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Dear friends and readers,

While I have put most of my weekly foremother poet blogs on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, since I have put a few here (e.g., Caroline Norton) and make it my practice to write about women writers, their memoirs and their poetry and reading here as under the sign of Austen, I thought I'd put this week's foremother poet blog here in order to call attention to moving wonderful women writers and to the blogs I do over on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two

Rosamond Marriet Watson is sometimes placed in the milieu of Thomas Hardy, and again with fin-de-siecle poetry (Oscar Wilde for example). There's a magnificent website dedicated to her

Here are just a few that move me very much:

Nirvana

Sleep will He give His beloved?
         Not dreams, but the precious guerdon of deepest rest?
Aye, surely! Look on the grave-closed eyes,
         And cold hands folded on tranquil breast.
Will not the All-Great be just, and forgive?
         For He knows (though we make no prayer nor cry)
How our lone souls ached when our pale star waned,
How we watch the promiseless sky.
Life hereafter?  Ah no! we have lived enough.
       Life eternal? Pray God it may not be so.
Have we not suffered and striven, loved and endured,
Run through the whole wide gamut of passion and woe?

Strangest illusion! sprung from a fevered habit of hope,
Wild enthusiast's dream of blatant perfection at best.
Give us darkness for anguished eyes, stillness for weary feet,
      Silence, and sleep; but no heaven of glittering, loud unrest.
No more the lifelong labour of smoothing the stone-strewn way;
No more the shuddering oudook athwart the sterile plain,
Where every step we take, every word we say,
       Each warm, living hand that we cling to, is but a fence against pain.   
And nothing may perish, but lives again? Where? Out of thought, out of sight?
And where is your cresset's flame that the rough wind slew last night?

The White Lady

The white stone lady on the grass
  Beneath the walnut tree,
She never smiles to see me pass,
  Or blows a kiss to me.

She holds a cup in both her hands
  With doves upon its brink,
And ho, so very still she stands
  The thrushes come to drink.

She will not listen when I speak,
 She never seemed to know,
When once I climbed to kiss her cheek
  And brush away the snow.

She never took the daisy ring
  I gave her yesterday;
She never cares to hear me sing,
  Or watch me at my play.

But, still she looks through sun or rain,
  Towards the garden door,
As though some child should come again
  Who often came before.

Some little child who went away,
  Before they knew of me,
Another child who used to play
  Beneath the walnut tree.

Children of the Mist

The cold airs from the river creep
  About the murky town,
The spectral willows, half asleep,
  Trail their thin tresses down
Where the dim tide goes wandering slow,
 Sad with perpetual ebb and flow.

The great blind river, cold and wide,
  Goes groping by the shore,
And still where water and land divide
  He murmurs evermore
The overword of an old song,
The echo of an ancient wrong.

There is no sound 'twixt stream and sky,
  But white mists walk the strand,
Waifs of the night that wander by,
  Wraiths from the river-land -
While here, beneath the dripping trees,
Stray other souls more lost than these.

Voiceless and visionless they fare,
  Known all too well to me --
Ghosts of the years that never were,
  The years that could not be
And still, beneath the eternal skies
The old blind river gropes and sighs.

 Portrait

There, my ingle-nook above,
See the Lady of my Love,
   Standing there
With her dainty, sandalled feet,
Limp, high-waisted gown, and sweet
   Curling hair.

Deep her eyes, and pale her cheek,
(Oft I wonder - could she speak -
    Were it best?)
Faintly smiling, still she stands,
Yellow roses in her hands -
On her breast.

And the glory of her prime
Neither tears nor tyrant time
   May impair;
All the changing seasons through
I can still believe her true,
  Think her fair.

Mute for her are praise and blame,
For my gracious Lady's name
  No one knows.
Nor, for treasure-bags untold
Would I hearken how the old
  Story goes.

Though the fallen embers fill
 Half the hearth with ashes chill,
   Soft and grey,
Never lonely or forlorn
Will she leave me, nor in scorn
   Turn away.

You will never leave my home,
You will never change, nor roam,
   O my Dear!
And your roses fill the room
With their sweetness and perfume
  All the year.

Dame and flowers were dead, I know -
Just a century ago,
   To a day!
Yet, dear Lady, I maintain
In my love you live again,
   Mine for aye.


Rosamond Marriott Watson lived a highly unconventional life. She lived in an era when women did not get custody of their children, and thus did something not acceptable then and probably not now: she would choose to leave a husband for another man even if it meant leaving her children with him. She was befriended by well-respected male poets (e.g., Thomas Hardy), and is often presented (contextualized by) the aesthetic and decadent movements of the fin-de-siecle, as a friend of Oscar Wilde and part of his circle.  He poetry and its motifs remind me of other women's poetry then (Charlotte Mew), before and now.  Her use of animal imagery reminds me of Mary Webb (Precious Bane and Gone to Earth), and the intensities of psychological insight from a woman's point of view May Sinclair.  She wrote six books of poetry. Some of her poems were included in the famous Yellow Book.

A popular painter from her era was John Atkinson Grimshaw:


John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Scarborough, seats near the Grand Hotel

The best thing for me to do is reprint the short biography provided by Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds in their Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology from which I took the first two poems. Leighton and Reynolds include Watson's ballads, "Ballad of the Bird-Bride," "A Ballad of the Were-Wolf," and "The White Bird."

"Rosamund Marriott Watson lived a pretty free and unconventional life. Born Rosamund Ball, she married George Francis Armytage at the age of eighteen and, five years later, published her first volume of poems anonymously. Soon afterward, in January :88j, she was legally separated from her husband, who, it seems, disapproved of her literary ambitions and social success.

When, in October 1886, Rosamund went to live in Cornwall with the painter, Arthur Graham Tomson, George divorced her and she loar custody of her two daughters. She married Arthur in September 1887 and, a month later, gave birth to a son. At this time she subsumed her name into her husband's and published under the pseudonym of 'Graham R. Tomson'.

These were years of considerable social and literary renown. The publication of Tomson's' second volume, The Bird- Bride (1889), led to a friendship and flirtation with Thomas Hardy, in which, it seems, he was the disappointed partner. He may have used her as the model for the character of Mrs Pine-Avon in The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, True she published two indiscreet articles about him in 1894, which probably ended their already cooled friendship (Millgate 1973: 254). During these years Rosamund was also friendly with the feminist novelist and journalist, Mona Caird, whose polemical essays against marriage in the Westminster Review were famous, as well as with E. Nesbit, Alice Meynell (to whom she dedicated her fourth volume of poems) and, briefly, Amy Levy. She edited Sylvia's Journal horn 1893 to 1894 and was herself a regular contributor many journals, including The Yellow Book.

In 1895 she met H. B. Marriott Watson, a young journalist, essayist and aspiring list from New Zealand. She became pregnant by him and, once again, left her husband, was served with divorce papers, lost custody of yet another child and adopted another name under which to publish  though this one at least retains something of her own.

Although she did not marry again, this second divorce divided Rosamund's friends and was probably the cause of her social and literary downfall. Even in the 1890s it was rare to encounter such tolerance as that of the critic E. C. Stedman, who wrote to Robert Bridges: "The Armytage - Tomson - Watson sequence is interesting, a woman who can write such ballads has a right to be her own mistress' (in Mix 130). Between 1904 and 1911 she was poetry editor of the Athenaeum, though by now her own reputation as a poet had waned. She died at the age of fifty-one, having published seven volumes of verse.

Marriott Watson was best known in her day for her ballads, and these retain their ghostly, unnerving power. 'Ballad of the Bird-Bride' and 'A Ballad of the Were-Wolf' use the devious register of fairytale to tell stories of domestic violence, betrayal and terror. Marriage, in them, is under threat from unknown destructive forces in woman  forces which, in both poems, are associated with animal freedom ferocity. The sympathetic kinship between women and animals, which runs through nineteenth-century women's poetry, here becomes a ruthless and destructive identification. In both ballads, the woman's freedom implicates children, possibly even to death (Hughes 1994: 103). In 'Children of the Mist' and 'The White Lady', too, is a covert drama of the broken relationship between parents and children. A haunted guilt about the real children Rosamund left behind perhaps toughens the lyrical smoothness of these poems. The 'cages' of marriage, ideology, custom or even love are only escaped at a cost.
 
Altogether, the quality of moral irresolution, of whiteness, in Marriott Watson's suggests comparison with her two contemporaries, Coleridge and Mew. Like them, she disguises the personal or ideological charge of her work in a folkloric or lyrical register which results in verses which are apparently enigmatic, but also uneasily tense questioning" (pp. 581-82)

*************

"The White Lady" seems to me to mourn the loss of her children and since I have now lost a daughter I grieve when I read it.


Helen Allingham (1847-1926), Rouens Girls' School

Ellen

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