“In a society where the rights and potential of women are constrained, no man can be truly free. He may have power, but he will not have freedom.”
Mary Robinson

Chatsworth

The first time I heard the name, Mary Robinson, was when I was looking into the life of Emma Hamilton, the great love of Lord Nelson. Mary, born in Bristol, England around the year 1757, had a head start on Emma, who was born in 1765. Mary appears to have come from a higher social level, given that her father was a naval captain and Emma’s was a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. One thing they had in common – they were destined to lead remarkable lives.

They met at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden when Emma became Mary’s maid. Mary had already become famous for her role of Perdita in Shakespeare’s play “A Winter’s Tale.” But that was only the beginning of her achievements. Indeed, during her short lifetime, Mary took on the role of actress, poet, dramatist, and novelist. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire sponsored the publication of the first volume of her poems, Captivity.  Her celebrity status attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. In later years, she became known as the “English Sappho,”

Mary Robinson was a strident voice for women’s rights in a time of transition and exponential growth. Her poem, “January, 1795,” reflects her keen awareness and understanding of the polarized class structure in which she lived. As you read the poem, the disparity between rich and poor, the social injustice, the lack of honour given to the noble pursuits of artistic expression, honest labour and patriotism, becomes obvious. Mary Robinson lived a vibrant, sometimes contradictory, lifestyle. Yet, her words continue to hold relevance in our age.

January, 1795

by Mary Robinson

Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.

***

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers cringing and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

***

Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

***

Arts and sciences bewailing;
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.

***

Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

***

Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
Merit silently deploring.

***

Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

***

Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.

***

Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

***

Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.

***

Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded.
Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson, Poetry, Women in History

January, 1795

Gallery

17 thoughts on “January, 1795

  1. Good one! We women need to resurrect the women of the past who have contributed so much–and who have been so largely forgotten or dismissed. I recently read a biography of the Marquise de Chatelet, a brilliant eighteenth century physicist, whose French translation of Newton’s “Principia” is the authoritative version still in use in France. She was also long-time mistress of Voltaire. Yet who knows about her today? Woman change their names and have impermanent places in history.

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    • You are absolutely right – I never heard about Marquise de Chatelet. Thank you for your recommendation. I have been on amazon.ca and have found two biographies:
      1) Emilie Du Chatelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (Zinsser)
      2) Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment (Bodnais)

      This is going to be an excellent research project! Thank you…. :) :) :)

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  2. Pingback: What now injures you, Sappho? | musiqdragonfly

  3. Her words are particularly poignant in this extremely cold winter, I find. The beggars freezing and the warm mansions. You have a voice for poetry reading, Rebecca.

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    • Thank you, Letizia, for your encouraging words. I am finding that reciting poetry gives me a better understanding of the ideas and thoughts that are coming through the words. As I read January 1795, over and over and over again, I felt I was on the street seeing the “Lords in ermine, beggars freezing.” I agree, I couldn’t help but think of what is happening in our current age.

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    • I am finding that poetry reading is not for the faint of heart. I read January, 1795, over and over and over again. When I thought that I was speaking clearly, the recording told me otherwise. It has been a wonderful experience, one that I will keep perfecting. I have listened to poetry readings via audio-book, which has given depth to poems, but there is even greater enjoyment when you are the reader.

      The photos are from Chatsworth, home of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The Duchess was Mary Robinson’s patron and sponsor of the publication of her book of poetry – Captivity.

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  4. thanks so much for introducing Mary Robinson, I didn’t know she “became known as the English Sappho”. As I love the poems of Sappho, who is such a unique poet, I wonder who could possibly become “English Sappho”, my curiosity remains …

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