Vignette: Emma Roberts, Oriental Scenes (Calcutta, 1830)

Restore me to my rights;
Cast off they paramour; I am not now
The pliant girl, whose easy, yielding heart
You moulded to your will. The slave of man,
Too long consigned to tyranny and wrong,
I know the value of the power I hold;
And, taught a better lesson, will return
The evil I have suffered. Give me way;
I will proclaim my sorrows to the world,
And force thee to an act of justice.
– Rosmunda in Emma Roberts’ Oriental Scenes (1830)

Far and away, my favorite moment in Emma Roberts’ Oriental Scenes: Dramatic Sketches and Tales, with Other Poems (1830) is when Rosmunda returns from the dead to put her husband in his place. This stanza, from “The Florentines,” is part of the middle section of the volume that contains “dramatic sketches” or short plays in verse that are in general longer than the other pieces in the book. The play is not representative of the work as a whole except that it contains Roberts’ fiercest expression of feminism and draws attention to women’s rights, a theme that runs throughout the volume and can be traced in her many illustrations of women’s sacrifice in the practice of suttee, subservience to the patriarchy, and attempts to speak out against oppression.

The first hundred pages of the book contains poems that are, as entitled, “scenes” that often read like poetic paintings. They depict particularly Indian tableaux or experiences for an audience of British colonial residents in India, as one can see in her long list of subscribers in the back of the volume. These poems flow from one into the next connected by a communal fluidity such as that of the Ganges, often a centerpiece of these poems or at the very least an accompaniment. For example, “The Bramin” describes a man rich in nature’s abundances but poor by conventional financial standards. His vocation includes protecting the animals that are part of his community. In the next poem, “The Taaje Mahal,” the wounded bird cared for in “The Bramin” returns in a simile describing the fading life of that historic monument, “the faint, the trembling pulse, / So like the flutterings of a wounded bird” (10).

I would almost go so far as to call the Ganges a character in the first half of this volume–though a more in-depth study needs to be done. For example, the first line of “The Dying Hindoo” represents the Ganges as his wife beside him in his deathbed as “he lies beside the sacred river, / His heart has lost life’s ruddy glow” (16). The poem ends with his corpse floating away upon and then being submerged by a powerful current illustrated by the lotus wreath that floats above:

The red crown of the lotus wreath
Upon the molten silver blushes
And a dark, lifeless form beneath
With the stream’s headlong current rushes. (18)

The next poem, “The North-Wester,” begins as if we have followed the lotus crown from the previous poem beyond the rapids and into the evening. The river is now calm. The crown is “A bark of hope” that “in lingering tenderness appears to rest” upon still waters that we know foretell the storm the poem is named after (19). This poem, like many, begins and ends with the Ganges.

The fluidity among and between these poems continues until the section ends and “Dramatic Sketches” begins. These pieces contain their own thematic unity but take the reader far from versified paintings of Indian scenery to European dramatic settings. They’re full of the supernatural gothic and plots that advertise Shakespearean allusions to MacBeth, The Tempest, and Hamlet. The last section, miscellaneous poems, really does feel miscellaneous and does not have the same cohesion as the two prior sections. It contains poems about the lives of naiads and sprites as well as additional verse about the Ganges, so it could also be seen as a section uniting the early two on India and then with gothic tropes, but I would say it’s an unsuccessful union. It feels tacked on.

Roberts’ writes lengthy notes to accompany her poems, but she does not signal within a poem that she provides the gloss at the end of the volume. They remind you that she is not only a poet but an author of travel writing, and the notes read like entries in a travel journal. You discover the gloss along with the long list of subscribers who represent the audience for the notes: British readers either in India or elsewhere who are not fluent in Indian weather, history, landscapes, culture, or languages. For example, in the notes to “Nour Juffeir Khan” she describes the countryside surrounding the Jumna that “abounds in cotton, sugar canes, millet and other kinds of grain in a rude state of cultivation; shrubs covered with the nut that produces castor-oil spring spontaneously, and furnish food for lamps as well as the medicine so much prized in Europe” (261). She also tells anecdotes that bring her to life as not only a poet but a person, as when she describes how after a storm her two Persian cats walked out into a drenched landscape and “rolled themselves in the wet, and walked through the puddles with the utmost complacency” (259).

Roberts is a well-documented poet with entries in Wikipedia (this needs editing), Orlando, VIAF, and the ODNB (I think). I’m currently looking at the differences between her 1830 edition of Oriental Scenes published in Calcutta and the 1832 edition published in London. She is an adamant voice in support of women writers and women in the arts in India in her day. I think some of her work would also teach well in both graduate and undergraduate settings to show the diverse situations of women writers in the Romantic era.

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