Where there is so much to admire, we may be excused the unpleas- ing task of busy censure; we have more satisfaction in listening to the oracular inspiration which enables us to predict, that the picture of the fair writer’s mind pourtrayed in these poems, will long outlive the portrait of her person, though drawn by the pencil of a Reynolds.
The Poetry of Mary Robinson Form and Fame
Exegi monumentum ære perennius.
The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed the con- summation of Mary Robinson’s most cherished desire—to be remem- bered. After nearly 200 years of relative oblivion, Robinson has become one of the stars of an expanded Romantic literary canon. Among the previously neglected writers recovered by feminist and historicist scholars, Robinson stands with Charlotte Smith, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Felicia Hemans as the poets who have received the most attention.2 Unique among them, however, Robinson is the subject of three biographies published roughly within one year of one another; and she appears as the character-narrator of a pot-boiling romance novel that describes her as “a woman who changed history by doing as she pleased—for money, for fame, for pleasure, and above all, for love.”3 In a way, this peculiar aspect of Robinson’s current sta- tus as an icon is a replay of the kind of attention she herself endured. During her life, Robinson indeed had been the subject of sensational (fictional) biographies and the victim of scandalous fictional por- trayals of her love life. Like Lord Byron, Robinson is a writer whose fascinating life, personal charisma, and phenomenal celebrity make her an important cultural figure. Indeed, Robinson’s literary com- positions are only one facet of a remarkable career: she was also an actress, sex symbol, courtesan, fashionable spectacle, and the subject of titillating gossip. Like celebrities today, she was famous for being famous—or for being notorious. Robinson was a cultural icon long before she began her literary career as a professional writer, although some studies tend to give the impression that it was all happening at once. I, however, see a clear distinction between her cultural celebrity and her years of literary fame. The period of Robinson’s preliterary celebrity runs from her stage debut as Shakespeare’s Juliet at Drury Lane Theatre in 1776 to her escape from England, and especially its gossip columns and creditors in 1784. After a period of largely undis- turbed obscurity, she returned to England in 1788 and began a liter- ary career that lasted until her death at the end of 1800. Robinson, as a writer, sought fame rather than celebrity. She had had enough of the latter.
Scholarly work on the recovery of Robinson as an important
Romantic-period writer in her own right began with the publica- tion of Stuart Curran’s groundbreaking essay “Romantic Poetry: The I Altered” from Anne K. Mellor’s collection Romanticism and Feminism (1988). In the 1990s, scholars—chief among them Judith Pascoe—followed Curran’s lead by pioneering critical approaches to the study of her poetry. The first extended study of Robinson as a Romantic-period figure, Pascoe’s book Romantic Theatricality presents a holistic view of Robinson’s career as a cul- tural celebrity whose literary compositions are only one facet of the theatrical modes of spectacle through which Robinson, along with other Romantic-period figures, performed her publicity. Today, Robinson’s works are available in new scholarly editions. In 2000, Broadview Press published Pascoe’s edition of Robinson’s Selected Poems, the first collection of Robinson’s poetry since an 1824 reprint of her Poetical Works; in 2003, Broadview followed that up with Julie Shaffer’s edition of Robinson’s novel Walsingham and Sharon Setzer’s edition of her feminist tract A Letter to the Women of England, along with her final novel The Natural Daughter. In the summer of 2010, Pickering and Chatto completed the publica- tion of the eight-volume Works of Mary Robinson under the general editorship of William Brewer, providing authoritative editions not only of Robinson’s poetry but also of her eight published novels, an unfinished novel, a proto-feminist tract, three plays, several essays, and an unfinished but revealing autobiography. As part of the Works, my own edition of her poetry includes more than 400 poems, exclusive of the more than forty-five poems that appeared in her novels and other prose works.
The poems in particular perform Robinson’s self-reflexive obses- sion, not with celebrity, but with literary fame. Like many Romantic- period writers, she invested in her posterity, a gesture that Andrew Bennett calls “deferred reception,” which involves the construction of the poetic identity (2). Arguing that the “Romantic culture of poster- ity” is masculine, Bennett asserts that women writers wrote “counter- discourses,” arguing that “it is a convention of feminine poetics of the period that fame is unsought and unwelcome” (72). He inscruta- bly includes Robinson in a list of women poets who “are all wary of such a consequence of writing and publishing” (72). Robinson, how- ever, rarely figures herself in poses of modesty or diffidence. What Robinson frequently refers to as “the wreath of fame” is the subject of the present study. In contrast to the caprices of celebrity, Robinson’s conception of fame is essentially Petrarchan: the poet makes her own “wreath of fame” through the composition of immortal verses. It is appropriate, then, that her rehabilitation as a significant writer began with Curran’s recognition of Robinson’s poetic merits and the intrin- sic interest of her poetry.
But today, Robinson also has the dubious distinction of being labeled the eighteenth-century Madonna, as both Anne Mellor and Jacqueline Labbe have done (300; “Mary Robinson’s Bicentennial” 4). Although intended as an allegory of female celebrity culture empowerment, this comparison is not much different from the iden- tification of a notorious Greek courtesan as “the Mrs. Robinson of Greece”—as satirist Peter Pindar did in 1783 (18).5 For a time a suc- cessful actress, she became a fashionable celebrity and sex symbol, the subject of gossip and pornography, and eventually a cultural pariah and an object lesson for young women on the dangers of promiscu- ity, pleasure seeking, and living beyond one’s means. In the early 1780s, Robinson became known as “Perdita” after rumors began to circulate of her affair with the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who supposedly became infatuated with her as the result of her perfor- mance as Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of The Winter’s Tale. While the Prince only briefly appeared in the press as “Florizel,” the epithet applied to Robinson persisted throughout that decade, sig- nifying her status as a royal courtesan and mocking her fall from the Prince’s favors. It was always maliciously employed—especially after it became known that the married Robinson secured from the Prince an annuity in exchange for returning his love letters. During the 1790s, however, her proliferation of various pen names and her suc- cess as a professional writer partially neutralized the “Perdita” epi- thet, and it appears less frequently. Ironically, the appellation, which was essentially a euphemism for “whore,” persists in the titles of all three of the recent biographies of Robinson: Paula Byrne’s Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson; Hester Davenport’s The Prince’s Mistress Perdita: A Life of Mary Robinson; and Sarah Gristwood’s Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. Despite her penchant for sobriquets, Robinson never referred to her- self by this name.
Nonetheless, the figure of Perdita is integral to Robinson’s celeb- rity. Much of the research on Robinson’s life and career necessarily has focused on the titillating and sensational aspects of Robinson as a cultural figure at whom even Marie Antoinette marveled. Her celebrity makes her intriguing and accessible to us today in ways that, say, Barbauld or Hannah More are not. Several recent studies complement Mellor’s examination of Robinson’s sexualized celebrity by examining the extent to which Robinson’s contemporary fame is analogous to celebrity today. In these, Robinson appears as an expert manipulator of all available media and effectually as her own publicist. Claire Brock, for instance, considers Robinson a “shrewd” manipu- lator of her image who was able to capitalize on her publicity even when it was scandalous; in other words, her literary career, according to Brock, enabled Robinson to manage her own public relations. Brock likely would object to my bifurcation of Robinson’s publicity into pre-literary celebrity and her professional authorship, arguing that the two are inseparable. In contrast, Tom Mole, while reading Robinson’s fame as “a distributed, multimedia phenomenon,” finds Robinson’s avid self-promotion in conflict with her desire to escape the more ignominious aspects of celebrity (200). Thoroughly estab- lishing Robinson’s command of “the art of the comeback,” Michael Gamer and Terry F. Robinson show how Robinson staged her own cultural revivals from actress to fashionable celebrity and from pop- culture icon to her dramatic literary debut as part of the pop-culture phenomenon of Della Cruscan poetry. Certainly, Robinson’s theat- rical career informs much of her public maneuvering and position- ing of herself in popular culture of the time. As quite possibly the first modern multimedia celebrity, Robinson’s physical presence is more palpable than that of any writer before Byron. Her success as an actress, for instance, derived largely from her having a body that looked good in pants when she performed breeches roles such as Viola in Twelfth Night or Fidelia in The Plain Dealer. Because of our own familiarity with sex symbols and celebrities of our time, the idea of the young Prince of Wales becoming infatuated with Robinson performing Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is immediately familiar to us. We have peculiar access, moreover, to Robinson’s sex life—real and imagined. Her husband’s adultery and her own liai- sons with several powerful men of her day, including not only the Prince but also Whig statesman Charles James Fox and her long-time companion Colonel Banastre Tarleton, she herself confirmed; these activities and relationships featured prominently in newspaper gossip columns and satirical prints—in some cases depicting Robinson as exposing her breasts or, in one particularly vitriolic print, as being vaginally impaled. In the case of the Prince and Fox, among other presumed lovers, pornographers narrated Robinson’s sexual encoun- ters with them.6 What other Romantic-period writer appears to us in such sexually explicit representations? And without any real evi- dence, scholars accept as fact the supposition that the debilitating illness which left her paralyzed and immobile for the final fifteen years of her life was the result of a miscarriage. While certainly pos- sible, this supposition reveals a tendency to imagine the more titil- lating scenario when Robinson’s body is at issue. Most significant to Robinson’s cultural status is the fact that her physical beauty was captured by the leading portraitists of the period—John Hoppner, George Romney, Thomas Gainsborough, and Joshua Reynolds, who painted her twice—and all of this before she began her literary career in earnest. But even then her presence manifests itself in innumerable newspaper puffs, hyperbolic verse tributes by her friends, beautiful printings of her books, and not least of all in the rhythms, sounds, and shapes of her poetry.
My study of Robinson’s poetry picks up in the aftermath of her previous celebrity, which continues to resonate throughout her career; but I want to foreground Robinson as a working poet in the instant of her poems’ publicity, most often as they first appeared in newspa- pers attached to various pseudonyms. As Pascoe observes, Robinson employed her pseudonyms “to proliferate herself” (Romantic 174). My interest in that poetry is to examine fame as a poetic trope, a recur- ring motif even, through the course of her career as a poet. Although this book is about fame, it is not really a cultural study of celebrity; that work is well underway.8 Focusing on her poetry, I do not see Robinson as a shameless self-promoter capitalizing on her fame and on her infamy so much as I see her as a former celebrity attempting to do something more meaningful and lasting with her talents. In what follows, I mean to draw a distinction between her cultural celebrity and her quest for literary fame—not.
This sense of literary accomplishment as a means of making good a tarnished reputation informs nearly everything she wrote, par- ticularly as it pertains to the forms in which she chose to write. I focus here on Robinson’s poetry because she believed poetry to be her “wreath of fame,” earned by demonstrable merit, by intel- lectual prowess, and particularly by mastery of poetic form—and I do intend the gendered connotation, as she would have done. As I will explain over the course of this book, Robinson regarded poetic fame since Sappho as essentially masculine, but not irretrievably so. Throughout her literary career she consistently affiliates herself with powerful male figures, doing so politically with statesmen such as Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, professionally with newspaper proprietors and publishers such as John Bell and Daniel Stuart, and culturally with figures of artistic genius from the past such as Petrarch, Milton, and Pope and from among contemporaries such as Robert Merry, Joshua Reynolds, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Robinson practiced a poetics of form and fame that involves these powerful male figures. For example, in her Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1792), she clearly articulates her theory that the artist through the successful manipulation of the formal ele- ments of his craft earns through this effort his own “laurel,” the classic symbol of poetic fame. According to Robinson, Reynolds, in the creative act of painting his portraits, “with a fost’ring hand, to genius just, / Twin’d his own laurel, round each youthful bust” (1: 175; 89–90). The laurel is a metaphor for literal, textual accom- plishment—the poem or painting itself peculiarly achieved by the creative genius. The ultimate accolade, however, is immortality, an article of faith that Robinson maintains throughout her career; as such, she contends that the ultimate vindication of genius is inevi- table. Upon his death, Reynolds may, “true to native worth, assert his claim / To the best diadem! THE WREATH OF FAME!” (93–94). Just as Robinson confers upon Reynolds the distinction of being “Britain’s RAFFAELLE” (46), she repeatedly asserts her own claim to the “wreath of fame” as “the English Sappho,” as she was called. Robinson’s tribute, moreover, is inflected by the fact that Reynolds represented her in his painting. But as an artist herself, Robinson understands that she, like Reynolds, must vindicate her worth through the form of her art.
Robinson had a confidence in her poetry that, given her disappear- ance for two centuries, may seem absurd. But she knew that her liter- ary afterlife could not be as shrewdly manipulated as some celebrities manage their more ephemeral publicity. For instance, Robinson’s proto-feminist tract, A Letter to the Women of England (1799), con- cludes with a “List of British Female Literary Characters Living in the Eighteenth Century,” including herself, Barbauld, Elizabeth Inchbald, Hannah More, Smith, Helen Maria Williams, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others. This list is curiously impartial because it is not necessarily a list of the best women writers but, rather, merely a list of women writers.
There are various degrees of merit in the compositions of the female writ- ers mentioned in the preceding list. Of their several claims to the wreath of Fame, the Public and the critics are left to decide. Most of them have been highly distinguished at the tribunal of literature. (8: 163)
Discussing such matters as literary merit has proven to be difficult when it comes to the recovery of noncanonical writers because, frankly, much of their writing does not seem to be as good as that of the more familiar writers whom we are better equipped to read and to explicate. As Susan J. Wolfson remarks, in relation to the question of whether or not Hemans’ poetry is any good, or if it is as good as that of Byron or Keats, this kind of question is “culturally over-determined” (Borderlines 35). Wolfson’s work reminds us that we have had more than two centuries to shape the ways in which readers experience and appreciate the so-called Big Six Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats). For writers who have been absent from our own reading lists during that time, it is not so much a matter of recovering them as it is of recovering ways of understand- ing them. We should remember that, at the end of Robinson’s career, Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s were not off to particularly auspicious starts; and critics would ridicule Wordsworth’s poetry for several years to come. For Robinson, her own investment in poetic merit, her claim “to the wreath of Fame,” was everything. And, desperate for money and for health, at the end of a career of remarkable vicissitudes and of a life that spanned only a little more than four decades, all Robinson could do was make that claim as vehemently, as ferociously even, as she could.
My personal starting point whenever I return to Robinson’s poetry is her poetic correspondence with Coleridge and the fact that Coleridge considered her to be a good poet. Her poems to him were among her final compositions, and one of them, “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” confirms that he shared with her his master- piece, “Kubla Khan,” 16 years before he published it. Coleridge also wrote several admiring poems to her. As we shall see, Robinson’s lit- erary career from start to finish is distinguished by this kind of poetic and quasi-erotic exchange. And the exchange between Robinson and Coleridge mirrors that between Robert Merry, writing as “Della Crusca,” and Hannah Cowley, writing as “Anna Matilda.” Indeed, Robinson’s poetic career was established and conditioned by her own association with Merry and with his nom de plume. Robinson’s affili- ations with male poets, chief among them Merry and Coleridge, is crucial to understanding her conception of her own poetry in terms of form and fame. Rather than presume that Coleridge “uncritically but chivalrously overestimated ‘Perdita’s’ work,” as Earl Leslie Griggs long ago suggested (91), I want to investigate just what it is about her poetry itself that pleased him, and to consider the possibility that the erotic and the poetic are not mutually exclusive interests that result invariably in an overheated overestimate. I am not suspending the erotic element; rather, I am casting it in a different light, one that is formally illuminating. We miss an integral feature of Robinson’s poetry if we read Coleridge’s specific remarks on Robinson’s metrical facility as merely the result of erotic confusion. While her poetry is hardly f lawless, Robinson’s lyrical ebullience is measured—literally metered—by a technical rigor that displays formal affinities with not only the lyric poets of the second half of the eighteenth century who likely influenced her, but also with those later poets who employ innovative lyrical forms—poets such as Southey, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Tennyson, and Poe. While I am not willing to go so far as Stuart Curran does in asserting that “she changed the very nature of the craft of poetry” (“Mary Robinson” 9), I do see Robinson as a significant transitional figure in the history of English poetic form. My purpose here is not to make grand claims for Robinson’s importance but, rather, to show how she works to earn it. Poetic forms and poetic pseudonyms function as ways of representing her claim to poetic fame. In much of what follows, therefore, I am fol- lowing Curran’s lead: he urges Robinson’s readers “to revert to the centrality of poetic technique and to the essential critical justice of Coleridge’s observation” (“Mary Robinson” 16). Poetic form is a kind of networking for Robinson by which she participates in a web of social interaction and literary intertextuality in order to achieve professional legitimacy, recognition, and fame.
Coleridge’s assessment thus provides a teleology for this book, which examines Robinson’s poetic career in terms of her representa- tions of herself as a poet and her poetry through form. Robinson’s poetry has been denied the close reading and formal analysis that provided the foundations for the study of poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge over the past 200 years. Because formal approaches are not so prevalent as they once were but are still necessary for under- standing the poetics of the writers who constellate our field of vision (including, now, Robinson), I feel it is incumbent on me, writing the first book-length study of her poetry, to draw attention to the workings of her verse, particularly as it functions intertextually. In focusing on reading Robinson’s forms, I see her engaging some of the questions Wolfson has identified as central to “Romantic formal- ism,” given the reputation the period’s poets traditionally have had as iconoclasts:
Does [Romantic-period poetry’s] highly formed language compro- mise its effort to participate in political and social discourse? Or does this formal difference distinguish, indeed establish, the unique agency of poetry to address the wider arena of national and cultural self- reflection? (“Romanticism” 223)
While my interest is not so much in Romanticism as a general aes- thetic, I do see Robinson as working “uncertainly” with a similarly “formalist poetics” as the poets Wolfson examines (“Romanticism” 223). If Wordsworth and Coleridge had, as Hazlitt suggests, a revo- lutionary poetics, Robinson, a generation older than they were, is generally more committed to a conservative one, in terms of working with eighteenth-century forms; but her application of those forms to her later radical perspective is complicatedly progressive—as the juxtaposition of Robinson’s politics in chapters two and four will show.
My purpose here is to show her at work and at play in the medium that I believe she herself most enjoyed—poetry. Although she wrote in nearly every literary genre and form available to her, Robinson clearly regarded poetry as her most significant claim to fame. Her daughter understood this as well; the Memoirs published after Robinson’s death never delve into her fiction, placing great emphasis on her poetry and on her metrical skills:
The productions of Mrs. Robinson, both in prose and verse, are numerous, and of various degrees of merit: but to poetry the native impulse of her genius appears to have been more peculiarly directed: even in the earliest of her productions, that fertility of imagination, and correctness of taste, were indicated, which, in her subsequent compositions, are so eminently displayed. The sweetness and harmony of her versification has been scarcely equalled, and certainly never surpassed, by any cotemporary poet: neither, while attending to the f low and melody of her numbers, has Mrs. Robinson been unmind- ful of the force and dignity of the sentiment expressed. (Memoirs 2: 175–6).
While certainly we cannot expect critical objectivity from the friend charged with the continuation of the unfinished autobiography and thus with the preservation of Robinson’s fame, these remarks are not as hyperbolic as they may seem: the “friend” who continues the Memoirs where Robinson left off, either Maria Elizabeth Robinson or, as Hester Davenport convincingly suggests, Samuel Jackson Pratt (Works of Mary Robinson 7: xxi), makes no grand claim for the profundity or the sophistication of Robinson’s poetry. Indeed, the emphasis is rightly placed on her stylistic proficiency—“the sweet- ness and harmony of her versification” and “the f low and melody of her numbers.” Her skillful metrical practice, as Coleridge also recognized in appreciating her “ear,” is Robinson’s most significant literary accomplishment. But it is a talent that remains underappreci- ated in the recovery of Robinson as a Romantic-period writer, and has gone largely untreated by anyone except Curran (and myself) since 1801.
As this book aims to show, such formal considerations ought to be established as fundamental to the reading of her poetry. The study of Robinson’s obvious pleasure in crafting extravagant poetic form ought to be governed by Wimsatt and Beardsley’s maxim that “it is just as important to observe what meter a poem is writ- ten in . . . as it is to observe what language the poem is written in” (596). More recently, in her study Formal Charges, Wolfson asserts that, for Romantic-period poetry, “choices of form and the way it is managed often signify as much as, and as part of, words them- selves” (3).12 As I will show, Robinson and her readers were sensi- tive to such formal choices and the management of them. Robinson, moreover, was particularly innovative, or at least highly adventurous, in her formal choices. These innovations set her apart from other late eighteenth-century poets. Donald Wesling points out that Romantic poets worked largely in familiar verse forms that were not altogether different from those of their predecessors, although there was indeed a drastic shift in the way they employed and thought about them (68). Robinson employs many of these same familiar forms—blank verse, Spenserian stanzas, sonnets, odes, hymnal measures—but she also devises many of her own forms, “nonce” forms, and can boast of greater stanzaic variety than Wordsworth or Coleridge. If, as John Hollander says in “Romantic Verse Form and the Metrical Contract,” the choice of a metrical scheme indicates, like a title, “what sort of thing the poem is supposed to be” (189), then Robinson’s contempo- rary readers could tell that they were in for something highly original. As I have indicated, other studies of Robinson’s life and career have begun reconstructing the cultural significance of her performative celebrity and her literary representations of herself; but just as impor- tant is the reconstruction of the period’s apprehension of form as an element readable in and of itself, and poets’ deliberate participation in the formal engagement. Robinson was aware of this when she chose to write a poem in a particular form, so we should be too.
Indeed, contemporary commentary on Robinson, while generally favorable, rarely commends her poetry in more specific terms than “poetical,” “elegant,” or “harmonious,” although these terms are not without meanings more precise than are apparent. In many ways, Robinson’s poetry is like pop music: it is technically proficient— slick even—but not always intended to convey great profundity. As one reviewer remarked, Robinson “certainly possesses a brilliancy of fancy, and command of poetical language; but the ear is oftener addressed than the heart in her productions” (Rev. of Sappho 114). And reviewers generally praised the poetry in Robinson’s novels while lambasting the prose. In this regard, I disagree with Sharon M. Setzer who, introducing the predominantly negative reviews of The Natural Daughter, suggests that “the reiterated praise for Robinson’s poetry [is] a coercive gesture, reinscribing a feminine ideal of beau- tiful, but largely ineffectual, expressiveness” (327). While I would never presume the absence of ulterior motives, I do find most of the criticisms of Robinson’s fiction to be valid; one critic remarks, “We regret that the author will not confine her labours to poetry, in which she superiorly excels, and has given fresh proofs of in this Novel” (qtd. in Setzer, Natural 329). The novel in the 1790s was still gendered feminine, so critical approbation of her poetic skills such as this, rather than her strengths in writing fiction, ought not to be dismissed. Moreover, as I hope to show, Robinson’s formal prac- tices are fundamentally masculine and resist the reinscription of “a feminine ideal.” Terms such as beauty or elegant were not dismissive gendered codes for women writers, appearing frequently in reviews of male poets as well as of female. Many writers proudly advertised their own works as being elegant. And publishers would make sure the word elegant appeared in the titles of anthologies: a 1791 collection of poetry called Extracts, Elegant, Instructive, and Entertaining, in Poetry; from the Most Approved Authors is a formidable, wide-ranging two volume collection that includes only a handful of poems by women poets Barbauld and Ann Yearsley among hundreds of poems by Spenser, Milton, Pope, Thomson, Gray, Cowper. Another anthol- ogy entitled The Beauties of Literature, or Elegant Extracts in Prose (1794) features only male writers such as Plutarch, Cicero, Sterne, Samuel Johnson, and Swedenborg.
Robinson’s poetry resists the gendered binaries that have become an unfortunate by-product of the recovery of women writers and that originally privileged women’s fiction as a “literature of their own.” But I argue that Robinson herself sees poetry as a masculine genre and thus plays on (admittedly) essentialized notions of gender and form in order to transgress them, to compete with men poets, and to surpass women poets. She understood that working in difficult poetic forms would distinguish her poetry from that of the “poet- ess.” As Paula R. Backscheider puts it, “Poetry is devilishly hard to write—for men and women” (17). Robinson, therefore, shared some of the sexist assumptions for which we might criticize her male con- temporaries. Because of this, the study of her poetry requires working from some basic assumptions about gender and genre. It also requires the recognition that Robinson participated in what she considered to be masculine literary traditions that were inherently more chal- lenging and valuable. This book, therefore, foregrounds the fact that Robinson consistently and purposively affiliated herself with power- ful male figures. This may be an uncomfortable truth to some, but it is true nonetheless. Robinson’s poetry does not sit well in isolation with her female contemporaries. In British Romanticism, a field so monolithically dominated by six male poets, the isolation of women’s writing as separate but equal, as advocated by Isobel Armstrong for the purposes of recovery, was necessary to liberate their work from formal and aesthetic ideologies that we now recognize as severely limiting to the study of writers of both sexes.13 Two major schol- arly achievements stand out in my mind as having consummated the work of understanding women’s poetry on its own terms: Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era is the most com- plete and diverse collection of texts, showing the immense variety of forms and interests during the period; and Paula R. Backshcheider’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry is an in-depth study of how women poets worked in those forms that definitively integrate them into literary history. Now, as Beth Lau asserts, we are ready to move beyond recovery and to study “interrelations between literary men and women” (3). Studies such as Wolfson’s Borderlines, Stephen C. Behrendt’s British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community, and Lau’s collection Fellow Romantics demonstrate new interest in showing men and women writers of the period in dialogue and literary interaction. Wolfson’s book treats gender as a kind of literary form itself, which employs language that can provide a mul- tiplicity of valences. As Wolfson shows, gender in literature is practi- cally another kind of intertextuality, with masculine and feminine subjectivities free to employ language and figures that perform liter- ary cross-dressing. Behrendt, too, takes a fresh look at intertextuality as a complex web that interconnects men and women poets of the period and shows that they shared many of the same assumptions about gender and genre. The tendency in the past may have been to lament these in women and to castigate them in men, but objectively we must see these assumptions as part of the fabric of the period. And Pascoe rightly reminds us that making new generalizations about women poets as if they shared some common poetic aesthetic is just as problematically monolithic as the phallocentric Romantic ideology from which we have sought to liberate them (see “‘Unsex’d’”).
In what follows, I focus on Robinson’s representations of herself as a poet in interaction with other poets and other poems, and on how she tends to formalize these representations in specific instances of self-conscious virtuosity. I also highlight how Robinson’s maneu- verings, her affiliations, and her opportunism figured around her associations with Merry and Coleridge as poetic bookends, with Bell and Stuart as professional ones. The first chapter proposes a method for understanding the most important aspect of her poetical self- representations—her pseudonyms, which I call avatars because they are neither costumes nor disguises but versionings of her poetic iden- tity. Because I argue that Robinson’s greatest virtue is her metrical virtuosity, I want to show, also in chapter one, how the start of her career as a professional poet is grounded in a ludic-erotic poetics that is established by her association with Merry as Della Crusca. The gen- erally reviled poetry of the Della Cruscans is more playful than critics have given it credit for being. But, as I will show in chapter two, the ludic impulses of the Della Crusca network cannot be sustained in the political atmosphere of the early 1790s. Here, Robinson becomes involved in the careful construction of her Laura Maria pseudonym, first as an avatar of baroque elegance for the branding of Bell’s pub- lications, then as an avatar of complicated political ambivalence by which she manages to avoid the ignominious fate of Della Crusca.
Chapter three examines the way Robinson negotiates her new iden- tity as “the English Sappho” as a means of distancing herself from the “Perdita” epithet by laying claim to that mantle with her sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon, which, as I will show, involves a kind of privileging of masculine traditions established by Ovid and Petrarch over the feminine lyric tradition associated with the original Sappho. Chapter four has Robinson returning to the newspaper business hav- ing emerged from an intertextual past back to her present, returning to newsprint with more politically oppositional avatars such as Portia and Tabitha Bramble. In chapter four, I examine Robinson’s partici- pation in a new professional network at the Morning Post that includes Coleridge and Southey. My final chapter considers her new interest in narrative poetry and the composition of new meters, original stanzas, or nonce forms through the lens of Coleridge’s perspective on her work. The book concludes with a close reading of Robinson’s poetic response to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” that uncovers the affinities in their poetic correspondence with Robinson’s original association with Della Crusca. Indeed, as I will show, Robinson’s poetic career is framed by associations with Robert Merry and with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and with many other literary, intertextual, and profes- sional assignations in between.
C h a p t e r 1
Robinson’s Avata rs and the Della Crusc a Network
Are you Anna Matilda, or Della Crusca, or Laura Maria? Comical creatures! they have made me shed many a tear, though I never more than half understood them.
—Robinson, The Natural Daughter (1799)
In this brief passage from her final novel, Robinson provides the best commentary of the past 200 years on what the so-called Della Cruscans were doing in their poetry. With good humor, Robinson parodies yet implicitly defends the poetry that made her famous and that she never completely abandoned. In The Natural Daughter, the heroine, Martha Morley, after attempting a career on the stage, turns to poetry as a professional recourse. Mirroring some elements of Robinson’s own history, Martha endures the vicissitudes of being a professional woman writer and, in dire straits, determines to seek the patronage of an aristocratic woman. In order to earn this support, Martha is put on display as a young “poetess” before a group of ladies and gentleman, who are, in the words of the potential patron, “‘sev- eral excellent judges and some successful authors’” (7: 132). Thus humiliated she must read aloud from her odes, which she describes as “rather allegorical than serious” in order to assure her potential patron that they are not “pathetic” or mournfully sad (7: 131). Here, Robinson makes an important point about her own odes—a form, at this time, in which she had not worked for several years but one that early on defined her poetry as “Della Cruscan.” As Martha suggests, the allegorical nature of these odes makes them not “serious,” which I take to mean not “weighty or grave,” not possessing great complex- ity; rather, these poems are pleasantly diverting. As it turns out, how- ever, Martha’s ode “To the Blue-Bell” has a political subtext that fails to amuse most of her aristocratic audience. The poem concludes,
Then why dispute this wide domain, Since NATURE knows no partial care?
The nipping blast, the pelting rain, Both will with equal ruin share:
Then what is vain DISTINCTION, say, But the short blaze of summer’s day? And what is pomp, or beauty’s boast? An empty shadow, seen and lost!
Such is thy power,
Only a “liberal nobleman” defends Martha’s poem as “‘truly poeti- cal,’ ” asserting that “‘the moral lesson which they teach is excellent’” (7: 134). He obviously gets the allegory, but his praise of the poem as “poetical” is an appreciation of what the poet is doing with form; he recognizes the poem’s unique and ingenious form: ababccdd4e2e2. The strength of the poem is the successful marrying of its “lesson” with a charming lyrical form. Robinson’s greatest strength as a poet is her ability to work in form, demonstrating her command of tradi- tional forms, such as the heroic couplet, blank verse, and the sonnet, as well as her inventiveness in creating her own original, or nonce, forms, such as the stanza of “To the Blue-Bell.” This poem is homo- strophic because Robinson performs the same stanza throughout the poem. Not all odes do this, nor do all of Robinson’s poems do this, but she makes a clear formal choice to portray her heroine as a poet who works in fixed forms. Indeed, each of the interpolated poems in The Natural Daughter is a unique, fixed form that stands in stark contrast to the loose, at times rambling, and hurried feel of the prose narrative.
This scene is itself a striking and playful moment of self-reflexivity as Robinson draws attention to herself as author of the novel in relation to her other poetic identities: one “venerable dowager” remarks, “ ‘I suppose she is one of the Julias or Sapphos of the present day. I never read their productions without being amused beyond measure—poor things’” (7: 133). Robinson began using the “Julia” pseudonym in 1791, when several of her poems signed thus appeared in John Bell’s newspaper the Oracle. And, of course, Robinson had been known as “the English Sappho” since the publication by John Bell of her first volume of poems in 1791. Complementing the self-reflexivity of the scene, Martha’s poem itself had appeared in the Morning Post on 5 April 1799 as the work of “Mrs. Robinson.” Facetiously, then, Robinson repurposes her previously published poem as the work of Martha Morley, who, before she begins reciting, is asked by a young lady, “‘Pray, ma’am, do you write in the newspapers?’” And, adding to Martha’s mortification, the young lady teasingly asks, “‘Are you Anna Matilda, or Della Crusca, or Laura Maria? Comical creatures! they have made me shed many a tear, though I never more than half understood them’” (7: 133). Alluding to her early career, Robinson pokes fun at herself and at Hannah Cowley (Anna Matilda) and Robert Merry (Della Crusca) for writing the hugely popular poetry that frequently also was criticized for being no more than glittering nonsense. Robinson, writing with comical deadpan, has the earnest and mortified Martha refute the association, “‘I never wrote under either of those signatures,’ said Mrs. Morley.’ ” Robinson winks wryly at her readers with “either,” ironically owning up to her alter-ego Laura Maria. Of course, this is all in fun because her readers had known she was Laura Maria since 1791, when she claimed the “feigned signatures” of Laura, Laura Maria, and Oberon in the preface to her Poems by Mrs. M. Robinson. As this moment in The Natural Daughter proves, Robinson never disavows her connection to the so-called Della Cruscans, although the Memoirs, concerned with the preserva- tion and perpetuation of her literary reputation, does: “dazzled by the false metaphors and rhapsodical extravagance of some contempo- rary writers, she suffered her judgment to be misled and her taste to be perverted: an error of which she became afterwards sensible” (7: 279). Although she engages in some mild self-parody, this episode of The Natural Daughter is a reminder that the poetry of Della Crusca and his pseudonymous associates originally was all in good fun.
At the time of writing The Natural Daughter, Robinson also was reviving Laura Maria in the columns of the Morning Post. She signed “Laura Maria” to a tributary poem to Samuel Jackson Pratt on 25 July 1799 and continued to use it while working for Daniel Stuart at the Morning Post throughout 1800. Robinson originally designed the avatar in 1789 for Bell’s newspaper The Oracle, but she had not used the pseudonym since her poem “To Zephyrus. Written in August, 1793” appeared in the Oracle on 7 January 1794. From 1789 until then, it had been her principal pseudonym. So, five years later, her revival of Laura Maria in the newspaper coincides with her reminder in The Natural Daughter of Laura Maria’s connection to Della Crusca and Anna Matilda. At the end of her career, Robinson clearly then wished to rekindle also the popular sensation that helped her begin it by reminding her readers that newspaper poetry is meant to be playful and fun, and that she was not ashamed of writing it. Before it was attacked for being a degenerate “school of poetry,” the so-called Della Cruscans, those writers who corresponded with Della Crusca and those who effected the publication of it, created a popular culture phenomenon but were also a professional network into which Robinson insinuated herself in order to get her career off the ground. Literary and professional networking in the London newspapers is how Robinson begins and ends her career.
While she certainly enjoyed participating in various more or less private coteries throughout her life, as a poet she pursued the pub- licity of professional and literary networks, founded on transmission and proliferation. In this book, I focus on Robinson’s principal forum for her poetry—the newspaper—but also on the way her poetry net- works with other texts, paratexts, contexts, and intertexts in that par- ticular space. Crucial to the idea of the network is the space in which it exists: originally, for the Della Crusca network, for instance, this is the newspaper, a kind of textual heterotopia where different actors— the writers and the poems themselves—cross temporal, textual, and aesthetic boundaries.1 This establishment of a public literary network with a shared ethos requires someone like Bell, who published first the World and then the Oracle, or like Stuart, who published the Morning Post; these businessmen had a commercial commitment to popular taste and the means to facilitate the network and provide a space for it. Bell is a conduit through which the Della Crusca network happens, just as Stuart is for the network of writers who worked for him at the Morning Post. The key to understanding the nature of this kind of network is the paratextual evidence found in the newspa- per publication—but not usually reprinted in the book publications. There are commercial reasons for this, of course. In the newspapers, poetry served a purpose much in the way the comics section does in today’s papers; it filled space when needed and provided diversion for readers. Because, in the paper, the poems are ephemeral and literally disposable, they ought to be playful, sensational, and, frankly, easy to read. Every feature of the publication of these poems is meant to contribute to the facility of appreciation, which also suggests a cor- responding facility of composition.
Robinson’s newspaper poetry, particularly in the amorous play of oetic exchange or the social commentary of political satire for public consumption, therefore, shows how she was able to adopt the strate- gies of the network she wants to join. I have organized this study around the two publishers who represent the two principal networks in which Robinson participated as a contributor of newspaper verse. She affiliated herself first with Bell and then later with Stuart, mak- ing herself their laureate in order to facilitate her professional career but also her pursuit of poetic fame. Her participation, then, in each of these networks is chiefly a professional literary collaboration. In this respect, Robinson’s creation of a repertoire of pseudonyms, which I call avatars, and the deployment of those avatars within the shift- ing contexts of her networks, is just as important as the performative nature of her poetic self. In other words, Robinson’s adoption of a poetic persona is performative insofar as it disembodies herself from her public history, and insofar as it as it re-appropriates her self from celebrity, from her place of public spectacle, for a career in words and texts. We should read the poetic performances of Robinson’s avatars— indeed, their performativity—then, not only as acting in a theatrical sense but in a formal sense as per-forming or (en)acting through form. In other words, although it may inform her poetic avatars, Robinson’s background as an actress need not overdetermine the way we read her pseudonyms. As a working poet who contributed to several news- papers and who sought professional recognition, Robinson follows a long tradition of pseudonymous periodical publication by which many emerging writers establish themselves. Robinson, however, is always re-emerging and re-establishing herself.
Despite the fact that she was an actress, Robinson’s use of pseud- onyms is not necessarily any more theatrical than, say, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele sharing the “Isaac Bickerstaff” pseudonym or Benjamin Franklin writing to the New England Courant as the female “Silence Dogood” in the 1740s. Pascoe offers many different explanations for Robinson’s practice—from “theatrical impulse” to “legerdemain” to “disguises” to “a fragmented self” to “performance on demand” (175–80). While any one of these expla- nations is at least partly true in some instances, I have come to the conclusion that Robinson’s use of pseudonyms cannot be explained by any one coherent theory that seeks the constitution of Robinson’s biographical or authorial self. It is also tempting to invoke Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” as Pascoe does (176). I find Robert J. Griffin’s elaboration of Foucault to be pertinent to my understanding of what Robinson is doing: Griffin explains that Foucault “theorized that one aspect of the author-function was the way, in the act of writing, it produced multiple selves; his example is the distinction of voices in a text and their relation to the person writing” (890). Of course, Griffin’s point—and Foucault’s—more directly applies to the autho- rial concept that is “Mrs. Mary Robinson,” an identity which ulti- mately assimilates (or attempts to) the various signatures. Robinson’s avatars, in a sense, allegorize the “aspect of the author-function” Griffin describes. Furthermore, the nature of the avatar is to evade any attempt to render a coherent writerly subjectivity; the avatar is protean, a refraction of identity, one potentially of many.
Robinson deploys a range of avatars depending on text, context, or whim. Robinson’s signatures, I contend, are formal features of the poems to which they are attached. I read them as incidental attributes of the literary text; so, as such, they resound in paratextual, contex- tual, and intertextual voices and echoes. We may read the pseudony- mous signature attached to a poem just as we read its title, epigraph, or footnote. I tend to resist, therefore, imagining a fictional authorial persona or character that Robinson is performing—except when it is clear she is doing that. But even then, as we shall see, attempting to understand the signature as a coherent character can be exasperating. Even trying to slot Robinson’s pseudonymity into a taxonomy such as the useful one Paula R. Feldman suggests for Romantic-period women poets is problematic (“Women” 286–7). The only reliable way to read Robinson’s pseudonymous signature is to understand its textual presence as a formal choice the poet has made, like choosing to write a sonnet instead of an ode. Robinson’s pseudonyms are unique because of their multiplicity in the context of the newspapers with which she was affiliated and also because of the way each instance of a pseudonym attached to a poem involves its particular textual circumstance and does not necessarily involve other instances of the same pseudonym. As I will show in what follows, Robinson’s Oberon avatar is rich with allusion but is not a character that informs the group of poems that carry the “Oberon” signature. Each signature contributes to a Venn diagram of multiple referents for its specific instance. Building on Pascoe’s and Feldman’s explanations, I want to demonstrate how fluid and amorphous Robinson’s pseudonyms are; they sometimes mean this, they sometimes mean that, but ultimately they mean “Mary Robinson”—whatever that is.
Robinson’s avatars allow for a kind of fantastic ludic play while also representing the propagation of her poetic self for professional aggrandizement and for literary fame. She learned this from Della Crusca. I use the term avatar because I want to distinguish the Della Cruscan use of pen names from the trope of pseudonym-as-costume, which is limiting because it assumes that the pseudonyms are characters with coherence and consistency. But my conception of pseudonym-as-avatar also distinguishes Robinson’s avatars from the trope of pseudonym-as-disguise, which provides a writer with ways of effacing his or her authentic self for protection from persecution or prosecution, as would become necessary in Pitt’s England after 1794; or the public disguise which allows for the preservation of one’s sense of a more legitimate authorial self, as Southey, for exam- ple, used pseudonyms for his newspaper verse as a way of maintaining the integrity of his actual signature. Southey uses his pen names and anonymity to hide, to elide from his professional self the commercial exchange of occasional poetry for money. Robinson never really uses her pseudonyms this way and continues to use certain pseudonyms even after her true identity is known. In other words, it does not matter if people know her true identity because the pseudonym is just another version of her authorial self. Robinson uses her pen-names not merely to network with actual associates but to network with popular culture and literary tradition. The avatar is the figurative incarnation of the textual and contextual identity adopted by a poet, and thus allows for a multiplicity of poetic performances. Any one of Robinson’s avatars, to put it another way, is not unlike a brand-name. But, at the same time, I would argue that this proliferation is not merely self-promotion, although that is certainly one of Robinson’s goals in nearly everything that she wrote; instead, I see Robinson’s pseudonyms as fundamentally literary in that they inform the reading of the poems to which they are attached.
I focus on Robinson’s poetry as it appears in newspapers because this is where she primarily used the avatars – with the notable excep- tion of Ainsi va le monde, which I discuss in chapter two.2 Since Robinson’s use of avatars is neither more nor less authentic or per- formative, each avatar is simply another version of a potential poetic self, one that is partly a refraction of a professional self and one that we cannot assume to be coherent; the network of texts and authors established by the newspaper provides a means for generating a mul- tiplicity of selves instead of effacing or disguising the self or identity. The avatar is the incarnation of poetic legitimacy once it asserts itself in a literary network—even if it is a fiction. As Robinson or perhaps Bell asserts in the “Dedication” to her 1791 Poems,
Mrs. ROBINSON has the particular gratification of knowing that the efforts of her pen were warmly, and honourably patronized under
FEIGNED Signatures: had she avowed them at an earlier period the plea- sure she now feels would have been considerably diminished, in the idea that the partiality of friends had procured the sanction her Poems have been favoured with from the candid and enlightened (iii)
Here, the pseudonyms have asserted the legitimacy of Robinson’s poetic talents by protecting the poems from the “partiality of friends” and from its opposite. Even though it is both posturing and market- ing, this preface initiates a public performance in which Robinson, no longer on stage, asserts a textual claim to fame that her poems will have to fulfill. Her handsome volume, elegantly printed by Bell, is, moreover, a material product of her successful networking. But this success is contingent upon the game she has learned how to play. Her avatars are not disguises—they are all testaments, artifacts of her lit- erary and cultural authority. She continues to use a pseudonym even after everyone knows it belongs to her. An avatar thus is all about being that version of oneself: she can be Laura Maria or she can be Oberon as a textual feature of the poetic instance. This is how she manifests and proliferates herself through form.
Oberon as Robinson—Not Robinson as Oberon
Were her avatars theatrical performances in print, Robinson sim- ply could have picked a character, say, from Shakespeare and writ- ten poetry as that character. Swift and Franklin, for instance, had constructed coherent characters for periodical publication. But her pseudonyms are far more complicated than that, as her Oberon ava- tar demonstrates. Oberon provides a useful case study. She used it early in her career for her contributions to Bell’s newspaper the Oracle and revived it years later when she worked for Stuart at the Morning Post during the final year of her life. The signature is interesting because it is a male persona and thus recalls Robinson’s stint as an actress known for playing “breeches” parts. And, obvi- ously, the name ostensibly alludes to Shakespeare’s quasimalevolent king of the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Stylistically, the tetrameter couplets and quatrains that feature in Robinson’s first Oberon poems recall the charming musicality of Ben Jonson’s 1611 masque Oberon, The Fairy Prince and the fairy songs therein; likewise, Robinson’s Oberon poems also recall Robert Herrick’s playfully erotic Oberon poems, “Oberon’s Feast” (sometimes called “Oberon’s Palace”) and “The Fairy Temple; or, Oberon’s
Chapel,” both in octosyllabic couplets, which is the form of many of Robinson’s Oberon poems.
Robinson’s first use of the Oberon avatar involves Merry, who by this time was no longer using the Della Crusca avatar. Her “To the Queen of the Fairies,” signed “Oberon,” appeared in the Oracle on 3 June 1790 and is part of a series of poems initiated by Merry writ- ing as “Il Ferito,” which is Italian for “the injured man.” And this exchange also involves Bell, who, in addition to publishing the news- paper in which these poems appeared, would publish later that year Merry’s Laurel of Liberty and Robinson’s Ainsi va le monde (to be discussed in chapter two). Other cultural influences from newspaper reports may be in play as well: Robinson may have seen or, more likely, heard or read about Henry Fuseli’s Titania Awakening, which the papers described as “Oberon”; even a prominent racehorse named “Oberon” was covered in the papers—and certainly the Prince of Wales and his circle were following such topics. But most likely the pseudonym is an inside joke for Bell and others among Sheridan’s Drury Lane crowd. Robinson’s pseudonym is a reference to Susannah Cibber’s popular one-act comedy The Oracle, which premiered in 1753 on Drury Lane and enjoyed several revivals there and at Covent Garden until the end of the century. Cibber’s play, adapted from a French comedy by Germain-François de Saint-Foix, tells the story of the young Oberon, son of the fairy queen, who falls in love with the mortal Cinthia, thus fulfilling the prophecy of an oracle who foretold the young fairy would marry a beautiful princess. A renowned actress and singer, Cibber, also the daughter-in-law of Colley Cibber who managed Drury Lane before David Garrick did, was for two decades Garrick’s leading lady and became the highest paid actress at Drury Lane until her death in 1766. So, referring to the Oberon of Cibber’s comedy, Robinson’s pseudonym makes a kind of pun on the name of the newspaper in which it exclusively appeared (until many years later). Moreover, as is typical of Robinson, the reference to Cibber is particularly self-reflexive: Cibber had been, like Robinson, Garrick’s protégée, and Robinson recalled in her Memoirs that Garrick used to praise her by comparing her to “his favourite Cibber” (7: 207). Even more than this, Cibber also was the most famous actress to play the role of Perdita in Garrick’s adaptation of The Winter’s Tale prior to Robinson’s fateful portrayal of the part.
Again, Robinson is not playing a character that presumably has a particular—or characteristic—subjectivity. She is presenting an alternate version of herself. Robinson, therefore, is not playing the role of Oberon as if it were a character. The avatar performs a multiplicity of allusions, characters, texts, contexts, intertexts, and modes. Robinson’s use of this avatar is arresting and complicated, for at first she plays on the character’s role in Shakespeare’s comedy as an agent of erotic deception: Two years later, in a twist presum- ably on the dispute between Oberon and Titania over the changeling boy, Robinson employs the avatar for a series of poems on maternal themes. The initial poem, Il Ferito’s “Subjection,” appeared in the Oracle on 29 May 1790, inspiring a response from the “Queen of the Fairies,” which Bell printed on 2 June. The papers for these days, however, are not known to exist. Robinson’s poem “To the Queen of the Fairies” appeared the very next day, 3 June; this day’s paper fortunately has been preserved. Another poem “To Il Ferito,” signed by “Philo-Poesis” (“Poetry-lover”), appeared the same day in the same column and identifies Il Ferito as Della Crusca—not as Robert Merry. This poem appears with a footnote quoting Il Ferito’s origi- nal poem: “I’ll quit for e’er this fatal Shore.” One avatar is used to identify another. Robinson does the same thing when she includes the poem in her 1791 Poems, providing a footnote for “Il Ferito” that reads simply “Della Crusca.” Aside from the title, Philo-Poesis’s poem drops all pretense and directly addresses Della Crusca. Robinson’s Oberon avatar debuts in this context. Although we do not have the poem to which she responds, the reprinting of her poem in the 1791 volume provides as an epigraph a ten-line excerpt from “Queen of the Fairies to Il Ferito,” which indicates that the poem is essentially a request from Mab/Titania that Oberon magically intervene on Il Ferito’s behalf. Robinson’s poem is his response—“Sweet Mab—at thy command I flew” (1: 75; 1). The poem is unabashedly sexual, as Robinson’s Oberon describes finding Maria asleep, with suitably white breast and blushing cheek; he enhances her already erotic dream of Il Ferito with specific characteristics:
The blissful moment swift I caught, And to the Maiden’s slumb’ring thought Pictur’d the graces of his mind,
His Taste, his Eloquence refin’d; His polish’d Manners sweetly mild, His soft poetic warblings wild:
His warm empassion’d Verse, that fills The Soul with Love’s ecstatic thrills.
I mark’d the blush upon her cheek Her spotless bosom’s language speak; I mark’d the tear of pity roll, Sweet emblem of her feeling Soul.
This passage employs the tropes of Sensibility—particularly the ubiq- uitous “tear of pity” —but ultimately to serve a ludic and erotic end. The “sympathetic Sigh” that Oberon’s magic accomplishes here is the emblem not of the sentimental recognition of a common human- ity but of her now reciprocated sexual desire for Il Ferito / Della Crusca. The poem comically concludes when a “too eager” Cupid approaches “the Maiden’s bed” and wakes her; Oberon’s mission is accomplished as the poem, his “rapt’rous Tale,” eagerly reports “To Il Ferito’s grateful Ear” (1: 77; 51–58). Here, Robinson’s Oberon seems to perform a role similar to that of Shakespeare’s character, using his magic to influence the romantic entanglements of young lovers; and she does it with gusto.
This is the only Oberon poem to appear in her 1791 volume, which gathers her poetry from the World and the Oracle. The vol- ume’s preface unmasks Laura, Laura Maria, and Oberon as the “feigned signatures” of “Mrs. M. Robinson.” This specific avowal of only one poem draws particular attention to Robinson’s iden- tity as “Oberon.” Perhaps the author of “Queen of the Fairies to Il Ferito” beat her to the Mab/Titania character, or perhaps Robinson enjoyed dabbling in the heteroerotic mischief the Oberon character affords. As I suggested above, however, her subsequent use of the Oberon avatar, before temporarily retiring it, greatly complicates this interpretation of the character. After the publication of the 1791 volume—and the revelation of Oberon as one of Robinson’s avatars—she employed it again for a series of poems on maternal themes. The first, simply titled “Invocation,” appeared with the “Oberon” signature in the Oracle on 15 March 1792. Here, Oberon responds to “a plaintive voice,” but this time he is called upon to heal a sick girl also named Maria, thus recalling Il Ferito’s loved one (1: 170; 9). Oberon promises, “Fair Maria’s fev’rish lip, / Shall Hygeia’s balsam sip” (1: 171; 47–8). The poem concludes with the assurance that Still, where’er the Damsel strays, Thro’ dull life’s perplexing maze.
GUARDIAN OF HER DESTINY
This poem presents a different, more protective and fatherly Oberon and a different Maria. No other reference is made to the previous poem. On 17 March 1792, the Oracle printed an unsigned response, “Oberon and Titania,” written by playwright James Boaden, who also worked on the paper. This response is a playful dialogue in which the fairy queen jealously interprets Robinson’s poem, signed “Oberon,” as a seduction poem; a minor quarrel ensues, and the poem con- cludes with Oberon’s assurance that Titania need not doubt his fidel- ity and that he was merely soothing “a mother’s fears.”3 Later, on 27 March, Robinson prints “Oberon to Maria on Seeing Her Gather Some Pensees,” which might seem to run the risk of rekindling Titania’s jealousy (1: 171–2). When Robinson republished these two poems in her 1794 Poems, they are transformed into poems about her daughter recovering from a distressing illness; the first poem is re-titled as “Invocation, Written on the Recovery of My Daughter from Inoculation, and First Published with the Signature of Oberon” and the second as “Stanzas to My Beloved Daughter, On Seeing Her Gather Some Pensées.” The former is greatly expanded but not in such a way as to emphasize the reading established by the new title and dif- ferent context. The latter poem, which remains largely unchanged, also presents a fatherly Oberon who admonishes the girl for picking and thus killing the flowers and teaches the lesson, “Take not what bounteous NATURE gave / But learn to cherish—and to save” (1: 172; 22–3). This Oberon bears no relation to Shakespeare’s Oberon or to Robinson’s previous poems; instead, he seems to be a more generally mythical figure, as the gathering of flowers, in English folklore, is associated with fairies.
But why would Robinson write poems for her daughter as Oberon?
In the Memoirs, Robinson’s poetic composition is associated with her efforts “to cheer and amuse” her daughter, Maria Elizabeth, during an illness (7: 276). The Oberon avatar for these poems is particularly curious, especially given the dispute in Shakespeare’s play between Oberon and Titania over the changeling boy whose mother left under Titania’s care. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon intends to dis- rupt Titania’s maternal role by taking the boy from her to be one of his henchmen. These poems would seem to radically revise the character of Oberon. Robinson’s Oberon, as it turns out, is just as much influenced by Frances Greville’s “A Prayer for Indifference,” sometimes printed as “Ode to Indifference,” as by Shakespeare’s character. Greville’s poem, memorably examined by Jerome McGann in The Poetics of Sensibility, is indeed a key text in that tradition, inspiring responses by both Hannah More and Helen Maria Williams.4 In Greville’s poem, the speaker invokes Oberon in the hope that he may provide some opiate, “the sovereign balm” or the “nymph Indifference bring,” as an antidote to her painful sensibility. This portrayal of Oberon likely influenced the original Il Ferito exchange. Although Greville alludes to Oberon’s mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she sees him as a fantastic apothecary of sorts, taking pity on mortals’ wounds; the “prayer” ends, renouncing the pain of love in favor of “sober ease” and being content in being “half-pleas’d.” The speaker asks of Oberon a kind of numb asceticism presumably, through further literary infer- ence, to avoid the erotic agitation associated with his queen, Mab, in Mercutio’s speech from Romeo and Juliet. Still, it is difficult to recog- nize Oberon as a protector without reading Greville’s portrayal as an additional layer of intertextuality.
On a more personal level, these poems figuratively provide Robinson’s daughter with a paternal figure that allegorizes the actual fact of Robinson’s having to raise Maria Elizabeth without the assis- tance of the girl’s father, Thomas Robinson. In the case of these two poems, the avatar may serve as a way for Robinson to overwrite her daughter’s real father with a fantastic poetic version of herself; this overwriting also revises the antimaternal aspect of Shakespeare’s character, who, in the play, ends up taking the boy and inexplica- bly reconciling with his formerly defiant queen, whom Oberon has humiliated and humbled by having her sleep with Bottom.
The next time Robinson writes as Oberon, she addresses her fellow poet Charlotte Smith. The last Oberon poem for nearly seven years appeared in the Oracle on 17 September 1793 as “Sonnet to Mrs. Charlotte Smith, on Hearing that Her Son Was Wounded at the Siege of Dunkirk.” Significantly, this is the only poem in which Robinson pays tribute to a contemporary female poet, but here the emphasis is on Smith as a mother rather than as a fellow poet. As a woman, mother, and hardworking professional writer, Robinson suggests a kinship with Smith, whose son Charles lost his leg in combat while serving under the Duke of York at the Siege of Dunkirk; Smith’s children, like Robinson’s, were similarly fatherless, if not literally so. Certainly, Robinson’s choice of form pays tribute to Smith, who was widely recognized as the poet responsible for reviving the sonnet with the publication of her Elegiac Sonnets in 1784. But the poem focuses on the presumed maternal anxi- ety as Robinson promises comfort for Smith in poetic composition:
Yet HOPE for THEE shall bend her soothing wings, Steal to thy breast, and check the rising tear, As to thy polish’d mind rapt Fancy brings.
The GALLANT BOY, to BRITAIN’S GENIUS dear!
And, while for HIM a LAUREL’D Couch SHE strews,
Fair TRUTH shall snatch a Wreath, TO DECK HIS PARENT MUSE! (1: 210–1; 8–14)
Perhaps out of a sense of delicacy and respect, Robinson avoids flat- tering Smith but instead acknowledges her son’s service and sacri- fice, and suggests that Smith will receive the gratification not of a poet but of a parent, earning not a poetic laurel but a maternal one. This poem is complicated by the possibility of a rivalry between the two poets, whose literary careers run parallel in many respects and by the reality of Robinson’s infamous nonliterary career as Perdita. Because of Robinson’s reputation, Smith wanted to avoid any asso- ciation between her work and Robinson’s, and Robinson may have sensed that Smith may not have accepted as a compliment a tributary poem signed by her.5 So, the paternal Oberon avatar serves as a partial effacement of the unsavory aspects of Robinson’s past. Robinson’s poem, for example, prompted a response: “Sonnet to Oberon, Occasioned by a Sonnet to Mrs. Charlotte Smith, in the Oracle of the 17th September” by “Themira” appeared in the Oracle for 20 September 1793, reminding readers the previous Oberon poems— particularly “Invocation”—are poems that “could sooth a weeping Mother’s woe.” But, by this time, Robinson already had claimed the Oberon avatar in all of its complexity and with all of the associations it entailed.
Robinson does not use the Oberon avatar again until it appears nearly seven years later in the Oracle, now owned by Peter Stuart, who purchased it from Bell and called it the Oracle and Daily Advertiser. On 4 April 1799, Robinson gave the signature to her “Stanzas on the Duchess of Devonshire,” which again recalls Cibber’s comedy for a similar play on the pseudonym and the lovesick hero of The Oracle. Here, the avatar pays court to Robinson’s own patroness, Georgiana, but the guise of a male admirer allows Robinson to add a touch of erotic infatuation (2: 1). Almost a year later, Robinson revives the avatar for her work at the Morning Post during the final year of her life, at which point it loses its punning association. As Pascoe points out, Oberon becomes an identity for “lavish[ing] praises on women” (Romantic 174). In particular, she does so on female celebrities whose experience of publicity, good and bad, may accord in some respects with Robinson’s. Oberon praises them in several poems published in the Morning Post during the final year of Robinson’s life, includ- ing an ode to the actress Dora Bland whose stage name was “Mrs. Jordan” (2: 55–66), a lyric celebrating the beauty of Georgiana and her aristocratic cohort (“Stanzas Written in Hyde-Park on Sunday Last” [2: 57–8]), another lyric marveling at the spectacle of Georgiana in her “new and splendid carriage” (2: 58–9), and a poem on catching a glimpse of the Countess of Yarmouth “at her window in Piccadilly” (2: 67–8). These poems, replete with the frisson of f leeting glimpses of fashionable female celebrity, gently lampoon the chivalric hyperbole of male erotic spectatorship and hyper-sensibility, if not the spectacles themselves. Robinson treads lightly here, for she was known to be the author of the Oberon poems and did not want to risk alienating those whom she hoped would subscribe to a third volume of her collected poems, which never materialized despite being puffed aggressively in the Post. For instance, her “Stanzas on the Duchess of Devonshire’s Indisposition” conveys no irony in its sympathetic concern and its praise of Georgiana’s virtue and mag- nanimity (2: 75). But Robinson also revives the paternal/maternal facet of the avatar for “Lines Addressed to a Beautiful Infant,” which she inscribed to Eliza Fenwick, author of the novel Secresy (1795), who with her young children stayed with Robinson for a few weeks in the summer of 1800 when Fenwick separated from her husband (2: 108–9).
But the Oberon avatar resists characterization as erotic or pater- nal, and the Oberon poems defy classification as having any qualities peculiar to a coherent fiction of Oberon’s personality or authority. Oberon is like any other poet-figure in that he writes in a variety of styles from a variety of perspectives. In this way, Oberon, like each of her avatars, is a metonym for Robinson. She used the signature for several other poems during the final months of her life, from May until October of 1800, and these final Oberon poems run the gambit of her lyric modes. Playing on Burns’s “To a Mouse,” “Oberon, to the May Fly” is a charming rumination on the transience of human life, but with a comic bathos in the image of a tiny fairy and fly replacing the laborer and the mouse (2: 84–5). “The Fisherman” is mildly subversive in its celebration of working-class contentedness (2: 106–7). In “A Hue and Cry,” Oberon complains of the wan- ton immodesty displayed by revelers at Brighton—undoubtedly a dig at the Prince of Wales’ supposed dissipation following his separa- tion from Caroline of Brunswick (2: 118). Oberon is amorous (“To Arabelle!” [2: 128–9]), comical (“Sweet Madeline of Aberdeen” [2: 131–2]), pathetic (“Written on the Sea-Shore” [2: 133–4]), didactic (“Love’s Four Senses” [2: 142–3]), and sentimental (“Written Near an Old Oak” [2: 143–4]). And in a pair of poems signed “M. R.,” “Oberon to Titania” and “Titania’s Answer to Oberon,” Robinson figuratively returns the characters to Shakespeare (2: 119–21).
The most remarkable of Robinson’s Oberon poems is “The Camp,” which Paula Feldman describes as “a poetic tour de force” (British 594). Like her earlier poem “January 1795,” published with Robinson’s Portia avatar (see chapter four), “The Camp” is in tro- chaic tetrameter, which is best known as the meter Shakespeare uses for the witches in Macbeth, to which Robinson alludes by echoing the phrase “hurly burly” in line 32 (2: 111–2). Robinson’s metri- cal choice, moreover, greatly the enhances the satirical montage of sights and sounds of an assembly of soldiers and an attendant entou- rage where the fashionable and the military, the opulent and the vul- gar, and, most of all, the sexual, the belligerent, and the commercial become jarringly confused. As Pascoe notes, Robinson probably wit- nessed much of this firsthand at Windsor Camp, where, as the Post reported on 5 August 1800, a large party took place the week before (Romantic 156). Robinson’s Oberon poem, however, appeared in the Morning Post more immediately on 1 August 1800. The poem’s form extends its meaning through accretion, but here is how it opens:
TENTS, marquees, and baggage waggons; Suttling houses; beer in flaggons;
Drums and trumpets, singing, firing; Girls seducing, beaux admiring; Country lasses gay and smiling
City lads their hearts beguiling; Dusty roads, and horses frisky; Many an Eton boy in whisky;
Tax’d carts full of farmers’ daughters;
Brutes condemn’d, and man—who slaughters!— Public-houses, booths, and castles;
Belles of fashion, serving vassals; Lordly Gen’rals fiercely staring,
Weary soldiers, sighing, swearing! (2: 111; 1–14)
Robinson uses the binary symmetry of the couplets and the syncopa- tion of varying caesurae to sonic and semantic effect. The power of the poem is that the irony, one suspects, is ironic in itself because its satirical method shifts imperceptibly from objective description to sarcastic juxtaposition and back again. Moreover, the poem’s inevi- table rhythmic echo of “Double, double, toil and trouble” gives it pleasingly disorienting oscillation between playfulness and dread. As it builds to its conclusion—where Oberon finally observes, “All con- fusion, din, and riot— / NOTHING CLEAN—AND NOTHING QUIET.”— the fairy signature attached at the end merges strangely but effectively with the sound of the witches’ incantation. Because of its formal effi- ciency and satirical clarity, this has become one of Robinson’s most admired poems since Curran first drew attention to it in “The I Altered” (191–2). As Jeffrey C. Robinson suggests, “the laying out of sights and sounds changes confusion into relationships, a swirl of detail becomes a constellation” (97). One of her best poems, “The Camp,” unlike most of Robinson’s poems, did not become part of her canon represented by the 1806 Poetical Works, which was edited by her daughter, Maria Elizabeth. But it did reappear with a few substan- tive changes as “Winkfield Plain; or a Description of a Camp in the Year 1800” in Maria Elizabeth Robinson’s 1804 anthology The Wild Wreath, published in tribute to her mother.6 There, it appears signed not by Oberon but with the initials “M. E. R.” Perhaps a misprint. However, given the likelihood that the poem’s descriptions could eas- ily recall the Prince of Wales’ corps at Brighton and thus Robinson’s past association with him, Maria Elizabeth may have given her own initials to the poem in an effort to distance her mother from that unsavory past rather than to claim it as her own work. But then why reprint the poem at all? Whatever the reason, Robinson’s pseudonym would not do. As an avatar, Oberon fails as effacement of Robinson’s authorship even despite the fact that the signature represents a mythi- cal king of the fairies. Robinson thus does not play Oberon; rather, Oberon represents Robinson.7
During her tenure as Stuart’s chief poetic correspondent, Robinson revived nearly all of her avatars, most of which I will discuss in the course of this study. They are all fluid, shifting, finally indeterminate as representations of anything other than Robinson’s fertile, fervid poetic ingenuity. This is why I think of them in terms of form rather than character or persona. In the tributary poems that appear in the 1801 Memoirs and the 1806 Poetical Works, Robinson’s poetic admir- ers use the avatars interchangeably as allegories for Robinson’s poetic genius. On a more mundane level, for professional purposes, the pseudonyms gave the impression of variety—especially in the final year of her life—and provided her employers with the appearance of a healthy stable of writers. As the chief contributor of poetry to the Morning Post, Robinson seems to have thought of her position as requiring at least the fiction of a vast array of poetic contributors. As she writes to her friend Pratt, “I continue my daily labours / in the Post; all the Oberons, Tabithas, MR’s and indeed all most of the poetry, you see there is mine” (7: 321). This is the way she took charge of the paper’s poetical department, a subject I will address in greater depth in chapter four. The principals among Robinson’s gallery of avatars are Laura, Laura Maria, Oberon, Portia, Tabitha Bramble, and Sappho, although I would include “M. R.” and “Mrs. Robinson” as having discernible valances among this group of signs. But the minor avatars, too, have peculiar significations and resonance attached incidentally to certain poems. “Humanitas,” for instance, has a specific political determinacy evinced by its Latin etymology (see page 168); “Lesbia” is a counterpart to Robinson’s own Sappho avatar but with deliberate heteroerotic overtones. Robinson signed a couple of poems in April of 1800 as “Bridget,” which may refer to a character in her own poem “The Confessor—A Sanctified Tale” or to the shrewish wife of Franklin’s Poor Richard. And Robinson used her Julia avatar primarily for lightly erotic poetry during the early 1790s, including her popular lyric “Stanzas, Written between Dover and Calais, July 24th, 1792” (1: 180–1), which in truth arose from a bitter separation from Tarleton but which, in the context of a news- paper exchange in the Oracle, would have appeared to result from Julia’s affair with a certain “Carlos.”8 But Julia was also an attempt at partial self-effacement, too, such as with the fawning “Sonnet, To the Prince of Wales,” which Robinson signed “Julia” before she was known to be the poet behind the pseudonym (1: 184). But there is likely some irony in this as well, since, as Robinson would have known, Julia is the granddaughter of Augustus and, according to the lore, the supposed lover of Ovid. Augustus banished both Julia and Ovid in the same year—a feeling Robinson knew well, having been banished figuratively by her lover’s father, King George III.
The Della Crusca Network
When Mary Robinson returned from her self-imposed continental exile at the beginning of 1788, the poetry of the World was all the rage. The sensational poetic exchange between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda, carried on in the columns of this innovative newspaper, was at the height of its popularity, with readers speculating feverishly on the identities of the two rhapsodic poets. Later, in July, an attractive two-volume anthology of poems collected from the World appeared from the press of John Bell. Edited by Bell’s colorful partner, Captain Edward Topham, this anthology gave Robinson a context in which to begin her career as a professional writer, particularly as it established the kind of poet she was going to be. Robinson’s continental sojourn had been partly for convalescence and partly to escape her creditors and the infamy of the gossip pages. Now, back in England, she had to care for a sickly teenage daughter and an elderly mother. Moreover, she was partially incapacitated by a mysterious illness she suffered in 1783. She was therefore in need of a profession. The Memoirs (1801) presents this return as momentous, as “the commencement of her literary career”: “On her arrival in London, she was affectionately received by the few friends whose attachment neither detraction nor adverse fortunes could weaken or estrange” (7: 275). Robinson found herself “surrounded by social and rational friends,” among them, she notes, the Prince and his brother, the Duke of York (7: 275). Robinson, furthermore, remained on friendly terms with Fox, who also was a friend of Tarleton, and with Sheridan, who had an uneasy political relationship with Fox. The Memoirs additionally describe the impromptu composition of “Lines to Him Who Will Understand Them” in the company of Richard Burke, son of Edmund Burke (7: 276). Robinson thus returned to a heady social network of eminent Whigs who welcomed her home. Was Topham or Bell among them? Is it possible someone presented Robinson with Bell’s lovely volumes, The Poetry of the World? Preoccupied as her poetry would be with fame, Robinson surely could not have resisted the final page’s guar- antee “to transmit to Posterity all the POETRY which shall hereafter appear in the WORLD” and its implied invitation: “Correspondents, of talents, therefore, will have the gratification of finding their favors elegantly and respectably preserved” (2: 144). In addition to the like- lihood that either Topham or Bell directly solicited her correspon- dence, she would have found irresistible the idea that her poetry could be “elegantly and respectably preserved” after having endured the indignity of the “Perdita” epithet and its humiliating associations. Robinson was willing to work for her poetic immortality as a profes- sional writer, even if she had to start by earning pennies by contribut- ing newspaper verse.
Robinson’s return to England was also her return to publicity. Just ten days before the publication of The Poetry of the World that same paper reported, on 4 June, that “Mrs. Robinson has left Aix, and Spa; and means to continue in London.” Although she had been in England since the beginning of the year, this particular item suggests that Topham and his editor, the Reverend Charles Este, were taking note of her movements and possibly that they were socializing with her; a news item, or puff, such as this suggests that they were solic- iting her to contribute. Insipid as this item is, it was the first press report on Robinson in several years that did not portray Robinson as an exemplar of female depravity and that did not exult in reporting her well-deserved fall from fashionable celebrity into penury and debility. Around the time of her return to London, on 14 January 1788, the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser reported that “Mrs. Robinson, the celebrated Perdita, has published, in France, several pieces of Poetry, which have been well received.” For most of the rest of her life, public remarks on Robinson’s celebrity always are suf- fused with irony, encoded with ignominy; Robinson could not escape entirely being associated with the avatar of her celebrity, Perdita the “Cyprian devotee.”9 As a poet, however, she sought to diminish the potency of such repeated attempts to humiliate her by demonstrating her poetic powers.
Robinson was eager to exchange identities. The most important choice of Robinson’s literary career is her participation in the net- work around Bell. When Robinson returned to London, the success of this network already had been established with the popularity of Della Crusca’s poetry. I call this network, therefore, the Della Crusca network because Merry’s pseudonym was its public avatar. The Della Crusca network afforded Robinson a crucial opportunity for exchanging her celebrity for poetic fame. In October, inspired by the success of Bell’s anthology, Robinson published her poem “Lines Dedicated to the Memory of a Much-Lamented Young Gentleman,” her first publication in over a decade. Writing as “Laura,” with delib- erate Petrarchan resonance, Robinson thus made her first serious foray onto the literary scene and began to re-appropriate versions of her public self, displacing her past as actress and courtesan, while also envisioning other possible contexts for her poetic identity. Merry provided her a model for doing so: after a few years abroad, he had repatriated himself in the newspaper as Della Crusca and had become famous. Merry’s success as Della Crusca showed her how to parlay form into fame—not just poetic form, but the shape-shifting made possible by the deployment of avatars.
Robinson’s poetic networking with Della Crusca is participation in a conversation and a game that takes place in a very specific medium. As popular culture, the poetry of the World only facetiously pretends to be great literature. What is exceptional about the poetry associated with the World and Della Crusca is that it became a sensation, and the actors involved in the network were all keen to capitalize on that sensation. Like any form of pop culture, it was subject to criticism and complaint, but such cavils are forms of misreading. I propose instead that the Della Cruscans were not a coterie of pretentious poets, as many contemporary detractors thought them, or a serious literary movement, as those critics deplored it as being. Even though Topham glibly dubbed the group “the Della Crusca school” in the World, I see it more accurately as a ludic network of writers, signatures, texts, intertexts, and media (21 November 1788). The original coterie of English expatriates residing in Florence consisted of Robert Merry, Hester Piozzi, Bertie Greatheed, and William Parsons; they wrote poems to one another for fun and collected them together as The Florence Miscellany, published in 1785.10 However, the specific group in London who, just a few years later, came to be known as Della Cruscans were those poets associated with the World and later the Oracle, those who wrote the poetry later reviled as “Della Cruscan,” and those such as Bell and Topham who published it. These poets include Merry, Cowley, Robinson, Miles Peter Andrews, Edward Jerningham, Thomas Vaughan, his daughter (a “Miss Vaughan”), George Monck Berkeley, William Kendall, Tom Adney, James Boaden, as well as countless others who remain unidentified. But Merry as Della Crusca, Cowley as Anna Matilda, and Robinson as Laura and as Laura Maria are the most prolific and are the participants the pub- lic best recognized. They—or rather, their avatars—were the nodes around which the rest of the network coalesced, the public “faces” of the sensation.
The Della Crusca network began a few months after the creation of the World. The first number of the paper, 1 January 1787, sold 3,000 copies with an additional 1,000 printed to meet demand (Morison, John Bell 8). Within its first few months of publication the World had become hugely successful, affecting the sales of all of the other London papers (Werkmeister, London 158). Its political opin- ions were directed by playwright-cum-MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote some of the political coverage, and possibly by the ambi- tious yet aimless Prince of Wales, who was at the time flirting with Whig politics. Topham conducted the paper with the help of his assis- tant and mistress Mary Wells, the Reverend Charles Este, and the playwright (and gunpowder merchant) Miles Peter Andrews, whom Robinson may also have known from her days in the theatre. Bell’s involvement was limited to the printing of the paper, and his relation- ship with Topham appears to have been rocky from the start. Well aware of Robinson’s well-publicized past, the gossip-loving Topham printed news of her return the previous summer with the intention of raising eyebrows among the World’s knowing readership, for she had been the lover both of the Prince and of Fox. Because of these personal associations and because the paper was itself a sensation, the World also would have been Robinson’s preferred source for the latest news—political, fashionable, and literary—upon her return to England. There she would have read numerous reports on the King’s health, the Prince’s cavorting, and the political maneuvering of Fox and Sheridan, who were opponents but who nonetheless shared a common foe, Prime Minister William Pitt (about which more follows in the next chapter). In July of 1788 all of this would have galvanized Robinson, who had deployed her celebrity to canvass for Fox in April of 1784. So, for those possessing a longer memory than gossip usually affords, what drama there may have been in Robinson’s return was set against a backdrop of royal lunacy and the impending aggrandize- ment of her former lovers.
Publishing with Bell certainly was an appealing prospect.
Exploiting changes in the copyright laws, Bell began his career as a highly successful maverick publisher with his multi-volume collec- tions of Shakespeare (1774), British Theatre (1774–6), and, most significant, his 109 volumes of Poets of Great Britain from Chaucer to Churchill (1777–82), which prompted the rival series the Works of the English Poets featuring Samuel Johnson’s famous prefaces and that established, in Michael Gamer’s words, the “‘Bell’ brand name” (46–7). By publishing, as Bell himself put it, “the most beautiful, the correctest, the cheapest, and the only complete uniform edition of the British Poets,” Bell played no small part in establishing the literary canon as we have it today, with these volumes reaching and influencing an inestimable number of readers and writers.11 Bell’s sig- nificant printing innovations set new standards for readability and general elegance; this, coupled with his attention to the pulse of pub- lic, popular taste, made the World a significant venue for poets in the marketplace. On top of this, from 1780 he was proprietor of the sub- scription library called “the British Library”; in 1788, he purchased the right to brand himself “Bookseller to the Prince of Wales” on the title pages of his publications (Morison, John Bell 6–7, 9). As Morison elsewhere points out, Bell found himself at the center of a fashionable network: his library became “the resort of men of fashion” and “was elegantly furnished within”; Bell made it a site of hypermasculinity with “a nude Apollo mounted over the facia [that] advertised the British as no ordinary Library” (Morison, “Captain Epilogue” 4–5). Bell, who despite his success remains a rather shadowy figure, estab- lished an atmosphere of ludic eroticism in which poetry and sexuality were linked. Bell’s naked Apollo was at worst incongruously bawdy and pretentious, but it was an easy target for his competitors and became an emblem signifying bad taste and a lack of decorum both commercially and poetically. The Times for 1 January 1789 suggested that Bell’s indecent Apollo might be a marker for his literary tastes and publishing ventures:
In ancient times when modesty prevailed The female eye was not by vice assail’d:
A thought improper soon received a check, Nor did indecent words our phrases deck.
The scene’s now changed – immodesty’s caress’d, And that which shews least shame, is liked the best. E’en MUSIC’S GOD stark naked’s made to stand And brave all modest females in the Strand.
May some kind artist, who no vice bewitches, Give J. Bell’s Pol a decent pair of breeches.
The poem appears with the opening lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an epigraph: “In nova fert animus, mutatas dicere formas corpora” (“I am inspired to tell of bodies changed into different forms”); the transformation Bell’s icon represents, the poem suggests, is the rise of lascivious commercialism. I would suggest that this early cri- tique of Bell—two years before William Gifford’s attack on him in the Baviad—may also serve as a commentary on the poetry he and Topham published in the World and on why it was popular. Bell would have known the adage well enough—sex sells. The poetry of the Della Crusca network thus was playfully erotic.
As he did with his other publications, Bell marketed The Poetry of the World heavily on the front page of the paper while Topham puffed it extensively in its columns. In particular, the two partners were keen to capitalize on the popularity of the erotic poetic exchange between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda, the pseudonyms, respectively, of Robert Merry and Hannah Cowley. Their fictional love affair had begun the previous summer and was serially enacted in the pages of the daily paper over several months, boosting sales of the fledg- ing broadsheet sufficiently to warrant publication in book from. The operatic vicissitudes of these star-crossed lovers was expressed in an exaggerated version of the language of Sensibility; it was just indeco- rous enough to be titillating. In 1788, Bell published not only the two volumes of The Poetry of the World but also a separate volume of the Poetry of Anna Matilda, which reprinted yet again the Della Crusca- Anna Matilda exchange, and Della Crusca’s long poem Diversity. For Bell, this poetical correspondence became a commercially successful venture in a new form of popular culture. Dodsley’s New Annual
Register for that year praises the two titles for having “afforded us much pleasure and entertainment”: these “plaintive, philosophical, and humorous poems,” the review continues, “are distinguished by lofty imagery, and poetical enthusiasm” and “by a beautiful ease and simplicity” (261). Such a favorable assessment of this poetry in early 1789 stands in stark contrast to the ferocity of The Baviad, William Gifford’s satirical evisceration of Della Crusca, Bell, and the other poets associated with them two years later.
At the beginning of the Della Crusca-Anna Matilda phenomenon, the Bell–Topham nexus was central to this network because it pro- vided the media: this nexus selected and printed the poems in the newspaper, collected and published them in a book, with Bell ulti- mately offering solo book deals to those writers—Merry, Cowley, and Robinson—who proved to be the most popular. Bell would also pub- lish Merry’s political poems, which appeared under Merry’s name, The Laurel of Liberty (1790) and Ode for the Fourteenth of July, 1791, a Day Consecrated to Freedom (1791). So, clearly, from a professional point of view, Robinson’s publishing with Bell during 1788–92 is networking in today’s sense; that is, for Robinson, it was a means of doing business with a coveted publisher, Bell, who would go on to publish her poetry in the World, in the Oracle, and in four editions of his next anthology of Della Cruscan verse, The British Album. Bell also would publish the first four books of poetry she would produce as a professional writer—Ainsi va le Monde in 1790, her first volume of Poems by Mrs. M. Robinson in 1791, her Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1792 and Ode to the Harp of the Late Accomplished and Amiable Louisa Hanway in 1793—as well as her first novel, the best-selling Vancenza; or the Dangers of Credulity in 1792.
Although she made little money from these books (Bell him- self would go bankrupt in 1793), these publications rehabilitated Robinson’s image to such a great extent that, reviewing her 1791 volume, Ralph Giffiths’ Monthly Review hailed Robinson as “the English Sappho,” ostensibly in tribute to her poetical talents:
The fair writer of these poems has been, for some time past, known to the literary world under the assumed names of Laura, Laura Maria, and Oberon. . . . [I]f people of taste and judgment were impressed with a favourable idea of the poetess . . . they will deem yet higher of our English Sappho, after the perusal of the present volume; in which are some pieces, equal, perhaps, to the best pro- ductions (so far as the knowledge of them is come down to us,) of the Lesbian Dame, in point of tenderness, feeling, poetic imagery, warmth, elegance, and above all, delicacy of expression, in which our ingenious countrywoman far excels all that we know of the works of the Grecian Sappho. (448)
Most often reiterated in print by her friends, this valuable sobriquet nonetheless became cultural currency for the rest of the decade, although some repeated it more or less obliquely in reference to her adulterous past. As a lyric poet frequently writing about disap- pointed love, Robinson could not avoid a mild suggestion of sexual- ity, particularly because this volume reproduced as a frontispiece an engraving made from one of Reynolds’ portraits of her. But Robinson clearly employed her Della Cruscan avatars “Laura,” “Laura Maria,” “Oberon,” and “Julia” as a means of effacing “the celebrated Perdita” and of transforming “Mrs. Robinson” to “Sappho.” Through this network Robinson gained access not only to a publisher, with whom she could attempt to make money, but also entrée to a world of fellow writers and readers who were already having fun with the poetry of the World and its avatars.
The Man of Bran
Robinson’s poetry is fundamentally “Della Cruscan.” She herself used that somewhat ludicrous adjective in her poem “Ode to the Muse,” an expanded version of the poem “The Muse,” with which she initi- ated herself into the network. Here, even the Muse herself sings to a “DELLA CRUSCAN lyre” (1: 430). In his 1797 introduction to The Baviad and Mæviad (xiii), Gifford rightly finds it to be ridiculous but, not content to be simply amused, he goes on to attack the Della Crusca network and its poets for not being serious literature. In this regard, the figure Gifford attacks is a straw man; or, rather, a man of bran. Merry, Topham, and others in the network knew very well that his pseudonym “Della Crusca” was a centuries-old inside joke. In fact, the original Accademia della Crusca had ostensibly ludic origins: its name means literally “academy of bran,” deriving from a circle of friends who playfully joked that they were a “brigata dei crusconi.”12 For the sixteenth-century Della Cruscans, the name was a bread- making metaphor for their aim of purifying the Italian language and of preserving the Florentine poetic diction of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The flour is good language, the bran is bad. Although they were serious about their goal, as the publication of their Vocabolario attests, the name is self-deprecating, even burlesque, enough. And they used avatars as well in this social and cultural network, all of which pertained to various aspects of the cultivation of grain and the making of bread (Yates 18). Merry knew this history. Moreover, he never claimed to be a member of the Accademia della Crusca, although his 1787 poem Paulina; or, The Russian Daughter, a Poem identifies him by name on the title page as “Member of the Royal Academy of Florence, late La Crusca.” This is accurate. Due to still- lingering controversies regarding the fourth edition of the Accademia della Crusca’s Vocabolario (1729–38) and to revolutionary activities among Tuscan patriots, the Grand Duke Leopold (brother to Marie Antoinette), later Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, closed the acad- emy or, rather, nominally merged it with two defunct institutions to form the Accademia Fiorentina in 1783. While in Florence from 1782 to 1786, Merry associated with former members of the Cruscan academy, who elected him to membership in the new Leopoldine one.13 Just as the original Della Cruscans constituted a network so in Florence Merry found himself in a new network closely affiliated with the original one. Looking ahead to the network established by and in the World, Merry knew very well that his signature literally means “man of bran” and, by allusion to this well-established history, “bad poet” or, in an ironical sense, “good poet.”
Back in London, in the columns of the World, the “Della Crusca” pseudonym began as a joke between Topham and Merry. Most readers today encounter the Della Crusca–Anna Matilda exchange as it was repackaged in The Poetry of the World and The British Album. The orig- inal newspaper publications, however, provide some additional nuances that point to the playfulness of these poems and of this particular net- work. Merry’s “The Adieu and Recall to Love,” which began the Della Crusca phenomenon, actually appeared unsigned on 28 July 1787 in the venerable General Evening Post. When it appeared in the World the next day, Topham added the signature “Del Crusca” as an inside joke perhaps, as Merry himself confirms in the Preface to his poem Diversity (viii). The avatar was exclusive to the World at first, a kind of branding of Merry’s verse. Topham prefaced the poem with the following note “To the Conductor of the WORLD”—that is, to himself:
The following Poem needs no recommendation but its own merit; and I send it to you, because with you it will be most seen. The author of it will occasionally appear in the World, though he will be unknown. If Mrs. Piozzi, therefore, should ever remember to have seen what may henceforward appear, let her conceal the name of the author, under that of DEL CRUSCA
Because the World for 29 June 1787 is rare—I found it at the Newberry in Chicago—most readers follow the correspondence between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda as it was reprinted in The Poetry of the World and The British Album. Originally, however, the pseudonym was “Del Crusca”; and Anna Matilda’s first poem to him, “The Pen,” is addressed “to Del Crusca.” Part of the joke here is a reference to Merry’s past affiliation and to his association with Hester Piozzi, but I think it is also a sophomoric attempt to jokingly fashion a first and last name out of the Accademia della Crusca. “Del” sounds thus more masculine than “Della,” which is, of course, just a preposition and article. Merry must have corrected Topham, though, because his next poem to appear in the World (“Elegy, Written after Having Read The Sorrows of Werter” on 26 July 1787) is signed “Della Crusca.” Moreover, the reference to Piozzi certainly is a wink to those in the know—which may not have been such an exclusive group because poems from the Florence Miscellany, a 1785 anthology of poems by Merry and his friends, had appeared already in the London press. This little-known piece of paratextual evidence certainly casts new light on the supposed mystery of Della Crusca’s identity.
These features of the poem’s original publication would have made the poem even more intriguing. Merry’s debut, particularly in its original context, is more playful than the subsequent attacks on the Della Cruscans gave it credit for being. In their ludic-erotic qualities, many of Della Crusca’s poems are similar to the tone and intertex- tual strategies of Ovid’s Amores. As in many of Ovid’s poems, the speaker’s ambivalence is comic, so the poem is simply organized to demonstrate the vacillation from one pole, his rejection of love, to the opposite, the futility of an inveterate cavalier making such an asser- tion. The paradoxical effect is also, therefore, Petrarchan and thus also echoes many an Elizabethan sonneteer. It begins, like Ovid’s Amores, in mock admonishment of Cupid’s mischief: “Go, idle Boy! I quit thy pow’r; / Thy couch of many a thorn and flow’r ” The
poem, moreover, contains the obligatory references to the nightin- gale, “sweet bird of eve,” a ubiquitous epithet, and to the moon, “pale-cheek’d Virgin of the Night,” all vestiges of Petrarchism com- mon to the poetry of Sensibility and likely also references to Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, where similar figures appear.
Merry’s “The Adieu and Recall to Love” and Cowley’s response, “The Pen,” are paired together as the opening of the romance in The Poetry of the World and in the second collection The British Album (1789). In sequence, Anna Matilda’s response reads almost like a non sequitur because it does not respond specifically to the substance of Della Crusca’s poem. Her response exclusively figures itself in terms of the frisson of reading his style and makes his poem seem rather tame in comparison—again creating a comedy of incongruity in the bland conventionality of the original poem’s Petrarchan poetics and the erotic immediacy of the response:
O! seize again thy golden quill, And with its point my bosom thrill! With magic touch explore my heart,
And bid the tear of passion start. (10 July 1787)
A remarkably sensual—if not downright carnal—opening indeed, even if its language is all figure. This quality is markedly characteristic of these poems: they are sexy, aware of their own eroticism, and highly conscious of the ways in which that eroticism is created and sustained entirely through text, through figure, through a shared language of play. It is breathless and is in fact the shortest poem of their corre- spondence; it is as though the excitement of the encounter can hardly be contained. Cowley’s experience as a playwright is visible here with an opening volley of sparkling erotic repartee—keep in mind Merry’s poem only addresses Cupid and bears no evidence of expecting an actual reply from anyone. And “The Pen” itself obviously is phallic and erotic, as Jerome McGann and Jacqueline Labbe have discussed: echoing D. H. Lawrence, McGann calls the Della Cruscan exchange “sex in the head,” although Cowley’s poem points to other parts of the body as well; Labbe writes of these lines that Anna Matilda “offers her bosom” and “invites her own penetration” (McGann 82; Labbe, Romantic 56). While both critics are correct, I would emphasize the poem’s apparent bawdiness rather than a more cerebral erotic reading. Anna Matilda is obviously randy, but this rather surprising opening allows the poem to develop its own dynamic. Comically, the poem pays no real tribute to the quality of Della Crusca’s verse and merely certifies it as verse, responding instead to his passion and sensibility. Indeed, the poem is practically an exhortation to write better poetry. Responding to the comic Ovidian elements, Cowley creates an even more explicitly Ovidian tension between Apollo and Cupid in a pleas- ing metaphor of the poet’s quill having fallen from “Cupid’s burnish’d wing” as the god drew his arrow, then being snatched by Apollo. Anna Matilda advises Della Crusca, therefore, to “Be worthy then the sacred loan!” and he ultimately will be rewarded with love. Cowley knew what “Della Crusca” meant too. And Merry responded in kind with a tribute to Anna Matilda as “the Muse!” (31 July 1787).
A playful network emerges when we consider the maneuverings and in-jokes of its participants and the evidence of such in the vari- ous texts and paratexts of the World. They clearly were having fun with it; and so was the public, who became involved in the fiction of the Della Cruscans just as readers would follow the serial narra- tives of Dickens or, today, on television. I doubt many of them cared whether it was real or not. It was charming and entertaining.14 But when read closely, the exchange is not all “sex in the head.” Much of it is about formal and metrical play, with Anna Matilda frequently criticizing Della Crusca’s essays in verse. The formal engagement is part of the pleasure derived from these heteroerotic exchanges, these textual thrusts and parries; this is important for understanding Mary Robinson’s beginning her career with Della Crusca, and it will be necessary for understanding the end of her career as she engages with Coleridge (to be discussed further in chapter five). Take, for example, Anna Matilda’s poem “To Della Crusca” from 22 December 1787, her fourth poem to him: in it, she responds to the tone and to the form of Della Crusca’s previous poems, encouraging him to write something new and different. Her poem opens, “I HATE the Elegiac lay— / Choose me a measure jocund as the day!” In the previous weeks, Della Crusca had published his poem on prison-reformer John Howard and his antiwar Fontenoy poem; but more to her point is the fact that his previous two poems have been in elegiac quatrains—his popular “Elegy Written on the Plain of Fontenoy” (16 Nov. 1787) and his latest “To Anna Matilda” (5 December 1787). She points out that he should vary his meter after two poems in the same form and urges him to do something wildly irregular:
And be thy lines irregular, and free!
Poetic chains should fall, before such bards as thee. Scorn the dull laws that pinch thee round,
Raising about thy verse a mound,
O’er which thy Muse so lofty! dares not bound. Bid her in verse meandering sport;
Her footsteps quick, or long, or short Just as her various impulse wills—
Scorning the frigid square, which her fine fervor chills. (World 22 December 1787)
This passage portends much for the reading of Mary Robinson’s poetry—and her prosody—for it prefigures the way she will respond to Merry’s poetry and ultimately to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The varying meters here also illustrate precisely the advice Anna Matilda gives. Following her “various impulse,” Cowley plays with syllabics, largely eschewing strict metrical feet, going for a sprightly effect in extending and contracting the lengths of the lines in order to vary the temporal recurrence of rhyme: the first couplet consists of ten- and twelve-syllable lines; the triplet consists of two eight-syllable lines with a concluding ten-syllable line; the next couplet of two eight-syllable lines; the final couplet (given above) consists of an eight-syllable line and then a twelve-syllable line. Cowley thus intends for the sound to seem an echo of the sense. The “frigid square,” moreover, is a clever way of describing the elegiac quatrain itself.
Moreover, his most recent poem “To Anna Matilda” ends with Della Crusca depressed, claiming that, had she been there to com- fort him, he would not have found so much despair in Belgium. His comical equivocation thus subverts the sentiments expressed in the “Elegy Written on the Plain of Fontenoy,” which was Della Crusca’s most celebrated poem. After Anna Matilda’s critical response to the elegy, this particular poem ends with Della Crusca wallowing in his misery, his new humanitarian concern, having once again bid farewell to love. Unlike the dead soldiers he previously had mourned who, as Anna Matilda had pointed out, at least died with valour, Della Crusca whines, “To me, no proffer’d meed must e’er belong, / To me, who trod the vale of life unknown, / Whose proudest boast was but an idle song.” (World 5 December 1787). In her poem of 22 December, she basically advises him to get over himself and go back to writing about love, which is a lot more fun than war and death. Afraid that he will write no more love poetry, feeling no longer the delicious pain, she reprimands his willingness to settle for less:
Vapid Content her poppies round thee strew,15 Whilst to the bliss of TASTE thou bid adieu!
To vulgar comforts be thou hence confin’d,
And the shrunk bays be from thy brow untwin’d.
Such condemnation of Della Crusca’s latest poetry illustrates the way the writers were able to create tension that would keep readers inter- ested. After all, they were not characters on a stage whose plot could be enacted; the writers had to develop the relationship between their avatars in a strictly textual and intertextual fashion. Anna Matilda’s poem closes with the suggestion that Della Crusca’s preoccupation with extra-erotic concerns sounds like someone running for pub- lic office: responding to his description of his formerly erotic self as having “grown a breathless statue at the sound” of a “female voice,” Anna Matilda retorts,
Thy statue torn from Cupid’s hallow’d nitch, But in return thou shalt be dull, and rich; The Muses hence disown thy rebel lay—
But thou in Aldermanic gown, their scorn repay; Crimson’d, and furr’d, the highest honours dare, And on thy laurels tread—a PLUMP LORD MAYOR!
She teases him with an unflattering vision of himself as a compla- cent burgher rather than the poetic playboy to whom she initially responded (and whom she may have known Merry actually to be). This is actually a comic invitation to drop the earnest pose and to play. In this context, then, I find it difficult to take seriously the Della Crusca poem that appears three days later, “Ode to Death,” in which “Young Ammon” (Alexander the Great) succumbs in the following manner to personified Death, the subject of the address: “The World I’ve won!”—THOU gav’st the withering nod, / Thy FIAT smote his heart,—he sunk,—a senseless clod!” (25 December 1787). This poem also ends with what has to be a parody of the most com- mon trope of Sensibility, particularly after the Werter sensation of the 1780s; one that appears frequently in Smith’s popular Elegiac Sonnets: “Then tho’ I scorn thy stroke—I call thee FRIEND, / For in thy calm embrace, my weary woes shall end.” Merry’s Della Crusca avatar was a way to employ the popular Werter-like trope, even as it started to become moribund, with a fresh touch of irony that made it all the more fun.
The speculation on the identity of Della Crusca and Anna Matilda
fueled interest in The Poetry of the World during the summer of 1788. Topham teased his readers with it: “Who will say a Lady cannot keep a Secret?” he writes, while reminding them that “Anna Matilda’s Laurel” “has trembled over the heads of Mrs. Piozzi, Mrs. Cowley, Mrs. Barbauld, and Miss Seward—each of whom has disclaimed any pretensions to it” (World 29 July 1788). Reviewing The Poetry of the World, a critic for the English Review suggested that Della Crusca and Anna Matilda are the same person, based on stylistic likenesses in the poems and a similar lack of “judgment and good taste,” adding that “the orgasm is sometimes so violent as to carry the poet far beyond the precincts of common-sense” (127). Exactly. Such excitement was appropriate perhaps in the pages of a disposable newspaper, but the printing of the two volumes in such an elegant manner as Bell’s innovations afforded created an apparent incongruity. Expressing some reservations about its journalistic provenance, a critic for the Monthly Review remarked, “all that typographical taste could do, [Bell] has evidently done to recommend the poems before us” (449). The poetry, though, was hardly savaged. The Monthly Review critic, who identifies Merry as Della Crusca, actually congratulated the pub- lic on the poems “being thus rescued from the perishing pages of a daily print” (449). The worthiness of their preservation was part of the marketing strategy as the narrative came to a close. While at first the tone and taste of the poems seemed to consign them to the commercialized and ephemeral space of the newspaper, paradoxically their very popularity allowed them to shift registers, to be reified in the pages of the print book.
The correspondence between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda had worked itself up to a pitch that they could not sustain. Anna Matilda ultimately declared herself a votary of Indifference, promising Della Crusca only friendship and, to his dismay, chastity. Della Crusca signed off on 17 May 1788, bidding farewell to Anna Matilda, to England, and to poetry. His conclusion of the poetic affair impugns Anna Matilda as nothing more than a tease:
And cou’dst thou think ’twas my design, Calmly to list thy Notes Divine,
That I responsive Lays might send, To gain a cold Platonic Friend?
Far other hopes thy Verse inspir’d, And all my Breast with Passion fir’d.
This conclusion of the affair—there, of course, would be a sequel— finds Della Crusca also blaming poetry for seducing him from more lucrative ventures; and, in a burlesque of the conclusion of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, he calls the Muse to take his “Flute,” perhaps recalling his phallic quill, and “plunge it in Oblivion’s wave,” while acknowledging the likelihood of the exchange’s preservation for future readers, to whom he asserts that “no kind intercourse the Song repaid” and that the two remained finally “a Shadow and a Shade.” The sequence is actually a comically amoebean competition between the two poets in which the man is motivated by his sexual frustration and the woman by her poetic frustration, as she continues to exhort him to control himself and to develop his mind. Poem after poem records their adoration of and admonitions to one another; when read as playful popular culture, they are hilarious.
Popular culture always seeks, in spite of the odds, its own perpetu- ation. Topham and Bell, surely with Merry and Cowley in tow, found in this a golden opportunity. With his final poem, Della Crusca writes to Topham of his removal to a great distance, which “would render communication difficult and hazardous” (World 17 May 1788). He adds wryly,
As to the Poems, if you think proper to collect and reprint them in a more durable form, I submit them, with some other Productions here adjoined, to your disposal; and I write this Letter, to empower you to make over my right to Mr. BELL, or any other person you may approve.
Of course, within just a few days, Topham announced the publication by Bell of The Poetry of the World, including the previously empha- sized “other Productions,” particularly a tragedy by Della Crusca (22 May 1788). Anna Matilda, though, gets the last word on 26 May 1788 with her melodramatic goodbye to Della Crusca and, of course, to poetry as well. But in closing, she imagines Della Crusca singing a sweeter song than Petrarch’s over Laura’s grave, doubting his constancy to her while comparing herself to a faithfully monoga- mous swan. Thus she envisions her own death and her final words— inevitably, “Della Crusca.” Topham’s headnote, however, guarantees immortality to them both:
There is a period, when Envy and Malevolence will wound no lon- ger. That period has arrived to these Poems. United, and yet mutu- ally unknown, as have been DELLA CRUSCA and ANNA MATILDA;
– admired as they have been by all who have taste for Poetry – some have been found, who attempted at their abuse, in abusing the PAPER which conveyed them to the Public. They are now, however, going into a form, where Impression will be lasting; where praise will be unmixed; and it is amongst the best praises of these Poems, that they have set with the same splendour with which they rose.— Undiminished in Death! (26 May 1788)
In terms such as these, the transformation from ephemeral newspaper to literary immortality is a comically hyperbolic apotheosis, a whimsi- cal take on the poetic pursuit of eternal fame. But as a marketing ploy, it also speaks to the commercial value of the poetry. The permanent “form” results from an investment of capital that promised a greater return than daily newspaper sales.
Laura as Laurel
The promise of literary fame was a powerful charm for Robinson, in addition to the professional and social opportunities she would have recognized upon her return to England. So, she begins publishing poetry in the World. Her debut poem is deliberately modest: “Lines, Dedicated to the Memory of a Much-Lamented Young Gentleman,” appeared in the World on 24 October 1788. On the day before its appearance, the “To Correspondents” column promoted Laura in juxtaposition with the return of Della Crusca, who had been silent since his last farewell, just prior to the publication of The Poetry of the World: “Della Crusca—if possible, to-morrow LAURA—is received, and shall have that attention she so deservedly merits.” Space concerns, however, prevented the publication of Della Crusca’s seventy-line poem until four days later; on 24 October, the paper made a flattering apology to Della Crusca, noting that “AKENSIDE and THOMSON are the only Poets of late fit to talk of with him.” That day, deferring the publication of Della Crusca’s latest poem, Topham and Este printed Robinson’s short, fourteen-line poem instead. Robinson likely knew that a shorter poem had a better chance of publication.
This particular poem is, as its title suggests, an elegiac lament praising the memory of this young man, emphasizing his virtue and integrity. The poem concludes with the allegorical figure of Genius mourning the loss of her “Darling Son” (1: 51; 12). It is a serious and earnest composition. Robinson’s signature, “Laura,” refers to the eternal virtue Petrarch’s beloved ultimately represents as she leads him from eros to agape over the course of his Canzoniere. Possibly the poem’s fourteen lines are a general allusion to the sonnet form—or they are merely a coincidence. But the poem is not, strictly speaking, a sonnet because it is in couplets and lacks the rhetorical structure and development of a sonnet. None of Robinson’s sonnets consist of couplets. In her 1791 volume, the poem is significantly longer and has been retitled as “Lines to the Memory of Richard Boyle, Esq. Son of Mrs. Walsingham.” Robinson’s 1791 volume includes, in addi- tion to the expanded version of this poem, another one on the young man’s death, “Elegy to the Memory of Richard Boyle, Esq.” com- posed appropriately in elegiac quatrains, along with a note indicating he died in Bristol. The newspaper poem elides any such connections or identifying references—and may be simply a fourteen-line excerpt from the longer version of the poem. More important is the signature, which is not as modest as the poem itself. The “Laura” avatar allows Robinson to write as Petrarch’s Laura, alive and subjectified, as a lyric agent rather than a lyrical object. Well aware that Petrarch was the first modern poet laureate, she also understood the punning relationship between Laura and laurel. Petrarch’s love for Laura remains famously unconsummated, while the poet transforms her ultimately into a sym- bol of virtue and of his own poetic achievement, the laureate, favored by Apollo, god of poetry. Temporarily effacing her own identity and her much-discussed sexual past, Robinson thus was able to remake herself as an unstained avatar of poetic authority and legitimacy. At the same time as she is inserting herself in the Della Crusca network, she is inserting herself into an intertextual network of literary tradi- tion, using the avatar to craft both a poetic and a professional self.
For the Laura avatar was networking, of course. Robinson likely also read Miles Peter Andrews’s love poem “To Laura,” signed “Arley,” in The Poetry of the World, which appeared first in the paper on 1 September 1787 (2: 52– 4). Robinson knew Andrews from her days in the theatre and among the fashionable elite (Memoirs 7: 236), so her choice of pseudonym may suggest the assumption of the role of Arley’s beloved and thus signaling her desire to participate in the network established by The Poetry of the World. The “Laura” Arley addresses, as its headnote indicates, was an actress he loved but who has died—thus the allusion to Petrarch’s deceased Laura. The original headnote from the World in 1787 remains unchanged through all subsequent reprintings of the poem in The Poetry of the World and in the four editions of Bell’s British Album: “The following Lines were the earliest offering to a Young Lady—whose Theatric talents once formed the ornament of the Stage—on which she appeared; and whose Memory will be honoured by the Drama which she adorned.” If Robinson is alluding to Arley’s poem, then she here too takes on the persona of an adored but deceased young woman, but this time she is an actress, again a figurative effacement of her past. As a playwright, and one of the oldest in the group, Andrews surely knew many young actresses, so there is no reason to believe that this poem in any way refers to Robinson, who was still in Europe and no longer supposed dead when it first appeared. In fact, the celebrated actress Mary Ann Yates had just died in May of 1787. Yates, Andrews, and Robinson all were affiliated with Drury Lane and thus with the network around David Garrick and thus with Sheridan. Robinson appeared on stage with Yates, as she recalls in her Memoirs (7: 244, 374). In addition to the Petrarchan sig- nificance, Robinson may have picked the name out of The Poetry of the World as an homage to Andrews and as an indication of her desire to join the Della Crusca network. Moreover, by assum- ing the sobriquet Andrews gives to Yates as well as the name of Petrarch’s deceased beloved, Robinson asserts her survival in the figurative killing of her past self, Perdita.
Robinson’s second appearance as Laura in the World likely also derived from her reading of Topham and Bell’s anthology. “To Him Who Will Understand It” appeared 31 October 1788, with the Laura signature; its title recalls Arley’s “Elegy. To the Lady Who Will Best Remember It,” which first appeared on 2 October 1787 and which appeared in The Poetry of the World (2: 57–9). Robinson wrote the poem almost certainly after her return to England. The Memoirs pro- vide an account of the poem’s composition as an impromptu social performance:
Conversing one evening with Mr. Richard Burke, respecting the facil- ity with which modern poetry was composed, Mrs. Robinson repeated nearly the whole of those beautiful lines, which were afterwards given to the public, addressed – “To him who will understand them.”... This improvisatoré produced in her auditor not less surprise than admira- tion, when solemnly assured by its author, that this was the first time of its being repeated. (7: 276–8)
Although biographers tend to see this widely reprinted poem as a doleful address to Tarleton, which it partly is, this account certainly emphasizes the playful spontaneity that is apparent in the poem.16 What poets are more likely to have inspired the subject of conversa- tion, the “facility” of “modern poetry,” than Della Crusca and Anna Matilda? Robinson’s improvisation is a pretty vigorous pastiche, if not all-out parody, of Della Crusca and Anna Matilda’s style, down to the octosyllabic couplets that most frequently characterize their poetic exchanges. It has all the requisite expressions and tropes of popular culture—the farewell to England, the “mournful Philomel,” the arduous escape from heartbreak, and the refuge in, of all places, Italy. Like Merry’s “Adieu and Recall to Love,” her ironic renuncia- tion of passion and its “throbbing Pulses” playfully emphasizes the throbbing:
Nor will I cast one thought behind, On Foes relentless—Friends unkind;— I feel, I feel their poison’d Dart
Pierce the Life Nerve within my Heart, ‘Tis mingled with the Vital Heat
That bids my throbbing Pulses beat; Soon shall that Vital Heat be o’er, Those throbbing Pulses BEAT no more— No!—I will breathe the spicy Gale,
Plunge the clear Stream, new Health exhale; O’er my pale Cheek diffuse the Rose,
And DRINK OBLIVION TO MY WOES! (1: 53; 73–84)
In a biographical reading, the poem stands as an appeal to Robinson’s real-life lover, Tarleton, and a threat to take refuge with her brother, a merchant in Italy. But it is otherwise unremarkable on its own, and does not live up to Topham’s panegyric the next day: He writes, “More fanciful and pathetic Lines, are scarcely to be found in the whole body of English Literature” (1 November 1788). This is the puff for which Robinson was aiming. In con- text with the poems the World was famous for printing, moreover, this poem is practically an erotic invitation for correspondence with Della Crusca. Robinson certainly intended for this poem to be read in the series—as all of the best poems in the World were read— knowing that Anna Matilda had complained that Della Crusca’s proposed sojourn in Italy invariably would result in his infidel- ity; Anna Matilda knows that “there, if right I ween, the Maid INDIFFERENCE dies!” (World 1 April 1788). When Robinson sent the poem, she may not have realized that Della Crusca was on his way back to England and to Anna Matilda.
Della Crusca’s delayed poem to Anna Matilda (“IN vain I fly Thee—’tis in vain”) announcing his return appeared three days before Laura’s “To Him Who Will Understand It,” on 28 October. In it, Della Crusca complains of Anna Matilda’s infidelity to him with Greatheed’s Reuben avatar, referring to her poem “To Reuben,” which appeared exclusively in her solo volume, The Poetry of Anna Matilda, that fall: “Ah, REUBEN is the name I hear!—/ For him my faithless ANNA weaves / A wreath of Rose and Myrtle Leaves ” This refer-
ence is a plug for her book, which was printed and sold by Bell. Merry thus revives the correspondence in the paper as a way of inscribing the book’s publication back into the network, while promoting them at the same time. In the poem, Della Crusca also remarks on the English Review’s supposition that he and Anna Matilda are one person; he turns this into ludic-erotic fodder:
For e’en cold Critics have conceiv’d, So much alike our measures run,
And e’en the gentle have believ’d, That ANNA, AND THAT I, WERE ONE.—
Would it were so!—we then might prove The sacred, settled unity of Love.
Unbeknownst to Merry, however, Cowley had left England for France, as the World reported on 5 September 1788, where she would remain until the next summer. With no response from Anna Matilda, Della Crusca was not heard from again in the papers, although Bell pub- lished his long poem Diversity before the end of the year.
Having received no response from Della Crusca, Robinson’s Laura made another, more blatant attempt to catch his attention. Her poem “The Muse” appeared 13 November 1788, with a taunting edito- rial headnote: “Of Poetical Trifles, where is there, even from DELLA CRUSCA, any Writing with more shew of Facility, and more beauti- fully Finished than much of the following?”
While perhaps a challenge to Della Crusca, this note says a lot about the ludic characteristics of this kind of writing—it is supposed to give a sprezzatura-esque impression of improvisation but with some refined polish as well. These are, after all, “poetical trifles.” Laura invokes the muse by invoking Della Crusca with a playful allusion to Anna Matilda’s first poem to him, “The Pen,” with its invitation to “thrill” her “bosom” with his “golden quill”; however, Laura, in a move characteristic of Robinson, takes command of Della Crusca’s instrument herself:
O! LET me seize thy Pen Sublime, Which paints in glowing dulcet Rhyme The melting Pow’r, the magic Art,
Th’ extatic raptures of the Heart (1: 53; 1–4)
Laura’s claim to Della Crusca’s pen is perhaps a bit more earnest, and less playfully erotic, than Anna Matilda’s poem, but her poem shows Robinson seriously establishing herself through her avatar as having a certain kind of popular culture cachet. The poem includes a reference to Joseph Warton’s poem The Enthusiast; or, The Lover of Nature (1744), which celebrates nature as a source of poetic inspira- tion and which portrays Shakespeare as an ingenious child of nature. It identifies the source of Anna Matilda’s phrase “golden quill” as coming from Shakespeare (sonnet 85), and praises Italian opera com- poser Antonio Sacchini, who lived in London from 1773 to 1781, during which time several of his operas premiered to great acclaim.
Absorbing these influences, Laura proposes that she and the Muse/ Della Crusca share a “sweet converse” not founded on passion (1: 54; 49). Unlike her previous poem, this one is no erotic invitation; instead, the Laura avatar rejects a sexualized Sensibility in favor of an intellectual exchange:
But, if thy Magic pow’rs impart One SOFT SENSATION o’er the Heart; If thy warm precepts can dispense
One THRILLING TRANSPORT o’er my sense; O! keep thy Gifts, and let me fly,
In APATHY’S cold Arms to Die. (1: 55; 61–6)
Perhaps alluding to Petrarch’s erotic fascination for Laura, the poem asserts this Laura’s right to liberty from the thralldom that so fre- quently limits opportunities and choices for women. This is one of Robinson’s great themes throughout her poetry. Her choice of Apathy is a reference to Anna Matilda’s travesty of Indifference, but without the comic undertones that so frustrate Della Crusca. This poem is something of a watershed for Robinson’s career: she expanded it to include specific references to Della Crusca, Ovid, and Pindar and placed it at the opening of her 1791 volume, where it leads a series of irregular, mostly allegorical odes that concludes with two odes addressed to Della Crusca and to Tarleton. Laura’s “The Muse,” therefore, strikes the keynote for Robinson’s poetic program. She will not escape the “thrilling transport” that poetry provokes; but, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, she will contain the erotic chaos within the bounds of poetic form.
Laura’s stance in “The Muse” becomes Robinson’s thesis in “Ode to the Muse.” In the newspaper, however, it finally provoked a response, not from Della Crusca, but “Leonardo,” on 21 November 1788. Here, the Laura avatar becomes fully initiated and inscribed within the Della Crusca network, for, as it turns out, the Leonardo avatar is Della Crusca in disguise. Robinson’s maneuvering herself into the network, her reinvigorating of the heteroerotic dynamic, inspires the creation of yet another avatar: an instance of shape-shifting on the part of Merry that highlights the fluidity of identity and infinite potential for play. When Leonardo’s poem, written by Merry, appears, Topham hailed Leonardo as the latest disciple of “the Della Crusca school,” citing the powerful influence he is having on the literary scene. Of course, this is an inside joke because Topham undoubt- edly knew it was Merry. In “To Laura,” a sympathetic Leonardo, cautiously acknowledging the implicit warning in Laura’s renuncia- tion, urges her to avoid Italy and to remain in England, where she can learn fortitude perhaps in his company. He offers, “With mine thy deep Afflictions blend, / And for a LOVER LOST, receive a FRIEND.” Laura is not so easily persuaded, however. After signaling her serious poetic ambitions in “The Muse,” Laura’s response resumes the ludic nature of the textual network by unmasking Leonardo as a feckless lothario:
AND dost thou hope to fan my Flame With the soft breath of FRIENDSHIP’S Name? And dost thou think the thin disguise
Can veil the Mischief from my Eyes? Alas! sweet BARD, the dazzling Ray Did long, resistless, round me play!—
In REASON’S BURNISH’D MANTLE drest,
It pour’d warm incense on my Breast, My MIND in rosy fetters bound,
Then, smiling, gave th’ insidious wound. (“To Leonardo” 1: 55; 1–10)
Laura’s response thus opens by emphasizing her experience with duplicitous offers of friendship; she has been fooled by passion dis- guised as reason only to find her intellect held captive by her emo- tions. This becomes a notable theme in Robinson’s work, particularly in Sappho and Phaon, as we will see in chapter three. Thus, Robinson’s Laura means to distinguish herself from Cowley’s Anna Matilda, who had encouraged “Platonic” friendship. Rejecting Leonardo’s impropriety, Laura suggests that he pursue love elsewhere that he may again feel the “ ‘Throb Divine’ ” of poetic inspiration; that is, erotic fascination (1: 56; 46). Here she quotes directly Della Crusca’s phrase from his second poem to Anna Matilda (21 August 1787), slyly indicating her suspicion that Leonardo and Della Crusca are one in the same.
Robinson’s Laura is the catalyst for the climax of the Della Crusca– Anna Matilda exchange as it moves toward its second and final con- clusion. Perhaps to throw readers off and so build suspense, Leonardo responds with a sonnet, a form not associated with Della Crusca, in tribute to the Laura avatar. Topham, in on the joke, prefaced it with praise of the composition as “metrically correct, after the man- ner of PETRARCH” (10 January 1789). While not exactly the “legiti- mate” sonnet, with an octave rhyming abbaabba, it does have the same difficulty of rhyme (abababab) and the rhetorical structure of the octave and sestet. Merry has his Leonardo avatar thus confirm his passion for Laura in a poetic performance more formally controlled than Della Crusca’s spasmodic poems to Anna Matilda. Robinson’s Laura responded several weeks later, on 28 February 1789, with an irregular, thus “illegitimate,” “Sonnet. To Leonardo” that consists of eighteen lines, in which she again directly quotes Della Crusca: her poem opens with the phrase “Chill blows the blast,” which is the opening of his “Elegy Written on the Plain of Fontenoy.” In her son- net, she rejects apathy as an ineffectual check on “The feast of Reason, and the flow of Soul,” a quotation from Pope’s “First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated” (128). At the end, Laura confirms her feelings for Leonardo/Della Crusca by admitting the pleasure she takes in the “sweet Converse of THE FRIEND I LOVE” (1: 57; 18). She here refers back to the “sweet converse” she seeks from the Muse associated with Della Crusca in “The Muse.” It is a consummation that Robinson’s Laura cleverly performs, not in a perfectly Petrarchan form, but in her own deliberate subversion of it and its “Platonic” pre- sumptions. As we shall see elsewhere in Robinson’s writing, especially later in her career through the correspondence with Coleridge, the appropriation of form for her own ends, an exuberant participation in a formal heteroerotic engagement with her (male) counterparts, is a hallmark of her work.
Laura’s poetic union with Leonardo/Della Crusca takes place, but not before the intervention of a jealous Anna Matilda, who explic- itly unmasks Leonardo as Della Crusca in a poetic harangue that appeared two days before Laura’s “sonnet,” on 26 February 1789. Comically incensed by his poems to Laura, Anna Matilda disavows her love for Della Crusca with scorn for his “factitious pain,” promis- ing that “Anna shall to thee be dead.” And in jealous fashion she also directs her hostility toward Laura:
Yes, write to LAURA! speed thy Sighs, Tell her, her DELLA CRUSCA dies;
In sweetest measures sing thy woes,
And speak thy hot LOVE’S ardent throes;— And when it next shall please your Heart Towards some other Fair to start,
The gentle Maiden’s vers’d in cures, For every ill, fond Love endures She drinks Oblivion to its pains— And vows to stain her pallid cheek With juices of Red Grapes so sleek,
And sings adieu in Bacchanalian strains. FALSE Lover! TRUEST Poet! now farewell!
While vilifying Della Crusca’s capricious infidelity, she also comically misconstrues the conclusion of Laura’s “To Him Who Will Understand It” to imply that Laura’s final image of blooming, rejuvenated health, and her figurative drinking her woes to oblivion is actually alcoholic dissipation. Though printed on 26 February 1789, Cowley’s poem appears in the World with the date “December 22, 1788,” indicating that it is a response to Merry’s first poem “To Laura.” Obviously, Cowley is corresponding from France. And to emphasize the playful, winking nature of all of this, I should point out that, in the same column, just below Anna Matilda’s poem, Topham printed the fol- lowing: “Mrs. Cowley is now at Paris; and all who know her talents, must wish, that she may not lose her moments in inactivity.” Again, Topham winks at his readers by visually juxtaposing the avatar with the author’s actual identity.
Robinson naturally is quick to return the serve. Her final contri- bution to the triangle, Laura’s “To Anna Matilda,” is the epitome of the ludic heteroerotics as well as the lyrical exuberance that charac- terizes the Della Crusca network and Robinson’s poetry. Although her connection to Merry will continue, I want to end this chapter by emphasizing how her literary debut takes place in the ludic space of the newspaper, a space created by the network. As I hope I have shown, the poetry of the Della Crusca network is meant to be amus- ing. But there is serious play going on here, and it includes real literary ambition—particularly on the part of Robinson. This exuberance is the key to understanding Robinson’s poetry. Perhaps her poetry does not, as Keats thought poetry ought to do, “surprise by a fine excess”; perhaps her excesses are not so delicately fashioned. Keats believed poetry’s “touches of beauty” should never leave its “reader breathless, instead of content.” Perhaps he learned this from the Della Cruscans, for whom “breathless” was a mode as well as an end. Robinson never completely loses this, as we shall see, and she learned much of this aesthetic from Della Crusca and Anna Matilda. Robinson’s contribu- tions to this exchange show a fiercely ambitious poet at work, employ- ing the formal tools at her disposal in competition with the other poets. She is thus eager to demonstrate her own virtuosity. And she skillfully employs her formal choices in the service of the ludic mode: So much of this poetry counteracts pure sentimentality in favor of a disorienting range of effects—what the reviewer mentioned ear- lier calls an “orgasm.” This orgasm, so ineffably expressed, winks at sensibility and that weeps at sexuality. This is a poetry about frisson for its own sake, while knowingly and self-reflexively deploying the tropes of Sensibility essentially for a cheap thrill. The poetry of the Della Crusca network is deliberately a burlesque of Sensibility.
Laura’s “To Anna Matilda,” which appeared on 6 March, is dated 26 February to stress the immediacy of her response and her eagerness to allay—with considerable irony—the other woman’s fears. Robinson clearly understood the amoebean nature of the previous duet between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda; but in triangulating it, she height- ens the competition with her own considerable ambition. While Della Crusca and Anna Matilda sing to one another and while Topham puffs them into outrageous immortality, Robinson seems more intent on actually earning it. “To Anna Matilda” is her first venture into the metrical experimentation of the irregular ode. As her first two volumes, in 1791 and 1794, prove, Robinson saw in the irregular ode great opportunities for demonstrating her metrical versatility. She had written some elementary odes for her 1775 volume that demonstrate a basic understanding of the classical strophe-antistrophe-epode; for these poems, however, she works in fixed stanza forms. Robinson’s previous poems in the World, with the exception of her eighteen-line sonnet, were written in octosyllabic couplets. When she comes to do poetic combat with Anna Matilda, Robinson’s Laura must demon- strate her facility in working in the irregular ode. In other words, her success in the duel is contingent upon her constructing elaborate stan- zaic units with varying rhyme schemes and meters. She must show that she is agile and flexible in the managing of her “numbers,” which for this kind of poetry is basically a syllabic count. To illustrate the agility of Robinson’s metrical performance, I will chart the metrical and stan- zaic divisions of this seventy-line poem in the following. I will begin the rhyme scheme anew with each stanza because the rhymes do not necessarily continue beyond, although some echoes occur. My pur- pose here is mostly to show the variation in stanza and line length as the poem progresses; this is an early instance of Robinson’s exuberant innovation with form, a quality that comes to characterize her work throughout her career. The subscript numbers indicate the quantita- tive measure of syllables. For example, in the first stanza, the first ten lines are octosyllabic, with a final Alexandrine couplet.
The poem may be ludicrous, as Robinson surely intended it to be, but it does show Robinson more carefully constructing formal variation than she does, say, in her supposedly improvisational composition of “To Him Who Will Understand It.” She will perform similar metri- cal gymnastics in her subsequent odes, including her final ode “To the Poet Coleridge.” But it is important that we see her doing what Della Crusca and Anna Matilda had been doing in their exchange but doing so more deliberately and with wilder variations. This formal experimentation, as we will see throughout this study, is essential to Robinson’s poetic skill and will continue to be a hallmark of her professional and literary networking.
As one might expect, Laura’s address to Anna Matilda is mischie- vous and downright catty. In disabusing her of Della Crusca’s infidel- ity, Laura suggests that Anna Matilda has the power to bewitch him and thus to “ravish thence / The wond’ring Poet’s captive Sense” (1: 57; 3–4). Laura urges Anna Matilda to “dispel thy fears” and to “quit thy rosy-pillow’d bed” (7, 9), referring to her angry rejoinder to Della Crusca, in which she promises to retreat scornfully from poetry to her couch, where “The freshest Rose-leaves for my head / Shall form a blushing scented Bed” (World 26 February 1789). Laura disingenu- ously encourages her, “round thy polish’d brow, th’ unfading Myrtle twine” (12), in response to Anna Matilda’s previous renunciation of the myrtle, which she calls “Love’s devoted Tree” and which “Shall ne’er unfold its od’rous Boughs.” In other words, Laura is happy to return Della Crusca to his original lover, but she denies Anna Matilda the laurel wreath. She goes on to deny that Della Crusca was ever enamored of her poetry: “No Verse of Mine, his Song inspir’d” (23). But before doing so, she ludicrously portrays Anna Matilda as a poten- tial murderess, urging her not to succumb to revenge and jealousy, personified as a hideous Medusa.
Subdue the haggard Witch, whose em’rald eye, Darts fell REVENGE, and pois’nous JEALOUSY;
Mark, where amidst her ebon hair, The scaly Serpents mingling twine,
While darting thro’ th’ infected air, The murd’rous vapours shine! (13–8)
The triangulation here is significant because it emphasizes the het- eroerotic nature of the Della Cruscan exchange and its network. Robinson participates in a poetics founded on flirtation and fris- son—as if Della Crusca were a prize worth fighting over.
Although she goes on to deny an erotic attachment, Laura asks leave to admire Della Crusca from afar, to “Still gaze with hallow’d rapture on his fire” (1: 58; 40). In so doing, Robinson proclaims her allegiance to lyrical continental elegance, praising Della Crusca as “Tuneful as METASTASSIO’s tongue, / Or glowing PETRARCH’s witch- ing Song” (43–4). By citing these two Italian poets, Robinson is inscribing other poets as part of the network in order to connect her- self with them and their traditions; she likely also knew that Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets included translations of Petrarch and that Smith’s third edition of Elegiac Sonnets (1786) added a translation of “the thirteenth cantata of Metastasio.” She would later publish a “Sonnet, in the Manner of Metastasio” in the Oracle on 12 November 1793. The reference in particular to Metastasio, the pseudonym of Italian librettist and poet Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, dem- onstrates that she is as culturally refined as Della Crusca but also signals a deeper awareness of Metastasio’s technical virtuosity in the writing of parts that required highly skilled sopranos. She means to link her avatar, then, not only to Petrarch, to whom her Laura also remains committed, but to the pseudonymous performance of for- mal proficiency as a means to fame. For Robinson, it is important to remember, style is substance.
Laura’s “To Anna Matilda” closes with the comical correction
of Anna Matilda’s imputation of Laura as a debauched libertine. Referring to the previous poem, she asserts in conclusion,
’Tis not “the Bacchanalian strain” Can draw the sick’ning soul from pain;
The “brew’d enchantment’s” poison fell! The mellow grape’s nectarious juice Suits the base mind—its baneful use
Throws o’er the sense a torpid spell.
But LETHE’s pure and limpid stream, Wakes the rapt soul, from Passion’s dream,
’TIS THERE my breast shall seek repose,
And “drink Oblivion to its woes.” (1: 58; 61–70)
The joke is on Anna Matilda, as Laura archly points out that her rival has missed the classical allusion to the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, in Greek mythology. Moreover, she takes the opportunity to quote Milton’s Comus (“brew’d enchantment”; 696) as a way to one-up her opponent. But it is also playfully self-referential: Robinson per- formed the role of “the Lady,” the character who speaks the quoted phrase, in several Drury Lane productions of Comus in the late 1770s (Davenport 227). Anna Matilda wrote no reply to Laura.
Thus, Robinson establishes herself as Laura in the Della Crusca network. Meanwhile, the first poem to appear with her own sig- nature, “Mrs. Robinson,” appeared around this time in a different newspaper, the Star, on 25 February 1789. It seems a child-like fable but is an allegory of competition between women—the beautiful but- terfly and the rapacious bee, both gendered female. The moral is that the beautiful must beware of the envious when the latter is equipped with the wit and the malice to do harm. In this way it complements Laura’s “To Anna Matilda”; but, signed by her own name, “The Bee and the Butterfly” is also a direct riposte to the fashionable ladies who took such pleasure in her downfall. What is interesting to me is how self-consciously technical Laura’s performance is compared with that of “Mrs. Robinson.” The avatar as a deliberate refraction of the literary self thus gives license to the formal experimentation and virtuosity Robinson will continue to develop. It would be a couple of years before Robinson would reveal herself as the agent of these avatars; but for now, the Della Crusca network provided a way for her avatars and her poems to work as actors in the network without the interference of Robinson’s authorial self and its previous associations. “Laura” was her way of beginning to earn the “laurel,” “the Wreath of Fame,” with which her poetry is obsessed. The avatar is itself a kind of poetic form.
My purpose in this chapter has been to establish the terms of the Della Crusca network, commercial and literary. For the first couple of years, this network was popular and entertaining—a ludic paradise of sorts that would soon prove unrecoverable as Merry and Robinson each became involved in the other’s politics as well as the other’s poetry. Robinson’s profound affinities with Merry constitute a major obstacle for appreciating her poetry today, because the teleology of British Romanticism implies a renunciation of this kind of verse. From Gifford’s attack on the Della Cruscans in the Baviad (1791) to Wordsworth’s disavowal of the “gaudiness and inane phraseol- ogy of many modern writers” in the advertisement to Lyrical Ballads (1798), most of the decade appears to be devoted to marshaling pow- erful forces against the preservation of this poetry. But, as Jacqueline Labbe suggests, a few choice phrases from “Gifford’s jeremiad” have done the work of actually reading Merry’s poetry (39). Edward E. Bostetter made a similar point in 1956 (277). The image of the Della Cruscans as “a particularly affected and silly group of sentimental ver- sifiers” is part of the lore (Bostetter 277); but, as this chapter asserts, “sentimental” is imprecise, if not wildly inaccurate. Now that we have recovered Robinson for feminist and historicist purposes, we must come to terms with Merry’s influence on her poetry. The study of her poetry reveals a remarkable lyrical ebullience that comes from Della Crusca and the ludic nature of this network. Once we orient ourselves to the poetics of lyric, ludic, and erotic extravagance that characterizes her work, we will recognize these elements as essential to appreciating it. In a way, Robinson’s lyrical extravagance is part of the sociability of literary exchange. This social exuberance, as the next chapter will explore, is also deeply rooted in Robinson’s enthusiasm for humani- tarian and political causes. This is why she became such good friends with John Wolcot, who wrote excessively silly yet vitriolic satirical poetry as “Peter Pindar.” In fact, Wolcot and William Godwin were the only mourners to attend her funeral. Moreover, it was actually Merry who introduced Robinson to William Godwin (Paul 1: 154). Merry, Godwin, Wolcot, and Robinson, later, participated ultimately in a network of disenfranchised radicals who had associations with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, and Morning Post editor Daniel Stuart. But Merry was first, and her poetic correspondence with him established patterns of professional and poetic networking she would follow until the end of her career.
C h a p t e r 2
Bell’s L aure ates II: . . . So Goes the World
Frederick Reynolds in his 1826 autobiography insists that Merry believed that Anna Matilda would turn out to be the woman of his dreams and that he was dismayed to find Cowley instead. Topham and Este, on Merry’s insistence, arranged a meeting in March of 1789 where Merry, according to W. N. Hargreaves-Mawdsley, “found him- self in the presence not of a goddess, but of a stout, plain, respect- able matron in her later forties!” The “fantasy was destroyed” (194). Hargreaves-Mawdsley’s account, however, is merely a paraphrase of Reynolds’: “when he stood in the presence of the ideal goddess of his idolatry, and saw a plain respectable matronly lady—simply poetical and platonic, he walked away in sad dudgeon . . .” (2: 187–8). James Boaden gives a more favorable account, reporting that “Merry was an enthusiast in beauty as well as verse; and the proportion of the former to the latter in the lady was less than might be desired: with a rhapsodical farewell, the correspondence closed” (217). This story has become part of Della Cruscan lore: it makes Merry foolish and Cowley pathetic, and perpetuates the fiction of the poetic romance as founded on genuine passion that was dismantled by the revelation of Anna Matilda’s attachment to another. Cowley was already the wife of a government functionary who had bolted to India. Hester Piozzi, who knew Merry’s secret all along, discovered as early as 1 April 1789—April Fool’s Day—that Cowley was Anna Matilda and expressed her relief to learn that Merry was not writing love poems to himself (Thraliana 2: 740). Later that month, Merry publicly revealed himself as “Author of the Della Crusca Poems” when his “Ode on the Restoration of His Majesty” appeared under his own name in several London newspapers. This revelation comes in the midst of the Laura–Leonardo imbroglio, but with a final volley from Anna Matilda yet to come. On 2 June 1789, the World printed its final poem of the exchange in which Anna Matilda writes to Della Crusca with the ridiculous allegation that Della Crusca’s new lover, Laura, is actually a man. The affair finally had run its course: when the revelation of their actual identities came, the public greeted it with a yawn.
The end comes when the two lovers bid one another farewell, not in the columns of the World but in Bell’s new anthology, the two- volume British Album, which appeared on New Year’s Day 1790. The final arc of the narrative has more to do with the reconstitution of the Della Crusca network than with either writer’s real-life attachments. Merry may not have known that Anna Matilda was Cowley, but I see no reason to believe Reynolds’ story that Merry seriously harbored a romantic interest in her.1 Indeed, Reynolds, like many of Merry’s former associates embarrassed by his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, turned against him; the story about Della Crusca’s dis- appointment is recounted only years later by older, more conserva- tive men who were interested in making Merry look foolish because of his political views. The Della Crusca network is interrupted and ultimately dismantled by the French Revolution, more specifically by Merry’s and Robinson’s poetic involvement in the Revolution debate. Obviously, the ludic impulses of the Della Crusca network could not be sustained in the political atmosphere of the early 1790s.
In 1790, Bell published Robinson’s first volume of poetry in over a decade, Ainsi va le monde (“so goes the world”), a tribute to Robert Merry’s celebration of the French Revolution, The Laurel of Liberty, which Bell also published. In so doing, Bell consolidated a literary empire that featured two hugely successful poets: Merry, who had since dropped the Della Crusca avatar, and Robinson, who contin- ued to proliferate hers. Within a short time, Merry’s fortunes, how- ever, would fall as Robinson’s would rise. As M. Ray Adams long ago observed, Merry’s political verse amounted to the “sloughing off of his romantic inanities” (“Robert Merry” 25). Merry certainly saw it this way. However, the difference in the way Robinson and Merry managed their respective avatars at this juncture accounts for their relative success and failure. Obviously, as the environment changed, the ludic-erotic poetry of the Della Crusca network became quaint and superfluous. Merry, like Robinson, did have serious poetical ambitions; as Della Crusca, his writing for the World included, for example, his poem on the humanitarian efforts of prison reformer John Howard, “Howard, the Phil-Anthrope,” his widely praised anti- war poem “Elegy Written on the Plain of Fontenoy,” or his abolition poem “The Slaves. An Elegy.” But publishing these sober humani- tarian pieces with the Della Crusca avatar was a miscalculation on Merry’s part—such works confused readers because the avatar seemed factitious, undermining the social and political sincerity these poems undoubtedly were attempting to express. Merry’s professional, politi- cal, and poetical miscalculations included the presumption that his own authorial identity could overwrite the Della Crusca avatar as a more coherent writerly self. As Merry became a politically committed poet, this presumption would be his downfall, most devastatingly at the hands of William Gifford. Della Crusca made it easy to attack Robert Merry. Mary Robinson, for all her indebtedness to Merry as a model, avoided making similar mistakes through the proliferation and reconstitution of her various avatars.
The dispersal of the Della Crusca network involves the business concerns of Bell and Topham and the reinvention of Mary Robinson as “Laura Maria”—a new avatar that represents a more refined and ide- alized, and eventually a more politically engaged, version of Robinson than “Laura” does. While Laura develops an affiliation with Della Crusca in order to achieve poetic fame, Laura Maria pays homage to Merry himself as well as to his political views. Robinson’s association with Merry and with Bell put her at the center of the liberal literati’s response to the French Revolution. In the second half of the decade, Robinson becomes increasingly radical; however, this chapter focuses on the first stage of Robinson’s political engagements during which her politics are more ambivalent, in contrast with her positions during the final years of her life. As Robinson becomes politically engaged, her formal choices reflect these interests. Her assiduous networking continues as she attempts to assert and to maintain control of her ava- tars and her poetic forms—even as Merry loses control of his.
The course of Robinson’s career reveals a consistent program of positioning herself literally and figuratively close to powerful men. Her residences in Brighton, on St. James Street, even finally at Old Windsor, reveal patterns of geographical affiliation with her former lover, the Prince of Wales, on whom Robinson depended for a portion of her income. Such choices did not go unnoticed by the press: observ- ing her proximity to the Prince in Brighton, the Public Advertiser remarked, “Mrs. Robinson improves in her poetical flights—the sight of her princely Corydon gives fresh animation to her rural theme” (29 July 1790). Though the correspondent resists the Perdita and Florizel appellations, the pastoral allusion nonetheless serves to remind readers of the stage-setting in which the Shakespearean name- sakes of Robinson and the Prince performed, and thus, of course, of Robinson’s previous infamy. For practical reasons, Robinson could not forsake the Prince, depending as she did on her promised annu- ity from him. She similarly stayed close to Fox, although in more figurative ways. Her personal and professional survival required the maintenance of these, and other, connections.
Unraveling Robinson’s political affiliations at the beginning of her literary career is a complicated endeavor because the Whigs were divided over issues ranging from the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings to the Prince’s illegal marriage to Maria Fitzherbert. Because the London papers were either subsidized by the government or the opposition—and because the opposition itself was divided— Robinson had to choose carefully where to send her poetry. When she returned to England, Bell and Topham’s World was popular, but it also was subsidized by the Treasury, which expected quid pro quo in the form of favorable political coverage. Rather than extolling Pitt, Topham and Sheridan obliged by attacking Fox, the Prime Minister’s chief opponent and Sheridan’s frequent bête noir. Robinson did not publish in the World until it became known that the Prince had agreed to subsidize the paper: in September of 1788, the Prince paid Topham a huge sum of money to cease attacks on his illegal wife, Maria Fitzherbert; for the rest of the year the paper was recognized as having the support of the Prince and his faction (Werkmeister, London 163–5). Robinson’s first poem in the World appeared on 24 October 1788. Her loyalty to Fox, prior to this arrangement, may have prevented her from contributing to a Ministerial paper such as the World; however, even though Topham and Sheridan continued to denounce Fox throughout the year, Robinson’s loyalty to the Prince trumped her attachment to Fox. Robinson notably did not begin her career at one of the opposition papers, where some of her later friends—John Wolcot, John Taylor, Daniel Stuart—worked.
Robinson also intended to stick close to Bell, who advertised him-self as “bookseller to the Prince of Wales.” That fall, around the time Merry began writing as Leonardo to Robinson’s Laura, the King’s illness became public knowledge, reported by all of the newspapers. When Fox declared in December his support for the Prince becom- ing Regent, with full monarchical authority, the World relented temporarily in its assaults, as all of the quarreling Whigs (Burke, Fox, and Sheridan) had a stake in the Prince’s aggrandizement. In oppo- sition to Fox, Pitt supported a new bill that would severely curtail the Prince’s authority as Regent. The shifting of the leading Whigs to more or less the same side put the World in more direct compe- tition with the Morning Post, the leading opposition paper for the same West End readers. Around this time, in December of 1788, Bell decided to sell his share in the World to Topham, while the Prince bought control of the Morning Post, to which Sheridan immediately defected. In response, Topham sold political control of the World to the Treasury for the huge sum of £600 per annum, which Lucyle Werkmeister notes is the most the government ever had paid to influ- ence a newspaper (Werkmeister 105, 166). Certainly, this is a testa- ment to the popularity of the World if not to Topham’s integrity. Topham’s political oscillation, motivated by money, made the World the enemy of the opposition, and his influence on the public was a matter of concern to committed liberals. When Topham reneged on his promise to continue employing Bell’s printing services, Bell responded by establishing the pointedly entitled Oracle, or Bell’s New World on 1 June 1789.2 Robinson adroitly followed Bell, who also took the Della Crusca and Anna Matilda avatars with him. Her brief stint with the World as Laura would lead to a more substantial rela- tionship with Bell, resulting in the creation of her Laura Maria avatar and the publication of her first books.
Robinson’s professional associations before the Revolution contro- versy are moderate and cautious, tending toward the government and away from the extreme, Foxite opposition. Her Laura poems, discussed in the previous chapter, appear in the World during the Regency Crisis, and her directengagementof Leonardo/Della Crusca and Anna Matilda takes place after the paper becomes an organ of Pitt’s government. She was willing to stay with the paper as long as Bell was printing it. The publication of her poem “The Bee and the Butterfly” further compli- cates our understanding of her political allegiances. This poem, her first publication as “Mrs. Robinson” in over a decade, appeared in the Star and Evening Advertiser just after the paper’s owners removed edi- tor Peter Stuart for supposedly publishing antiministerial propaganda during the crisis and, as he claimed, for refusing to slander the Prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert. When “The Bee and the Butterfly” appeared, Stuart had already established his own, nearly identical paper called Stuart’s Star and Evening Advertiser, which began printing under that name the week before. Robinson’s poem appears in the original Star, however, which was unambiguous in its support of Pitt (Werkmeister, London 241–3). At the time the poem appeared, Pitt’s bill had passed Commons and seemed likely to pass the House of Lords, so Stuart’s was already a lost cause. As such, Robinson would not have wished to have her name attached to it.3 Pitt’s Regency Bill was also moot, for that matter: the King’s recovery was reported in February and officially announced in all the papers in early March.
Bell’s affiliation with the Prince continued until 1794. During this time, Robinson contributed primarily to the Oracle. With this new venture, Bell became the new center of gravity for Topham’s enemies and castaways. Stuart devoted much of the paper to ridiculing Topham and the World. By the summer of 1789, however, Stuart’s Star had folded; most of its staff, particularly James Boaden, James Mackintosh, and even Stuart himself, ended up working for Bell at the Oracle. At the Oracle, Robinson would make important connections that would last until the end of her career. Boaden would remain a close friend and would write poems in Della Cruscan fashion to her Laura Maria avatar as “Arno.” Years later, Mackintosh likely was instrumental in arranging Robinson’s employment by his brother-in-law and Peter Stuart’s younger brother, Daniel Stuart, at the Morning Post.
The Oracle was politically ambivalent during the early years of the Revolution debate, before the start of the war, and before the worst abuses of power on the part of Pitt’s government. As a businessman, Bell was opportunistic, a fact that surely governed his conduct of the paper. For the first six months, the paper remained neutral or at least failed to secure financial support from either the government or the opposition. In January of 1790, around the time Bell hired Peter Stuart and Boaden, Bell also accepted £200 from the Treasury (Werkmeister, London 330). Although only one-third of what the Treasury paid Topham, this sum put the Oracle among the eight other government-controlled newspapers. Bell, however, was unable to remain completely loyal because many of his friends were oppo- nents of the government. Sheridan, moreover, would resume at the Oracle the influence he had had at the World. Sheridan also remained close with the Prince—much to the chagrin of Burke and Fox. While the political reporting of the Oracle is frequently contradictory and confusing, suffice it to say that the paper generally reflected the poli- tics of Sheridan and the Prince, which probably explains Robinson’s affiliation with the paper.4 The government perceived the paper to be subversive, and responded with harassing libel suits that would ulti- mately result in Bell’s bankruptcy, announced in May of 1793, and his temporary loss of the Oracle. Bell would not publish any books by Mary Robinson after this time, and she would publish only a couple of poems in the Oracle in 1794, when the paper was bought by Peter Stuart. Robinson was for four years Bell’s laureate, although her poems also would appear in other Treasury-supported papers such as the Whitehall Evening Post and the Star. Before 1794, Robinson did not publish in an opposition newspaper.
The Laura Maria Brand
When Robinson’s poetry started appearing in June of 1789, the main interest of the Oracle was competing with the World on a cultural rather than a political front—probably because, until Stuart’s crew came aboard, Bell was better equipped to report fashion than news. Bell mostly regarded the paper as a way of promoting the sale of his books, which was far more lucrative than selling daily newspapers. In addition, in June of 1789 Pitt’s government increased the newspaper tax to drive opposition papers out of business (Werkmeister, London 325). So, it was safer, until a political patron could be secured from either side, for the paper to avoid controversy and factionalism. Bell established himself as conductor of the paper, the position Topham held at the World, and declared in the first issue of the paper on 1 June 1789 that “APOLLO is the Standard, and he directeth THE ORACLE OF TRUTH!” This was an invitation to correspondents that unabash- edly alludes to the previous success of his Apollo Press, to his naked Apollo statue as a symbol of his phallic authority, and more generally to the god of poetry—all promising even greater literary acclaim than the World could do. On 8 August 1789, Bell acknowledged in the paper the effect that Pitt’s “new impost” had on its circulation but cheerfully reported that sales have “far exceeded” previous figures and are rising daily because “the Public have discernment enough to discover merit, and spirit enough to reward it.” On 9 December 1789, the Morning Post gleefully announced that Topham’s despised World has been “abandoned by its original choir of minstrels, the poetic DELLA CRUSCA and his tuneful disciples ANNA MATILDA and LAURA.” Bell repackaged the Della Crusca network’s poetry as The British Album, featuring the previously unpublished poems “The Interview,” in which Della Crusca deplores Anna Matilda’s attach- ment to another, and her final “To Della Crusca,” in which she prom- ises to write a poem for him upon his imminent death. Bell proudly announced on 1 December the forthcoming publication of this new edition, including such special features as “revised and corrected” versions of the poems, a new arrangement of the series, characteristi- cally elegant printing—not in the manner of Poetry of the World but of Bell’s Classical Arrangement of Fugitive Poetry—and, most exciting, “finely engraved” “PORTRAITS of the REAL AUTHORS.” The portraits were, of course, not of Merry and Cowley but of their avatars, imag- ined and idealized. Bell also added Robinson’s Laura poems.
But Laura had ceased to exist. After the debut of the Oracle, only two poems by Robinson appeared in the World. A short version of the poem that would be called “Life” in her 1791 volume and “To the Memory of Werter” both appeared with the Laura avatar, on 15 June and 15 July, respectively. According to the 1791 volume, Robinson wrote the latter poem in Germany in 1786, likely after reading Daniel Malthus’s English translation of Goethe’s novel; it includes Robinson’s only apostrophe to Sensibility—“Thy pow’r, O Sensibility! in magic charms to speak” (1: 61; 24)—thus marking it as a poem of the 1780s like others by Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams. But despite Robinson’s later dating of the poem, it also may respond to Della Crusca’s “Elegy, Written after Having Read the Sorrows of Werter,” which appeared in the World on 26 July 1787 and subsequently in The Poetry of the World. Certainly, its appearance in the World may have reminded readers of Della Crusca’s poem. Robinson’s poem, however, is more complicated than Merry’s because, where his focuses on a justification of Werter’s suicide, hers develops a deeper rumination on the effect of the novel on the reader, particularly on a female reader who may be more inclined to sympa- thize with Werter. The other poem, later ironically entitled “Life,” is a litany of ephemeral joys and inevitable sorrows that closes with the image of Death as “a welcome Friend, / That bids the Scene of Sorrow end” (1: 59; 27–8). With these two morbid expositions of Sensibility, Robinson’s Laura avatar bids farewell to the World.
The change in context required a new avatar, so Robinson drops the Laura avatar shortly after Bell begins publishing the Oracle. Instead, she becomes Laura Maria, the avatar with which she would be most closely identified throughout her career. This new avatar shows Robinson’s eagerness to reconcile her pseudonyms with her actual professional self. Obviously, this new creation fuses what is sig- nified by the Laura avatar along with a variation of her own name— which itself, too, carries a signifying power but is here deliberately divested, in a sense, of its infamous and ignominious associations. Laura Maria is a pseudonymous oxymoron, half metaphorical and half revelatory. With Laura Maria, Robinson claims the cultural cachet that she had earned as a Shakespearean actress and as the subject of portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney; and she encour- aged the recognition of the avatar as an idealized version of herself.
Moreover, Robinson designed her Laura Maria avatar specifically for the interests of Bell’s paper, and for the refined literary elegance that characterized his printing innovations and his book publications. The Laura Maria avatar is also a brand directed toward an upscale liberal audience of West End consumers. From its inception, the avatar pro- moted Robinson’s poetry by attracting readers who would eventually become subscribers for her debut volume. As Laura Maria, Robinson’s characteristic lyric extravagance is refined to a baroque elegance that showcases Robinson’s formal versatility and discipline, as well as her aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual credentials, or, some might say, pretensions.
The Laura Maria avatar, then, makes a claim to cultural legitimacy, encompassing both the Petrarchan Laura revived figuratively as the self- laureled poet, as well as the authorial Maria idealized, de-eroticized, and recontextualized. Of all of Robinson’s avatars, Laura Maria is also the most formally ostentatious. Given his eye for design, Bell surely considered Laura Maria’s poems to be ornamental as well. Robinson’s penchant for writing irregular and allegorical odes—with varying line- and stanza-lengths—provided Bell with opportunities for elaborate printing features, such as conspicuous indentions to emphasize rhymes that may be several lines apart or centering stanzas containing lines of varying lengths, plus a particularly bewildering array of italics and small capitals. The italics and small capitals are frequently inscrutable because they do not necessarily represent elocutionary emphases so much as they represent the excitement or stimulation the poem offers to the reader. These features are textual but not verbal, if not also a bit gimmicky, and are designed to make the poems visually interesting on the page. Bell meant for the textual representation of the poem’s for- mal qualities to catch the eye, to “pop” off of the page. These formal features, both in the printing and the poetics, contributed to the recep- tion of the poetry and the ubiquitous adjective elegant that appears so often in contemporary assessments of Robinson’s poetry and in nearly every review of her first volume, published by Bell.
This formal elegance is not just superficial ornamentation. For Robinson style is substance, especially in the early years of her poetic career. Laura Maria performs elegance through the demonstrations of metrical virtuosity and poetic fancy; the poems are intended to sug- gest formal polish and refinement, and a pleasing ingenuity both of metrical variation and surprising imagery.5 Laura Maria looks past Della Crusca to William Collins and Joseph Warton. Warton’s “Ode to Fancy” in particular is practically a poetic manifesto for Robinson’s Laura Maria avatar. With its concluding prayer that personified Fancy will spur some “chosen swain” to “rise above the rhyming throng” of contemporary poets and restore England to its former literary great- ness, Warton clearly prescribes a cure for the age’s poetic ills, which he considers as resulting from too much didacticism in poetry. Warton wants a poet who will write verse of passion and inspiration, who will “O’erwhelm our souls with joy and pain” and will “With native beauties win applause, / Beyond cold critics’ studied laws.” Warton writes in his preface to the 1746 Odes that he considers “Invention and Imagination to be the chief faculties of a Poet” and hopes that his odes “may be look’d upon as an attempt to bring back Poetry into its right chan- nel.” Similarly, in her preface to Collins’s Poetical Works (1797), Anna Letitia Barbauld defines lyric poetry as “pure Poetry, or Poetry in the abstract,” in which “the conceptions of the Poet (often highly meta- physical) are rendered still more remote from common apprehension by the figurative phrase in which they are clothed” (iv–v). Barbauld adds that lyric poetry “depends for effect on the harmony of the verse, which must be modulated with the nicest care; and on a felicity of expression, rather than a fullness of thought” (v). This is as good an explanation of the lyrical elegance Robinson was aiming for as any from the period. Although Warton and Collins wrote their odes around mid-century (both published their volumes in 1746), Barbauld’s commentary and Robinson’s practice demonstrate the currency that this type of poetry maintained at the end of the century. Robinson’s early contributions to the Oracle as Laura Maria, moreover, show that she has heeded Warton’s call for poetry to demonstrate invention and imagination, form and fancy. Warton’s odes also feature a Laura who is the erotic object of the speaker’s fancy; as with Petrarch’s Laura, Robinson’s variation on her own name “Maria” modifies as it alludes to Warton’s Laura, making her the lyrical subject as well as the authorial odist.
The brand was thus established. On 13 August 1789, Bell touted an exclusive relationship with the popular Laura Maria. He writes, “LAURA MARIA has already acquired Fame, sufficient to excite curios- ity and impatience whenever her Productions are announced – that Fame sprang from The ORACLE – To The ORACLE let her Productions, and the CONSEQUENT FAME, be confined.” The word Productions is a remarkable denotation for her poetry, as it not only emphasizes Robinson as the producer of cultural artifacts, but also Bell’s claim on them as his own products. For the rest of 1789, Robinson cultivated the Laura Maria avatar as Bell did the readership of the Oracle. And Robinson contributed a few poems under another significant avatar— “Mrs. Robinson”—making a suitably theatrical debut in the Oracle with “Lines Inscribed to the Memory of David Garrick, Esq.,” a tribute to her former mentor and a public acknowledgment of her controversial past (26 September 1789). She was preparing the public for her even- tual revelation as the poet behind Laura Maria. Before then, Robinson would publish as Laura Maria several odes intended to further define the persona as a poet of great elegance and virtuosity. Most of these continue in the allegorical vein and include odes “To Eloquence” (5 September 1789), “To Reflection” (7 December 1789), “To the Nightingale” (11 December 1789), “To Melancholy” (17 December 1789), and “To Meditation” (26 December 1789). Undoubtedly sev- eral more odes appeared in 1790 in issues of the Oracle that have been lost; these, however, were reprinted in the 1791 volume. Other than her “Second Ode to the Nightingale,” which is in octosyllabic cou- plets, Robinson’s “Ode to Della Crusca” is the only one of the odes to maintain a fixed form throughout. Appropriately, this form matches exactly Della Crusca’s “Ode to Tranquility,” which appeared first in the World on 25 August 1787 and then in Poetry of the World. Della Crusca’s ode, as Judith Pascoe points out, formally alludes to Collins’s “Ode to Evening” and Barbauld’s “Ode to Spring” (80). But the important point is that her ode pays tribute to Della Crusca’s mastery of his predecessors’ form, and thus demonstrates her own virtuosity. This poetic form is unrhymed but develops in iambic pentameter pairs followed by iambic trimeter pairs, sonically approaching blank verse but with a subtle metrical syncopation. Always attentive to sound and form, Robinson noted Merry’s nonce form and performed it as part of her tribute to Della Crusca. She writes to him that she will “iterate thy strain, / And chaunt thy matchless numbers o’er and o’er” (1: 103; 53–4). Her formal choice confirms this promise.8
The distinctive feature of the majority of Robinson’s odes is extreme formal variation with particularly intricate rhyme schemes, lending themselves to unique display on Bell’s elegantly designed page. The first two stanzas of Robinson’s “Ode to Envy” will provide a sufficient example of the character of most of her odes from the 1791 volume:
DEEP in th’ abyss where frantic horror bides, In thickest mists of vapours fell,
Where wily Serpents hissing glare And the dark Demon of Revenge resides,
At midnight’s murky hour Thy origin began:
Rapacious MALICE was thy sire; Thy Dam the sullen witch, Despair;
Thy Nurse, insatiate Ire.
The FATES conspir’d their ills to twine, About thy heart’s infected shrine;
They gave thee each disastrous spell, Each desolating pow’r,
To blast the fairest hopes of man.
Soon as thy fatal birth was known, From her unhallow’d throne
With ghastly smile pale Hecate sprung; Thy hideous form the Sorc’ress press’d With kindred fondness to her breast;
Her haggard eye
Shot forth a ray of transient joy,
Whilst thro’ th’ infernal shades exulting clamours rung. (1: 86; 1–22)
As this stanza graph indicates, Robinson’s two main formal princi- ples are the interweaving and extension of rhymes and the exchange of lines in varying syllabic lengths. The first stanza is particularly founded on a principle of surprising recurrences of rhymes, partic- ularly the delayed D and E rhymes mixed with quicker returns of other rhymes. Obviously, for the first stanza she had something like a sonnet in mind, in particular what we think of as the English son- net, which contains seven rhymes. The shorter second stanza shows Robinson constructing for extreme variation in line length. Many of the other odes display similar technical complexities. For each stanza of her irregular odes, Robinson seeks to construct a pattern of meter and rhyme that is formally unlike any of the other stanzas. Each sec- tion of one of these odes is meant to have a music of its own. In this way, Robinson’s odes tend to be heterostrophic, rather than the homostrophic ode on the Horatian model in which each stanza is the same form, identical in rhyme scheme, number of lines, and metri- cal pattern. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and the most famous of Keats’s odes are homostrophic, while Wordsworth’s “Intimations” ode, like most of Robinson’s, is heterostrophic. Except for some of the comic odes of Peter Pindar that come close, Robinson’s odes have greater formal variety stanza-by-stanza than any other odes I have been able to locate in the second half of the eighteenth century. Robinson’s irregular odes display such formal complexity they are almost anti-doggerel. In other words, she is showing off her skills.
It was necessary for Robinson to demonstrate her technical virtu- osity as an essential feature of eighteenth-century lyric performance, which, before the sonnet revival (see chapter three), was primarily restricted to the ode or to the elegiac (heroic) quatrain. In the essay on Collins’s poetry cited earlier, Barbauld goes on to explain that an “Ode, like a delicate piece of silver filligree [sic], receives in a manner all its value from the art and curiosity of the workmanship” (v). As Barbauld recognizes, an ode requires exquisite ornamentation. The mid-century experiments in classical poetic practice regarding the reg- ular and irregular ode, evident in the poetry of Collins, Gray, Joseph Warton, and others, made readers of poetry particularly sensitive to stylistic features as a consideration distinct from the substance of a poem. Poetry became, for a time, hyperlyrical thanks to the irregu- lar ode, and thus the subsequent appeal later in the period of a fixed form such as the sonnet. This hyperlyricism is due to the example of Abraham Cowley’s irregular “Pindaric” odes from the previous century. Cowley adapted Pindar’s heterostrophic stanzas for English. Considered by Dryden to be a major innovation, Cowley’s odes gave license to poets who went on to practice what Norman Maclean calls “‘the free verse’ of the neoclassical period” (424).9 Naturally, a debate ensued over, among other things, stanzaic regularity, metrical varia- tion, and the legitimacy of odes that do not follow the classical strophe- antistrophe-epode formula. Classically educated readers and writers objected to the increasing disregard for fixed form. In his edition of Thomas Gray’s works, William Mason reiterated the adage “easy writ- ing is no easy reading” to assert the value of the “extreme difficulty” in the legitimate, regular ode (3: 156–7). Mason points out that the irregular ode is “so extremely easy, that it gives the writer an opening to every kind of poetical licentiousness” (1: 137). Gray’s “Ode for Music,” Mason points out, is the only irregular ode Gray wrote, add- ing that “its being written occasionally, and for music, is a sufficient apology for the defect” (1: 136). This likely speaks to the irregular quality of Robinson’s irregular odes as well; she may have imagined melodies or rhythms for each of her variegated stanzas. Other simi- larly legitimate poets, such as Collins or Akenside, earn the occasional irregular ode by demonstrating their ability to write regular ones: the odes of both Collins and Akenside include pieces that are demonstra- bly regular, either through established stanza forms or through the strophe-antistrophe-epode pattern, often with stanzas clearly labeled as such that justify the apparent stanzaic variations. Like legitimate sonneteers, as we shall see, legitimate odists are an elite group.
When Merry entered the scene as Della Crusca, his practice invited comparisons to Cowley’s because of his interest in varied line lengths, stanzaic experimentation, and metrical effects, which his critics com- plained subordinated sense to sound. In his preface to Diversity, Merry, as Della Crusca, contradicts Mason, asserting that he has found “the irregular ode to have been susceptible of the greatest beauties, and to have been employed with peculiar success by the best writers in the best languages” (viii). A long unclassifiable poem itself, Diversity partakes of this influence and gives Merry an opportunity to show- case his metrical variety.10 Similarly, in revising “Lines on Beauty” as “Ode to Beauty” for her 1791 volume, Robinson clearly wanted to embellish the poem formally, expanding it from twenty-four to sixty- four lines and extending the parade of allegorical figures (1: 99–100). In so doing, she edits out the shift to the subjective lyric perspective that makes the original poem so striking. The revised version devel- ops the allegory, in addition to performing a greater metrical versa- tility, and is perhaps more elegant—at least according to Robinson’s standards of taste.
For Bell and for his readers, Robinson’s taste was refined enough. Robinson’s first published sonnet appeared in the Oracle on 29 July 1789 (1: 62). And in his editorial headnote, Bell himself makes the first association between Robinson/Laura Maria and Sappho—two years before the Monthly Review proclaimed Robinson “the English Sappho”:
We are happy to introduce to Public View any Specimen of Classic Elegance, however short.—A Fragment of SAPPHO is dearer to the Reader of real Taste, than a whole Epic Poem that reaches not beyond Mediocrity. The following little Sonnet RELISHES of the true Attic Taste; it breathes the tender Strain of SAPPHO, with the soft pathetic Melancholy of COLLINS.
The point is the continued assertion of the paper’s good taste and of Laura Maria’s refinement, the product of which—the sonnet begin- ning “Night’s dewy orb”—might correspondingly have produced in readers an appreciative sigh before they passed on in the column to read news of a “GRAND CRICKET MATCH.”
Laurels and Laureates
As Bell’s laureate, Robinson clearly tried to distinguish herself from the poetically inebriate crowd of poets that formed the Della Crusca network, but she did not mean to distance herself from the Della Crusca avatar or from Robert Merry himself. Merry, although still friendly with Topham, maintained a business relationship with Bell, who continued to publish the poet’s work. Although Merry went back to the World to help Topham with political coverage of the 1790 elec- tions, he was not dependable and found writing for a Ministry paper disaffecting; he joined the Morning Post in early 1791 (Werkmeister, London 207). At the same time Merry continued to contribute poetry for Bell at the Oracle, but this time as “Rinaldo.” Merry, Cowley, and Robinson briefly revived their poetic love triangle, attempting to recapture at the Oracle the spirit of the Della Crusca network. Cowley was the author of the corresponding “Armida” poems, playing again the jealous harpy. Although the original publication in the Oracle is lost, Robinson’s “To Rinaldo” was reprinted in her 1791 volume and praises Rinaldo in similar terms to those applied to Della Crusca. It even concludes with a quotation—“‘If I e’er could Please – I please no more’ ” (1: 120; 106)—from Della Crusca’s poem to Anna Matilda, beginning “In vain I fly thee.” Robinson’s poem “To the Muse of Poetry” (1: 120–3) responds to Armida and includes the “weedy waste” from the final Anna Matilda poem to Della Crusca, thus wink- ing at Cowley’s authorship of the Armida poems. These avatars allude to Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (1581), as well as to Sacchini’s opera Armida (1772), which was performed at the Pantheon Opera House in Haymarket at the time these poems appeared. Although similarly ludic, these operatic avatars are obviously designed for Bell’s Oracle to distinguish them from the more erotic and less refined play of the Della Crusca network. Robinson, for instance, asks the Muse of Poetry to bless Rinaldo’s “TRUE POETIC Mind” with her “chaste celes- tial ray” (1: 122; 100–1). And she warns Rinaldo to ensure that his “varying FANCY” never will “tread / The paths of vitiated Taste” (1: 123; 110–11). Maintaining good taste will ensure his fame, Robinson insists, while abandoning it will consign him to oblivion. In terms of taste, Bell obviously wanted to replay the sensation of 1788–9 in the World but in the more refined Oracle; no correspondence, how- ever, caught fire as the previous one had done, perhaps because these later iterations were less amusing. During 1790 and 1791, other poets using such avatars as Ignotus (William Kendall) and Cesario (Miss M. Vaughan) continued to correspond with Robinson’s Laura avatar instead of her Laura Maria one.11 Robinson’s 1791 volume includes her responses. Because the issues of the Oracle during this time have been lost, however, it is difficult to determine if Robinson signed any of these poems as Laura; if so, she seems to have drawn a distinction between the two avatars: she revives Laura as the erotic correspondent, while Laura Maria maintains a somewhat aloof position above such poetic exchanges. This reading is further confirmed by Robinson’s exchanges in the Oracle of 1792 and 1793 with Arno, the avatar of the paper’s editor, playwright James Boaden. In these exchanges, she writes as Laura or as Julia, but they are decidedly more platonic. Even as Laura, Robinson studiously avoids an erotic exchange as overheated as that between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda. As Julia, for instance, Robinson responds to Carlos, rejecting “FICKLE LOVE” and offering only “Meek FRIENDSHIP,” which “Phoenix-like, shall rise, / Amidst the flame, where PASSION DIES” (1: 179–80; 38, 59–60). Because her identity was known, and the “Perdita” epithet was still in currency, she wanted to preclude any whiff of sex, however poetic.
Robinson reserved Laura Maria’s correspondence for Merry alone.
Her first book with Bell, Ainsi va le monde, appeared in November 1790 dedicated by Laura Maria to Robert Merry, not to Della Crusca. It followed within days Merry’s first volume after dropping the Della Crusca avatar—The Laurel of Liberty. Both poems celebrate the French Revolution and confirm that Robinson and Merry shared political views as well as literary tastes. The baroque formal elegance, such as that displayed by Robinson and Merry, eventually would prove incongruous with their political views and associated poetical ambitions as the course of the French Revolution became increas- ingly controversial. The lovely pouffy world of West End elegance, as well as the stability of the Whig social and political network, the two being always interrelated, both were disrupted by the pamphlet wars instigated by Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and incessant subsequent debate regarding the Revolution.
As Robinson continued to cultivate her Laura Maria avatar, Merry was trying to wriggle free of his. Della Crusca was good for a laugh and a paycheck, but Merry was embarrassed at being forever associ- ated with the name. Events in France made him especially eager to shed the association. An ardent republican, Merry went to France in the late summer and autumn of 1789 to observe the Revolution first-hand. During 1790, Robinson continued to write poetry for Bell in the Oracle with an eye toward the publication of her first vol- ume of collected poems since 1777. On 26 July 1790, the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, edited at the time by Fox supporter James Perry, reported that “the attention of the gay and fashionable world will soon be solicited to two volumes of Poems by Mrs. Robinson, which she is preparing incontinently for the press.” If this item was not planted by Robinson herself, her assiduous networking and build- ing up a list of subscribers for the volume likely alerted Perry to her literary activities and forthcoming publication. Meanwhile, Merry came back to England, favorably impressed by the first few months of the Revolution. In need of work, he turned to his friend Topham at the World, as spurious Della Cruscas and imitators continued to proliferate in the press. But the authentic Della Crusca did make a few public appearances. The death of philanthropist and prison reformer Howard prompted a “Monody. To the Memory of John Howard, Esq.” which was recited at Covent Garden and reprinted the follow- ing day in the World (19 May 1790) as the work of Della Crusca. It forms a companion piece to Della Crusca’s previous ode on “Howard, the Phil-Anthrope” from the World during the height of its popular- ity (30 October 1787), although, as noted earlier, these pieces created complications for Merry as he sought to shed Della Crusca: his ambi- tions had developed beyond what his avatar made possible.
These may have included holding the post of Poet Laureate. When Thomas Warton died in May, the General Evening Post reported that “It is generally supposed that he will have no successor in the office of Laureat [sic]” (25 May 1790).This occasioned a debate in the press about whether or not the position ought to be filled. The English Chronicle recommended its abolishment, decrying it as “an office which is of no use whatever, and never fails to be disreputable to the person who fills it” (8 June 1790). Nonetheless, Topham began an outra- geous and likely facetious campaign of puffing Merry as a contender to replace Warton. The notion of Della Crusca as Poet Laureate was ridic- ulous. On 24 May, just days after Warton’s death, Topham suggested, “On the present vacancy of Poet-Laureatship, if Poetry has charms of recommendation – why is not Mr. Merry entreated to accept it?” Perry at the Gazetteer puffed Robinson’s pseudonym by poking fun at the position and at Della Crusca’s poetry, as well as his supposed nomina- tion: “Laura Maria does not mean to enter the lists as a candidate for the Poet Laureateship; her poetry has too much plain sense, and too little of the obscure sublime, for such a situation” (27 May 1790). On July 22, the appointment of Henry James Pye as Poet Laureate was announced in the papers; on the 28th it was official. The next day, a correspondent in the World suggested that Merry had refused the offer: “it were to be wished Mr. Merry had accepted the honour, as joining to a fine genius, a most excellent heart” (29 July 1790). But would Merry—who was about to celebrate the French Revolution in his most ambitious poem, The Laurel of Liberty, and who would join the Society of the Friends of the People and would begin to associate himself with radicals—really have wanted to write a patriotic New Year’s ode and an obsequious poem for the King’s birthday every year? I find it preposter- ous, moreover, that Merry could have been so naive as to even think he had a shot at it. Pye’s appointment was simply a reward for having firmly supported Pitt in the House of Commons for six years; failing to be re-elected, Pye was broke, so he got the job. The Gazetteer mocked the appointment by joking that the government kept “the office for the sake of some poor poet” (28 July 1790).
The laurel in which Merry was actually interested is the one he writes about in his poem celebrating the French Revolution. The story of Merry’s quest for the laureateship is another part of the Della Cruscan lore that serves only to make him look foolish and to denigrate his political convictions. In his book, Hargreaves-Mawdsley, again follow- ing Reynolds’ account, gives the false impression that Merry had kept The Laurel of Liberty from the public in the hope of securing the lau- reateship and contends that, losing “the prize,” Merry “had nothing to lose” and “hurried to John Bell” to publish “at once” his poem on freedom and democracy (207). While it is conceivable that Merry began writing the poem upon his return from France or on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the facts of the matter are that Pye was appointed in July and that Bell published Merry’s poem in November, within days of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The November publication was significant as coinciding with the anniversary of the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1788, the cente- nary of which prompted Reverend Richard Price’s sermon A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, to which Burke responds. Burke’s pam- phlet had been anticipated for months. On 3 November, the World announced that Merry’s new poem “is said to be a counterpart to Mr. Burke’s Pamphlet; and in its principles, to be purely democratical.” The Laurel of Liberty was for sale by the end of the first week of November. Moreover, Merry directly addresses Burke as “lib’ral BURKE” and “manly MORALIST,” asserting that the statesman ought not to be sur- prised “to see / Revenge lead on the steps of Liberty” (32, 33). Merry asks rhetorically, “Could men yet smarting with the tyrant’s stroke, / Forgive the tribe that bow’d them to the yoke” (32)? “Tribe” is, of course, a pejorative metaphor for “class,” Merry’s main subject. Praising eighteenth-century philosophers, presumably among them Locke and Rousseau, for their “Wisdom,” Merry presents a thesis that reflects the natural law and social contract elements of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and anticipates Paine’s doctrine of equality:
The drop of Wisdom sent from heav’n to earth, Shall nourish bliss and virtue, into birth,
Till like a flood th’ encreasing tide shall spread, Refresh the vale, and cheer the mountain’s head; By due degrees o’er all the globe shall roll, Revive the heart, and fertilize the soul,
Make pure the human character, and give A joy, a purpose, and a sense to live:
Shall teach the world, in prejudice’s scorn, That born a Man is to be nobly born! (11)
Like Paine, but unlike Locke, Merry asserts the nobility of each indi- vidual in the equal enfranchisement of the universal rights of man. Not all of the poetry in The Laurel of Liberty is as direct or as free of artificial poetic diction as the above passage. Critics censured much of Merry’s imagery and phrasing, but none seriously complained of its political import. The English Review, for example, charged Merry with mindless enthusiasm and foolhardy idealism (26), but this review came eighteen months after the publication of the poem. A more timely review, from the Monthly Review in January of 1791, also applauds Merry for his own “liberality” in his address to Burke, “for the candor, generosity, and delicacy with which he appeals to the heart of that celebrated writer, against the extreme severity of his pen!” (57, 62). This remark reflects the initial opinion of many that Burke’s Reflections was a bit hysterical in its condemnation of the French Revolution and its reactionary defense of chivalry, primo- geniture, and the English constitution. Merry’s poem is the earliest published response to Burke, though few have recognized it as such.12 Wollstonecraft’s reply to Burke, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, appeared in print on 29 November, three weeks after Merry’s.
Merry’s The Laurelof Liberty was in a second edition by December— not as impressive as the eleven editions of Burke’s Reflections. In January 1791, the Critical Review, for example, reviewed Merry’s and Robinson’s poems alongside Joseph Priestley’s Letters to Edmund Burke, censuring in Merry only the hyperbole of his enthusiasm and the extravagance of his language. Merry’s poem is likely also a response to Daniel Deacon’s “The Triumph of Liberty,” written to celebrate the centenary of the Glorious Revolution. In his preface, Merry denounces such complacency as the sentiments of those who “are so charmed by apparent commercial prosperity, that they could view with happy indifference the encroachments of insidious power, and the gradual decay of the Constitution” (v). Merry’s Laurel of Liberty is a clear dismissal of the Della Crusca avatar in his rejection of love’s “extacy divine” and the assertion that “a still nobler, grander theme inspires, / And Love is lost in Reason’s purer fires” (9).
Robinson’s tribute to Merry, Ainsi va le monde, appeared within days of his poem, quickly selling into a second edition. Robinson, recognizing a kindred spirit in Merry, wrote her poem to help him disconnect from the Della Crusca avatar. He could not make this move as the partly ludicrous Della Crusca and does not mention the avatar—likely to the chagrin of Bell, who would have liked to have had the pseudonym at least printed on the title page. When Robinson pays tribute to Merry, however, she does so as Laura Maria, the name on her title page. In his fervor, Merry awards his poetic laurel to France and loses it; Robinson wants it for herself.
Ainsi va le monde
Ainsi va le monde, a Poem is Robinson’s first truly ambitious work, her first book publication since her juvenile writings over a decade earlier, and her first foray into the British debate over the French Revolution. According to her Memoirs, Merry sent Robinson a copy of The Laurel of Liberty on a Saturday; by Tuesday, Robinson’s Ainsi va le monde, dedicated to Merry, was at press (7: 279). The composi- tion, publication, and reception of the poem, then, is something of a watershed event in Robinson’s career, proving that she could suc- cessfully reinvent herself as a poet and as a political writer. Within a month, the true identity of Laura Maria was known, and Robinson likely braced herself for the return of the Perdita epithet. It came from the General Magazine and Impartial Review, who neglected to men- tion Robinson by name but attributed the poem to “the pen of the celebrated Perdita” instead. The review was kind, however, character- izing the poem as having “very refined sensibility, connected with considerable richness of fancy, and correctness of taste” (548). The review makes only an oblique reference to her scandalous past while praising Robinson’s “naturally generous mind, which, pity is it, a pass- ing cloud should ever have shadowed” (548). Significantly, this is the only time the “Perdita” epithet would appear in periodical reviews of Robinson’s poetry during her lifetime. The Critical Review, more- over, recognized the poem as a bid for her own poetic preeminence, pointing out that, although she supposes the laurel “will be conferred on her, in consequence of her celebrating Mr. Merry’s patriotic ardor and poetic genius, we think she is entitled to, and will obtain praise from a much more honourable cause, her own merit” (74). Town and Country Magazine similarly recognized that, in her tribute to Merry, Robinson “under-rates her merits, if she supposes Mr. Merry is her superior in the art of poetry” (72). Robinson’s formal choices are fun- damentally competitive, and her tribute to Merry, while not altogether disingenuous, is also a cunning assertion of her poetic talents.
Robinson’s tribute to Merry was also a temporary baffle for her inevitable publicity. Ainsi va le monde is more about her poetry than Merry’s, although it is closely bound to his. As Merry had done, Robinson adopts the form appropriate for lofty poetical discourse— the heroic couplet. Echoes of Pope, not heard in Merry’s poem, rever- berate throughout Robinson’s as part of her own claim to poetic legitimacy. At 340 lines, Robinson’s poem is almost exactly half the length of The Laurel of Liberty, a fact that likely accounts for its more favorable reception. More so than Merry, Robinson chooses to make her poem as much about poetry as politics, making an explicit connec- tion between social and political liberty and intellectual freedom. Like Price, although far more subtly, Robinson suggests that, since 1688, the “progress of Liberty”—a phrase she will employ again later for her long, blank-verse poem—may have slowed after 100 years, and that France must guide England toward its renewal. Her title suggests with- out saying it that “As France goes, so goes the world.” Obviously, the use of French makes the point stronger. She opens by praising Merry as a poet “Whose pen gives polish to the varying line / That blends instruction with the song divine” (3–4). Merry and his associates fre- quently were criticized for their stylistic extravagance, but Robinson’s praise of Merry here asserts that what makes him a great poet is his attention to both style and substance. She alludes to his 1787 antiwar poem “Elegy Written on the Plain of Fontenoy,” published as Della Crusca, praising his “fancy” for its ability to recognize the sacrifices of those who die for their country—“the mighty slain” (1: 77; 6). She also recalls imagery from Della Crusca’s Diversity (1789), praising the poet’s ability to sing of happier subjects, “Blithe as the songstress of returning day,” like the lark, as well as melancholy ones: his “liquid notes in sweet meand’rings flow, / Mild as the murmurs of the Bird of Woe,” the nightingale (8, 12). Her invocation and address concludes with a reference to The Florence Miscellany: Merry, “in Italia’s groves, with thrilling song, / Call’d mute attention from the minstrel throng” (15–6); he thereby earned the coveted poetic laurel and “Gave proud distinction to the Poet’s name, / And claim’d, by modest worth, the wreath of fame” (17–8). Robinson recognizes Merry’s status as her laureate, awarding him “the wreath of fame”—that ubiquitous phrase in Robinson’s poetry appears first here at Merry’s coronation.
Part of Robinson’s program here is unequivocally to assert Merry’s authority without discounting his previous work. Her tribute con- tinues in the next verse paragraph by making it clear that Merry’s poetic virtue is his formal versatility. His “Sacred Lyre” can “more than mortal thoughts inspire” through the poet’s ability to modulate between “HEROIC measures,” such as those of The Laurel of Liberty, and “lyric numbers,” as in his love poetry (1: 78; 21–4). Robinson, however, refrains from mentioning Della Crusca anywhere in the poem. Moreover, Robinson echoes Pope’s praise of Dryden, in his “First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated,” for modern- izing English poetic meter but applies Pope’s phrase “varying verse” to Merry’s poetic imagination (25). Robinson asserts that Merry’s poetry bears the imprints of both “nature” and “Genius,” while “still the verse is thine” (29–30). These are canny gestures on Robinson’s part because her own unmasking is at hand: the key to Robinson’s use of avatars is, as I have asserted, in the figurative refraction, even the multiplication, of the poet’s actual self.
Robinson’s praise of Merry, however, leads to a critique of con- temporary English culture that dominates the first half of the poem, before France is even mentioned. Ainsi va le monde is a manifesto of taste as much as it is of poetic aspiration and acclamation. Robinson, as Laura Maria, laments the absence of Shakespeare and Milton, while potentially great young writers such as Thomas Chatterton and Thomas Otway (also celebrated by Charlotte Smith) have suffered from neglect during their brief lives. Unintentionally ironic perhaps, Robinson dismisses contemporary poetry in the figure of “a flutt’ring form” who has replaced the English Muse and who is nothing more than a “flippant, senseless, aery thing” (45, 47). Many critics would have agreed with her, and some even warned her of following too closely in Merry’s footsteps. Shortly after the publication of these two poems—not so much before—Della Crusca became synonymous with bad taste. Reviewing her 1791 volume, the English Review recognized her affinities with “the new school of poets,” those associated with or imitative of Della Crusca who filled the newspapers: “We are suffo- cated by the sweets of these poets, and dazzled by the glare of their tin- sel Mrs. Robinson must beware this species of fascination” (42–3).
Much of Ainsi va le monde, indeed, concerns taste. Echoing Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Robinson condemns the shallow literary produc- tions of her day and the “vitiated taste” of the public (58): “True Wit recedes, when blushing Reason views / This spurious offspring of the banish’d Muse” (51–2). Robinson calls for the poetic to inspire a con- temporary English poet—possibly Merry or more likely herself—to do for her country’s literature what she believes Sir Joshua Reynolds has done for English art. Incorporating her shorter poem “To Sir Joshua Reynolds” into this longer one, she makes it clear that Reynolds’ genius surveys not only “the dimpled smile on Beauty’s face” but also “the statesman’s thought,” “the matron’s eye serene,” and “the poet’s fire” (1: 79; 84–8). Having been painted by Reynolds at least twice and intending to reveal her identity, Robinson implicitly reminds the public that all of these characteristics combine in the image of herself. Reynolds’ “polish’d pencil’s touch divine,” like Merry’s, will ensure his fame and that of those he paints (such as herself) (90).
Robinson’s rumination on Reynolds leads her to an epistemologi- cal exploration of poetic inspiration and composition. The genius of such creative artists as Merry, Reynolds, and herself is activated by the imagination’s compact with reason. Robinson describes how “the mind, with sickening pangs oppress’d, / Flies to the Muse” only to find Reason, “a blest repose” (95–6, 98). This compact, she asserts, leads to “calm reflection” that “shuns the sordid crowd, / The sense- less chaos of the little proud” (103–4), an aesthetic of isolated poetic contemplation that conjures the great poets from the past, Shakespeare and Milton preeminently, but also working circuitously through “the sacred few, / Pope, Dryden, Spenser, all that Fame shall raise, / From Chaucer’s gloom—till Merry’s lucid days” (1: 80; 123–5). Robinson adds, “Then emulation kindles fancy’s fire, / The glorious throng poetic flights inspire” (126–7). This allegory of the poet’s calling pertains only to “the lib’ral few” (136), those open-minded enough to receive such inspiration, turning again to Merry whose “transcen- dent fire” (163) has inspired her own muse.
The poetic muse is exclusive obviously to those who can appreciate genius; so, having established this, the poem turns to a more egalitar- ian muse, “Celestial Freedom” (1: 81; 165). In lines 164–91, Robinson develops an allegory of epistemology in which the enlightened, liber- ated mind can come to no other conclusion than the superiority of freedom over any other claim. “’Tis god-like Freedom,” she writes, “bids each passion live, / That truth may boast, or patriot virtue give” (178–9). This freedom is essential, for it “Gives strength to Reason,” justifying an egalitarian spirit that “Strangles each tyrant phantom in its birth” (187, 190). Here, she semantically disconnects the rhyming pair for rhetorical effect: this kind of “birth”—hereditary power—is no equal to the “superior worth” of freedom and equality that “knows no title” (191). In a long section of the poem, after having espoused this principle, Robinson surveys French history since Louis XIV to show the progress of “Enlighten’d Gallia” (1: 81–3; 192–275). This survey culminates in the inevitable figure of French tyranny and a remarkable conflation of Spenserian and Dantean allegorical tropes: “Thy Tyrants, Gallia, nurs’d the witch Despair, / Where in her black Bastile [sic] the harpy fed / On the warm crimson drops her fangs had shed” (237–9). Amid this extravagant personification, however, Robinson does not shy away from using the Revolutionaries’ phrase that, in English, would become a touchstone for radical thought for the rest of the decade: the Bastille commemorates “the hour / That gave the rights of man to rav’nous pow’r” (258–9). Robinson goes on to praise the French Third Estate as “the favour’d delegates of Heav’n” (276) and, echoing Price, asks bluntly, “Who shall the nat’ral Rights of Man deride, / When Freedom spreads her fost’ring banners wide?” (298–9). It is this concept of natural rights that Burke calls into question so rigorously in his Reflections.
At a time when many Britons assumed the French Revolution would resolve itself as a constitutional monarchy on the English model, which is what Fox, for example, assumed would happen, Robinson and Merry were pushing the debate further by heralding the more progressive examples of the recently ratified American and the developing French constitutions. Robinson’s Ainsi va le monde, then, is an important document in the British debate over the French Revolution and is one of the few immediate poetic responses to be published. The next year Robinson included Ainsi va le monde in her collection of Poems, printed by Bell. She would continue to engage the French Revolution, its principles, and its ultimately unfortunate course throughout the decade. Robinson also would continue to associate with Merry until his departure with his actress wife, Ann Brunton, for America in 1796. Despite the posthumous disavowal of the Memoirs, Robinson and Merry shared a taste for poetry that coincided with their shared politi- cal views, and the Della Crusca network eventually evolved (some would say devolved) into a network of disenfranchised radicals. As I noted in the previous chapter, Merry introduced Godwin to Robinson, founding an important friendship for Robinson in her final years (Paul 1: 154). Significantly, in Maria Elizabeth’s edition of Robinson’s Poetical Works in 1806, Ainsi va le monde appears in the canon of Robinson’s poetry; all references to Merry, however, have been deleted or effaced from the poem. Whether it was Robinson or her daughter who made these changes is impos- sible to determine, but I suspect it was not Robinson herself, especially given the embarrassed acknowledgment of her Della Cruscan sympathies in the section of the Memoirs continued “by a friend.” Furthermore, after the debacle of Godwin’s memoir of Wollstonecraft, the author(s) of Robinson’s Memoirs is careful to elide Robinson’s friendship with radicals such as Wolcot and Godwin as well, the only two mourners at her funeral.
Bell’s Whole Choir
When Great Britain and France went to war, Merry and his associates eventually became the target of vicious political attacks masked as liter- ary ones, such as William Gifford’s Baviad in 1791. The destruction of Della Crusca began as a systematic program of incessant ridicule almost immediately after The Laurel of Liberty and Ainsi va le monde appeared. The ridicule of Della Crusca and Laura Maria began playfully enough: the Town and Country Magazine joked that “This rhyming couple seem so exactly on a par that an union of pens, if not of hands, could not be disreputable to either” (72). The tone from some quarters became gradually harsher as it became known that Robinson was the author of the Laura Maria poems. Perhaps in response to the suggestion of a union between the two poets, the Morning Post snidely and knowingly remarked, “The Platonics of Della Crusca and Laura Maria have been vilely slandered. Their extacies have been purely poetical, rhapsodical, and hyperbolical. The Lady’s situation admits of nothing farther!” (4 April 1791). Robinson’s “situation,” ostensibly her married status, is probably also a crude reference to her paralysis below the waist. Just a month after the publication of the two poems, even the World, having lost both Merry and Robinson to Bell, began mocking Della Crusca and Laura Maria with a series of satirical exchanges between “Terræ- Filius” and “Lex Talionis” on the comparable merits of the two poets. Terræ-Filius praises Della Crusca (in the past tense) but complains of “a curs’d tribe” of female offspring: “Your AURAS, / And LAURAS, / MARIAS, SOPHIAS”—who “fairly have made me of POETRY sick”; he concludes, “So still, DELLA CRUSCA, may Fame be THY meed!— / For the PARENT I love—tho’ a p-x on his BREED!” (7 December 1790). Matching his opponent’s verse form precisely, Lex Talionis retorts that “LAURA MARIA, with fancy and feeling, / By Verse claims the Laurel APOLLO bestows” but is herself beset by “impotent” imitators who “From the store of her genius are picking and stealing” (9 December 1790). This is, of course, all an elaborate set up for Terræ-Filius’ ulti- mate punchline: Smirking obliquely at Robinson’s previous celebrity, at her heyday of celebrated fashions and ostentatious carriages, and at the numerous amorous poems addressed to her, Terræ-Filius responds that Laura is a “dizen’d-out Dame” who seduces young poets and teaches them to steal for her; the whole exchange leads to this punning conclu- sion: Laura, who in the eyes of this poet is a mask for Perdita, sweeps to her coach ’mongst a pickpocket rabble, And tempts the poor rogues above what they are able. Thus, BARD, your sweet LAURA sill keeps up this fun—
For here’s Robbing-Mother, and there’s Robbing-Son. (15 December 1790)
Get it? Terræ-Filius has worked awfully hard to get to this lame rev- elation of Laura’s identity. Through the winter and into the spring, the World continued to mock Della Crusca and Laura as the new poetical couple. One “Barbara Bickerstaff” contributed to the paper an amusing parody “On the Death of a Fly, Drowned in a Bowl of Cream,” which is “Humbly Inscribed to Laura Maria, Della Crusca, Rinaldo, Petrarch, &c” (7 February 1791). The same writer contin- ued the assault in “To Laura Maria” (23 February 1791) but also directed the satire, predictably, to the Oracle, mocking the critical pretensions of editor Boaden and publisher Bell—“the tuneful Critics who in taste excel, / From tuneful ARNO down to Delphic BELL”— and their “Oracular puffs.” A phony poetic response signed “Laura Maria” appeared on 25 February 1791. Around this time, Topham even had the nerve to publish two new volumes of The Poetry of the World in 1791, one with an engraved fictional image of Laura Maria, even though no poems under that signature appeared in the paper (or in the volume). Before Gifford’s Baviad, Robinson, however, remained relatively unscathed from her association with Merry, who continued to publish under his own name, not as Della Crusca. On 21 April 1791, promoting her forthcoming volume, Bell announced formally in the Oracle what readers had known for months: “Mrs. ROBINSON’S exquisite Collection of Poems, will include those that have appeared under the signature of Laura Maria.” What happened to Merry did not happen to her.
Merry was committed to his new passion—France and the Revolution—and to the effacement of Della Crusca. A month after The Laurel of Liberty, his musical pantomime called The Picture of Paris was staged at Covent Garden and published by Thomas Cadell. Intent on being the laureate of the Revolution, Merry wrote Ode for the Fourteenth of July, 1791, the Day Consecrated to Freedom, which Bell timely published, with indirect repercussions to come over the next year for his business. Composed for a musical setting, this poem is a bit more subdued stylistically than The Laurel of Liberty but has no less enthusi- asm for its cause. A year before Thomas Spence’s Pig’s Meat, or Lessons for the Swinish Multitude, Merry, in his ode, scornfully quotes Burke’s phrase “the swinish multitude,” and provides a Paineite chorus to be sung: “Assert the hallow’d Rights which Nature gave, / And let your last, best vow be FREEDOM OR THE GRAVE.” Although he stopped using the avatar, Merry continued to be disparaged as Della Crusca, while Della Cruscan became a codeword not just for bad poetry but also for Jacobin sentiments. In November of 1792, just as Paine was about to go to trial for libeling the English constitution and as Robespierre takes control of the French National Convention, Della Crusca is associated with noto- rious radicals and with dangerous revolutionary activity. The World, still supported by the Treasury, unequivocally expressed its concern over the arming of France and of the London Corresponding Society; the paper identified specifically threatening individuals in an impressive and apt metaphor: “When Carbine is loaded with Dr. Maxwell’s Pills, wadded by Della Crusca and Holcroft, and primed by Parson Tooke, Paine’s Nose only will be wanting to give fire” (29 November 1792).13 This is an illustrious list of radicals. Of course Della Crusca seems to be the ridiculous incongruity here. According to Boaden, Merry’s political passion destroyed him: he “became perfectly rabid with the French revolution; associated himself with the radical press, and spoke its furi- ous and disgusting language.” Although the ignominy of Della Crusca would outlive Merry, Boaden remarks that, as Merry began making these unsavory associations, “the poet and the gentleman vanished together” (284). Merry never published anything else as Della Crusca, but the label stuck to him like tar and there were many happy to supply the feathers.
The Baviad is the best example of how this came to be. Within only one year, according to Horace Walpole, Merry had been “immortal- ised, not by his verses, but by those of the ‘Baviad’ ” (391). But this is not entirely accurate. To Gifford, Robert Merry is not even a person; Della Crusca, rather, is a cynical commercial machination of Bell. As Bostetter long ago observed, Gifford’s satire was politically motivated. Gifford would go on to become the great Tory satirist and editor of the Anti-Jacobin and later the Quarterly Review, having in the latter capacity no small impact on the reception of the second-generation Romantic writers. The attacks on Merry are easily achieved, although most of the wit appears in the footnotes, where Gifford quotes cringe- inducing passages to mount evidence. Gamer asserts that Gifford’s anger derives, not so much from the original newspaper poetry, but from Bell’s influence on popular culture (“Bell’s Poetics” 43–8). Gifford represents Bell as a degraded taste-maker, crassly commercial and responsible for denigrating literary culture with his pretentions. To Gifford, Bell fueled the ambitions of unworthy poets by giving them prominence in popular culture and profited by selling his wares to an ignorant and susceptible public: these readers now “fancy ‘BELL’S POETICS’ only sweet, / And intercept his hawkers in the street” (185–6). Gifford’s malice toward Bell was unrelenting. In the second edition of 1793, Gifford added a spurious riposte from Bell, and in the sequel to the Baviad, the Mæviad of 1795, Gifford inserted in his copious notes a bogus sonnet purportedly by Bell in which the publisher hilariously impugns Gifford as a “Monster of Turpitude!” (50).14 Laura Maria, as one of “Bell’s whole choir” (8), is not exempt from the parody, appear- ing extensively in footnoted assaults on Della Crusca where Gifford mocks her hyperbolic praise of him. Gifford’s ridicule of Cowley’s cor- respondence as Anna Matilda is funny: “See Cowley frisk it to one ding-dong chime, / And weekly cuckold her poor spouse in rhyme” (9). But Gifford’s ad hominem against Robinson herself is particu- larly vicious: “See Robinson forget her state, and move / On crutches tow’rds the grave, to ‘Light o’ Love’” (9). Not only does Gifford mock Robinson’s disability, he also rudely implies via Shakespearean allusion that it resulted from a miscarriage, an imputation now widely regarded as truth. A footnote identifies the reference to Much Ado about Nothing but emphasizes the pun on burden as refrain and as pregnancy: “Light o’ love! that’s a tune that goes without a burden” (8; Gifford’s emphasis). Gifford’s attacks had the unintended effect of garnering sympathy for Robinson. Remarking on Gifford’s treatment of women writers, a reviewer for the Monthly Review exclaimed, “Talk of the severity of Reviewers! Compared with this, their cruelty is ten- der mercy” (96). Gifford’s attacks may have stung Robinson, but they did not hinder her career.
Laura Maria and the War
Unlike Merry, Robinson had no desire to abandon her avatar; instead, she multiplied herself into several others. Her handsome first collec- tion appeared in 1791 with well over 500 subscribers listed, chief among them the Prince of Wales. Mrs. Robinson, the author, also socialized within her network of avatars. Early in 1792, Bell pub- lished her first novel, Vancenza; or, The Dangers of Credulity, which achieved enough commercial success to warrant five editions. (Her novels, incidentally, always appeared with her real name attached.) In August of 1791, however, Bell published Robinson’s pamphlet Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France signed only as “a Friend to Humanity”—a kind of avatar perhaps, but certainly a disguise. Robinson was not as willing as Merry was to con- tinue to publicize her political sentiments. Written in response to the imprisonment of the French Royal Family after their attempt to flee the country, Robinson’s pamphlet celebrates the French Revolution as “the most glorious achievement in the annals of Europe” and asserts from the beginning of the essay that “Man is a Commoner of Nature, his soul is impregnated with the spirit of independence, and revolts at the attacks of oppression” (8: 122). Robinson’s task is a difficult one of having to maintain this position while also expressing sympa- thy for Marie Antoinette and indignation at her humiliation, putting her in an uneasy alliance with Burke’s Reflections. A reviewer for the Monthly Review admitted that this “inconsistency” made it impos- sible to understand the argument. But Robinson, as Amy Garnai con- tends, acknowledges a “double sense of victimhood” in the Queen’s position—victimized first by the system of aristocratic privilege in which she was raised, and now by the vengeance of the Revolution (85). Robinson defends the Queen’s flight as the prerogative of her husband and thus as her corresponding wifely duty; she appeals to sympathy in the hope that, regardless of politics, “every impartial eye has a tear for her sufferings” and that justice—in the form of the Queen’s release from prison—will prevail (128). According to Judith Pascoe, Robinson presents Marie Antoinette “as first and foremost a wronged woman and thus ignores her status as an avatar of aristo- cratic frivolity” (53). Robinson, in this regard, would seem to have little in common with Wollstonecraft, who despised Marie Antoinette as a monarch and as a woman.15
Despite her previous affiliation with Merry, Robinson, during these early years of the war when she was still doing business with Bell, remains politically ambivalent at least in public. Moreover, despite having written the pro-Revolution poem Ainsi va le monde in 1790, by 27 November of 1793, nearly a year into the war, the Ministerial True Briton, having been converted from the radical Argus into a tool of Pitt’s government, hailed “Mrs. Robinson” “as the first Poet now living.” This praise from a newspaper affiliated with newly elected MP George Canning (by a rotten borough), the future founder and primary writer of the ultra-conservative Anti-Jacobin, makes a stark contrast with Gifford’s later comment on Robinson in the 1811 edi- tion of The Baviad and Mæviad: “This wretched woman, indeed, in the wane of her beauty fell into merited poverty, exchanged poetry for politics, and wrote abusive trash against the government at the rate of two guineas a week, for the Morning Post” (56n). The exchange of “poetry for [radical] politics,” to use Gifford’s terms, would not take place until after the end of Robinson’s relationship with Bell, and her radicalism would become more public after her personal relation- ship with Tarleton permanently dissolved early in 1797. But how does Robinson go from praising the Revolution in 1790 and 1791 to being celebrated by a Treasury-bought newspaper at the end of 1793?
The simplest answer is that Robinson’s friend John Taylor, who had been oculist to the King, was one of the proprietors of the True Briton and of the Sun, having “turned ultra-Tory at the beginning of the French Revolution” (Adams, “Robert Merry” 32). That fall, Robinson had dedicated to him her long poem Sight, her first in blank verse. It was published by Evans as a slim volume with two other poems, “The Cavern of Woe,” a Spenserian allegory, and “Solitude,” also in blank verse. Taylor was a propagandist on the Treasury pay- roll, as the ledgers indicate (Werkmeister, Newspaper 29–30). As a government spy, Taylor also gave evidence against John Thelwall in the government’s trial of him for treason (Barrell, Imagining 393). Taylor, later, was also one of those, like Boaden and Reynolds, who engaged in the destruction of Merry’s posthumous reputation, writing that Merry “would most willingly have promoted the destruction of the British government” if he could have profited from it (387). Robinson’s poem to Taylor is ostensibly apolitical, its dedication refer- ring to Taylor’s previous profession; but figuratively, the poem’s cel- ebration of vision may have a subtext in light of Taylor’s affiliations. As Adriana Craciun has noted, Robinson’s preface and dedication to Taylor has a political resonance (Fatal 90); here, Robinson eschews dedications as “too frequently calculated to feed the VANITY of HIGH RANK” but is happy, in this instance, to “pay voluntary homage to the first of all distinctions,—the ARISTOCRACY of GENIUS!” (1: 409) This is obviously flattery, too, but she qualifies it to contrast with hereditary worth as similarly elite, implying of course that she and Taylor belong to it. The Sight volume was Robinson’s most widely reviewed poetic publication; none of the reviewers found any political allusions. And even the opposition Morning Post, from which Taylor had been dismissed as editor in 1790, praised Robinson’s genius with approbation of its dedication to Taylor (17 July 1793).
Robinson’s political ambivalence during this time worked to her professional advantage. Still influenced by Sheridan, the Oracle, however, was a constant nuisance to the government, despite its con- tinued subsidies, and frequently was unreliable in its delivery of pro- government propaganda. As Werkmeister puts it, Bell’s paper “caused the Government more trouble than almost any one of the Opposition newspapers”; its extortionary expertise, consisting of the supporting or humiliating of certain individuals, was always for hire regardless of party (Newspaper 23). Sheridan, moreover, became increasingly involved in the Society for the Friends of the People, a group of Whig reformers, not quite radicals. Rumors circulated in the papers that the Prince disapproved of Sheridan’s political affiliations and that there had been a falling out between them. The Prince was obligated to support Pitt’s war with France, sanctioned as it was by his father; and in 1793, the King gave him honorary command of the Tenth Regiment of Light Dragoons, replacing Pitt who was promoted to the colonelcy of the King’s Dragoon Guards. Delighted by the appointment, the Prince immediately sat for his portrait in military uniform and frequently sta- tioned his corps in Brighton, near where Robinson lived. At least until the Prince’s second (but first legal) marriage, to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, Robinson would not overtly contradict the political alignment of the Prince. But Robinson’s allegiances do begin to shift around the middle of 1793, when Bell declares bankruptcy and when Lord Lauderdale leased the Morning Post and employed Daniel Stuart to manage it. Her tenure as Bell’s laureate was coming to an end.
The praise of Robinson in the True Briton and the sudden appear- ance of support for her in the Morning Post, conducted by Stuart, suggests that, in addition to having friends on both sides, Robinson was being wooed by both sides. While associated with a ministerial paper, the Oracle, Robinson’s poetry was in 1792 and 1793 generally consistent with the views the Treasury was paying the newspapers to proliferate. The pro-government newspapers reciprocated with puffs, some of which Robinson may have paid for herself, as Gifford and others suggested.16 It is possible, then, that Robinson herself supplied some of the praises in the newspapers, although it also was customary for the papers to puff their own contributors. Before the middle of 1793, except for a few snide remarks, none of the opposition papers appears to have regarded Robinson at all as an important writer dur- ing the first few years of her literary career. In July of 1793, the Post, on the side of the opposition, however, suddenly began celebrating Robinson’s literary achievements, around the time she, upon Bell’s bankruptcy, became a free agent. By January of 1794, Robinson was contributing to both the ministerial Oracle and the opposition Morning Post; her second volume of Poems appeared that month, pub- lished by Evans and Becket, not by Bell. Moreover, in January of 1794, Robinson retired Laura Maria. She would not use the avatar again until July 1799.
The final stage of Robinson’s stint as Bell’s laureate is distinguished by Robinson’s continued assertions of Laura Maria as an avatar of ide- alized public virtue. After avowing the signature in the preface to her 1791 Poems, Robinson continued to use the avatar for poetry in the Oracle. But the Laura Maria of Ainsi va le monde, in 1790, had to evolve according to the developments in France. Robinson’s “Ode to Despair,” which probably appeared in one of the missing issues of the Oracle in 1790 with the Laura Maria avatar, is one of the many irregular alle- gorical odes in the 1791 Poems; it develops an allegory of Despair as the associate of “the HUGE FIEND, DESPOTIC POW’R,” who resides in the “loathsome cells” of the Bastille (1: 93; 33–54). Robinson’s depic- tion of the fall of the Ancien Régime echoes Merry in its approbation of revolutionary vengeance: under this system of oppression, Despair prevailed.
Till FREEDOM spurn’d the ignominious chain, And roused from Superstition’s night, Exulting Nature claim’d her right, And call’d dire Vengeance from her dark domain. (51–4)
Two years later, however, after the September Massacres in Paris, Laura Maria presents a very different perspective on events in France. On 20 September 1792, Robinson published in the Oracle a new ode, “Ode to Humanity,” with the Laura Maria avatar. As the title suggests, the poem is a paean to humane pacifism, but it opens in the patriotic manner of a Laureate ode, celebrating a still-peaceful Britain on the verge of war. Laura Maria praises her country’s “calm majestic pride,” Britain’s “conqu’ring NAVIES,” and the supremacy of British “ART and COMMERCE” (1: 181; 5–7). Laura Maria calls for “blest Humanity” to “Bathe with oblivious balm, the dread record, / Grav’d on the page of Fame by Gallia’s vengeful sword!” (1: 182; 33, 43–4). Expressing Laura Maria’s horror, the poem’s imagery is apocalyptic in its portrayal of revolutionary Paris:
Where the tow’ring CITY stands,
Once a polish’d Nation’s pride,
See, stern DEATH, with rapid stride, Leads on his grisly bands!
The Infant’s shriek, the Sire’s despair, Rend the sulphur-stagnant air; Nought illumes the direfulb shade, Save the poignard’s glitt’ring blade;
All along the flinty way, See the tepid River stray,
Foaming – blushing, as it flows,
While ev’ry Dome resounds with agonizing woes! (1: 183; 69–80)
Although similarly allegorical, “Ode to Humanity” is formally dif- ferent from Robinson’s previous Laura Maria odes. Obviously, the imagery is more literally terrific, but it is in some ways a disavowal of her previous mode and its associations. Robinson constructs a generally homostrophic ode, with some variations: the opening and closing stanzas are both eight lines, and the six intervening stanzas are each twelve lines, but all of the stanzas reveal varying rhyme schemes and syllabic counts. The overall regularity allows for Robinson to create a greater sense of chaos within the stanzaic matrix. Every stanza, however, ends with an Alexandrine, thus giv- ing each a roughly Spenserian quality. Robinson clearly is inter- ested in establishing a formal regularity that she can then subvert and finally disrupt. In addition, Robinson eschews the Franco- formal syllabics she and Merry had practiced. Gifford likely had a hand in this change; in the Baviad, he attacks the Della Cruscans for their pretentious adoption of a popularized notion of Edward Bysshe’s Art of Poetry (1701), which encouraged syllabic meters for English poetry on the continental model and asserted that clas- sical prosody, which scans long and short syllables, was faulty for English composition.17 In the eyes (and ears) of classicists, such as Gifford, this gave license to many poets and poetasters: as Gifford writes, “Happy the soil where bards like mushrooms rise, / And ask no culture but what Bysche [sic] supplies!” (177–8). In “Ode to Humanity,” Robinson is engaged in the Anglophonic poetic practice of counting stresses, resulting in many initially truncated (acephalectic) lines with an almost trochaic feel. Although seven- syllable lines frequently suggest syllabic verse, the inconsistent interplay between seven- and eight-syllable lines in the poem, com- bined with the regularity of four beats in each, tells me she is writ- ing accentual verse. So, in the stanza graph that follows, I measure the beats per line, but assume a generally iambic foot pattern, par- ticularly in the longer lines:
Clearly, one of Robinson’s formal principles is that each stanza must be unique, while also giving the impression of general regularity. In a less subtle way, the poem also renounces Merry’s Laurel of Liberty. The laurel Merry celebrates reappears in “Ode to Humanity” in ever- increasing states of moribundity, until finally Robinson shows that France is “where the blood-stain’d Laurel dies” (1: 183; 87). Dated 17 September 1792, Robinson’s Laura Maria hopes that in its place the “OLIVE” will “bloom” (88). In this way, the poem is peculiarly also about fame and about infamy—British fame and French infamy. Moreover, given the publicity of Laura Maria’s connection to Della Crusca, the ode also is a kind of elegy for the English laureate of the French Revolution—Merry.
Laura Maria does not make another appearance in the Oracle until after the execution of Louis XVI, which took place on 21 January 1793. On 1 February, France declared war on the latest members of the First Coalition, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. Laura Maria responds with a return to form—the twelve-line stanza form she had used in “Ode to Humanity.” This time, however, she identifies her poem as a “Fragment, Supposed To Be Written near the Temple, on the Night before the Murder of Louis the Sixteenth” (Oracle 27 February 1793). She continues her experiment with a generally homostrophic poem, although, again, with variations within each of the seven stanzas. Most of the lines are again four beats (seven or eight syllables per line), with frequent metrical substitutions (trochees for iambs, for example), but most of the stanzas end with an iambic pentameter and iambic hexameter rhyming couplet. The metrical variety mimics Laura Maria’s disturbed imaging of an inconceivable and obscene—lit- erally ob scena—horror. As the title indicates, Robinson’s view of the event is unequivocal: The King’s execution is murder. And the atmosphere in which it is perpetrated is one of appalling anticipa- tion: “In dumb despair Creation seems to wait, / While Horror stalks abroad to deal the shafts of Fate!” (1: 191; 11–2). Laura Maria “supposes” herself outside the medieval fortress where Louis XVI awaited his fate on the night before he was to be taken from there to the guillotine. The poem is a “fragment” in the sense that Robinson wants to portray the horror of the crime as a violation of the imagination that is inconceivable and thus incomplete; the poet’s “fancy” cannot envision the consummation of the crime. Although most critics are more interested in Robinson’s Marie Antoinette poems, her “Fragment” is compellingly impenetrable, like the fortress itself. Robinson’s Laura Maria cannot completely access the scene inside, only its circumstances, until morning comes. She can geographically place the dauphin, Louis-Charles, inside the Temple, where he is already “entombed” though still alive, but can only envision the “Troops of PANDIMONIUM [sic]” whose “desolating Ire” persecutes “the fairest Child of Earth” (1: 192; 26–30). In contrast to her later poem “Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation,” Robinson makes no attempt here fully to subjectify the horror of the night from the King’s perspective until the end of the poem, but then only briefly; most of the horror is reserved for her reader. Instead, she describes the activities of allegorical figures such as Ambition, Malice, Revenge, Suspicion, Fear— all representing the French National Convention (38– 42). The Revolutionaries Laura Maria previously had celebrated in Ainsi va le monde as “the favour’d delegates of Heav’n” have become “The barb’rous Sons of ANARCHY” who “Drench their unnat’ral hands in REGAL blood” (1: 83; 276; 192; 46–7). Meanwhile, Robinson recognizes the imminent fall of the Girondists: “Patriot VIRTUE sinks beneath the whelming flood” (48).
Laura Maria only briefly imagines the consciousness of the King himself. Poignantly, the King “Pants for the Morning’s purple glow—
/ The Purple Glow that cheers his breast” (59–60). The cheerfulness of the sunrise, with the pun on purple and its associations of regal or exalted birth, as well as the impending spilling of the King’s blood, is appropriately conflicted. With the image of the sunrise, now Laura Maria can fully envision the grief and terror of the King’s family, his children, “the infant Victims,” and his Queen:
When will the vivifying ORB, The tears of widow’d Love absorb? SEE! SEE! the palpitating breast, By all the Weeping Graces drest,
Now dumb with grief – now raving wild, Bending o’er each with’ring Child,
The ONLY Treasures spar’d by savage Ire,
The fading SHADOWS of their MURDER’D SIRE! (192–3; 65–72)
Louis himself remains inaccessible, while Robinson’s Laura Maria humanizes Marie Antoinette as his widow and mother of his chil- dren. At this image, the poem deliberately falters as the poet’s imagi- nation cannot bear its own imagery: “Oh! FANCY, spread thy pow’rful wing, / From HELL’S polluted confines spring” (1: 193; 73–4). The poem cannot even imagine the King going to meet his doom, but it can envisage the “RUTHLESS FIENDS” who “triumph in the Deed accurs’d!” (77–8). The poem, thus, is not a fragment in any for- mal sense: it is only a glimpse, its imagery working as synecdoche for the course of the Revolution. The poem closes with images of obfuscation:
See, her veil OBLIVION throws O’er the last of Human Woes;
The ROYAL STOLE, with many a crimson stain, Closes from every eye the scene of pain (79–82)
Although Laura Maria refuses to see the King’s death, she hears “the WAR SONG” that “drowns the dying groan, WHICH ANGELS WEEP TO HEAR!” (83–4). She can imagine heavenly remorse for the death of the King, not necessarily the start of the war. The poem concludes, therefore, with regret that the war has begun, but it places culpability squarely on the shoulders of the French Revolutionaries, her coun- try’s enemies.
Robinson’s “Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation, in Her Prison of the Temple” appeared in the Oracle a little over two weeks after the “Fragment,” on 8 March 1793. This poem concludes the trio of Laura Maria poems against the French Revolution. As a “lamentation,” it is particularly formal and, while not an ode, is strictly homostrophic: Robinson uses a six-line stanza in iambic pentameter like the Venus and Adonis stanza (ababcc), but she likely did not intend a formal allusion to Shakespeare’s erotic poem. Yet this fixed stanza does order the poem more definitively than the previous two poems, and dem- onstrates Robinson’s move away from highly irregular forms toward an apparent preference for working in fixed forms, many of which, as we will see, she devises herself. The formality here is an attempt to present the French Queen with a sober dignity, to demonstrate a composure of mind—the rationality that Robinson prizes in so much of her poetry. Unlike the previous poems, Robinson’s Laura Maria ventriloquizes Marie Antoinette, with the avatar dispersing some- what the poet’s personal identification with her based on their actual encounter years before. The formality highlights the artifice of the constructed lament, but does not serve to diminish the effect of the poem; rather, Robinson is particularly invested in the craftsmanship of the poem. The strict form helps the poet to portray the Queen as a woman of deep sensibility with an almost Burkean dignity, and to avoid any hint of hysteria—at least until the end. The first five stanzas all employ the same rhetorical structure: the first line, “When . . .”; the third line, “Why . . . ?”; the fifth line, “Alas! because ” These repeated structures have a cumulative effect in the accretion of Marie.
Antoinette’s woes and the injustice of her predicament. Robinson wants to portray the Queen as a respectable and reasonable woman, and as a devoted and competent mother, not as the degenerate aris- tocratic monster her persecutors painted her as being. Garnai aptly describes the poem as a “tableau of domestic solicitude” (89). Robinson’s poem responds to the pressing concern that the National Convention intends to separate the Queen from her children: “Why do maternal Sorrows drench my face?” Laura Maria asks as Marie Antoinette; “Alas! because inhuman hands unite, / To tear from my fond Soul its last delight!” (1: 194; 28–30). To do so would be an act of “fell Barbarity!” (31). The “Lamentation” in the poeticized voice of Marie Antoinette pleads for the innocence of her children in the face of imminent execution. And while the poem emphasizes its subject’s maternity, Laura Maria allows her Marie Antoinette to avow hereditary privilege, urging her children to face their doom “with proud disdain” and to take strength from “the glorious tide that fills each Vein” (61, 63). But the woman’s maternal instincts assert their primacy in the portrayal: at the thought of their ultimate separation, Marie Antoinette exclaims, “Oh! all the MOTHER rushes to my heart!” (66). Only at the end does this Marie Antoinette succumb to the terror of her situation as she recalls the horrific murder of her hus- band at the hands of the revolutionaries with imagery reminiscent of Priam’s slaughter at Troy: “See! See! they pierce, with many a recre- ant Sword, / The mangled bosom of my bleeding LORD!” (71–2). The penetrative violation of the male body is particularly shocking; what was obscene in the “Fragment” is fully realized here. The poem can- not continue beyond this “dreadful thought” and “agony supreme” (73), and even though its project appears to be the eliciting of sympa- thy for the “widow Capet,” as she was known in France, Laura Maria ends the poem essentially with a plea for a compassionate end to her suffering “in sweet Oblivion’s dream”—a consummation devoutly to be wished that can only mean the death that Laura Maria imagines the Queen herself supplicating (75–8).18 Despite its manifest inten- tion, the poem concludes with Marie Antoinette thinking only of herself, asking “the CHERUB PITY” to “save ONE VICTIM from the LAST DESPAIR!” (77–8).
Although this conclusion points to a compelling ambivalence, Laura Maria’s performance of the Queen’s predicament served well enough as pro-government propaganda in the pages of the Oracle. Like many liberals, Robinson was distressed by the violence in France and the outbreak of a war in which her country had no clear objective once the French monarchs were dead. This trio of poems, moreover, appeared just as Pitt began implementing measures to defend the country against invasion from without and insurrection from within. These poems, despite what might be some proto-feminist sympathy for the Queen, are a long way from Robinson’s later radicalism. The Whigs, at this time, were divided over reform and the Revolution. Appearing in the Oracle, Laura Maria’s poems, which everyone now knew were Robinson’s, amounted to support for Pitt’s war because they delineate the terrifying menace represented by France. The humanization of Marie Antoinette put Robinson at odds with those who argued that the war was unnecessary because France was no real threat to Great Britain. This was Fox’s position. Fox detested Paine and his politics as much as the Tories did, but was concerned that Pitt and the King were conspiring to undermine the English constitution by plunging the country into a war that, if successful, would only reaffirm monarchical absolutism and despotism not only in France, but in all of Europe (Mitchell 129–32). Robinson, moreover, was still attached to Tarleton, who shared the Duke of Portland’s increasing uneasiness over the course of the Revolution. The political alliance between Fox and Portland began to crumble as Portland supported such Pittite measures as the Alien Bill and the suspension of habeas corpus. Tarleton stood by Portland, not by Fox. I do not wish to presume that Robinson necessarily shared the political views of her long-time partner, but, to readers of the newspaper, the trio of Laura Maria poems from the fall and winter of 1792–3 would have served as documentary support for Pitt’s prosecution of the war.19
The evidence shows Robinson participating in a conservative net- work. In terms of literary productivity and attendant literary fame, 1793 was a year of accomplishments and acclaim, culminating in the specious praise from the True Briton. In January, the European Magazine led that month’s issue with an engraved portrait and “An Account of Mrs. Robinson” that praised, in addition to her writing, her beauty, her knowledge of French and German, and other grace- ful accomplishments. While the article does recount her theatrical career, it makes no mention of the Perdita scandal. It also reasserts her authority as Laura Maria, Oberon, and Laura and attributes the Julia avatar to Robinson. On 17 January, the Ministerial Star hailed Robinson again as “the British Sappho,” promising a second volume of poems and a forthcoming opera. On 26 March, the Ministerial Sun complained that Robinson’s opera was being derailed by anti- government politics because “the Songs and the Sentiments contained a degree of loyal enthusiasm not quite congenial to the feelings of ALL PARTIES.” In other words, the paper implies that Robinson’s loy- alist sentiments are unpopular with those in the theatre who hold reformist views, indirectly pointing toward Sheridan and his network. Robinson, indeed, had intended for Sheridan to stage at Drury Lane (7: 302). But Robinson’s networking was always more social and liter- ary than strictly political. On 8 June, the True Briton complimented Robinson on her socializing: “We have nothing like literary conver- sationi’s in this Country—Mrs. ROBINSON’S parties only excepted.” Taylor knew from experience the pleasure of Robinson’s company, as his memoir shows. Again, in all of this, none of the opposition papers puffs Robinson except the Morning Post, once Daniel Stuart takes charge of it. Despite the vitriol the newspapers spewed at one another, the social networks implicit here did not divide and polarize accord- ing to political positions.
During 1793, Robinson was engaged in more ambitious literary projects. Her opera, Kate of Aberdeen, continued to be promoted well into 1794 but never materialized on stage or in print. In the summer of 1793, Robinson struck back at Gifford with her two-canto poetic satire Modern Manners, signed “Horace Juvenal,” thereby incongru- ously yoking for comic effect the two great (but very different) Roman satirists in opposition to Gifford’s imitation of Persius. Robinson clearly means to imitate the great English satirist Pope, himself a com- mitted Tory. Like Gifford, Robinson chooses Pope’s Dunciad as her model, referring to it throughout. She of course, therefore, adopts the heroic couplet, as Pope and Gifford do, but she also means to attack Gifford from his own ideological position. The poem is thoroughly conservative, anti-Jacobin even (Strachan 91). Gary Dyer points out that women writing between 1789 and 1832 “generally shunned the conventional satiric forms” and that Robinson, in writing Modern Manners as a “formal verse satire,” “was practically alone in appro- priating this classical form” (150). “Horace Juvenal” functions not so much as one of her avatars; it is a decided guise for Robinson to pose as a masculine Tory satirist, full of swagger and venom. As such, the “Lilliputian” Gifford himself is beneath notice—he was short—and she portrays him as one of a class of “critic elves” and “calm assas- sins of poetic worth” (1: 196; 1.1, 6). Robinson’s targets are many, most of her barbs directed at the fashionable world in which she once moved. But she does take satirical aim at such targets as sentimental fiction published by William Lane (1.122), women (like herself) who love The Sorrows of Young Werter (1.123), Erskine’s defense of Paine (1.195–6), bluestockings (1.197–206), and especially fashionable Francophilia, sarcastically equating Buchoz’s recipes for cosmetics with the writings of suspected Jacobins Holcroft and Wollstonecraft (1: 208; 2.133–46). What begins as a counterattack on Gifford’s Baviad culminates with “Horace Juvenal” mocking English women, “the boast of modern times, / Who ape the French,—yet shudder at their crimes” (2.183–4). The poem objects severely to the hypocrisy of admiring French culture at a time when France itself is governed by “the dreadful havock made by Anarchy” (2.186). Robinson as Horace Juvenal asks, “Why deck your brows with flow’rs from Gallia’s shore, / When Gallia’s lily withers—drench’d in gore?” (2.201–2). The poem closes with a patriotic celebration of the virtues of “happy Britain” (2.188) and the assertion that “Transcendent Virtue guards Britannia’s coast!” (2.204). Although Modern Manners is not an overt denunciation of Revolutionary principles, it is careful to main- tain positions friendly to the government. By constructing the satire this way, Robinson cannily figures that the best way to undermine Gifford is to appear to do so from his own side.
As a professional writer and, in some ways, an entertainer, Robinson may have been responding to what she believed her audi- ence wanted to read. Modern Manners, however, was not successful. The magazine reviews were lukewarm, although the papers predict- ably puffed its brilliance. In August the Oracle and the Morning Post, proudly revealed that Robinson was the poet behind the mask of Horace Juvenal (Werkmeister, Newspaper 311). She did not disavow her authorship, but she never reprinted it. Her next significant claim to the poetic laurel again addresses the fate of Marie Antoinette and speaks to the outrage many Britons, particularly those in Robinson’s circles, felt over her execution. Almost two months after the execution of the French Queen, Robinson published, under her own name, her long poem in heroic couplets Monody to the Memory of the Late Queen of France, the title of which evokes her poem on another illustrious death from the previous year—her Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds—making a weird cultural pairing of the great English por- traitist and the infamously wicked Queen, both of whom Robinson had known personally. This poem is ably discussed in depth by Craciun and Garnai, so I need not provide a reading of it here.20 But I con- tend that the poem fits in with the discernable pattern of Robinson’s publications in 1792–3, reflecting again ambivalence toward the Revolution; it is also a poem that corresponds with Robinson’s project of asserting poetic fame for herself through form. Robinson hails the Queen as an “ILLUSTRIOUS SOUL” whose fame “shall ne’er decay” and as “the BEAUTEOUS MARTYR! Austria’s pride!” (1: 240; 10, 139). And she represents the Revolution as a Hobbesian nightmare conjured by misguided democratic principles: “While ALL are RULERS—ALL, alas! are SLAVES! / EACH dreads his fellow, EACH his fellow braves!” (101–2). Robinson’s Monody represents this revolution as a far greater crime than any perpetrated by the deceased royal couple, who again appear as cogs in a system of oppression— “crimes LONG PAST”—that they only passively inherited but for which they nonetheless suffered (247). Some recent readings of this poem, such as those by Craciun and Garnai, avoid Robinson’s acknowledged sympathy for the French nobility, whom she pities as “the MANY suff’ring for the GUILTY FEW!” (441–2). But she also condemns any corrupt aristocrat “Who shields his recreant bosom with a NAME” (449), while also denouncing the revolutionaries’ capricious, even terrifyingly arbitrary, persecution of all those born with a title. The poem asserts a principle of equality that extends to even the titled and proud. “TRUTH,” Robinson con- tends, “can derive no eminence from birth” and its “blest dominion” is “vast and unconfin’d” (455–6). But the poem is not radical because it argues that the Revolution has not been worth the cost: “Heav’n forbid . . . That Liberty, immortal as the spheres, / Should steep her Laurel in a nation’s Tears!” (465–8). Despite its antagonism toward the Revolution, the Monody, unlike Modern Manners, resists jingo- ism. Instead, Robinson concludes with a rumination on “Immortal GENIUS” that recalls her phrase from the dedication of Sight to Taylor—the “Aristocracy of Genius.” Robinson’s poem oddly recalls the conclusion of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, which must have been her favorite poem considering the number of times she alludes to it. In Pope’s poem, Eloisa imagines the poet who will one day sing of her ill-fated romance with Abelard, as Pope thus reminds the reader that he is indeed that poet. Robinson similarly adopts Eloisa’s immortal- izing conceit, except that she applies it more to herself than to the French Queen. It is the “votive line”—the poem itself—that is the manifestation of immortal genius, so Robinson commands that the “MUSE’S LAUREL, and her FAME” belong to the poem itself (509–10). Robinson’s principle of equality does not extend to everyone when it comes to merit: She asks Genius to “twine round Merit’s brow the wreath of Fame, / And give Nobility a loftier name!” (531–2). Thus, the Monody asks to exchange hereditary eminence for the favor of the Muse. The apotheosis is Robinson’s own—she achieves the laurel. It is Robinson’s “tribute just, / The POET’S NUMBERS” that “consecrates” the “dust,” the remains of Marie Antoinette, whose fate ultimately will serve as “An awful lesson for each future age!” (533–4, 548).
By the end of 1793, the Oracle, the True Briton, and the Morning Post all had personal and professional claims on Robinson. To them she was one of the greatest poets in the English language. Several of Robinson’s personal letters to Taylor have survived and attest to a deep and sincere friendship between them. Davenport presumes that Robinson did not know about his propagandizing (7: 395), but his involvement with the True Briton, a professed instrument for gov- ernment propaganda, would have made it abundantly clear. And she would have known about his shenanigans in Edinburgh in 1792, where he was tried for inflaming anti-government rioters, but acquit- ted when he was revealed to be working for the Ministry (Barrell, Imagining 393). Robinson must have countenanced or overlooked these activities. No letters written after Taylor’s appearance against Thelwall in November of 1794 survive, so it is hard to know how that might have affected their friendship. Only a month before in October, Robinson wrote to Taylor about her conflicted relationship with her “Muse”: “I swear every day to quit her for Ever; and am, every day, as constantly forsworn” (7: 306). In the same letter, she includes a poem that would eventually appear in her novel Angelina, in 1796; it expresses a more modest ambition than what appears at the end of her Monody for Marie Antoinette:
Heav’n knows, I never would repine, Though fortunes fiercest frown were mine,— If Fate would grant that o’er my tomb
One little Laurel wreath, might bloom, And Mem’ry, sometimes wander near,
To bid it live,—and drop a tear! (7: 305)
Two days later, on 16 October 1794, Taylor published this poem in the True Briton, prefacing it with a token of his esteem: “The ele- gance, and still more, the plaintive charm, that pervades the follow- ing beautiful Lines, will, we doubt not, induce every Reader of taste to ascribe them to MRS. ROBINSON.”
This poem turns out to be a peculiar axis of Robinson’s politi- cal ambivalence, for Sampson Perry republished the poem excerpted from Angelina two years later in his revived radical print, the Argus, to which Merry also contributed (Perry 300).21 Craciun takes the publication of the poem in the Argus to be evidence of Robinson’s other contributions to that paper in 1796 (British 82–5). In the poem, Robinson prefers her little laurel to “worldly pow’r” by which some “tyrannize o’er him whom fate / has destin’d to a lowly state” and suggests that would the “little great endure / The pangs they sel- dom stoop to cure” then “the loftiest, proudest, would confess / The sweetest pow’r—the pow’r to bless” (True Briton 16 October 1794). The poem reads differently in each context: in the True Briton, this is standard humanitarian fare, politically unthreatening and benevo- lent; two years later, in Perry’s Argus, these sentiments likely had a singular resonance. Certainly, by then, Robinson was writing more overtly radical poetry and prose. As early as 1794, her novel The Widow was suspected of espousing radical sentiments in its satiri- cal portraits of upper-class women; the Morning Post rushed to her defense, sarcastically attacking the pomposity of the “fashionable Widows” who “wonder how a woman without rank, dares takes lib- erties with great people” while espousing “the cause of the Swinish multitude” (13 February 1794). But then again, her untitled poem beginning “Heav’n knows, I never would repine” also appeared in the True Briton as well as later in the Argus. The irony of this dual publication is that the government ran Perry’s Argus out of business and rechristened that paper as the True Briton on 1 January 1793
(Werkmeister, Newspaper 143). Taylor was one of the new proprietors and may have had a hand in the coup. But that does not appear to have damaged his friendship with Robinson or diminished his appre- ciation of her poetry.
In roughly the second half of her career, Robinson’s radicalism is abundantly clear, so scholars interested in Robinson tend to presume that she held consistently radical political views running from Ainsi va le monde through Lyrical Tales. Her political views from 1788 to 1795 are actually far murkier and more difficult to discern. I have attempted to unravel those aspects of her publicity that are particu- larly relevant to her quest for poetic fame, but these reveal greater complexities and seeming contradictions. As she established herself as the English Sappho, her poetical publicity, as distinguished from her previous celebrity, involves an array of political and professional networking that attests to her dexterity as an actor in those networks and that firmly established her literary career. In her personal life, Robinson thrived on social intercourse, and here at the middle of her career, her social circle somehow managed to include such antago- nists as Merry and Taylor. Whatever her true feelings were, Robinson wisely maintained positions and connections that facilitated that career. After the most repressive measures of Pitt’s government go into effect—particularly the “Gagging Acts” of 1795—Robinson becomes a resolute and committed radical whose associates include Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Coleridge. She would soon find herself, like Fox, in the “political wilderness” but without anything like his resources. She had to continue to rely on her Muse and on her pen in order to survive.
C h a p t e r 3
The English Sa ppho and the Legitim ate Sonnet
The obituary that appeared in the Sun on 31 December 1800, five days after her death, does not mention any of Mary Robinson’s com- positions except for her poetry.
The late Mrs. ROBINSON certainly possessed great Poetical powers. Her imagination was vivid, and fraught with a variety of imagery.— Her language was rich and glowing. If she had obeyed the impulse of her own genius, her compositions would have displayed a beauti- ful simplicity, but she was unluckily ensnared by the DELLA CRUSCA School, and was often betrayed into a gaudy luxuriance of expression. Several of her Poems are, however, wholly undebased by this orna- mental extravagance, and are indeed simple, interesting, and beauti- ful. It should be mentioned to her honour, that though she was ambitious of the title of the British Sappho, there is none of the wan- ton fervor in her Works which are supposed to have characterized the Lesbian Poetess, but on the contrary, her Muse is always employed in the cause of Morals, Sentiment, and Humanity.
The terms of the Sun’s approbation of Robinson’s poetry resonate with the conceptual framework and critical concerns of the study at hand. Probably authored by the paper’s editor-proprietor John Heriot or possibly by her friend Taylor, the obituary remembers Robinson as a talented poet who, by the end of the century, was working in a style that the columnist recognizes as antithetical to the popular style of the early 1790s. The aesthetic of simplicity that the memori- alist admires is not something that came easily to Robinson, whose poetry, as we have seen, delights in extravagant lyricism and virtuoso performance. She never loses these tendencies, but she hones her skills and comes to practice a poetics of discipline and rigor that for her is the ultimate assertion of her intellectual and cultural pre-eminence.
As this obituary shows, Robinson’s ambition was obvious. Although qualified, the praise admitted here is somewhat surprising as the progovernment Sun, owned by Heriot who also owned the Treasury-directed True Briton, was the inveterate enemy of the liberal Morning Post and its owner Daniel Stuart, Robinson’s employer at the time of her death. By the end of her career, the democratic—and thus deemed Jacobin and radical—politics of novels such as Hubert de Sevrac and Walsingham was notorious, so it is not surprising to find Robinson’s fiction beneath notice here. Particularly remarkable is the absence of any reference to her personal life combined with the recognition of virtuous principles to be found in her poetry, even if her politics were objectionable. The columnist here also finds faintly distasteful Robinson’s being “ambitious of the title of the British Sappho,” although he rather backhandedly commends her poetry for not expressing the “wanton fervor” supposedly characteristic of the original Sappho. Encoded here is vague approbation for Robinson’s having corrected the “wanton fervor” of her own personal life and its early history, as well as that of her affiliation with the “Della Crusca school” and its “ornamental extravagance.” Robinson’s obsession with poetic fame always involved the necessary and concomitant work of rehabilitating her image. But Robinson could never efface her history; she had to own up to her past in order to transcend it. She wanted, moreover, her public to witness her rejection of “wanton fervor” in favor of intellectual rigor and poetic discipline.
Her Sappho and Phaon. In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets per-forms this rejection. Ambitious as she was of the laurel and the title of English Sappho, Robinson figuratively had to kill “the Lesbian Poetess,” along with all other competitors for the title, and assert her superiority. In other words, the last thing she wanted was to be thought of as merely a “poetess,” although she herself occasionally uses the term. I assert that Robinson practices a masculine poetics that distinguishes her poetry from that of her female contemporaries. No work demonstrates this better than her sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon. It was inevitable that Robinson would engage her literary namesake, Sappho; but when she does, it is through a complicated literary and intertextual network that is decidedly heteroerotic and poetically masculine. In Sappho and Phaon, she reappropriates the figure of Sappho through Petrarchan form in order to legitimize her claim to the title of “English Sappho.” While many of her poems first appeared in print pseudonymously, Sappho and Phaon was published as a volume with her actual authorship clearly identified. For her series of “legitimate sonnets,” Robinson presents herself unequivo- cally as the poet Mary Robinson.
From 1788, the start of her poetic career, until her death at the end of 1800, Robinson’s poetic ambitions were masculine in a way that those of most of her female peers were not. These ambitions gov- erned her participation in the Della Crusca network, and through- out the 1790s, Robinson clearly maintains her appetite for poetic play—complicated formal experimentation, exaggerated figurative language, winking intertextuality, playful sexuality, and hyperbolic ambition—among networks of male writers and masculine-inflected texts. Making only negligible obeisance to any poetic predecessors and contemporaries who were women, Robinson positioned herself in her verse as an erotic compeer and a poetic competitor to male poets. Her formal and professional interaction with Merry estab- lished a pattern that Robinson would follow for the rest of her career. These formal assignations connected herself, her avatars, and her poetry to other male writers—and their avatars—with whom she felt poetic affinity as well as friendship. After Merry, these would include playwright James Boaden (“Arno”), satirist John Wolcot (“Peter Pindar”), author Samuel Jackson Pratt (“Courtney Melmoth”), and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Francini,” “Laberius”). There are no female poetic correspondents, except for a Miss Vaughan who wrote to Laura as “Cesario.” Even when Robinson writes to Charlotte Smith, her chief literary rival, she emphasizes Smith as a mother, not as a poet (see chapter one). With the exception of Anna Matilda, the other female addressees, notably not correspondents, in Robinson’s poetic canon are her own daughter, other mothers, and deceased girls. The only, and significant, exception to this is Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whom throughout her career Robinson always regards as a patron, celebrity, and sister, a woman, wife, and mother—but never as a fellow writer. And, as we have seen in chapter one, many of these tributes to other women are mediated through the masculine persona of Oberon.
Robinson’s heteroerotic poetics is always associated with the “wreath of fame,” a laurel she is not especially willing to share with her poeti- cally minded sisters. Using the pseudonym “Anne Frances Randall,” Robinson does pay tribute to her fellow literary countrywomen in her Letter to the Women of England but not without some ambivalence— and not without highlighting her own pre-eminence among them. In that work, the only contemporary woman poet Robinson identifies in the main body of the pamphlet is “Mrs. Robinson,” and that refer- ence is apposite to Sappho and her own “legitimate sonnets” (8: 143). Most telling is the conclusion where Robinson names distinguished contemporary women authors in various genres: for providing “the best translations from the French and German” she credits Susannah Dobson, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Ann Plumptre; for “the more pro- found researches in the dead languages” she distinguishes Elizabeth Carter, Millecent Thomas, Anne Francis, Anne Seymour Damer; noteworthy women playwrights who have won “the wreath of fame” include Hannah Cowley, Inchbald, Sophia Lee, and Hannah More; and significant biographers include Dobson, Ann Ford Thicknesse, Hester Piozzi, Elizabeth Montagu, and Helen Maria Williams (8: 160). She does not fail to praise women novelists and women poets: “The best novels that have been written, since those of Smollet [sic], Richardson, and Fielding, have been produced by women,” she writes. Robinson expresses high regard for women poets too:
Poetry has unquestionably risen high in British literature from the pro- ductions of female pens; for many English women have produced such original and beautiful compositions, that the first critics and scholars of the age have wondered, while they applauded. (8: 160)
She, however, chooses not to recognize any of them by name. Although she lists thirty-nine women writers in her alphabetical “List of British Female Literary Characters Living in the Eighteenth Century,” including poets such as Barbauld, Anna Seward, and Charlotte Smith (161–3), Robinson remains the only contemporary poet identified by “Anne Frances Randall” in the body of the work. The pseudonym, in this case, is no avatar, rather providing an illusion of impartiality as Robinson promotes herself as the superlative example—the English Sappho indeed.
Robinson viewed her literary corpus through gendered bifocals. Like many of her time, Robinson recognized the contemporary novel as a feminine genre and the poetic tradition as a masculine one. She could perform in either genre, deploying either of these specifically gendered author functions, but she considered poetry to be the more legitimate genre, the one with more artistic authority, and thus the one most likely to earn her fame as an author. Her fiction was writ- ten for money and, unwracked by any serious literary pretense, could therefore address more transient, contemporary issues, frequently with satire; her fiction is thus more nearsighted and free to associate with the work of other women novelists of the decade, particularly Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Hays, whom she clearly imitates. Her novels, moreover, clearly were written in haste—as she admitted—and were motivated by commercial concerns (7: 290). Robinson may have shared Smith’s genuine distaste for novels, even though Smith too wrote novels for money: Smith once stated, “I love Novels ‘no more than a Grocer does figs’” (Collected Letters 81).1 In other words, they suit her only insofar as they sell. In the preface to the third edition of her first novel, Vancenza, Robinson declares, “I disclaim the title of a Writer of Novels” (2: 482). Although she also penned several novels, in producing her poetry Robinson has her sights set further off in the distance, on the future and poetic immortality. So, she repeatedly claims the title of poet. Her view of poetry and poetic aspiration is essentially masculine. Robinson’s poetry avoids intertextual associations with other women poets, distinguished instead by a predominant heteroerotic poetics that is always associated with fame. The word fame appears more than 200 times throughout Robinson’s poetry, compared with fewer than ten instances in Smith’s, along with dozens of other references to wreaths, garlands, and laurels. Robinson’s poetry reveals a poet not content to be a woman poet.
She knew well that for centuries, particularly after Raphael’s Parnassus (1512), any woman with literary inclinations was con- descendingly dubbed “Sappho” and that such a designation was as ephemeral as the papyrus on which the original Sappho wrote.2 Nevertheless, “Sappho” was an avatar that Robinson could appropri- ate and use, risky as it most certainly was. And she did have to com- pete for it. Even as late as 1797, the year after Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon appeared, the Morning Post, with which Robinson was affili- ated, described, without irony, Anna Seward as “the SAPHO of the Age” (1 September 1797). This surely would have stung Robinson, especially considering Seward’s immaculate reputation as the (unmar- ried) “Swan of Lichfield.” Given her own public history, Robinson found herself saddled with and yet jealous of another potentially problematic epithet. Although Plato supposedly dubbed the original Sappho “the Tenth Muse,” the original woman from the isle of Lesbos remains a mystery, her actual identity obfuscated by competing myths of her sexuality. These narratives are familiar enough to us today, especially since her supposed homosexuality is the source of the term lesbian. Sappho’s erotic relationships with other women were known in the eighteenth century but usually were attributed to her excessive sensibility or, less charitably, to her nymphomania. For instance, in his manual on Conjugal Love, reprinted in England in French and English throughout the eighteenth century, seventeenth-century physician Nicolas Venette attributed Sappho’s fate to an enlarged cli- toris (9). Addison wondered in Spectator 223 that, considering “the Character that is given of her Works, whether it is not for the Benefit of Mankind that they are lost. They were filled with such bewitching Tenderness and Rapture, that it might have been dangerous to have given them a reading” (15 November 1711). In 1740, the entry on Sappho in the Biographia Classica remarks that, after her husband’s death, Sappho was “unable to confine that Passion to one person” and that sexual desire “was too violent in her to be restrained even to one sex” (43). But these accounts of Sappho ultimately reaffirm the poet’s doomed but insistently heterosexual passion for Phaon. As Addison writes, “Sappho so transported with the Violence of her Passion, that she was resolved to get rid of it at any Price”—her famously fatal leap from the Leucadian rock in a desperate effort to cure her hopeless passion. The desire to normalize Sappho’s sexuality goes as far back as Menander’s play The Leukadia (ca. 300 BC), which is the most likely source for the story of Sappho’s rejection by the handsome fer- ryman Phaon and subsequent suicide. In the eighteenth century, the issue of Sappho’s sexuality was a vexed one, although interest in her was revived by new translations of Longinus and Ovid that engen- dered reassessments of her poetry and retellings of her ostensibly heterosexual history.3 Alessandro Vierri’s 1782 hugely popular novel Le Avventure di Saffo, poetessa di Mitilene, for example, retells the Sappho and Phaon story, concluding with the poet’s fatal leap, and refutes Sappho’s supposed tribadism and “dissolute habits” (2: 213). Thomas Cadell, one of John Bell’s competitors in the Strand, pub- lished an English translation, The Adventures of Sappho, in 1789.4
So, when the Monthly Review in 1791 hailed Robinson as the “English Sappho,” it was primarily commendatory, although the implied allusion to the story of Sappho’s frenzied passion for Phaon— her “wanton fervor”—would have reminded everyone of Robinson’s own history as the rejected lover of the Prince of Wales. The epi- thet already had unsavory associations. Aphra Behn, for instance, had been compared with Sappho but not favorably: In his 1691 “The Poetess, A Satyr,” Robert Gould mocked Behn’s poor health, imply- ing venereal disease and calling her “Sapho, famous for Her Gout and Guilt.” He adds, “For Punk and Poetess agree so Pat, / You cannot well be This, and not be That” (16–7). Similarly, William Wycherley portrayed Behn as a promiscuous and syphilitic Sappho in his poem “To the Sappho of the Age, Suppos’d to Ly-In of a Love-Distemper, or a Play” (191–2).5 And for Robinson, a lover of Pope’s poetry, the name Sappho also would have had the negative associations found throughout his poetry, particularly in the animosity he expresses toward Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, also called “Sappho.” In his versification of Donne’s “Satire II,” Pope, for example, adds a super- fluous jab at Montagu not in the original: “As who knows Sapho, smiles at other whores” (6). The intellectual woman and the profes- sional woman writer, long before the bluestocking epithet, was often regarded as merely a better class of whore, whose talents mitigate somewhat the sins of that class. Popular English and French transla- tions during the eighteenth century helped somewhat to rehabilitate Sappho as a figure of lyrical elegance.
Just as Sappho’s history is replete with claims that she was a nym- phomaniac, tribadist, and prostitute, Robinson herself, assigned the epithet “Perdita,” was called a prostitute in the newspapers and was the subject of popular pornography.6 While Robinson would have appreciated the recognition of her poetical talents by the early 1790s, the implicit comparison between her personal history and that of the ancient Greek poet potentially could have derailed her claims to poetic legitimacy and fame by continuing to call attention to her question- able virtue. When she first became the subject of gossip, most of it was relatively innocuous and flattering of her beauty and charms. As she gradually became associated with a succession of supposed lov- ers, chief among them the Prince, the gossip became more malicious. The Morning Herald, for instance, reported on the “midnight orgies celebrated at the hotel de Perdita” presided over by “the coronetted high-priest, and other right honorable novitiates” (25 May 1781). The papers delighted in the suggestion that the Prince and his friends, such as Lord Malden, Fox, and finally Tarleton, were sharing Robinson’s body. The Morning Post parodied the papers’ “Ship News” columns with the clever conceit of “the Perdita Frigate,” which the paper notes is “a prodigious fine clean-bottom’d vessel” (21 September 1783). The column recounts this particular ship’s many exploits, having briefly captured “the Florizel, a most valuable ship belonging to the crown,” but in turn was taken by “the Fox” and “the Malden.” The report concludes with the image of “the Tarleton” “coming along side of the Perdita, fully determined to board her sword in hand,” at which point “she instantly surrendered at discretion.” As Robinson’s fortunes fell, the press gleefully recommended Robinson, identified only as Perdita, as an object lesson. The Morning Post reported in 1784 that “a life of wanton dissipation has reduced her to penury and distress; poverty, with all its horrors surrounds her; her constitution and the use of her limbs are gone; death stares her in the face” (16 August 1784). A month later, in the same paper, a correspondent defines prostitute as “a woman who sacrifices chastity to sensuality”; he goes on to parody Linnaeus by providing a taxonomy of such women. Robinson is identified in the “order” of “kept mistresses by Princes and Nobility,” as a “species” of “those who are prostitutes by profes- sion, as Perdita, &c.” (10 September 1784). The Morning Post at this time (under different proprietorship) was particularly vicious and continually reminded its readers of Robinson’s penury and dimin- ished physical beauty. An engraved print in the Rambler’s Magazine, for instance, depicts Robinson in rags begging from the Prince of Wales—a reference to the annuity she was able to secure from the Royal Family. Her critics viewed this as extortion as well as prosti- tution, so the papers continued to titillate its readers with hints of Robinson’s sexual depravity long after her affair with the Prince had ended: for instance, one report on her sojourn in France imaged “the Perdita” among “a Convent of Nuns,” noting on supposed authority that “certain friars, it is said, have found her a very warm convert!” (25 September 1784). Expressing mock compassion for “the poor fallen Perdita,” the paper reported on the auctioning of her property for debts, while licentiously reminding its readers that the “Cyprian Corps” is without leadership; now there is “no Perdita aspiring to the queenship of impurity” (10 January 1785, 11 February 1785).
Reports on her activities in the gossip pages of the 1780s, more- over, had been fascinated with her health and were tinged with the morbid frisson that the promiscuous Perdita would get what she deserved—death. Presumably providing what its readers wanted, the papers exulted in her downfall and disgrace and looked forward to her demise: the Public Advertiser reported, “The Perdita yet contin- ues unrecovered; a wretched victim of vicious folly” (6 April 1785). During the summer of 1786, the papers got their wish: a false report of her death abroad circulated widely in the papers. For instance, the General Evening Post noted the death, “in indigence and obscurity,” of “the once famous Perdita (Mrs. Robinson)” in Paris, describing it as “another fatal instance of the unhappy tendency of beauty and accomplishments, when unattended by discretion and virtue!” (11 July 1786). Some tastefully repentant obituaries appeared in the very papers that savaged her reputation, although the Public Advertiser and the Morning Post, printing the same obituary, could not resist asserting that she was her father’s illegitimate daughter (14 July 1786), a claim Robinson felt called upon from Germany to refute in a widely reprinted letter to the editors (5 August 1786). In asserting her legitimacy and vitality, Robinson also attempts to affiliate herself with moral and intellectual virtue by claiming that she “received my education under the care of Miss Hanna [sic] More.”7 Nevertheless, the Morning Chronicle printed a sarcastic poetic “Elegy on Mrs. R–bins–n, the Late Celebrated Perdita” (9 August 1786). Upon her return to England in 1788 to begin her literary career, Robinson would be, in a sense, always writing from beyond the grave.
Robinson knew well from her own downfall that fame is transient and capricious and blamed her ignominy on the resentment of other women. She writes in the Memoirs, “I have almost uniformly found my own sex my most inveterate Enemies; I have experienced little kindness from them: though my bosom has often ached with the pang inflicted by their Envy, slander, and malevolence” (7: 239). Moreover, she attributes the most vicious slanders and satires to the machinations of “female malice”: “Tales of the most infamous and glaring falsehood were invented, and I was again assailed by pamphlets, by paragraphs, and caricatures, and all the artillery of slander . . .” (7: 265). She blames not the men who most certainly wrote most if not all of the attacks, but the women who considered her their rival for celebrity and favor, and who supposedly directed the slanderous male pens. As she later explained in a letter to her friend Jane Porter, written just weeks before her death, “If I do not enter into the true spirit of Friendship for my own Sex, it is because I have almost universally found that Sex unkind and hostile towards me” (7: 318). She went to her grave convinced that other women were instrumental in her persecution. She obviously felt differently about her male friends, who chivalrously defended her and whose adoration no doubt pleased her. But Robinson’s reputation continued to be encumbered by the stigma of having been Perdita, “the lost one”; for that, she blamed other women.
As a poet, Robinson sought more than adoration from her circle of friends. She was “ardent in the pursuit of fame.” Robinson’s four-part essay in the Monthly Magazine, “The Present State of the Manners, Society, &c. &c. of the Metropolis of England,” signed with her ini- tials and published in the final months of her life, condemns women writers for failing to support one another in their shared neglect. She writes, “Each is ardent in the pursuit of fame; and every new hon- our which is bestowed on a sister votary, is deemed a partial privation of what she considers as her exclusive birth-right.” She suggests that, were there more solidarity, women writers might share greater fame: “How powerful might such a phalanx become, were it to act in union of sentiment, and sympathy of feeling; and by a participation of public fame secure, to the end of time, the admiration of posterity” (8: 204).
In 1794, she complained to Taylor that her literary aspirations have turned out to be “false prospects”: “They have led me into the vain expectation that fame would attend my labours, and my country be my pride” (7: 303). The adulation she enjoyed from within her professional networks was as insufficient as her income from her literary labors. Six years later, nearing the end of her life, Robinson wrote to Godwin, who apparently had tried to cheer her: “You say that I have ‘Youth and beauty.’ Ah! Philosopher, how surely do I feel that both are vanished! You tell me that I have ‘Literary Fame.’ How comes it then that I am abused, neglected—unhonoured—unrewarded” (7: 320).
The English Petrarch
Although she frequently was hailed as “the English Sappho,” Mary Robinson actually wanted to be the English Petrarch. No work by Robinson is more decidedly masculine than Sappho and Phaon, despite its identification with the pre-eminent woman poet. This is because the sonnet itself traditionally was a masculine form; and the qualifica- tion of Robinson’s sonnets as “legitimate” makes the sequence even more so. The “legitimate sonnet” is the eighteenth-century term for what we call today the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet; that is, a sonnet with an octave rhyming abbaabba and a turn, or volta, at the end of the octave followed by a sestet that concludes the sonnet with a qualification or resolution. Conversely, in the eighteenth century and for most of the nineteenth, non-Petrarchan variations, includ- ing Shakespeare’s, were deemed “illegitimate” sonnets or occasionally were given the more neutral designation of quatorzain, which sim- ply means fourteen-line stanza. Robinson thus writes about Sappho, but she performs as Petrarch. This complicated two-step—or cross- dressing, if you prefer—involving both gender and form is crucial to Robinson’s assertion of her poetic supremacy. Eighteenth-century representations of Sappho, the positive ones in particular, privileged a feminization of the lyric mode. This is apparent in the many light and charming newspaper poems that refer to Sappho, that imitate Sappho, or that claim to be by a modern version of Sappho. Sappho, in the hands of these writers became, interestingly, a figure for the simpler forms of erotic lyric poetry, such as the quatrain. The sonnet, how- ever, itself a “manly” form in its construction, traditionally represents a rigid poetic culture defined by men for the purpose of delineating their contrary perceptions of women. From Petrarch’s ideal Laura to Shakespeare’s carnal dark lady, the sonnet tradition abounds in images of the hunt, erotic objectification, and female inconstancy—all from decidedly male perspectives. The Renaissance tradition had firmly established sonnet writing as the domain of male poets, usually for the purpose of wooing women or for establishing reputations at court. Dorothy Mermin argues that women poets of the seventeenth century such as Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, and Anne Finch became poets by avoiding direct competition with male poets; they did not write sonnets, for example (336). They generally chose forms that “seemed safely unambitious” such as pastorals, fables, and lyrics (341). In order to exist, Mermin contends, they had to avoid formal territory usually occupied by men. Thus, there are few extant sonnets by women from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when the sonnet was a mark of skill and wit and when mostly male poets practiced it.8
Robinson would not have known about the major exception from this earlier period—Lady Mary Wroth’s sonnets, which were lost during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and for most of the twentieth. She did, however, have before her the example of Charlotte Smith, whose hugely successful Elegiac Sonnets went through ten ever-expanding editions between 1784 and 1811, earn- ing the respect of readers, poets, and critics. Neglected by poets and despised by readers after Milton’s use of the form, the son- net fell into disuse and disrepute during the Restoration and early eighteenth century despite its earlier dominance and status.9 With Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays (1784), however, Smith became the first woman poet of the eighteenth century to publish a series of sonnets and single-handedly revived the sonnet for the Romantic period. Smith’s formal designation of them as “elegiac” is her way of admitting that they are, technically, illegitimate because her pre- ferred sonnet form consists of three elegiac quatrains and a couplet.10 Of the ninety-two sonnets published in her Elegiac Sonnets by the posthumous tenth edition of 1811, only two faithfully follow the Petrarchan model: Sonnet XXXII, “To Melancholy,” and Sonnet XXXIV, “To a Friend.” The majority are irregular in construction, and thus “illegitimate.” Smith’s success gave license to poets eager to take liberties with the form and a debate ensued as to the propriety of Smith’s example. Smith’s success in what was considered to be an easier form appeared to some as an example of the degradation of poetry in popular culture. As W. Hamilton Reid recognized in 1790, Smith’s sonnets appealed to a large readership because of their simplicity; calling the sonnet “the mode of writing that has attracted the most of the public attention” in recent years, Reid writes that Smith’s success proves that “the more simple these [sonnets] are in their construction, the longer they will please” (24). He also stresses that the skill required to compose the legitimate sonnet is “thrown away upon the many; for, as long as the multitude in another respect, will prefer an English or Scots tune to an Italian air or finale, so long will the common ear prefer the simple sonnet, viz. that composed of three stanzas of alternate rhimes [sic] and a couplet” (24). Although Reid claims to intend no “derogation” of Smith’s genius, his essay on “unlettered genius” does impugn at the very least the literary tastes of contemporary readers who fail to appreciate the skill required in the composition of more difficult kinds of poetry.
As her full title suggests, Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon directly engages the debate over the merits of the legitimate and the illegiti- mate sonnet forms. As early as 1794, the Critical Review complained that, since the prodigious success of Smith and her scores of imita- tors, “we begin to be almost satiated with sonnets” (Rev. of Sonnets 114). In response, in 1796 Robinson strategically positions herself as an exceptional poet and her sequence as following the examples of Petrarch and of Milton—not of Smith. Her remarkable preface cen- sures the “modern sonnet” popularized by Smith as facile and hack- neyed. Echoing the eighteenth-century distaste for the Shakespearean or illegitimate sonnet, Robinson writes that this form, “concluding with two lines, winding up the sentiment of the whole, confines the poet’s fancy, and frequently occasions an abrupt termination of a beautiful and interesting picture” (1: 320). Like Milton before her and Wordsworth after her, Robinson objects to the concluding cou- plet but also to the hard closure of a single sonnet. Because the form may resist this hard closure, she recognizes the expansive potential afforded by the legitimate sonnet for “a series of sketches” that form “a complete and connected story” (1: 320). But what Robinson is most invested in is the assertion of poetic superiority explicit in her adoption of a form “so seldom attempted in the English language”— the legitimate sonnet, as mastered by Milton. Robinson provides Milton’s sonnet “To the Nightingale,” first published in his 1645 collection, as a significant precedent by which to measure her own achievement. She cannily selects a sonnet by Milton that will remind her readers of how hackneyed the nightingale topos had become after 150 years, and thus also of Smith’s several sonnets that employ it.11 Moreover, in order to assert her own “classical” legitimacy, she must denounce the popular form:
To enumerate the variety of authors who have written sonnets of all descriptions, would be endless; indeed few of them deserve notice: and where, among the heterogeneous mass of insipid and laboured efforts, sometimes a bright gem sheds lustre on the page of poesy, it scarcely excites attention, owing to the disrepute in which sonnets are fallen. (1: 321)
Robinson hearkens back to Samuel Johnson’s definition of the son- net as having a “particular rule” and his qualification that the form “has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.” Here, she cites in a footnote Smith’s opinion that the legitimate sonnet is “ill calculated for our language” but, without comment of her own, pairs it with William Kendall’s assertion that legitimate sonnets “assert their superiority over those tasteless and inartificial produc- tions, which assume the name”; that is, illegitimate sonnets, such as those by Smith. As the most successful contemporary composer of sonnets, Smith was Robinson’s chief competitor for the Petrarchan laurel. Robinson, without explicitly condemning Smith, exploits the weakness she perceives in Smith’s claim to poetic legitimacy, thereby implicitly asserting her own prowess in order to take the prize away from a fellow female poet. With such a move, Robinson, like the other women writers in her Monthly Magazine essay, is also “ardent in the pursuit of fame”; she, however, displays none of the solidarity she calls for there. Her strategy is to assert the extreme difficulty of the legiti- mate sonnet and her own intrepidity in following “that path, which, even the best poets have thought it dangerous to tread” (1: 322); she intervenes in a specifically masculinist tradition by appropriating the mantle of legitimacy. Robinson believed sonnet writing to be a rigorous test of poetic skill, so the rules must be enforced in order to pass the test legitimately. She observes that “sonnets are so com- mon, for every rhapsody of rhyme, from six lines to sixty comes under that denomination, that the eye frequently turns from this species of poem with disgust,” adding that “every school-boy, every romantic scribbler, thinks a sonnet a task of little difficulty.” This is the reason, according to Robinson, that magazines and newspapers abound with “the non-descript ephemera from the heated brains of self-important poetasters, all ushered into notice under the appellation of SONNET!” (1: 322). She thus intends for her preface to distinguish her latest and most ambitious literary work from ephemeral popular culture, such as much of her own previous work.
Robinson understood that she had to demonstrate mastery of a dif- ficult form in an ambitious project in order to achieve the Petrarchan “wreath of fame”; like Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning after her, Robinson chose the legitimate sonnet. This mastery is what Anna Seward calls “the Sonnet’s claim.” In opposition to Smith, both Robinson and Seward see the legitimate sonnet as a promise of fame for the poet who is skillful enough to meet its demands.12 Accordingly, Robinson represents herself in the preface to Sappho and Phaon as the defender of the sonnet from the degradation of illegitimate practices— “that chaos of dissipated pursuits which has too long been growing like an overwhelming shadow”—from those who would undermine its dignity, and from those poetasters guilty of “idleness” and formal “profligacy” (1: 322). Robinson writes, “I confess myself such an enthusiastic votary of the Muse, that any innovation which seems to threaten even the least of her established rights, makes me tremble” (1: 322). But her preface also expresses Robinson’s disappointment in her own career, complaining that her contemporary moment is, on the whole, culturally degenerate. She argues that “in those centuries when the poets’ laurels have been most generously fostered in Britain, the minds and manners of the natives have been most polished and enlightened” (1: 323). This complaint is a thinly veiled justification of her poetic talents and of her own sense of entitlement. Despite her incipient radicalism, the poet longs for the days of aristocratic patron- age as preferable to the vicissitudes of commercial publication. She laments that fame comes too late for many worthy poets who “were, when living, suffered to languish, and even to perish, in obscure pov- erty” (1: 323). She offers as a counterexample Petrarch, who enjoyed fame while he was alive:
Petrarch was crowned with laurels, the noblest diadem, in the Capitol of Rome: his admirers were liberal, his contemporaries were just; and his name will stand upon record, with the united and honourable testi- mony of his own talents and the generosity of his country. (1: 323–4)
Not even Milton enjoyed such contemporary eminence, and Robinson sees no one among her peers enjoying such success. Her culture’s fail- ure to recognize poetic excellence is “a national disgrace”; she asserts that “there are both POETS and PHILOSOPHERS, now living in Britain, who, had they been born in any other clime, would have been hon- oured with the proudest distinctions, and immortalized to the latest posterity” (1: 324). Robinson may intend an oblique reference to her new friend Godwin as among the living philosophers neglected by the public, but as far as those neglected poets are concerned, she is of course identifying herself.
As she claims legitimacy for herself as a poet by writing sonnets, Robinson appears to offer a gesture of solidarity to her poetic sisters who have their own claims to make. She pays tribute to her “illustrious countrywomen; who, unpatronized by courts, and unprotected by the powerful, persevere in the paths of literature, and ennoble them- selves by the un-perishable lustre of MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE!” (386). This is the essential message of Robinson’s formal choice and why she wanted to make it so forcefully—to show that she can stand on an equal footing with male poets. But, in typical fashion, Robinson neglects to identify any of these “illustrious countrywomen.” Despite her indictment in the preface of the literary sexism of her own coun- try and age, she is unwilling to share the Petrarchan laurel with Charlotte Smith or Anna Seward, who, in 1796, were the only serious competitors for it and who also happened to be women. She writes that “the liberal education of the Greeks was such, as inspired them with an unprejudiced enthusiasm for works of genius: and that when they paid adoration to Sappho, they idolized the MUSE, and not the WOMAN” (389). The Greeks, she believed, were enlightened enough to see beyond gender stereotypes and appreciate literature by women on an equal plane with that written by men; this was the appreciation she wanted for herself, but she was not willing to extend it to her fel- low female poets.
Robinson published Sappho and Phaon under her own name because this project required singularity in order to fulfill its pursuit of poetic legitimacy. Sappho and Phaon is, after, all about the pre-eminent woman poet while it inflects the form associated with the pre-eminent man poet. The goal is to unite her own name with those of Sappho and Petrarch. She employs Petrarchan form in the name of the arche- typal female poet as a means of subverting the tradition, in which the male poet sublimates his sexual desire for an unattainable female object of desire as poetic immortality; and, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later do, Robinson chooses to do so in a sequence of forty-four perfectly legitimate sonnets to show, in the most gendered sense pos- sible, how she has mastered that tradition. Sexual politics aside, if there is a poetics of sonnet writing, Robinson and Seward have articulated it as well as anyone. The sonnet, more so than any form other than the epic, its formal inverse, is always an allusion to every other poem of its kind ever written. The sonnets of the English Renaissance, for instance, particularly those of Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, and Shakespeare—even the Holy Sonnets of Donne—are always about Petrarch, his Laura, and his laurel, regardless of whatever else they have to say. After Petrarch, sonneteers tend to approach the form with an eye toward immortal- ity: As Shakespeare writes, at the end of his famous and “illegitimate” “Sonnet 18,” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)—conclud- ing epigrammatically—“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” “This” is of course the sonnet, and Robinson understood the conceit.13
Sapphic Petrarch, Petrarchan Sappho
For her ambitious assertion of poetic legitimacy in the Petrarchan sonnet, Robinson chose the familiar story of the Lesbian poet Sappho and her doomed love for Phaon. Because of her own history of disas- trous liaisons, Robinson certainly expected her readers to perceive an identification on her part with the tale of the passionate love of a woman poet for a man who eventually abandons her. Sappho and Phaon, as her readers soon would recognize, is autobiographical in some respects: Robinson’s long-time relationship with Tarleton was at the time of writing in its final throes, and they would part ways shortly after its publication. More important, Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon is her most carefully crafted poetic achievement, designed to portray “the human mind, enlightened by the most exquisite talents, yet yielding to the destructive controul of ungovernable passions” (1: 324). Robinson’s formal and intertextual choices demonstrate an intentional refashioning of what it means for her to be the modern Sappho. The rhetoric of her preface helps her to assert her poetic cre- dentials, but the primary way for Robinson to direct the reception of herself is through poetic form. Sappho and Phaon is Robinson’s attempt to assert masculine authority over her poetry and her rep- utation. If she is going to be the English Sappho, in other words, Robinson wants to make sure that it is on her terms. Those terms, however, paradoxically are borrowed, defined by Petrarch and Ovid more than they are by Sappho. In Sappho and Phaon, Robinson uses the figure of Sappho and the form of the Petrarchan sonnet to reinstate a heteroerotic poetics that is not so much gendered as it is sexed—practically a Wollstonecraftian move. In doing so, she re- legitimizes the lyric voice that the Ovidian “Sapho to Phaon” silences, and normalizes Sappho’s sexuality through Petrarch’s form. This is where my reading of the sequence most differs from McGann’s in The Poetics of Sensibility. Where he seeks to reclaim Sappho and Phaon as “a central document” in the tradition of Sensibility (94), I see Robinson attempting to overwrite the image of a feminized and sen- sible Petrarch in late eighteenth-century popular culture with a mas- culine, heteroerotic denunciation of the destructive emotions that she associates with her namesake, Sappho, the pre-eminent woman poet. In both the preface and the sequence proper, Robinson orders a network of literary association and poetic intertextuality. In addition to Petrarch, Robinson negotiates with such authors as Longinus, Ovid, Spenser, Edmund Waller, Milton, Ambrose Philips, Joseph Addison, Collins, Cowper, William Kendall, Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, and Pope—an illustrious list of men, most of whom she cites in her preface. Again, the book only glances obliquely at Charlotte Smith’s “illegiti- mate” sonnet practices. In addition to her claim to poetic legitimacy through the Petrarchan sonnet, Robinson was careful to demonstrate that her account of Sappho was learned. Robinson derived most of her prefatory remarks on Sappho from Addison’s three Spectator papers on Sappho (1711) and William Beaumont’s 1790 English translation of Barthélemy’s Le Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce (1788). Robinson also may have consulted the work of Francis Fawkes, whose “Life of Sappho” and translations were republished in 1795, around the time Robinson began working on her sequence, in A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain.14 Despite her occasional Latin citations, Robinson’s primary source for the narrative, key phrases, and atten- dant imagery of Sappho and Phaon is Pope’s translation of the Latin “Sapho to Phaon,” which was discovered in the fifteenth century and presumed to be one of Ovid’s Heroides. Although some scholars today dispute Ovid’s authorship, neither Pope nor Robinson doubted its authenticity. While engaging the Petrarchan sonnet and that tradition, Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon also involves the Ovidian heroic epistle and its formal associations, if not strictly its formal properties.
To ventriloquize Sappho, Robinson invokes not only these two masculine traditions but also the ways they voice male and female sex- ual desire, thereby placing them in dialogue.15 The Petrarchan sonnet traditionally expresses the male poet’s desire for an objectified woman, while the Ovidian heroic epistle traditionally expresses a female char- acter’s desire for an absent male lover. In addition to using Pope’s “Sapho to Phaon” for her series of Petrarchan sonnets, Robinson had also previously associated Petrarch with the Ovidian tradition in her 1791 volume, which first earned her the sobriquet “the English Sappho.” In her long poem “Petrarch to Laura,” she writes from the male poet’s perspective—an apparent reversal of poetic subjectivity given the revelation of “Laura” and “Laura Maria” as avatars of the poet Mary Robinson. “Petrarch to Laura” surprisingly is neither a sonnet nor a sequence of sonnets but an imitation of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, the work that probably had the most influence on Robinson’s poetry.16 Pope’s heroic epistle is his modernization of Ovid’s Heroides, in which Ovid ventriloquizes famous women from Greek and Roman history. Pope makes the medieval Eloisa his heroine, while Robinson makes the medieval Petrarch hers, using the conventions of Ovid’s form to place the prevailing figure of poetic masculinity in the female epistolary position. To clarify, Robinson’s “Petrarch to Laura” is mod- eled on Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, which is Pope’s modernization of Ovid’s heroic epistles, the Heroides; in her poem, Robinson takes a Petrarchan subject out of its original form, the sonnet, and formally recasts that subject in light of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard. By contrast, Sappho and Phaon is adapted from the Ovidian heroic epistle “Sapho to Phaon,” translated by Pope, which conveys the final history of the pre-eminent lyric and female poet, Sappho; Robinson formally recasts this subject in Petrarchan form, the sonnet. So, why voice Petrarch’s feelings for Laura in a form that is more commonly associated with Ovid and Pope? Much of Robinson’s poetry explores the ethos of love and sex; the themes and strategies prevalent in “Petrarch to Laura” make themselves felt in Sappho and Phaon. In “Petrarch to Laura,” Robinson wants to obliterate the supposed chastity of Petrarch’s rela- tionship with Laura through complex formal allusion.
One of the most important features of Ovid’s Heroides is that the very textuality of the epistolary form has a metonymic relationship to the physical intimacy the heroine has shared with her lover or hus- band. Recognizing this, Pope, after having translated in his youth the Ovidian “Sappho to Phaon,” built his Eloisa to Abelard on the same model of sexual knowledge. Robinson understood well the bit- ter irony of Eloisa’s comment on the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”—a kind of bliss-in-ignorance only the “blameless Vestal” can enjoy, and she refers to that particular line in several of her poems. Robinson’s “Petrarch to Laura” positions Petrarch as Eloisa, strug- gling with his carnal passion, because, as a post-Sensibility writer, Robinson simply cannot believe in the power of a passion that remains physically unconsummated. She rejects a portrayal of in morte Petrarchism, where the poet is sustained ultimately by agape rather than eros. Robinson’s in vita Petrarchism hypersexualizes the lover, while at the same time feminizing him as an Ovidian heroine. The vision Robinson’s Petrarch receives of Laura at the end of the poem only intensifies his erotic desire for her:
I fast, I pray, and yet no comfort find; Heaven on my lips, but hell within my mind! I feel THEE ever on my heated brain;
I weep, I sigh, I supplicate in vain! (1: 157; 301–4)
The erotics of the poem emerge from a confluence of several factors. First, there is a Protestant subtext that finds the Catholic requirement of priestly celibacy unnatural: Petrarch took minor orders that did not require celibacy but, like Abelard, he had to remain unmar- ried in case he were to advance in the church as a priest. Moreover, Robinson’s pro-Revolutionary politics at this time likely inform the anti-clerical implications of Petrarch’s supposed impropriety. Finally, Robinson’s source was, instead of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, Susannah Dobson’s adaptation of the Abbé de Sade’s biography of Petrarch, in which Dobson disapproves of the vehemence of Petrarch’s passion for a married woman. For Robinson that is the crux of the story. And while Sade felt that even virgins could read Petrarch—instead of, say, Sappho, Catullus, Ovid—without blushing (Zuccato 158), the same cannot be said of Robinson’s overheated “Petrarch to Laura.”
In this way, “Petrarch to Laura” may be a parody of Petrarchism revived for the Age of Sensibility as another version of Werterism. And it expresses the same kind of ludic eroticism that characterizes the Della Crusca–Anna Matilda exchange in an exaggerated, one might say melodramatic, and facetious pastiche of Sensibility tropes. When Robinson’s Petrarch, for instance, complains that the woods of Vaucluse no longer please him, his language is infused with frustrated sexual desire:
No more for ME your sunny banks shall pour In purple tides ripe Autumn’s luscious store; No more for ME your lust’rous tints shall glow, Your forests wave, your silv’ry channels flow;
Yet ‘midst your heav’n my wounded breast shall crave
One narrow cell, my SOLACE and my GRAVE. (1: 151; 25–30)
Although ostensibly about nature, these lines are so sensual that they practically figure a blazon of Laura’s body. This is made all the more apparent when Petrarch writes to Laura the reason he feels this way: “Where, LAURA, shall I turn, what balsam find / To soothe the throbbings of my fev’rish mind?” (41–2). Robinson reasserts the erotic Petrarch “wild with passion, madd’ning with remorse” (49), but she does so by associating him intertextually with the car- nal heroine of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard. Robinson’s Petrarch is car- nal, too—profoundly unsatisfied and sexually frustrated as religious devotion fails to match the imagined and imaginative pleasures of erotic fantasy. Robinson delights in the double entendre and ambi- guity of that frustration: she writes, “Fancy bade my frantic mind explore, / Those scenes of holy joy I taste no more” (59–60). The heroic epistle, as Ovid’s Heroides and Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard had established, affords the reclamation of the lovers’ physical intimacy through the love letter; so, even as Robinson’s Petrarch and Pope’s Eloisa struggle to renounce passion, they indulge in form as erotic fantasy. Petrarch recalls his first sight of Laura, as Robinson enjoys the erotic ambiguity of Petrarchan paradox: “Oft as the cross her snowy fingers press’d, / Her auburn tresses veil’d her spotless breast” (1: 152; 69–70). Perhaps recalling the cross with which Pope’s Belinda adorns her breasts, Robinson shows her Petrarch fascinated by the recollection of the image and all that it suggests, and the actual knowledge it may recall to himself and his lover. Observing her reli- gious devotion—her “conscious rapture”—initially ignites his desire to know her in a different way. Through the allusion to Ovid and Pope, Robinson is able to wink at her reader without explicitly deny- ing or confirming the chastity of Petrarch’s relationship with Laura: to tease is more the point.
Robinson’s portrayal of Petrarch is also irreverent. As he variously pleads with Laura for physical consummation or angelic instruction, Robinson’s Petrarch echoes Pope’s Eloisa and her “rebel passion” throughout—a phrase that appears in both poems (Robinson 109, Pope 26). And this Petrarch is excited not by Laura’s virginity but by her “matron’s purity”—another Petrarchan oxymoron, perhaps—that makes her a “brighter IDOL” than even “the sacred Virgin’s form,” thus emphasizing again his desire for Laura’s sexualized body over the veneration of the forms of Catholicism. These references perform an allusion to Eloisa’s matronliness—that is, her sexual experience— and her unwillingness to forget it. Robinson’s epigraph for “Petrarch to Laura” comes directly from the passage in Pope’s poem (lines 197–200) where Eloisa refuses to renounce her carnal knowledge of her lover:
Ere such a soul regains its peaceful state, How often must it love, how often hate! How often hope, despair, resent, regret, Conceal, disdain, do all things, but forget.
Robinson coyly selects four lines from Eloisa to Abelard that appear between the most sexually suggestive parts of Pope’s poem. Just prior to this passage, Eloisa confesses her longing for the physical intimacy she shared with Abelard: “I view my crime, but kindle at the view, / Repent old pleasures, and solicit new” (185–6). Refusing to deny her sexual self, she asks, “How shall I lose the sin, yet keep the sense?” (191). And, then, after the lines that constitute Robinson’s epigraph, loisa exclaims, in the famous line, “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!” (207). In this context, Eloisa’s description of virginal innocence—“Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”—is ironic: sex- ual ignorance, in other words, is bliss, while renouncing known plea- sure is psychic torture. The allusiveness of Robinson’s poem to Pope’s and Ovid’s poems creates this subtext of known sexual pleasures that reverberates throughout her Petrarch’s epistle.
In “Petrarch to Laura” Robinson thus places the pre-eminent male poet in the traditionally feminized subject position of the Ovidian heroic epistle. As Gillian Beer has noted, “Heroic epistle takes as its pre-condition the enforced passivity of women: formally and in nar- rative the poems rely upon sequestration” (140). Robinson under- stood this, so her “Petrarch to Laura” takes place during Petrarch’s retirement but before Laura’s death. Her Petrarch essentially is Pope’s Eloisa. Even his coveted laurel pales in comparison to his devotion to Laura’s erotic allure, which is the source of his poetry:
When nations thron’d THY POET’s Fame to share, And shouts of rapture fill’d the perfum’d air!
No flush’d delight from adulation caught, No selfish joy with false ambition fraught
Could draw my prostrate soul from LOVE and THEE:
Still at THY shrine I bent the trembling knee! (1: 155; 231–6)
In effect, Robinson figuratively neutralizes (or neuters) her predeces- sor’s genius, making his ambition subservient to his passion, his intel- lect submissive to his emotions, and his “wreath of fame” contingent upon the inspiration afforded him by a female figure whom Robinson herself has overwritten with her poetic avatars—Laura and Laura Maria. It is a figure of herself that animates this Petrarch, that, as she has him write, “bade my verse with deathless glories shine” (242). Laura is thus always the embodiment of poetic fame. Robinson’s fig- uring is fundamentally ludic and self-reflexive because, of course, this is literally true: Robinson’s Petrarch is her own creation, endowed by her version of Laura. In this poem Petrarch becomes another ava- tar. Demonstrating an incisive understanding of the heroic epistle, Robinson performs a cross-gendering that mimics her significant pre- cursors, Ovid and Pope. Like many male poets before her, Robinson understood that the Ovidian tradition required a kind of formal transvestitism, so she writes as the male erotic subject when she chooses the heroic epistle, instead of writing as Laura; or, conversely, she chooses the heroic epistle to write as Petrarch, instead of choosing the sonnet. Similarly, she opts for the sonnet when she takes on the voice of the female poet Sappho.17
The formal and gendered allusiveness of both the heroic epistle and the legitimate sonnet gains even greater resonance when Robinson chooses to perform Sappho’s passion for Phaon via Petrarch’s tradition. In “Petrarch to Laura,” Robinson’s formal choice suggests that she intends a representation of Petrarch as a feminized figure of Sensibility, along with Pope’s Eloisa and Goethe’s Werter. In her heroic epistle, Robinson is not interested in performing a Petrarch capable of mas- tering his passion, which is what the Canzoniere is mostly invested in demonstrating, particularly in the sonnets that take place after Laura’s death. Like Eloisa and Werter, this fictional Petrarch looks forward to death as the end of his excessive sensibility. If her Petrarch is a variation of Pope’s Eloisa, he is also a figuration of the eighteenth- century Sappho, whose desperate passion and legendary suicide echoes Werterism. Robinson’s portrayal of Petrarch in the heroic epistle asso- ciates the male poet with the same kind of dangerous sensibility that Robinson recognized in eighteenth-century portrayals of Sappho— most significantly in the Ovidian poem translated by Pope that served as Pope’s prototype for his own Eloisa to Abelard. In her preface to Sappho and Phaon, Robinson paraphrases Addison’s complaint that what remains of Sappho’s poetry is, in her words, “replete with such fascinating beauties, and adorned with such a vivid glow of sensibility, that, probably had they been preserved entire, it would have been dan- gerous to have perused them” (1: 326). Addison was tactfully allud- ing to Sappho’s supposed sexual liaisons with other women and thus was grateful that more poetry depicting such passion did not survive. Robinson elides the issue entirely, however, attributing the danger, not to lasciviousness, but to the powerful authenticity of Sappho’s emo- tion. Her poems, Robinson writes, “possessed none of the artificial decorations of a feigned passion; they were the genuine effusions of a supremely enlightened soul, laboring to subdue a fatal enchantment” (1: 326). She acknowledges that Sappho’s poems are “too glowing for the fastidious refinement of modern times,” referring to the language of erotic desire that, she points out, the ancient Greeks could appreci- ate regardless of the poet’s sex. But given the authenticity Robinson ascribes to Sappho’s emotions, the irony of Sappho and Phaon is that the sequence is itself artificial, carefully constructed in—as Sappho’s feel- ings are mediated through—Petrarchan form. Robinson is able to keep distance between her subject, Sappho, and her personal subjectivity.
By choosing Petrarch’s form as the vehicle for her Sappho’s pas-sion, Robinson implies an affinity between Petrarch’s passions and Sappho’s, as well as a contrast between the sexualization of their respective literary reputations. Sappho is destroyed by her passion for Phaon, a passion that ironically codifies the portrayal of Sappho as monstrously oversexed, whereas Petrarch is sanctified by his passion for Laura, a passion that ultimately transcends carnality and justifies his fame. Just as she feminizes Petrarch through poetic form in her earlier “Petrarch to Laura,” in Sappho and Phaon, she masculinizes Sappho by strictly employing the legitimate or Petrarchan sonnet. When she ventriloquizes Sappho, therefore, Robinson mediates that poet’s voice through Petrarchan form but also, here again, through the Ovidian Heroides and Pope’s language. So, Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon employs Petrarch and Ovid in almost diametrically oppo- site ways from her “Petrarch to Laura”: in the earlier poem, she uses Ovidian intertextuality to feminize the masculine Petrarch; in the later sequence, she uses Ovidian intertextuality to masculinize her perspective on the feminine Sappho.
Robinson, thus, reanimates the archetypical poetess via her own adoption of a masculine poetic form. Her interest in doing so is evident in an earlier “Sonnet to Lesbia,” which appeared three years before in the Oracle on 5 October 1793. Importantly, signed “Sappho,” this is Robinson’s first published legitimate sonnet; that is, the first of her sonnets to have a strictly Petrarchan octave. Not part of a sequence, this sonnet stands by itself as an adaptation of Sappho’s famous ode praised by Longinus, translated in the eighteenth century by Ambrose Philips and beginning, in that translation, “Blest as th’ immortal Gods is he.”18 As we shall see, the blatant homoeroticism of Sappho’s ode—the young man is “blest” because he gets to enjoy the erotic propinquity of a young woman whom Sappho’s speaker also desires— troubled eighteenth-century readers more than it did Longinus. In “Sonnet to Lesbia,” the poet writes as Sappho but with a contrary purpose, eliding the homoerotic and adapting Sappho’s opening line to read “FALSE is the YOUTH, who dares by THEE recline” (1: 214; 1). Whereas the original Sappho addresses a woman for whom she feels almost inexpressible desire, Robinson’s Sappho addresses a Lesbian girl (“Lesbia,” a name which later becomes a pseudonym) in order to warn her that this man, who turns out to be Phaon, also has seduced the speaker in the same manner she here observes. This single sonnet introduces one of the major themes of the sequence Sappho and Phaon: the debilitating influence of heteroerotic pas- sion on the creativity of the woman poet. Here, just as she urges, “fear him, LESBIA—fear him,” she admits her own hypocrisy and the futility of her poetic expression: “In vain for me the Muse unfolds her store, / Love’s radiant scenes are changed to scenes of Care” (5, 9–10). The poem concludes with the Sappho avatar fixed in the static hopelessness of despair, even as the poet Robinson completes her first legitimate sonnet. This is the germ for the more ambitious Sappho and Phaon. While claiming legitimacy through the sonnet, she subverts the masculinist erotic tradition of the sonnet by instead portraying a woman as a passionate sexual being rather than as an unattainable and passive ideal. The male object of desire becomes just that—an object, like so many of the women in Renaissance sonnets. But the intertextuality of the poem and the history it invokes is far more complicated than simply calling upon the Petrarchan muse.
While her preface praises and defends the historical Sappho, the sequence builds upon and develops an image of Sappho that the poem ultimately must renounce. Directly rejecting the “too glowing” and “genuine effusions” that Robinson attributes to the original Sappho, her “Sonnet Introductory” proposes a contrary aesthetic of measured eloquence and chastity that she performs in the legitimate sonnet:
FAVOUR’D by Heav’n are those, ordain’d to taste The bliss supreme that kindles fancy’s fire; Whose magic fingers sweep the muses’ lyre,
In varying cadence, eloquently chaste!
Well may the mind, with tuneful numbers grac’d, To Fame’s immortal attributes aspire,
Above the treach’rous spells of low desire,
That wound the sense, by vulgar joys debas’d. (1: 329; 1–8)
In praising the craft of the poet, Robinson emphasizes the literal performance of poetic composition, the fixing into form the “bliss supreme that kindles fancy’s fire”—that is, poetic inspiration—that requires mastery of the instrument, the lyre, the metonym of lyric poetry. Although she employs the familiar trope of the poetic muse, the “magic figures” are manifestly figurative, for Robinson’s diction stresses the techniques involved in writing poetry the construction of varied cadences, the “chaste” and artful selection of poetic lan- guage, and the ability to express words and ideas in metrical form, or “tuneful numbers.” The thoughts of the mind itself are thus mea- sured, ordered, and rational as they are articulated in verse by the skillful poet, a process not unlike Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” and his poetics of restraint and regulation through meter. Having achieved this mastery, the poet is justified in seek- ing the “wreath of fame,” but only if he or she is able to transcend sexual passion—“the treach’rous spells of low desire” and its “vulgar joys,” which “wound” and “debase” “the sense,” or reason. Formally, Robinson demonstrates her mastery of the legitimate sonnet by con- structing a perfectly Petrarchan octave in which to introduce the first part of the series’ theme: worthy poets maintain control of their pas- sions just as they do of their forms, and so through formal discipline, they earn fame.
Turning here at the volta, Robinson explains the second part of the theme so that the “introductory” sonnet demonstrates the unity and formal propriety that she associates with emotional continence. Moreover, the poem concludes according to the criteria for the legiti- mate sonnet, adhering to the rhyme scheme so difficult to manage in English, with only four rhymes in a total of fourteen lines. As the octave asserts the gifts bestowed by the Muse on the poet, the sestet attests to the benefit the poet’s talent apportions to the rest of generic humankind:
For thou, blest POESY! with godlike pow’rs To calm the miseries of man, wert giv’n;
When passion rends, and hopeless love devours, By mem’ry goaded, and by frenzy driv’n,
’Tis thine to guide him ‘midst Elysian bow’rs,
And show his fainting soul,—a glimpse of Heav’n. (9–14)
But the course of the sequence rarely leads Robinson’s Sappho to such divine visions, calming the lover’s burning passion; in fact, most of the sonnets depict rending passion and devouring hopelessness, culmi- nating finally in suicide. The imputation as the sequence progresses is that “blest Poesy” has failed to provide solace for Robinson’s Sappho. Because this figure is allegorical, the failure ultimately is Sappho’s. Robinson positions herself as a poet-narrator who is far above the earth-bound passions of her degenerating subject.
Love in Sappho and Phaon is a terminal but preventable disease. Sappho’s mistake is allowing herself to become so dependent on a man’s love that she has lost both her reason as well as her poetical powers, and the discipline and temperateness necessary for literary art. Erotic love is the subject of lyric poetry, but it must not over- whelm the reason and discipline required to produce the art. As the opening sonnet asserts, lyric prowess consists in the subordination of passion to poetical reasoning. By framing the sequence with an appar- ently androgynous poet-narrator—androgynous in the sense that the authorial figure of Mrs. Robinson merges with those of Ovid, Pope, and Petrarch—who interpolates commentary as well, Robinson adheres to a fictional frame whereby the sonnets contained therein are not supposed to be productions from the pen of Sappho, but the sonnets that the poet-character Sappho would have written had she not lost the use of her poetic faculties.
More devastating than unrequited love itself is its effect on the woman poet who remains creatively debilitated, in contrast to the male sonneteers of the Petrarchan tradition who draw inspiration, poetic power, and fame from their courtly amours. Robinson, as a kind of meta-poet, remains in formal control of the lyric voice. In this way, Robinson also engages her Ovidian source as translated by Pope. The epigraph to Sappho and Phaon—“Love taught my tears in sadder notes to flow, / And tun’d my heart to elegies of woe”— comes from the opening of Pope’s “Sapho to Phaon,” which, as in the original Latin text, is about the poet-character’s formal choice. The epistle opens with Sappho suspecting that Phaon will not recognize her handwriting and thus her authorship of the document, especially since it is in heroic couplets, or, in Latin, elegiac couplets (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines), instead of her characteristic lyric form, her eponymous Sapphic meter:
SAY, lovely youth, that dost my heart command, Can Phaon’s eyes forget his Sapho’s hand?
Must then her name the wretched writer prove, To thy remembrance lost, as to thy love?
Ask not the cause that I new numbers chuse, The Lute neglected, and the Lyric muse; Love taught my tears in sadder notes to flow, And tun’d my heart to elegies of woe. (1–8)
The Ovidian Sappho acknowledges that Phaon is accustomed to receiv- ing love lyrics not epistolary poetry, the meter of which Ovid himself innovated for the Amores as an erotic alternative to the heroic meter (pairs of hexameters) of epic poetry. Writing in English, Pope converts Ovid’s elegiac couplets to rhyming ones. The point is that Ovid’s Sappho chooses a new meter, “new numbers,” for her epistle. None of Ovid’s canonical Heroides acknowledge that they are verse compositions, but none of them are supposedly the compositions of famous writers; so the author of this one, Ovid or an imitator, opens with an acknowledg- ment of the formal choice that the poet-character Sappho presumably has made. Indeed, the Ovidian source stresses that Sappho chooses the elegiac measure characteristic of Ovid specifically because her pas- sion for Phaon has crippled her ability to write lyric poetry: Robinson uses Pope’s translation as her epigraph for the entire sequence, “Love taught my tears in sadder notes to flow, / And tun’d my heart to ele- gies of woe” (7–8). But this is ironic because the Ovidian source makes a clear distinction between elegiac measure and lyric form. Sappho writes, “Ask not the cause that I new numbers chuse” because Phaon knows full well the effect his rejection has had on her. Sappho’s choice becomes a rhetorical appeal that demonstrates her debility, the degen- eration of her lyric voice, previously articulated through lyric forms— one of which, the Sapphic quatrain, bears her name.
Importantly, Robinson restores the lyric form by adapting the Ovidian epistle to the Petrarchan sonnet. But the narrative frame mediates the lyric voice of the poet-character by figuratively present- ing each sonnet as the production of the poet-narrator, even when the voice is supposedly Sappho’s. McGann makes an important point that the alteration in the title from “Sappho to Phaon” to Sappho and Phaon puts Sappho “in a larger context of understanding”—in symmetrical balance with her lover, Phaon (108). However, I contend that Phaon remains in Robinson’s adaptation as much a cipher as he is in Pope’s translation—perhaps even more so. The Petrarchan tradition requires a subjective-objective binary that Robinson clearly maintains. In this way, Robinson also asserts her performative authority as the poet-maker and Petrarchan ventriloquist of Sapphic passion. Before Sappho, the poet- character, speaks in the poem in Sonnet IV, the poet-narrator provides the introductory sonnet plus a curious pair of poems, Sonnets II and III, that offer competing allegories of poetics. The first one describes the Temple of Chastity, an immaculate classical structure dedicated to the repudiation of sexual passion; here, “Pale vestals kneel the Goddess to adore, / While Love, his arrows broke, retires forlorn” (1: 329; 13–4). These vestals have transcended earthly passion, difficult as that progress has been. The “steps of spotless marble” that lead to the altar are covered with “deathless roses, arm’d with many a thorn” and the “frozen floor” is “Studded with tear-drops petrified by scorn” (9–12). The vestals—not necessarily virgins—have chosen this path and thus have defeated Cupid who “retires forlorn.” In Sonnet III, in contrast to the Temple of Chastity, Robinson, alluding perhaps to Spenser, pres- ents the Bower of Pleasure, where “sportive Fawns,” or fauns, sug- gesting, of course, satyrs, and “dimpled Loves,” or Cupids, indulge in sensual pleasures. Here “witching beauty greets the ravish’d sight” and is “More gentle than the arbitress of night,” or the moon, a sym- bol of chastity. This sonnet concludes with a comparison between the two locations: “HERE, laughing Cupids bathe the bosom’s wound; / THERE, tyrant passion finds a glorious tomb!” (1: 330; 13–4). The poem at this point might appear to be ambivalent, but the comparison suggests that the Bower of Pleasure only provides a restoration destined to be undone, while the Temple of Chastity memorializes the triumph over the “tyrant passion”; only in this sense is the tomb “glorious.” This is how Robinson chooses to preface the introduction of the poet- character Sappho—by presenting her with an explicit choice and then, given the outcome, making an implicit judgment of that choice.
This is why Sappho has lost her lyric voice. She first speaks in a series of rhetorical questions that make evident the poet-character’s choice between chastity and pleasure. When she gazes on Phaon’s “beauteous eyes,” Sappho asks, “Why does each thought in wild dis- order stray? / Why does each fainting faculty decay, / And my chill’d breast in throbbing tumults rise?” (1: 330; 2–4). Robinson echoes the original “Sappho’s Ode,” as it was called, in which the female speaker confesses the confusion engendered by sexual desire in simi- lar language to that with which Robinson introduces her Sappho. As Longinus’s first-century treatise On the Sublime is the only source for this, Sappho’s most famous poem, Robinson chooses to pres- ent Sappho’s expression through a complex network of masculine agents—Longinus, Philips, Ovid, Pope—that culminates Robinson’s own mediation of that voice in the Petrarchan sonnet sequence. Robinson thereby ensures that Sappho cannot speak directly or sing in her own lyric voice: “Mute, on the ground my Lyre neglected lies, / The Muse forgot, and lost the melting lay” (5–6). Sappho and Phaon is clearly dialogic, but it is also a dialogue of sorts between the poet-narrator and the poet-character. In Sonnet V, the poet-narrator responds to Sappho’s predicament with her own choice between chastity and pleasure, which, as she makes clear, is a choice between reason and love: “O! How can LOVE exulting Reason quell!” (1: 330; 1). This is not a question but an exclamatory comment on the preceding sonnet, for Sonnet IV, in Sappho’s voice, clearly shows how Love exults in its triumph over Reason. Love, the poet-narrator asserts, is degenerative: “How fades each nobler passion from his gaze!” (2). Sappho, in succumbing to erotic love, has thwarted her potential, for one of these “nobler passions” is “Fame, that cherishes the Poet’s lays, / That fame, ill-fated Sappho lov’d so well” (3–4).
Like Gertrude, the heroine of her novel The False Friend, Sappho is “the victim of sensibility”—that novel’s final and fatal words (6: 228, 408). Sappho and Phaon does not finally validate Sappho’s excessive sensibility, nor does it corroborate the portrayal of Petrarch as an icon of Sensibility, in contrast to what Robinson does with the fig- ure of Petrarch in “Petrarch to Laura.” The dangers of sensibility are a consistent theme in Robinson’s later work. Indeed, Robinson’s subsequent novels—Walsingham, The False Friend, and The Natural Daughter—all develop around the dangers of “excessive sensibility,” a phrase she frequently employs. Her male protagonist Walsingham, for instance, blames his misfortunes on “the miseries of sensibility” (5: 7). But, like Jane Austen, Robinson understood well that sensibil- ity posed particular dangers to women: as Gertrude writes in a letter to a friend, “We are the victims of our own sensibility”; and echo- ing the exultation of Love over Reason in Sappho and Phaon, this character also exclaims, “Oh, sensibility! thou curse to woman! thou bane of all our hopes, thou source of exultation to our tyrant man!” (6: 225, 327). Robinson, moreover, considered herself in this light; as she writes in the Memoirs, “every event of my life has more or less been marked by the progressive evils of a too acute sensibility” (7: 196). According to Robinson’s recounting of the narrative, Sappho suffers a similar fate, but Robinson’s deployment of the poet-narrator reclaims the female subjectivity from the degenerative impulse of “too acute sensibility.”
Still, this is not, strictly speaking, tragedy. As a sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon recovers the playfulness of English Renaissance poets’ engagements with Petrarch’s tradition, with a similar spirit of irony and touches of (self-)parody. The brilliance of Robinson’s sequence is that she consistently demonstrates her ability to perform a multivalent poetics that is both lascivious and disapproving, while also dexterously avoiding the implication of herself in Sappho’s fate. In other words, Robinson knows that paeans to chastity and rea- son do not make for successful sonnets, regardless of the potential risks. Erotic tension is finally fundamental to the Petrarchan tra- dition. Sappho and Phaon is practically a psychomachia of internal conflict between reason and passion, but it is also the sexiest poem Robinson ever wrote because the psychosexual always predominates. The sequence manages nonetheless to maintain an ironic or fre- quently ambiguous detachment from its subject, even as it variously disapproves of or sympathizes with Sappho’s dilemma. Even when Robinson voices Sappho, she distances herself from the poet-character.
For example, Sonnet VI, presumably in Sappho’s voice, asks if love really is nothing more than sexual obsession:
IS it to love, to fix the tender gaze,
To hide the timid blush, and steal away; To shun the busy world, and waste the day
In some rude mountain’s solitary maze? Is it to chant one name in ceaseless lays,
To hear no words that other tongues can say, To watch the pale moon’s melancholy ray,
To chide in fondness, and in folly praise? Is it to pour th’ involuntary sigh,
To dream of bliss, and wake new pangs to prove; To talk, in fancy, with the speaking eye,
Then start with jealousy, and wildly rove; Is it to loathe the light, and wish to die?
For these I feel,—and feel that they are Love. (1: 330–1)
Playfully and knowingly dealing in Petrarchan contraries, this sonnet possesses an articulation of the lover’s quandary as ironic yet sympa- thetic any of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnets. Robinson’s sonnet implicitly admits that the experience the poet-character describes is contrary to any reasonable or ethical definition of love, but concludes nonetheless that the lover’s feelings subjectively validate it. Lovers do feel this way, while their observers recognize the dangers of defining love in such solipsistic terms. The next sonnet, Sonnet VII, responds immediately with an almost comic reversal in its opening line:
COME, Reason, come! each nerve rebellious bind, Lull the fierce tempest of my fev’rish soul; Come, with the magic of thy meek controul,
And check the wayward wand’rings of my mind (1: 331; 1–4)
General TARLETON has been very much surprised at the title of legiti- mate Sonnets given by the Modern Sappho to her new poetical rhap- sodies. The General aptly observed, that he never knew her to favour her friends or the Public with any productions of that nature before. (24 July 1798)
Such a comment, which is not really about her poetry, reveals the continued difficulty she had with decoupling her poetic self from her former infamy.
Poetic forms have semantic resonances that make statements inde- pendent of a poem’s vocabulary. Recognizing Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” as a homostrophic ode consisting of five terza rima sonnets—and thus a nonce form—carries a wealth of significance in its formal allusions to Horace, Dante, and Petrarch. Robinson’s poetry works in similar ways. She understood that her practice in Sappho and Phaon was greatly informed by the simple love lyric asso- ciated with Sappho and endlessly replicated in newspaper columns; by the heroic epistle innovated by Ovid and revived by Pope in Eloisa to Abelard; and by the sonnet devised by Petrarch, sanctified by Milton, and popularized by Charlotte Smith’s “illegitimate” varia- tions. She understood, moreover, that Pope’s heroic epistle was imi- tated ad nauseam throughout the eighteenth century. Her “Petrarch to Laura” probably was inspired by a popular anonymous volume of modern takes on the Ovidian form that included similarly cross- dressed epistles—Abelard to Eloisa, Leonora to Tasso, Ovid to Julia, Spring, and Other Poems (1788). This book, moreover, was dedicated to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Robinson’s occasional patron. But Robinson’s use of the heroic epistle for “Petrarch to Laura” and her adaptation of Pope’s translation of Ovid for her sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon is also informed by the fact that the Perdita scan- dal had been poetically reified in a burlesque of the Heroides called Poetical Epistle from Florizel to Perdita: with Perdita’s Answer (1785), which imitates the epistles exchanged between Paris and Helen in Ovid’s collection. She appropriated the form for her own purposes.
So, even when Robinson’s imagery or diction appears faulty or defi-cient, the form of any given poem is likely hugely significant. Sappho and Phaon is the best example of this and is her definitive accomplish- ment in the sonnet. She wrote only a handful of sonnets after this sequence, including a political sonnet signed “T. B.” (Tabitha Bramble) (1: 361) and a “Burlesque Sonnet” parodying Della Crusca, who appears as Mr. Doleful (who is not “merry”) in her novel Walsingham (5: 203). These engage traditions other than the strictly Petrarchan one. In the final year of her life, while working for Daniel Stuart at the Morning Post, Robinson returned to the regular composition of lyric poems because she was obligated to provide at least two poems a week; as chief poetry correspondent, she drew upon her facility with lyric forms, which Stuart could easily accommodate in the columns of the newspaper. Several of these are light lyrics and Anacreontics on disappointed love that Robinson signed “Sappho.” One of these, “Sappho, to Phaon,” revisits the subject of her sonnet sequence but in tetrameters reminiscent of Della Crusca’s poetry (2: 56–7). Although many of these later Sappho poems, such as “Sappho—To Night” (2: 50–1), “A Lover’s Vow” (68–9), “A Cure for Love” (80–1), “Sappho, to the Aspin Tree” (85–6), are in unique fixed lyric forms, Robinson never again associates Sappho with the sonnet, legitimate or other- wise. She did revive her Laura avatar directly to engage Petrarch and to echo the theme of Sappho and Phaon—the destructive nature of erotic passion. In “Sonnet. Laura to Petrarch,” which is appropri- ately a legitimate one, Laura urges Petrarch to “check thy wand’rings, weary and forlorn, / And find, in FRIENDSHIP’S balm, SICK PASSION’S CURE” (2: 73; 13–4). After Sappho and Phaon, however, this son- net is superfluous; Robinson likely wrote it to fulfill her two-poems- per-week commitment. Fortunately, Robinson also understood that a series of sonnets, however legitimate, advocating “friendship’s balm” would be insipid. But this sonnet serves as a reminder that the poet Mrs. Robinson, at least in her mind, had mastered both Petrarch and Sappho.
C h a p t e r 4
Stua rt’s L aure ates I: Poets and Politics Perplext
The tension between love and reason explored in Sappho and Phaon had already been dramatized by Robinson the previous year as an alle- gorical dialogue in a poem that first appeared on 12 February 1795 in the Tory newspaper the True Briton, edited by Robinson’s friend John Taylor. In this earlier poem, Love boasts of his power to subvert Reason’s “pedant rules,” and to delude and subjugate the emotions of mere mortals. Love’s power is factitiously carnivalesque: he is able to “make the wisest fools” and “to Idiots lend a gleam of wit” (4, 7); he makes “Deformity appear / More beauteous than the day!” (9–10). Reason admits of this truth but, just as capricious, retorts that Love succeeds only “where I refuse my aid” (19). In the end, though, Reason wins. While the poem is not explicitly political, in its context within the pages of the True Briton it reads as fundamentally conser- vative. Its promotion of maturity and sober wisdom accords with the paper’s stance against reform and revolution. In February of 1795, just months after Pitt’s suspension of habeas corpus, the execution of Robespierre and the triumph of anti-Revolutionary sentiment, and the acquittals of Hardy, Tooke, and Thelwall for treason, Robinson’s assertion of reason over delusive passionate enthusiasm is a particularly safe position to maintain. On its own, the poem is obviously a precur- sor to her later critiques of excessive sensibility, such as that made by Sappho and Phaon as noted in the previous chapter. Robinson later would reprint this poem in her novel The Natural Daughter as the composition of her heroine, Martha Morley, who, Robinson writes, is “not one of those romantic females who are led from the paths of rationality by the phantoms of vanity and caprice” (7: 27). Martha is, therefore, another countermodel to the overheated Sappho. And cer- tainly Robinson’s repurposing of the poem from the True Briton in this novel, a tale replete with radical political inflections, is also a rec- lamation of her work from a paper whose politics Robinson would no longer be able to countenance. The fate of Robinson’s friendship with Taylor is unknown after 1794, but this telling lacuna suggests that it may have at least cooled.1 Hester Davenport’s edition of Robinson’s few surviving letters gives the impression that the radical Godwin replaced Taylor as a correspondent and as her literary confidante, although Robinson portrays Taylor favorably as the benevolent (and apolitical) Mr. Optic in Walsingham. But the shift in network makes sense, given what Taylor’s paper would come to represent.2 Before the end of the year, in November of 1795, the True Briton sounded the call for reactionary legislative measures, such as the suppression of political gatherings, the imposition of harsher penalties for sedi- tion, and the strengthening of laws regarding treason. By the end of the year, the notorious “Two Bills” proposed by Lord Grenville and Pitt (but opposed by Fox) were passed by Parliament. As John Barrell points out, these laws—the Seditious Meetings Bill and the Treasonable Practices Bill, also called the “Gagging Acts”—had been advocated for by the True Briton, and earned “the full-hearted support of the king” (Imagining 571). These bills were infamously repressive measures that laid the cornerstones for what has come to be known as Pitt’s Terror.
Around the time her “Love and Reason” poem appeared in the True Briton, Robinson privately had begun to distance herself from Treasury-supported newspapers. For two months in 1795, we find Robinson again playing on both sides of the political fence. The afore- mentioned poem appeared in February signed “Mrs. Robinson”; how- ever, during the preceding month, Robinson had published a series of four poems under a new pseudonym, “Portia,” in the Morning Post, the paper that declared itself the most intractable enemy of the government-subsidized publications—chief among them the True Briton. Prior to this, no poem of hers had made its first appearance in an opposition newspaper. With the publication of this series of poems, Robinson uses a pseudonym she had not used previously in order to launch a shift in her political allegiances. The “Portia” signa- ture is short-lived and therefore does not become a full-fledged avatar; Robinson does own up to it by reprinting two of the four poems from this series, the sonnets “To Liberty” and “To Philanthropy,” in her novel Angelina the following year. In addition to the drastic changes in her political views, Robinson saw an opportunity to ally herself with a new network. This new network shows Robinson committing to a more radical or at least oppositional political stance and interact- ing professionally, personally, and poetically with a younger set of writers, including Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Such connections would prove crucial to Robinson’s career as it moved into a new phase and eventually drew to a close; they show her poetry involved in a new intertextual network that pertains directly to the rise of Romantic poetry.
Robinson’s five years with Stuart mirror her earlier years as Bell’s laureate at the Oracle, particularly in the political and professional networking evident during both periods. Stuart is not the mysterious figure Bell is, however, so many more facets of Robinson’s business relationship with Stuart are discernible. In July of 1795, at the age of 28, Daniel Stuart bought the Morning Post and officially took over the management of it as editor and proprietor. Prior to this, despite his youth, he had worked intermittently with the Morning Post as its printer and as a writer and, briefly in 1788–9, as editor. Werkmeister surmises that Stuart later edited the paper for two years during Lord Lauderdale’s lease of the property before Stuart purchased it in 1795; for, beginning on 9 July 1793, certain aspects of the paper nota- bly changed, and it began promoting Lauderdale’s interests, which included peace with France and reform of Parliament—interests Stuart certainly shared (Newspaper 334–9). Stuart was an ardent reformer, serving as deputy secretary for the Society of the Friends of the People under his brother-in-law James Mackintosh. Stuart also was an enthusiastic supporter of Paine (Hindle 68). Supporting Werkmeister’s conjecture, in 22 July 1793, an editorial in the Morning Post jabbed at “the unthinking Government Prints” and asserted the independence of its principles: “The Public are alone our Patrons. – We seek no favours from the Treasury Our own honest and inde- pendent exertions we consider as the best claims to public favour.”
Under Stuart’s guidance, the Morning Post would go on to fiercely oppose Pitt’s ministry, even defiantly adding “Taxed by Mr. Pitt” to the flag of the paper, just beneath the price. In the final issue of the Anti-Jacobin, which was established to counter the opposi- tion papers, George Canning’s poem “The New Morality” associated Stuart’s Morning Post with sedition and blasphemy, and attacked in particular his stable of poets, Coleridge, Southey, Charles Lloyd, and Charles Lamb (328–37; 9 July 1798). Unlike the Anti-Jacobin, which lasted less than a year, Stuart’s Morning Post became hugely success- ful. Stuart noted years later that the paper’s circulation was as low as 350 copies per day when he purchased it; four years later, Stuart was selling “upwards of 2,000” papers a day (“Newspaper” 579). By the time Stuart sold it in 1803 for many times the amount he paid for it, the Morning Post had helped launch not only Southey’s and Coleridge’s careers but Wordsworth’s as well.
The Morning Post printed more poems by Robinson than did any other paper. Most of these appeared after August of 1799, when she replaced Southey as the paper’s chief poetry contributor, until November of 1800, when she became fatally ill. During those final fifteen months, Robinson revived her most prominent avatars; and, like Southey before her, Robinson produced or otherwise procured approximately two poems a week for Stuart—a rigorous program for any poet. She began in January of 1795 with Portia, an avatar that vanished after only a month.
In 1736, Anne Ingram, Viscountess Howard anonymously pub- lished a poetic riposte to Alexander Pope’s misogynistic “On the Characters of Women.” Understandably mistaking Ingram for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Robinson admired the poem and quoted it at length in her 1799 Letter to the Women of England (8: 148–9). Although her “Portia” pseudonym certainly plays on both charac- ters by that name in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice, Ingram’s acclamation of the historical Portia, wife of Brutus, captures most precisely the significance of the name for the series of four poems that constitute Robinson’s first contributions to the Morning Post. Robinson’s quotation of Ingram’s poem concludes:
PORTIA, the glory of the female race; PORTIA, more lovely in her mind than face; Early inform’d by Truth’s unerring beam, What to reject, what justly to esteem.
Taught by Philosophy, all moral good;
How to repel, in youth, th’ impetuous blood:
How ev’ry darling passion to subdue;
And Fame, through Reason’s avenues, pursue. Of Cato born; to noble Brutus join’d;
Supreme in beauty, with a ROMAN MIND! (8: 149)
These are the virtues that, as we have seen, Robinson’s Sappho rejects at her peril but that Robinson’s sonnet sequence ultimately espouses. The rational Portia is a counterpoint to the hysterical Sappho.
Certainly, Robinson’s references in the Letter point to a wide knowl- edge of historical women. The pseudonym “Portia,” of course, also acknowledges the theatrical history of the character, most particu- larly Sarah Siddons’ famous portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice during the late 1780s. This Portia is one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent heroines and delivers the “quality of mercy” speech in her judgment of Shylock. Unlike readers and audiences today, Robinson likely was not troubled by the character’s anti-Semitism. Eighteenth- century audiences saw Portia as a figure associated with justice and intelligence, who uses language to outwit Shylock and to save Antonio from having to render the pound of flesh. Moreover, Portia is a “breeches” role, for she disguises herself as a lawyer. Although Robinson herself never played the character when she was an actress, the persona resonates with her theatrical past. So, like most of her avatars, it points obliquely at herself.
As she had done with Laura Maria for the Oracle, Robinson used the “Portia” signature exclusively for the Morning Post. To match the significations of the pseudonym and the political positions of the paper, she designed the persona as a politically liberal, intellectually rigorous, and superlatively feminine voice of reason and humanitar- ian concern. It is her most exclusively political avatar. And she clearly intended Portia to have longevity, albeit unrealized. Her first Portia poem is her sonnet “To Liberty,” identified in the Morning Post as “SONNET I” (10 January 1795); the sonnet “To Philanthropy” is “SONNET II” (23 January 1795); this indicates they are part of a series of sonnets that Robinson apparently abandoned—perhaps when she decided to write Sappho and Phaon. These are formally “illegiti- mate” sonnets, but they are fiercely incisive. After a year in which Pitt’s suspension of habeas corpus allowed authorities to keep reform- ers and radicals in prison without indicting them, and just weeks after the conclusion of the treason trials, a sonnet in the Morning Post praising Liberty as “Transcendent and sublime!” and as the “inmate” of Truth is a bold but necessary statement for those who opposed such repressive measures. It also impugns the authority of Pitt’s gov- ernment in its tyranny at home and its conduct of the war abroad:
’Tis thine, where sanguinary Demons low’r Amidst the thick’ning host to force thy way;
To quell the minions of oppressive pow’r,
And crush the vaunting NOTHINGS of a day! (1: 314; 9–12)
The poem concludes with an apocalyptic vision characteristic of the mid-1790s: “Still shall the human mind thy name adore! / ’Till Chaos reigns – and worlds shall be no more!” (13–4). The second sonnet, “To Philanthropy,” is similarly polemical but more radical; another allegorical apostrophe, this sonnet sets the principle of philanthropy against the social distinctions among humankind, which Portia calls a spurious “mummery of empty show.” In the spirit of philanthropy, she argues, all “seek the same inevitable goal”—equality—because we are each of us “Stung by distinctions, that from custom grow” (1: 316; 5–8). Five years later, Portia’s sonnet thus continues the refuta- tion of Burke’s Reflections. But it also addresses racism and the aboli- tion debate: Philanthropy knows that “The ETHIOP’S dusky brow, CIRCASSIA’S rose, / Are but the varying tints of breathing clay!” (10–1). Portia’s polemic is circuitous but powerful: The dichotomy between the black Africans and the Circassians, who were thought to be the original Caucasians and thus the epitome of white perfec- tion, also alludes to the fact that the Circassian region was subject to Russia’s imperial objectives. The invasion motif is powerfully reflex- ive, applied as it is to the subjugated whites but, in the context of the abolition debate, ultimately rerouted to remind the reader of exploited Ethiopians. Robinson’s figurative language employs a human synec- doche for the Ethiopian, but a nonhuman metaphor for the Circassian that only indirectly suggests whiteness. Moreover, adapting Gray’s oft-cited line “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Robinson employs it in the service of her point about racial and social equality: “Life’s gilded pageant, dazzling as it goes, / Stops at the sepulchre, and fades away, / To let the BEGGAR and the PRINCE repose!” (12–4). Such leveling is a consistent motif in Robinson’s Portia poems, but the contrast of race is peculiar to the sonnet “To Philanthropy.” The issue of race in this case thus also recalls Shakespeare’s Portia’s rejection of the African Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, whose first line in the play is “Mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1). When he fails to select the right casket and thus fails to win Portia’s hand in marriage, she dispenses with him, saying, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.79). While reading Portia’s blatant racism here in relation to her treatment of Shylock is perhaps anachronistic, the character’s obvious distaste for the idea of a black husband reverberates as an allusive counter- point in Robinson’s Portia’s humanitarian sonnet. Just a few months earlier William Wilberforce’s latest attempt to abolish the slave trade had failed in the House of Commons. Robinson was acutely aware of the issue because, in March of 1794, her lover, Tarleton, as MP for Liverpool, voiced his opposition to abolition on the grounds that it would devastate the local economy—as he had done in 1791 and 1792 (Oracle 8 March 1794). Moreover, Tarleton was suspected of having help from Robinson herself in the writing of his speeches, despite her own contrary views (Davenport 169).
The series of Portia poems are the most potentially controversial political poems Robinson had published up to this point. This avatar with all of its associations stands in stark contrast to Laura Maria at the Oracle, which had been previously her most prominent avatar. “St. James’s Street, on the Eighteenth of January, 1795” demon- strates further Robinson’s cultivation of an urban and urbane ava- tar for political commentary in a newspaper—her first attempt to do so following the end of the Della Cruscan network: this particular poem appeared in the Morning Post on the 21st of January—Queen Charlotte’s birthday—just a few days after the date on the poem. It is an explicit attack on the apathy of the privileged upper classes toward the poor. Playing on the persona of Portia, each of these poems has a direct political purpose and shows impressive rhetorical savvy. More so than her previous avatars, Robinson’s Portia demonstrates her understanding of the medium and its context, and of how a newspa- per poem with an explicit political or social message ought to eschew literary complexity, or what her critics occasionally called obscurity, in favor of easy wit seasoned with sentiment and indignation; such poetry ought to be consumable. In “St. James’s Street,” later titled “The Birth-Day” in her 1806 Poetical Works, Robinson, characteristi- cally clever, uses the specific urban setting—a fashionable thorough- fare from Piccadilly to Pall Mall and St. James’ Palace—to contrast the situations of the rich and the poor by creating the rhetorical illu- sion of a dual space:
HERE bounds the gaudy gilded chair, Deck’d out with fringe and tassels gay;
The melancholy mourner, THERE, Pursues her sad and painful way!
HERE, guarded by a pompous train, The pamper’d Countess glares along;
THERE, wrung by poverty and pain,
Pale Mis’ry mingles with the throng! (1: 314; 1–8)
And so the poem continues with the poet’s upbraiding of “HIGH NAMES, adorning little Souls” who “Contemn the pang they never know!” Robinson here anticipates by some sixty years the metaphor central to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, in which the two cities are not merely London and Paris, but the separate worlds of the rich and the poor coexisting in the same space. As Stephen C. Behrendt asserts, this poem demonstrates Robinson’s “deliberate attempts to destabilize the system by dramatizing for her readers the suffering of the excluded under an established system of callous privilege” (British 55). The poem closes with the familiar trope of death as the great equalizer, again from Gray’s Elegy:
“Take Physic Pomp!” let REASON say, “What can avail thy trappings rare?
The tomb shall close thy glitt’ring day!
The BEGGAR prove thy EQUAL, THERE!!” (1: 315; 41–4)
Robinson’s Portia here echoes Shakespeare’s Lear, who finds himself homeless and destitute on the heath. Just before he enters the hovel of Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise), Lear has an epiphany, addressing those who still enjoy the luxury he no longer does:
Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just. (3.4.33–6)
Although the poem alludes to Lear’s plea for humanitarian relief for the poor, we should not forget, however, how politically charged such a sentiment was for the 1790s, particularly as Britain waged war with revolutionary France: the poem’s ostensibly Christian conclusion con- notes as well the obliteration of class distinctions—what conservatives called “levelling,” a bogey used to combat Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and to frighten moderates with the fear that liberals and radicals meant to subvert the English constitution and undo the fabric of civi- lized society. One pamphlet, A Caution against the Levellers (1793), insisted that those seeking reform would “overturn the government, and put all property under confiscation, as they have done in France” (qtd. in Claeys 88). In this way, Robinson’s Portia poems recall William Hazlitt’s comment that Wordsworth’s “Muse... is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality, and strives to reduce all things to the same standard” (Lectures 253). But Portia’s charge is more confrontational than Lear’s, coming from a political voice in an opposition newspaper rather than from a desperate, dethroned, and elderly monarch mourning the loss of his own power and influence. Robinson understood that her readers, like media consumers today who have partisan tastes for particular news providers, were liable to engage only those ideas with which they already agreed, and she played to that impulse.
Robinson’s move to the Morning Post shows that she sought affilia- tion with a professional network with which her poetry would be more compatible or that she wrote poetry that was more compatible with the professional network with which she now worked. In either case, the poetry is different. As Adriana Craciun has pointed out, Portia’s “St. James’s Street” has an important relationship with Robinson’s previ- ously published “Ode for the 18th of January, 1794” (British 66–9). Both poems allude to the Queen’s birthday and criticize all such opu- lent royal festivities during a period of war and widespread poverty. The earlier poem, which Robinson published in the Oracle under her own name, draws attention to the plight of the poor and to the fruitless violence of war, admitting of the power of poetic “Fancy” to “descry / The woe which PLEASURE’S TRIBE ne’er saw!” (1: 299; 41–2). She imputes to herself the peculiar authority of the poet as seer and prophet, and concludes with a prayer for renewed prosperity at home and peace abroad. Although correct in its assessment of Robinson’s politics, Craciun’s reading overlooks the fact that the ode appeared in a ministerial paper, the Oracle, and that it was prefaced with a head- note that commends the poem for its homostrophic regularity—each 10-line stanza is ababccdd8e10e12—but denounces its political import as the product of a “venal Muse” (18 January 1794). Sarcastically dub- bing the poet as “a Daughter of Liberty,” the headnote is an apology for printing what it presents as a mercenary tirade against the monar- chy intended to capitalize on factious populist views. Indeed, the col- umn directly to the right of Robinson’s ode, also headed “The Queen’s Birthday,” takes the printing of this poem as an opportunity to con- demn such populist “torrents of obloquy” directed against “the con- ditions of SOVEREIGNS.” Denouncing such opinions as “ingratitude” and “folly” and their propagators as “malignant” and “enthusiastic,” the Oracle columnist praises the worth and benevolence of the British monarchy and even suggests that the “unhappy ANTOINETTE” would be alive if she had followed the example of “the true feminine policy of the BRITISH QUEEN” and “had kept herself aloof from all politi- cal intrigue,” which he notes is really the proper concern of the King. The column concludes with the hope that Queen Charlotte “may long continue to adorn the station to which her virtues and her serenity of temper give her so fair a claim,” adding that such a wish “must be the prayer of every sincere lover of the BRITISH CONSTITUTION!” “Ode for the 18th of January, 1794” would be one of the last poems Robinson published in the Oracle. The negative play given this earlier poem in the Oracle may account for Robinson’s decision to print the later Portia poems pseudonymously, but it also suggests the burgeoning conflict between Robinson’s political views and those held by the proprietors of the Treasury newspapers that printed her poetry.3
Worth noting is that the Portia poems also formally diverge from the pattern set by Laura Maria’s publications in the Oracle; the later poems in the Morning Post are all fixed forms, rather than the elabo- rate, baroque irregular odes that had distinguished the work of the earlier avatar. In addition to the two sonnets, for “St. James’s Street” Robinson uses a simple quatrain called long hymnal measure, consist- ing of iambic tetrameters rhyming abab. The fourth and final Portia poem, appearing on 29 January 1795 (and reprinted the following month in The Sporting Magazine), showcases an entirely new voice in Robinson’s poetry: “January, 1795” employs quatrains consisting of trochaic tetrameter couplets (which Shakespeare uses for the chanting of the witches in Macbeth and which Robinson uses again for “The Camp,” as we have seen in chapter one). But Anne Janowitz identi- fies a source for “January 1795” in John Bancks’ “A Description of London” from 1738 (87). The catalog of sights in Bancks’s poem is a burlesque eclogue that uncovers the seedier elements of the city and is itself an imitation of a similar poem about Paris by the French poet Scarron. Robinson adopts Bancks’s trochaic tetrameter couplets for a similarly comic effect to capture an image of the city during what Craciun describes as “the worst winter in living memory” (British 66). Unlike Bancks’s poem, however, Robinson’s is interested in antithesis for more directly satirical purposes: the bouncy meter, consistently end-stopped lines, and frequent medial caesuras lend themselves to the construction of binaries:
PAVEMENT slipp’ry; People sneezing; Lords in ermine, beggars freezing; Nobles, scarce the Wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers—fighting!—bleeding! (1: 316; 1–4)
The binary poetics, evident in her choice of couplets (iambic or trochaic), for Robinson’s most socially and politically aware poetry reflects an eighteenth-century formal lineage As J. Paul Hunter reminds us, the prevalence of eighteenth-century binaries epitomized by the use of couplets reflects not merely a overly simplified dualistic worldview but a desire to set oppositions against one another; as he writes of Pope’s Essay in Criticism, binaries and couplets serve “to merge categories and complicate the terms, showing how they over- lap, interrelate, and imperfectly represent a reality that is abundant and complex” (117). Robinson’s use of fixed forms for the Portia avatar, including the couplet and the quatrain, remind us that such formal choices are endemic to the program of so much eighteenth- century poetry and help us to recover “the cultural desire to instruct and modify not only individuals but the culture they are part of” (Hunter 129). The point of Robinson’s juxtapositions is fairly straightforward—a well-chosen, rhetorical move given the context of the newspaper and its audience, but their formal balance is also meant to be read as a function of Portia’s superlative reason and justice. Her dominant mode would be one of reasoned and balanced judgment. Curran asserts that “January, 1795” is a poem “pointedly without progress” and lacks “resolution” (“Mary Robinson” 13). True, it is a montage of images that do not lead to a determinate conclusion such as Bancks’s punchline with its implied assessment—“This is LONDON! How d’ye like it?” (338). But Robinson’s poem aggregates contrasts in order to perform a censure of the values of her society, and there is most certainly a cumulative effect as her irony becomes increasingly and palpably bitter and indignant: her litany of vices returns repeat- edly to the culture’s neglect of creative artists as it variously catalogs representations of adultery, injury, deception, greed, ambition, lux- ury, opulence, poverty, and belligerence. Finally it ends:
Honest men, who can’t get places; Knaves, who shew unblushing faces; Ruin hasten’d, Peace retarded!
Candour spurn’d, and Art rewarded! (1: 317; 41–4)
Abrupt as it may seem, the conclusion is a consummation of the accu- mulation not only of images but of sarcastic antitheses in this final indictment of 1790s decadence. While the poem may feature “disas- sembled signifiers,” as Curran puts it, Robinson’s Portia intones a overt didacticism that accords with the avatar and with the fixed form of the poem.
Mrs. Robinson’s Voice
After “January, 1795,” Robinson silenced Portia. For the next cou- ple of years, however, Robinson sought to augment her own voice by eschewing for the most part the use of avatars, during which time she concentrated on her most ambitious projects, including the novel Angelina, the blank verse tragedy The Sicilian Lover, the son- net sequence Sappho and Phaon, the novel Hubert de Sevrac, and her lengthy four-volume novel Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature, all of which appeared under her own name. During this time, from January of 1795 until December of 1797, Robinson published only a couple of original poems in periodicals, although poetic extracts from each of the works listed in the preceding appeared in newspapers and maga- zines. The one major exception is Robinson’s remarkable poem “The Storm,” which appeared in the Morning Post under her own name, “Mrs. Robinson,” on 3 February 1796. This poem is significant for a number of reasons: first of all, it is a forthright condemnation of her country’s participation in the slave trade. As Shelley A. J. Jones has shown, Robinson’s antislavery poem “The Storm” appeared in the Morning Post in the midst of its reports of Britain’s ill-fated invasion of French colonies in the Caribbean for the purpose of expanding its slaving interests, and of a storm that destroyed a number of ships in a fleet en route to the West Indies (42–5). Robinson’s poem is dated 1 February 1796, the day the paper reported that the surviving ships had been recovered. Robinson’s poem, however, does not celebrate the safe return of those ships and the sailors and soldiers. Instead, she imagines the foundering of one of those ships just off the coast from the perspective of a young woman, the “love-lorn NANCY” who watches the catastrophe from the shore, horrified by the imminent death of her lover, William, in the wreck (1: 318; 6). As she laments William’s death, Nancy also condemns the system that, as Jones points out, has made her lover, presumably a sailor or soldier, both “oppres- sor and oppressed” (45). She watches the terrified shipmates leap from the deck only to perish in the tumult, and the character Nancy speaks in a voice that echoes the rhetoric of Robinson’s indignant Portia:
“Oh! Cruel Pow’r! Oh! ruthless fate! Does HEAV’N’S high will decree,
That some should sleep on beds of State— Some in the roaring sea?
Some, nurs’d in lux’ry, deal Oppression’s Blow,
While humble MERIT pines in Poverty and Woe!” (19–24)
Although Nancy decries the dispensations of Providence, Robinson, in the manner of the Portia poems, directs her critique at artificial social structures reified by custom and prejudice. Implicit in this, of course, is the fact that the sailors and soldiers who here perish are also the victims of class inequities as well as the instruments of bigotry and oppression. She goes on to affirm that Nature herself recoils at the British enterprise, a wickedness unknown, she presumes, to those whom the white Europeans deem inferior:
“Could the proud Rulers of the Land The SABLE Race behold;
Some, bow’d by torture’s giant hand! And others, bought with gold!
Then wou’d they pity SLAVES, and cry with shame, Whate’er our Tints may be, our SOULS are still the same.
“Why seek to mock the ETHIOP’S face?
Why goad the hapless kind? Can Features alienate the race?
Is there no Kindred MIND?
Does not the cheek that vaunts the roseate hue, Oft blush for crimes that ETHIOP never knew!
“Behold the angry waves conspire To check the barb’rous toil!
While wounded NATURE’S vengeful ire, Roars round our trembling Isle!
Methinks her voice re-echoes in the wind,
MAN was not form’d by HEAV’N to trample on his kind.” (25–42)
Robinson’s character borrows the familiar social and even evangeli- cal rhetoric of the abolition cause and its liberal proponents to make a number of critical points. But she gives the poem a unique voice in the construction of her own original, or nonce, form: the stanzas of “The Storm” are homostrophic, each consisting of a six-line unit that begins as conventional hymnal measure but that adds a couplet con- sisting of a pentameter and hexameter: a4b3a4b3c5c6. After Nancy’s reproachful monologue, which continues in the same stanza estab- lished by the narrative frame, Robinson resumes the plot of the poem to show Nancy “madd’ning at the view” of her lover’s drowning and finally to depict her plunging herself “in A WATRY GRAVE!” (50, 60). The narrative lends additional pathos to the circumstance and adds some emotional heft to the polemic by directing the sympathy toward the two identified English victims, Nancy and William.
Dissatisfied with this aspect of the text’s affective agenda, Robinson revised the poem extensively for her final volume of verse, Lyrical Tales, the title of which reflects the influence of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Although Robinson’s “The Storm” appeared two years before Lyrical Ballads, the poem and its revision later as “The Negro
Girl” show Robinson experimenting with the relation of narrative within fixed and often peculiar poetic forms, a subject for further exploration in the next and final chapter of this study. In “The Negro Girl,” the white Nancy becomes the black Zelma, who watches from an African shore as her lover Draco perishes on board a sinking English slave ship. Robinson develops Zelma’s character and history, and heightens the polemical rhetoric, so that the revised version in its deliberately affec- tive narrative attempts to present a more trenchant abolitionist argu- ment.4 On the one hand, the revised version, literally re-presented in Lyrical Tales, may also refashion the original poem’s essentially liberal politics into an even more radical one. On the other hand, however, the Lyrical Tales version, removed from the immediate context in the news- paper, becomes a more sentimentalized humanitarian narrative similar to those written by Wordsworth and Southey. Robinson’s interest in the subjectivity of Zelma, “The Negro Girl,” resembles the way many of Wordsworth’s poems in Lyrical Ballads consider an epistemology, even an aesthetic, of alterity, such as, for example, “The Thorn,” “The Mad Mother,” or “The Complaint of the Forsaken Indian Woman.” In that sense, Lyrical Ballads appears to have influenced Robinson’s revi- sion. In 1796, however, “The Storm” is nonetheless still an innovative poem—particularly for Robinson. She had experimented previously with narrative in conventional ballads such as “Sir Raymond of the Castle” and “Lewin and Gynneth” from her 1791 Poems, and, in Della Cruscan tetrameter couplets, works such as in “Anselmo, the Hermit of the Alps” from her 1794 Poems. Here, just as she is starting to compose Sappho and Phaon, Robinson begins experimenting with innovating her own fixed, homostrophic nonce forms for narrative poetry. The trajectory that emerges here shows Robinson’s practice moving from the baroque irregular forms associated with Laura Maria, to the fixed and polemical forms of the Portia poems, to a new interest in using original forms of her own construction to combine narrative with the subjectivity and formal variety usually associated with lyric poetry. She may not have coined the phrase “lyrical ballad,” but she elaborated the concept of formal paradoxy that governs the juxtaposition of the lyric and the ballad as opposites—the former being the subjective expression of feelings and insights, and the latter being the objective representa- tion of characters and events.
Even though she had dropped the Portia avatar, Robinson’s “The Storm” shows that she continued to see the Morning Post under Stuart’s direction as the most viable forum for her most politically inflected poetry. After the ambivalence, opportunism, and political maneuvering evident in the Laura Maria poems for the Oracle, the rectitude of Robinson’s response to the extremities of “Pitt’s terror” demanded that she forego the use of pseudonyms and claim a stance of her own, particularly at this time, just weeks after the passage of Pitt’s Two Bills, and in this place—the Morning Post. On 25 January 1796, Stuart published in full a thorough denunciation by the Whig Club, with Fox chairing, of the Two Bills. Founded, as it claimed, on constitutional principles established by the so-called Glorious Revolution, this “Declaration” asserts that the Whig Club “cannot be unconcerned spectators of the destruction of the most important securities of Public Liberty which were provided in that glorious æra.” Appealing to the people, the document asserts that the “Constitution can, in our judgment, now only be restored by the exercise of that just authority which the National Opinion must ever posses over the proceedings of the Legislature.” Over the next few years, Stuart’s paper would continue to be a source of vexation to Pitt’s government. To cite one noteworthy example, Stuart took the occasion of a royal procession to St. Paul’s in celebration of and thanksgiving for the country’s military success to look askance at the government’s pros- ecution of the war, writing on 19 December 1797:
Mr. FOX, Mr. SHERIDAN, the Duke of BEDFORD, and other Members of Opposition, intend, we believe, to join in the ceremony at St. Paul’s this day. The naval victories obtained over our enemies are a subject for rejoicing to every Friend of the Independence of this Country; and those Gentlemen have convinced the world that they are the most sin- cere friends of that Independence. It is only to be regretted, that such victories should tend to keep in power men like our present Ministers.
The affair was a particularly hollow display given the fact that the Austrians had a few months earlier made peace with France, leaving Great Britain as the sole relict of the First Coalition. In the same issue, the paper delightedly reported in great detail the “DREADFUL OUTRAGE” perpetrated the day before when protesters hanged an effigy of “Billy Pitt,” with a sign that identified Pitt as “Robespierre’s brother.” In the adjacent column, Stuart printed a poem called “Verses on the 19th of December, 1797” and signed “Humanitas.” In stronger terms than Stuart’s pose of tempered patriotism permit- ted, this poem angrily derides the procession as not only vacuous, but also horrifically callous:
WHILE shouts and acclamations rend the skies, From the deep Ocean, bleeding, cold, and wan,
See groaning SPECTRES in a body rise,
To mourn the mis’ries of ambitious MAN!
O’er them the rude Sea dashes, mix’d with gore; The wild Winds howl in dreadful blasts along;
The sulphur show’rs, upon the high decks pour, And livid lightnings flash the wave among!
Here glare the PARENT, bleeding is his breast!
Here the lost HUSBAND falls, and, groaning, dies! Here the lov’d SONS, the mother’s darlings, rest,
While o’er their mangled limbs the billows rise!
Are these forgot? – Oh NATURE! yet a while, Shed the soft tear, and heave the tender sigh,
Suspend the shout of triumph! raptures smile! And raise, in sorrow raise, the tearful eye.
Let Reason, Truth, RELIGION’s pow’r divine! Call to the feeling and reflecting mind,
The many suff’rers who in anguish pine—
The SOLDIER’S, SAILOR’S kindred—left behind!
And while the long-drawn pompous Cavalcade Bids clam’rous exultation lift the head;
Let mild HUMANITY the triumph aid,
And PITY’S tear embalm the sainted DEAD!
Although nongendered, the signature suggests a voice not unlike Robinson’s Portia. The Latin word humanitas means kindness and is thus the root of humanitarian; it is also the term Cicero uses to express the ideal human being (Grant 23). As Craciun was the first to prove, this poem was indeed written by Robinson and was reprinted as “Lines Written on a Day of Public Rejoicing!” in her 1806 Poetical Works (British 79).5 Although she never again used the signature, the appearance of the poem by Robinson as Humanitas in December of 1797, shortly after the publication of Walsingham, places it among a group of poems that signal her return to newspaper verse and a new professional arrangement with Stuart at the Morning Post.
The Trouble with Tabitha Bramble
Robinson’s Humanitas poem coincides with the debut of her latest avatar—Tabitha Bramble, the most vexing of them all, which Robinson used exclusively for the Morning Post. As the name suggests, this ava- tar would seem to be an adaptation of the foolish, shrewish, hypocrit- ically pious, middle-aged woman who narrowly escapes spinsterhood from Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker (1771). Robinson’s Tabitha Bramble signature is best known in connection to a number of poems that appeared in the Morning Post during the final year of her life, after she became Stuart’s principal poetry contributor in December of 1799, when Southey resigned the position and left for Portugal. She collected several of these for her final volume, Lyrical Tales, includ- ing “Mistress Gurton’s Cat,” “Deborah’s Parrot,” and “The Granny Grey,” which Lisa Vargo has discussed in relation to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Other Lyrical Tales such as “Old Barnard. A Monkish Tale,” “The Confessor,” and “The Fortune Teller” also first appeared in the Morning Post with the Tabitha Bramble signature.6 In December of 1797, however, the Morning Post began printing an elusive series of poems that I call the first batch of Tabitha Bramble poems to distinguish them from the more famous ones collected in Lyrical Tales. Robinson’s first Tabitha Bramble poem, “Tabitha Bramble Visits the Metropolis by Command of her Departed Brother,” initiated a series of eight poems that appeared in the Morning Post during the winter of 1797–8. These poems had never reappeared in any collections of her work until 2009, when I included them in my edition of her complete poems. While I tend to agree with Judith Pascoe that the later Tabitha poems may just be “bits of comic business meant primarily, if not solely, to amuse” (181), the first batch of Tabitha poems are particularly interesting to me because they are among the most explicitly political poems she ever wrote. Some of them are downright vituperative. And they differ significantly from the Tabitha Bramble poems of 1800 and raise more questions than provide answers.
In September of 1797, having already made the Post profitable, Stuart purchased the Gazetteer and merged it with the Post to form the Morning Post and Gazetteer. In November, Stuart contracted both Robinson and Coleridge to write poetry for the newspaper and to give it more literary cachet (Erdman, “Lost Poem” 253); Robinson’s rela- tionship with Coleridge will be explored in greater depth in the next chapter of the present study. As we know from Stuart’s later account, in a series of letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine in the summer of 1838, and from Coleridge’s letters, Stuart’s brother-in-law, James Mackintosh, was the intermediary at first between Coleridge and Stuart, suggesting to each party that Coleridge contribute. Stuart recalls that he agreed and “settled him at a small salary” (485). Robinson, who had been only an occasional contributor to the paper, made a similar agreement with Stuart. Under the new arrangement, presumably similar to Coleridge’s, Robinson contributed the seven poems signed “Tabitha Bramble” that appeared from December 8, 1797 through February 19, 1798, none of which Robinson or anyone else ever republished until my 2009 edition. Erdman’s edition of Essays on His Times shows that Coleridge’s first poems for the paper appear during December, along with this first batch of Tabitha Bramble poems (3: 285–6). In fact, the first poem by Coleridge under this arrangement appears the day before Robinson’s first Tabitha Bramble poem. On 7 December 1797, Coleridge’s “Lines to an Unfortunate Woman, in the Back Seats of the Boxes at the Theatre” appeared with an avatar of his own: Albert, also the name of the protagonist of Coleridge’s drama Osorio, which he had recently completed. Significantly, at the start of December, Stuart also began aggressively promoting Robinson’s Walsingham, which he puffs as “one of the most entertaining [works] ever published,” and from which he reprints Robinson’s poems “Penelope’s Epitaph” and “Stanzas on Jealousy” (2 December 1797). Perhaps to flatter Robinson, perhaps to fill space, or perhaps to antagonize the Anti-Jacobin, Stuart fills his col- umns during three full months, through February 1798, with poems and prose passages extracted from Walsingham and a heavy amount of puffing. These run concomitantly with the “Tabitha Bramble” poems, over the same period of time.
Within a week of the start of Stuart’s Walsingham campaign, Robinson debuted her “Tabitha Bramble” pseudonym. In the Memoirs, the “friend” who continues the narrative of Robinson’s life (Maria Elizabeth Robinson or Pratt) writes that Robinson “com- menced a series of Satirical Odes, on local and temporary subjects, to which was affixed the signature of ‘Tabitha Bramble.’” The writer goes on to say that “these lighter compositions” were “considered by the author as unworthy of a place with her collected poems” (7: 286). But in this section of the Memoirs, the “friend” is writing specifically about the final year of Robinson’s life and confuses the “Tabitha,” “Tabitha Bramble,” “T. B.” poems Robinson wrote in 1800 with the earlier “Tabitha Bramble” odes that appeared in the winter of 1797–8 in the Morning Post; that is, the first batch. To me, these early poems must be the ones that the writer of the Memoirs refers to as “unwor- thy” because these, perhaps more than any of her other poems, seem hastily, even sloppily, composed and were probably written for imme- diate financial gain more than for any serious literary purpose. And these poems, not the Tabitha Bramble poems of 1800, are the ones that Maria Elizabeth excluded from the 1806 Poetical Works, so these poems were never claimed by Robinson or reprinted by her daughter. They are so unlike her other poems that I have considered the pos- sibility that she was not the author.
The signature of a fictional character prima facie cannot guar- antee the authority of any piece of writing. There is ample proof that newspaper pseudonyms were promiscuous. People other than Robinson wrote as “Oberon,” “Sappho,” and even “Laura.” As it turns out, the Tabitha Bramble pseudonym also was not exclusively hers. Craciun attributes to Robinson an angry letter to Robert Dundas, Lord Advocate of Scotland, regarding the conviction of the Scottish reformers William Skirving and Maurice Margarot (British 71–4). Davenport, however, editor of Robinson’s letters for the Pickering and Chatto edition, has confirmed the suspicions the other editors and I had about this letter: although signed “Tabitha Bramble,” the letter is not Robinson’s. Comparing the letter to Dundas against the other letters in Robinson’s handwriting, Davenport writes, “The writing is too upright, the words too close together, and the letters are not all formed in Robinson’s manner (for example the ‘y’ is written with a neat hook, and the ‘g’ with a distinct loop, which is not characteris- tic of her)” (295). Although Craciun’s general reading of Robinson’s increasing radicalism in 1794 is correct, the letter is not hers; if it were, it certainly would be “a daring political intervention” (Craciun 74), although I have always felt that the signature of Smollett’s comic character undermines the severity of the protest. The final image in the letter of Smollett’s overheated spinster as a British Corday is pure bathos. At the very least, the choice of Smollett’s character as the sig- nature for this letter was simply an allusion to the Brambles’ Scottish nationality and provincialism. By contrast, Robinson’s Tabitha Bramble poems actually have little to do with Smollett’s character.
While I cannot disprove Robinson’s authorship of the first batch, I do find them to be more like Peter Pindar’s poetry than like any of the poems Robinson would later write with the Tabitha Bramble signature. Robinson wrote them in deliberate imitation of Peter Pindar—as they frequently assert—but it is possible that Wolcot may have had a hand in writing them, perhaps in collaboration with Robinson. Because the Memoirs refer to them, however, I included the first batch in my edi- tion, and I assume that she wrote these poems in the spirit of mutual enthusiasm with which Robinson and Stuart entered into their new relationship. The following eight poems appeared over the course of three months:
“Tabitha Bramble Visits the Metropolis by Command of her Departed Brother” (8 December 1797)
“A Simple Tale” (13 December 1797)
“Tabitha Bramble, to her Cousins in Scotland” (25 December 1797)
“Ode Fourth. For New Year’s Day” (1 January 1798)
“A New Song, to an Old Tune” (12 January 1798) [T.B.]
“Sonnet [beginning “Say, Stern Oppression”]” (3 February 1798) [T.B.]
“Ode Fifth” (14 February 1798)
“A New Song” (19 February 1798) [T.B.]
Of these eight poems, the five odes in the series are signed “Tabitha Bramble”; the other three poems, the two songs and the sonnet, are signed “T.B.” This might warrant further investigation because the five odes seem more deliberately performative than the other three. Indeed, the sonnet signed “T.B.” is not satirical or even comic in the least. While Vargo argues that Robinson’s Tabitha deliberately “works in an opposite direction” from Smollett’s (38), I think anyone familiar with Smollett’s Humphry Clinker is likely going to be dis- appointed with—if not exasperated by—Robinson’s performances as Tabitha Bramble. The most puzzling thing about the Tabitha poems is how incongruous they seem in relation to Smollett’s original char- acter, who was popular and visually represented in new engravings for reprints of the book. For the most part, Robinson’s Tabitha poems are oblivious to the most superficial aspects of Smollett’s character- ization: these poems possess very little local color (other than perhaps their irregular meters that match Wolcot’s), no Scots dialect or Scots expressions, no malapropisms, no comical misspellings, and only occasional successes at wit. The epistolary nature of Smollett’s book provides such specific depictions of the character and her manner of expression. To take one example, in Smollett, Tabby writes to Mrs Gwyllim, the family’s housekeeper back in Scotland, “I wrote to doc- tor Lews for the same porpuss, but he never had the good manners to take the least notice of my letter; for which reason, I shall never favour him with another, though he beshits me on his bended knees” (175). Robinson, however, never convincingly performs Smollett’s character and one might wonder if she even read the book.
Like many of her poetic satires, these first Tabitha Bramble poems are grounded in London and in London society and politics; but unlike her other more urbane satires, these are situated from the perspective of the rustic outsider. The first one, “Tabitha Bramble Visits the Metropolis by Command of her Departed Brother” delib- erately invokes Smollett’s novel because Tabitha’s brother, as her readers would have known, is the cantankerous but lovably sensible Matthew Bramble; in the first stanza of the ode Tabitha, is in mourn- ing for him. But Matthew Bramble does not die in Humphry Clinker. Moreover, at the end of the novel, Tabitha marries the quixotic
Scottish Captain Lismahago (who has been scalped by the Miami Indians) and Matthew suspects that she does so “for no other rea- son but that she despaired of making a more agreeable conquest” (382). He nonetheless is relieved to report at the end that “captain Lismahago has taken Tabby off my hands” (389). Robinson’s Tabitha Bramble, however, is still single, and in one line she even refers to her “Virgin brows” (1: 346; 13). The first stanza of “Tabitha Bramble Visits the Metropolis” reads as follows:
From Mountains, barren, bleak, and bare, Where howls the boist’rous North!
Sunk in the sullen sadness of despair, A weeping sister wanders forth!
Not in light weeds Ephesian clad, But deeply and supremely sad!
Like pure Andromache, that matron old, (So out of fashion)
Or fair Lucretia! She who died, (As we are told)
Of Chastity the victim and the pride,
To punish Tarquin’s rude and guilty passion! (1: 346; 1–12)
Robinson’s Tabitha appears to be a somewhat softened and highly refined, and thus wholly inaccurate, version of Smollett’s character. This poem, by the way, is unique in featuring Robinson’s only refer- ence to Homer’s Iliad in any of her poems and, in the reference to Tarquin, her only rape joke. While the poem is not devoid of humor, the humor it possesses does not come from a recognizably Smollett- esque character, certainly not from this speaker here. Where the poem is satirical, its targets, moreover, are obscure. I might like to read the poem as a self-parody of Robinson’s own pretentiousness, which had emerged painfully enough in her 1793 satirical poem Modern Manners, with its cringe-inducing signature “Horace Juvenal.” At one point in the poem at hand, Robinson’s Tabitha sarcastically mocks literary critics as “the sapient cognoscenti of the age” (1: 347; 28). Again, not something Smollett’s Tabitha would say—unless the joke were meant to be on her.
We must accept that Robinson does mean to re-imagine the character. For these first Tabitha poems she wanted to create a female persona for satire similar to her friend Wolcot’s “Peter Pindar.” As it turns out, “Matthew Bramble” did die in 1790 in the person of Scottish poet Andrew Macdonald (c.1755–90); Macdonald had published occa- sional satirical pieces under the pseudonym “Matthew Bramble” in the Morning Post in December 1789 and January 1790 (and reportedly in other papers as well). So, when Stuart hired Robinson, the first thing she did was to take on the Bramble mantle from Macdonald, whom she likely had read in the Morning Post because of his series of Odes to Actors, which appeared just as she was getting started writing for The World and then for The Oracle. On the day before the first poem appeared, Stuart announced in the Post that “We have received the first number of a series of Odes, by Tabitha Bramble, a relation of the late Matthew Bramble, and a promise is made that the Morning Post shall be favoured with the remainder” (7 December 1797). Stuart unmis- takably here refers to Macdonald as the “late Matthew Bramble.” The Tabitha Bramble pseudonym, therefore, likely emerged as an inside joke among Stuart, Wolcot, and Robinson, and became an homage to Macdonald and to the paper’s heyday as an opposition broadsheet. Stuart later recalled that Macdonald worked for his brother Peter at the Star, but that the Post lured him away (25). If so, it may have been John Taylor, another close friend of Robinson and the Post’s editor at the time, who employed Macdonald. Lucyle Werkmeister, moreover, locates Daniel Stuart, Wolcot, and Macdonald working together at the Post in the second half of 1789, along with Stuart’s brother-in-law, James Mackintosh, who later engaged Coleridge on behalf of Stuart (322). And even though Macdonald died seven years prior to these poems, earlier in 1797, Wolcot had republished Macdonald’s poems as A Supplement to the Works of Peter Pindar. As we can see, then, Robinson here is not portraying the character from Smollett’s novel; instead, she is perform- ing as a female “Peter Pindar” or a female “Matthew Bramble”—that is, as a satirical writer explicitly employing a pen-name and not really a novelistic character at all.
Macdonald knew something about the theatre, having written several plays, including Vimonda, a Tragedy, which was staged in Edinburgh and Haymarket in 1787. The Odes to Actors continued over the course of several weeks, finally numbering twenty-two poems. When he died suddenly in 1790, notice of his death and obituaries appeared in vari- ous newspaper columns under the heading “Matthew Bramble.” John Murray, the elder, rushed a volume of collected works into print to assist Macdonald’s widow; the list of subscribers was published in the papers and included the Kemble and Siddons brothers. This is the book that Wolcot republished in 1797. In making a move simi- lar to Macdonald’s hearkening to Peter Pindar, Robinson as Tabitha Bramble appellates her peers in her new network and thus articulates her space within it.
Robinson’s first poem suggests that her target will be literary critics, bad poets, and dramatists, including Hannah More, a favor- ite target of Peter Pindar. Again, by claiming the targets of her compeers for herself, she highlights her arrival and participation in the network. At the end of the first poem, Robinson’s Tabitha sees the ghost of Macdonald’s Matthew who commands that she take up his satirical cause in London and extend it beyond the literary sphere:
Wan was his cheek! his eye’s sunk sphere, Gleam’d dimly thro’ a frozen tear!
And while the bounding chords he smote, The night-breeze paus’d, to hear the note—
That dying on the gale,
Told lorn VELINA’S tender tale— Piercing the heart with softer trills,
Than MONA’S harp e’er pour’d on CAMBRIA’S sounding hills! “Haste,” said the Spectre sad, “to Britain’s shores,
“And from the central mart of busy care, “To where the circling Ocean roars,
“My fateful lessons bear!”
He sigh’d and vanish’d! I obey’d,
To warn a daring race, and sooth a brother’s shade! (1: 348; 85–98)
So the poem ends, including the most concrete evidence of Macdonald’s influence—the reference to his Velina, a Poetical Fragment, a narrative poem in Spenserian stanzas that appeared in 1782 under Macdonald’s own name.
Heeding Matthew’s command, the first batch of Tabitha Bramble poems turns out to be broader political satire, filled with references to specific events, figures, and policies. The second and third poems, for example, refer sarcastically to Burke’s phrase “the swinish multi- tude.” The second ode, “A Simple Tale,” attacks Pitt as a juggler, thus recalling Robert Merry’s “Signor Pittachio” satire of 1794 (Craciun, British 78). This poem ends with a direct allusion to Peter Pindar’s most famous poem, The Lousiad, and his now-clichéd phrase “save our bacon” (1: 351; 90). The third ode explicitly mocks the King’s proclamation of December 19 as a day of national thanksgiving for recent British naval victories. Recalling Robinson’s Humanitas poem, Tabitha skewers the ceremonial procession of HRH to St. Paul’s Cathedral accompanied by Prime Minister Pitt, clergy, mem- bers of Parliament, naval officers, and sailors. She attacks Pitt in par- ticular, describing how “WILLY, like an Ostrich hides / His head in DUNCAN’S well-earn’d glory!” (55–6), referring to the success of Admiral Adam Duncan, who commanded the British f leet to vic- tory at the Battle of Camperdown (11 October 1797). But the poem begins with a deliberate exposition of the Tabitha Bramble character that points directly to the literary and satirical associations the poet wishes to make:
AGAIN I smite the bounding string Of pious pomp, and sacred joys to sing!
Not like a Poet, lofty and sublime,
Like PINDAR (Peter-nam’d), or MATTHEW BRAMBLE, But a poor spinster of the rudest rhyme,
Whose PEGASUS no lofty flight pursues, To revel midst Parnassian dews,
But doom’d a sorry jade, o’er mortal scenes to amble. (1: 351; 1–8)
Tabitha here defers to Wolcot’s and Macdonald’s satirical personae, so it is clear that the character Robinson develops owes more to them than to Smollett. The satire is disorienting, though, because the poem oscillates between sarcastic attack and more praise of the Whig heroes—“Some bright examples”—attending the procession, with the result of such encomia appearing to be at least facetious (1: 353; 84). The poem concludes with a tribute to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, that bears one of Robinson’s most distinctive marks: “And thou, DEVONIA, beauteous Dame! / Thou too shalt share a wreath of Fame” (91–2). But one wonders if praise from Tabitha Bramble is supposed to be valued or not.
This Tabitha Bramble is aggressively hostile to authority and is not really the homespun neophyte she claims to be. Certainly, the litany of Pitt’s ministers and courtiers who appear in “Ode Fourth. For New Year’s Day” is meant to embarrass them as more fitting sub- jects for Poet Laureate Henry James Pye, who, in that post, “makes poor Pegassus—a venal hack— / Carrying triumphant home,—a butt of sack! ” (1: 355; 29–30). Tabitha impugns the integrity of the royal laureate, who receives only a small pittance and a cask of wine for his loyalty. “The Patron of the Muses pays— / the glozer for his dulcet lays,” she writes, making a cunning allusion to Milton’s Satan and thus suggesting an unholy alliance (33–4).7 These poems become increasingly overt in their attacks on Pitt and increasingly ad hominem. Employing the traditional “derry down” refrain from popular English songs, “A New Song, to an Old Tune” exposes Pitt’s warmongering as an excuse for taxation from which he himself profits:
Oh! B—y loves War, for he pockets the shiners; And mocks the plain sense of the patriot diviners;
While he pays all his cronies, with other folks’ pelf,
And, by bankrupting millions, enriches himself! (1: 357; 6–9)
In a move more characteristic of Peter Pindar than Mary Robinson, Tabitha takes the opportunity to mock Pitt’s unmarried status as evi- dence of his callow virginity and implied homosexuality: ostensibly referring to Pitt’s dual position as First Lord of the Treasury, Tabitha hints, “With garters and tinsel he dresses his toys, / and he calls the gay puppets his Tr—y boys” (13–4), and then a few lines down, she adds, “To his own wily race, see the VIRGIN-BOY cling” (26). Tabitha finally concludes that Pitt’s presumed chastity is more fundamentally inhuman through an ironic inversion of Burke’s famous epithet for the masses: “Then in vain shall the SWINE grunt of taxes and woe, / While the VIRGIN of BRITAIN is cold as its snow” (358; 41–2). Pitt thus becomes a parodic Mother of Christ. The series proper con- cludes with a bizarre and somewhat incoherent fable attempted in the manner of John Gay’s animal fables; this piece is meant to be a response to the secession of the Foxite Whigs from the House of Commons in 1797 after their failed attempts to impeach Pitt. In the poem, which is inscribed to the Duke of Portland, Fox’s former ally, the King appears as his familiar lampoon “Farmer George.” The other characters are an assortment of birds: Fox is the Eagle of “lin- eage high” (because he was the second son of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland [1705–74] and a descendent of Charles II). In contrast, Pitt appears as the “long-neck’d, noisy, gabbling Gander; / A thing, the Farmer oft wou’d hold / In solemn converse” (1: 361–2; 18–20). The fable laments Portland’s defection to Pitt’s side, which many saw as committing to the King’s desire to reassert monarchical authority throughout Europe as the war with France continued. The subject and the style of these poems are uncharacteristic of Robinson, but she was ever the poetic chameleon. This new direction also may derive from her increased friendliness with Godwin and Wollstonecraft, from her continued intimacy with Wolcot, and perhaps from the bitterness of the separation from Tarleton, whose politics she likely abhorred.
The trouble with Tabitha Bramble, then, is not just the incongruity between her first performance and Smollett’s character, but also the way in which her later re-adoption of the character in 1800 does not match either her earlier Tabitha or Smollett’s. Like Portia before her, Tabitha Bramble disappeared after only a handful of poems. One more poem in this series, “Admonitory Ode VIII. Tabitha Bramble to Peter Pindar,” would appear much later in July of 1799. The numbering of this poem as “Ode VIII” is odd because the sixth and seventh Tabitha odes are not known to exist. The number may signify a relationship to one of Wolcot’s “Peter Pindar” odes that I have not yet been able to trace, or possibly even a collaboration with him. Although the poem belatedly addresses the Peter Pindar pension scandal of 1795, Wolcot recently had published his “Admonitory Ode to the Blue-Stocking- Club,” so the title may be a more or less oblique reference to one of his poems. Except for one short epigram, Robinson did not use any varia- tion of the Tabitha Bramble signature again until after she succeeded Robert Southey as Stuart’s chief poetry contributor in December of 1799. When Tabitha does reappear, she is markedly a softer and more feminine character with none of the aggressive satirical and political belligerence of the first batch. This Tabitha Bramble bears no rela- tion, figurative or otherwise, to Macdonald’s Matthew Bramble or, for that matter, to the ever-political and vituperative Peter Pindar. The first Tabitha poem of the second batch is on “The Mince Pie,” with the humorous apostrophe “HAIL, SAV’RY COMPOUND!” (2: 18). This is followed by a pair of poems on “Modern Female Fashions” and “Modern Male Fashions” that burlesque in symmetry the most ridicu- lous trends, but that also recall the montage technique Robinson used for her Portia poems. Robinson attached the epithet “Spinster” to the “Tabitha Bramble” signature for a satirical poem on “The Ingredients which Compose Modern Love” to highlight the irony of the persona’s jaded perspective. She deploys this version of Tabitha for poems par- ticularly skeptical of erotic love and its devastating consequences for women, such as “Lesbia and Her Lover,” “The Beau’s Remonstrance,” “All For-Lorn,” “When I Was Young,” and “Pretty Susan.”
More often, though, Robinson would use the Tabitha Bramble ava- tar for comic homespun narrative poems influenced by Wordsworth’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads and Southey’s 1799 English Eclogues, which appeared in the second volume of his Poems. Poems such as “Old Barnard. A Monkish Tale,” “The Tell Tale; or, Deborah’s Parrot,” “The Confessor—A Tale,” “The Fortune-Teller—A Tale,” and “The Granny Grey—A Tale” reveal a new interest in rustic settings, coun- try folk, and simple plots that accord with the tenor of Southey’s and Wordsworth’s poems of that period.8 Under the influence of Southey and Wordsworth, Robinson becomes more interested in narrative poetry as a vehicle for a similar humanitarian concern for the poor and disenfranchised—a concern that Robinson had expressed previously in more ostensibly lyric poetry but which is here apparent in these new Tabitha Bramble poems, as well as in other pieces Robinson published under her own name during this year, such as “The Poor Singing Dame,” “Agnes,” “Poor Marguerite,” and “The Old Beggar,” which appeared first in the Morning Post; and “All Alone,” “The Lascar,” and “The Shepherd’s Dog,” from Lyrical Tales. Based on her previous poetry, I cannot imagine Robinson writing these poems without hav- ing had the examples of Southey and Wordsworth before her. In this way, the Tabitha Bramble of the Lyrical Tales parallels the familiar course of political disillusionment that we see in Wordsworth and Coleridge—that is, the turn away from overtly political poetry toward more general humanitarian and social concerns. The later Tabitha may be an entirely new character that Robinson reinvents under the influence of Lyrical Ballads. In this way, the second Tabitha Bramble seems quite a distance, not just in years but in subject matter and tone, from her predecessor and the scathing satire of the first batch.
But those narrative poems Robinson attributes to the second Tabitha Bramble have a peculiarly bawdy spirit that one is hard-pressed to find in either Southey’s or Wordsworth’s narrative poems of this time. Tabitha Bramble is without a doubt Robinson’s randiest avatar; many of these poetic tales revolve around erotic themes of decep- tion, jealousy, and promiscuity. The earliest of these poems, “The Mistletoe. A Christmas Tale,” which was reprinted as a one-sheet print with an illustration, Robinson signed “Laura Maria,” although this poem clearly marks a new direction that the poet would quickly assign to Tabitha Bramble: posing as a jaded spinster, Robinson uses the erotic elements of these poems to direct criticism at vain deceitful young women. For instance, in “The Mistletoe,” Mistress Homespun uses the holiday tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe to manipu- late both her jealous older husband and her would-be seducer for the ultimate purpose of humiliating her own rival for the younger man’s attention. Tabitha takes it for granted that men are always game for erotic assignation and deception, but she holds women to a higher standard while also exulting in narratives of their frailty and culpabil- ity, usually with a pat moral attached to the end. In “The Tell Tale; or, Deborah’s Parrot,” Tabitha describes the sexually repressed and shrewish Miss Debby, who “Resolv’d a spinster pure to be” (2: 53; 5); Robinson’s revision for Lyrical Tales significantly changes “Resolv’d” to “Was doom’d” to account perhaps for the woman’s malice and adds that she “A Spinster’s life had long detested, / But ‘twas her quiet destiny, / Never to be molested!” (2: 465). Debby, envious of the “soft delights her breast ne’er felt,” observes the promiscuity of her neighbors and delights in exposing the guilty wives:
Yet she had watchful ears and eyes For ev’ry gamesome neighbor; And never did she cease to labour
A tripping female to surprise. (6–10)
But the chief responsibility for filling that space rested on Robinson’s shoulders, severely taxing her as her health declined. Letters recently republished by Sharon Setzer show that Stuart nearly terminated her employment due to her illness and consequent failure to contribute poetry (“ ‘Original’ ” 322). Because her work for Stuart was her primary source of income during the last few months of her life, and she was being besieged by creditors, she was horrified at the prospect of losing her weekly salary:
I have of late been less useful to the paper than heretofore, and this morning I received a letter from him, requesting permission to close the partnership. Indeed I have for some weeks past laboured at the hazard of my life, and have frequently written verses when my physician abso- lutely forbade me the use of my pen. During near twelve months I have incessantly labored for the paper. I could not continue those labors with quite so much industry; and now that I most want the reward of my toil, – the season of my harvest is over, and my prospects for the present blighted! Such are the vicissitudes of literary occupations! I am weary of them: and if I had a mountain hovel, with a certain and regular income, however small, I would bid farewell to scribbling—for ever. (qtd. in Setzer, “‘Original’” 322)
This accords with a remark in the Memoirs: “When necessitated by pain and languor to limit her exertions, her unfeeling employers accused her of negligence” (7: 288). Moreover and to the purpose, the letter empha- sizes that the nature of her position was contributory, not editorial.
Robinson, then, served not so much as the editor of a section in the paper, but as one on whom Stuart depended to fill columns in order to keep readers coming back for more. This duty extended to procuring poetry in addition to what she herself was able to com- pose, and to supplying news items about writers and celebrities with whom she was familiar, including herself. We know that Stuart didn’t publish everything that Southey, for instance, sent him, such as the poems that appear in Letters from the Lake Poets to Stuart and “The Guns Have Ceased their Thunder” in Lynda Pratt’s edition. Stuart had the final word on what poems he published, although he cer- tainly welcomed suggestions from his chief literary correspondents. And, needless to say, neither correspondent was receiving unsolic- ited submissions at their homes or in The Strand. During his tenure, Southey was mostly in and around Bath, Bristol, and Burton with vis- its to Nether Stowey and obligatory trips to London. And Robinson was living with her daughter at Windsor, not a great distance away, but where she was rendered essentially an invalid by paralysis and illness. They clearly were correspondents in a literal sense: they sent their contributions to Stuart via the post. Furthermore, Stuart does not to seem to have printed unsolicited poetry, although he gives the impression of accepting and rejecting certain submissions in its “To Correspondents” column, as most other editors had done since the days of the World. This practice likely was a ruse for promoting future issues and for printing sardonic ripostes to would-be contributors— again, as part of the mission of these pages to keep readers entertained by a lively exchange of textual production and play.
Our misunderstanding of the position further results from a mis- reading of what it means “to undertake” a “department” for the news- paper. In 1838, James Gillman, in his Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, makes a claim similar to that in Robinson’s Memoirs, writing that “soon after [Coleridge’s] return from Germany, the proprietor of the Morning Post, who was also the editor, engaged Coleridge to undertake the lit- erary department” (51). This echoes what Coleridge himself writes in chapter 10 of the Biographia Literaria where he writes, “I was solicited to undertake the literary and poetical department” (1: 212). Gillman adds that “[a]s contributors to this paper, the editor had the assistance of Mr. Wordsworth, Mr. Southey, and Mr. Lamb” (153). Gillman sin- gles out Southey as having “powers best suited for such employment” that “made him invaluable to the proprietor” (153). Although schol- ars have not to my knowledge interpreted such remarks to mean that Southey or Coleridge assumed an editorial position, scholars working on Robinson have done so—almost as if the “poetical department” consisted of a physical space, with cubicles perhaps, in the Morning Post office in Catherine Street. It is, rather, a textual space in the paper itself that is devoted to a particular genre of writing for a particular audience. To be hired to undertake it, then, means to take responsibility for filling that textual space, which is what Southey and Robinson consistently did to earn their salaries. Each held positions that required the composition of at least two original poems a week. Kenneth Curry’s list of Southey’s contributions and conjectural attributions from January 16, 1798 until December 20, 1799 contains more than 200 poems. Robinson served half as long as Southey did, from his departure until her death on December 26, 1800; her contributions number more than 100 poems in 12 months, approximately half the number of poems Southey most likely contributed. So, it is clear they were doing the same job.
Although he never mentions Robinson, Southey’s defense of Coleridge may be accurate: that is, it was not Coleridge’s debility that occasioned his first contributions but Robinson’s. Southey did not announce his appointment to his friend Charles Wynn until April, but he was on the job as early as the end of January of 1798. This is when Stuart actively promotes Southey and Robinson together. For instance, on January 27, Stuart announces the rejection of an implicit defense of Southey called “English Sapphics,” referring to the Anti-Jacobin’s parody of Southey’s “The Widow,” with face- tious irony: “that Publication being too contemptible for notice.” In the same issue, he extracts a passage from Walsingham on Bristol that also obliquely invokes Southey. And then, for confirmation of this, on February 12, an item declares, “Bristol is remarkable as the birth-place of POETIC GENIUS: The names of CHATTERTON, Mrs. ROBINSON, Mr. SOUTHEY, Miss MORE, and Mrs. YEARSLEY, will prove the assertion.” Stuart also reprints Robinson’s ballad “The Doublet of Grey,” again from Walsingham, making an explicit con- nection to Southey. Stuart’s headnote draws attention to “the Alonzo meter,” referring to the ballad that appears interpolated in Lewis’s The Monk, to prepare readers for the forthcoming Southey poem “The Ring,” the composition of which may have been prompted by the reprinting of “The Doublet of Grey,” also in “the Alonzo meter,” and Stuart’s praise of it. By the end of February, a week after the last poem of the first batch appeared, the Morning Post reported that “Mrs. Robinson is sufficiently recovered from her late illness, to resume her literary occupations” and a week later that “Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Inchbald are both again absorbed in literary avocations.” I can only speculate about the veracity of these reports, and suggest tentatively that they are some kind of publicity shield for Tabitha Bramble. More concretely, these reports suggest to me that Robinson is hard at work on the series of “Poetical Pictures” that began appearing on April 7, and which would become her long poem The Progress of Liberty.
Robinson only intermittently publishes original poetry in the Morning Post during Southey’s laureateship. The “Poetical Pictures” appeared anonymously and ran in six weekly installments until 18 May 1798. As the title of the reconstituted poems, The Progress of Liberty, indicates, the poems are liberal, humanitarian, and opposi- tional; moreover, these poems demonstrate Robinson’s proficiency working in blank verse, if they also hearken back to the impassioned elaborate diction characteristic of her early verse, a stylistic ten- dency that was quickly to become outmoded.18 On 17 April, Stuart announced the paper’s higher standards for poetry, which appears to be a trumpeting of Southey’s commitment:
The POETRY of The Morning Post will in future be critically select. None but first-rate compositions will be admitted to our columns; and we are promised the aid of several of the most distinguished writers of the present day. Thus powerfully supported, we request the attention of the LITERATI to this department of our Paper; where the enlight- ened mind will not fail to receive ample gratification.
The previous day’s paper justifies such confidence, for here we see all three poets in juxtaposition:
We anticipate the pleasure which our readers will receive from the Second Number of the Poetical Pictures—‘THE PROGRESS OF LIBERTY;’—it is drawn by the hand of a master, and conceived and executed in the most vigorous stile of Poetry. It shall be inserted to-morrow. Mr. Coleridge has honoured us with an Ode, which, for justness of thought, for strength of expression, and for poetical genius, is equal, perhaps even superior, to any of his former productions We wait for the conclusion of the very exquisite and romantic Poem of St. Patrick’s Purgatory.
C h a p t e r 5
Stua rt’s L aure ates II:
A Woman of Undoubted Genius
She is a woman of undoubted Genius. There was a poem of her’s [sic] in this Morning’s paper which both in metre and matter pleased me much—She overloads every thing; but I never knew a human Being with so full a mind—bad, good, & indifferent, I grant you, but full, & overflowing.
—S.T. Coleridge to Robert Southey, 25 Jan. 1800 (Letters 1: 562)
If you have read anything about Mary Robinson’s poetry, you know that Coleridge praised her as “a woman of undoubted Genius.” I probably have reiterated Coleridge’s phrase at some point during every presentation I have given on Robinson’s poetry. Indeed, Coleridge’s assessment of Robinson’s genius has gov- erned my approach to Robinson since I began reading her poetry. Contemporary critics, friends, and associates frequently hailed Robinson’s “genius,” so much so that it seems like an obligatory gesture. Coleridge’s praise, however, is firmly connected to her for- mal choices. In an important way, this book is predicated upon the assertion of poetic form as a palpable manifestation of Robinson’s genius, as Coleridge asserts.
Although from several years later, Joseph Collier’s record of Coleridge’s distinction between “talent” and “genius” is relevant here because it provides insight into the basis of Coleridge’s assessment of Robinson’s poetry. According to Collier, Coleridge considered Southey’s Curse of Kehama to be “a work of great talent, but not of much genius”; he adds that Coleridge drew the distinction between talent and genius by comparing the first to a watch and the last to an eye: both were beautiful, but one was only a piece of ingenious mechanism, while the other was a production above all art. Talent was a manufacture; genius a gift, that no labour nor study could supply: nobody could make an eye, but anybody, duly instructed, could make a watch. (qtd. in Foakes 136)
Could it be that, to Coleridge, Robinson was a better poet than Southey? While I do not want to build too much on Collier’s report, I do find it significant that Coleridge’s assessment of Robinson’s genius, connected as it is to her metrical practice, points toward his later appropriation of Schlegel’s theory of “organic” form that “shapes as it developes from within” as opposed to “mechanic” form which is “pre-determined” (Biographia 2: 84n). Toward the end of her career, Robinson began inventing her own meters and forms, and the poems Coleridge singles out for praise are poems in which she has eschewed received forms in favor of her own. Her original meters then become, in a sense, predetermined in that they provide a matrix for the poem; but the poems succeed in Coleridge’s estimation because the form she invents is particularly appropriate to the poem. And, despite all of the acclaim Robinson received during the 1790s, it is Coleridge’s remarks on the technicalities of her poetic skills that get at precisely what it is that makes Robinson’s poetry unique. To put it simply, although her biography and career are fascinating in many ways, her technical virtu- osity is, as Coleridge recognized, her greatest strength as a poet. As his letter to Southey suggests, Coleridge was interested in Robinson’s mind and how it worked—it is “full and overflowing,” he says. Coleridge thus marvels at the way Robinson attempts to express and to contain her abundant imagination within her “fascinating” meters.
Coleridge, a younger poet by some fourteen years, greatly admired the “metre” and “matter,” the style and substance, of Robinson’s verse and, in the letter quoted in the preceding, urged Southey to include her poem “Jasper” in the second volume of his Annual Anthology. Southey did so, along with her poem “The Haunted Beach,” “a poem of fascinating Metre” also recommended by Coleridge (Letters 1: 575–6). The poem Coleridge specifically refers to in the epigraph above is Robinson’s “The Poor Singing Dame,” which appeared in the Morning Post on 25 January 1800, shortly after Robinson became Stuart’s chief correspondent to the paper’s poetical department.
Coleridge’s remark that Robinson “overloads every thing” certainly refers to her formal, technical extravagance, an undeniable lyrical ebullience that Robinson exhibits from her juvenile verse to the poetry she wrote in the final year of her life. As Coleridge remarks, “The Poor Singing Dame” succeeds on two grounds—“meter and matter.” Furthermore, his comments on “The Haunted Beach,” a poem at least partly inspired by “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” dem- onstrate his view that achievement in the one may mitigate fault in the other. According to Coleridge, this poem “wants Tale—& Interest,” by which he means that the poem’s “matter” or substance is lacking. In addition to appreciating its “fascinating Metre,” however, he finds that its “Images are new & very distinct” and regrets that “it should seem so bad—for it is really good.” Despite these flaws, it is the meter that redeems the poem, according to Coleridge: it may not be a suc- cessful tale because it does not relate an interesting story, “but the Metre—ay! that Woman has an Ear” (Letters 1: 576). This kind of subordination of narrative to the style and subjectivity of the lyric is of the utmost importance to the study of Romanticism, particularly at the end of the eighteenth century. Before we examine what exactly Coleridge liked about these three poems, and how his appreciation reveals not only certain affinities between Robinson and himself but also the significance of Robinson’s innovations, we need to consider what “meter” meant for Coleridge and, subsequently, the relationship between Romantic narrative poetry and Robinson’s invention of her own “fascinating” meters, or poetic forms.
My own fascination with Robinson’s poetry has always been driven by the fact that Coleridge was fascinated by it, and by the astonishing fact that he thought enough of her to share with her an early ver- sion of his masterpiece, the famous poem “Kubla Khan.” Even more remarkable, she wrote a poetic response to “Kubla Khan,” “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge” just a few months before her death in 1800. This poem appeared in print in 1801, a decade and a half before the publication of “Kubla Khan” in 1816. It matters to me that Coleridge shared this poem with Robinson before (as far as we know) he shared it with Southey, Lamb, or at last Byron, who encour- aged him ultimately to publish it. Her poem to Coleridge reveals, moreover, that Robinson understood aspects of “Kubla Khan” that no one else, at least in print, would begin to understand until John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu in 1927. This chapter, and this book, will close then with a reading of Robinson’s response to “Kubla Khan,” showing that Robinson was the first to understand and appreciate “Kubla Khan” as a poem about the poetic imagination.
Moreover, her own poetry reveals that she, like Coleridge, was inter- ested in the relationship between the workings of the poetic imagina- tion and their manifestation in innovative poetic forms.1
Ay! that Woman has an Ear
At the time of his writing to Southey, Coleridge and Robinson had only recently met in person. William Godwin’s diary corroborates that the letter quoted above, from 25 January, finds Coleridge in the midst of socializing with Godwin and Robinson, taking tea and supper with them on 15 January, 18 January, and 22 February 1800 (Davenport 204, 253). In a recently discovered letter to his friend Samuel Purkis, written most likely toward the end of February of 1800, Coleridge exclaims, “I have passed some hours with Mrs Inchbald, have spent a long Evening (from 7 to 1) with Charlotte Smith—have been at Mrs Barbauld’s—and Mrs Robinson & I are quite Intimate.—There’s a list of Illustrissimae!” (Whelan 25). Robinson seems to receive special recognition here. However, as provocative as this suggested intimacy may be, we can only speculate on its erotic dimension. Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Robinson’s poetry may have been charged by the fresh- ness of his personal acquaintance with her and perhaps by a touch of frisson. Without a doubt, understanding his response to her is com- plicated by a host of other issues, among them her highly sexualized and politicized celebrity, his own issues regarding female sexuality, and his other remarks about Robinson here and elsewhere, which are, by turns, chivalric, judgmental, sympathetic, and patronizing. Susan Luther contends that Coleridge’s response to Robinson as a poet “can be difficult to separate from his response to her as a woman” (392). For example, regarding the inclusion of “Jasper” in the Annual Anthology, “I think,” he tells Southey, “you will agree with me; but should you not, yet still put it in, my dear fellow! for my sake, & out of respect to a Woman-poet’s feelings” (Letters 1: 562–3). Such a plea may seem condescending to us today, but I read it as rhetorical: Coleridge surely intended the remark as a gesture of sympathy for her hardships and of support for her career, as well as a show of confidence in his own judgment should Southey disagree. Whatever Coleridge’s indeterminable subconscious motives, these ought not to override or discount his judgment as a reader and writer of poetry. As Timothy Whelan, who published this particular letter, suggests, “The intimacy Coleridge claims at this point may have less to do with romantic love and more with an artistic infatuation” (30). Given Robinson’s poor health and immobility, an erotic fixation seems preposterous. I think it more likely that Coleridge was charmed by the vivacity of Robinson’s mind and by his own assessment of her poetry.
Coleridge is, as he says, “pleased” by her forms. For Coleridge, form and meter work as a concrete representation of the poem’s “mat- ter” in such a way as to create a physical and imaginative response of pleasure. Robinson’s forms are exciting to him because he can account for what she has done in the construction of them but not precisely how they achieve their effect. He admits of the ineffabil- ity of his pleasure when he remarks on “The Haunted Beach” that “it is unfortunate it should seem so bad—for it is really good.” His analytical powers fail him here. The poetic and the erotic work in tandem; poetry is supposed to give imaginative and even physical pleasure. Robinson’s metrical practice is a manifestation of her phys- icality, particularly in the heightened technical exhilaration evident in her approach to form and versification. Her first publisher, Bell, a pioneer in book design and production, attempted to represent the sensuousness of her poetry through distinctive printing features, as we have seen. In this way, even the printing of her poetry pro- vides a visual representation of the extent to which the impact— the pleasure—depends upon metrical effects. And, as I.A. Richards long ago reminded us, the effect of meter is not found outside of ourselves but within our bodies; he calls it “a vast cyclic agitation spreading all over the body, a tide of excitement pouring through the channels of the mind” (46). Robinson’s poetry possesses formal qualities that serve no other purpose than excitement and pleasure. Of course, Richards is partly echoing Coleridge, who, in the conten- tious chapter 18 of the Biographia Literaria, insists that “the critic is entitled to expect” the following conditions “in every metrical work”:
First, that as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural language of excitement. Secondly, that as these elements are formed into metre artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present volition should throughout the metrical language be pro- portionally discernible. Now these two conditions must be reconciled and co-present. There must be not only a partnership, but a union; an interpenetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of voluntary purpose. (2: 65)
Setting aside Coleridge’s dispute with Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, this reconciliation seems an unremarkable requisite for poetry, derivative perhaps of Pope’s “the sound must seem an echo of the sense,” except for Coleridge’s emphasis on the poet’s ability to “artificially” manufacture, through versification, metrical excitement and energy—a quality he saw Robinson’s poetry possess- ing in abundance. The passage above emphasizes craftsmanship and deliberateness as well as the mandatory possession of a particular skill, “an ear,” for the achievement of poetic effects. As Coleridge writes, sounding conspicuously (and unintentionally) in agreement with Wordsworth, meter controls “the workings of passion” in a “bal- ance of antagonists” that is deliberately formulated “for the foreseen purpose of pleasure” (2: 64). As Stephen Parrish reminds us, pleasure is central to the metrical principles of both poets; their difference is not so much the effect of meter but whether or not it has value dis- tinct from the language in which the poet expresses it (“Wordsworth and Coleridge on Meter”). For Coleridge especially, this pleasure is ineffable: notoriously difficult to analyze, to explain, or to teach. In explaining the “effects of metre,” Coleridge adds, As far as metre acts in and for itself, it tends to increase the vivacity and susceptibility both of the general feelings and of the attention. This effect it produces by the continued excitement of surprize, and by the quick reciprocations of curiosity still gratified and still re-excited, which are too slight indeed to be at any one moment objects of distinct consciousness, yet become considerable in their aggregate influence. As a medicated atmosphere, or as wine during animated conversation; they act powerfully, though themselves unnoticed. (Biographia 2: 66)
The effect Coleridge describes is not unlike Wordsworth’s explana- tion of meter’s power “to divest language in a certain degree of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of half consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole composition” (755n). Or to put it another way, meter is a manifestation of the art of poetry, its un-reality, a touch of verbal and formal surrealism. In his remarkable simile, he compares meter to “yeast, worthless or disagreeable by itself, but giv- ing vivacity and spirit to the liquor with which it is proportionally combined” (Biographia 2: 67). While the pleasure of meter is sub- liminal, Coleridge asserts that it is contingent upon the relationship between style and substance: The pleasure, he says, is “conditional, and dependent on the appropriateness of the thoughts and expres- sions, to which the metrical form is superadded” (Biographia 2: 69). Coleridge characteristically is interested in the subconscious work- ings of metrical practice as it acts upon the conscious reception of the poetic work. Coleridge finds that her ear works in tandem with her “full and overflowing” mind as expressed in the poetry.
To Coleridge, Robinson’s “ear” is a metonym for her ability to cre- ate pleasurable sounds through the arrangement of syllables, words, lines, and rhymes and to present these features in stanzaic form.2 It is important to remember that the term metre, particularly for poets at the end of the eighteenth century, denotes not only the metrical fea- tures of a poetic line, or meter, which Coleridge and others frequently call measure, but metre also refers to the stanzaic matrix that governs the shape, if you will, of the structural units of a poem. In the two letters to Southey, when he writes in praise of Robinson’s “metre,” Coleridge means that he is favorably impressed not only by the way she manages her “numbers,” or the stressed syllables per line, but also by the construction of the nonce stanzas she employs in the develop- ment of the three poems he singles out for approbation: “The Poor Singing Dame,” “Jasper,” and “The Haunted Beach.”
In these poems, Robinson achieves her metrical effects through the construction of her own unusual nonce forms. A nonce form is an original form that a poet constructs for a particular poem, which is then recognizable as peculiar to that poem or poet. When the nonce form is appropriated by subsequent poets, it becomes eponymous as a received form. The most famous example of this in English poetry is the Spenserian stanza but obviously other examples include the Pindaric ode, the Petrarchan sonnet, Alcaics, Sapphics, Hudibrastics, Skeltonics, etc. The second half of the eighteenth century saw the revival of the Pindaric and Horatian odes, the Spenserian stanza, and, later, thanks largely to Robinson herself, the Petrarchan sonnet, but the 1790s in particular witnessed poets inventing new forms. As a writer, Robinson worked in nearly every genre and form at her disposal; her practice of creating her own forms, shared by many of her compeers, arises out of her interest in fixed forms which emerged around the middle of her career, as exemplified by Sappho and Phaon.
After proving her worth in a “legitimate” form, her ambition was too great and her “ear” too sophisticated to miss the opportunities for fame presented by the nonce stanza. As “the English Sappho,” she wanted to be recognized by her own nonce-cum-eponymous form as her poetic namesake was, and she knew well that the most popular eponymous form of the 1790s was the “Alonzo meter,” named for the stanza of M.G. Lewis’s romance ballad “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine” from his 1796 novel, The Monk. Before we look closely at the three poems Coleridge specifically admired, we need to examine the significance of this formal innovation and metrical experimentation at the end of Robinson’s career. The features that Coleridge praises in Robinson are directly related to the success of the “Alonzo meter” and the revival of interest in the ballad and accentual meter—poetic practices that are comparable with his own and which were shared by contemporary working poets, including Robinson. In the poems under consideration, Robinson’s practice derives, in other words, directly from Lewis’s, but Lewis’s practice must also be viewed as part of a larger context involving prosody and poetic form in the romantic ballad.
Idle and Extravagant Stories in Verse
By “romantic ballad,” I mean to explicitly employ period-specific ter- minology. What we now think of as the rise of the gothic novel in the 1790s, in its original context, was for readers of the time a craze for supernatural romances. This is the “degrading thirst after out- rageous stimulation” that Wordsworth condemns in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. There, he complains that “the works of Shakespeare and Milton are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stu- pid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” (747). As Michael Gamer has shown, Wordsworth’s enterprise here is to reject, or at least to obfuscate, the influence of these popular romances on his own 1800 book (Romanticism 119). He especially means to distance his narrative poems—the “lyrical ballads”—from the “deluges of idle and extravagant stories and verse,” or supernatu- ral metrical romances such as “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine.”3 It is such stories in verse that concern us here, because Coleridge’s appreciation of Robinson’s form catches her participating in this trend, out of which her Lyrical Tales as well as his and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads was born. And it is worth noting that the three poems Coleridge praises are directly influenced by Lyrical Ballads and by the romantic ballad as popularized by Lewis. Even after his fiction became passé, Lewis continued to receive praise for his innovative stanza. Reviewing the eighteenth-century ballad revival from the van- tage point of 1830, Walter Scott, in his “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad,” which prefaces his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, commended Lewis for his innovations in narrative poetry, particu- larly the form of his “Alonzo the Brave”:
In his poetry as well as his prose, Mr Lewis had been a successful imitator of the Germans, both in his attachment to the ancient ballad and in the tone of superstition which they willingly mingle with it. New arrangements of the stanza, and a varied construction of verses, were also adopted and welcomed as an addition of a new string to the British harp. In this respect, the stanza in which “Alonzo the Brave” is written, was greatly admired, and received as an improvement worthy of adoption into English poetry.
Coleridge predicted as much when he reviewed The Monk in February of 1797 for the Critical Review. While Coleridge was generally appalled by most of the novel, he does reserve some mild praise for Lewis’s poetry as “far above mediocrity.” Closing the review with the poem “The Exile,” extracted from the novel, Coleridge addresses an underlying concern similar to Wordsworth’s—that such popular stuff may overshadow more literature of greater merit and legitimacy; the “exquisitely tender elegy,” Coleridge asserts, “will melt and delight the heart, when ghosts and hobgoblins shall be found only in the lumber-garret of a circulating library” (198). In Coleridge’s review of The Monk, we see him privileging the techniques of lyric versifi- cation over the ephemeral pleasures of sensational fiction, or what would have seemed to the poet the elegance of formal construction versus the mere scribbling of a story. Poetically minded critics such as Coleridge possessed tools for appreciating Lewis’s versification, but lacked a coherent perspective on this popular new genre. Robinson knew that she had to please such critics.
Fussell is not incorrect to refer to “trisyllabic substitution” because we do recognize in the scansion of “the Alonzo meter” a strong tendency toward anapes- tic sounds, giving the impression that the syllabic count is hyper- metrical. But, unlike hypermetrical iambic pentameter lines, which usually have an augmented or feminine ending, these lines always end on a beat, or stressed syllable. For instance, the first, third, and fourth lines of the five-line “Alonzo” stanza are the longest lines per stanza, consisting of eleven or twelve syllables each; but these lines, in order for them to have the characteristic rhythmic bounce, contain no more than four stresses. To measure these lines as foot verse would involve elaborate anapestic and dactylic substitutions in irregular placement from line to line; it is more likely that Lewis and his imitators are listening for the stresses in these lines. Similarly, the shorter second and fifth lines, as part of the overall sonic effect, employ the same principle but on a smaller scale: they run to eight or nine syllables while only expressing three stresses or beats. The “Alonzo” stanza may be represented as a4b3a4a4b3, the operative number being the stress count. What is difficult to grasp about “the Alonzo meter” is that its practitioners understood that a gen- erally anapestic feel was essential, while not prescriptive, so they aimed for a syllabic disproportion in the number of unstressed syl- lables to stressed ones. More unstressed syllables emphasize the beat of the poem. Robinson’s “The Doublet of Grey,” like “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine,” is a supernatural tale of violence and star-crossed lovers, and thus metrically and thematically echoes its original:
Now o’er the wild heath when the winter winds blow, And the moon-silver’d fern branches wave, Pale Theodore’s spectre is seen gliding slow, As he calls on the damsel in accents of woe, Till the bell warns him back to his grave.
And while the deep sound echoes over the wood, Now the villagers shrink with dismay;
For, as legends declare, where the castle once stood, Mid the ruins, by moonlight, all cover’d with blood,
Shrieks the maid—in her doublet of grey! (5: 303; 106–15)
The meter reveals the same kind of heavy stress found in Lewis’s origi- nal. Like “Alonzo the Brave,” most of the lines have a strong anapestic sound, suggestive of metrical feet, but the syllabic count is often irregu- lar in the poem and the initial unstressed syllable in many lines is trun- cated. Considering its gothic subject, it seems more likely that Robinson is counting stresses, falling invariably into anapests for rhythmic effect, as a way of capturing the same kind of effect Lewis achieves.
As we can see, by 1816, Coleridge’s “new principle” was not new at all, although some of the more extreme instances of its practice may have been, as was the poet’s clear articulation of it in the preface to “Christabel.” “Christabel” was his attempt to distance himself from the stanzaic regularity of the ballad, traditional or innovative. In the Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, the year after the Christabel volume appeared, Coleridge remarked that “new metres,” specifi- cally that of “Alonzo and Imogen [sic]” have “in their very mech- anism a specific overpowering tune, to which the generous reader humours his voice and emphasis, with more indulgence to the author than attention to the meaning or quantity of the words” (2: 34). He means that the stanzaic matrix will cause readers to recognize and “hear” the suggested rhythm in a line rather than placing emphasis where it ought to go, resulting in demoted stress on nouns and verbs and promoted stress on articles and conjunctions just to achieve the melody. It appears that Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Robinson’s ear springs from the way Robinson’s innovative stanzas, combined with the heavy rhythms of accentual meter, suit the effect of fantasy or, as Stuart puts it, “the pathos of Romance.”
This is a major point of connection between the two poets, however: both Robinson and Coleridge employ versification as a conscious fixing of the unconscious in and as form. Coleridge wrote in his notebooks that “Poetry is a rationalized dream” that puts “to manifold Forms our own Feelings” (2: 2087). Coleridge’s most innovative poems at this time, “Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” and “Christabel,” clearly demonstrate his interest in the gothic insofar as its nightmarish qualities may be adapted for explorations of the uncon- scious. Although it is her formal handling of this material that he specif- ically praises, Robinson’s adaptation of the gothic for similar purposes surely appealed to him; she validated an aesthetic interest in the super- natural that neither Wordsworth nor Southey shared with Coleridge around the time he was working on his dream poems. Early chivalric ballads such as “Sir Raymond of the Castle,” “Lewin and Gynneth. A Tale,” both from Robinson’s 1791 Poems, and “Donald and Mary,” from her 1794 Poems, are clearly influenced by Percy’s Reliques. These poems are conventional in form and regular in syllabic count, generally falling into foot-verse. The influence of the gothic ballad is even more apparent in poems Robinson composed after Lewis’s The Monk and the “Alonzo” stanza; these include not only “The Doublet of Grey” and many of the poems in her 1800 volume Lyrical Tales, but also innovative poems such as “The Savage of Aveyron” and “The Lady of the Black Tower,” both of which appeared posthumously, the former in the 1801 Memoirs and the latter in Maria Elizabeth Robinson’s 1804 tributary collection The Wild Wreath. These poems are supernatural tales of violence, horror, and nightmare.
The first, “The Savage of Aveyron,” can be scanned as having an iambic foot matrix with a few substitutions. It is framed by two intricate fifteen-line stanzas with slightly different rhyme schemes with twelve similarly rhymed twelve-line stanzas within. Note that Robinson’s principle permits some variation in the rhyme scheme, indicating that the more important constant is the number of stresses per line. Despite the iambic tendency of the lines, which is endemic to the English language, the regularity in line length by beats shows that Robinson, like Coleridge, is primarily interested in counting stresses rather than cumulative syllables in each line. In “The Savage of Aveyron,” a traveler encounters a feral boy whose mother had been murdered by thieves while he was only a baby.5 Its intricate stanza patterns match its setting, the “mazy woods of Averyon,” each stanza winding to its terminal five-beat line, thus rendering its own dream-like quality of being lost in the woods alone. The speaker won- ders at the end if the “wretch” may have been “fancy-fraught” in the “Dark wilds of dreary solitude” (2: 195; 168–73). According to the Memoirs, this poem is “the last offspring of Mrs. Robinson’s Muse,” and it demonstrates the perfection of her metrical art (2: 191). The strange hypnotic meter and repeated rhymes capture perfectly the hor- ror of the boy’s solitude and how it has stunted his development. The speaker’s refrain expresses his alternating fear of and desire for solitude when confronted by the young boy. The ostensible subject of the poem is the boy, but the poem shows a far deeper interest in the speaker’s reception of the idea of the boy’s existence. Each stanza includes the word Aveyron at the end of a line, usually the ninth, and ends with the word alone or one that rhymes with it. But more interestingly, the poem’s meter emphasizes the speaker’s psychological response to seeing the boy and his contemplation of the implications of the boy’s savagery. Ultimately the speaker projects these fears upon himself. In the Memoirs, Robinson’s anonymous friend (Maria Elizabeth or Pratt) comments somewhat incongruously that “the correctness of the metre, and the plaintive harmony which pervades every stanza, clearly evinces the mild philosophy with which a strong mind can smooth its journey to the grave” (2: 191). This suggests to me that the friend recognized the poem’s outstanding formal features but could not account for them and perhaps intended to obfuscate the poem’s darker undercurrents; the technical proficiency her mother exhibits in the poem, therefore, becomes a testament to the poet’s ultimate rejec- tion of what seemed to many to be the hysterical Sensibility of the 1780s and 1790s in favor of a firmer, more masculine Stoicism or, more likely, a pious resignation to the will of Providence. The poem itself contradicts this reading—particularly as the speaker suddenly finds him or herself alone at the end of the poem haunted by the boy, “Whose melancholy tale would pierce AN HEART OF STONE” (2: 195; 174). The speaker’s encounter with the unknowable other leaves him (or her) psychologically ravaged.6 Even though this conclusion sounds like a typical humanitarian poem of Sensibility, the cumulative effect of the poem’s weird, incantatory stanzas creates a darker atmosphere of alterity that resists sentimentality. The speaker and the boy achieve no connection, each is left alone. The thrust of the poem is not toward the social and communal, as it could easily have been, but toward a kind of maddening solipsism.
Robinson’s other ballad poems come closer to the accentual mea- sures Coleridge achieves in “Christabel.” This practice of counting beats in a rhythmic matrix is more evident in “The Lady of the Black Tower,” one of Robinson’s most compelling poems. It opens with a disembodied voice, calling to the unnamed lady of the title, suggest- ing perhaps an unconscious voice telling her what she already knows deep inside her, what indeed she most fears to be true:
Watch no more the twinkling stars; Watch no more the chalky bourne;
Lady! from the holy wars, Never will thy love return!
Cease to watch, and cease to mourn,
Thy lover never will return! (2: 210; 1–6)
The poem goes on to depict the lady’s vision of her lover’s corpse, her dispute with some barefoot monks, her encounter with a skeleton- knight, her voyage to the Holy Land, culminating with her arrival at a ghoulish banquet straight out of “Alonzo the Brave.” The stanza enables Robinson to develop her slight but fantastic narrative with the incantatory stanza that bit by bit, in discrete units, creates the dream- like effect. The short stanzas enable Robinson to break the spell sud- denly and neatly to conclude the poem when the sleeper awakes:
Just now the lady WOKE:—for she Had slept upon the lofty tower,
And dreams of dreadful phantasie
Had fill’d the lonely moon-light hour: Her pillow was the turret stone,
And on her breast the pale moon shone.
But now a real voice she hears:
It was her lover’s voice;—for he, To calm her bosom’s rending fears,
That night had cross’d the stormy sea:
“I come,” said he, “from Palestine,
To prove myself, sweet Lady, THINE.” (2: 217; 2: 109–20)
The sudden waking consciousness continues over the course of two stanzas, where, as Jacqueline M. Labbe points out, “reality and nature reassert themselves” (Romantic Paradox 120). By establishing the powerful incantatory rhythms and rhyme of what we might call the “Black Tower” stanza, Robinson is able to give the impression that that consciousness or reality has been altered by the remnants of the dream. Its tale bears some relation to Coleridge’s dream ballad “Love,” which Wordsworth added to the first volume of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads in place of the delinquent “Christabel.” “Love” is in a fairly standard ballad meter, except that Coleridge extends the second line from the traditional three beats to four (x4a4x4a3), and in its stanzaic uniformity it is more like “The Lady of the Black Tower” than his own “Christabel.” For “The Lady of the Black Tower,” Robinson devises her own four-beat sestet (ababcc4), the lines of which generally suggest iambic tetrameters but resist foot-verse scan- sion. If the lines were strictly composed in iambic feet, many of the them would be catalectic or hypercatalectic—or, even more unlikely, some lines would feature oddly placed amphibrachic substitutions. It is more probable, therefore, that Robinson again is simply counting beats per line.
Thus, what both Robinson and Coleridge are listening for in the composition of their dream narratives, based on the romance/gothic ballad, is the heavy footstep of the English line. Given her admiration for Lyrical Ballads and its influence on her, Robinson certainly knew “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” which influenced such poems as “The Lady of the Black Tower,” “Jasper,” and “The Haunted Beach.” The fantastic meters Coleridge and Robinson composed share a foundation in English practice and in the human psyche, and thus their lines sound enough like the ancient folk ballads—a cultural collective unconscious, perhaps—to encourage “willing suspension of disbelief.”7
The Bewitching Effect of that Absolutely Original Stanza
Wordsworth once called Coleridge “an epicure in sound”(Wordsworth, Christopher 306). This impulse is clearly at work in Coleridge’s sin- gling out of “The Poor Singing Dame,” “Jasper,” and “The Haunted Beach.” “The Poor Singing Dame” in both its “metre and matter” is similar to Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” from the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, a book that inspired Robinson’s 1800 Lyrical Tales. Each poem tells a story of a poor old woman’s persecution by a wealthy man; but, unlike the long-suffering Goody Blake, however, Robinson’s “old Dame,” named Mary, is forever cheerful, singing at her wheel and dancing at the threshold of her hovel. Wordsworth’s antagonist is a successful farmer jealous of even the tiniest piece of his property while Robinson’s is an arrogant aristocrat on a power trip: where young Harry Gill begrudges Goody Blake a few sticks of firewood from his hedge, the “Lord of the Castle” in Robinson’s poem simply “hated that poverty should be so cheerful” (2: 34; 35). Robinson’s poem obviates a dramatic encounter between the two by having the Lord send Mary “all trembling, to prison away,” where she dies “broken-hearted” (40–1). As the community mourns the beloved old woman, the lord is driven mad by the “terrible song” of avenging screech owls; and after wasting away in a manner like that of Harry Gill, he, unlike Harry, dies at the end of the poem but with- out anyone shedding a tear on his “tomb of rich marble” (54, 64). Thus, both poems explore the guilty consciences of the villains and the psychological manifestations of that guilt, although Robinson’s poem denies the old woman any agency in this; Goody Blake utters a curse that at least plants the seed of guilt in the conscience of Harry Gill. What about the “matter” of Robinson’s poem Coleridge appre- ciated is unclear, except that, given his friendship with Robinson at the time, the vindictive finality of its villain’s punishment may have afforded him some amusement, feeling as he must have done for Robinson’s impoverished circumstances and reading the Lord of the Castle allegorically as the Prince of Wales.
T. Coleridge, Esq.,” which appeared three days after Wordsworth’s “Solitude of Binnorie” and Coleridge’s headnote. It is almost a coin- cidence that he mentions Sappho and Alcæus here, because he is abso- lutely not referring to Robinson and himself as analogous figures. Certainly, Coleridge could not mention Sappho without intending an allusion to Robinson’s sobriquet, but he is literally referring to the eponymous forms associated with the two Greek poets, noting that Alcæus’s poetry is not as widely read as Sappho’s and so he is known more for his quatrain than for any of his poems. He does mean to pay tribute to Robinson’s invention by reminding readers of the eponymous Greek stanzas attributed to those two poets: the quatrain known as Alcaics, most famously employed by Tennyson in his poem “Milton”; and the quatrain known as Sapphics, notoriously attempted by Southey in his poem “The Widow,” which, incidentally, the Anti-Jacobin mercilessly parodied and critiqued. Coleridge could not possibly be referring to himself (or to Wordsworth) as Alcæus, because the “Alcæus to Sappho” poem would not appear in print for more than a month, as I discuss in the following. The strongest point of connection between the two is poetic, not erotic: Coleridge is pro- moting Robinson for the invention of the “Haunted Beach” stanza by reminding readers of the Post that the original Sappho, not Robinson but like Robinson, invented a stanza form, so his point is that the innovation of a nonce form—“the invention of a metre”—becomes associated with the originating poets and grants them poetic lon- gevity and legitimacy. The gesture is one of literary sociability, even respect for a fellow poet. Robinson would have earned the gesture, given her active participation in the professional and textual network around the creation and innovation of Romantic narrative form.
Extatic Measures and Della Cruscan Ghosts
The friendship between Robinson and Coleridge lasted only a few months and through several dinner parties. In July of 1800, Coleridge moved with his family to Keswick and never saw Robinson in per- son again. The poetic exchange continued, however, with her “Ode, Inscribed to the Infant Son of S. T. Coleridge, Esq.,” his reply “A Stranger Minstrel,” her “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” and Wordsworth’s “Alcæus to Sappho,” which Coleridge sent to Stuart presumably in tribute to her and out of concern for her health. Wordsworth’s “Alcæus to Sappho” and Coleridge’s “A Stranger Minstrel” are poems inflected with the imminence of Robinson’s death. The former poem by Wordsworth appeared unsigned in the Morning Post on 24 November, a month before her death on 26 December 1800. Wordsworth wrote the poem over a year prior to its publication, at least as early 27 Februrary 1799, when he sent it to Coleridge from Goslar, while they were both in Germany (Letters 1: 256). Wordsworth’s editors speculate that Coleridge gave the poem its title and added the word Sappho to the sixteenth line, but the original manuscript of the poem does not exist. All we know is that Wordsworth did not “care a farthing” for the poem, as he told Coleridge, presum- ably giving the latter license to alter it as he saw fit (Letters 1: 256). As a tribute to Robinson, the poem would seem to emphasize the erotic nature of their correspondence by analogizing explicitly Robinson with Sappho and implicitly Coleridge-Wordsworth with Sappho’s supposed lover and fellow poet and countryman, Alcæus. If so, Robinson rather implausibly appears as a blushing maiden, which may have afforded readers some amusement at her expense; and Alcæus, or Coleridge-Wordsworth, appears as her narcissistic lover attempting to coax a smile of favor, after conspicuously drawing attention to other visible signs of her desire for him. After remarking on her obvious pas- sion and her physical beauty, the speaker concludes:
Then grant one smile, tho’ it should mean A thing of doubtful birth;
That I may say these eyes have seen
The fairest face on earth! (Morning Post 24 November 1800)
Curiously, the smile he wants to claim is, “A thing of doubtful birth,” a phrase that expresses his uncertainty of his deserving it or perhaps the dubious value of a smile extorted by mere flattery. As Ashley Cross suggests, even though Wordsworth did not write the poem with Robinson in mind, Coleridge’s appropriation of the poem trian- gulates literary power and reputation among the three poets (“From Lyrical Ballads” 587–9). Considering that Robinson was the chief poetry contributor for the Morning Post at the time, the poem’s pub- lication could just as easily have been the result of Stuart’s need for poetry during Robinson’s illness, of Coleridge’s having some poems handy, and of his concern that she would not survive this latest infir- mity. “It grieves me to hear of poor Mrs Robinson’s illness,” he writes to Stuart in the letter that includes “Alcæus to Sappho” (Letters 1: 629). Just prior to that he writes, “I shall fill up these Blanks with a few Poems” for Stuart to print. Stuart was accustomed to having two or three poems a week from Robinson, so he may have writ- ten to Coleridge to request poems from him in her stead. “Alcæus to Sappho” appeared on 24 November 1800, but Robinson had not provided Stuart with any poems since “Written on Seeing a Rose Still Blooming at a Cottage Door on Egham Hill, October 29, 1800” appeared 4 November 1800. In this final poem for Stuart, Robinson reflects on her mortal persistence but inevitable decline, compar- ing the still-blooming rose with her own “ling’ring form” (2: 145; 38). On 14 November, Stuart announced to his readers that “Mrs. ROBINSON’S health is still precarious.” Certainly, Coleridge would have known the lore of Alcæus’s supposed passion most famously recounted by Addison, who describes Alcæus as “passionately in Love” with Sappho and as determined to take the famous leap: in Spectator 233 (27 November 1711), Addison writes, “hearing that Sappho had been there before him, and that her Body could be no where found, he very generously lamented her fall.” Given Robinson’s illness and Coleridge’s knowledge of it, the poem in light of this story about Alcæus’s love for the doomed Sappho assumes the quality of an elegy or lament.
The other poems in their exchange present the two poets on a more equal literary footing. Her “Ode, Inscribed to the Infant Son of S. T. Coleridge, Esq.” celebrates the birth in Keswick of Derwent Coleridge on 14 September 1800. Presumably Robinson received the news either through Stuart or through correspondence with Coleridge himself. And she likely knew of the death of the Coleridges’ second son, Berkeley, the previous year. The “Ode” confirms Robinson’s familiarity with Coleridge’s 1798 poems “Frost at Midnight,” “The Nightingale,” and “The Rime of Ancyent Marinere.” But it also con- firms her familiarity with Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” for, like her trib- ute to that poem, “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” it mimics the formal irregularity of “Kubla Khan,” recalling stylistically the baroque meters of her Laura Maria odes. The “Ode” paints the Lake District, to which Coleridge has removed, as a fantastic imaginative space like that demarcated by Kubla Khan:
Ye CATARACTS! on whose headlong tide The midnight whirlwinds howling ride;— Ye silent LAKES! that trembling hail.
The cold breath of the morning gale; And on your lucid mirrors wide display, In colours bright, in dewy lustre gay,
Fantastic woodlands, while the dappled dawn Scatters its pearl-drops on the sunny lawn; And thou, meek Orb, that lift’st thy silver bow O’er frozen vallies, and o’er hills of snow;— Ye all shall lend your wonders—all combine To greet the Babe, with energies divine!
While his rapt soul, SPIRIT OF LIGHT! to THEE
Shall raise the magic song of wood-wild harmony! (2: 136; 25–38)
As a tribute to Coleridge as a poet and as a father, Robinson thus cel- ebrates the generative faculties manifest in “Kubla Khan.” The poem develops the poetic conceit of Derwent as the son of poetic genius, addressed throughout as the “Spirit of Light,” while literally calling on the sun rising and so also alluding to Apollo, the god of poetry. Even here Robinson attends to formal considerations as the invoca- tion calls upon the fixing and fitting of metrical variations: “To thee
I sing! Spirit of Light! to thee / Attune the varying strain of wood- wild harmony” (2: 135; 5–6). The phrase “wood-wild harmony” is a refrain throughout and points to the repurposing of Robinson’s odic practices for the wild expanse of this particular setting, as well as for the rustic, woodland setting of her own place of composition Windsor Forest:
SWEET BOY! accept a STRANGER’S song, Who joys to sing of thee,
Alone her forest haunts among,
The haunts of wood-wild harmony!
A stranger’s song, by falsehood undefil’d,
Hymns thee, O! INSPIRATION’S darling child! (2: 137; 91–6)
Again, Robinson sees Coleridgean procreation as an allegory for poetic composition. Her own poem to Derwent is an analogue for his father’s poetic genius as the child himself is a metonym for all kinds of creative power. But it is also a lament for her own mortality: She writes to Derwent, “In thee it [the song] hails the genius of thy sire, / Her [the stranger’s] sad heart sighing o’er feeble lyre” (97–8). Even infirm as she was at the time of composition, Robinson’s mod- esty is a tad disingenuous, for she still has infinite confidence in the power of her lyre. In this, one of her final odes, what formerly had been baroque elegance becomes capacious metrical diversity in trib- ute to a new poetic kindred spirit, Coleridge.
So, going all the way back to her “Ode to Della Crusca,” Robinson’s poetic tributes tend metrically to accord with the style of the poet she praises. Predominantly in rhyming couplets, Robinson’s “Ode” also incorporates balladic quatrains (abab, as in lines 91–4 above), and enveloping rhyming quatrains (abba; see, for example, lines 51–4, 69–72); moreover, the poem features extreme metrical diversity, with lines ranging from four to twelve syllables and varying stress pat- terns. With the exception of his “Ode to the Departing Year,” which Robinson may have read in Coleridge’s 1797 volume and which fol- lows the conventions of the eighteenth-century irregular ode, the only poems by Coleridge that feature such metrical variation and that Robinson could have known are “Songs of the Pixies,” from his 1796 Poems on Various Subjects, and “Kubla Khan.”
While it is possible that Coleridge shared “Christabel” with
Robinson, he certainly recited “Kubla Khan” for her or gave it to her in manuscript. Coleridge first published “Kubla Khan: or A Vision in a Dream” in 1816, when it appeared in a volume called Christabel;
Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep. A poem entitled “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge” appeared first in the fourth volume of her Memoirs among several dozen “tributary lines” addressed to her by several friends, including John Taylor, Samuel Jackson Pratt, James Boaden, and Peter Pindar (John Wolcot). “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge” follows in this sequence Coleridge’s “A Stranger Minstrel,” ostensibly a reply to her “Ode, Inscribed to the Infant Son of S. T. Coleridge, Esq.” Robinson’s ode on the occasion of Derwent Coleridge’s birth appeared in the Morning Post for 17 October 1800; the other ode to Coleridge, “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” is dated in the Memoirs also October 1800 and signed “Sappho,” indicating Robinson’s intention to publish it in the Morning Post. We do not know if Coleridge received a copy of Robinson’s tribute before it appeared but, in a letter to Thomas Poole from February 1801, Coleridge does refer to “a most affecting, heart-rending Letter” he received from her “a few weeks before she died, to express what she called her death bed affection & esteem for me” (Letters 2: 669). It is possible that this letter included her poetic response to “Kubla Khan.” Given Coleridge’s reluctance to acknowledge the existence of the poem, his silence on receiving Robinson’s poem, while quoting for Poole a passage from her letter, would be characteristic of him. We do know that, once Coleridge moved from London to Keswick, he and Robinson kept up a correspondence that included the exchange of poems. In December of 1802, Coleridge wrote to Maria Elizabeth Robinson expressing his irritation that she or, as he politely sug- gests, the publisher Richard Phillips printed “A Stranger Minstrel” in the Memoirs. Calling this poem “excessively silly,” Coleridge reveals that the poem was intended to be part of a “private Letter” to Maria Elizabeth’s mother and was not meant for publication (Letters 2: 904). Coleridge’s poem appears to be a response to the revised version of her ode on Derwent’s birth, first published in the 1806 Poetical Works, for it is in the later, greatly altered text that “min- strelsy” replaces “harmony” in the refrain, and where Robinson refers to herself as “an untaught Minstrel” (2: 479–80).9 Obviously, it was Maria Elizabeth who found Coleridge’s poem among her mother’s papers and provided it to Phillips. She evidently also possessed in manuscript Robinson’s unpublished poem to Coleridge on “Kubla Khan” and gave that to Phillips as well. Coleridge, in his letter to Maria Elizabeth, claims not to have seen the volumes, so we do not know if he had read Robinson’s poem on “Kubla Khan” at the time of writing to her; again, he does not mention it. Coleridge likely would not have been pleased to see Robinson’s direct references to and
quoted phrases from his unpublished poem. In any event, he let the matter drop, perhaps hoping to be free of Maria Elizabeth’s interfer- ence with his reputation.
In “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” Robinson thrice refers to Coleridge’s “sunny dome” and “caves of ice,” which appear in quo- tation marks, and offers to “trace / Imagination’s boundless space” with him. “To the Poet Coleridge” demonstrates her technical virtu- osity; in it, she slyly winks at Coleridge by showing not only that she understands the matter of his “Kubla Khan” but its meter as well. One of her last compositions, the poem to Coleridge is remarkable for sev- eral reasons. Coleridge was circulating “Kubla Khan” in manuscript many years before its publication in 1816, and Robinson was one of those who read the poem in an early form. It is difficult to imag- ine anyone reading the poem in 1801 who would have recognized Robinson’s cryptic references to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The first person after Robinson certainly to know of the existence of “Kubla Khan” is Southey, but not until 1804 (Mays 671). Robinson’s poem is the first published response to “Kubla Khan” and the best explica- tion of it prior to twentieth-century criticism. Remarkably, she dem- onstrates in it a comprehension of Coleridge’s poem lost on almost all of its contemporary reviewers. For many readers of Christabel and Other Poems (1816), “Kubla Khan” was merely “nonsense,” as Charles Lamb reportedly declared to William Godwin (Reiman 890). And none of the volume’s contemporary viewers seem to have made any effort to understand the poem: William Hazlitt, for example, writes in The Examiner that “Kubla Khan” “only shews that Mr. Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England” (Reiman 531); and a reviewer for Scourge and Satirist calls the poem “a hasty and unintelligible performance” (Reiman 868).
Robinson, however, proves in 1800 that she fully comprehends Coleridge’s “visionary theme” on poetic imagination (2: 195; 1). She picks up and responds to all the major images and motifs in “Kubla Khan”: the river, the fountain, the “sunny dome,” the “Caves of Ice,” the gardens, even the damsel and her dulcimer. She recognizes, more- over, the poem’s implicit sexuality and its association with poetic cre- ativity; she writes that the dulcimer at the end of the poem shall awake the poet herself “in extatic measures! / Far, far remov’d from mortal pleasures,” such as those suggested by lines 12–28 in “Kubla Khan” (2: 197; 61–2). The penultimate act of poetic creation in “Kubla Khan,” before the completion of the poem itself, is the creation of the dome of pleasure. The action of Robinson’s poem, inspired by that act of poetic creation, consists of touring the landscape of “Kubla Khan” with the author himself as her guide: she cries, “SPIRIT DIVINE! with THEE I’ll trace / Imagination’s boundless space!” (27–8). With Coleridge, she follows the meandering sacred river (2–4); combing the verdant hills, she spies the dome itself (9–26); beneath the sunny dome, she explores the enchanted caves of ice (29–44); and in tribute, she pauses to weave a crown of “wild-flow’rs” for the inspired and inspiring poet (45–58). She awards him not a classical or Petrarchan laurel but a specifically English accolade, the uncultivated flowers a sign of primitive, untouched nature and the genius it inspires. Like “Kubla Khan,” Robinson’s poem also ends with the damsel singing and playing her dulcimer, but here she reminds Coleridge of the sub- stance of the damsel’s song, which, in “Kubla Khan,” he claims to have forgotten:
And now, with lofty tones inviting,
Thy NYMPH, her dulcimer swift-smiting, Shall wake me in extatic measures,
Far, far remov’d from mortal pleasures! In cadence rich, in cadence strong,
Proving the wond’rous witcheries of song! I hear her voice! thy “sunny dome,”
Thy “caves of ice,” aloud repeat, Vibrations, madd’ning sweet!
Calling the visionary wand’rer home. 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! (59–72)
“The nymph,” as Robinson calls her, sings of Coleridge specifi- cally but also more generally of imagination, the universal poet who has created both “Kubla Khan” and her poem. The last line echoes Theseus’s speech on the poetic imagination from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.14–7). Furthermore, the reference to Coleridge’s “minstrelsy” strengthens the relationship between this poem and her other ode, addressed to Derwent, in the latter poem’s sublime asso- ciations between the poetic imagination and the geography of the Lake District.
The conclusion emphasizes the formal link between Robinson’s poem and “Kubla Khan.” She asserts that her own “extatic measures,” literally “out of” the stasis of fixed form, prove “the wond’rous witcher- ies of song!”; that is, the power of inspired, irregular metrical practice. In this light, we can see that the most striking aspect of Robinson’s poem is its explicit and deliberate replication of various features of the meter and structure of “Kubla Khan.” Robinson’s poem mim- ics some of Coleridge’s metrical devices: like “Kubla Khan,” it seems to adopt the contorted, unusual ballad form, while masquerading as an irregular ode. But the metrical construction of Robinson’s poem, in its overt similarity to “Kubla Khan,” suggests that there is more method to the formal structure of “Kubla Khan” than most readers recognize. If Coleridge is correct in his assessment of Robinson’s ear for meter, surely the interplay of forms in “Kubla Khan” would not escape her notice. As Coleridge’s “mingled measure” becomes “extatic measures” in Robinson’s poem, the metrical puzzle of “Kubla Khan” becomes decipherable. The only difficulty for Coleridge and his theo- ries of poetry is that, as he delineates the process of poetic creation, Robinson suggests that style and substance, meter and matter, diverge into separate issues that do not necessarily reconcile (as Coleridge insists they should in Biographia Literaria). Because both poets were keenly aware of the principles of versification, the metrical structure of Robinson’s poem is similar enough to Coleridge’s to occasion a recon- sideration of the metrical issues in “Kubla Khan.”
By not only appropriating his images, motifs, and language but also by fitting them into a more obvious structure in order to mimic and highlight the structure of “Kubla Khan,” Robinson suggests what critics of the poem would fail to see for more than a century—that Coleridge’s poem is not a fragment at all but rather a carefully constructed and com- plete statement on the poetic imagination. Coleridge’s most significant clue is the metrical structure of the poem. The act of poetic creation, coinciding with the creation of “the Dome of Pleasure,” climaxes in lines 31–36 where “the mingled Measure / From the Fountain and the Cave” is heard; though the passive construction omits by whom it is heard, “the mingled Measure” is surely poetic song.10 The measure that Coleridge mingles throughout is the standard iambic pentameter line devised by Chaucer that predominates in lines 8–30 and more broadly in the accentual folk/ballad/hymnal meters native to England. Coleridge varies line lengths and disrupts formal rhyme schemes; still, the meters and forms remain sufficiently intact to be recognized by the metrically astute Robinson but have very little to do with the poem’s subdivisions of three sections (1–11, 12–36, 37–54), which is how it appears in most reprints. Robinson crafted her poem along the lines of what Coleridge’s text suggests, metrically speaking.
“Kubla Khan” is divided into three stanzas that parody the staples of English versification; and the metrical form subverts connotative meaning, rather than being related to it. The poem’s prosody calls into question the overdeterminacy of meter and rhyme, what Wesling calls “the scandal of form,” about which Wordsworth and Coleridge are both so defensive (63). In a sense, there is a metrical story being told in “Kubla Khan” that can be read without any regard to seman- tics. And Robinson’s poem suggests that she comprehends not only the verbal texture of the poem but its metrical story as well. She reads the poem completely by reading what McFarland refers to as a poem’s “substantia,” a term that includes all of the considerations of for- malist theory: words and their meanings but also stanza, meter, and rhyme (273).
“Kubla Khan” opens with a five-line variation on hymnal measure. Coleridge follows with two regular iambic tetrameter lines to signal a gradual shift from hymnal measure in lines 1–5 to the more aca- demic heroic quatrain, lines 8–11, which closes the first recognizable unit of the poem. For the next nineteen lines, Coleridge faithfully adheres to an iambic pentameter matrix; still, he continues to mingle the measure, as the rhyme scheme signals. By line 12, the opening of the second section, Coleridge is self-consciously working in iambic pentameter, so he nods at his predecessor in seven lines that resemble the Chaucerian stanza. These seven lines are followed by a quatrain consisting of two heroic couplets (19–22). But Coleridge’s most impressive feat of metrical gymnastics comes in lines 23–36, fourteen lines that form a highly irregular English sonnet. Though he corrupts the rhyme, Coleridge still manages the requisite seven rhymes. And he signals the turn between the octave and the sestet with not only an end-stopped line—“Ancestral Voices prophesying War”—but with a change in meter as well: the first four lines of the sestet recall long hymnal measure. Of course, Coleridge closes the “sonnet” with the traditional iambic pentameter couplet, thus providing the punchline to his metrical joke and punctuating the second stanza. The third stanza, describing the vision and the poet’s incantation, is a return to the folk meters that open the poem, though with even more mis- chievous technical variations to complete the meter. So, by the end of “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge has essentially told the story of English poetic practice from the native ballad forms to Chaucerian foot verse to Renaissance sonneteering to eighteenth-century couplets and end- ing finally in a return to the ballad form in the Romantic period. As we shall see, Coleridge’s review of English poetry is a peculiar feature of the kind of poem that “Kubla Khan” is, particularly as it partakes in an eighteenth-century tradition of lyrical irregularity.
Robinson was keenly aware of this metrical play and was thus able to read “Kubla Khan” on two levels: as a poem about the imagination, and as a poem about the arbitrary nature of poetic form and its inher- ent pleasures in and of itself. She was confident enough to avoid imi- tating Coleridge’s metrics and to invent her own, while suggesting that at least one reader recognizes the surprising formality of “Kubla Khan.” Robinson’s poetic reading divides Coleridge’s poem into the- matic or semantic sections. This happens in her poem with the con- struction of five distinct but highly irregular stanzas, which act more as paragraphs than strophes and demonstrate her comprehension of the verbal texture of “Kubla Khan.” Within the stanzas themselves, Robinson toys with form much in the same way Coleridge does, but far less obliquely in order to expose the metrical game Coleridge is playing and thereby to play along with him. As she does while quot- ing and paraphrasing its language, Robinson also demonstrates her comprehension of “Kubla Khan” by echoing its prosody, picking up on the most obvious features of the poem and exaggerating them. So, when inspiration wakes in her “extatic measures,” she is not only referring to the rapturous pleasure of reading Coleridge’s “mingled measure” but also—playing on the older sense of the word “ecstatic,” as in “being outside the body”—she is extending Coleridge’s metri- cal clue by pointing out that both his poem and hers defy stanzaic classification even as they suggest it. Robinson’s “mingled measure,” therefore, is not only her recognition of Coleridge’s, but also the amalgamation of her meter and his in her own “extatic measures.”
Like “Kubla Khan,” Robinson’s poem opens in a folk meter, and thus she makes her first nod to Coleridge’s metrical scheme. Lines 1 through 8 are actually two stanzas of long hymnal measure. The poem opens with Robinson offering to wander with Coleridge, but she makes it clear that, while his poem initially meanders to achieve its metrical effect, she is off to a running start. The words connote a tribute, but the meter also clearly announces a contest. Her metrical pyrotechnics continue throughout. The second stanza of the poem appears to consist mostly of iambic tetrameter couplets framed by long hymnal measure stanzas; but after reading “Kubla Khan,” Robinson clearly intends to mingle the measure of her poem to greater effect. Line 16 draws closer attention to the metrical scheme of the stanza and to itself, because it is the stanza’s only pentameter line. Because of its length and its metrical variation, this line indicates that Robinson is doing something in the stanza: since it conveniently consists of 18 lines without the first long hymnal measure stanza, the end-stopped fourth line suggests that it also contains a perverted English sonnet, with the required seven rhymes but in tetrameter. Line 16, there- fore, must be an ironic comment on the form the sonnet takes. The prominent couplets disguise its form, and it ends in long hymnal mea- sure, mocking the rhyme scheme that traditionally opens an English sonnet.
Robinson continues the extrapolation of forms in the third stanza but complicates it with a bewildering rhyme scheme and with seam- lessly interfused forms. The second stanza ends with the long hymnal measure, slightly varied, that has become a refrain for the end of each stanza. The two fourteen-line stanzas that close the poem are again perverted English sonnets that highlight Robinson’s recognition of the sonnet Coleridge hides at the center of “Kubla Khan.” The rhyme scheme of the first closely resembles that of the sonnet in “Kubla Khan,” though Robinson, never wholly imitative, varies it just enough to make the similarity striking (45–58). Like Coleridge, she contains the first three rhymes within six lines, thus defying the heroic qua- train structure usual for an English sonnet, which this most certainly corrupts as it has seven rhymes. And, like Coleridge, Robinson post- pones the “b” rhyme until the sixth line; but, where Coleridge com- pletes the rhyme after three lines, Robinson prolongs completion for four. Even though her lines are shorter by a foot, Robinson’s exten- sion of the rhyme creates a more varied aural effect by prohibiting more than two couplets in the octave, where Coleridge has three. In the sestet, Coleridge falls into the recognizable quatrain-followed-by- couplet pattern, though now his lines are also tetrameters. Robinson inverts this pattern to allow for the long hymnal measure refrain, which rhymes like a quatrain and here completes the sonnet. The son- net (59–72) that closes Robinson’s poem begins with a string of three couplets that end in an iambic pentameter at line 64, where Robinson substitutes a trochee for the initial foot. Immediately following the couplets, an envelope stanza dissolves the division between the octave and the sestet not by enjambing the eighth and ninth lines of the son- net, as in the Miltonic sonnet, but by making the rhyme of the tenth line (68) dependent upon the end of the seventh (65). Ending with a pair of couplets, Robinson prolongs the ending of the poem by two feet with the slow length of an Alexandrine, a meter that does not appear at all in “Kubla Khan,” providing closure to both her poem and Coleridge’s. Robinson’s poem contains at least as much metrical variety as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” though many of her metrical choices are notably different from his. Still, she shows that she can employ similar techniques.
Robinson easily could have imitated “Kubla Khan,” but she under- stood the substance and style of the poem well enough to answer its imaginative challenge. In effect, Robinson’s poem suggests a metrical deconstruction of Coleridge’s poem, The echoes of the semirefrain reverberating at the end of the first four stanzas show that she is inter- ested in creating her own structure and sense of completion rather than giving a false impression of fragmentariness and improvisation. She writes to Coleridge,
With THEE I’ll trace the circling bounds Of thy NEW PARADISE, extended;
And listen to the varying sounds
Of winds, and foamy torrents blended!
Now by the source, which lab’ring heaves The mystic fountain, bubbling, panting,
While gossamer its net-work weaves, Adown the blue lawn, slanting!
I’ll mark thy “sunny dome,” and view
Thy “caves of ice,” thy fields of dew! (2: 195–6; 5–14)
Coleridge has opened a “new Paradise” for eager poets such as Robinson to explore on their own. Coleridge’s most famous dream- poem, “Kubla Khan,” is anything but homogeneous in its metri- cal structure, employing a multitude of metrical allusions from folk meters to the sonnet and defying any single formal matrix. As John Beer says of the poem, “Kubla Khan is a poem about poetry – in some respects even a poem about itself” (118). This is true not only because of its analog of poetic creation, but also because the multitude of effects Coleridge employs in the poem consistently draw attention to themselves as metrical pyrotechnics. A metrically astute reader such as Robinson recognized the stitch-work in the fabric responsible for its rich texture. In “To the Poet Coleridge,” she matches many of the metrically acrobatic moves Coleridge makes and adds a few of her own. In so doing, Robinson proves that she recognizes his innovative blending of poetic forms and praises him for it. Her ode to Coleridge is not a dream but a waking offer to share with him the poet’s vision as his peer. Her meter highlights his and thus gives shape to a form that seemed previously undefined, almost as if her poem is the record of his dream. She shows that she understands the metrical structure of “Kubla Khan” by mimicking it in her poem, while adding her own unique flourishes. But she does not attempt to match move- for-move the metrical complexity of “Kubla Khan” that gives it the haze of unconscious spontaneity. Hers is deliberately a waking voice, and she formalizes his unconscious experience: his so-called fragment becomes her ode. The dream is disturbed, and the poet wakes in “extatic measures” but, like him, loses the vision.11
Robinson’s poetic reading of “Kubla Khan” fixes Coleridge’s “extatic” poem in form. This is what she does best—this formal per- formativity. If her poetic performances are theatrical, then they are not so much performances of characters as they are the staging, dress- ing, and blocking of words and ideas as fixed forms prominently dis- played. In this way, her poem to Coleridge exposes a poetical secret to readers, a secret Coleridge himself would keep from them for the next sixteen years. When he finally published the poem, he was deter- mined either to mystify it or to apologize for it with the subterfuge and of his red herring of a preface, “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan,” which famously complicates the reading of the poem. In it, Coleridge seems to advise the reader not to take the poem seriously, or possibly, more obliquely, to make a claim for its value by liberating the text from a fixed, determinate intention. Coleridge, writing about himself in the third person, explicitly instructs the reader to view the poem as a “psychological curiosity,” instead of as a literary text with “sup- posed poetic merits.” As Kathleen M. Wheeler points out, the reader would be unlikely to think of the poem “as any more a fragment than any other poem” without Coleridge’s calling it such (20). But why was Coleridge so defensive of, even embarrassed by, “Kubla Khan”?
The answer lies in the similarity of Robinson’s praise of Coleridge’s poem and her poetic adulation of Della Crusca almost a decade ear- lier. At the end of Robinson’s life, Coleridge became for her a new Della Crusca, the poet who initially represented her poetic engender- ing. While it is commonplace today to read the composition of “Kubla Khan” as a watershed moment in literary Romanticism, Robinson’s response to Coleridge’s seemingly iconoclastic poem reveals that, for- mally at least, “Kubla Khan” is fundamentally, even essentially, Della Cruscan. Could it be that, after Gifford’s Baviad, which remained in circulation for years, the rapid decline in the public’s appreciation for anything resembling the poetry of Della Crusca explains why Coleridge withheld the poem from publication for nearly twenty years? Is this why he presented it finally as a “psychological curiosity” instead of a literary text replete with any “supposed poetic merits”? Coleridge and Robinson obviously enjoyed rekindling the poetic flir- tations of Della Crusca and Anna Matilda; after her death, however, as we have seen, Coleridge was not so keen on preserving that flirta- tion for posterity. “Kubla Khan” evidently was one of these poems. As Tim Fulford puts it, Coleridge “admired her for exactly that for which he praised the Abyssinian maid—her music” (“Mary Robinson and the Abyssinian Maid” 18). Perhaps this is why he shared the poem with her, to flatter her and to flirt with her by calling her his muse. Eventually Coleridge enjoyed performing the poem for other poets whom he felt might appreciate its eccentricities, chanting it to emphasize the musicality of its metrical effects. Charles Lamb wrote to Wordsworth in April of 1816, the month before it appeared in print, that Coleridge performed the poem “so enchantingly that it irradi- ates and brings heaven and Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it” (3: 215). And obviously Byron heard it too. As Leigh Hunt later recalled, “He recited his ‘Kubla Khan,’ one morning, to Lord Byron, in his Lordship’s house in Piccadilly, when I happened to be in another room. I remember the other’s coming away from him, highly struck with his poem, and saying how wonderfully he talked” (Lord Byron 2: 53). But this is many years later. It is not clear whether Robinson read the poem in manuscript or heard Coleridge recite it for her. If the date on the poem in the 1801 Memoirs is accurate, he must have mailed her a copy of the poem after bidding her farewell in London, which would explain the accuracy of her quotations.
But the poem is also doubly attributed in the Memoirs. The title there is “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge,” but the poem is signed “Sappho.” This suggests that Robinson did apply the signa- tures to the poems she sent to Stuart for publication in the Morning Post. For some reason, this poem did not find its way to Stuart. In the context of the Memoirs, the signature strengthens the affiliation between Robinson and the Greek poet and affirms Robinson’s status as the English Sappho; but its placement among the tributary poems to Robinson and her occasional replies also underscores Robinson’s place among the amorous poetic correspondences initiated and inspired by the Della Crusca network. There, “Mrs. Robinson to the Poet Coleridge” follows Coleridge’s “A Stranger Minstrel” and fixes Coleridge as one of many poetical admirers paying court to Robinson and her various avatars, Laura and Sappho chief among them. These two poems are framed by a tribute by Rev. William Tasker that praises Robinson as “Sweet SAPPHO OF OUR ISLE” and another by John Taylor that addresses her as “dearest LAURA” (Memoirs 4: 140, 150). Merry, too, is among the parade of poetic paramours; without disavow- ing his much-maligned alter ego, the editor identifies him as “the late Robert Merry, Esq., Member of the Academy Della Crusca at Florence” (110). This kind of erotic subordination to Robinson and the unsavory association of himself with Taylor, Wolcot, and Merry is what mortified Coleridge as much as the unauthorized publication of his poem—as his letter to Maria Elizabeth indicates.
Moreover, reading “Kubla Khan” as part of a ludic quasi-erotic exchange with Robinson requires that we remove the film of familiarity (to use Coleridge’s own phrase) from “Kubla Khan” and compare it with, say, Coleridge’s “Songs of the Pixies” from his 1796 volume—a volume that the English Review found to contain much “Della Crusca affectation” (174). As David Fairer puts it, this earlier poem “has an ethereal erotic charge” (166). “Songs of the Pixies” dates from 1793, and Coleridge identified it in the 1796 volume explicitly as an “Irregular Ode.” But it also deals with poetic inspira- tion, vividly recalling the tropes of Della Crusca’s poetry as well as of Robinson’s: the pixies administer to a “youthful Bard, ‘unknown to fame’” who is as Della Cruscan as he is Coleridgean: this young poet “Wooes the Queen of solemn thought, / And heaves the gentle mis’ry of a sigh / Gazing with tearful eye” (Poems 20). The pixies anoint him with poetic inspiration, singing, “O’er his hush’d soul our soothing witch’ries shed, / And twine our faery garlands round his head” (Poems 21). When Robinson praises Coleridge’s “wond’rous witcheries of song,” she credits not only “Kubla Khan” but “Songs of the Pixies” as well. And she would have read “Kubla Khan” in light of the earlier poem.
Robinson’s responding to “Kubla Khan” in a Della Cruscan man- ner does not in itself make Coleridge’s poem like any of Della Crusca’s, but we should consider that possibility, especially given Coleridge’s complicated attitude toward his own poem. What Robinson’s poem most strikingly reveals is that, as a poem of the 1790s, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” formally most resembles an irregular ode. Indeed, its metrical variations resemble Robinson’s baroque odes from early in her career. Harold Bloom points out the influence of William Collins’ 1747 “Ode on the Poetical Character” as a significant influ- ence on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and its treatment of poetic cre- ativity (9–10). I would add that Collins’s ode formally influenced “Kubla Khan” as well in its extreme metrical variations and even in its tripartite structure, although Collins’s is more conventionally the strophe-antistrophe-epode formula of the classical ode. Collins’s ode is definitely heterostrophic. And Joseph Warton’s 1746 “Ode to Fancy” certainly is a significant thematic precursor to “Kubla Khan,” though its tetrameter couplets are regular where the latter poem is irregular. While “Kubla Khan” does not have the structural and the- matic coherence of an ode, it does posses the musicality contempo- rary readers would have thought of as lyrical, but without, until the end of the poem, the traditional subjectivity of the lyric.
Robinson wanted thereby to earn the wreath of fame, but she did not want the laurel reserved for a poetess because, as her treatment of Sappho in Petrarchan sonnets demonstrates, it bears the taint of the ephemeral and thus of mortality. Writing ambitious poetry in difficult forms was always a way for Robinson to affirm her hold on the poetic laurel and to steal for herself—not to borrow—the poetic legitimacy that came more easily to male poets who, like Merry or Coleridge, had certain educational and cultural advantages denied to a woman such as herself. This is why, at the end of her life, in her final year working for Stuart at the Morning Post, she had to revive the Sappho avatar and to use it so doggedly in the assertion of her cultural authority, as she does in the poem to Coleridge signed “Sappho.” She also used the avatar to praise the Earl of Moira, who may have assisted Robinson financially near the end of her life. On 3 July 1800, her poem “Sappho—To the Earl of Moira” appeared in the Morning Post, just a few weeks after the Irish statesman had voted in favor of union between Ireland and Great Britain. With this particu- lar political and personal resonance, Robinson declares her Sappho avatar to be “Britain’s Muse” and thus she specifically credentials her- self to bestow upon her benefactor a share of her poetic immortality (2: 97; 49). The composition of this poem would be the last time she would write her ubiquitous phrase “the wreath of fame”:
The wreath the Muse presents is Virtue’s claim, ’Tis BRITAIN’S off’ring! ’tis the wreath of FAME! The deathless wreath, which owns a pow’r divine, And, PATRON OF THE LYRE! that wreath is THINE! Foster’d by THEE, who early bade it live,
The blended garland shall new beauties give; New fragrance shed PARNASSIAN paths among,
To deck the length’ning labyrinths of song! (2: 96–97; 35–42)
She celebrates patronage because she has learned the hard way the caprices and vicissitudes of commercial literary pursuits. Her affili- ation with Moira cultivates a “blended garland” of patron and poet that will enable her to produce new works of genius, marked by “new fragrance” and “the length’ning labyrinths of song”—another echo of her “Ode to Della Crusca,” but also a metaphor for her own lyrical diversity, with which she has been “decked,” blessed, by the Parnassian muses. Even here Robinson exhibits her indefatigable obsession with poetic fame as well as the explicit association she makes between performing fame through form and actually earning it. Similarly, when she praises Coleridge as Sappho, she confers upon herself the authority to deck Coleridge with a laurel of her own construction: addressing him, she promises to “weave a crown for THEE, / GENIUS OF HEAV’N-TAUGHT POESY!” (2: 196; 51–2). The crown is of course her poem, substantiated in its formal complexity, as it always is for Robinson.
The tragedy and the irony of Robinson’s poetic career is that, replete as her poetry is with assertions of her worth and the supreme value of poetic fame, she seems to have hoped that repeating these charms often enough in print would make them true. Although it comes from her 1797 novel Walsingham, the inscription on the monument above her grave stands as Robinson’s final word on the subject:
Yet, o’er this low and silent spot
Full many a bud of spring shall wave, While she, by all, save one, forgot,
Shall snatch a wreath beyond the grave. (5: 20)13
In writing her own epitaph, Robinson finally fixed in form—in verse and in stone—what the speaker of Gray’s Elegy could only imagine. She certainly intended the allusion.