Mary Robinson – “The Camp”, “The Poor Singing Dame”

“The Camp” is quite similar in tone and style to “January 1795” – it’s a chatty poem, without any predicates and even fewer gerunds than “January 1795” – it’s nouns, adjectives and participles. It’s a curious combination of static and dynamic, since it describes the busy social scene, using the metaphor of an army camp. It reminds me somewhat anachronistically of Frith’s “The Derby Day“, even though this painting was created five decades later. The description is also quite similar to “January”, just with less moralizing, although the final line “NOTHING CLEAN – AND NOTHING QUIET” (caps original) strikes a didactic note. but altogether it seems to be a happier crowd.

And just when I was starting to think Robinson was a bit of a one-trick pony, I got “The Poor Singing Dame” which is a kind of folksy/medieval poem, written mostly in amfibrach tetrameter (oom-PA-pa), a fairly rare thing in English poetry. It’s subject is a poor lady who lives in a hovel near a castle, but despite her poverty she is always cheerful and free of envy towards the rich lord: she sings when she hears the horn of the hunters and she smiles when she hears the bells announcing a big party in the castle. But finally the lord of the castle becomes envious of her, because he hated that the poor could be cheerful while the rich had their problems. So he throws her in prison, where she dies after three weeks and is buried in a rural grave, overgrown with primroses. But the wicked lord is from that day on followed by screech owls every night from dusk till dawn. Finally he starts to waste and dies of shame. He is buried in a rich marble grave, not mourned by anyone, but his grave “overshadows the grave of the Poor Singing Dame”, which is kind of ambiguous: even though he got his comeuppance, does it mean that even after death the rich lord it over the poor?


Mary Robinson – “January 1795”, “London’s Summer Morning”

I must admit, Mary Robinson seems a welcome relief after Charlotte Smith’s Moaning Myrtle. True, Robinson’s life was a little bit happier, but it was not exactly a walk in the park: like Smith, married off at fifteen to a guy who seemed like a great match and turned out to be a deadbeat; spending several months in debtors’ prison with her husband and her baby daughter, and starting to write poetry in order to earn money; being paralysed from the waist down in her thirties and dying at forty-two. True, between the debtors’ prison and the paralysis she had a few years of highly successful career as an actress in Drury Lane, which she unwisely left to become the mistress of Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She did negotiate to receive 20,000 pounds for her loss of income as an actress, but when they ended the relationship, George failed to fulfil his promise and she had to fight to get a 500 pounds annuity instead, which was chronically overdue anyway. Admittedly, when the relationship started, George was just seventeen and so it was not yet generally known what a douchebag he was. And even when she was paralyzed, Robinson apparently used her disability to a great effect, making a show of her being carried by four servants from the theatre to her carriage (a little bit like Signora Neroni in Barchester Towers.)

It’s particularly appropriate that I’m writing this post about “January 1795” in January 2019 and the opening line “Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing” is certainly as true now as it was then. It’s a chatty poem, moving at brisk 8-syllable pace, all of it written in gerunds. The whole description is the standard satiric fare of the undeserving enjoying an easy life, while the meritorious ones don’t (“Honest men who can’t get places/Knaves who shew unblushing faces”). The whole scene is that of feverish social climbing, dissipation and dissolution.

Another reason why I find Robinson more appealing is that (at least in the NAEL selection) she seems to be more interested in city life than in nature and I am myself more of a city rat. “London’s Summer Morning” is a blank verse poem (even though the rhythm is sometimes off). It’s a great description of waking up “in the sultry smoke/of noisy London” and creating the mental image in your head by various sounds: starting with the chimney boy advertising loudly his services, through the rattle of milk pail and the bell of the dustman (in our times, rubbish collector, or the equivalent of beeping the garbage truck makes outside my window in the morning when reversing). Then it’s getting noisier, with the cries of various hawksters. The shops are opening and the passer-by can admire an elegant customer sitting inside. The insects are attracted to pastry, but get caught in the lime snares. A man buying old clothes makes a deal with somebody selling an old suit (this could be a servant selling his master’s old clothes without his knowledge). And finally “the poor poet wakes from busy dreams/To paint the summer’s morning”, indicating that like today, poets back then were not usually early risers.

Charlotte Smith – “The Emigrants” (the end)

The clergyman described most generously by Smith is a humble parish priest, who spent his modest life in obscurity, ignored by the powerful local lord and trying to bring comfort to his parishioners. But even he didn’t want to take the risk and stay in order “to check his madd’ning flock”. Now he is tormented not only by poverty and yearning for his country, but he feels responsible to God for his parishioners who mistook liberty for licence. Finally, there is on the beach, hidden under a hollowed cliff, a lady with her children who play gaily, unconscious of the troubled souls around them, picking up shells and constructing a toy ship which they set to sail in a pool formed by the sea. Their mother, tired with looking at the horizon for the weekly ship with the news from France, indulges in reverie about her former glory as a lady at Versailles. Then she starts and looks with sad eyes on miserable reality around her.

Charlotte Smith – “The Emigrants” (ctd.)

Smith finally gets to describing the title characters of The Emigrants, i.e. the French émigré clergy. She added copious footnotes to this section, claiming that she didn’t mean to be gloating on their misfortune and she felt quite sorry for them, which seems to me to indicate that she was quite nervous and not quite sure about making her point, which is not exactly “it serves them right”, but perhaps a little bit in this direction. The first clergyman is a monk who led a very strict life of penance, thinking mistakenly (from Smith’s Protestant viewpoint) that to renounce God’s works is pleasing to God. Isn’t it weird that he now depends on the charity of those he considers heretics? The next one was a powerful cardinal, accustomed both to the rich liturgy and to the life of luxury; this man was once more powerful than princes and now is in the heretic land “an object of compassion”. Finally, an Abbe, who is a bit of a standard Friar Tuck, always jolly, but in fact his optimism is only a pretence, because he doesn’t feel joy in his heart. Smith considers them bigoted and prejudiced, but also admits that it’s hard to break something you’ve been conditioned to believe in since an early age. She can also sympathize with them, because she also knows what it is like to be exiled from your own country (when she and her husband had to flee their creditors) and to gaze at the rolling waves. She imagines that the clergymen probably see in the dark clouds the premonition of the vengeance of Heaven, about to strike France.

Charlotte Smith – “The Emigrants” (excerpt from Book I)

The Emigrants is Smith’s long blank verse poem inspired by the arrival of the refugees fleeing the French Revolution. It begins, like “The Sea View”, near Brighton (Smith still uses its old name Brighthelmstone. Wiki doesn’t say when exactly Brighton got its modern name, but it led me down the rabbit hole to the bio of this fascinating guy. Maybe if Smith had met him and used his “shampoo baths”, it would have cheered her up? ) It begins in November 1792, after the downfall of monarchy in France, but Smith, in her usual fashion, can’t start a poem about feeling sorry about somebody else before she indulges a little bit in feeling sorry for herself. It’s morning and the pale November sun throws a faint gleam on the waves breaking on the shore. Very few people wake up happy and a great deal wake up feeling sorry that the night is gone and with it the moments of oblivion. But surely God, who controls the waves and tides means nothing but good, and only men spoil his creation (again the sentiment from “The Sea View).

The poet writes that often her soul is made weary “from proud oppression , and from legal crimes”, here adding a long digression in the parentheses about how unjust laws in England are, and the cost of seeking justice can ruin the already poor plaintiff. Smith certainly had a good reason to think so, since even after her separation from her husband every penny she made through her writing legally belonged to her husband, and the estate bequeathed to her children by her father-in-law became entangled in the legal disputes. So, being unhappy about all that, she has this pastoral fantasy of retiring to some remote sweet cottage in the countryside, where she could lie on the grass or climb the nearby hill to admire the sun setting into the sea. She explains her wish for the rural solitude by stating that she can then admire better the works of God unspoiled by Man, and she can also bear better the injustices of man against her, if she doesn’t have to see other people who suffer in similar circumstances. I understand Smith’s life was very unhappy, but it also touches me as a tad self-indulgent, and I have a sneaky feeling it’s more of “I don’t want to have any competitors to the title of the most suffering human being around”. However, Smith comes to the conclusion that her search for peace of mind is as vain as that of the Danaids or Sysyphus: man cannot find happiness anywhere: neither in a secluded cottage, nor in a prosperous farm, nor in a countryside manor near the church (carefully surrounded by “verdant foliage”, so that the view of the churchyard doesn’t ruin the nice view of the church for the lord of the manor, adds Smith ironically), nor in the expensive houses on the seaside, newly built in Brighton (which was turning about that time from a poor fishing village into a fashionable sea resort). Problems are going to follow you everywhere “till the friendly grave/(Our sole secure asylum) ‘ends the chace'”. Smith adds in a footnote that she remembers vaguely this line from a work by Edmund Young, a highly popular “graveyard poet”. Again, the editors of the NAEL claim the quotation has not been identified, but it has since.

Charlotte Smith – “To Night”, “Written in the Church-Yard at Middleton in Sussex”, “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic”, “The Sea View”

This is possibly the longest heading in the history of the blog, and that is because Smith liked to give her sonnets, to paraphrase Milne on Wordsworth, “a little Note at the top of each poem” to tell her readers where she was staying and what she was thinking about when the idea of writing her poem came to her. Which, by the way, also shows how much Wordsworth was indebted to Smith.

“To Night” expresses the poet’s love for the night, despite the fact that she calls it “mournful” and “sober-suited”. She describes the pale moon reflected in the sea. The mind “in deep depression sunk” can disburden itself, telling its grief to cold elements. Even though the night is gloomy and cheerless, at least it brings a wretched person calm and resignation. And when she tells her sorrows to “the winds and waves”, even though they are lost on earth, they may reach Heaven.

“Written in the Church-Yard…” is, as Smith’s note explains, inspired by her visit to Middleton (now Middleton-on-Sea), back then hardly a village, as it constituted of two or three houses and the church ruined by shore erosion. The sonnet begins with her description of the sea which “pressed by the moon” invades the land, including the churchyard and tears open the graves, breaking their “silent sabbath”. The bones of the dead are now mingled with shells and sea-weed on the shore, but this view doesn’t inspire the poet with horror: the dead themselves don’t mind anymore, do they? To the contrary, the poet is rather envious of them, because they are at rest regardless of the storm, while she is “by life’s long storm oppressed”.

“On Being Cautioned…” etc. casts the situation described in the title in the form of a question. So, you’re telling me there is a man who runs to the edge of the cliff and gazes down at the foaming sea, or lies down on his cold bed (he apparently sleeps somewhere in the wild), murmuring some kind of responses to the waves. Again, like with the dead in Middleton, the poet looks at him more with envy than with fear; “he has no nice felicities that shrink/From giant horrors”, which as Smith notes, is a paraphrase of a quote from Walpole, which the Unhelpful Footnote says has not been identified. Now, I understand that the NAEL footnotes may have been prepared at the time before the Internet made it so much easier to track down almost every quotation. So I’m adding that this is in fact a quote from Walpole’s controversial drama The Mysterious Mother Act II Scene 1 and I freely donate this discovery to the future editors of the NAEL, as took me all of three seconds to find it out. (If this footnote has been amended in the tenth edition, I apologize.) The point of this quote is that the people who are completely unhappy, like this man, are not afraid of anything anymore, and he, “uncursed with reason”, doesn’t even realize the extent of his misery.

“The Sea View” is inspired, as Smith’s note explains, by her having seen a battle between two ships from a hill near Brighton. This reminds one sharply that at the turn of the 18th century Britain was engaged in one of the longer wars in its modern history. When we think “the Regency era”, we tend to think about frilly bonnets and Darcy in a wet shirt, and indeed, the fact that the actual theatre of war was elsewhere makes us forget about it. It’s a little bit like in Edmund Cooper’s The Overman Culture (which I read as a child, so I may be remembering it incorrectly), which takes place during a kind of Blitz, but London is covered with some kind of Perspex dome, so its inhabitants can see just dogfights and the remnants of the airplanes sliding down the dome’s sides. “The Sea=View” is also about experiencing war from a distance. Here the poet assumes the persona of a shepherd, lying somewhere on the hillside and enjoying a beautiful summer sunset. The scene is tranquil and so beautiful that even “the rustic’s breast” can feel the joy, says Smith a bit patronisingly. But then it is invaded by the two dark spots of the war ships “fierce and red”, and soon the mangled bodies of the dying and dead pollute the beauty of the scene with blood. Thus the man ruins “Heaven’s glorious works”, ends the sonnet.

Charlotte Smith – “Written at the Close of Spring”, “To Sleep”

Charlotte Smith is one more of these unjustly forgotten women wrtiers: she managed to revive single-handedly the sonnet, paving the way for Coleridge (who acknowledged his debt) and Wordsworth, and supported her family by her writing for over a decade. She was married off at the age of fifteen to the man whom she not only didn’t love, but who turned out to be abusive and profligate, always ending up in debtors’ prison. (That’s really like getting the worst of the two worlds: if you get married to somebody you are not involved with romantically, at least he should be a good provider.) She gave birth to twelve children almost year after year, out of which only six outlived her. The only person in her family who was remotely nice to her was her father-in-law, who bequeathed his significant property to her children in order to bypass his ne’er-do-well son, but he didn’t take legal advice when drawing up his will and as a result the property was tied up in a long Chancery suit for forty years after his death, meaning Charlotte Smith never saw a penny of it. So Smith’s life sucked big time and it’s no wonder her poetry is noshekt particularly jolly, either.

Smith wrote English (or Shakespearian) sonnets, with three four-line stanzas and the final rhyming couplet. “Written at the Close of Spring” lists all the flowers disappearing from fields and forests as spring ends. In the third stanza she shifts from flowers to human life: the dreams and visions of our youth are like these flowers, killed off by “corrosive care”. But the flowers are going to return next spring, while our youthful happiness won’t.

“To Sleep” asks Sleep to arrive and bring its dreams to soothe the poet’s aching head. Sleep is really democratic: it comes to a peasant on his hard bed and the sea boy “in the rudest hour”, who can enjoy it more than a king (which is an allusion, asslSl Smith’s own note underlines, to a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Sleep comes to a village girl clasped in her shepherd’s arms and to all whose “who wake to labor, liberty, and love”, but, as the final couplet says sadly, it doesn’t come to those who are anxious and tearful.