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Emotional Exile and the Female Buried River

Gilmour describes the Victorian period as characterised by as sense of emotional exile in a changing world. Although Neurasthenia, by Mary Robinson, was written after the most cataclysmic changes, it can be seen as characterised by a personal sense of the ‘multiple doubts and shaking beliefs’ which ran through the Victorian period. 

The poem’s structure in a sense reveals the tensions within it. Modulated on a smooth sonnet form, it disrupts the ‘brilliant surface’ of its conventional form not only by violating reader expectations of the sonnet in terms of theme, but also by covertly breaking up this form. This can be seen not only in the use of half-rhymes ‘house/rouse’ and world/whir’ld’, but also in the accumulation of rhetorical questions which undermine the expected assertive confidence of the final couplet. 

This pattern of questioning can be seen in relation to the doubleness Armstrong sees as a pattern in Victorian poetry which she argues often achieves two poems in the same words. In Neurasthenia, the poem hinges on ‘they cannot come to me nor I to them’ and the possibility of this is then explored through the questions. While the poem seems to invite a reading in simple affective mode, as a lyrical expression of anxiety and emotional exile, it can also be read as a dramatic utterance; the lyrical subject becoming object in a way which Armstrong argues allows interrogation and critique. 

This openness and over determination of ambiguity can also be seen in the use of language. In an age of ‘moveable type’ the writer was no longer in control of interpretation and this can be seen as behind the fact that, as Armstrong says, ‘to read a Victorian poet is to be aware that it is made of language’. This verbalness can be seen in this poem, although again in a way which is antithetical to our expectations. 

Late Victorian poetry is often elaborate, with a sense of art for art’s sake. As Wilde put it ‘a man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.’ In contrast to this aesthetic, Robinson’s poem uses relatively unadorned language, with only one simile, to some extent a tautological repetition of ‘glide’. This technique of using monosyllabic words which function almost metaphorically is noticeable throughout the poem: ‘heavy mind’ in antithesis ‘busy days’. In contrast, ‘abysmal’ and ‘mightier’ seem to stand out, and are set in opposition to each other, foregrounding the doubt behind the question: is there a mightier arm, and can it reach, or save? 

The doubt can be seen as the tide which the speaker attempts to ‘stem’, and yet at the same time the poem can be read in terms of the earlier optimistic Victorian feeling that Tennyson articulated in finding ‘honest doubt’ preferable to ignorant faith. In this poem, the speaker seems to want to be saved, yet there also seems to be a note of regret in the thought that if she were saved, it would only be because she ‘like these’ - an indication which does not seem very admiring - ‘ignore[s] the abysmal wave’. The arm may save but it cannot remove the wave, and the ‘happier people’ are notably only relatively happy, they can ‘glide’ only because they keep themselves busy and can ignore what is ‘underneath’. 

The use of the trope of sea/water is also a notable feature of Victorian poetry, one which Armstrong argues is often linked with figures of battle or conflict, here the conflict is obvious both formally in the doubleness of the poem and thematically as a exploration of what Arnold called the buried life. This seems particularly suitable to this poem, which it’s simultaneous sense of imprisonment and stasis. Gilmour has noted that the autobiographical urge in early Victorian poetry was suppressed, appearing in its backward look and dwelling in the self to be antithetical to the progressive mode the age saw as its own. Although later Victorian poetry moved beyond the ‘close thy Byron’ rejection of romanticism legacy of introspection, it can be argued that there was still a sense that what Tennyson called ‘private sorrow’s barren song’ was unproductive and morbid. Within the positivist scheme of salvation as working for the growing good of the world, the alienated fatigue of ‘sit and gaze’ would not be considered healthy. 

And yet this is precisely what this poem analyses – it is almost a rewording of Tennyson’s ‘sick of a nameless fear’ ‘I bury myself in myself’. This poem’s description of the burial of the recognisably female, or feminine speaker, can be read in feminist terms as an exploration of the idea of separate spheres. 

Ruskin’s idea of home as the natural sphere which shelters from all “doubt division and injury” is one which can be seen as pervasive in the Victorian age, which felt the need for a formulation of personal codes of conduct to stem the tide of doubt and confusion. The romantic idea of the woman as guarantee of the selfhood of man is also implicit here. Heathcliff calling Cathy “his soul” abrogates her own living in the ‘storm troubled sphere’, and relegates her to a position of fidelity and stability in a world of confusion: like Arnold’s ‘ah love let us be true to one another’. 

Armstrong has argued that in a sense the adoption of a conventional affective tone gave the poetess a respected position in Victorian society, yet this sense lessened as the period drew to a close. In this poem, the tone of simple piety is broken with the foregrounding of doubt, moving outside the woman as keeper of morality sphere. The tone is similar to Rossetti’s, as is the positive that is only the hoped for negating of the negative, yet there is a difference which can be seen in the final couplet collapses the certainty of it’s exclamation ‘yes!’ into the final question, which seems not to require an answer. 

The use of the persona in this poem is not, as Armstrong has argued, simply for the sake of self-protection. Robinson’s I speaks in a woman’s voice, and this involves a distancing of feminine subjectivity, an anticipation of its objectification, in order to explore the twice buried life of woman. Notably Arnold saw the recognition of buried life as the generic man’s recognition and awareness of his life’s flow. 

Here the speaker descends into the depth, not of a flow of life but of a strangely static, yet black and fast eddying flood, which is ‘whir’ld’ – a word which is emphasised in its quiet echoing of ‘world’. 

Throughout this poem, there is a writing of the experience of the ‘dusty answers’ the soul receives ‘when hot for certainties’, as Meredith put it. The recognition of ‘the quiet sense of something lost’ comes simultaneously with the awareness that the loss of this sense in brilliant, radiant, happier ignorance would in itself be a loss, a gliding above what is in many ways the centre of the world, the self. 

written: 2007;
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