Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Edited by Judith Pascoe

Wednesday, July 4, 2001 - 07:58
Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Edited by Judith Pascoe. Petersborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.  444pp. illus: 16 halftones. (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-55111-3171). CAN$21.95/US$15.95 (Pap; ISBN: 1-55111-201-9).

Reviewed by
Terence Alan Hoagwood
Texas A&M University

Not only for the importance of Mary Robinson's poetry, much of which it makes readily available for the first time, but also for the sake of the high quality of scholarship which it represents, this book is one of the more valuable contributions to Romantic-period studies in many years. The judiciously edited poetic contents are supplemented valuably (consistent with other volumes in the series, Broadview Literary Texts) by editions of ancillary primary material (letters and early reviews), increasing the scholarly utility of this important book. The learned editor's graceful, unobtrusive, but outstanding critical judgment, which is expressed in the substantial introduction, for example, is another sort of supplement which also contributes to the book's value. The volume is aptly and handsomely illustrated with four portraits of Mary Robinson (the editor's introduction makes plain how Robinson's intellectual integrity always suffered from the popular and pictorial tendency to substitute her pretty face for the substance of her trenchant and often bitter writings) and twelve illustrations which are engravings by Caroline Watson after Maria Cosway's drawings illustrating Robinson's poem "The Wintry Day."

After the introductory essay by Pascoe (forty-four pages), the volume includes three poems from the volume entitled Poems which first appeared when Robinson (then Mary Darby) was seventeen years old. Eleven poems are reprinted from the 1791 volume entitled Poems, the most important of which is Ainsi Va le Monde, a poem in joyous celebration of the French Revolution and the relation of poetic art to political change. Eight poems from the 1793 volume entitled Poems include "A Fragment, Supposed to be Written Near the Temple, at Paris, on the Night Before the Execution of Louis XVI," in which, in contrast to the glad tones of Ainsi Va le Monde, Robinson describes the populace as "Blood-stain'd Myriads" and the revolutionaries as "The troops of PANDIMONIUM [sic]" and "The barb'rous Sons of ANARCHY" who "Drench their unnatural hands in regal blood." That volume contains (and this edition reprints) "Marie Antoinette's Lamentation": "OH, FELL BARBARITY! yet spare a while / The sacred treasures of my throbbing breast," and "My darling INFANTS, sleep, . . . sweet CHERUBS ON THEIR FUNERAL BED!" The "Ode to Rapture," also from the 1793 volume, presents a personification of NATURE who begins to adore and to depict apparently beautiful RAPTURE, whereupon "the FLEETING FORM DECAY'D." Those three themes—revolutionary politics, Burkean revulsion from revolutionary politics, and the unreality of artificial beauty and its manufactured "rapture"—are among the most important of the conceptual preoccupations of Robinson's work, and they are well represented in Pascoe's selection from the early volumes.

Sappho and Phaon (1796) is a unified narrative work consisting of forty-four sonnets preceded by three polemical essays, and this new edition reproduces the entire text of the original volume. The preface to Sappho and Phaon is an argument about the "MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE" of women; the essay "To the Reader" offers "moral reflections . . . against the dangers of indulging a too luxuriant fancy"; an essay entitled "Accounts of Sappho" represents that ancient poet as "a supremely enlightened soul, labouring to subdue a fatal enchantment." Robinson's table of contents states "The Subject of Each Sonnet" in a way that outlines the moral purport of the volume, proceeding from "The Temple of Chastity" through "The Tyranny of Love" to the "Sonnet Conclusive" in which "Reflection" sighs and the "wreaths of Fame" are "Bespangled o'er with sorrow's chilling tear." What the reprinting of the entire volume of sonnets makes visible, therefore, as a selection of the sonnets could not, is the fact that Robinson's sonnet sequence (which has perhaps been misunderstood as a sequence of love poems) is precisely an anti-love sonnet sequence. Like the 1793 "Ode to Rapture," Sappho and Phaon repudiates the artificial sentiments that her work may sometimes have been thought to represent. The volume Lyrical Tales (1800) is also reprinted entire, its twenty-two poems including "The Poor, Singing Dame" (an anapestic, song-like poem in which class conflict produces a mutually assured destruction) and "The Haunted Beach," which de-metaphorizes the assassination plot of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In this new edition, there follow six "Uncollected poems from newspapers and magazines" including "Sonnet to Mrs. Charlotte Smith, on Hearing That Her Son Was Wounded at the Siege of Dunkirk"; ten "poems that were incorporated into [a planned volume to be entitled] The Progress of Liberty," including "The Horrors of Anarchy" and "The Dungeon." Then, Pascoe reproduces seventeen poems that first appeared in the posthumous collection Poetical Works (1806). Ancillary materials include three of Robinson's letters (to John Taylor, William Godwin, and Jane Porter), three poems in which Coleridge responds to poems by Robinson, and four reviews of Robinson's poetry (1791, 1796, 1800, 1806).

A valuable addition to the edited works is a thirty-eight page list entitled "Publication histories of Robinson's poems." A short bibliography, a four-page list of emendations, and two indexes (titles and first lines) conclude the volume.

Texts "are drawn from the last edition over which the author exercised editorial control, with very occasional emendations" (15). The editor has not normalized accidentals except that she has removed the long s, the repeated quotation marks at each line of verse, and the long bracket that marks triplets. It may seem odd to assert that these practices "are followed in order to preserve the poems' original appearances" (15), because deleting the long s or the long bracket does not preserve appearances. Even the correction of apparent printers' errors is an abridgement of the principle of honoring the original document. Pascoe's editing is, however, light, conventional, and evidently free of idiosyncratic intrusions, and, furthermore, her editorial work honors the integrity of the original volumes (including Sappho and Phaon and Lyrical Tales) more completely and effectively than anthologies or, for that matter, some available editions devoted to the poetry of single authors; some of which still organize poems without adequate respect for the integrity of the volumes which the poet assembled.

Pascoe's introduction adds scholarly depth and sound judgment to the very sad story of Robinson's life and makes clear the historical disfiguration of her truths by often malevolent reception history wrought for her works. When she was nine, she and her mother were abandoned by her father. When she was fourteen she was married (for money which proved not to exist) to an adulterer. She was seduced by the Prince of Wales and his promises of riches, and then abandoned by him in the year her second child died in infancy. She was permanently disabled at the age of twenty-five, and she spent the rest of her life an almost-solitary cripple, cared for by her daughter and visited by William Godwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Among its other achievements, Pascoe's introduction illustrates the slander, libel, caricatures, and other abuse which substituted a sentimental fiction of passion for the critical and intellectual integrity which somehow emerged from that lifetime of disillusionments. The critical reception of Robinson's work may have been too often marred by an interest in her putative love life, in whole or in part the creation of gossip, to the expense of the hard and hard-won feminism voiced in her polemical prose (A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination [1799] and Thoughts on the Condition of Women [undated] are attributed to Robinson). The literatures of sentiment and artificial sensibility (including her own brief and almost juvenile "Della Cruscan" rhymes) gave way in Robinson's works to an antithetical project—to celebrate and facilitate the "mental pre-eminence of women" and to "find in friendship's balm sick passion's cure." That last phrase appears in Robinson's poem "Laura to Petrarch" (printed in the posthumous Poetical Works but not included in the edition here under review), whose title and whose argument express the anti-sentimental project of the serious work of Robinson's anti-sentimental life. Pascoe's learned and informative introduction and this volume's valuable selection of Robinson's poetry help considerably to make that literary and intellectual achievement as readily and widely available as they richly deserve to be.