"Spirit Divine! with Thee I'll Wander": Mary Robinson and Coleridge in Poetic Dialogue

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On February 1,1801, Coleridge reported that Mary Robinson wrote him "a most affecting, heart-rending Letter a few weeks before she died, to express what she called her death bed affection & esteem for me--the very last lines of her Letter are indeed sublime--

         'My little Cottage is retired and comfortable. There I mean to
    remain (if indeed I live so long) till Christmas. But it is not
    surrounded with the romantic Scenery of your chosen retreat: it is
    not, my dear Sir! the nursery of sublime Thoughts--the abode of
    Peace--the Solitude of Nature's Wonders. O! Skiddaw!--I think, if I
    could but once contemplate thy Summit, I should never quit the
    Prospect it would present till my eyes were closed for ever!'"
    (Letters 2: 669).

Too ill to visit the Lake District, Robinson died on December 26, 1800.

In "A Stranger Minstrel," Coleridge replies concluding with a tribute to Robinson's presence, the "Lady of sweet song." This acknowledgment of Robinson's "magic song" is the final poetic round in a verse dialogue of six poems between the end of 1797 and of 1800 (1) illustrating a literary relationship between different generations and genders, writers who sympathized with each other and believed in poetry as an inspired craft. In light of the contemporary interest in Robinson's poetry, this dialogue between the older and well-known female poet in the final phase of her career and the young and still obscure coauthor of the Lyrical Ballads is revealing. The dialogue is unbalanced: Robinson at the end of her life has more at stake than Coleridge, her ambivalent admirer. While Coleridge still has a brilliant if troubled literary-philosophical career ahead of him, the scandal-burdened English "Sappho," at age forty-two, is at the end of hers. As a final poetic and testamentary act, Robinson, an invalid facing death, links her poetics to the new Lake Poets in both collaboration and friendly rivalry.

Although Coleridge and Robinson didn't meet until early 1800, they were aware of each other's work as contributors to Daniel Stuart's Morning Post. While Coleridge was struggling to establish himself as a writer and support his new family, Robinson was consolidating her literary authority. Robinson initiated the dialogue with "Ode to the Snow Drop" in The Morning Post on December 26, 1797. Taken from her novel Walsingham (1797), the reprinting conveys a sentimental parallel between the speaker and the author as beautiful but vulnerable flowers ["Where'er I find thee, gentle flow'r,/ Thou still art sweet, and dear to me!/ For I have known the cheerless hour,/ Have seen the sun-beams cold and pale,/ Have felt the chilling, wint'ry gale,/ And WEPT, and SHRUNK LIKE THEE!" (Pascoe 324)].

Robinson's most fanciful conceit, "The night-breeze tears thy silky dress,/ Which deck'd with silv'ry lustre shone" (323), joins pathos with poetic craft. Although distanced from the Della Cruscan style of her 1791 Poems, the "Snow Drop" retains the self-consciously artificial and erotic tone. Impressed by Robinson's lyric, Coleridge responded with "The Apotheosis, or the Snow Drop" on January 3, 1798, under the pseudonym "Francini," after he submitted it with yet another pseudonym: "I am one among your many readers, who have been highly gratified by your extracts from Mrs Robinson's Walsingham; you will oblige me by inserting the following lines [written] immediately on the perusal of her beautiful poem, the Snow Drop" (Letters 1: 639). His verse reply to "The Snow Drop" is in fact more a Della Cruscan erotic compliment than eulogy. In light of the recent critical revaluation of the poetry of sensibility so popular at the end of the eighteenth century, David Erdman's characterization of Robinson's lyric nearly half a century ago as "a factitious and imitative piece of flattery" (250) may need to be revised to acknowledge that both Robinson's "Snow Drop" and Coleridge's "Apotheosis" are in fact elegant and polished poems. …