Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Poems of Mary Robinson 5: What are the poetical qualities that draw me to Mary Robinson’s work?

Introductory weblinks: I explain here my task in editing Mary Robinson’s Selected Poems for Shearsman ClassicsSee 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 ( .  

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 (, 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) ( 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 (


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? ( - 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’:  

O teach 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 ( 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) ( 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

                                    REASON ratified;

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 ) 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) ( ) 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 ( 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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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Poems of Mary Robinson 4: Late Augustan or Early Romantic?

[Here's the Mary Robinson hub-post, with more links than on this page: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 1 (]

Fifty years ago, when I was at school, there would have been little evidence of the writings of Mary Robinson. Even as late as the mid-1980s, when we were searching for female Romantic poets to teach our ‘A’ Level students at B---------- College, we found a poem or two by Anna Seward in the standard anthologies at our disposal, including an excellent poem about industrial Birmingham that I taught with enthusiasm, but nothing else. Even feminist colleagues could find nothing much for our teaching anthology (which I think I still have a copy of, somewhere). As a female writer, she was excluded from the canon, and the recovery of female writers is a long, still-continuing, story (remember: the position of the neglected woman writer is not a subject about which Robinson herself was silent; see her ‘Introduction’ to ‘Sappho and Phaon’. See my take on that poem, here: : Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold ( Also, her ‘dates’, as scholars indelicately put it, meant that she apparently flourished between two great mass exfoliations of genius, between two poetic paradigms, we might say, in bald summary: the decorous Augustan age with its trim but explosively satirical couplets and the Romantic outpouring of recollections and tranquilities, in its rural ballads and epics of self. The skirts of these eras are today allowed to overlap, with ‘long’ centuries and with the use of a phrase such as ‘Romantic Era’ to admit less conformist writings into the literary fold (and not just those by women). This is reflected in anthologies, which are assembled with less fear of revealing the contradictory or complex nature of literary development, no longer adhering to a gendered, linear, fixed historicism.

            Robinson, one year younger than William Blake and one year older than Robert Burns, could belong to the Romantic Era alone, by dates, but her demise in the last days of that emblematic year of 1800 (the numerical end of the 18th century), pushes her back into the century that formed and informed her. Her fine use of Popean couplets (‘Eloisa to Abelard’ was reportedly her favourite poem), her paeon to Pope’s oak, which opens my selection (at the moment), and her addiction to the ‘Ode’ to various abstractions, as in Gray and Collins (which I have not represented in this selection, Odes to Genius, Reflection, Envy, Health, Vanity, Melancholy, Beauty, Eloquence, Valour), are as much a feature of her work, as that very different effusive ‘Ode’ she addressed to Coleridge, her use of ‘lyrical tales’, as she called them, at the same time as Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, and her flowing Miltonic/Wordsworthian blank verse in ‘The Progress of Liberty’.

            Today Robinson is represented in standard anthologies, but it is instructive to examine the Janus-eyed approach to her work. In David Fairer’s and Christine Gerrard’s Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1999), Robinson is the penultimate representative of the century. In Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: An Anthology (third edition 2006), her work appears towards the beginning (though at page 246!). In the former (to limit myself to the poems that I hope will appear in my selection), ‘The Poet’s Garret’ is described (in headnotes) in terms of its relation to the representations of Grub-Street in Pope’s The Dunciad, ‘The Birth-Day’ with reference to The Rape of the Lock. In Wu’s anthology, Robinson’s Ode to Coleridge’s son and her poem to Coleridge himself, operate to (rightfully) lock her into the network of communication between herself and the (young) Romantics; the poem to Coleridge demonstrates that she read ‘Kubla Khan’, indeed it is, in Wu’s words, a ‘tribute to’ it, nearly twenty years before the reading public encountered it! (Wu 2006: 254) ‘The Haunted Beach’ is included, one might think, almost because of Coleridge’s praise of it (‘but the metre – aye, that woman has an ear’) (Wu 2006: 247-8). ‘The Savage of Aveyron’ plays to the general Rousseauesque focus upon the noble savage of the era. All of these selections date, incidentally, from the last productive year of Robinson’s prodigious output (which I will return to below).

            Both anthologies include the highly evocative ‘A London Summer Morning’ (written slightly earlier, in 1794), but while Fairer and Gerrard (correctly) point us to Swift’s ‘A Description of the Morning’ of 1709 as its model, Wu notes the contemporary intertext with Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in their comparative descriptions of this unhappy trade. (Not so bold a comparison: Blake was indentured as a young engraver at a premises yards from where Robinson briefly resided, a fact I have recently incorporated into a new poem, which is under wraps at the moment.)


            Who has not waked to list the busy sounds

            Of summer’s morning, in the sultry smoke

            Of noisy London? On the pavement hot

            The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face

            And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade,

            Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door

            The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell

            Proclaims the dustman’s office; while the street

            Is lost in clouds impervious.


            All of these analogies and comparisons are just, of course. However, it cannot be denied that the ‘Romantic’ aspects of Robinson excite (us, me?) more than the Augustan austerities – they have the energizing spark of presentiment, of anticipation, rather than conformity to a norm, however excellent – but the purpose of my selection (and it is my selection, a personal one) is to present the best poems in whatever style, while attempting, within the limitations of space, to demonstrate the range of her work. I have presented the work in broadly chronological order.

            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. But what I want to do is present her work in her own terms and times, as it were. But even this is complicated by her use of pseudonyms, as the poems were published in multiple magazines. Now, it would be easy to ignore this (and I think I will have to, given my task). While I am typing up the poems (and, still selecting them, in some ways), I need to re-read Robinson, Daniel, The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame (Form!), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. This is an excellent book (really good on her metrics) and he argues for the specificity of her psuedonymic poetics. (Of course, after my excursion into fictional poetry (see here: and my upcoming third volume on this subject, Doubly Stolen Fire, one might think that I’d roll in this like a pig in shit, but if I remember correctly, even Daniel Robinson has difficulty in pairing name with style. In short, Robinson was inconsistent in her usages. Perhaps on occasions the names were merely labels rather than personae, just to make it seem that she wasn’t writing all of the poems in Morning Post (which, on occasions, she was). BUT she often collected such poems as her own, under her own name, with no sense of cognitive dissonance (including in the 1806 volumes which was my base text). Since I am selecting for a non-specialist audience, I will downplay this aspect of the work, though I will acknowledge it (as I do in my ‘life’ (see here: ) and as I am here). Perhaps a few examples might indicate the issue and suggest avenues for those who really want or need to distinguish between Tabitha Bramble and Laura Maria. After all, variety in a poet might be thought a virtue, might be seen as evidence of poetic skill and imaginative scope rather than fragmentation. (Yes, my own ‘René Van Valckenborch’ poems are my own! and I do want folk to see them as such. (And I simultaneously don’t! See: )) In short, I want to celebrate the variety rather than divide the oeuvre into competing aspects, whether that is the apparent Augustan versus Romantic division, or this multi-pseudonymic practice, with its suggestion of weakened or weakening strands. I want to present one, continuous (chronologically-guided) reading experience.

 Fairer, David, and Christine Gerrard, eds. Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)

Robinson, Daniel, The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame (Form!), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, third edition 2006) 


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Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Liverpool Camarade at Open Eye Gallery : May 2023: the videos of my collaboration with Sarah-Clare Conlon

The Liverpool Camarade at Open Eye Gallery : May Thursday 11th 2023

Here's the traditional readers' photo-shoot. I decided to grin stupidly (for once). It hurt. 

As ever, all the vidoes of the event are online, accessible in two places: 

All the performances are online here

And can be found directly here too

 See more here: 

Venue and hosts: 19 Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront. L3 1BP. This is part of EUROFESTIVAL: exhibitions and events at the Open Eye Gallery.

Organised by SJ Fowler (see below for links to my accounts of his collaborative practice and theories of collaboration), who has been organising collaborative events, and 'European' ones, long before Eurovision blew in from Ukraine (and long before Brexit). The readers were 

  • Kārlis Vērdiņš and James Byrne
  • Hanna Komar and Michael Sutton
  • Katerina Koulouri and Patricia Farrell
  • Yasmin Hafedh and Sarah Dawson
  • Ailsa Holland and Stephen Sunderland
  • Robert Sheppard and Sarah-Clare Conlon
  • Tom Jenks and SJ Fowler
  • Stanimir Dimitrov and Michael Egan

My collaborator wrote about the upcoming event AND its participants in quite some detail, here: European Poetry Festival European Camarade at Open Eye Gallery Liverpool | Literature | Creative Tourist

Thanks Steve


This remarkable Camarade took place in one of Liverpool’s most brilliant galleries celebrating European poetry in collaboration with local writers (more or less).

This is the first Liverpool Camarade since 2015, about which I wrote here: Pages: Liverpool Camarade 2015: general introduction (set list) ( with videos, of course. I was deep in the writing of what became the collaborative anthology Twitters for a Lark at that time. But now we have real  European writers.

This event is part of Open Eye Gallery’s programme as a commissioned organisation for EuroFestival, which will take over Liverpool in the lead up to The Eurovision Song Contest. Sarah-Clare and I were vaguely working on the non-theme of rivers, as you can discern from our non-introduction! 

Here's a video of us. We were on first. Robert Sheppard and Sarah-Claire Conlon : EPF 2023 - Liverpool Camarade at Open Eye - YouTube

The text has now, January 2024, been published in Blackbox Manifold 31: see here: Pages: UNTITLED by Sarah-Clare Conlon and Robert Sheppard is published in Blackbox Manifold 31

A quiet day, [my diary tells me], with writing tasks and reading Baraka (Blues People) then - just as the heavens opened, out to the Open Eye, through the drenched but happy crowds at the Eurovision, for the L'pool Camarade. Len, David, and Alyssa were new crowds, but good to see and talk to Clare and David, albiet brtiefly. Pete Clarke there too. [Ailsa, Stephen (lives locally), Michael Sutton, Sarah Dawson: all folk I'd not met before.] The reading was pretty good, ... Clare and I did our stuff, first on (!) , and then P(atricia) and Katarina were good. The best was Michael Sutton (from Edge Hill) and Hanna Komar (a Bellarussian poet). James political, poets at the Palace spleen. To the Lion to talk to Michael Egan, Paul, Chris, and others... A good vibe!'

It's all there online for you.

Here's my accounts of earlier collaborations in these series: 

Pages: Twitters for a Launch part of the European Poetry Festival Manchester April 13th (set list) ( (This features my European Union of Imaginary Authors project: if you've not heard of that yet, try this for size: European Union of Imaginary Authors (EUOIA) - Home ( All Euro poets will be REAL for May's event!

Pages: Untitled by Joanne Ashcroft and Robert Sheppard performed at the European Camarade 2021(video and links) (This was a one-off with Joanne, with our text (and video) here.)

Some of my previous collaborative readings (in Manchester) are featured here:

Pages: Rimas Uzgiris and Robert Sheppard: collaborative poem 'Unreadable Expressions': text and video and notes

Patricia and I have collaborated and these two posts are about that (with video)

I write about the Camarade/European Poetry Festivals in some of my ‘Collaborations’ posts, beginning here, and review SJ Fowler’s book of selected collaborations. The introductory part one, flags up the themes and surveys the territory, here:

Part 10 is an account of Fowler’s poetics of collaboration. It is important for tracing the impetus behind the hospitality that directs these events. Here:

It was good to finally read at the Open Eye Gallery, third time lucky: the first talk on poetry and photography was called off, illness, though my text is on this blog here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: Talk for the Open Eye Gallery on Poetry and Photography December 2016. The second time was a launch for Charms and Glitter, killed by Covid and copyright. The sad story is told here: Pages: Whatever happened to the book Charms and Glitter? ( So, third time lucky, but I hope not the last...


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Saturday, May 06, 2023

Celebrations: the final poem of The English Strain project (the last of British Standards) is published today

Regular readers of this blog (there are some, I know) will know that between November 2021 and September 2022 I had a real problem ending the three volumes of my ‘English Strain’ project of (mainly) transposed sonnets, or rather I had problems finding traditional sonnets to help me finish off Boris Johnson, after the hubris of Brexit and the deadly incompetence of the Coronavirus pandemic, but various poems suggested themselves as models. Various 'last poems' gave way to the next 'last poem'. But eventually I stopped, and weaned myself from the method. (I'm cured now, and writing, and reading, other things.)  

I said goodbye to Bo(ris Johnson), once through the Medium of Jake Thackray’s masterpiece. That’s here: Pages: Goodbye to Bo through the Medium of Jake Thackray’s masterpiece (not a book review) (

But before that I’d said goodbye to Bo(ris), here, with a poem:


Then finally, in September 2022 the End of the Festival of Mourning for our late Empress of Bressex of ‘happy memory’, sent me back to the first poem of British Standards, my ‘England in 2019’ (unpublished so far), and its model, Shelley’s well-known ‘England in 1819’. I produced ‘After Sheppàrd After Shelley: England in 2022’. I posted it briefly (and temporarily) and wrote about its writing and its ceremonial occasion with some appropriate images of the tasteful ‘cargo-cult carvings’ that the peasantry produced for its happy memories. There are lots of links to my earlier parts of the project from this  blogpost.

It's here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: A final final poem for British Standards! It’s worth a look; you can find a copy of Shelley’s poem, but not mine, until today!! As I wrote at the time: ‘If you think that the poem is too weird, here are some of the contributory images, from the “Grieve Watch” Twitter feed. (Elsewhere you will find videos of the rollerblader and read about people being arrested for hoisting up blank sheets of paper!)’.

Some of you will doubtless be pleased to hear that I have not written another last last last poem for the sequence, occasioned by the Coronation of King Charles III. No, but the poem I wrote last year appears today on International Times, a thoroughly appropriate destination for this poem, which may be read here: 

After Sheppàrd After Shelley: England in 2022 | IT (

Thanks to Rupert Loydell for taking and timing this poem. 

In case you think I’m amiss in not celebrating the current royal and constitutional jollities, here is a photograph to remind us all of the new monarch’s endless capacity for judicious friendship. (Captions on a postcard to Hell, please.) Ypou'll excuse me, if I turn ro making some notes while watching today's ceremonies!


 The beginning of ‘the English Strain’ is best described here ( ) : that’s the first hundred, collected in the Shearsman book The English Strain. Then here: - that’s Bad Idea, another 80+ sonnets (and the second book, published by Knives Forks and Spoons). 

The poem posted today completes the third book, British Standards.


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Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 3 (possible contents)

[Here's the Mary Robinson hub-post, with more links than on this page: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 1 (]

This is a bit of a niche post, being the long list for selection from Mary Robinson’s work for the ‘selected poems’ I’m working on. While I was typing it, it occurred to me that it seemed prudent to divide the book into three parts. (Though actually ‘Sappho and Phaon’ of itself  divides it into 3 parts, but this helps me think through periodisation, before and after, early and late, when that is only covering the period of Robinson's last decade of frenetic literary activity.) The poems are not particularly in order at the moment, within their parts, but I’ve adjusted it a little, so I'm getting there. I may even be there. I am also aware that this is ‘a long list’ in the sense that I might have to deselect some of these poems (even though I have a couple of reserves lined up too, should luck (space!) go the other way). I write about the problem of selection here:Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 1 ( . Below you will see the titles of poems, their positions in the three volumes I’m using (see bibliography) marked: volume/page number, and a rough year of writing or publication. I’ve erased a few notes to self.

Ode (epigram for title page): verse 1. 1/81 1788: this sums up quite a lot of her work.


To Pope’s Oak 2.207 1791

Lines to Him who Will Understand Them 2.218 1788

Lines Inscribed to P. De Loutherbourg, Esq. R.A. 1.237 1791

From Ainsi Va Le Monde 1.15 1791 pp. 18 / 23-27

Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation in her Prison of the Temple 2.304 1791

Stanzas Written Between Dover and Calais, in July 1792. 2.321

Lines to Maria, My Beloved Daughter 2.277 1793 (this has been de-selected!) 

The Maniac (?) 2.298 1793

Stanzas to a Friend Who Wished to Have my Portrait 3. 303 1793 (1800 version?)

The Birth-Day 2.338 1795



Sappho and Phaon: In a series of Legitimate Sonnets (entire) 3.64 1796



Ode to the Snow-Drop 1.123 1797

Ode Inscribed to the Infant Son of S.T. Coleridge, Esq. 1.221 1800

To the Poet Coleridge 1.226 1800

The Haunted Beach 2.106 1800

The Savage of Aveyron 2.1. 1800 ish

The Negro Girl 2.170 1796 (Is that the date of the earlier version? Re-written for 1800/1806)

All Alone 2. 93 1800

Old Barnard: A Monkish Tale 2.100 1800

The Fortune Teller: A Gypsy Tale 3.153 1800

Deborah’s Parrot: A Village Tale 2. 155 1800 OR Mistress Gurton’s Cat: A Domestic Tale 2.127 1800 (two comic poems; I feel one would suffice).

The Alien Boy 3.177 1800

London’s Summer Morning 3.223 1800

The Poet’s Garrett 3.233 1800

Male Fashions for 1799 3.297

From The Progress of Liberty 3: 27-31/46-52 late 1790s.

Written on seeing a rose still blooming at a Cottage Door on Egham Hill, the 25th of October, 1800. 2.225

To Spring: Written after a Winter of Ill Health in the Year 1800. 2, 368

[Bubbling below for inclusion in part III are Granny Grey and The Fugitive! to join other narrative poems above from Lyrical Tales (see image above), that is: The Negro Girl to The Alien Boy.]



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)

My ‘Life’ of Mary Robinson may be read here: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 2: The Life of Mary Robinson (

This project came out of my own use of Robinson’s sonnets ‘Sappho and Phaon’ (now the whole of section II) for my ‘English Strain’ project, which I explain here: Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold (, and here, where you will also find lots of images relating to her life: Pages: My Transpositions of Mary Robinson's sonnets 'Tabitha and Thunderer' are now complete (hub post) (



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