Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Merry's Expatriation

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Merry's Expatriation

Article excerpt

On October 19, 1796, Robert Merry (1755-1798), poet, dramatist and radical political activist, and his wife, the actress Anne Brunton Merry, arrived in America after a six-week journey from Britain marked, as he later wrote, by the "sublime emotions with which his soul was filled by the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean" ("Biographical Notice" 258). Their destination was Philadelphia, where Anne Merry was to lake up an acting position at the Chestnut Street Theatre. Robert Merry himself was greeted with enthusiasm by the progressive, pro-French Revolution Philadelphia press. For example, in an ode published in May 1797 in the American Universal Magazine (edited by another radical expatriate, Richard Lee) Merry was hailed as the heir to the "laureate" throne in the New World (qtd. in Mee, "Morals, Manners and Liberty"). Other members of the public cheered his arrival as "Delia Crusca," for indeed the Delia Cruscan school of poetry of which Merry was the most prominent figure from the mid to late 1780s, had taken hold on the American imagination and, as M. Ray Adams has shown, spawned a host of imitators in the years before the poet's arrival in the New World ("Delia Cruscanism" 259-65).

The Merrys had emigrated to America as victims of "Pitt's terror," the concerted effort of the British government in the 1790s to silence radical oppositional voices. From the beginning of the French Revolution. Robert Merry had abandoned the ornamental and exuberant Delia Cruscan poetry in favor of revolutionary activism in both Britain and France. During this time, he published his pro-Revolution poem The Laurel of Liberty (1790) and a number of political satires, including at least the first of the striking "Signor Pittachio" playbills (1794), which was clearly directed towards Pitt, He also wrote for the stage, producing a series of Gothic plays--Lorenzo (1791). The Magician No Conjuror (1792) and Fenelon, or the Nuns of Cambray, adapted from Marie-Joseph Chenier's French play of that name (1795)--that exhibit a more indirect political currency in examining the struggle against tyrannical power. As Merit's radical activity became more conspicuous, it became increasingly difficult to have his plays accepted at the patent theatres or to have his work published at all. Indeed Fenelon was never staged, an outcome that Merry anticipated when he wrote to his friend and financial backer, the poet Samuel Rogers, that the "name of a Republican would damn any performance at this time" (qtd. in Mee, "Magician No Conjuror" 51). Similarly, beginning with the 1792-93 season, Anne Merry withdrew from the Govent Garden theatre, although there are conflicting accounts as to whether this was due to the demands of Merry's family or if she had been frozen out for political reasons. (1) Unable to make a living in Britain, they took up the offer extended to Mrs. Merry by theatre manager Thomas Wignell, to join his company in Philadelphia. (2)

Before his departure, Robert Merry had continued to write poetry. He published The Wounded Soldier in 1795 and, in June, 1796, a few months before setting off for the United States, his final literary work written in Britain, The Pains of Memory. This poem was a response to The Pleasures of Memory, written four years earlier by Samuel Rogers. The Pains of Memory received a favorable critical reception in the British press. For example, the Monthly Review noted its "several striking and impressive scenes" (150) and the Critical Review acknowledged its "very considerable merit" (81); the Analytical Review praised the "several descriptions ... strongly conceived" as well as the "poetic elegance" of the work (175), while pointing out a few of stylistic infelicities, remnants of the Delia Cruscan style that Merry had since abandoned. The Pains of Memory was, likewise, well received in America and was praised, for example, by Elihu Hubbard Smith, the New York intellectual and friend of Charles Brockden Brown (Adams, "Delia Cruscanism" 263). …

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