Mary Robinson’s sonnet sequence ‘Sappho and Phaon’ was unknown to me until I began to search out sonnets for the third volume of my transpositions of the form, British Standards, which I had decided would focus upon the work of Romantic era poets. Pages: Transpositions of Hartley Coleridge: the end of British Standards (and of The English Strain project) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com). I had already re-functioned the work of Robinson’s contemporary, Charlotte Smith, for volume one, The English Strain (Shearsman, 2021), but even she did not furnish a clear sequence of sonnets. (See here: Pages: More 'English Strain' poems (overdubs of Charlotte Smith) published on the Anthropocene platform (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)) My ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’ reworks fourteen of the poems, superimposing Tabitha (Mary) and Thunderer upon the story of Sappho and Phaon, and upon the contemporary politics of Brexit, the mismanagement of the Coronavirus Pandemic, and the surgent Black Lives Matter! (‘Thunderer’ in one of Gillray’s most egregious satires on Mary’s short-cropped lover from Liverpool, Banastre Tarleton. The Tarletons of Liverpool were a family of lusty slavers.) In my version, Tabitha wasn’t going to kill herself for the sake of the unworthy Thunderer, any more than Mary was for Tarleton! See here: Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold (robertsheppard.blogspot.com), and here for lots of images: Pages: My Transpositions of Mary Robinson's sonnets 'Tabitha and Thunderer' are now complete (hub post) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) I’m going to post my longer biography of Mary soon: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 2: The Life of Mary Robinson (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)
It was a lot to carry but the sequence was (as much as Wordsworth’s 1802-3 sonnets, or John Clare’s manifold sonnets that I’d ‘used’ elsewhere) sturdy enough to carry the burden (as in pressure and in song). To my mind, rightly or wrongly, this was a test of poetic strength that even Southey and S.T. Coleridge failed (though Hartley Coleridge passed, another underrated sonneteer who got the ‘British Standards’ treatment). I researched Mary’s extraordinary life (via Paula Byrne’s Perdita, the first biography I’d read), and some of her poetry itself, though I chiefly focused upon my chosen sequence, discovered in one of my principal sources for Romantic Era sonnets, Feldman and Robinson’s illuminating anthology, A Century of Sonnets, 1999.
Tony Frazer, editor of Shearsman, sometime based in Mary’s home town of Bristol, noted that I had transposed Robinson’s work in ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’ and asked whether I would edit a volume of her work for the Shearsman Classics series. (Have a rummage through his list; it surprised me what was there: Shearsman Poetry Books | Poetry Books Classic Titles) Research for form and content is quite different from that of a literary scholar and, though I am a poet-critic in the field of contemporary literature, Tony’s suggestion gave me pause as a non-specialist. [Pause.] However, I decided that I wanted to return the compliment to her work (or to atone for my knowingly misreading appropriation of it, if you prefer) by presenting a selection of the very best of her work as a non-specialist admirer for an equally non-specialist general audience. (This is set against a contrary impulse to present the range of her work, which is equally impressive.) Since this is what Mary Robinson and her daughter were doing with her posthumously published Poetical Works, I feel I am following in their footsteps rather than those of notable Robinson scholars, who have nevertheless enriched my understanding and guided my selection.
Indeed, I decided I would use the three volumes of that 1806 publication, and I acquired un-uniform facsimile editions of this uniform edition of her work (see bibliography), and I read all the poems (and one play) and made my list of A, B, C and D poems and passages, allowing myself to be persuaded by biographical or critical-reputational concerns to add and subtract, and to excerpt from longer poems. As I write, I have lists with mobile alternatives. In many ways this replicates the moves I went through to select my own poems (e.g., this post: Pages: Robert Sheppard: Selected Poems (History or Sleep) - the de-selected poems and Pages: Robert Sheppard: How I selected History or Sleep: Selected Poems.) How I selected from Robinson (over several months) is unclear, but it was a quest for the best, and I had to wade through a lot of work best only for the specialist’s eye. Take Mary’s many Odes, for example. Coleridge in the Biographia mentions the propensity of poets to write endless dull odes to (mainly) abstract nouns (of course, he was just as guilty), though one of Mary’s best poems is an Ode to Coleridge! (That gets in my selection, though the Odes to Della Crusca, Genius, Reflection, Envy, Health, Vanity, even Melancholy, even the Nightingale, Beauty, Eloquence, the Moon, Valour, etc. do not.)
That brings us to another fascinating problem. Mary died in 1800, and she wrote 70 poems, and many of her best, in that last year. It’s tempting to publish just these. They are her best, though of course I was already committed to the 1796 Sappho and Phaon (and the whole of it). (Whoops, I’m catching Mary’s penchant for italics!) I’d faced something like this before, in the editing of Paul Evans’ The Door at Taldir: The Selected Poems of Paul Evans, Exeter: Shearsman, 2009, which is still available: Shearsman Books buy Paul Evans - The Door of Taldir — Selected Poems. This book, which I don’t mention on this blog until a post of March 2023 (here: Pages: Paul Evans' Selected Poems and Lee Harwood's Collected (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)), meant I had to balance the already-published poems (possibly the stronger ones, definitely the ones I liked most) with the poems in an unpublished manuscript in the possession of Lee Harwood. I knew that any poem from this manuscript that I didn’t pick – and these I liked less than the early non-metrical poems – would never see the light of day. It’s a position of some responsibility. With Robinson, there are other available publications, even another selected, but it’s still a pressure to deal with. In the end, you have to select - and things have to be cut (as any poet, writer, editor, film or audio editor or director – regie! – even blogger, knows).
My flippant remark about italics above reminds me of another problem which I haven’t found an answer for yet. What to do about her italics and CAPITALS (they sometimes seem like Trump’s Tweets, shouting at you!). At the moment, I’m inclined to carry them over as other editors have done because they are apparently present in Robinson's handwritten manuscripts, and are NOT just a printer’s convention. Stuff like:
She sings of THEE, O! favour’d child
Of Minstrelsy, SUBLIMELY WILD!
Of thee, whose soul can feel the tone
Which gives to airy dreams a magic ALL THY OWN!
Spelling I might update lightly, ‘ecstasy’ for ‘extasy’, for example (though Robinson uses both spellings in one, admittedly long, poem!)
Returning to ‘The English Strain’ project in which she appears, the first two volumes (in which she does not appear) are available here: Pages: My THE ENGLISH STRAIN is published today by Shearsman (robertsheppard.blogspot.com). The third volume with ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’ is not published, though the poem is itself available in two halves, online. See Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold (robertsheppard.blogspot.com).
I shall record some significant stages of my editorial work. I might even post some ‘de-selected’ poems as I did with my own Selected (see, for example, here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: de-selected poem from History or Sleep: Putting Claws on the Glove (for Joan Brossa) and here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: Selected Poems (History or Sleep) - the de-selected poems).
I also think there might be another creative response to the work, but that is only a mere brain-blip at the moment, with no concrete plans. It would have to be something other than transposing, since 'Tabitha and Thunderer' does that already. It’ll be interesting to see whether I take that further. Or not.
Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 1. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; Forgotten Books facsimile reprint; London, 2018.
Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 2. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; Scholar Select facsimile reprint; np: nd.
Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 3. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; facsimile reprint; Miami: nd (possibly 2008)
This post is the hubpost for the Mary Robinson selected: here are other posts:
This post is the hubpost for the Mary Robinson selected: here are other posts:
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