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Mary Robinson and Your Brilliant Career

  • Judith Pascoe

…plus d’informations

  • Judith Pascoe
    University of Iowa

Editor's Note

Pascoe's edition, Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, is available from Broadview Press (ISBN: 1551112019- Price: US$15.95; CDN$12.95). You can find more information about this edition at the Broadview Press website.

Corps de l’article

When I was not writing my first book (I was getting ready to write, thinking about writing, worrying about why I was not writing), a study of romantic era theatricality which foregrounded lesser known women writers like Mary Robinson, I began work on the single chapter that focused on a canonical writer—William Wordsworth—with great pleasure. No, that is not quite accurate. I began work on the Wordsworth chapter with the same anxious awareness of my own overwhelming ignorance with which I had begun to contemplate all the other chapters. But there was a difference. In beginning to construct an argument about Wordsworthian performances, I could draw on a storied assembly of Wordsworthian editions and compilations of all kind. Stretching out behind me (well, actually before me—I had not read them yet, after all) was a veritable battalion of distinguished Wordsworth scholars proffering the fruits of their labors. There were biographies for the choosing, chronologies of Wordsworth's every move, scrupulous editions of Wordsworth's poetry, letters, prose. There was an annotated compilation of every known Wordsworth portrait, as well as quirky reminiscences by people who had actually known the poet and recorded their impressions. The names of some of these people—scholars who had devoted large portions of their lives to deciphering manuscript letters or dating poems—took on a talismanic quality as I labored over my chapters: Frances Blanshard, Donald Reiman, Mark Reed, Mary Moorman, and, that most holy of the holies, Ernest de Selincourt. I had only ever met one of these people but each was a distinct entity, with considerable, if disembodied, authority. What is more, the work of these editors, chroniclers, and compilers had been enlisted by generations of literary critics so that it was possible to delineate distinct schools of Wordsworth scholarship. In fact, at that point what was new and exciting about romantic studies in general was a New Historicist critical practice that was applied most conspicuously to Wordsworth studies. When, caught in the thrall of Marjorie Levinson, Alan Liu, and Clifford Siskin, among others, I began to think about Wordsworth and theatricality, I was insinuating myself (however feebly) into a robust and boisterous critical conversation about this poet, a conversation that had been going on for a hundred years and showed no signs of lapsing into embarrassed silence for lack of anything new to say. I had a distinct sense of who might be paying attention if I tried to horn in on the conversation. ("Hey, look at me! Wordsworth was star-struck. Wordsworth was performing on Helvellyn.")  [1]

When I began to draft chapters focusing on Mary Robinson, my situation was slightly different. Instead of feeling like an attention-seeking rube trying to hold my own at a lively party full of hyper-literate and soigné guests, I felt like an attention-seeking rube trying to impress ... my dissertation advisors, the most hyper-literate of them all, but still, just two people. Here are all the other people with whom I used to converse about Mary Robinson: an unfailingly enthusiastic independent scholar who had written the Robinson entry for Janet Todd's dictionary of women writers, a British librarian researching obscure details of Robinson's life for a biography that was eventually folded into a book on George IV's mistresses, and a woman of no discernible occupation who believed she was Robinson reincarnated and who was generous with her collection of fine Robinson editions and manuscripts.

Part of the pleasure of working on Wordsworth was the ability to go to any research library and load myself up with an armload of pertinent books, books that could be transported anywhere—say the south of France, or a cabin in the Michigan woods, although, in my case, it was actually to an office previously inhabited by a professor whose favorite color was pink in a sixties building designed to be impervious to student uprisings. Studying those books I could achieve a sophisticated level of Wordsworth knowledge. I did not have to independently pinpoint just when "Nutting" was composed or figure out why Wordsworth walked, a topic which several insightful scholars had pursued to very different ends. I do not mean to suggest that there was no longer any need for archival research in the realm of Wordsworth studies, just that it was possible for a woman in a pink office with a window that could only be opened with a crowbar to learn an awful lot about Wordsworth with comparatively little effort, to begin her own study of Wordsworth by scoffing (in the time honored manner of grad students and junior faculty desperate to clear a space for their own ideas) at all the other critics who had gotten it wrong, wrong, wrong.

By contrast, here are some of the ways I began work on Mary Robinson. I read Robert Bass's The Green Dragoon, a joint biography of Mary Robinson and her companion Banastre Tarleton which gave some precedence to the one with the military career.  [2] I fetishized Anne Mellor's Romanticism and Feminism (my copy would fall open to Stuart Curran's discussion of Robinson in "Romantic Poetry: The I Altered").  [3] I spent more time than I care to remember sitting in the British Library transcribing reviews of Robinson's poetry collections (reviews which had been indexed by William S. Ward, one of those saintly scholars who devote more time than they probably anticipated carrying out thankless bibliographic tasks which wind up being far more useful to far more people than the latest discussion of, say, romantic theatricality) because I could not afford microfilm. Oh yes, I spent several months during my stay in England tracing a stash of Robinson manuscript letters through, first, auction records, and, later, the personal remains of a London book dealer, only to learn the letters had been preserved in that little-known archive: the New York Public Library.

There was no modern Robinson edition (other than a facsimile edition of Robinson's Lyrical Tales) on offer.  [4] I was lucky to begin research in a Federalist city whose several libraries boasted stellar eighteenth-century holdings. Still, most of my work was based on Robinson editions that could only be read during rare book room hours, or else laboriously xeroxed (at considerable expense) from microfilm editions in The Eighteenth Century series. Being thrust into archival research by necessity was no bad thing, but the lack of a reliable modern edition, with the customary editorial accoutrements (critical bibliography, notes, introduction, publication histories, to name a few) meant that these archival investigations had to be replicated by every historically-minded commentator on Robinson's literary oeuvre. Or not—to the critic's peril.

I have mentioned the pleasure of immersing oneself in Wordsworth studies at this late date, and the very different pleasure intermittently afforded by archival research (the eureka discovery after days of unspooling microfilm). I am worried, however, at the way in which aesthetic pleasure has recently been divorced from these kinds of studious endeavor. I am troubled by how quickly legitimate calls for renewed attention to aesthetic pleasure and close reading skills become allied with a classificatory compulsion that seems to inevitably require denigration. When I hear spokespeople for a new formalism give talks, I listen warily because I am afraid of where they a're heading. I am rooting through my briefcase for something to heave at them should they resort to rallying cries: let us sort out the major from the minor, sift the canonical from the non-canonical, sequester the distinguished from the undistinguished. I am here to say that the aesthetic pleasure I derive from Wordsworth's "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" is exponentially enhanced by the brilliant critics who have applied themselves to this poem. At the risk of overworking my earlier literary party scenario, I would go so far as to say that if you put me in a room alone with "Tintern Abbey" you get a version of aesthetic pleasure that is comparable to the pleasantries afforded by a modestly successful faculty party. ("Abundant recompense! what a great phrase," I enthuse. The poem yawns.) Add the "Tintern Abbey" interpretations of Kenneth Johnston, Isobel Armstrong, Geoffrey Hartman, Marjorie Levinson, to name just a few of the great minds that have applied themselves to this poem, and the poem is pouring champagne and blowing kisses. The consecutive waves of critical intervention enacted on Wordsworth's poem are, for me, irreducibly caught up in my pleasurable experience of that poem.

This is less the case for my students. Some of them, although English majors and beneficiaries of Iowa's highly regarded state educational system, like rhyming poems with less densely packed emotion. They prefer Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca" to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," thank you very much. Now I can teach close reading skills with one poem as easily as the other, but is it really necessary for such a discussion to end by deciding whether these poets should be called major or minor? Just because I have been trained to value complexity and ambiguity, do I need to diminish the very real aesthetic pleasure "Casabianca" provides to students who read about the boy on the burning deck with no ironic detachment, who, in other words, read the poem in the same way as its original devotees? And even that seemingly straightforward poem is enhanced for my students by the fascinating contextual information provided by Susan Wolfson's and Peter Manning's introduction to the poem in The Longman Anthology of British Literature.  [5] I appreciate the gloss of the Battle of the Nile and Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar because I am interested in romantic relic collecting and the editors point out that Nelson's coffin was crafted from the wreckage of the Orient, the ship on whose burning deck Jiacomo Casabianca stood. One of my students suddenly gives himself a shake and reports that he saw a documentary about the wreckage of the Orient on the Discovery channel. You can hear the tumblers clicking into place as he makes a connection between romantic poetry and the actual world.

I will be happy to defend why I teach certain poets and not others; I will be glad to talk about rhyme schemes and allusiveness, conditional verbs and color imagery. I am just not particularly interested in ranking poets, in calling some in and others out, in referring to Coleridge's "Constancy to an Ideal Object" as "watered-down Wordsworth" like one of my students once did. I was last interested in minor literature as a category for discussion when I read "A White Heron" and the Question of Minor Literature in which Louis Renza enacts "a minor criticism of minor literature" on Sarah Orne Jewett's short story, a procedure which, he forewarns in his introduction, could result in "prolonged discussions reducible to what an epistemologically conservative notion of textuality would judge as egregious overreadings and as a criticism more literarily ambitious than the texts themselves."  [6] Well, let the egregious overreadings begin, I say. I prefer what Renza calls a "virtually endless praxis" applied to, say, Jane Taylor's "Twinkle twinkle little star" over the alternative: a virtually endless praxis applied to a predefined list of poems that particularly lend themselves to virtually endless praxis. To dismiss poems as minor or lacking in aesthetic value before we have begun to carry out the kinds of editorial and analytical exercises that help bring poems to life strikes me as throwing out the baby before even dipping it into the bathwater.

So I offer up a new Broadview edition of Mary Robinson's selected poetry, attractively packaged, affordably priced (US$12.95, CND$15.95, £8.95), and easily transportable to cabin, villa, or library carrel.  [7] The edition is attempting to be all things to all readers, to introduce students to Robinson's work with the help of a contextualizing introduction and notes, but also to permit novice Robinson scholars to hit the ground running. To this end, I have provided a list of all known Robinson poems and their publication histories, a selection of Robinson's manuscript letters, reviews of her poetry, an appendix of poems Coleridge wrote (or appropriated) for his literary interchange with Robinson, and a bibliography listing the available scholarship on Robinson (burgeoning but still limited). The edition will be followed in relatively quick order by Sharon Setzer's Broadview edition of The Natural Daughter and A Letter to the Women of England, and by Julie Shaffer's Broadview Walsingham. These editions of Robinson's novels will be supplemented before too long by a Broadview Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson edited by Linda Peterson. To complement these paper editions, we have an electronic edition of A Letter to the Women of England (edited by Adriana Craciun, Anne Irmen Close, Megan Musgrave, and Orianne Smith) at the Romantic Circles web site, and the extensive review archive Julie Shaffer has been adding to Women Writers on the Web for the Corvey Project.

All of these editorial projects, like Stuart Curran's edition of Charlotte Smith's poetry, William McCarthy and Elizabeth Craft's edition of Anna Barbauld's poetry, Jerome McGann's edition of Letitia Landon's poetry, and Glenn Dibert-Himes's Landon web site, represent invitations not foreclosures. How about a dissertation focusing on the interconnections between poetry and other arts (William Galperin's The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism and Richard Sha's The Visual and Verbal Sketch in British Romanticism are models for such a project) with special attention to Robinson?  [8] One chapter could focus on Maria Cosway's striking illustrations of Robinson's "The Wintry Day" (reproduced in the Broadview Selected Poems). Another might explore Robinson's collaboration with the actress Dorothy Jordan, who set Robinson poems to music. A third might examine Robinson's interactions with Joshua Reynolds; the tribute poems she wrote to him (and her meditation on portraiture in "Stanzas to a Friend, Who Desired to Have My Portrait") could be set against his famous portraits of her. Robinson's "Lines Inscribed to P. De Loutherbourg, Esq. R.A." alludes to Loutherbourg's landscape paintings (identified in a note to the poem). Loutherbourg and Robinson would have been familiar with each other from common theatre backgrounds; this relationship begs to be explored. Robinson's references to Robert Ker Porter in letters to his sister Jane (one of which is printed in the edition) call to mind his panoramic "Storming of Seringapatam," exhibited in 1800. Galperin's The Return of the Visible initiates a discussion of this painting, but the Porter family as a whole deserves far more attention than they have yet received, and Robinson's association with them provides one mode of access.

If the kinds of study I have outlined above do not address formalist concerns or make the case for Robinsonian aesthetic pleasure sufficiently, well then, how about addressing Robinson's poetry in the same terms as the ones deployed in Susan Wolfson's Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism, a study of romanticism's involvement with poetic form "in its contentious theorizing and in divergent practices"?  [9] Such a study would take seriously Coleridge's admiration for Robinson's metrical facility ("ay! that Woman has an Ear").  [10] The formal range of Robinson's work is unusually broad. The fact that she wrote poems modeled after those of Jonathan Swift (her "London's Summer Morning" recalls his "A Description of the Morning") and William Wordsworth (her "All Alone" responds to his "We are Seven") makes it hard to pin her down as a poet with a consistent and resonant poetic voice. It may be that even after generations of critical response to Robinson's work, after years of analytical accretion of the kind that animates poets and their poems (and which, bear with me as I belabor my main point, has only barely begun in the case of Robinson), there will never be a sense of poetic accomplishment of the singular kind that causes names to be transformed into adjectives. We may never be able to use the term Robinsonian (although I already have in this essay) and be confident that others will know what we are talking about. We may instead see a formal technique founded on borrowing and lending, metrical patterns being swapped, striking images plucked from one poet's work and smuggled into another's. We may extend Adela Pinch's astute recognition of the way emotions—those seemingly authentic marks of individual personhood—floated free of their invokers to surface in other poets' work, and consider what is at stake if formal features of poems displayed a similar mobility. Then again, we might not. We will never know, will we, until someone, better yet, many committed someones, challenging each others' arguments, get on the job.

Laura Mandell, noting the errors plaguing new anthologies of romantic-era literature, kindly suggests that "perhaps correct copying of texts takes a whole history of reproducing them."  [11] It is comforting, of course, for me to think of my edition of Robinson's poetry as the first in a long line of editions, each more closely approximating editorial perfection. I do not look forward to being alluded to in the same tone of disdain as certain Victorian editors who committed inexcusable acts of editorial vandalism—erasing Emily Dickinson's dashes or tidying up her grammar. No, I would rather the Robinson edition (even a hundred years from now) not provide future editors with reasons to feel smug and superior. But then again, I am well aware that I am no Leslie Marchand. Marchand devoted an entire scholarly career to the devoted stewardship of Byron's manuscript letters and the establishment of accurate biographical facts. I have devoted parts of ten years to similar endeavors on behalf of Mary Robinson and, frankly, I need help. Robinson has no Marchand. She may—it is possible—be undeserving of a Marchand. But we cannot really say this is the case until she has benefitted from some fraction of the editorial and analytical attention that has been bestowed upon Byron.

If there are dedicated editors such as Marchand out there these days, they are exploring electronic media, working out the intricacies of HTML rather than nosing about ancestral homes in search of lost manuscripts. In the case of Robinson, I know there are still manuscript letters to be found, poems to be turned up, biographical lacunae to be filled in. By the same token, there are Robinson poems (listed in my appended publication history, but left out of the edition, assessed, fairly or not—you be the judge—to be of narrower appeal than the ones I selected for inclusion) that could be made immediately available on the internet. So whether you style yourself as a scholar adventurer or a computer guru, there is work to be done. What are you waiting for?

Parties annexes