- 1 I would like to thank Emily Eells for inviting me to the colloquium Empreintes et emprunts des mots (...)
‘En toute chose il faut rechercher les origines’
- 2 ‘Composure’ was first published in the National Observer on 9 May 1891. It was reprinted in The Rhy (...)
1In ‘Composure’ (1891), the poet and essayist Alice Meynell writes that words like ‘tribulation’, ‘immortality’ or ‘multitude’ bring writers ‘the remedy of composure’. ‘Without the remoteness of Latinity’, she remarks, thoughts of death, of suffering ‘would come too close and shake too cruelly’ (Meynell 54).2 Known for her subtle and scholarly knowledge of the English language, Meynell’s choice of word for the essay’s title was a carefully crafted composite of ideas that succinctly expressed her views on the state of the English language at the fin de siècle and emphasised the significance of using Latin in contemporary writing. Meynell used the term ‘composure’—a seventeenth-century neologism of the Latinate term compose (with the three-partite meaning of composition, form or style and a state of mind)—to highlight that writing was a form of composure. Foreign and remote, she writes, Latin words create an aloofness that allows one to think and write of human sentiments with steadiness of mind. Meynell cherished English words deriving from Latin because they generated the distance required to talk about human afflictions without falling for the tear-led sentimentality so typical of early nineteenth-century writers. As a woman writer, this was for Meynell a matter of great importance: she practiced detachment to distance herself from traditional ideas about women and writing. But for Meynell, detachment, a form of emotional muteness, was not just a gendered expression or a strategy. Formally and intellectually, she made of detachment the form of modern critique.
2I start this essay with Meynell, a philosopher of form and composition, because her theories about the etymology of words in decadent writing embody a tempered vision of decadent poetics and enable a deeper appreciation of poets such as A. Mary F. Robinson. My focus here is Robinson’s 1893 volume of verse Retrospect and Other Poems, a work that fused English decadence with French scientific philology. Beginning with the more concrete and specific question, ‘To what effect does Robinson use Latinates in her poetics?’, this paper investigates how, to paraphrase Robinson on Ernest Renan, in Robinson’s poetics, ‘philology became a new instrument of psychology’ (Robinson 1897, 78). If the paradigm of decadent writing has been hysteria, this essay wants to reflect upon another decadent paradigm, the idea of composition as a form of composure, in Robinson’s retrospective poetics. But to do so, we must first re-compose some of the philological discussions around the language of decadence in 1890s England.
- 3 Frederic E. Faverty speaks of a Victorian Teutomania in his influential 1951 work Matthew Arnold, T (...)
3Curiously, Meynell’s essay is deeply philological. Arthur Symons noted in his 1893 unsigned review of The Rhythm of Life, where ‘Composure’ was first reprinted in book form, that the ‘prose of Mrs. Meynell . . . enrich[es] the present with the example of a scholarly, linguistic, verbal love of literature’ (Symons 1893a, 500). Indeed Meynell’s essay is full of the theories of language that came out of the academic circles Robinson frequented in 1890s Paris, including in particular Renan and his disciple, James Darmesteter (Robinson’s husband). Darmesteter would write that for Renan ‘the true theory of languages . . . is their history’ (Darmesteter 205). In ‘Composure’, Meynell briefly examines the history of the English language as a means of theorising about contemporary writing. She notes that the two main linguistic schools at work in end-of-the-century English, the Teutonic and the Latin, are but the product of the dual and intricate history of the English language (created out of the criss-crossing of the Anglo-Saxon and Latin). This was the common ground of philological discussions about English at the end of the nineteenth-century both in England and abroad, and was for example at the core of Stéphane Mallarmé’s strange but influential study Les Mots anglais (1878). But going against the grain of philological scholarship in Britain, which strongly favoured the implementation of a Saxon-based English, Meynell stresses that after a period of overuse of the Teutonic, the ‘recollectedness of the more tranquil language’—Latin—is taking hold of fin-de-siècle literature (Meynell 56-57).3 She writes vividly about how ‘Latin heredities’ lurk in English words. This leads her to make the obvious comment that all languages are made of words ‘various in origins, divided in race’, her terms here indicating that her theory of language comes as much from nineteenth-century evolutionary thinking as from the teachings of the new modern science of philology. She then writes that when ‘words of the two schools are made to meet’ they become ‘gay strangers’, praising them because when judiciously combined, they provide poise, control, composure and rhythm, such as in ‘superfluous kings’, ‘multitudinous seas’ (Meynell 58). They add tone, she writes, to the note of the writer. But, always a poet, Alice Meynell understood the value of Latinity in another way too: it added a counterpoint quality to the monosyllabic force of English, slowing while strengthening its beat. Latin words are, she notes, the perfect remedy for the exaggerated use of monosyllables in English poetry.
- 4 Østermark-Johansen’s key essay on Pater and Euphuism has informed much of my thinking on Pater and (...)
- 5 The essay was first published in 1888 in the Fortnightly Review.
4Though Meynell claimed to be ‘the only literary person . . . alive’ never to have read Walter Pater (Badeni 199), her comments on the metrical quality of Latinates recall too precisely Pater’s influential 1888 essay, ‘Style’. Here, Pater foregrounds the use of linguistic eclecticism as the basis of qualitative writing by literary men (and he did mean ‘men’ because the education required for this kind of writing was regrettably, he pointed out, still reserved for men) (See Østermark-Johansen).4 Explaining the style of his ideal artist/scholar man he writes: ‘Racy Saxon monosyllables, close to us as touch and sight, he will intermix readily with those long, savoursome, Latin words, rich in “second intention”’ (Pater 13).5 In his view, modern writing could not be ‘conducted reasonably without eclecticism’ and he named Lord Alfred Tennyson as the example of the times: ‘How illustrative of monosyllabic effect, of sonorous Latin, of the phraseology of science, of metaphysic, of colloquialism even, are the writings of Tennyson; yet with what a fine, fastidious scholarship throughout!’ (Pater 13). The exquisite combination of Latin with Anglo-Saxon was for Pater and Meynell the mark of fine writing, of fine composition.
- 6 Eliot dismissed Meynell as a ‘non-professional’ in criticism. Reviewing Meynell’s Hearts of Controv (...)
5No doubt Pater’s 1885 Latin novel Marius the Epicurean—in part a response to Renan’s vision of Marcus Aurelius in Les Origines du Christianisme (see Coates)—and his 1888 essay ‘Style’ ignited this trend of Latin in fin-de-siècle writings. Meynell’s ‘Composure’, published three years after Pater’s ‘Style’ and two years before Symons’s influential 1893 manifesto ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, but reprinted—also in 1893—in her much acclaimed book of essays The Rhythm of Life, was an important intervention in end-of-the-century debates about the role of the written word amid fears about the decline of the British Empire and what Latin could bring to modern writing. Symons would synthesise this thinking by defining the decadent style as having ‘the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence’ (Symons 1893b, 858). Of this debate, brilliantly discussed by Linda Dowling in Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (1986), modern scholarship (including Dowling’s) has replicated Pater’s adherence to ‘man’ and not ‘woman of style’ leaving out women writers like Alice Meynell, whose style of writing, deep in the philological and stylistic debates of the period, was just as fiercely adored as ferociously criticised by writers as diverse as George Meredith, Coventry Patmore, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot.6
- 7 As a Catholic, for Meynell the word was also the Word.
- 8 The English translation is by Havelock Ellis. See Havelock Ellis, Affirmations (Boston: Houghton Mi (...)
- 9 Paul Bourget, ‘The Example of Baudelaire’ La Nouvelle Revue (15 November 1881). Reprinted as ‘Charl (...)
6Meynell shared with Pater an interest in the elevation of the (written) word.7 The last sentence in ‘Composure’ reads: ‘Shall not the Thing more and more, as we compose ourselves to literature, assume the honour, the hesitation, the leisure, the reconciliation of the Word?’ (Meynell 59) We can see why Bourget’s well known definition of decadence has repeatedly been used to describe Pater’s, and one must add Meynell’s, style: ‘A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.’8 Two recently published letters between Pater and Bourget (see Coste) show that Pater had read Bourget’s 1883 Essais de psychologie contemporaine and therefore knew Bourget’s definition of decadence9. Yet Meynell’s and Pater’s interest in philology offered a more nuanced understanding of decadence subtly challenging Bourget’s definition. In their writings, words are decomposed to make way for the roots of words, for etymology. But equally by playing with words of different etymologies, Meynell and Pater envisioned a re-invigorated, re-composed sentence.
7Pater and Meynell loved this turn to Latin, however, for different reasons. Both valued the quietude Latin impressed on writing, but while Pater relished in its very morbidity, Meynell celebrated its emotional muteness. In ‘Composure’, she aligns decadence with a controlled ethical formalist style rooted in philology. She argues that one should not ‘resist the rhythmic reaction bearing us now somewhat to the side of Latin. Such a reaction’, she writes, ‘is in some sort an ethical need of our day’. Meynell configures decadence as an oppositional discourse to progress. And what Latin brings to this discourse is reflection: ‘the poise and the pause that imply vitality at times better than headstrong movement’ (Meynell 58-59).
8Nonetheless, Meynell’s view of Latinate English was closer to Pater’s than to Symons’s (even if Symons’s vision was heavily influenced by Pater, whom Symons identifies as a prominent example of the English school of decadence). Meynell’s models for fin-de-siècle Latinate writing are eighteenth-century English writers, whereas Symons’s models are contemporary French writers like Mallarmé, whose ‘contorsion of the French language’, Symons writes, is ‘curiously similar to the kind of depravation which was undergone by the Latin language in its decadence’. Mallarmé’s ‘reversion to Latin phraseology, to the Latin construction’, Symons argues, transformed his poetics into ‘something irregular, unquiet, expressive, with sudden surprising felicities, with nervous starts and lapses, with new capacities for the exact noting of sensation’ (Symons 1893b, 862). If for Meynell, Latin endows contemporary writing with the gift of ‘composure’, for Symons, it brings ‘an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, oversubtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity’. While Symons is interested in Latin precisely because it is a dead language, Meynell argues that ‘to possess that half of the language within which Latin heredities lurk and Romanesque allusions are at play is to possess the state and security of a dead tongue, without the death’. And while Symons delights in la névrose and the maladie fin de siècle, Meynell praises Latinates because they give writers steadiness of mind to write about those very afflictions with tranquillity and poise.
- 10 Robinson was a good friend of Symons and also a friend, admirer and close neighbour of Walter Pater (...)
9These debates create an interesting context literally and symbolically in which to read the 1890s poetry of A. Mary F. Robinson.10 I want to explore here Robinson’s take on decadence in Retrospect, also published in 1893, the same year as her friend Symons’s ‘Decadent Movement in Literature’, in which she does not figure (the only woman writer mentioned in Symons’s manifesto is the Spanish novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán). Written in Paris, but published simultaneously in London and New York, Retrospect marked the return of Robinson to English poetry after moving to Paris. Any writer in 1890s England would have immediately recognised what Robinson intended to do with the book. ‘Madame James Darmesteter does not forget that, though married to a Frenchman, she is an English poet,’ began The Athenaeum’s rather unusual, lukewarm review of the book ([Wesbster] 451). After her marriage to the French Jewish philosopher and philologist James Darmesteter in 1888, Robinson began a new life in Paris reinventing herself in the process as a writer of two nations—yet a foreigner in both—publishing in two languages and in two names. Between 1888 and until the death of her husband in 1894, Robinson published using her maiden English name and underneath, in brackets, her married French name, ‘A. Mary F. Robinson (Madame James Darmesteter)’. There is no doubt this was done for the purpose of publicity, so that English readers could recognise Retrospect as the work of ‘A. Mary F. Robinson’, the writer of the haunting lyrics of A Handful of Honeysuckle (1879), the book that brought her to the attention of D. G. Rossetti and Walter Pater; the poet of the exquisite musicality of An Italian Garden and Other Poems (1886), much praised by aesthetes like Arthur Symons; and the poet of interiority and selfhood in Songs and a Garden Play (1888), her last book of poems before she left England to live in France as Madame James Darmesteter. And yet, even though she did it to be recognised as an English writer, by publishing in two names she also marked her foreignness as the etymology of her authorship.
- 11 This chapter focuses just on Robinson’s use of Latin, but this research is part of a larger piece o (...)
10Robinson had the gift of languages. Practically bilingual in English and French, she was also fluent in Italian and German, and was known among late-Victorian circles for her exceptional knowledge of the classics. She belonged to the tradition of art for art’s sake poets (D. G. Rossetti, William Morris) who used translation to innovate English poetry. The Crowned Hippolytus (1881), for example, her second book of poems, is a translation from Euripides—the translation so anew that journals did not quite know whether to review it as a translation or as a new book of poems (Willis 82). And the poems of An Italian Garden are dazzling pyrotechnics on poetic language using classical and modern languages (German, Italian, French, Latin and Greek). If before 1888 Robinson excelled as a poet of language, Retrospect marks a significant change in the tone of her voice. Ironically just when she is writing poetry in English and prose in English and in French, her playful experimentation with languages would appear to focus more on English—hence The Athenaeum’s point about Robinson being an English poet, not a French one. And yet, using Meynell’s terms, her English is full of ‘gay strangers’: she uses Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and oriental words that reflect her own geographical and emotional distance from England and speak of her present life in Paris. Mallarmé described the English language as ‘rétrospectif et avancé’ (Mallarmé 1053). Robinson used that retrospective mode to create a future in verse. More than an experimental book about languages in the fashion of An Italian Garden, Robinson adopts in Retrospect a decadent, reflective view on how language composes feeling. In what follows I examine one particular aspect of the poetics of Retrospect: the use of Latinates.11
11What are we then to make of Robinson’s use of the Latinate word ‘retrospect’ in the title? From the post-classical Latin word retrospectus (past participle of retrospicere, to look back), the OED tells us that retrospect is ‘the action or an act of contemplating the past, especially with reference to one’s own life or experience; retrospection’. Though rare, the word can also be used as ‘in retrospect’, that is ‘when looking back; with hindsight’. From the outset, the title appears to indicate that the volume is a meditation on how life has been spent.
- 12 Bibliothèque nationale de France (Manuscrits), Anglais 249, folios 30-34.
12The main reason for Robinson’s move to Paris was her marriage to Darmesteter. The publication in 1886 of her critically acclaimed book of poems An Italian Garden brought Robinson to the attention of Darmesteter, who read the book in India. On his return to Europe in 1887, he paid a visit to Robinson’s salon in London. The outcome of their encounter is well known today: after meeting three times, she asked him to marry her. The announcement of their engagement shocked the literary circles of 1880s London not (or rather not just) because it meant the breaking up of Robinson’s lesbian relationship with the Anglo-Italian aesthete Vernon Lee, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because Darmesteter was Jewish and physically deformed. According to a friend of the family, John Pollock, upon learning about the engagement her mother cried: ‘How can you? How can you love him? He’s a Jew! He’s almost a dwarf!’ (Pollock 204) Family and friends tried to stop the marriage and when this failed they tried to convince her to agree to a mariage blanc. Her letters appear to confirm that they slept in separate rooms in Rue Bara, close to the Luxemburg Gardens.12
13Though her circle found it hard to accept their partnership, the British press immediately transformed Mary Robinson into the femme de lettres Madame Darmesteter, positioning her aesthetically and intellectually as a focal point of dialogue between the literary worlds of France and England. ‘The other day, when in Paris,’ writes for example the Glasgow Herald,
I called on Madame Darmesteter (Miss Mary Robinson). The popular young poet and author is settled in a charming house in a new district not far from the Collège de France, where her husband is a professor . . . Madame Darmesteter has been ‘accepted’ by the Parisian literary world . . . her house is now the resort of many celebrities, from the portly and beneficent M. Renan to the suave Paul Bourget . . . Madame Darmesteter is now at work upon a history of the French Renaissance, and is also bringing together the material of a new volume of poetry. (‘Our London Correspondence’ 7)
14Retrospect was the ‘new volume of poetry’. It is no coincidence that the volume opens with the poem that gives its title to the collection, ‘Retrospect’. The poem situates poet and reader ‘here’ in Paris. But the solitude of the present leads Robinson to ‘ponder’ how she ended up in Paris. As if she had already become another poet: unable to recognise herself in the new surroundings, she begins to wonder what happened to the previous life of Robinson, the English aesthete, by recalling her childhood days in Warwickshire, the ellipsis of the second stanza indicating here the trailing of thought:
Here beside my Paris fire, I sit alone and ponder
All my life of long ago that lies so far asunder;
‘Here, how came I thence?’ I say, and greater grows the wonder
As I recall the farms and fields and placid hamlets yonder.
. . . .See, the meadow-sweet is white against the watercourses,
Marshy lands are kingcup-gay and bright with streams and sources,
Dew-bespangled shines the hill where half-abloom the gorse is;
And all the northern fallows steam beneath the ploughing horses.
(Robinson 1893, 3)
15At first glance the poem is a sonorous, fragrant and colourful rendering of rural England in the spring. The landscape of her happy childhood is full of meadowsweets, kingcups, gorses, lilacs, agrimonies, tormentillas, ladysmocks and sallows—flowers that bloom in spring and early summer. Because spring always implies a new beginning, hope, and birth, the poem intimates the birth of Robinson the poet:
So they’ve clipped the lilac bush; a thousand pities!
’Twas the blue old-fashioned sort that never grows in cities.
There we little children played and chaunted aimless ditties,
While oft the old grandsire looked at us and smiled his Nunc Dimittis!
(Robinson 1893, 4)
16Offering a vision of ‘Primavera’ in England, the poet creates a reverie of spring in white and yellow with touches of silver and lilac. Robinson’s floriography is important to understand this poem (and the collection, as we shall see). To begin with, the colour of these wild flowers clearly marks them as aesthetic. However, by focusing on wild flowers—and not lilies or sunflowers, flowers more directly associated with aestheticism—Robinson evokes the uninhibited, spontaneous, natural birth of her poetic creativity. Her defence of the lilac, ‘the old-fashioned sort’, is a direct allusion to her poetics. She was interested in the past, a subject often expressed in aesthetic writing and art through the presence of old-fashioned wild flowers, a trend that flourished in England after the publication of William Robinson’s horticultural treatise The Wild Garden (1870) (See Mancoff). The freshness of the wild flowers creates an interesting contrast with the poem’s archaic language and is symbolic of Robinson’s reflective decadent poetics. Flowers and poems are united in this stanza through the use of archaic language. The choice of the rare ‘chaunted’ is particularly significant. By using an Old French word from the Latin canto, she links her poetic voice to Old French poetic traditions, a subject she had explored in depth in An Italian Garden (see Parejo Vadillo). And instead of poem or song, she calls her first poems ‘ditties’ (Old French from the Latin dictatum). The Latin (Vulgate) expression Nunc Dimittis (Now you dismiss) from the Songs of Simeon (Luke 2:29-31)—pronounced by Simeon on the occasion of seeing the new leader in the infant Jesus—reinforces the suggestion of a new poet.
17Robinson aptly chooses old French words derived from Latin for poetry and song to link her beginnings as a poet with her new life in France as the poet of Retrospect. The poem thus becomes a complex articulation of past and present, her recollections helping to illuminate her current life. But if her memories are seemingly happy, the poem’s taciturn tone reflects Robinson’s melancholia about the present. This is further reinforced in the poem’s penultimate stanza:
Green, O green with ancient peace, and full of sap and sunny,
Lusty fields of Warwickshire, O land of milk and honey,
Might I live to pluck again a spike of agrimony,
A silver tormentilla leaf or ladysmock upon ye!
(Robinson 1893, 4)
18Quoting the above verses, the anonymous reviewer of The Bookman noted: ‘In her newest poems, Madame Darmesteter sings of her newer home, but with more special tenderness of her old country’ (‘Madame Darmesteter’s Poems’, 118). The ‘land of milk and honey’ is a reference to Robinson’s first volume of poetry, A Handful of Honeysuckle (1879), its title a homage to D. G. Rossetti, whose poem ‘Honeysuckle’ (1853) was first published in the ground-breaking Poems (1870). A Handful of Honeysuckle secured Robinson’s position at the heart of Pre-Raphaelite circles. But Robinson’s phrase ‘land of milk and honey’ signals something else too. In the Hebrew Bible, these are the words spoken by God to Moses at the burning bush to signify the abundance and fertility of Israel. It is significant that the choice of phrase comes from the Book of Exodus (3:8), a book about exile. Thus the poem unites past and present, her past as an aesthetic poet and her present self-chosen exile in France, living among the French Jewish community. In retrospect, this is a book about what it feels to live in exile, away from the ‘milk’ and ‘honey’ that was the fountain of her poetic creativity.
19There is perhaps another dimension to this part of the poem. The ladysmock, which blooms with the first sound of the cuckoo, has always been associated with the heart in English poetic tradition. There is, it seems to me, a very subtle (and more intimate) connection to Robinson’s affairs of the heart here. The poem recalls the bittersweet concluding verses of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost: ‘When daisies pied and violets blue/ And lady-smock all silver white/ And Cuckoo-buds of yellow hue/ Do paint the meadows with delight’. In Shakespeare’s play the male characters had sworn an oath to scholarship, imposing a ban on women. It is thus very tempting to read the poem as a veiled reference to Robinson and Darmesteter’s marriage, particularly their decision to be married for the sake of scholarship and poetry, not for sex.
20The poem ends with the poet asking herself to be patient. If what we have been reading is a vision of her childhood, here in the final lines Robinson returns to the philosophy of Idealism, so present in her previous work, to suggest that the Idea/Ideal is more powerful than the real. Her past (and her vision of the past) remains unchanged because it has become the Ideal:
Patience, for I keep at heart your pure and perfect seeming,
Can see you wide awake as clearly as in dreaming,
Softer, within an inner light, and dearer to my deeming,
Than when beside your brooks at noon I watched the sallows gleaming!
(Robinson 1893, 5)
21The Saturday Review aptly summarized the poem as a ‘delightful little poem, set to a haunting measure that “beats and trembles in the heart,” as Shelley put it’ (‘Recent Verse’ 246). ‘Retrospect’ is a poem about wishing to return to the place where creativity began. ‘Might I live to pluck again a spike of agrimony,/ A silver tormentilla leaf or ladysmock upon ye!’, she writes. But it is also a poem that tries to deal with the difficulty, the melancholy of the present by feeding from the Idealism of the past.
22Retrospect is made up of the layers or constellations of thought articulated in ‘Retrospect’. Poems such as ‘Fair Ghosts’ and ‘The Bookworm’ explore the modern theme of melancholia in different ways. ‘Fair Ghosts’ recognizes the heart’s stirring desire for spring in the midst of winter. To live, the poem suggests, one needs a ‘vision of the spring’. The middle section of the poem would appear to refer to Robinson’s break up with Vernon Lee (‘When the oncoming years dispel the magic of our morning/ Till all the Past is shed/ With petals falling red:/ Lost illusions, hope defeated, passion turned to scorning,/ Eternal friendship dead’) (Robinson 1893, 8). But beyond those biographical connotations, the poem defends the power of the past to overcome the tempestuous present, and it does so in very Proustian terms: ‘Rock, O tormented forest, all thy branches torn and hoary!/ In vain the tempest stings./ The skies I watch are Spring’s,/ Lovelier still and haloed with the soft poetic glory,/ Of all remembered things!’ (Robinson 1893, 9).
23The past is also at the core of ‘The Bookworm’. As The Bookman’s reviewer put it, it expressed the poet’s ‘love of the contemplative and ideal life’ (‘Madame Darmesteter’s Poems’, 118). Linda Dowling has argued that the renaissance of the ballad form in the 1890s was a counterpoint to the fin-de-siècle obsession with the written form (Dowling 181). Retrospect is organised into two sections: ‘Lyrics’, comprising the majority of the volume (36 poems); and ‘Ballads and Legends’, consisting of just ten poems. Though ‘The Bookworm’ belongs to the lyrical section, by its narrative it is the link between the lyrics and the ballads. Taking up the decadent mode of the volume, retrospect, ‘The Bookworm’ (a sextilla) narrates a poet’s working day. After spending all day reading and reliving powerful historical tales, the poet closes up her books as night falls. It is a moment of reflection in which the poet ponders her own writing and life. Robinson here plays with images of light—‘twilight’, ‘pearly dusk’, ‘glow’, ‘gleams’—to make reflection work in two ways: as a visual image and a conceptual metaphor. As the twilight ‘creeps across the page’ and the enchantment of the tales disappears, the poet comes face to face with a ‘narrower age’, the present. Like a worm, her memories of London also creep in. As a slight but important inversion of the gothic narratives that would so much dominate fin-de-siècle writing, Robinson faces the present by feeding from the ghost of the past. The mood of the last lines of ‘The Bookworm’ aptly records the overall tone of the poem and of the collection: ‘O world of Here and Now;/ Forgive, forgive me, if a voice,/ A ghost, a memory be my choice/ And more to me than Thou!’ (Robinson 1893, 49).
24And yet, the collection also intimates that looking back is a way of looking forwards. It is not coincidental that one of the most common words in Retrospect is ‘spring’ which, as we have seen, Robinson uses as a symbol of cyclical renewal and as a means of articulating her rebirth as a Parisian poet. London is remembered by way of Paris, which, as the collection progresses, becomes the organising principle of her poetics. If Italy was the creative force behind An Italian Garden, the rhythms of Paris inflect the tonality of her poetics in Retrospect. In ‘Frozen River’, for example, Robinson uses the river Seine allegorically to explore the psychic life of the modern poet in exile. It is a poem that writes with composure about depression, ennui and heartbreak:
The silver-powdered willows of the Quai,
Rise frosty-clear against the roseate skies,
The winter sunlight mellows ere it dies
And lingers where the frozen river lies.
Between the hurrying wharves, a sheet of grey
It sleeps beneath the parapet of stone:
A sudden desolation, empty, lone
And silent with a silence of its own.
All round the city vast and loud and gay!
. . . If one should weary of the press and din
And venture here—beware! the crust is thin;
One step—and lo, the Abyss would draw him in.
Athwart the happiest lives of everyday
Besides the Lovers’ Walk, the household mart,
Think ye there lies no silent road apart?
No mute and frozen Chasm of the heart?
(Robinson 1893, 6-7)
- 13 The interesting feature of this rhyme is that it requires a rereading of the poem to get it right. (...)
25The desolation and isolation felt by the speaker reverberate throughout the poem through its form and rhyme, which mirror those sentiments. The visual arrangement of the lines makes the first line of each stanza stand alone, like a thin crust, underneath which lies the melancholia of the present. These first lines are furthermore linked through the poem’s rhyming structure (abbb accc addd aeee). Phonically and emotionally the weight of the poem rests in lines 2 to 4 of each stanza. It is as if the poet might break through the thin ice and drown in the river, pulled in and seduced by the potency of the sentiment. Of particular interest is the construction of the rhyme for the French word ‘Quai’, which locates the poem directly in Paris. Instead of using the English pronunciation, Robinson uses the French pronunciation to force the word to fit the structure of her rhyme: her poetics thus becoming the controlling and composing force of the melancholia.13
26More hopeful is ‘Foreign Spring’. ‘In “Foreign Spring”’, argued The Bookman’s anonymous reviewer, ‘there is another retrospect’. Robinson here uses the season of spring, which appears in the poem as something that is real, ideal and symbolic, to affirm her condition as a foreign poet.
The charlock and the hemlock flowers
Have hung their laces o’er the green;
The buttercups are bright and sheen
As though the Spring were ours.
But through the poplar-rank there shines
The white interminable way;
And down the hill the budding vines
Go softly gloved in grey.
Amid a purer loftier sky
The foreign sun burns far and bright:
. . . .O mistier fields! O tenderer light!
I pause awhile and sigh.
(Robinson 1893, 10)
27Yet, the reviewer’s comments about ‘Foreign Spring’ highlight Robinson’s deconstruction of her foreign condition. The reviewer found it ‘charming’ but was ‘puzzled over the “laces” of the charlock flower. Has charlock “laces” in spring, even in foreign spring?’ The reviewer then went on to produce a floral criticism of the poem: ‘Botanical criticism of poetry is doubtless very objectionable, but it is apt to intrude itself when poetry is ambitious of culling other posies than buttercups and daisies’. (‘Madame Darmesteter’s Poems’, 118) These comments arise because Robinson deliberately destabilises her condition as a foreigner, engaging with the transition between her past and her future. The reader is not sure which foreign spring she is referring to. Does the poet now feel the English spring as foreign or is she a foreigner in the French spring (the poplar-tree is not native to Britain). And yet what this retrospective poem suggests, particularly in the last stanza, is that just as the poet mourns the absent past, it also becomes clear that it is the angst of her foreign condition empowered by her memory of things past that becomes the source of her modern poetics.
28It is perhaps because of the ambivalence with which she writes about her foreign condition that the sonnet ‘Souvenir’, another reflection, printed right after ‘Foreign Spring’, was so controversial:
Even as a garden full of branch and blooth
Seen in a looking-glass and so more fair
With boughs suspended in a magic air
More spacious and more radiant than the truth;
So I remember thee, my happy Youth,
And smile to look upon the days that were,
As they had never told of doubt or care,
As I had never wept for grief or ruth.
So, were our spirits destined to endure,—
So, were the After-life a promise sure
And not the mocking mirage of our dearth!
Through all eternity might Heaven appear
The still, the vast, the radiant souvenir
Of one unchanging moment known on Earth.
(Robinson 1893, 11)
29The Athenaeum and The Saturday Review took issue with two words in the poem, the French term ‘souvenir’ and the rare Anglo-Saxon word ‘blooth’ (a variant of blowth). Their comments are important because they go to the core of Robinson’s philological decadence by pointing out its roots. The Saturday Review offered a nuanced reading of the poem: ‘The sonnet in which the strange word “blooth” occurs […] affects us as some magic way, whose source we cannot define, and has a noble ending in the beautiful and imposing aspiration of the last three verses’ (‘Recent Verse’, 246). This decadent reading contrasted sharply with The Athenaeum’s, by the aesthetic poet Augusta Webster, who devoted a whole paragraph to the sonnet:
But this well-conceived sonnet is, by want of the delicate verbal tact which Miss A. Mary F. Robinson had accustomed her readers to consider one of her gifts natural and enhanced by cultivation, sadly lessened from what it might have been. Perhaps some little damage is done it for many ears by use of the crabbed though legitimate word “blooth,” but that is at worst a slight superficial blemish; it is otherwise with the banal colloquialism which disturbs what, but for it, would be the beautiful conclusion. Souvenir has never become an English word, and of that ground is out of place; but the misfortune is that it is one of those too familiar French words which, hackneyed and vulgarized in the company-manners vocabulary of half-educated English persons, are, when employed in conjunction with English, accepted in only one recognized meaning—a meaning in some cases mistakenly perverted from the proper French usage, in some cases trivial or downright inane, but at any rate current and inevitable. To souvenir as Anglicized belong associations of mugs emblazoned with “Souvenir of Seasidingville,” and of the tributes of regard or politeness bygone generations were wont to call keepsakes. ([Webster] 451)
30Disliking the word ‘blooth’ for being too ‘crabbed’ and ‘souvenir’ for being too colloquial and cockney, the subtext of this review is the fear that Robinson was downgrading her poetics. And yet, the poem shows Robinson practising in verse what Meynell and Pater were suggesting in prose: Latinate words (‘radiant’, ‘mirage’) and Anglo-Saxon terms (‘blooth’ and ‘ruth’) are mixing here like ‘gay strangers’. But Robinson does so, by adopting the philological tenets of French philology.
31Robinson’s use of the word ‘souvenir’ is not a Gallicism. And the word does not mark either a turn in Robinson’s decadent poetics towards the colloquial (as other decadent poets, such as John Davidson, did). The poem is a reflection on her youth, which the poet now sees as a mirage. The poem’s content and title point directly to Renan’s influential memoirs Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883), a meditation on youth, religion and philology, a book in which Renan told simultaneously ‘of the loss of his religious orthodoxy and of his happy replacement by philology, reason, and “la science critique”’ (Said 276).
32Robinson met Renan in Italy in September 1880, and if at their first meeting she was more interested in his heretics (‘that was attractive’, she writes in her biography of Renan) than in his philology (which seemed less interesting) (Robinson 1897, 247), when she reacquainted herself with Renan after her marriage to Darmesteter in 1888, her views on his philology had clearly changed. There are poems in the collection that refer directly to Renan and his philological legacy via Taine and Darmesteter himself (poems that are about Semitic languages, about Christianity and Judaism, and about Robinson’s own agnosticism). One of the poems of this collection, Veritatem Dilexi, which she wrote two days after Renan’s death, is Robinson’s homage—in Latin—to Renan’s famous search for truth, the title referring to the words Renan chose as his own epitaph. But ‘Souvenir’, it seems to me, is far more crucial to our understanding of Robinson’s poetics and the role philology played in her conceptualisation of decadence.
33One might even summarize Retrospect as a decadent Souvenirs de Jeuneusse. The visual imagery of ‘Souvenir’, in particular the ‘looking-glass’ and ‘mirage’, reinforces the concept of reflection as the basis of her new poetics. But, if in other poems the poet looked back in retrospect, in ‘Souvenir’, reflection is understood in two ways: on the one hand, as something that forms an image of the object placed in front of it (i.e. a looking glass), and on the other, as an optical illusion, even a distorted image. The poem thus begins with the poet seeing the present as a reflection of the past, but ends with the realisation that the past is also an illusion, and therefore can be distorted. Like Renan, Robinson looked to the past, to the root of things, to understand the present as in a looking glass, but that image of the past, though a ‘radiant souvenir’ of an ‘unchanging moment on Earth’, is a moment of unreality and consolation after the realisation of the mocking mirage of our death.
34If flowers were at the origins of her aesthetic poetics, Robinson also contextualises the birth of her new creativity in France by setting up a new floriography. The poetic creativity she found in the wild flowers of her childhood is forgotten in ‘Serena’, a poem about an exotic flower that has the power to make one forget the past. But perhaps the poem that brings together many of the themes of this volume (i.e. retrospection, flowers, the angst of the present and her foreign condition) is ‘A French Lily’. The title of the poem elucidates Robinson’s resolution to become a French poet. The poem articulates Robinson’s preference for the French Lily (in aesthetic language associated with purity) and not, as one might have expected after poems such as ‘Retrospect’ or ‘The Bookworm’, the English rose (associated with passion):
Sweet Iphigenia—soul of everyday,
Fair vine so trellised to the parent-stay
Though hast no single force, no separate will,
But leaning grow’st, and, flowering, leanest still;
In that walled garden where thou dwell’st alone
Thou are the whitest blossom ever known!
Less full and ample than our English rose
Whose generous freshness floods the garden close,
And less confiding to the gatherer’s hand
Than their forget-me-not o’ the Fatherland,
Yet, O French Lily, pure and grown apart,
Ah, none the less I wear thee next to my heart!
(Robinson 1893, 27)
- 14 At the announcement of Robinson and Darmesteter’s engagement, Vernon Lee wrote to her mother: ‘how (...)
35Just like previous poems, ‘A French Lily’ works like an accumulated composition. The flower of France is the French lily. But the opening words of the poem, ‘Sweet Iphigenia’, give us pause for thought. What first comes to mind is Euripides telling of her self-sacrifice in Iphigenia at Aulis and in Iphigenia in Tauris, where Iphigenia describes herself as the seed of Agamemnon and the flower of Clytemnestra. However, a study of the various scientific names of the lily reveals that another name for lily is Iphigenia pallida, a flower native to India. This connection to sacrifice and to India adds another, more personal and more intellectual, dimension to the poem because it points to Darmesteter, a key scholar of Indian languages and culture.14 This nuanced poem thus shows how Robinson uses philology as a new instrument of psychology. By wearing this Iphiginia pallida (signifying Darmesteter himself) next to her heart, Robinson not only affirms her choice of France as her new home, but it also clearly identifies philology as the heart of her decadent poetics.
36Living and writing at the crossroads of two traditions, Retrospect is a reflection about what it feels to be a foreigner in both. Feeling a new temper in contemporary poetry, Richard Le Gallienne wrote in his review of Francis Thompson’s Poems that ‘our poets grow sober and self-conscious’ (Le Gallienne 2:24). Robinson was one of those poets. In his review of Pater’s 1893 Plato and Platonism, Le Gallienne noted that ‘preference for Latin or Saxon words’ came to indicate the character of a book, its ‘distinctive complexion’ (Le Gallienne 1:225). Making of the word ‘retrospect’ the face of her volume, Robinson gave a decadent complexion to her poetics. Language and the processes of thinking and feeling are united in her use of Latinates. Robinson uses the etymological foreignness of the English language as an instrument with which to contemplate the past with distance, creating a remoteness that allows her to speak of the affliction of her soul: the difficulty of living in a present that is linguistically and emotionally bound to an ideal past. The book’s title and the poems included in the volume encourage the reader to recognize what life as a self-exiled poet feels like, physically away from home but also away from the familiar sounds of her mother tongue. Using the modern subject of melancholia, the volume expresses Robinson’s experiences of modernity in Paris, and yet what the poems again and again highlight is that to recognise this modernity means exploring what was has been left behind and this includes the most painful of all subjects: the pain caused by breaking with the past.
37Though Retrospect and Other Poems exhibits a philological awareness entirely different from her earlier works, Robinson’s reputation in England would continue to be conditioned by the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics of A Handful of Honeysuckle and particularly the polyglot cosmopolitan verses of An Italian Garden. In France her reputation would rest on her prose: most notably, but not exclusively, her biography of Renan. Perhaps the reviews might have something to answer for. Retrospect got a mixed reception in the American and British press. The New York Times was damming: ‘there is more music than verse’, it claimed. She ‘falls victim to one of the prevalent temptations of the hour—to write ballads’, it continued, with demeaning comments about Robinson’s modern muse and simple versification. The reviewer saved its most sarcastic comments for Robinson herself, mixing up ideas of the literature of decadence and the New Woman with very knowing remarks about Robinson’s personal life: ‘she has appealed to that wider audience which continually hungers and thirsts to find out whether the man married the woman or whether being married, one of them did not wickedly love a third person’. It added: ‘Madame Darmesteter . . . writes verse with an easy hand—perchance, too, with an easy conscience’. (Anon. ‘Mme. Darmesteter’s Volume’)
38Most of the reviews paid attention to the emotional tone of the volume. Hilarious, yet perceptive, was the review by ‘The Baron de Book-Worms’ for Punch. It praised in particular the poem ‘Retrospect’, arguing that the penultimate verse was most musical. But, it conceded, ‘Madam writes sad stuff’. The ‘Baron’ then wittily played with the topos of decadent literature, neurosis, rewriting the quiet, simple sound of her poem ‘The Death of Count Armaniac’ into the poetry of a maniac:
39My Baronite, though not yet entered for the Poet Laureateship, thinks that kind of thing might be reeled off by the mile. Why not
My Maniac, O my Maniac,
Why rode ye forth at eve?
Was there no hour at morning tide,
No water in the sieve?
(‘The Baron de Book-Worms’ 9)
40The Bookman praised Robinson’s tempered poetics: Robinson’s ‘abundant nobility of sentiment’, the reviewer argued, ‘is nearly always saved from gush by its austerity of expression’ (Anon. ‘Madame Darmesteter’s Poems’, 118). ‘There are not many contemporary books of verse with so much that is genuine and beautiful in them as “Retrospect”’, concluded the review. The Saturday Review was equally laudatory noting that in ‘her slim volume […] Mme. Darmesteter proves once more by some extremely dainty lyrics and ballads of high romance how rich is her endowment in the accomplishment of verse’ (Anon. ‘Recent Verse’, 246).
41Women poets were particularly critical. In her review for The Athenaeum, the leading journal for contemporary poetry, Webster alternated praise for individual poems with damaging comments about Robinson’s ‘poetic fitness’ ([Webster] 451). Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson)’s review for the Academy was scathing even when it was acclamatory. She used her extraordinary critique of Robinson’s poetics to attack the decadent school. She characterizes Robinson as a modish writer whose poetry was ‘the work of an intelligent student rather than that of a singer, the production of the poet who has been made rather than born’ (Tomson 224-225). Though she believed that Robinson’s poetics had improved in Retrospect, she also felt that the mustiness of the scholarship, a clear sign of the decadent school (and this for Tomson was a visible sign of Robinson’s lack of originality), overpowered the freshness of the wild flowers: ‘If in such productions the literary faculty be wont to overweigh the creative element, if the pretty show of learning make somewhat for pedantry, the result is hardly the less pleasing, (and albeit a little lacking in freshness) goes far to satisfy the demands of at least one section of contemporary taste’ (Tomson 224). If, for Webster, Robinson’s poetry was on the verge of becoming too colloquial, for Tomson it was too writerly and scholarly. Despite the damaging review, Tomson softened her critique by admitting: ‘we should be grateful for elegance and some measure of restraint’. These were virtues, she claimed, ‘of no small order’. Like The Bookman’s reviewer, Tomson, in spite of herself, praised at least one aspect of Robinson’s poetics: how she used composition as a form of composure.