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 (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)]

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 (robertsheppard.blogspot.com)). 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: https://euoia.weebly.com/) 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: https://euoia.weebly.com/rene-van-valckenborch.html )) 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) 


Locating Robert Sheppard: email: robertsheppard39@gmail.com  website: www.robertsheppard.weebly.com Follow on Twitter: Robert Sheppard (@microbius) / Twitter  latest blogpost: www.robertsheppard.blogspot.com