One of the first of the Romantics, and admired by Coleridge, she deserves to be more widely known
One of the first Romantic poets, a position she shares with William Blake, Mary Robinson (1757-1800) is probably more familiar to us today from her portraits than her poetry, although before she died she had secured a reputation as “the English Sappho”. This may be an exaggeration (women poets have been almost as cursed by excessive praise as by excessive neglect) but she certainly deserves to be more widely known.
Her life was always one of fluctuation between luxury and poverty, male protection and abandonment – the two, of course, not unrelated. She was only 14 when she became a teacher at the girls’ school her mother ran. When the school was closed down by her absconding father on one of his return visits, she was married off to a fortune-seeking conman, Thomas Robinson. At 21, playing Perdita in David Garrick’s arrangement of A Winter’s Tale, she caught the eye of the young Prince of Wales (the future George IV). After a year, the prince lost interest in his mistress. In the latter years of her short life, her health failing, she wrote prolifically: poems, novels, polemic and memoir. Coleridge thought highly of her poems; she wrote admiringly of his. One of her longer-term liaisons was with Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a hero of the American revolutionary war, and it’s thought that he provided the model for Phaon in her 44-sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon. Three extracts from the sequence form today’s Poem of the week.
Sappho and Phaon is generally thought to be her major work. Sourced from Ovid’s Heroides, the tale of Sappho’s love for an unfaithful boatman is apocryphal. But it’s a useful vehicle for Robinson, enabling her to make her case for the right of women to live by the dictates of sexual passion. If this seems akin to the liberation-by-lap-dancing widely advocated today, Robinson’s political seriousness is not in doubt. Though her lovesick Sappho rails at the futility of “reason” and “philosophy”, elsewhere, Robinson argues eloquently for women’s rationality and right to education. She was an ardent admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, and her Letter to the Women of England against Mental Subordination still makes powerful reading.
She describes the Petrarchan form she uses as “the legitimate sonnet”. Despite the greater difficulty of the Petrarchan rhyme-scheme, the more open pattern of the sestet suits her narrative purpose. She is revising Ovid and Pope, as well as reinstating Petrarch. They “have celebrated the passion of Sappho for Phaon; but their portraits, however beautifully finished, are replete with shades, tending rather to depreciate than adorn the Grecian Poetess.”
The three sonnets here demonstrate Robinson’s originality. In XIII, “She Endeavours to Fascinate Him”, Sappho’s attitude and attire are those of a Regency beauty dressed for subtle suggestiveness (contrast Ovid, who, in the Heroides letter, has Sappho wearing a rough shift). XX, “To Phaon”, is interesting in its imagery, particularly that of the snowdrop entwined with the thistle. Robinson, Coleridge and Wordsworth all wrote poems about the snowdrop, and the presence of the modest flower makes for an authentic touch of local, English Romantic, colour. XXX, “Bids Farewell to Lesbos”, has Sappho crossing the sea to Sicily, to leap from the high rock, Leucadia, and either cure her love, or drown. The sonnet has a gentle, graceful but forward-thrusting rhythm that suggests the movement of her boat. I’ve never seen the elision “shad’wing” used before, and find it strangely expressive, a word that breaks like a wave, and, thus divided, evokes a dark-winged bird. The reference to the boat’s gaudy trappings perhaps recalls Robinson in her youthful triumph, riding in the grand carriages she loved, towards her uncertain, but certainly heroic, future.
XIII. She Endeavours to Fascinate Him
Bring, bring to deck my brow, ye Sylvan girls,
A roseate wreath; nor for my waving hair
The costly band of studded gems prepare,
Of sparkling crysolite or orient pearls:
Love, o’er my head his canopy unfurls,
His purple pinions fan the whisp’ring air;
Mocking the golden sandal, rich and rare,
Beneath my feet the fragrant woodbine curls.
Bring the thin robe, to fold about my breast,
White as the downy swan; while round my waist
Let leaves of glossy myrtle bind the vest,
Not idly gay, but elegantly chaste!
Love scorns the nymph in wanton trappings drest;
And charms the most concealed, are doubly grac’d.
XX. To Phaon
Oh! I could toil for thee o’er burning plains;
Could smile at poverty’s disastrous blow;
With thee, could wander ‘midst a world of snow,
Where one long night o’er frozen Scythia reigns.
Sever’d from thee, my sick’ning soul disdains
The thrilling thought, the blissful dream to know,
And can’st thou give my days to endless woe,
Requiting sweetest bliss with cureless pains?
Away, false fear! nor think capricious fate
Would lodge a daemon in a form divine!
Sooner the dove shall seek a tyger mate,
Or the soft snow-drop round the thistle twine;
Yet, yet, I dread to hope, nor dare to hate,
Too proud to sue! too tender to resign!
XXX. Bids farewell to Lesbos
O’er the tall cliff that bounds the billowy main
Shad’wing the surge that sweeps the lonely strand,
While the thin vapours break along the sand,
Day’s harbinger unfolds the liquid plain.
The rude Sea murmurs, mournful as the strain
That love-lorn minstrels strike with trembling hand,
While from their green beds rise the Syren band
With tongues aёrial to repeat my pain!
The vessel rocks beside the pebbly shore,
The foamy curls its gaudy trappings lave;
Oh! Bark propitious! bear me gently o’er,
Breathe soft, ye winds; rise slow, O! swelling wave!
Lesbos; these eyes shall meet thy sands no more:
I fly, to seek my Lover, or my Grave!