dagNotes: The Poet’s Garret (Pritch’s post-ing Shelley reminded me of this)
Something I wrote and wanted to expand but never got to, combined with my comments today, on writing and publishing, might help. I was trying to knock on the highly structured gendering of verse in the Romantic era with the essay and didn’t quite succeed at fleshing out that binary (based in a critique of the bisexual nature of hysterical discourse. I know that came later. I don’t know if it would have worked, but I was having fun with it.) Although I really do like the discussion of “garret” as a verb and my work with the fancy and imagination in the essay. I couldn’t flesh out the gender binary as much as I wanted because the guy I was writing for insisted the essay not exceed its length. As in, “I won’t read it if it’s longer than X”. I needed about three or four more pages, about 1200 words more, to work out what I was trying to do with masculine and feminine. I get it right in my conclusion, but if you read it, it’s clear I cut out some of my discussion. And I didn’t save it. What was I thinking?
Anyway, I wrote this a long time ago. Nobody writes about Mary Robinson. I’m proud of it. But I’m more interested in how I could resurrect it and move away from the gender discussion to focus on The Poet’s Garret in a more materialist manner—rather than a poem that exists as a critique of the (male) poet’s idealized version of himself with all its self-pitying solitude and poverty, a poem that is actually about Robinson’s confession of material poverty in spite of her labor. Both do exist in the one poem. I’d like to look at that and comment.
Also not too happy about the pronoun problem. I use she when writing about the poet in The Poet’s Garret. But to discuss the stupid gender binary—masculine/feminine—complicates my use of she. After all, isn’t she criticizing the assumed he of poetry. Well, yes, but she’s also confessing her real material poverty. So what to do there, I don’t know. Another result of the forced page requirement.
It’s not bad for what I was doing ten years ago. It’s fun to look back through the archives and see some value. I like the talk about aperture and absorption—language poetry, poetics, some of my philosophical work appearing in a minor essay from a Romantics seminar.
Thou cans’t command thy subjects
I. Mary Robinson’s Poetics: Garreting as Poetic Practice
In “The Poet’s Garret,” Mary Robinson distinguishes between a fixed and finite world of the fancy and an infinite and pliant world of the imagination. Her poem opens with an invitation promising an energetic journey: “Come, sportive fancy! Come with me, and trace/The poet’s attic home!” Unfortunately, her tour quickly stalls. Her “tracing” of a poet’s home shows, in spite of fancy, a poet’s sick solitude. In her “attic” room, poems are lost to oblivion because they have no object:
Here a page
Of flights poetic—there a dedication—
A list of dramatis personae, bold,
Of heroes yet unborn, and lofty dames
Of perishable compound, light as fair,
But sentenc’d to oblivion!
Robinson champions a poetic process that is celebratory, a bit gaudy. She opposes the poet’s solitude with her blank verse plea. “The Poet’s Garret” is a cautionary tale. Her home sits upon “the airy throne/Of bold imagination, rapture fraught,” yet her labor represents a lonely hearkening back to ancient times. She rejects the world we live in—an everyday world comprised of things and events that appear as uncontrollable and unhealthy objects of public distraction. Robinson questions any poetic practice that requires purposeful seclusion.
William Wordsworth placed himself at the foreground of the debate about imagination and fancy, about how poems should be written, and about how we should define poetic discourse. If Wordsworth’s prose about poetry and poets is a historical marker for a change in the way poetry should be written and read, then imagination becomes the faculty that allows for a re-creation of the poetic subject and the creation of a new poetic judgment. In the Preface to the Second Edition to “Lyrical Ballads,” 1800, Wordsworth insists “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility…” (664). He separates, both in time and space, fancy and imagination. Robinson creates tension between the theory of such a separation and the inevitable result of its practice—a ruin of the world the poet inhabits for the creation of an ideal world of representation.
From the same passage in his Preface, Wordsworth further defines his theory:
…[T]he emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind (665).
Whereas Wordsworth describes the ideal and pleasurable results of tranquil recollection in composition, Robinson explores a possible result of such successful composition. A poet’s self-imposed solitude, “solemn stillness” in “The Poet’s Garret,” removes the writer from her community of readers. In her poem, readers don’t see the poet; they see her things.
Robinson’s use of language is remarkable for the way it wallows in the complexity of the poet’s predicament. Her use of the word “attic” refers both to the location of the poet’s room in the house as well as to the location of a specific historic attitude; attic also serves as a cue for the reader to consider the multiple meanings of different words she uses to describe her garret. She problematizes the relationship between the poet’s present project and the tradition through which she operates. Her place is fixed in space but not in time. She is trapped. For example, she uses the archaism “Yclept” in place of “called.” Other words represent fixed places (within the poem and the garret) with multiple historical meanings as well. Each word with plural meanings—garret, attic, brood, holy, parapet, casement, and yclept—is used for a specific purpose. Holy and yclept (and even “sportive” modifying fancy,) offer levity. Levity operates as a guise for Robinson. Her use of humor is intended to invite, comfort, taunt, and destabilize readers. She wants to show the state of the poet’s apartment and to criticize the her state of being.
“The Poet’s Garret” is a radical critique of the process of poetic creation. If the celebrities of the time—poetry’s emerging bad boys such as Wordsworth—called for poetry written in everyday language, they also reinforced the poet’s singular power to create an ideal representation of the everyday as they reproduced events in tranquil recollection. In this sense, the poet sits above a common folk who live ordinary lives rather than create ideal versions of those lives. Robinson’s representation of a poet’s garret, though, is not ideal. She criticizes the poet’s distance from the world and her dependence upon imagination to idealize by comparing the process—the poet’s refuge—to a decaying fortress built to protect the poet from the outside world.
“Garret” has multiple meanings. As a noun it is a watchtower or a room on the uppermost floor of a house; as a verb it means to insert pieces of stone in the joints of coarse masonry. Garret has two direct compliments within the poem—parapet and casement. A parapet is a barrier that prevents a person from falling over a balcony or porch, and it is a defense of earth or stone to cover troops from enemy fire. Sidewalks and footpaths were locally referred to as parapets as well. Casements are window panes or the part of a window that opens out on hinges. Also, a casement is the name given to the matrix cut in a stone to receive a monumental plaque.
Robinson details an uneasy tension between fancy and imagination at the beginning of her poem.
Come, sportive fancy! come with me, and trace
The poet’s attic home! the lofty seat
Of the heav’n-tutored nine! the airy throne
Of bold imagination, rapture fraught
Above the herds of mortals. All around
A solemn stillness seems to guard the scene,
Nursing the brood of thought—a thriving brood
In the rich mazes of the cultured brain.
Her reference to a “sportive fancy” presents levity and establishes a certain quality of wantonness. A sportive fancy is free from care. Contrasting “bold imagination” with “sportive fancy” complicates the poem. Bold imagination is guarded while “nursing the brood of thought.” Brood can function as both noun and verb like garret. As a noun brood refers to progeny and offspring, to a species or race, and even figuratively to inanimate things like pages containing poems; however, as a verb, brood is to nurse in the mind, to hover over, or to meditate upon. Bold imagination and sportive fancy allow Robinson and, hence, the reader to examine the labor of the poet of the imagination as she broods over her poems.
At the end of her last stanza, she writes in a devilishly facetious tone:
Poor Poet! Happy art thou, thus removed
From pride and folly! For in thy domain
Thou cans’t command thy subjects; fill thy lines;
Wield th’all-conqu’ring weapon heav’n bestows
On the grey gooses wing! Which, tow’ring high,
Bears thy sick fancy to immortal fame!
Readers may question Robinson’s apparently facile transformation of the fancy from “sportive” to “sick.” Fancy is a finite eye fixed in the world. Fancy is most vigorous and healthy, therefore, only when a poet is immersed in the world. Imagination may triumph over things and boldly represent ideas as sensations and objects for consideration; yet, the imagination only allows for a lonely (or singular) command of thy subjects—the things belonging only to me. Robinson does not remark “thou cans’t command thy objects.” The fancy in “The Poet’s Garret” is a debased faculty. The pleasure and promise fancy promotes are lost inside the poet’s cold and crumbling room.
Fancy must be cultivated and cared for, and in this garret, fancy is sick. It is found in short, whimsical, inebriated bursts:
On a shelf,
(Yclept a mantle-piece) a phial stands,
Half-filled with potent spirits!—spirits strong,
Which sometimes haunt the poet’s restless brain,
And fill his with fancies whimsical.
Poets who praise the faculty of imagination debase fancy for its chaotic state of being, fickle taste, or, at least, for the fancy’s obsession with the world of forms. The fancy sees objects while the imagination sees ideas in objects. The poet of imagination takes things from the world and writes about ideas gleaned from those objects in isolation.
Robinson’s poems have an immediacy and presence. She values the presence of the objects and dwells in the world, listing and naming. Her poems exist as object and action. Like a garret, then, a poem is both an enclosure and a shoring up of events, ideas, or things. Robinson garrets with the fancy and the imagination. The fancy sees objects that may or may not be related but are nonetheless contiguous, while the brood of imagination is the small pieces of stone wedged between the contiguous objects. In other words, the fancy aids in seeing and allows for recognition while the imagination aids the poet in doing poetry and putting ideas together. In this way, like most walls or garrets, a poem has an outside and an inside. The poet in “The Poet’s Garret” exists inside and cannot quite keep up with the necessary work to cultivate a healthy room (or poem, for that matter.)
Robinson guides readers through the poet’s room. We move from object to object: “thy altar, an old worm-eat board,” “on the bed/…an old rusty suit…,” “on the floor…/a pair of silken hose,” “the blackened bar,” “a vessel…of batter’d pewter,” a kitten, the parapet, “the farthing light,” and so on. The poem itself is a list of objects in relation to the poet and to her poem. “The Poet’s Garret” presents fancy as a faculty that shows and the poet of fancy as a poet who names. The fancy presents objects in time and space and opens a door upon perspective on the relationship between those objects. The fancy is frenetic. It produces thought that moves. Robinson doesn’t dwell upon the poet’s desk. Her bed. Her shelves. Her liquor. Her balcony. Her broken window. Instead, she moves with the fancy as if in a trance. She records. The poet, first, and the readers, second, move with the fancy, are guided by it to see because of it.
The poet of fancy is at the mercy of fancy. The limit of a poetry of fancy alone, then, is the limit of motion in the poem. What is the poet of imagination at the mercy of? Robinson writes,
The casement, broke, gives breath celestial
To the long dying-speech; or gently fans
The love-inflaming sonnet. All around
Small scraps of paper lie, torn vestiges
Of an unquiet fancy.
Apparently, the poet of imagination, after a hard day of writing, must deal with an unquiet fancy that disturbs him much like her rumbling stomach. Not only is she hungry because she needs to eat, she is hungry because she is starved of things except for her poems. She can serve those up like “[a] heap of salt…Oh heavenly treat!” A surface reading of “The Poet’s Garret” might tell a typical story: broke poet-genius sits in small, decaying apartment, writes many unpublished poems, subsists on meager meals, drinks potent spirits, hopes for notoriety, receives oblivion as a reward. While Robinson may be sympathetic, she criticizes the poet for rejecting the public life that is apparently awaiting him: “…All around/ The well-known ballads flit, of Grub-street fame!” The “solemn stillness” apparently guarding “the scene,” as Robinson writes in the opening stanza, is the result of her purposeful rejection of a public venue for the chosen solitude within which to create imaginative verse in tranquil reflection. Somehow, the poet’s guarded privacy is a purposeful and tragic refusal of public recognition as well as a purposeful step back from things in the world.
As Robinson complicates the relationship between fancy and imagination, she genders both faculties; she shows how a poet may “command thy subjects” through fanciful observations that list things and people in the world. However, the poet cannot command objects in the world. The poet of “The Poet’s Garret” entrenches herself in her garret. Her crumbling watchtower barely serves as protection from nature. The poet hides to build her representations of the world. But her build-ing is an always broken representation. She cannot keep out the world because of his broken casement. But casement has a dual meaning in “The Poet’s Garret.” The casement is her window. The poet used to be able to open it at will. She closed it at will as well. She let the world in and kept the world out at will. Broken, the casement cannot do either—cannot let in, cannot keep in, cannot keep out. But the broken casement also represents the broken monument that was meant to bear the story of her fame. The poet has been writing so furiously her pathway, that snow-covered parapet, is now littered with her lack of progress. She breaks the mold she built. Robinson genders this tendency as masculine.
In “The Poet’s Garret,” fancy is feminine and imagination is masculine. Three results are important to note concerning her gendered claim about bold imagination and sportive fancy. First, the poet of fancy is enabled by a feminine characteristic. Such a claim is important because it comes from a poet who was, in fact, marginalized as a woman. Second, feminine fancy is free from care. The poet of fancy, therefore, is not likely to end up entrenched within a fortress. She will not have to write herself out of a garret. Third, Robinson appears to claim a healthy fancy is necessary for a healthy imagination. A bold imagination is not a hidden nor a private imagination; rather, a vigorous imagination is public and immediate. It is both feminine and masculine as well. A marriage between faculties is initiated. A marriage between masculine and feminine, imagination and fancy, recalls the erotic and fanciful play between the Della Cruscan poets. Their poems are acrobatic examples of the poet’s skillful use of language in moments driven by the fancy. Their poems are emerged in the life of the city and present (not represent) moments of imaginative reflection about poetics.
Robinson’s urban poems ultimately complicate the perceived notion that poets must manifest ideas in solitude away from the “hurly burly” of everyday life. Robinson asks: “What is wrong with Grub-street fame, after all?” She taunts the poet of imagination for rejecting public venues: “Poor poet! happy art thou, thus removed/ From pride and folly! for in thy domain/ Thou cans’t command thy subjects; fill thy lines[.]” The repetition of “thy” near the end of her poem is significant. The poet of the imagination is a shut in. Robinson tries to bring him spiritual food in the form of reinvigorating fancy, but he resists. He will brood over the stuff of his imagination—his subjects. Her urban poems show imagination-at-play and fancy-at-work. This inversion, for we typically think of imagination as the faculty of poetic labor and the fancy as the faculty of poetic play, details an important poetics of contiguity for the two celebrity faculties. Rather than depending upon a vertical relationship between imagination and fancy with imagination ruling and fancy dwelling, Robinson uses them at will, as needed, at the same time, in the same place.
II. The poetry of fancy-at-work in Mary Robinson’s “The Camp”
Mary Robinson allows space for the sublime—in this case, the failure to represent ideas verbally and intellectually—to function as a critical element within her poems at the moment of experience. The failure of the imagination to recover an accurate representation of an event or object does not represent a failure of poem or poet. She admits the failure to represent is a characteristic of poetry. The failure itself becomes a subject of the poem and subject to the poet. The sublime, then, is allowed sway over the poet within the poem and the poet benefits.
Robinson’s poems of fancy are whirlwind observations. Each moment of failure within her poems, though, represents a moment of imaginative recovery from a sublime experience. The fancy perplexes and the poet recovers in media res. The poet of the imagination, on the other hand, waits for that moment, after experience, in reflection and struggles to reconstruct a sense sublime to be recollected in moments of tranquility. Wordsworth’s poetics, as detailed in his Preface, is a poetics of closure in this sense; his poems are about his command, his lyrical self, and not one other. Robinson’s poem “The Camp,” on the other hand, is a poem of aperture, not only in its form, but in its frantic, neurotic, erotic, and traumatic celebration of the other. “The Camp” invites participation to invite interpretation, absorption, and incorporation. Recalling the spirit of “The Poet’s Garret,” Robinson’s poem is care free. In direct opposition to the poetic experience in the “Poet’s Garret,” “The Camp” is an account of an immediate experience. Her poem moves with insights about her observations. In fact, the observations are the in-sights.
Thought as motion (or e-motion) is problematic for a society that genders space. When Robinson published, poets were obsessed with the private excursions within their poems. Their blank verse explorations, their odes of contemplation, and their fragments (letters, too) relate private intellectual dilemmas involving the creation of ideas, recollection of emotions, and notions of identity. For Mary Robinson, poetry involves public displays of seeing in the world. Her poems exist as public pronouncements because of her gender. Women were not considered private citizens. Women were marginalized, public citizens. Her arguments are defined in public space without benefit of the solitude poet’s like the one considered in “The Poet’s Garret” take for granted. Her marginalized poetics are, therefore, feminine poetics. For her to speak as a poet was to speak as a woman-poet.
“The Camp” is made up of octosyllabic lines with four accents each and open, rhymed couplets. Each rhymed couplet runs into the other until reaching closure at the poem’s adamant final statement. Each line combines four trochees. The site for Robinson’s fanciful observations is a military camp located outside of Windsor. The in-sight for her poem is the everyday “hurly burly” (two trochees) activity within and around the camp. Superficially, the poem appears to be a list of things and people: tents, marquees, wagons, houses, lasses, lads, carts, booths, ladies, dowagers, husbands, wives, etc. Within the list, or within the structural representation of the site, Robinson levies an extended, epigrammatic critique of society—a pointed critique of class, a satirical inversion of gender, and a cultivation of feminine poetics.
Robinson first lists objects in the camp and then describes people. She moves from listing to describing subtly yet purposefully.
Tents, marquees, and baggage waggons;
Suttling houses, beer in flaggons;
Drums and trumpets, singing, firing;
Girls seducing, beaux admiring;
Country lasses gay and smiling;
City lads their hearts beguiling;
Listing is different than describing. Robinson moves from recognition to interpretation; she never relies on representation based upon memory alone. Her observations of the camp are representative of how she sees society.
Dusty roads, and horses frisky;
Many an Eton boy in whisky
Tax’d carts full of farmer’s daughters;
Brutes condemn’d, and man—who slaughters!
Subsequently, her use of enjambed couplets with feminine rhymes makes “The Camp” her unique interpretation of the camp outside of Windsor as well as her (re)interpretation of a specific poetic tradition.
Robinson’s poem begins with vigor and energy. William Hazlitt defines gusto in art “as power or passion defining any object” (77). Yet, such characteristics are typified as masculine. Robinson’s couplets explode the closed, masculinist form of the traditional couplet because she relies on the feminine rhyme to complete each statement. Each line ends with a trochee, offering an unaccented conclusion. Her poetic line contains a mixture of the masculine beat of military marching and the feminine rhyme at the end of each line. The feminine ending is indifferent to the line itself yet serves as a marker for the more masculine rhyme located within the initial accented syllables in the last trochee of each line. In other words, the marginalized poetics of Mary Robinson become essential to each line of the poem and support the more accepted masculine sound.
Robinson’s poem is about the camp, a metaphor about the power of fancy to make poetry alive, and a signifier for the failure of imagination to capture immediacy—for thought to include all motion. “The Camp” is a continuous opening-up of the site of the camp. Seeing the camp is a form of doing that in effect cultivates the camp. For example, her use of the semi-colon provides for acceptable comparisons between contiguous objects. The semi-colon acts as a sort of suture tying every thing together. To use our new technical term: Mary Robinson garrets the contiguous objects of the camp together; she combines the objects gleaned from fanciful and passionate observation in immediacy with her imaginative and powerful reflections about what she sees. And, if her seeing or building or representation of the camp fails, as it does, she allows the failure to be part of the poem.
As the camp opens up, a military cadence of four beats per line unfolds, a mechanical almost dizzying pace is set, and multitudes of people and things dance across the page. Even though the poet’s eye sees and the poet’s pen shows, Robinson does not rely upon reflection, which would require a change in scenery or observation from a distance. Perhaps she would have entitled it “Lines written a few miles above The Camp outside of Windsor, August 1, 1800”. Robinson entrenches herself in the everyday motion of the camp. If motion is thought, then the camp must be immediately present. Her poem functions as a point of departure/aperture for seeing the camp as it is in motion and in (her) thought.
Robinson succeeds using the motion of thought as fuel for discourse. Her authority as poet rests within the structure of her poetic statement. She does not rely upon the presence of the lyrical self. “The Camp” has wild, energetic moments imbued with gusto. She allows the things within the camp and their interaction with her fanciful eye to create the imagistic coherence of her poem. She composes the poem, but it is composition in the spirit of being composed with the poem. The poem acts as a celebration of seeing. She introduces readers to the faculty of fancy-at-work rather than fancy-after-recollection.
With this energy, too, she inverts gendered representations of men and women. In a grotesque passage, Robinsons sees:
Lordly Gen’rals fiercely staring,
Weary soldiers, sighing, swearing!
Petit maitres always dressing—
In the glass themselves caressing;
Perfum’d paint’d, patch’d and blooming
Ladies—manly airs assuming!
In this passage, young men become women and women assume the visage of men. Robinson offers a symbol of her poetics at work. Her poem assumes the manly airs of poetry. She labors to build a poem out of a chaotic and overwhelming show. Her poetics, however, are feminine. The men do not turn into women and the women do not turn into men. Their transformation is incomplete. What we are left with is a hysterical representation of gender in poetry, of the social and the poetical. Robinson’s poetics make the masculine and feminine mutually inclusive. The fuel, the work, the direction is a representation of Robinson’s craft and political intentions as a Poet. “The Camp” is not a rumination about the failure or succession of the imagination to work its wonders upon the page. Instead, and quite purposefully, Robinson uses fancy, the fixation of her sight on and in the world, to say something about the camp, society, the poetic tradition, and the problems these present her as a poet. Her poem is as chaotic as the social and political scene it represents.
“The Camp” grows steadily more wild. Halfway through, the poem opens up in such a way that it threatens to undo itself.
Old coquets, and matrons surly,
Sounds of distant hurly burly!
Mingled voices uncouth singing;
Carts, full laden, forage bringing;
With each subsequent couplet Robinson has more to handle. The poem becomes heavy, the images difficult to bear, and Robinson appears to lose focus.
Sociables, and horses weary;
Houses warm, and dresses airy;
Loads of fatten’d poultry; pleasure
Serv’d (to nobles) without measure.
Jerome McGann, in his introduction to The Poetics of Sensibility, remarks that “sentimental writing overtakes and subsumes the discourse of sensibility between 1740 and 1840” (8). If, as McGann suggests, the sentimental focuses on the body in the mind while the sensible focuses on the mind in the body, then one might argue that Robinson’s poem purposefully relies on the fancy leaving imagination out of its discourse. The fact that carriages and horses are syntactically (com)paired with houses and dresses might be a recognition of the state of the camp. Robinson says, “Here is what it looks like, unimproved.” However, the unimproved gaze does not necessarily lack imagination. Rather, the unimproved and immediate gaze de-thrones imagination.
Imagination conflates Truth and Beauty in search of moral ideals. Fancy, on the other hand, is a faculty of the everyday and can be used as a means to revolt against social and political conventions embedded within poetic tradition while at the same time offering readers a representation that is poetic, in the sense that it is of a poet. In this way, too, Robinson fancifully, worldly, and masterfully commands her subjects both camp and readers. Nevertheless, imagination is not a scorned faculty in “The Camp.” Robinson’s representations of the camp exist in the grotesque transformations, the choice of words, and where she decides to end the poem. Her imagination is political. It comments. Her fancy is social. It acts.
Robinson is comfortable not being able to accurately represent particular images and concepts in words. As she finishes her poem, she writes of “Noise, that ev’ry noise surpasses!” Her description admits its failure to properly represent the noise in the camp. She moves on refusing to “bring round the heart an undescribable feud” as Keats writes in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” Wordsworth struggles to formulate representations of a higher order molded out of common elements of life. He writes a masculine verse in an attempt to elevate everyday language. He wants to perfect a language with which to represent his ideas of the world not the world itself. Robinson, through her commitment to explore the everyday, urban landscape of the military camp allows her representation to fail without disrupting her practice. Seeing need not stop with the sense sublime as reflecting must. In this way Robinson maintains command of her subjects while representing the chaotic nature of their presentation. She uses poetic discourse without relying upon binary gendered traits to play specific roles within her poems.