Snapshots of Contradiction in Mary Robinson's 'Poetical Works.'

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Throughout the twentieth century, scholars engaged with British Romanticism generally have been eager to contain the period within the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and, in the process, maintain the revered status accorded the traditional "Big Six"--Blake, William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Shelley, and Keats. With the rediscovery of works by many women of the age, however, delimiting the period has become more difficult as Romanticism's long-accepted definitions are not only now being called into question, but the inclusion of women writers whose works are still in the process of being collected and made known again also generates challenges to conventional, male-author-based conceptualizations of the period. In consequence, students and scholars of the Romantic movement are being forced to reexamine what they know and, more importantly, how they came to know it. To know Romanticism now seems a blurry process because it is becoming more and more difficult to reassess the definition--or definitions--as writers who had "vanished" are rediscovered, collected, and assessed. Additionally, given the current practice of deemphasizing aesthetic value judgments and focusing on the cultural, sociological, economic, and psychological factors that influence a writer's work, new paradigms are being proposed which call into question twentieth-century perceptions of the Romantic movement.

I propose here to examine the work of one woman writer of the late eighteenth century, Mary Robinson, who has received more attention from twentieth-century scholars and critics than most of her female contemporaries. Mary Robinson (nee Darby) was in her lifetime well-known in Britain both for her acting abilities and later for her talent as a writer of both poetry and prose. Although Mary Robinson's personal life has almost from the start received considerable scholarly attention, her poetry has remained relatively unexamined. As a result, contemporary readers and critics lack a view of Robinson's enigmatic representation of the complexities of alienation as it is embodied by many of her subjects and personas. I here propose to show that Robinson's exiles and fugitives embody many of the contradictions present in Robinson's late eighteenth-century world and provide historically and artistically valuable representations of the earlier Romantic movement itself.

The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson was published in 1824, twenty-four years after the author's death on December 26, 1800. Although the poems are not dated, this edition is the most complete to date of all of Robinson's published and unpublished poetry.(1) The simple fact that a collected volume of her poetry was published over twenty years after her death is a credit to her continued popularity as a poet. The Poetical Works is Robinson's third collection of poetry. An earlier collection, Lyrical Tales, was published in 1800 by the prestigious firm of Longman; within the same month Longman and Rees published the second edition of Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. As Stuart Curran has noted, the great faith Longman and Rees placed in Robinson's abilities and popularity is evidenced by their payment to her of sixty-three pounds for a press run of 1250 copies, "which in both categories signifies very respectable numbers" (19). Longman had good reason for their faith; the first edition of her essay "Vancenza" sold out in one day and her first one-volume collection of poetry, published in 1791, had nearly 600 subscribers (Robinson 211-12).

Robinson's contemporaries had an intense if not obsessive fascination with her as a public figure. Before she was made an invalid by a variously-described illness in 1783 she was a renowned actress, highly esteemed by such theater luminaries as Sheridan and Brereton, and was constantly in the public eye, perhaps willingly since she maintained a coach--a 200 pound a year investment on an average income of 600 pounds a year. …