Agnes Mary Francis Robinson (1857-1944), also known as Agnes-Marie-François Darmesteter and approximately seven thousand other names during the course of her life, grew up with literature virtually in her blood: the family home was a salon frequented by William Morris and Arthur Symons, along with many leading Victorian artists. A. Mary F. Robinson’s poetry is little-read now, which is a shame, as this fine sonnet, about the condition known as neurasthenia, attests. Although its title announces its subject as neurasthenia, Robinson’s evocation of what it’s like to feel cut off from the world around you by psychological and neurological illness chimes with many sufferers’ descriptions of the blackest moods experienced during depression.
I watch the happier people of the house
Come in and out, and talk, and go their ways;
I sit and gaze at them; I cannot rouse
My heavy mind to share their busy days.
I watch them glide, like skaters on a stream,
Across the brilliant surface of the world.
But I am underneath: they do not dream
How deep below the eddying flood is whirl’d.
They cannot come to me, nor I to them;
But, if a mightier arm could reach and save,
Should I forget the tide I had to stem?
Should I, like these, ignore the abysmal wave?
Yes! in the radiant air how could I know
How black it is, how fast it is, below?
If you enjoyed A. Mary F. Robinson’s poem ‘Neurasthenia’, you may also find these ten poems about depression of interest.
There is the difficulty of form, as well as the easy rhymes, that do not tackle the subject. There is a dislocation of style, that does not express the dislocation of self: the easy flow of the piece and the emotionally and psychically splintered subject matter have no relationship.
But then, there is the possibility that the easy style plus difficult subject matter, are a device for creating entry and their own space within the mainstream literature of the time.
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