Poetry Wednesday: Same Year, Different Century

I told myself that if I had a hangover today, I’d repost Auld Lang Synebut I don’t,* so I had to go rummaging instead.  so this post is a little late, but I have only myself to blame, so oh, well.

The first poetry post of a new year ought to be something special—a bittersweet look at the past, maybe, with a touch of hope for the future.

What I found was a 200-year-old poem that could have been written about our present, by a woman whom I suspect was eventually reincarnated as Dorothy Parker.

Mary Darby Robinson’s early life certainly should have generated enough cynicism for two (or more) snarky writers.

Mary Robinson 1871

Her father abandoned—but did not divorce—his wife and five children, and later closed down the girl’s school that was his family’s only means of support, apparently just because he could.  A young Mary ventured into acting, but was pushed by her mother into what seemed like an advantageous marriage to Thomas Robinson, a clerk of apparent means.

Unfortunately, Thomas had no advantages and no means, but plenty of mistresses and debts.  He was imprisoned for the latter soon after the birth of their first child, and while he was away, Mary wrote poetry.  Her verses caught the attention of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who sponsored her first collection, aptly called Captivity.

After Thomas was released, Mary went into the theater again, and became very popular,especially with the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who promised her the moon if she would become his mistress and, more importantly, a large settlement when their affair ended.  After some thought, Mary left her husband in favor of His Highness, and became the toast of London for a few years, until the Prince dumped her and didn’t pay up.

Despite her sudden drop in society—and chronic ill-health—she refused to return to her old life, or to her husband.

She was rarely without male companionship—at least one of her affairs lasted more than a decade—but she never again depended financially on anyone but herself.  And she wrote —reams of poetry, as well as eight novels, several plays, and numerous essays, most of which examined the rights of women and found them shamefully inadequate.

Her sharp wit proved even more popular than her looks once had—a point that was not lost on her, by the way—and her admirers dubbed her “The English Sappho.”

I highly recommend Mary Robinson’s views on “Female Fashions for 1799″—Joan Rivers wishes she was that clever—but it’s the poem she wrote four years earlier that offers a bitingly honest slice of life that’s so disconcertingly familiar, it’s difficult to see the hope sprinkled throughout.

January, 1795

(Mary Robinson)

Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers cringing and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing;Timecrafter
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.

Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.

Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded.

But it’s in there.

And it’s in us, too.

What are we going to do with it?


*It’s a decent post, though, if I do say so—and I still mean every word about how wonderful you people are for still tuning in every Wednesday and letting me know that I’m not just rambling on to the sound of crickets.  So feel free to sub that one for this one, as a sober brain doesn’t mean it’s working right, especially after a three-hour marathon of the first Rin Tin Tin serial the previous night—best not to ask—and being woken by children who didn’t have the common decency to let sleep deprived adults lie-in.