115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

From “Perdita” to Lonely Poet: Ways of Seeing Mary Robinson

Amelia Worsley, Amherst College

This paper considers Mary Robinson's self-fashioning, in both text and image, in relation to recent work on Romantic celebrity. It pays particular attention to Robinson's interest in presenting herself as a lonely poet, intervening in a masculine tradition of introspective prospect poetry. A study of Mary Robinson requires that we recast how we understand Romantic loneliness, and disaggregate it from notions of solitude and singularity, to instead see it as a social mode that embraces multiplicity.


Perhaps no Romantic poet’s work has been as read in terms self-fashioning and self-projection as often as that of Mary Robinson.

Robinson spent her early life as an actress on the London stage. She was a consort of The Prince of Wales, a visitor to Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and attracted vast crowds whenever she ventured out in her carriage in London. Joshua Reynolds’ 1782 portrait gives us a taste of Robinson’s image as celebrity and socialite. By the late 1790s, however, Robinson found herself in an entirely different situation; alone, ill, and disabled, she retired to a cottage in Surrey, where few people attended her, There she turned to writing, amking a project of her poetry and autobiography. She would die a lonely death there, before she was able to witness the publication of the Memoirs.

 At the cottage, Robinson became fixated not only with writing poems about solitudinous figures, but on the project of figuring herself as a lonely poet. Robinson emphasizes her relationship with abandoned lovers, like Sappho and Dido—but also, at the same time, makes a claim for her intervention in the masculine tradition of introspective poetry. In this period, she uses Joshua Reynolds’ 1784 portrait for the frontispiece to her publications. The difference between this pose and the earlier one gives a taste of the very different image of herself she suddenly wished to project.

 A critical paradox attends most discussion of Mary Robinson’s loneliness: while the tragic nature of her solitary death has been emphasized, her status as lonely poet has usually been read as a species of a mask; a persona that she acted, in just the same way that she acted parts onstage.

Robinson’s attempts to present herself as singular, despite her advertised interest in self-fashioning and multiple pseudonyms, means that her poetry is often relegated to the status of an imitation of masculine norms.

Theatrical selfhood, Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite argued in Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain (2002), is an understudied subject in Romanticism. There is “apparent incompatibility,” they argue, between “convivial and theatrical social occasions with Romanticism’s traditional identification with the lone poet, withdrawn in Romantic introspection, with individualism rather than collective activity, and with the cultivation of the authentic rather than the performative self.” (4) Though this binary has often been complicated since 2002, most accounts of Mary Robinson as poet do still function according to a separation between social, convivial, theatrical, collective and performative modes and lone, introspective, authentic selves.

 My paper at PAMLA seeks to undo the consensus that Robinson’s celebrity forestalls her ability to be a lonely poet, emphasizing the ways in which she seeks to recast and reframe the very concept of loneliness, in a period when poets of all kinds are using the pose to legitimate their vocation as poets.

I will consider how eight different portraits of Mary Robinson, by painters such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppne, as well as various caricaturists, intersect with the self-fashioning she performs in her Memoirs and Lyrical Tales. I will pay particular attention to Robinson’s poems about hermits, in which she makes an argument for how these poet-like figures can be lonely without being singular; authentic without being solely introspective; as well as playfully serious about negating the anxiety-of-influence model of poetic authorship, even before it has been named.  A study of Mary Robinson requires that we recast how we understand Romantic loneliness, and disaggregate it from notions of solitude and singularity, to instead see it as a social mode that embraces multiplicity.


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