1793
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Cavern of Woe.

Sight, the Cavern of Woe, and Solitude. Poems by Mrs. Mary Robinson.

Mary Robinson


A very busy descriptive allegory in fifteen irregular Spenserians of various patterns. Reason and Fortitude penetrate the Cavern of Woe and discover a nest of most unpleasant passions: "Then HORROR bent her blood-shot eyes below, | Where, by a group of DEMONS compass'd round, | Lay SUICIDE ACCURS'D! from many a wound | On his bare bosom did life's fountain flow! | Now SHAME, with cheeks by burning blushes fir'd, | And skulking COWARDICE, in haste retir'd!" p. 13. In the end, Ingratitude appears, "omnipotent in ill," to assume the "infernal throne." At her approach Reason and Fortitude fly. The inspiration for this allegory, given its almost complete lack of narrative, would seem to be William Collins's popular Ode on the Passions.

The date of publication and several of the tableaux suggest that the Cavern of Woe may be intended at least in part as a depiction of the revolution in France and subsequent Terror. In 1793 Mary Robinson was at the peak of her considerable literary popularity — the Cavern of Woe was reprinted in at last three contemporary periodicals.

The Analytical Review described Mrs. Robinson as "an industrious student in the school of Spencer" 17 (1793) 94.

Morning Post: "The active Muse of this Lady, from which the Literati have received much pleasure, has produced three Poems, entitled Sight, The Cavern of Woe, and Solitude. They are dedicated to Mr. John Taylor, whose Poetic Talents are too well known to require in this Place any Comment. On a cursory view of these Poems, we perceive much apparent genius, a true spirit of Poetry is diffused throughout the whole, many of the thoughts are sublime, and the language for the most part is beautiful. The Path, so successfully trod by the immortal Collins, is pursued in the following Extract with infinite success by our fair candidate for public fame. It is taken from her Cavern of Woe" (17 July 1793).

Monthly Review: "The Cavern of Woe abounds with proofs of a glowing and fruitful imagination. Fortitude, Melancholy, Horror, Envy, &c. &c. are wll personified and characterized. The painter will here meet with imagery and forms, which the pencil might seize with advantage" NS 11 (August 1793) 466.

European Magazine: "The Cavern of Woe contains some personifications in the manner of Spenser which do credit to Mrs. Robinson's Poetical genius" 24 (August 1793) 102.

British Critic: "It may be said of many of our modern poets, that, whether they are allied to Gods or Goddesses, they have also 'an appropriate language, very like English,' but somewhat less intelligible. The perfection of this seems to consist in bringing words together, which nature and common sense never intended to meet. We would caution Mrs. Robinson against this delusion.... Of these poems, the Cavern of Woe is far the best, and evidently discovers that the author has much sensibility and genius. The allegory of this, we must observe, is not sufficiently perspicuous; but such of the imagery as is not overcharged is good" 2 (1794) 438-39.

Monthly Magazine: "The little volume containing the three poems, entitled, Sight, The Cavern of Woe; and Solitude; has several passages of the purest fire, the boldest thought, and the richest imagery" 11 (February 1801) 89.

Julius Nicholas Hook suggests that Mrs. Robinson attempts to include in ten pages all of the abstractions in Spenser's six books, and succeeds, "Eighteenth-Century Imitations of Spenser" (1941) 177.



As REASON, fairest daughter of the skies,
Explor'd the vale, where mortal mis'ry lies;
Led on by FORTITUDE, with eye serene,
She mark'd each object of the varying scene;
In ev'ry maze of busy LIFE she found
Some hidden SNARE, some agonizing WOUND;
For each her hand display'd a precious balm,
Whose pow'r divine the tortur'd soul could calm;
Till midway, on a rock of dreadful height,
The CAVE of CURELESS WOE assail'd her wond'ring sight!

On the bleak threshold, with'ring and forlorn,
Heart-wounded MELANCHOLY sat reclin'd!
The rude blast scatter'd her dishevel'd hair;
Round her cold brow the deadly NIGHTSHADE twin'd!
Near, on a craggy point, stood wild DESPAIR,
Whose pangs supreme all lesser miseries scorn!
And as the gaunt tormentor, smiling, view'd
The pensive child of Sorrow, soul-subdu'd;
With taunting mien, she beckon'd from below
The fierce, relentless BANDS, of DESOLATING WOE!

First, swift as lightning up the flinty steep
IMPATIENCE flew, barefooted, out of breath;
Scorning the perils of the dreadful sweep;
Heedless of wounding THORNS, and threat'ning DEATH.
Eager to rush the foremost of the train,
She FEAR'D not danger, and she FELT not pain:
With longing eye she view'd the tow'ring height;
From PEAK to PEAK, quick climbing with delight,
She PASS'D the FATAL CAVE; then turning short,
Fell headlong from the rock, OF EV'RY FIEND THE SPORT!

Then HORROR darted forth, in wild amaze!
Her hair erect, with pois'nous HEMLOCK bound;
Her straining eye-balls flashing fires around,
While NATURE trembled at her potent gaze!
Swift to the dizzy precipice she flew,
As, aiming with impetuous force to throw
Her giant form amidst the gulph below!
When, from an ivy'd nook obscure, PALE FEAR
Peep'd forth, slow whisp'ring to her startled ear,
"Think not the pow'r of DEATH THY mis'ries will subdue!"

Then HORROR bent her blood-shot eyes below,
Where, by a group of DEMONS compass'd round,
Lay SUICIDE ACCURS'D! from many a wound
On his bare bosom did life's fountain flow!
Now SHAME, with cheeks by burning blushes fir'd,
And skulking COWARDICE, in haste retir'd!
While CONSCIENCE plac'd beneath his fev'rish head
A pillow dire, with THORNS and NETTLES spread;
And guilt, with all the SCORPIONS of her train,
Oped to his fainting eyes ETERNITY of PAIN!

Then LUXURY approach'd on couch of down!
Drawn by her offspring, FOLLY and DISEASE,
Flush'd PLEASURE decking her with ROSEATE crown,
And bow'd OBEDIENCE, ever prone to please,
Waiting her nod! languid she seemed, and pale,
Restless, and sated with voluptuous fare;
Beside her pillow, hung with trappings rare,
Stood trembling PALSY, ready to assail;
And writhing AGONY, and slow DECAY,
And hood-winked VICE abhorr'd, that shunn'd the EYE OF DAY.

Next, with a solemn, slow, and feeble pace,
Came silent POVERTY, in tatter'd vest!
The frequent tears, that glisten'd on her breast,
Had fretted channels down her meagre face!
A rabble crew of IDIOTS dinn'd her ear:
While mean REPROACH came smiling in the rear.
With firm, yet modest look, she pass'd along;
Nor sought relief, nor mark'd the taunting throng;
While her wrung heart, still scorning to complain,
SUPPRESS'D the rending groan, and throbb'd WITH PROUD DISDAIN.

Close at her heels, insidious ENVY CREPT;
The IMP, deform'd, and horrible in shape,
Mock'd, when the slow-consuming victim wept,
Pointing, and grinning, like a wither'd APE:
About her throat, the ASP DETRACTION clung,
Scatt'ring destructive poisons from her tongue!
She wav'd a BLASTED LAUREL o'er her head,
Stol'n from the SACRED ASHES of the DEAD;
Inly she pin'd; while in her panting breast,
Shrunk IGNORANCE struck its fangs, to BANISH GENTLE REST.

In a lone corner, almost hid in shade,
With downcast eye, sat UNREQUITED LOVE!
As from their hollow cell the slow tears stray'd,
A willow garland for his brow he wove!
Low at his feet, bare MADNESS laid his head,
Rattling his chains, upon his flinty bed!
Rous'd from his stupor, by the clanking sound,
The pensive youth gaz'd fearfully around;
And wond'ring to behold such mis'ry near,
FORGOT his mournful WREATH, and dropp'd a PITYING TEAR.

Now, lab'ring up the flinty winding road,
Laden with treasure, bending to the ground,
Appear'd lean AVARICE! the pond'rous load
Seem'd his weak shoulders every step to wound:
One thread-bare garb hung on his aged form;
Scant covering from the bleak and wintry storm!
Before him FAMINE went, a THING DECAY'D;
And dark SUSPICION, grasping at a shade!
While FRAUD, low crawling, mock'd the reptile's art,
PILFER'D the scatter'd GOLD, AND WRUNG THE MISER'S HEART!

Next came DECEIT, with smooth and fawning tongue,
Glozing with praises every thing debas'd;
To shield her breast, a flattering mirror hung;
A TINSEL zone shone dazzling round her waist!
Her HAND, conceal'd beneath her flimsy vest,
Clasp'd a keen dagger, ready to destroy;
Content she SEEM'D, though, in her cunning breast,
Her coward soul shrunk from the touch of joy;
Her humble voice the list'ning ear beguil'd,
While, with infernal ART, SHE MURDER'D AS SHE SMIL'D.

Now, through the CAVERN rush'd, with iron hand,
OPPRESSION INSOLENT! his arm he rais'd,
Waving his spear, with absolute command,
While ev'ry subject FIEND retir'd, amaz'd!
At awful distance, trembling, prostrate round,
The sons of pining SLAV'RY kiss'd the ground;
Till darting forward, o'er the abject crowd,
With voice exulting, menacing, and loud,
INSATIATE VENGEANCE snatch'd the up-rais'd lance,
While bold OPPRESSION'S ARM FELL NERVELESS AT HIS GLANCE.

Next, PRIDE came forward, gorgeously array'd;
His brow a starry wreath of GEMS compress'd;
In his right hand a SCEPTRE he display'd;
A robe of costly ERMINE wrapp'd his breast!
Enthron'd, sublime, above the wond'ring race,
Immortal beauties seem'd to deck his face!
His eye assum'd pre-eminence of sway;
He reign'd the GILDED IDOL of the day;
Till DEATH, HIS dread supremacy to show,
Struck at the vaunting wretch, AND LAID HIS SCEPTRE LOW.

Now, rattling o'er the teeming plains afar,
Came glitt'ring WEALTH, in his resplendent car!
His rapid course swift-footed TOIL pursu'd
With sinewy limbs, and brown sun-freckled breast:
The lord of luxury his vassal view'd,
And, smiling, lifted high his haughty crest!
But, when neglected TOIL at length retir'd,
The short-liv'd glories of his brow expir'd;
Around, his eager eyes he roll'd in vain;
INGRATITUDE appear'd, AND CLAIM'D HER TURN TO REIGN!

At her approach, the FATAL CAVERN rung:
Loud shouts of horror rent the vaulted stone!
ALL LESSER FIENDS their heads in sorrow hung;
OMIPOTENT IN ILL, she grasp'd the INFERNAL THRONE!
THEN REASON mark'd her blest ASSOCIATE fly;
And shudd'ring at the SCENE, RESOUGHT HER NATIVE SKY!

[pp. 11-18]