graveside
And a leering waistcoat approaches the rostrum.
It is like a solemn pact between the survivors.
They mayor has signed it on behalf of the freemasonry.
The priest has sealed it on behalf of all the rest.
Nothing more need be said, and it is better that way-

Here is the link to the poem. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-german-requiem/

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"Waistcoat" here is metonymy for the person wearing the waistcoat. It is parallel to the "boiled shirts" who gather at the graveside in the previous line. (Boiled shirts are well-starched and stiff, like the kind you'd see in Downton Abbey.) Together, the two images present people who are, on the surface, very serious, but don't actually care about the occasion.

The "waistcoat" doesn't seem to be a priest; priests wear robes. He could be an Anglican minister, but it's more likely to single out his collar. It's more likely that he's some grandee of the town, a businessman or rich person. I don't think he's a veteran of the war, or he'd be wearing a uniform.

As to why that person is "leering"... I don't believe it's intended sexually, due to the lack of other sexual references in the poem, but rather in the more general sense of "unpleasant". I suspect that the unpleasantness is more in the way the the objects of the ceremony perceive it, rather than from actual ill intent.

The poem is a series of uncomfortable images of the aftermath of war, and in particular the grief of widows who are being celebrated for their sacrifices. That ceremony feels false. The important people of the city are using it as a way to celebrate their importance: speeches are made, documents are signed, and if you're very lucky, that's all. It would be even worse if they actually thought or spoke about just how awful it is.

I do think that "leering" is an odd choice here: the connotations are inherently sexual. The language hasn't changed that much since the poem was written, and I don't think its connotation is that different in the UK. (Even if it were, the poet is a professor of English, and should be careful about such implications regardless of his own dialect.)

I can only imagine that it's intended to increase the sense of possessiveness and intrusion: this puffed-up poo-bah is using their grief as a prop. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to shy away from the sexual connotations, a bit like using "rape" for something merely unpleasant.

  • Your analysis of why the person is "leering" is not supported by any evidence from the book. And oddly enough, you raise one of the possible correct answers -- that the leering is intended to be "sexual" (although you never really explain what that means or how that related to the themes of the poem) only to dismiss it without any evidence against it. (In other words, support your analysis with quotes from the poem and be more precise.) – user111 Apr 13 '17 at 16:16
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    I was torn between trying to enhance my answer to gain your approval, and dismissing it as sounding like my English teacher demanding that every paragraph have a topic sentence and three supporting sentences. I settled on the latter when I reread "no supported by any evidence from the book". First, it's a poem, not a book; it's not long and it should be at hand. Second, I am alluding to the poem in many places; actually quoting it seems pedantic. Third, I do quote it in a few places; perhaps not enough but certainly not none. <cont> – Joshua Engel Apr 13 '17 at 16:31
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    Fourth, the explanation of not thinking it's sexual is a lack of other sexual references; I'm not going to quote the entire poem to prove a lack of it. I am going to modify my answer to make that explanation clearer, but I'm not going to turn it into a sophomore essay. – Joshua Engel Apr 13 '17 at 16:32
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    The poem is about widows, but not everything about women, or even about marriage, is about sex. – Joshua Engel Apr 13 '17 at 16:52
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    Also, "leering" doesn't necessarily have sexual connotations. See e.g. Wiktionary: "To look sideways or obliquely; now especially with sexual desire or malicious intent" (emphasis mine). – Rand al'Thor Apr 13 '17 at 22:05

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