Mary Robinson
(27 November 1758 - 26 December 1800)
Kristen Chancey
University of Florida
Major Publications
Biographical Sketch
Published Biographies
Modern Articles
"The Snow Drop" (variorum) 
Robinson, Coleridge, Wordsworth


Poems. (London: C. Parker, 1775);

Captivity, a Poem. And Celadon and Lydia, a Tale. Dedicated, by Permission, to Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire. (London: T. Becket, 1777);

Ainsi va le monde, a Poem. Inscribed to Robert Merry, Esq. A.M. Member of the Royal Academy of Florence; and, Author of the Laurel of Liberty and the Della Crusca Poems. (London: Printed by John Bell, 1790, Second Edition 1796);

The Beauties of Mrs. Robinson. Selected and Arranged from her Poetical Works. (London: H.D. Symonds, 1791);

Poems. (London: Printed by J. Bell, 1791) [subscription edition];

Vacenza; or, The Dangers of Credulity, 2 volumes. (London: n.p.g.,1792);

Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Late President of the Royal Academy, etc. etc. etc. (London: Printed by J. Bell, 1792);

Poems. Vol. ii [sequel to Poems (1791)] (London: J. Evans and T. Becket, 1793); Also in an undated edition;

Modern Manners, a Poem. In Two Cantos. (London: for the author by James Evans, 1793);

Monody to the Memory of the Late Queen of France. (London: J. Evans and T. Becket, 1793);

An Ode to the Harp of the Late Accom-plished and Amiable Louisa Hanway. (London: J. Bell, 1793);

Sight, the Cavern of Woe, and Solitude. Poems. (London: J. Evans and T. Becket, 1793);

The Widow, or A Picture of Modern Times. A Novel, in a Series of Letters, 2 volumes. (London, n.p.g., 1794);

Angelina; a Novel, 3 volumes. (London, n.p.g., 1796);

Hubert de Sevrac; a Romance of the Eighteenth Century, 3 volumes. (London, n.p.g., 1796);

Sappho and Phaon. In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets, with Thoughts on Poetical Subjects, and Anecdotes of the Grecian Poetess. (London: for the author by Hookham and Carpenter, 1796); New Edition by A.K. Newman and Co., 1813;

The Sicilian Lover. A Tragedy. In Five Acts. (London: printed for the author by Hookham and Carpenter, 1796);

Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature. A Domestic Story, 4 volumes. (London, T.N. Longman, 1797);

The False Friend, a Domestic Story, 4 volumes. (London: n.p.g., 1799);

The Natural Daughter. With Portraits of the Leadenhead Family. A Novel, 2 volumes. (London, n.p.g., 1799);

Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (London: n.p.g., 1799);

Lyrical Tales. (London/Bristol: T. N. Longman and O. Rees/Biggs and Co., 1800);

Memoirs. . .Written by Herself. With Some Posthumous Pieces, 4 volumes (London: R. Phillips, T. Hurst, and Carpenter, 1801); Slightly altered American edition (New York: T. and J. Swords, P.A. Mesier, and W. A. Davis, 1801); Second American edition (Philadelphia: T. and William Bradford, 1802); Second British edition with additional changes (Richard Phillips, 1803);

The Wild Wreath, Ed. M.E. Robinson [Robinson's daughter]. (London, n.p.g., 1804);

The Poetical Works. Ed. M.E. Robinson. (London: Richard Phillips, 1806);

The Poetical Works . . . Including the Pieces Last Published. (London: Jones and Co., 1824);

BRIEF BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH: Mary Robinson was born in Bristol on 27 November 1858, one of five children born to John Darby and Mary Seys. John Darby, a ne'er-do-well American sea captain, left his family when Mary was seven years old to pursue commercial whaling ventures in Lapland and America, losing his fortune in the process. Although he would return to England, he would never live with this family again. Mary, who had formerly been educated at Hannah More's Bristol school, was sent to school in Chelsea. A short while later, her mother also opened a school there where Mary assisted, but was forced to close it a few months later when John Darby returned to England and forbade his wife and daughter to work. Mary was then sent to Mrs. Hervey's finishing school.

Mary's interest in theater and literature began early. Her teacher in Chelsea, the learned if intemperate Merribah Lorrington, stimulated Mary's talent for verse, while a chance meeting with David Garrick through her dancing teacher led to her first forays into acting.

Mary's creative impulses were temporarily diverted by her marriage, at age 15, to Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk. The marriage paralleled that of her father and mother: After a period of initial affluence, the Robinsons began to experience severe financial difficulties, which would eventually end in their separation. Thomas Robinson, a heavy drinker and gambler, was sentenced to prison for debt in 1775, not long after the birth of daughter Maria Elizabeth in November 1774. Mary and her daughter lived with Thomas in King's Bench Prison for a period of several months.

It was while she was in prison that Mary began to concentrate once again on her creative talents. She began a long poem, Captivity, and her first book of poetry, Poems, was published in 1775. Shortly after her family's release from prison she went on the stage for the first time, portraying Juliet, in December 1776. Her considerable personal beauty and lovely speaking voice quickly made her a success. During the next four years she would appear in nearly 40 plays, even though the birth and death of her second daughter, Sophia, temporarily interrupted her career in 1778.

December 3, 1779, was a landmark date in Robinson's life. That night's performance of A Winter's Tale was attended by the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, who was captivated by Robinson as Perdita. Mary, whose marriage to Thomas Robinson was in shambles, agreed to become the Prince's mistress for the sum of 20,000 pounds, to be paid when he reached his majority. For the next year, the love story of "Perdita and Florizel," as they came to be known in publications of the day, captured the public's imagination.

However, the affair would end unhappily for Mary: the Prince lost interest after a year, and the money was never paid. Robinson was 7,000 pounds in debt, her reputation was ruined, and she had no choice but to use the notoriety to try and rebuild her acting career. Robinson appeared in several productions in the early 1780s, but never regained the popularity she had earlier enjoyed. Reportedly in return for the Prince's love letters, King George III eventually paid her a lump sum of 5,000 pounds and a yearly annuity of 500 pounds, which would be paid intermittently for several years.

Not long after her break with the Prince of Wales, Mary began a 16-year affair with Col. Banastre Tarleton, a hero of the Revolutionary War. This affair would finish her in the public's opinion, as her taking up with another man so soon after being deserted by the Prince was seen as proof that she was no wounded innocent, but a calculating professional beauty. She was crucified in the popular press, portrayed as a cunning older woman who preyed on the innocent Prince's affections.

Robinson also began to experience severe health problems during this time. Although a definite cause has never been assigned to her sudden illness-it has been attributed to everything from rheumatic fever to a miscarriage to, less credibly, a virulent venereal disease-the problem was all too real. Robinson was bedridden for six months, and remained partially paralyzed from 1783 on. She and Tarleton, along with Maria, removed to the continent, where an amused but exasperated Robinson would hear of rumors of her death in 1786.

Motivated by financial necessity, Robinson, who returned to England with her daughter in 1787, began to write in earnest in the late 1780s. Her affair with Tarleton was an on-again, off-again ordeal, and provided her with little security, as he was no better at handling money than her husband had been. However, Mary's previous public skewering by the press now stood her in good stead. Although considered a fallen woman, the public's interest in the scandalous Mary Robinson had not ebbed, and her work for the most part sold well. Her Poems of 1791 had a subscriber list of over 600 people, many of them wealthy and powerful--including the Prince of Wales himself. Although she continued to be in poor health, her output in the 1790s was prolific, as the now financially comfortable Robinson produced poetry, plays, novels, newspaper essays, and even pamphlets. She was so successful that she earned the title "The English Sappho."

Robinson's work gained her the attention of many respected authors--her acquaintances during this time included William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Wolcot, Robert Merry, and William Wordsworth. Her closest professional relationship was probably with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, her fellow contributor to the Morning Post newspaper. Besides being personal friends, they would carry on a poetic conversation that profoundly influenced both of their careers.

Although Robinson's output remained constant, her health declined steadily throughout 1800. She died on the 26th of December of that year of a pulmonary edema, and was buried in the churchyard at Old Windsor. Her reputation as a poet would continue for the next several decades, largely due to the efforts of her daughter. In the prudish Victorian era interest in her work waned, although fascination with her life's story has continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Happily, in the last ten years Mary Robinson, as a poet, has begun to be a subject of interest once again. A number of recent critical articles about her work have been written, and critic Judith Pascoe is currently at work on a new collected edition of her poems.

Works Consulted:

Paula R. Feldman, Ed. British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Roger Lonsdale. Eighteenth Century Women Poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Betsy Bolton. "Romancing the Stone: 'Perdita' Robinson in Wordsworth's London." ELH 64 (1997): 727-59.


According to Sharon Setzer in her notes for her 1996 article on Robinson, "for the most part, [20th Century biographies] of Mary Robinson are disappointingly derivative and extremely superficial in their treatment of Robinson's achievements as a writer. One can only hope that the recent flurry of scholarly interest in Robinson's acting and writing career will lead to a much-needed critical biography." The following are the known biographies of Robinson she cites:

Robert Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. New York: Holt, 1957.

Lily Moresby Adams Beck (aka E. Barrington), The Exquisite Perdita. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1926.

John Fyvie, Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1908.

Stanley V. Makower, Perdita: A Romance in Biography. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1908.

Margaret Steen, The Lost One: A Biography of Mary (Perdita) Robinson. London: Methuen, 1937.

REFERENCES: Articles without brief annotations were unavailable for review.

Betsy Bolton, "Romancing the Stone: 'Perdita' Robinson in Wordsworth's London." ELH 64 (1997): 727-59.

Bolton posits the possible influence of Robinson's life and poetry on the work of literary giant William Wordsworth, suggesting that the relationship between "feminine" popular poetry and "masculine" canonical poetry was much more fluid during this period than has been previously thought.

Chris Cullens, "Mrs. Robinson and the Masquerade of Womanliness." Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Veronica Kelly and Dorothea von Mucke. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. 267-289.

According to Cullens, Robinson, as a publicly villified figure after her affair with the Prince of Wales, developed numerous "masked" identities as a means of self-defense. To illustrate the effect this had on her work, he references her novel Walsingham, which features a cross-dressing female protagonist.

Stuart Curran, "Romantic Poetry: The 'I' Altered." Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. 185-207.

---------, "Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context." Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. 17-35.

Jacqueline M. Labbe, "Selling One's Sorrows: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and the Marketing of Poetry." The Wordsworth Circle 25 (1994): 68-71.

Labbe suggests that Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson both used their perceived status as vulnerable women in need of male protection as a marketing tool, thus refusing to be silenced by conventional ideas about gender roles, but at the same time cleverly using some of those conventions for their own advantage.

Debbie Lee, "'The Wild Wreath': Cultivating a Poetic Circle for Mary Robinson (Materialism and Textuality)." Studies in the Literary Imagination 30 (1997): 23-35.

Lee traces the ways in which Robinson's sole surviving child, Maria Elizabeth, created a virtuous, posthumous version of her mother's body and character in poetry collections like The Wild Wreath. She reclaims her mother's identity as successful artist, Lee suggests, and glosses over that of infamous mistress, by stressing the illness and vulnerability of Robinson's difficult final years, rather than the beauty and triumph of her successful early ones.

Susan Luther, "A Stranger Minstrel: Coleridge's Mrs. Robinson." Studies in Romanticism 33 (1994): 391-409.

Luther delineates the considerable influence Robinson and Coleridge had upon each other's life and work in this detailed analysis of their poems and their personal relationship.

Jerome McGann, "Mary Robinson and the Myth of Sappho." Modern Language Quarterly 56 (1995): 55-77.

McGann theorizes that Robinson's long poem Sappho and Phaon was her manifesto for modern poetry, a poetry that negotiates between romantic sensibility and enlightenment reason. For Robinson, Sappho becomes the symbol for the artist who is concerned with both logic and emotion in her work.

Robin L. Miskolcze,"Snapshots of Contradiction in Mary Robinson's Poetical Works." Papers on Language and Literature 31 (1995): 206-230.

Miskolcze examines the theme of isolation in Robinson's poetry, contending that her work embodies many of the contradictions of late 18th Century life, a life in which isolation is to be both desired and feared. Miskolcze further argues that unlike the majority of romantic poetry, in Robinson's verse solitary communion with nature offers few solutions to the pressures of everyday life in the late1700s.

Lisa Naomi Mulman, "Violence Against Difference: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Robinson." Making History: Textuality and the Forms of Eighteenth Century Culture. Ed. Greg Clingham. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press 1998.

Judith Pascoe, "Mary Robinson and the Literary Marketplace." Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelly. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1995. n.p.g.

Pascoe argues that publishing poetry in the daily newspapers created unique challenges and opportunities for the poet. Such writing had to appeal to a far larger and more diverse audience than books of poetry, but newspapers also allowed the poet greater artistic flexibility: He or she could publish under any number of pseudonyms, establishing multiple and varied personae. Pascoe feels that such a system was especially suited to Mary Robinson, a former actress who reveled in performative modes of public expression.

---------, "The Spectacular Flaneuse: Mary Robinson and the City of London." The Wordsworth Circle 23 (1992): 165-71.

Using the concept of the flaneur, the modern male figure striding through the urban landscape, Pascoe posits that the ways in which Robinson, the flaneuse or female figure, moved through the city of London, the places she occupied in the landscape, had a profound effect on her poetry.

Linda H. Peterson, "Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson's Memoirs and the Origins of the Woman Artist's Autobiography." Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. 36-50.

Sharon Setzer, "Mary Robinson's Sylphid Self: The End of Feminine Self- Fashioning." Philological Quarterly 75 (1996): 501-520.

Setzer claims that Robinson's work The Sylphid is yet another in a long line of failed attempts by Robinson to take control of her public and private personae, to be the one ultimately responsible for her identity.

---------, "Romancing the Reign of Terror: Sexual Politics in Mary Robinson's Natural Daughter." Criticism 39 (1997): 531-551.

According to Setzer, the greatest appeal of Robinson's novels for her contemporary audience was the possibility that they were actually thinly-veiled accounts of her scandalous personal history. Setzer agrees that Robinson put a great deal of herself into her novels, but asserts that the autobiography contained in works like The Natural Daughter was more deeply hidden, detailing her emotional and intellectual growth in symbolic terms rather than recounting actual scenes from her life.

Lisa Vargo, "The Claims of 'Real Life and Manners': Coleridge and Mary Robinson." The Wordsworth Circle 26 (1995). 134-137.

Vargo examines the friendship between Robinson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, arguing that the relationship was ideological rather than sexual, a "textual flirtation" with political undercurrents.

Critical Edition: "The Snow Drop"

As with many 18th century women poets who have only recently been rediscovered, it is rather difficult to trace the changes in Robinson's published poems. Although her life never ceased to be of interest to readers in the 19th and 20th centuries, her poetry fell into obscurity after the early Victorian period, and has only begun to be reprinted in the last ten years. Even today, a modern edition of her collected poems has yet to be published, although critic Judith Pascoe is said to be working on one. The early editions of her collected works are very difficult to find, being mostly relegated to the rare book rooms of various libraries in England and America. Even microfilm copies of these publications are spotty at best, as are microfilms of the Morning Post, the newspaper which published many of her poems.

For these reasons, I have only been able to find three different versions of "The Snow Drop." According to Andrew Ashfield, this poem was originally published in her novel Walsingham: or, The Pupil of Nature. It was reprinted at least twice during this period, in The Poetical Works of Mary Robinson (1806), and The Morning Post (26 December 1797). Unfortunately, neither of these contemporary reprints was available for review. However, I did find the original text from Walsingham, in a facsimile reprint of the first edition, and it is reprinted below. Changes noted in the footnotes are from a facsimile reprint of an 1853 poetry anthology by Frederic Rowton, and the modern version which appears in Ashfield. Among these three available versions, printed far apart in time, there is significant variation. The 1853 version appears to be based on the Walsingham text, as most of the many variations between the two are minor modernizations-spelling, punctuation, etc. Ashfield's version differs from the Walsingham version much more drastically, since his is based on the Poetical Works version of 1806. As Poetical Works was published posthumously, either Robinson or her editors could have been responsible for the changes.

Aside from modernizations, there are three major changes between the Walsingham and the Ashfield version: Line 5 of stanza 3 is omitted, in line 3 of stanza 5 the adjective "spreading" is changed to "verdant, " and the line identations for stanzas 3-6 are altered significantly. The first variation, omitting an entire line of stanza 3, makes a meaningful difference in the poem's effect. Other than the portrayal of the snowdrop as a "beauteous gem" in the very beginning of the poem, all of the other descriptions of it are as a tattered, faded wreck, except for line 5 of stanza three, which mentions its "fair and glossy charms." By taking this out, the implication that the snowdrop is a fair and blooming thing ruined early on by winter's harshness is heightened.

The second change, substituting "verdant" for "spreading" also further supports the overall meaning of the poem. As "verdant" implies newness and freshness, the absence of "verdant branches" once again makes the point that the snowdrop will be bereft of all aspects of youth, even in the landscape surrounding its grave. The last change, altering the stanza indentations, is related to the poem's meaning as well. In the original version, the stanzas are all uniform, with the second and fifth lines indented. In the Ashfield version, the first two are indented like the Walsingham version, the third stanza has the second and fourth lines indented, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas have the second, fourth, and fifth lines indented. The look of the poem, then, is changed from one of uniformity to one of fragmentation, a fragmentation which echoes the decay of a symmetrical, beautiful flower as it withers and dies. Whether made by Robinson or her editors, then, the changes in the Poetical Works version (which Ashfield reproduces) are positive ones, which strengthen its general significance.

The Snow Drop(1) (Walsingham version)

The fnow-drop(2) (3), Winter's timid child,

Awakes to life(4) bedew'd (5) with tears;(6)

And flings around its fragrance mild,(7)

And where no rival flowrets(8) bloom,

Amidft(9) the bare and chilling gloom,

A beauteous gem appears!

All weak and wan, with head inclin'd(10),

Its parent(11) breast,(12) the drifted fnow;(13)

It trembles(14) while the ruthlefs wind

Bends its slim form; the tempeft lours,(15)

Its em'rald(16) eye drops cryftal fhow'rs

On its cold bed below.

Poor flow'r!(17) On(18) thee the funny beam

No touch of genial warmth befstows;(19)

Except to thaw the icy fstream

Whofe(20) little current purls along,(21)

Thy fair and gloffy charms among,(22)

And(23) whelms thee as it flows.

The night-breeze(24) tears thy filky(25) drefs,

Which,(26) deck'd(27) with filv'ry(28) luftre,(29) fhone;

The morn returns,(30) not thee to blefs,(31)

The(32) gaudy crocus(33) flaunts its pride,

And(34) triumphs where its rival(35) died,(36)

Unfhelter'd(37) and unknown!

No funny beam shall gild thy grave,

No bird of pity thee deplore;(38)

There fhall no fpeading(39) branches wave,

For(40)Spring(41) fhall all her gems unfold,

And(42) revel 'midft(43) her buds(44) of gold,

When thou are feen no more!

Where'er I find thee, gentle flow'r,(45)

Thou ftill art fweet,(46) and dear to me!

For I have known the cheerlefs hour,

Have(47) feen the fun-beams(48) cold and pale,

Have(49) felt the chilling(50) wint'ry(51) gale,

And wept,(52) and fhrunk like thee!(53)


Geneology: Mary Robinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth

Much has been written about the relationship, both poetic and personal, between Mary Robinson and her contemporary, canonical poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both were both frequent contributors to the Morning Post newspaper, and there carried on a poetic conversation during most of 1800, the last year of Robinson's life. According to Susan Luther, Coleridge appeared to be sympathetic to her status as a marginalized figure, and imagined himself in the role of both protector and friend. After her death, he carried on a correspondence with her daughter, Maria Elizabeth, and he advised her on the difficult task of preserving her mother's reputation as a poet while also glossing over her reputation as a fallen woman. His own personal statements about Robinson were for the most part complimentary: "She overloads everything," he wrote, "but I never knew a human being with so full a mind--bad, good, & indifferent, I grant you, but full, & overflowing." At a later date, he lamented, "O Poole! That that Woman had but been married to a noble Being, what a noble Being she herself would have been."

Lisa Vargo identifies at least four Coleridge poems which were directly the result of his friendship with Mary Robinson: "A Stranger Minstrel," "The Solitude of Binnorie," "Alcaeus to Sappho," and "The Snow-Drop." This is hardly a disputable point: Aside from internal evidence within the poems themselves, there are also Coleridge's own explicit statements. "A Stranger Minstrel" is subtitled "Written to Mrs. Robinson, a few weeks before her death." Coleridge prefaced "The Solitude of Binnorie" with a statement announcing that the meter of the poem was borrowed from Robinson's "The Haunted Beach." This preface also refers to Mary as Sappho and himself as Alcaeus, evidence that "Alcaeus to Sappho" references their relationship. Finally, the manuscipt for "The Snow-Drop" bears the heading "Lines written immediately after the perusal of Mrs. Robinson's Snow Drop." Mary Robinson's was in turn inspired by Coleridge: Her poem "To The Poet Coleridge" is a response to his "Kubla Khan," which quotes directly some of his more evocative phrases. At least one other poem is quite obviously the result of their relationship, "Ode Inscribed to the Infant Son of S.T. Coleridge, Esq." Another poem which is often identified as Coleridge-influenced is Robinson's "Haunted Beach," which contains a number of similarities in both plot and atmosphere to Coleridge's masterpiece "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Many critics have also suggested that a connection existed between Mary Robinson and William Wordsworth, as well, though it was more tenuous than hers with Coleridge. It is a fact that their personal relationship was much less close, and other critics have seen the influences as possibly, for the most part, mediated through his own friendship with Coleridge. But Betsy Bolton, in her long article "Romancing the Stone: 'Perdita' Robinson in Wordsworth's London," argues that her Robinson's experiences as both artist and fallen woman had a direct influence on Wordsworth's Prelude, who used them as inspiration for his stories of alienation and isolation in Book Seven. She also argues that Robinson's Lyrical Tales, published just before his Lyrical Ballads, might also have stirred Wordsworth's imagination.

Works Consulted:

Betsy Bolton, "Romancing the Stone: 'Perdita' Robinson in Wordsworth's London." ELH 64 (1997): 727-59.

Susan Luther, "A Stranger Minstrel: Coleridge's Mrs. Robinson." Studies in Romanticism 33 (1994): 391-409.

Lisa Vargo, "The Claims of 'Real Life and Manners': Coleridge and Mary Robinson." The Wordsworth Circle 26 (1995). 134-137.

Though reprinting all of the poems listed above is not possible, I did find one poetic subject addressed by Robinson, Coleridge, and Wordsworth that it would be possible to reproduce here: the "snowdrop" poems. Although Wordsworth's has not, up until now, been identified as Robinson-inspired, the content of the poem makes the influence clear. Below are all of the snowdrop poems of Robinson, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Considered together, they make an interesting study of the many changes talented poets can ring on a rather limited topic, when they are inspired by influences other than the topic itself.

The first snowdrop poem is from 1791, and first appeared in Mary Robinson's Poems by Mrs. M. Robinson. The copy below is taken verbatim from that publication:

Sonnet: The Snowdrop

Thou meekest emblem of the infant tear,

Why droops so cold and wan thy fragrant head?

Ah! why retiring to thy frozen bed,

Steals from thy silky leaves the trembling tear?

Day's op'ning eye shall warm thy gentle breast,

Revive thy timid charms and sickly hue;

Thy drooping buds shall drink the morning dew,

And bloom again by glowing PHOEBUS drest;

Or should the midnight damp, with icy breath,

Nip thy pale cheek, and bow thee to the ground,

Or the bleak winds thy blossoms scatter round,

And all thy modest beauties fade to death;

E'en in decay thy spotless sweets shall rise,

And mist AURORA'S TEARS evap'rate IN THE SKIES.

The following is the original text of "The Snowdrop" from her novel Walsingham. The only change I have made was to delete the long s's of the 1797 version:

The Snow Drop (Modernized Walsingham version)

The snow-drop, Winter's timid child,

Awakes to life bedew'd with tears;

And flings around its fragrance mild,

And where no rival flowrets bloom,

Amidst the bare and chilling gloom,

A beauteous gem appears!

All weak and wan, with head inclin'd,

Its parent breast, the drifted snow;

It trembles while the ruthless wind

Bends its slim form; the tempest lours,

Its em'rald eye drops crystal show'rs

On its cold bed below.

Poor flow'r! On thee the sunny beam

No touch of genial warmth bestows;

Except to thaw the icy stream

Whose little current purls along,

Thy fair and glossy charms among,

And whelms thee as it flows.

The night-breeze tears thy silky dress,

Which, deck'd with silv'ry lustre, shone;

The morn returns, not thee to bless,

The gaudy crocus flaunts its pride,

And triumphs where its rival died,

Unshelter'd and unknown!

No sunny beam shall gild thy grave,

No bird of pity thee deplore;

There shall no spreading branches wave,

For Spring shall all her gems unfold,

And revel 'midst her buds of gold,

When thou are seen no more!

Where'er I find thee, gentle flow'r,

Thou still art sweet, and dear to me!

For I have known the cheerless hour,

Have seen the sun-beams cold and pale,

Have felt the chilling wint'ry gale,

And wept, and shrunk like thee!

Coleridge's "The Snow-Drop" was composed in December 1797. It's remarkable in that it only directly references the flower in the first stanza; the other eight are very obviously about the poet Mary Robinson, whom he correctly identifies as the fragile being actually referenced through Robinson's own symbolic flower. Printed below is the 1993 Everyman's Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge edition:

The Snow-Drop

Fear no more, thou timid Flower!

Fear thou no more the winter's might,

The whelming thaw, the ponderous shower,

The silence of the freezing night!

Since Laura murmur'd o'er thy leaves

The potent sorceries of song,

To thee, meek Flowret! gentler gales

And cloudless skies belong.

Her eye with tearful meanings fraught,

She gaz'd till all the body mov'd

Interpreting the Spirit's thought-

The Spirit's eager sympathy

Now trembled with thy trembling stem,

And while thy droopedst o'er thy bed,

With sweet unconscious sympathy

Inclin'd the drooping head.

She droop'd her head, she stretch'd her arm,

She whisper'd low her witching rhymes,

Fame unreluctant heard the charm,

And bore thee to Pierian climes!

Fear thou no more the Matin Frost

That sparkled on thy bed of snow:

For there, mid laurels ever green,

Immortal thou shalt blow.

Thy petals boast a white more soft,

The spell hath so perfumed thee,

That careless Love shall deem thee oft

A blossom from his Myrtle tree.

Then, laughing at the fair deceit,

Shall race with some Etesian wind

To seek the woven arboret

Where Laura lies reclin'd.

All them whom Love and Fancy grace,

When grosser eyes are clos'd in sleep,

The gentle spirits of the place

Waft up the insuperable steep,

On whose vast summit broad and smooth

Her nest the Phoenix Bird conceals,

And where by cypresses o'erhung

The heavenly Lethe steals.

A sea-like sound the branches breathe,

Stirr'd by the Breeze that loiters there;

And all that stretch their limbs beneath,

Forget the coil of mortal care.

Strange mists along the margins rise,

To heal the guests who thither come,

And fit the soul to re-endure

Its earthly martyrdom.

The margin dear to moonlight elves

Where Zephyr-trembling Lilies grow,

And bend to kiss their softer selves

That tremble in the stream below:-

There nightly borne does Laura lie

A magic Slumber heaves her breast:

Her arm, white wanderer of the Harp,

Beneath her cheek is prest.

The Harp unhung by golden chains

Of that low wind which whispers round,

With coy reproachfulness complains,

In snatches of reluctant sound:

The music hovers half-perceiv'd,

And only moulds the slumberer's dreams;

Remember'd LOVES relume her cheek

With Youth's returning gleams.

Wordsworth's "Snowdrop" poems were composed much later, both around 1820, although the exact date of composition is unknown. Unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth utilizes the same symbolism as Mary Robinson throughout both poems. That is, if he is discussing Robinson in these poems, he does so obliquely. Still, when one examines both poems, it's easy to see that the Robinson reference is a logical interpretation. The versions reproduced below are from Paul D. Sheats's Cambridge edition of The Poetical Works of Wordsworth:

To a Snowdrop

Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they

But hardier far, once more I see thee bend

Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,

Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,

Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay

The rising sun, and on the plains descend;

Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend

Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May

Shall soon behold this border thickly set

With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing

On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;

Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,

Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,

And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

On Seeing a Tuft of Snowdrops in a Storm

When haughty expectations prostrate lie,

And grandeur crouches like a guilty thing,

Oft shall the lowly weak, till nature bring

Mature release, in fair society

Survive, and Fortune's utmost anger try;

Like these frail snowdrops that together cling,

And nod their helmets, smitten by the wing

Of many a furious whirl-blast sweeping by.

Observe the faithful flowers! if small to great

May lead the thoughts, thus struggling used to stand

The Emathian phalanx, nobly obstinate;

And so the bright immortal Theban band,

Whom onset, fiercely urged at Jove's command,

Might overwhelm, but could not separate!

In the minds of all three poets, then, the lowly winter flower has become a larger metaphor for all beautiful, vulnerable things threatened by forces larger than themselves. Given Robinson's experiences at the hands of a harsh, inquisitive, and often unsympathetic public, surely no symbol for her could have been more appropriate.

1. In the 1853 version, the poem appears as "The Snow-Drop." In the 1995 version, the poem appears as "Ode: To The Snow-Drop."

2. As my computer cannot print long s's, I've substituted f instead. In the 1853 and 1995 versions, all of these have of course been changed to regular s's.

3. "snowdrop" is capitalized in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

4. There is a comma after "life" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

5. "bedew'd" is modernized to "bedewed" in the 1995 version.

6. The semicolon is changed to a comma in the 1995 version.

7. The comma is changed to a semicolon in the 1995 version.

8. "flowrets" appears as "flow'rets" in the 1853 version, and "flowerets" in the 1995 version.

9. "Amidft" appears as "Amid" in the 1853 version.

10. "inclin'd" is modernized to "inclined" in the 1995 version.

11. There is a dash between "parent" and "breast" in the 1995 version.

12. There is no comma after "breast" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

13. The semicolon is changed to a comma in the 1995 version.

14. There is a comma after "trembles" in the 1995 version.

15. "lours" is spelled "lowers" in the 1853 version.

16. "em'rald" is modernized to "emerald" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

17. "flow'r" is modernized to "flower" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

18. "On" is not capitalized in the either the 1853 or 1995 versions.

19. The semicolon is changed to an exclamation point in the 1995 version.

20. This line is indented in the 1995 version

21. The comma after "along" is omitted in the 1853 version.

22. This line is entirely omitted in the 1995 version.

23. This line is not indented in the 1995 version.

24. "night-breeze" is two separate words, with no dash, in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

25. "filky" is changed to "silken" in the 1853 version.

26. There is no comma after "Which" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

27. "deck'd is modernized to "decked" in the 1995 version.

28. "filv'ry is modernized to "silvery" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

29. There is no comma after "lustre" in either the 1853 or 1995 versions.

30. There is no comma after "returns" in the 1853 version.

31. There comma after "bless" is changed to a period and a dash in the 1995 version.

32. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

33. "crocus" appears as Crocus in the 1995 version.

34. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

35. "its rival" is italicized, and there is a dash after "rival" in the 1995 version.

36. There is no comma after "died" in the 1995 version.

37. "Unshelter'd" is modernized to "Unsheltered" in the 1995 version.

38. The semicolon is changed to a colon in the 1995 version.

39. "spreading" has been changed to "verdant" in the 1995 version.

40. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

41. "Spring" is not capitalized in the 1995 version.

42. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

43. "midst" is changed to "mid" in the 1853 version.

44. "buds" is changed to "beds" in the 1995 version.

45. "flow'r" is modernized to "flower" in both the 1853 and 1995 versions.

46. The comma after "fweet" is omitted in the 1853 version.

47. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

48. The dash in "sun-beams" is omitted in the 1853 version.

49. This line is indented in the 1995 version.

50. There is a comma after "chilling" in the 1995 version.

51. "wint'ry" appears as "wintry" in the 1853 version, and "wintery" in the 1995 version.

52. There is no comma after "wept" in the 1853 version.

53. There is no exclamation point after "thee" in the 1853 version.