Introductory weblinks: I explain here my task in editing Mary Robinson’s Selected Poems for Shearsman Classics: See the hub-post here, taking you to other contributory posts (the life, my contents, my sense of her dates, etc): Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 1 (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) .
This editorial project came out of my own use of Robinson’s sonnets for my ‘English Strain’ project, which I talk about here: Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold (robertsheppard.blogspot.com), and here, you’ll also find lots of images relating to her: Pages: My Transpositions of Mary Robinson's sonnets 'Tabitha and Thunderer' are now complete (hub post) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com). And about the first book, The English Strain, which you may buy from Shearsman here: Pages: My THE ENGLISH STRAIN is published today by Shearsman (robertsheppard.blogspot.com).
What are the qualities of Mary Robinson’s poetry (this ignores the novels and non-fiction) that mean she should be published by Shearsman, even in an edition edited by an enthusiast (me) and not a scholar (them in the bibliography)?
The issue of her stylistic and generic variety comes up quite often in the introductory materials I’ve written so far - e.g., Pages: The Poems of Mary Robinson 4: Late Augustan or Early Romantic? (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) - and Robinson’s work presents a fascinating multiformity that attracts, though it is worth unpacking it a little. Her comic poet in ‘The Poet’s Garret’ writes
Sonnet, song, and ode,
Satire, and epigram, and smart charade;
Neat paragraph, or legendary tale,
Of short and simple metre, each by turns
Will there delight the reader.
The last phrase is, of course, ironic (he doesn’t seem to publish anything!) but it is worth noting Robinson demonstrates most of these forms or styles; later the poet has a go at dramatic writing and we are offered
Here a page
Of flights poetic — there a dedication —
A list of dramatis personae, bold,
Of heroes yet unborn, and lofty dames
Of perishable compound, light as fair,
But sentenc’d to oblivion!
(And to oblivion in my selection too, there’s no room for an excerpt from her blank verse play, unfortiunately.)
I have selected one verse from her very early work as an editorial epigram, ‘Ode to the Muse’ because the poem is an invocation to the Muse, who is addressed periodically throughout her work, with what reads to me as coming from a psychological need as well as being poetically conventional to its occasion. She seizes the pen, and the speaker’s longing is excessive in its emotionality, and this mode extends throughout her work. There are two poems that address her lover Tarleton in my selection, and you may compare the yearning and pain in the 1788 ‘Lines to Him Who will Understand Them’, with its pained rhyming couplets, and the later ‘Stanzas Written Between Dover and Calais, in July 1792’, with its yearning, and yet with an additional determination to overcome Tarleton, in a ballad form (set to music, it became a popular song). The same excess of emotion is displayed in her sonnet sequence ‘Sappho and Phaon’, which dramatizes the excessive and transgressive feelings of Sappho (she is hetereosexual, but her ‘women’ are clearly not just her servants, more like votive priestesses). This is despite the fact that the poem is highly literary, as I will demonstrate later. In these poems there is a wrestle of sensibility between love and reason. This is enacted in many of the sonnets and it is clearly prefigured in the 1788 ‘Ode’:
me, with swift lightning’s force
To watch wild passion’s varying course;
To mark th’enthusiast’s vivid fire,
Or calmly touch thy golden lyre,
While gentle Reason mildly sings
Responsive to the trembling strings.
Here, with almost a natural force, she asks to be enabled to observe ‘wild passion’ and enthusiasm (which in the eighteenth century implied uncontrolled emotion, even madness). But poetry (the ‘lyre’) will calm her (it has a clear prophylactic and therapeutic function) and the resultant poem will not allow undisciplined squads of emotion to simply unfold, but ‘reason’ will operate to allow a rational voice to articulate itself, while still being in harmony with the lyre, i.e., constrained, contained and ordered by poetic artifice. Reason responds to poetry. Sarah Gristwood in her biography notices this ‘tussle between reason and feeling of which Mary had written so frequently. Mary’s work has often seemed to be presenting a tug-of-war between the two forces of heart and head. She never seemed able to make a lasting choice between the two; neither did she want simply to merge black and white to bland, neutral grey.’ (Gristwood: 311) Out of that struggle with herself Robinson made poetry, certainly much of her best. We will return to reason, in a different situation, in which it acquires a different sparring partner.
There is no doubt Robinson was drawn to excessive psychological states; she lived in the era of the Gothic after all, a mode she practised. (Let’s face it, they are the most impressive states in literature, have the best stories to tell. The frugal daily routines of Kant wouldn’t have a chance against the intrigues of Lord Byron, for example, in blockbuster biopic form!).
This is not just found in lyric forms, like the ever-changing sonnet sequence, with its stop-go temporality. ‘The Maniac’, itself the result of Robinson observing a madman and then writing (and reciting, dictating to her daughter) under the influence of laudanum, is excessive in the extreme, even down to its repeated questions, its ever more extreme suspicions about its subject. It is a precursor of the Lyrical Tales published under that title in 1800 (see image above) that afford many similar examples: the spectral murderers of ‘The Haunted Beach’, the isolated noble savage lost in the ignobility of our world, in ‘The Savage of Averyon’ (again based on a real case, this time of a much reported feral child in France), the equally isolate figure of the orphan of ‘All Alone’, the fervent Zelma of ‘The Negro Girl’, and the abandoned child of ‘The Alien’. All these, of course, are additionally (or even primarily) examples of another focus of Robinson’s work (and one that keys in so well with the nascent Romantic movement): the interest in outsider figures and outcasts. The mutual influence with the authors of the similarly titled Lyrical Ballads is often pointed out by critics. It may seem odd that Robinson should be interested in these states, given her earlier insider position, but she was cast out of most of those positions of preeminence and power (and money). It is difficult to read of the ‘princes’, and even the ‘squire’ of the moral ‘Monkish Tale’ of ‘Old Barnard’, as not referring in some way to Prince George, her erratic benefactor. The rural poor are frequently presented as happier than the urban (or castellated) rich: it’s an ancient trope of pastoral, of course, but I can’t help thinking that Robinson felt this viscerally (and in the pocket, as she begged Windsor Castle for overdue payments).
Mention of ‘The Negro Girl’ (and looking to parts of ‘The Progress of Liberty’ that I have selected) brings us to questions of race, or rather to the institution of slavery. I have included these examples of Robinson’s anti-slavery writing not just because they prove she was on the right side of history (unlike Tarleton, who has so far escaped any attempt to erase his name from the street maps of Liverpool; there is still a plaque on a building in Water St. commemorating his place of birth!). Of course, these poems lack even the detail of her Morning Post colleague, Southey’s, sonnets against slavery, but they point to the considerable awareness of the issue at the time (they knew – as I’ve put it in a recent collaborative poem with Sarah-Clare Conlon; see this recent post:Pages: The Liverpool Camarade at Open Eye Gallery : May 2023: the videos of my collaboration with Sarah-Clare Conlon (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)). But what they knew isn’t absolutely clear. They didn’t know like Mary’s fellow actress, later of course, but part of a family she knew: Fannie Anne Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation of 1838-9, … Gilray could take the piss out of people who refused to take sugar in their tea, but they were doing something, like ecologists today living on re-cycled excrement… I digress. But interestingly. Of course, a modern audience is interested in her attitudes to slavery, her theories of race, and I must not disappoint them.
On the subject of detail, it is worth recording the sheer attention of her ekphrastic poems. The two early examples included here, (selected by me) record personal connections. The ‘Lines Inscribed to P. De Loutherbourg’ of 1791 collect impressions of the sublime landscape paintings of the Swiss artist of the title. She would have been professionally familiar with his light-shows (as we might call them today), adding breath-taking sublime effects to stage productions, including those in which Mary performed. The excerpt from ‘Ainsi Va Le Monde’ that follows in my selection (see my contents list here: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 3 (possible contents) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)) is an homage to Joshua Reynolds, one of the best artists to depict her from life (or rather the painter of the best portraits of Mary). Twice (see the two images below). Reynolds is represented as one of the best exemplars of the country (‘BRITAIN’s Genius glories in thy Art,/ Adores thy virtues, and reveres thy heart,’ she writes, before turning to less-settled and unsettling events in Continental Europe, of which she still then approved wholeheartedly (that’s in my second excerpt).
It is interesting to see the word ‘reason’ yoked with another word than ‘passion’ in Robinson’s overtly political poems, i.e., ‘liberty’. The two work together, in both ‘Ainsi Va Le Monde’ which is enthusiastic for the French Revolution, in seeming to sweep away superstition and servitude, and in ‘The Progress of Liberty’, but not – at this later stage – by the ‘enthusiastic’ eruptions of the Revolution, which are figured in her moving ‘Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation in her Prison of the Temple’, as purely destructive, a consuming fire that has burnt any fellow feeling to cinders: it is not ‘reason’ that was responsible for the Great Terror, but its atavistic opposite. (In our own times, or just before it, the Russian Revolution transformed quickly in most sympathisers’ minds into its destructive opposite). Robinson, having seen or met, Marie Antoinette, was horrified on a purely human, one might say poetic, level, while acknowledging that the famously haughty monarchist dismissal of poverty was unjustified, by reason, and by liberty. By the time of ‘The Progress of Liberty’, a late poem, in which superstition and servitude are also criticised animatedly, a more British sense of ‘liberty’ is proposed: a rational arrangement of the separation of equitable powers, as figured in Magna Carta:
since the days
When her bold BARONS ratified their deed,
Freedom has smil’d triumphant and secure.
Superstition (continental Catholicism, though it is not named as such) is attacked, but so are the tithes the British peasantry was obliged to pay to lords and landlords. (Her politics is pre-Industrial, of course.) The emphatic reference to ‘laws/ FORM’D FOR THE PEASANT AND THE PRINCE ALIKE’ may bring Prince George to mind, but it is a more general point about the ideal (if not actual) equity of the law's scope. ‘Nature’s God’, who is difficult to completely reconcile to the Christian god –‘he’ is more of a pantheistic energy in the poem – is an instrument of an universal reason that is aligned to, is not distinguishable from, liberty:
REASON, pow’r sublime!
Accept the strain spontaneous from the MUSE,
Which nurs’d on Albion’s cliffs, delights to sing
Of LIBERTY, and thee, her ALBION’S boast.
The poem is an epic and its ending again (conventionally) invokes the muse. Ultimately, it is poetry that will proclaim
And when the God of nature, ‘trumpet-tongued’,
Shall check the fiery steeds that hurl the car
Of shouting vict’ry, time shall trace her course
On the proud tablet of eternal fame;
And nature, tow’ring ’mid the wrecks of war,
Shall bless her BRITISH shores, which grandly lift
Their rocky bulwarks o’er the howling main,
Firm and invincible, as BRITAIN’S sons,
The sons of REASON! UNAPPALL’D and FREE!
Thus the two book epic ends, bringing reason to rest with freedom, in a passionate plea that does not replicate the self-destructive impassioned ‘enthusiasm’ of Robinson’s Sappho or even at times of Robinson’s representations of her own suffering self. ‘The Progress of Liberty’ is a great political poem. I really want to publish it all in the book, because it is not available in full; in a previous ‘Selected Poems’ it is represented by the outtakes Robinson published in magazines, good, but curtailing the epic political intention she had for it. What is odd about the poem (look at those repeatedly invoked ‘sons’ of her concluding lines above) is that none of Robinson’s more radical and feminist ideas invade the poem more explicitly. Its historical narrative occasionally can be specific. ‘Marat and Robespierre’ are referenced in footnotes to the lines ‘Two arch demons, the phalanx led / Lawless and cruel,
… How many fell
Beneath the arm, in usurpation strong,
Yet recreant in oppression! (MR 1806: 20),
(though these lines are not in my selection, as it stands, at the moment). Mostly the poem works at the epic level, and its least effective and affective lines are when abstractions are addressed and personified (as in Robinson’s excluded ‘Odes’), a rhetoric of verse that will largely be expunged by Romantic practice (and be only found in second-rate Victorian (and later) pedantic and verse). (That was a bit stern, on re-reading, I'll say it less abruptly.) Nevertheless, the more I read the poem (particularly out loud, by the way) the more its epic blank verse (Miltonian in derivation, precursorily Wordsworthian) carries the rational but passionate message, in a way that avoids the grey smudge of indefinition that Davenport refers to above. There is no grey in the poem’s emphatic declarations; the abstractions are not merely inert but are replete with the energy of live political debate.
Epic (except in the mocking hands of mock epic poets) cannot handle humour and it is interesting to see how the focus narrows (in a good way) in her comic works, whether in the openly satirical ‘Male Fashions for 1799’, or in the ‘domestic tale’ of ‘Mrs Gurton’s Cat’. I favour the former poem over the latter, but I wanted to include one of her lighter pieces, although the fate of the cat in the poem probably will keep it out of cat poetry anthologies! It won against ‘Deborah’s Parrot’ partly because that poem was closer to the deception-theme of ‘The Fortune Teller’, which I have selected, and partly because of the lovely descriptions of the cat in the domestic poem won me over, and the grim ironical truth of its concluding moral, seemed more pertinent and not merely conventional:
Thus, often we with anguish sore
The dead in clam’rous grief deplore;
Who, were they once alive again,
Would meet the sting of cold disdain!
For FRIENDS, whom trifling faults can sever,
Are valued most – WHEN LOST FOR EVER!
That seemed superior to the morals of the wagging tongues of old spinsters in ‘Deborah’s Parrot’; the inappropriately talking parrot is a staple (cliché?) of humour. Remember that fake news cutting Alan Coren brought to the News Quiz table: FOR SALE PARROT NO LONGER SHARES OWNER’S POLITICAL OPINIONS? Classic! I digress again...
‘The Birth-Day’, a reference to the procession of a real duchess (actually Princess Charlotte) through streets brimming with the poor has something of the ascerbic satire of Blake when he’s in that mood, and perfectly mirrors, in its divided quatrains, those two contiguous worlds (again like Blake). It contrasts with the self-imposed poverty of ‘The Poet’s Garret’ (and there’s another splendid portrait of a cat amid the manuscript-hell of that poem, it’s worth noting).
These changes of mood and modality are not unusually digressive in the writing life of a poet, but it is a fact that Robinson wrote quickly, astonishingly so, and she did produce lyric poems as well as satires, high epics as well as low tales, in a compressed decade of hard work (with an almost unthinkable concentration of energies across her modes in her final year). She also published a good deal of this work under pseudonyms, and one of the wonders of Daniel Robinson’s book The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, is his exploration of her use of pseudonyms (the word is not strong enough for Daniel R., he calls them ‘avatars’). Given my work with ‘fictional poets’ (see www.euoia.weebly.com ) I might be expected to follow him down this fascinating route. Is there a Tabitha Bramble type poem? Apparently there is, and do I want to draw this to the attention of my audience. But since I imagine somebody coming to this work for the first time with my book, to expect her to atomise Robinson into avatars is perhaps too much to ask. (As does the invitation to explore which magazines she wrote for in what guises, for which coteries, especially the reviled Della Crucans!) It does mean some of the poems exhibit contradictions, but I think (hope) as my exploration of the reason and the muse, liberty and feeling ‘proves’, (suggests?), there is a core of beliefs, as well as recurring themes across stylistically quite different work: the preciousness and precarity of childhood (not mentioned so far, so I’ll need to find a place for it) as well as the role of outsiders and the pomposity of the rich, the anger at politically suppressive superstition, etc., as traced above). Additionally, D. Robinson finds some difficulty in tracing Mary’s use of avatars; she is not entirely consistent in her approach. D. Robinson demonstrates also the metrical invention of Robinson’s work, which is convincing about her writing abilities. But, again, I don’t intend to plunge a new reader into this technically-adroit demonstration. It will suffice to point towards it: I didn’t write The Meaning of Form to ignore occasions when meaning is found in form, and part of that critical project (see here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form and Derek Attridge’s The Work of Literature) picked up on the work of the great Romantic formalist scholar Susan Wolfson (who DR acknowledges). I’m trying to avoid footnotes in the introduction that I’m tracing out here (you thought you were reading a blogpost, but you’re not!) and shooting out in all sorts of directions I won’t follow, I bet, but this acknowledgement might merit one. (I need to re-read D. Robinson’s book but I wanted to bash this out before I did that, to get it right, what I think, today at least, at one sitting.)
Revising this post (later) it is clear that I still haven’t accounted for the richness of ‘Sappho and Phaon’ but this too might be conducted in formal terms. (It also relates to my ‘use’ of them: Pages: My Transpositions of Mary Robinson's sonnets 'Tabitha and Thunderer' are now complete (hub post) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) ) I have accounted for the excessive emotionality. ‘O! HOW can LOVE exulting reason quell! /How fades each nobler passion from his gaze!’ one sonnet opens. Reason is defeated and passion leads inevitably towards, ends in, suicide, slightly unconvincingly, showing the dangers of ‘yielding to the destructive control of ungovernable passions’ as Robinson tells us – warns us? – in her introduction. The story is one that is treated by Ovid in his Heroides, his tales of female endeavours, translated by a teenage Pope into rhyming couplets, and then transposed by Robinson (through their poems) into a sonnet sequence. This is a strange route, but stranger is her choice of form. We associate the sonnet sequence with the Renaissance, particularly with the sonnet-mania of the 1590s, which usually (but not exclusively) depicts a male speaker attempting to plead with a female figure, usually idealized (so much so that Drayton’s figure, and his sequence, is called ‘Idea’; my version of them is called 'Bad Idea': see here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: links to all SIX Bad Idea poems (Drayton versions) on Stride (with Drayton's originals)). As in ‘Sappho and Phaon’, the love is unrequited, but unlike Robinson’s work, the sequences generally show stages or sudden changes of relationship, that stop-go feature I mentioned earlier. While this happens in Robinson’s sequence too, it is unusual in that it relates a narrative (and is more unusual in being based on well-known narrative sources). Of course, it would be different, writing, as Robinson was, 200 years after the high tide of the sonnet sequence, but it is the first sonnet sequence since the Renaissance. Even Charlotte Smith’s Elegaic Sonnets (1784) furnish a familial cluster of sonnets rather than a sequence, but they are a strong (and beneficial) influence on Robinson, one that is obliquely acknowledged, as I shall show.
I will want to end by thinking of what comes out of that metrical inventiveness studied by D. Robinson, Mary Robinson’s lyrical powers, whether that is in the poem for her daughter, in the two great poems addressed to Coleridge (which perhaps attract more attention than they deserve because of that association?) or in the two poignant poems from 1800 with which I have ended my selection. It is astonishing that Robinson (who perhaps only heard Coleridge read ‘Kubla Khan’, and may not have studied it on the page) recaptures the spirit of that drug-reverie poem (did she discuss her own drug-induced lyric reverie that reportedly produced ‘The Maniac’ of five or so years before?). The most remarkable thing is that, as Jeffrey C. Robinson (another Robinson turns up, this time a splendid fellow with whom I spent a wonderful evening in Glasgow a few years back, and who stayed with us when he and the Rothenbergs were on a mini-tour!) says: ‘Robinson’s’ version of Coleridge ‘is the achieved visionary, dramatically, athletically entered into the mighty hum of workings. Acknowledging this from the start, Robinson slowly builds her own complementary visionary capacity in five incantatory tetrameter stanzas … STC is her inspiration: Drawn into the liminal world of his creation … The poem is about “rapture”, with its associations of sensual gratification and violence, and, until the final stanza, she seems thoroughly rapt or seized by the male poet. Yet suddenly … STC’s damsel with a dulcimer begins to speak!’ (pp. 72-73) ‘I hear her voice!’ the poem says, Mary says. She ‘braves seizure by the male poet, outlasts his voice in order to hear (the damsel’s) to whose music she could only refer.’ (73) These words have always knocked me sideways. Jeffrey C. reminds us Coleridge never hears this music; Robinson (‘SAPPHO’ the poem is signed, from her avatar, even in the 1806 printing) does! ‘Robinson’, argues Robinson, ‘manages – without denying him’ (STC) ‘and his presence, so to speak – to establish power and magic of her own’, and it leaves her able to hear the female music (and muse) while Coleridge malely gazes at the spectacle. Robinson, Jeffrey C. ‘“STC” (By Two Female Poets)’, in Jeffrey C. Robinson, Romantic Presences: Living Images from the Age of Wordsworth and Shelley. New York: Station Hill, 1995.
I have said little about Mary Robinson as a woman artist, but here we see an act of communion with another woman artist, however fictional. In the preface to ‘Sappho and Phaon’ Robinson praises women authors, without naming any, which is unfortunate. However, there is a conversation in Walsingham where Mary, pretty knowingly, allows one her characters to name-check and briefly praise Charlotte Smith. (See my transpositional part in her downfall, here: Pages: My THE ENGLISH STRAIN is published today by Shearsman (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) Sappho could certainly hear that damsel with the dulcimer! On the sonnets, Amelia says: ‘ “I think them beautifully plaintive, and correctly harmonious,” said Miss Woodford. “Indeed I admire all her works more or less, and some of them to enthusiasm; yet the pleasure experienced by her readers must be greatly diminished, by the reflection that so cultivated a mind should feel the pressure of real sorrows, amidst the rich and beautiful effusions of imagination!”’ Robinson, Mary. Ed. Shaffer, Judith A., Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature. Broadview Literary Texts, 2003. p. 238. Like Robinson, Smith had been abandoned by a husband and forced to write for money, separated from her inheritance (as Mary was often cut off from the Prince’s annuity). Yes, it’s a knowing enough self-portrait by Mary, and the use of ‘enthusiasm’ suggests that the draw to poetry may (as is conventional) approach madness.
I will want to end by thinking of what comes out of that metrical inventiveness, Mary Robinson’s lyrical powers, by looking at the final two poems I have selected, both from her final year. I really do hope I’ll leave no dry eye in the house (a theatrical metaphor seems appropriate for her closing ‘scene’) when they read the final, brief, un-self-pitying, lines of ‘To Spring’:
O! not to me, stern Death, art thou a foe:
Thou art the welcome messenger that brings
A passport to a blest and long repose!
Her sonnetized Sappho wouldn’t have been so brief, or poised. She must have meant it, with gallstones adding to her disabilities at this time, but her powers of observation in that poem, of spring 1800 (her last spring) and in ‘Written on seeing a rose still blooming at a Cottage Door in Egham, the 25th of October, 1800’, remain apposite, but with a valetudinary pathos, where reason guides passion, into perception, in outwardness, towards the freedom-giving rationality of Nature:
Thou emblemest the beauteous MIND
Thrown on Oblivion’s gloomy scene:
Unheeded, with the wild weeds twin’d,
Thou here art plac’d –
Thou, whom by Nature’s hand design’d,
Might’st Beauty’s breast have proudly grac’d.
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