1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Robinson

Anonymous, "Preface" in Poetical Works of the late Mrs. Mary Robinson (1806) 1:v-xvii.



In an age when no publication can be presented to the world, unembellished by "A Life of the Author," however trite and recent that life may be, it is to be hoped that compliance with the "fashion of the times" will exonerate the editor from the intention of uttering "a twice told tale."

The principal, and, in some estimations, perhaps the most interesting events of the Author's days have already been given from her own memoirs, yet it may be no unreasonable supposition, that this brief account which accompanies the most excellent part of her character may be justly appreciated when the mere annals of a beautiful woman are no more remembered.

Mrs. Robinson is descended from a respectable and ancient Irish family. Her father, Mr. Darby, was nephew of the celebrated American, Dr. Franklin, by the marriage of Miss Hester Franklin with the grandfather of Mrs. Robinson.

Mr. Darby lived at Bristol at the period of the author's birth, and filled the situation of one of the most respectable merchants in that city, in partnership with the house of Miller and Elton. With the restless spirit of research which but too universally characterized his undertakings, he lost that fortune, in promoting a scheme for the commercial advantage of his country, by the proposal of a Whale Fishery, since brought to perfection at Newfoundland, which would have been better employed in securing independence to his infant family. Disgusted with the frowns of former friends, and the triumphs of his more prudent commercial brethren, he accepted the command of a 74 gun ship in the Russian service, and died in December, 1785, universally esteemed by his brother officers, particularly by his friend Admiral Greig, at whose immediate request he entered the service of the Empress. His widow, who resided with Mrs. Robinson till the moment of her death, was grand-daughter of Catharine Seys of Boverton Castle in Glamorganshire, whose sister, Ann Seys, married Lord King, then high chancellor of England, of whom see an account in Collins's peerage. Mrs. Robinson received the first rudiments of her education at Bristol, where she gave many striking specimens of future genius, by an early and astonishing admiration of letters, of which poetry seemed her favourite literature. At six years of age she could write with a feeling far beyond her years, and a degree of propriety which never could have been instilled into her young imagination by the sing-song exercises of a country school, had not the dawn of poetical inspiration, which has since burst forth with so much splendour, already begun to display its influence over the mind of the infant poet.

At ten years of age Mrs. Robinson was removed to a respectable school near London. At the early age of fifteen and three months she married Mr. Robinson, brother of the late Commodore Robinson, in the service of the East India Company. This gentleman was then a student in Lincoln's Inn. This hasty match, of which love was the only basis was, as may be supposed, attended by no great share of fortune's smiles.

Shortly after Mrs. Robinson's marriage her misfortunes commenced, as her family augmented, and the independence of her mind soon determined her to seek, within the capabilities of her own talents, to support herself and infant family. With this intention, after having undergone a variety of vicissitudes, she made her first appearance on the stage, under the immediate patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire, and the acknowledged pupil of the immortal Garrick! For three years she continued at Drury-Lane Theatre, performing all the principal parts of tragedy and sentimental comedy.

At this, perhaps most unfortunate moment of her destiny, it was her fate to attract the attention of a distinguished personage, whose unceasing importunities obliged her, with reluctance, to quit a profession, by which she might have secured, to her latest hour, both independence and admiration.

In the spring of 1783 our poet was attacked with a violent and dangerous fever, occasioned by travelling all night in a damp post-chaise, to do an office of PECUNIARY FRIENDSHIP, for ONE who has since repaid her with neglect and INGRATITUDE! The languor which remained on the abatement of the disease terminated in a rheumatic fever, which, at the age of twenty-three, in the pride of youth and the bloom of beauty, reduced the frame of this lovely and unfortunate woman to the feebleness of an infant, which obliged her to be carried in the arms of her attendants to the last moment of her life!

About the period above mentioned Mrs. Robinson quitted England, in order to try the baths of Aix la Chapelle; from thence she removed to Paris, for the purpose of procuring better medical advice; every effort of the healing art having proved ineffectual, our poet once more resolved to return to her native home, and, by the exercise of mental acquirements, endeavour to alleviate the calamity of an agonizing and incurable disease.

To the MUSE, as the only solace to a mind of exquisite sensibility, blended with more than female fortitude, did this lovely and unfortunate being retire for consolation. The strain of plaintive tenderness which pervades her earlier productions fully exemplified the impressions of an afflicted mind, striving to wander from itself; and, in the mazes of fiction, lose for a time the melancholy objects which fate had so early presented before her.

In the year 1790, Mrs. Robinson produced her first prose work, entitled "Vancenza, or the dangers of credulity." The small degree of fame she had already acquired by a few poetical works, which from time. to time had found their way into the newspapers, naturally increased the demand for this new proof of Mrs. Robinson's talents.

The WHOLE EDITION Of Vancenza was sold in ONE DAY! The Work has since gone through five editions.

Shortly after this publication Mrs. Robinson, at the earnest request of her literary friends, amongst whom may be particularly classed the late Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke, consented to publish the Poems she had written, at intervals of pain, by subscription; a most splendid list, collected in sixteen weeks, fully exemplified the estimation in Which her talents were held by this country, and by the splendid proofs of approbation which accompanied her subscribers' letters, Mrs. Robinson may he justly said to "have brought golden opinions from all sorts of people."

In the same year the death of our immortal REYNOLDS afforded a mournful, yet pleasing opportunity to our poet, of uniting her talents with the more interesting feelings of affectionate regret. The monody to the memory of one of the earliest admirers of her muse was dedicated to the members of the Royal Academy.

About 1794, Mrs. Robinson brought out a small novel, in two volumes, entitled "The Widow." This work is certainly by no means equal to those which she has since published.

To The Widow maybe added Mrs. Robinson's prose publications of "Angelina," a novel, "Hubert de Sevrac," a romance, Walsingham," "The false Friend," and "The Natural Daughter," any of which might have done infinite credit to an author who had not so materially excelled in afar superior branch of literature.

In the autumn of 1795, Mrs. Robinson finished her tragedy of "The Sicilian Lover," and presented it for representation. This, more properly named, blank verse dramatic poem, having been laid by, in that pandemonium of GENIUS and DULNESS, the PROMPTER'S closet, for several months, was returned with a promise of representation early in the next season, but not before one of the most striking situations had been pilfered for another tragedy, which appeared shortly after. Disgusted with the delay, and universal negative which, for some unknown cause, she ever experienced from managers, she resolved to print the tragedy, and leave its merits and defects to the decision of the public.

Mrs, Robinson continued thus growing in literary fame till the moment of her decease. At length her declining health becoming daily more visible and alarming, our poet retired to a cottage belonging to her daughter, near Windsor, where, after three months' lingering agony, which she endured with that strength of fortitude that had marked every action of her life, she expired.

Mrs. Robinson is, by her own express desire, interred in Old Windsor Church-Yard.

Of Mrs. Robinson's general character, it can only he added that she possessed a sensibility of heart and tenderness of mind which very frequently led her to form hasty decisions, while more mature deliberation would have tended to promote her interest and worldly comfort; she was liberal even to a fault! and many of the leading traits of her life will most fully evince, that she was the most disinterested of human beings. As to her LITERARY character, the following pages, it may be presumed, will form a sufficient testimony.