Assignment: Respond to comment from the fictional professors below.
“Mary Robinson’s “London Summer Morning” is a cheap rip-off of Swift’s “A Description of The Morning”; she gives us a list of London sights and sounds but without the satirical bite.” – [Fictional] Professor Larry Hunt
In Mary Robinson’s poem “London Summer Morning” (1800) and Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of The Morning” (1709), each poet similarly departs from the classical pastoral tradition. These poems record the less aesthetic details of urban noise and filth surrounding the daily preparations of industrialized London rather than idealizing the dawn as a time of beauty, peace and renewal. While this strong similarity exists with almost a decade between publications, this does not constitute a “cheap rip-off” on the part of Robinson, regardless of her allusion to line seven in Swift’s poem.
Poets have often shared common interest and observations of their mutual societal surroundings and have engaged in discourse with each other over time through the poetic craft. Robinson’s engagement with the subject matter of Swift’s poem, as well as her own surroundings, is no less valuable than Dryden’s allusions to Greek mythology in order to reference the common social shorthand of understanding.
While Robinson “lists off” a series of London’s sights and sounds, her poem is not without the revered satirical bite present in Swift’s poem. The details she chooses to include are telling of London’s class divide and the way she portrays this divide is not without bias. Swift’s poignant poem solely draws upon images of the working class while Robinson juxtaposes the tasks of the working class and poor with those of the upper class elite. This juxtaposition, in my opinion, better illustrates the disparity between classes, while at the same time demonstrating their interdependence. The elite are not the ones paving the way for the day’s smooth operation, but their wealth is what affords the lower working class the monetary means of sustenance via the exchange for goods.
The most biting bit of Robinson’s satire is evident in lines 27-29, “Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute / Of humming insects, while the limey snare / Waits to enthrall them.” One must wonder if the insects are truly the wealthy consumers ensnared by the wares of the working class. This image bestows power to the merchants, no matter how filthy and loud they are in their marketing methods when compared with the appearance polished upper class. The “eye minute” could illustrate that the elite do not see or acknowledge the class disparity displayed before them, but rather their eye is on the prize. This is not to say that the working class occupies a minimized position in Robinson’s mind. The shop-keeping damsel “Now, spruce and trim” (line 23) and “smart” (line 25), becomes well kept by the time the passerby “Peeps through the window, watching every charm” (line 26). Although “charm” could be a reference to the wares for sale, it seems more likely that the watching refers to action rather than an inanimate object. Thus, the charm described here is likely that of a seduction of sorts in the art of the sale. We see this type of positive spin from line 2 where the smoke of noisy London is described as “sultry.”This transition of dawn is when the “have nots” become the “haves” and the wealthy become those in need.
While Swift’s poem well observes and records London’s morning, Robinson overtly places the job of the poet somewhere between the working class and the elite. Granted, her “poor poet” is awake, laboriously recording the goings on of the day and making meaning of the sights and sounds. At the same time, that poet does so from within the space of strict observance after rolling out of bed, perhaps from a second story window with a full view of the entire street and not necessarily on the same level as those being observed. This poet is like the upper class who hears the sounds of London but does not partake in working to make them. According to Smith, this in-between space is reserved for poets who, regardless of looking out from within, write from beyond the boundaries of mere existence by consciously entering the realm of all that they observe. While borrowing from Swift via poetic discourse, this observance of poetic process becomes Robinson’s new and interesting twist on what Swift has to offer.
“The history of the late eighteenth- century poetry documents the poet’s increasing self absorption, reaching an apotheosis in a poet like Charlotte Smith.” – [Fictional] Professor Sarah Black
Late eighteenth-century poetry, while moving away from social generalizations used to instruct the masses, has certainly migrated toward self awareness through personal musings. To say that this self awareness is “self absorption” and that Charlotte Smith is the quintessence of an entire era is blatantly overstating the point. This overstatement is particularly evident when a poet like Aphra Behn, with a style also new for her time, worked equally hard to achieve similar exploration of the feminine self, albeit without the evolution of linguistic style and form yet enabling her to achieve the same results.
Smith may take a comparatively heavy handed approach to self expression, offering her personal emotions freely throughout her poetry, but her work is far more than evidence of self absorption. It is also a social commentary on the lives of women who are not well married, the numbers of which throughout history offer no singular experience. In larger works such as “The Emigrants,” Smith abandons a strong focus upon self reflexive feelings. Instead, she traces the challenges of those aristocrats and Catholic clerics fleeing the French Revolution and acknowledges the women left behind in France by those who become counter-revolutionary soldiers. This broad view of historical events aligns more with Augustan poetry written to instruct the public. Where the difference lies is within the gender balanced subject matter.
None of this is to say that Smith’s poetry hasn’t been a direct source of inspiration to William Wordsworth, the very man who defined the scope of Romanticism. It is simply to say that, rather than to call Smith a self absorbed apotheosis, it would be far more accurate to say that Smith’s ability to turn inward for self validation in a world where no public validation existed has inspired a new poetic era while, at the same time, her poetry successfully educates the public on the feminine position within the social spectrum.