1801 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Robinson

Anonymous, "Account of the late Mrs. Robinson" Monthly Magazine 11 (February 1801) 36-40.



Circumstances that cast an accidental lustre over a life, are to be taken by the biographer rather as a fortunate assistance to his labour, than any part of the intrinsic merit of the subject of his work. The life of Mrs. Robinson, a sketch of which we now present to our readers, was not wanting in such circumstances; but there are only two which we shall select, and which may reasonably be allowed to be objects of our predilection. Mrs. Robinson was collaterally descended from that ornament of our country, Mr. John Locke; and the had the felicity to receive the earliest and therefore the most important part of her education from the justly celebrated Hannah More.

The family of Mrs. Robinson was respectable on the side of each of her parents. On the mother's side it was that she claimed relationship to Mr. Locke. Her father, Mr. Darby, who died in the naval service of Russia, in which he commanded a ship of 74 guns, was descended from an ancient Irish family. Her brother is an eminent merchant at Leghorn, in Italy. Mrs. Robinson was born in the College Green, Bristol. After receiving part of her education at Miss More's school, she was sent to a boarding-school near London. Her father lost a considerable fortune in some commercial speculation; and this probably occasioned her removal from his immediate care. Mr. Robinson, the younger brother of Commodore Robinson, late in the Right Honourable East India Company's service, who was serving his clerkship to an attorney in the metropolis, by some accident was introduced to Miss Darby; and that he became violently enamoured of her, will not be surprising to those who have seen her even since calamity and disease had robbed her of part of her exquisite beauty. Miss Darby, with a loveliness of form and features that perhaps never was surpassed, possessed a lively humour and a sweetness of temper that made her personal charms only a secondary object to sensibility.

When we consider the fine genius of Mrs. Robinson, and the literary excellence that she afterwards attained, under a thousand disadvantages, we may well pause at this eventful moment of her life; and may be allowed to lament her early, hasty, it may be called rash, marriage. She was only fifteen when she married Mr. Robinson. Very soon after, her husband, from some family disappointments, fell into a succession of embarrassments. The writer of this memoir was intimate with a lady and her daughter who were neighbours and visitors of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, within a short time after their union, and when they already struggled with pecuniary difficulties. Often has he heard them converse, with the enthusiasm of extreme admiration, of the innocent, amiable, deserving conduct of the married child, as they used to name her, under circumstances that frequently disconcert and disgrace the oldest and wisest. Mr. Robinson's affairs having been partially propped by usurers, declined, from the very weight of that circumstance, into a worse condition; and he was at length imprisoned by one of his creditors, who had been his schoolfellow, and to this hour professes to be his friend. We should not touch on this fact, but for the share Mrs. Robinson took in her husband's misfortune. She lived fifteen months with Mr. Robinson in a prison; the threshold of which she never passed but once or twice, when she visited the Duchess of Devonshire, who generously patronised an attempt Mrs. Robinson made with her pen, to relieve their wants in prison. In this melancholy situation, her Muse made its earliest efforts; and she published a small volume of Poems, which are now scarcely known, there being at the time, we believe, only a few copies printed for the persons who took them at the recommendation of her noble patroness. But accumulation of difficulties induced Mrs. Robinson to think of something less temporary and casual, as a resource from absolute penury. She cast her eyes towards the stage; and was soon engaged at Drury-lane Theatre. Her characters were — Lady Macbeth; Juliet; Ophelia; Rosalind; Imogen; Viola; Polmyra; Octavia; Statira; and Perdita.

In the character of Perdita, in the last of the two seasons during which she was on the stage, her uncommon beauty captivated the heart of the heir-apparent of a throne. It is not for us so apologise for the engagements of Mrs. Robinson with that Prince. The circumstances that would extenuate the error, whether of attraction in the rank and personal accomplishments of that illustrious personage, or of disgust in the indiscretions of a husband and the deserted state of the wife, or any thing beside that can be added to them, are not of weight to excuse the fault; while, on the other hand, they will not be overlooked in the estimate made by the molt rigid of this transaction. Mrs. Robinson herself at leisure repented of the offence; and we may close this part of her life by observing that, during the short period of her favour with the Prince, which was little more than two years, Mrs. Robinson's house and table were distinguished for the talents even more than the rank of her visitors; and that the was less the object of envy in that delicate situation, than of universal esteem. The flame of the great orator and statesman who stood between Mrs. Robinson and the Prince, when a provision for her was proposed by the latter, is in itself a proof in what honourable regard Mrs. Robinson was held; and the noble manner in which she cancelled a bond for £20,000 from his Highness, previous to that settlement, and even without any stipulation for an equivalent, will be witnessed by that great character we have alluded to, now that his evidence in her behalf has ceased to be, what it was, one of the sources of her sincerest pleasures.

The Prince settled £500 per annum on Mrs. Robinson for her life; and £200 per annum on her daughter for life, to commence at the decease of Mrs. Robinson. This young lady, who is still living, is the daughter of Mr. Robinson; but the noble-minded person already alluded to, who was in fact the sole arbiter of this matter, was quick to perceive what would be the helpless condition of Miss Robinson, if she should survive her mother, without provision from his Highness, and it is to the honour of all the parties that this arrangement was adopted, but most of all to the arbiter with whom it originated.

Mrs. Robinson had passed through the sun-shine of her worldly grandeur with unrivalled praise for her beauty and manners. And, in truth, she was calculated to move in a higher sphere. She was endowed with a genius of the finest mould. It is true, her talents were, to that moment, little cultivated. But the possessed a rich and powerful imagination; a rectitude and vivacity of moral feeling; and an early acquired, or, as it is termed, a natural taste; that were the best of tutors for literary pursuits, and the surest of preparations for the enjoyment of intellectual and rational delights. Beside the annuity of £500 Mrs. Robinson possessed jewels to the amount of £8000. And, although the whole of her property, at this moment, was not adequate to splendid appearances, it was fully equal to ease and competence; especially when added to Mrs. Robinson's power of earning an income by literary labours, which have, in fact, since yielded Mrs. Robinson nearly as much as her annuity. But, these happy powers, this happy disposition, and, this fair prospect, were all partially blighted by an unfortunate attachment. The gentleman who was the object, without any thing grossly faulty in his character, and with a great deal that was excellent in his disposition, was, nevertheless, infinitely below Mrs. Robinson in understanding, and had no relish for any but the obvious pleasures of life. Mrs. Robinson's attachment was blind; and she plunged headlong into an expensive mode of living, in which he was the chief participator. We do not write the defence, but the story, of a most extraordinary woman, who, uniformly, we believe, paid the extreme forfeiture of all her mistakes. Yet, here we may be permitted to say, that the generosity of her temper a little sanctioned the folly we have just mentioned. The person here alluded to had resolved to go abroad; and the immediate occasion of his resolution was the want of £800. Mrs. Robinson had no property on which she could instantly raise the amount, and the affair admitted of no delay. She addressed a note to the person who had been the arbiter of her fortune in the settlement made by the Prince, to request the loan of £800. Her messenger returned with £300 and a note, saying, Mrs. Robinson might depend on receiving the remainder on the following morning. This was at night. Mrs. Robinson had been at the opera; and the Duke de Biron, and an English nobleman of the highest rank had returned with her from that place to supper. Not having seen — at the opera, where he had promised to join her, nor finding him at her house, she sent to every quarter in search of him; and as no intelligence of him arrived, the concluded he had departed without taking his leave, because she had insisted on going with him if he was driven to that extremity, which he had properly declined, having only £20 at his command. With the passion and zeal of generous minds, Mrs. Robinson, between one and two o'clock in the morning, threw herself into a post-chaise to follow him, without sufficient precautions of dress against the cold, although it was the depth of winter, and the weather was very severe. She was agitated, and heated by her apprehensions; and let down the glasses of the chaise; and, in that situation fell asleep. At the first stage, she was obliged to be carried into the inn, almost frozen; and from that hour, never recovered the entire use of her limbs. For a long time the joints of her fingers were contracted; but they were afterwards partially restored, and she could even write with great facility. But from the time of that accident, she could never walk nor even stand; and was always carried from one room to another, and to and from her carriage. Mrs. Robinson consoled herself with having effected the service she proposed by this unfortunate journey; and never once was known peevishly to lament the irreparable consequences.

Not long after this, Mrs. Robinson went abroad for the benefit of her health, and remained five years on the continent. She took with her her daughter, whom she tenderly loved; and her mother, to whom the was always most affectionate and dutiful. And, solaced by the company of these person, enjoying the pleasures of travelling in an agreeable manner through some of the finest parts of Europe, and at Paris, and every other place, treated with the most profound respect and consideration by persons most distinguished for rank or talents, Mrs. Robinson passed those five years with a calm and rational happiness that, perhaps, made them the most fortunate period of her life.

Mrs. Robinson had not thought of literature as a resource, either against the tedium of life, or for its wants, since the little attempt the had made when her husband was in prison. On her return to England, which was in 1788, she began those literary employments in which she continued to be engaged till within a very few weeks before her death, with a constancy, a spirit of enterprise, and a degree of success, that cannot fail respectively to excite our astonishment, when we contemplate the disadvantages of a life, at one time too rudely pressed with misfortune, at another too much enervated with the refinements of luxury.

The chief of her publications are—

Poems, in two volumes, 8vo.
Legitimate Sonnets, with Thoughts on Poetical Subjects, and Anecdotes of The Grecian Poetess, Sappho.
A Monody to the Memory of the Queen of France.
A Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Modern Manners; a Satire, in two Cantos, 4to.
The Sicilian Lover, a Tragedy, in five Acts.
Sight; The Cavern of Woe; and Solitude; three Poems, 4to.
A Pamphlet in Vindication of the Queen of France; published without a name.
A Pamphlet entitled, Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and the Injustice of Mental Subordination.
Vancenza, a Romance, 2 vols.
The Widow, a Novel, 2 volt.
Angelina, a Novel, 3 vols.
Hubert de Sevrac, a Romance, 3 vols.
Walsingham, a Novel, 4 vols.
The False Friend, a Novel, 4 vols.
The Natural Daughter, a Novel, 2 vols.
Lyrical Tales, 1 vol. crown 8vo.
A Picture of Palermo, translated from Dr. Hagar.

To the first edition of her poems, Mrs. Robinson had a subscription, that at once does honour to herself and the patronage the received. Six hundred persons of the highest rank or talents were her subscribers; many of whom took several copies, and others assisted her greatly beyond the amount of their subscriptions. Mrs. Robinson's beauty was still admired; her engaging manners were still remembered; her talents had already gained her that name, which men of genius often confer by conversation in literary circles, long before the favoured subject of their praise is known through the medium of publication. Mrs. Robinson, at this period, was little less an object of attention, a theme of fashion, than in the moment of her entire ascendancy in the gay world; and for this distinction she was indebted solely to her fascinating charms and genius, since her power was fled, and she was even then falling into the disrepute of comparative adversity.

There exists a literary anecdote that deserves to be noticed, both as it marks most distinctly the adulation universally paid to Mrs. Robinson at the time we speak of, and as it unfolds a little the character and species of those periodical productions that call themselves Reviews. When the first edition of Mrs. Robinson's Poems (those in two volumes) appeared, the Reviews bestowed on them a praise, not above their merits, but agreeing altogether with Mrs. Robinson's fashion and currency at that moment. When a subsequent edition appeared, their tone was lowered; but it had this consistency in it, that though it was now below the merit of the work, it was on a level with the declining fortunes of Mrs. Robinson.

The Poems, in two 8vo. volumes, which may justly be called Mrs. Robinson's first publication, are almost in every part characterized by the effusions of a rich genius; the sweetness and elegance of a polished taste; and the genuine language of sensibility. Among the most vigorous poems in that collection, are the following: a poem entitled — "Ansi va le monde;" in which the hallowed spirit of freedom (now indeed in little estimation) is poured forth in the true style of a poet — "Lines addressed to him who will understand them;" replete with passion — A poem beginning with "Bounding billows, cease thy motion;" often named with admiration by a gentleman who is at once among the finest of our poets and the greatest of our orators — And that most beautiful poem "The Maniac;" whose merit led the celebrated author of The Minstrel to seek an introduction to Mrs. Robinson, at Bath, where they both happened to be soon after its publication.

The Legitimate Sonnets are remarkable for their tenderness, and the harmony of their versification; but have not the strength of most of Mrs. Robinson's other poems.

The little volume containing the three poems entitled, Sight; The Cavern of Woe; and Solitude; has several passages of the purest fire, the boldest thought, and the richest imagery.

But the Lyrical Tales are, perhaps, the most delightful of Mrs. Robinson's compositions. Almost every poem in that small volume is a treasure to the heart or the imagination. The Haunted Beach is to be distinguished for poetic imagery, and the excellence of the tale. After the cause of the beach being haunted is unfolded, in the murder of a ship wrecked sailor by a fisherman, tempted by the gold he had about his person, and a spectered band (the drowned companions of the sailor) are described as surrounding the fisherman's cottage, or following him in his occupation, the poem concludes with the following verses; which, for terror, and for the consequent moral, are not surpassed in the English language.

And since that hour the fisherman
Has toil'd and toil'd in vain
For all the night, the moony light
Gleams on the specter'd main!
And when the skies are veil'd in gloom
The murd'rer's liquid way
Bounds o'er the deeply yawning tomb,
And flashing fires the sands illume,
Where the green billows play!

Full thirty years his task has been,
Day after day more weary;
For Heaven design'd his guilty mind
Should dwell on prospects dreary.
Bound by a strong and mystic chain,
He has not pow'r to stray;
But, destin'd mis'ry to sustain,
He wastes, in solitude and pain—
A loathsome life away.

"The Alien Boy" is an instance of the sublime. It is impossible by description to do justice to the merits of that poem. One touch of the finest art we cannot forbear to give in the following lines—

—Yet he lives,
A melancholy proof that man may bear
All the rude storms of fate, and still suspire;
By the rude world forgotten!

This is said of one abandoned to all extremities of wretchedness. And for the perfect insight into the human heart with which it is said, we appeal to all who know its workings.

"The Deserted Cottage" is a fine example of the simple and pathetic in writing; and the two concluding verses deserve to be quoted for the refinement of their feeling, and the delicacy of their moral taste.

And now behold yon little cot
All dreary and forsaken!
And know, that soon 'twill be thy lot
To fall, like JACOB and his race,
And leave on time's swift wing no trace,
Which way their course is taken.
Yet, if for truth and feeling known,
Thou still shalt be lamented!
For when thy parting sigh has flown,
Fond MEM'RY on thy grave shall give
A tear — to bid thy VIRTUES live!
Then — smile, AND BE CONTENTED.

"The Poor Singing Dame" is also a pathetic tale; which, though equally true to nature, is the copy of nature in her plainer garb.

"The Trumpeter, an old English Tale," affords an example of another kind. It is a satire, expressed with all the acumen of its species; and it has beside the merit of being a well-told tale, whose images pass in vivid succession before the eyes.

"The Widow's home," though possessing less of the fire of genius than some other poems in the volume, is an instance (to which we with to refer our reader) of that most excellent moral feeling that peculiarly marked Mrs. Robinson's character.

Many of Mrs. Robinson's poems that appeared lately in the Morning Post, and which are not published in any collection, are extremely beautiful; and deserve to be placed among her other works.

The prose compositions of Mrs. Robinson are greatly below her poetry. Not that her novels and romances (of which they chiefly consist) want invention; but that she wrote with a haste that did not permit her to be choice in the selection of incidents, or to weave an artful webb in the relation. She was accustomed to write from the impulse of the moment; and the facility with which the wrote her poems, spoiled her for the drudgery that belong to every work of great extent. Of her facility we could relate examples that appear incredible. Many of the Iongest pieces in her Lyrical Tales, were written in one morning. "The Lascar," consisting of 312 lines, was written, revised, and completed, in less than eight hours; and the beauties of that poem may challenge works more laboured.

But though Mrs. Robinson could not submit to the tedious consideration of all that was necessary to a work of length, scarcely ever was labour more severe or constant, than that of the latter period of her life. She never disappointed her employers, although her literary engagements were so many, and of such various kinds, that it seemed impossible to execute them. We have said, she latterly earned nearly as much by literary labours as the amount of her annuity.

The Lyrical Tales was the last of Mrs. Robinson's poetical publications. The last work on which the was employed, was the translation of The Picture of Palermo, from Dr. Hager. She had long occupied part of her time in preparing Memoirs of her Life; and, considering the fruitful events of that life, it is to be hoped they will not be with-held from the public.

For some months previous to her death, Mrs. Robinson had much to endure. Her health was declining; pecuniary embarrassments pressed closely upon her; and her heart was swollen with injuries. Amidst all this, her conduct was marked chiefly with fortitude and cheerfulness. It was only the few who saw her in the closest retirement that perceived the symptoms of a broken spirit. Yet her debts (which were partly the cause) were comparatively small, £1200 would have paid them; and Mrs. Robinson had recently adopted plans of economy, which would have enabled her, in a year or two, to have satisfied every pecuniary claim on her. Her fate, in this respect, must be deemed cruel; and the more so, as the had often released others from the danger of a prison, with which she was threatened in her very last moments. Mrs. Robinson was not, however, destitute of friends, had the chosen to have applied to them. The Duchess of Devonshire, Lord Moira, and the Marquis and Marchioness of Hertford, with many other distinguished characters, had been liberal patrons, and continued to be warmly attached to her. In the course of this last summer, Mrs. Robinson had retired almost from the world, to a beautiful cottage belonging to her daughter on Englefield Green, near Windsor Forest. Here the encroachments of disease, mental and bodily, gradually overpowered every effort of human skill; and after lingering for near three months, notwithstanding the unexampled attentions of Drs. Pope and Chandler (gentlemen not more distinguished for their professional skill, than their universal benevolence of heart), she expired on the 26th day of December, 1800. On the body being opened, by the express with of the physicians who attended her, the immediate cause of her death was found to be an accumulation of water on the chest, together with six large stones contained in the gall bladder, a circumstance which, had she been able to take the exercise of walking, would long since have accelerated that event which is now the subject of regret to her friends.

In the last hours of her existence, Mrs. Robinson was not deserted by that fortitude and strength of mind which had ever distinguished her. She gave directions for her funeral; and expressed many wishes relative to her death with a spirit perfectly resigned.

By her own desire, she is buried on the north side of Old Windsor Church Yard. Her funeral was plain. The last melancholy office of attending her remains was performed by two literary and valued friends. A monument, on a simple and elegant model, is preparing by her daughter's orders, and is intended to be erected over the place of her interment.