Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Arthur Symons
A. Mary F. Robinson-Darmesteter (18571944)
AGNES MARY FRANCES ROBINSON, now Madame James Darmesteter, was born at Leamington, February 27th, 1857. She is the daughter of Mr. George T. Robinson; her younger sister, Frances Mabel Robinson, is one of the most powerful of the younger novelists of the day. Miss Robinson lived in London until her marriage in 1888 with M. James Darmesteter, Professor of Persian in the Collège de France and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. Since her marriage she has lived in Paris, where her salon is one of the centres of Parisian letters and learning.
Madame Darmesteter is the spoilt child of literatureof two literatures. If she has attained or preserved any originality, it is in spite of the kindness of Fate and her friends. Her surroundings have always been only too perfect. Growing up in a literary house, with all the London singers about her, and the sound of verse in the very air, she naturally signalised her coming of age by the publication of a volume of poems. She and her book were welcomed together, not more than they deserved to be, but without the discipline of waiting. And she and her books have always been very fortunate. Her triste muse has had the task of inventing a delicate misery which (happily!) has never existed. All this was an admirable lot in life, and an excellent education for a singer who should be content to sing to a borrowed lute. And at first she was content. But even then one heard the new voice. The delicious Handful of Honeysucklea title taken from one of the Elizabethan miscellaniescould have been written only when it was written. It belongs to that delightful, youthful time when books like The Gallery of Pigeons were possibleso romantic and rococo, so absurd, so inspiriting, so exuberantly poetic. Miss Robinsons book had fantasies of Queen Rosalys, Paradise fancies from some pre-Raphaelite heaven of rose, lily, and girasole, French refrains culled In Apollos Garden, triolets, sonnets, and songs with the faint odour about them of rose-leaves when the rose is dead. There were little narratives and little apologues, like bits of old tapestry or illuminated missal margins. And with all thisso much of it is only an echoan individuality, even in the echo, and, in certain pieces, the personal note. There could be no mistake about the singing-voicea new singing-voice in the lyric nest of those days. What was most notable in the volume was an infinite devotion to art, the passion of the genuine artist, that might seem to augur well, and yet be dangerous, for the future. Too passionate a devotion, one might have feared, dreading a virtuosity which is often fatal to those who love Art too well. Too well? Let us say, rather, with too narrow, too exclusive, a fondness. The next volume, three years later, came with a piece of serious and earnest work, a strenuous translation of the Crowned Hippolytus of Euripides. Poetic drill of this sort could not but be useful to the writer, and among the original pieces one noticed some which might be said to mark an advance in endeavour, in aim, if not exactly in accomplishment. The New Arcadia of 1884 marks, in a sense, a further advance, but an advance along a side-route, through bad country. These heavily tragic poems of such peasant life as Balzac could deal with, overstrained, ineffective as they are, do really indicate growth. Life, now for the first time, has been apprehendedwith a frightened recoil, naturally, of the sleeper awakened. The book was inspired by Bastien-Lepages great picture, Les Foins, now in the Luxembourg. In that dull peasant face, in those limbs on which the whole weight of the heat rests visibly, there is indeed something of the inarticulate mournfulness of lives lived out blindly, hopelessly, often brutally, under the sun. With that feeling of the pity of it, there comes to her a feeling which in its elementary stage is too crude for art. She makes an attempt, fruitlessly, to paint episodes of tragic life, broadly, in powerful colours. Life for a moment has been too much for art; and that is well, but not in its immediate effect. She feels that everything is changedthat she has done with dreams, that the misery of the world has left her individual joys and pains colourless. I have lost my singing-voice! she laments, disproving the statement by some magical poems, that have the savour and colour of the South in them, and, here delicately and rightly, the personal note.
In 1886 came An Italian Garden, which remains the crown and flower of her poetic work. The dreamer has fallen back into the circle of dreams, but the dreams can never again be of that mere heaven in arabesque and embroidery. There is a human note in them, a note of sincerity, in what is still often a dainty make-believea make-believe of despair, a décor of cypresses, which, however, doubtless answers to something genuinea pensiveness, a gentle melancholyin this nature which has come through art to take an interest in life. The singing-voice, so long and so well trained, has now the true ring, the instinctive perfection of note. And how sweet and fresh and fine, simple and unstrained always, spontaneously lyrical, is this singing-voice, are these songs! Slight, one may say: well, slight, but how perfect, and how difficult to achieve perfection herein this rose-leaf charm, this liquid melody, like falling water or a birds voice! Another volume, two years laterSongs, Ballads, and a Garden Playis much in the manner of the Italian Garden, but scarcely so fresh, varied, and exquisite. It has something new in the shape of ballads, distinctly well written, but not the individual work of a sheer lyrist, with a little dramatic scene, which was worth writing for the sake of the song it contains.
Madame Darmesteter has written prose, but it is rather too much the prose of a poet. A book on Emily Brontë deals sympathetically and picturesquely with that splendid woman and great writer, whose life was the saddest of tragedies. Arden, a novel, can be read with pleasure, but it cannot be said to show any natural faculty for novel-writing. The End of the Middle Ages, is a series of essaysstudies towards a serious historical work, The French in Italy, which will be a history of the French wars in Italy between the battle of Poictiers and the battle of Agincourt. Why should a poet write history? one may query. But Madame Darmesteter is devoted to her work, and will tell you that it is the history of a chimæra, and therefore enters into a poets proper regions.
Madame Darmesteters progress in poetry from an unreal fancifulness, by way of a foiled attempt at dogged realism, to a fancifulness which is the flowering of the true reality, cannot but be interesting to observe. The girl who would scribble whole poems in metrical signsthe words to be added afterwards, the metre being the main thinghas learnt much. She has come to understand both what should be done, and what she herself can do. She has a wholesome love for poetry where it is most poetrythe song, the short poem. Heine has taught her much, and it is perhaps from him that she has learnt to be so simple, direct and briefto be so modern. Her poetry, as she now writes it, is very modern. Despite her summer inspirationsfor hers is a muse that hates the wintershe has the intensity of troubled sentiment that is at least some part of modernity nowadays. Perhaps it is for this reason, among others, that her work is so well known abroadin France through the admirable prose translation of M. Darmesteter (which one may imagine to have been literally a labour of love), in Italy through the articles of Signor Nencioni and the rhymed version of Signor Giovenale Sicca. A German translation has also appeared; those who can may read enthusiastic appreciations of her work in most of the languages of Europe. Perhaps no living English poet, after Swinburne, is nearly so well known abroad. This is partly an accident of circumstance; it is largely a matter of instinctive response. Madame Darmesteter has always been alive to the influence of what is new and significant in foreign literature, and it is but just that her appreciation should be returned.