Mary Robinson and Her Many Masks
Mary Robinson’s public image as an actress and at times transgressive female are inseparable from her identity as an author and poet. Having begun her public life as an actress, Robinson remained keenly conscious of the power of audience. She intentionally re-scripted her own past, using her lurid fame to launch her successful writing career. Written at the end of her life, The Haunted Beach represents a culmination of efforts to make a serious impact on the world of poetry. Among other daring moves, Robinson's poem effectively engages with a known poet, in its recognizable similarities to Coleridge's Rime, and makes a social commentary on a murder she witnessed. The poem’s vaguely defined relationship with audience mirrors Robinson’s own multiplicity in voice. Just as The Haunted Beach is told by an unidentified observer, ultimately Robinson’s own identity remains unknowable; at best she is a fusion of her many pseudonyms, stage characters, and ideas presented in her written works.
Much has been written on Robinson’s complicated relationship with the public, as well as her intriguing rapport with contemporary artists such as Coleridge and Wordsworth. In considering “The Haunted Beach,” one of the last poems Robinson wrote before her death, one must pay with attention to her complex path to artist and public figure; both the poem’s conception and its reception are affected by her public persona and her artistic and social connections. Robinson crafted multiple identities as actress, author and poet, all of which play into her constantly developing poetic project. Poetry became for Robinson not only a forum for earning income and salvaging her damaged reputation, but also a form of self-expression akin to a sort of stage performance. The Haunted Beach exemplifies Robinson’s efforts to establish herself as a respected poet equal in rank to Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as her catering to a known audience in the wake of Coleridge’s Rime.
For all intents and purposes, Robinson was first known by the public as an actress. She did publish a small collection of poems from jail, Poems, supported by Duchess of Devonshire, but it made little money or critical success (Ockerbloom). Upon her release from debtor’s prison in 1776, Robinson returned to her career as an actress; she debuted as Juliet that December at the Drury Lane Theatre and was an instant success. Her public persona took a new turn after her role as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale, where she first caught the eye of the seventeen year-old Prince of Wales (later King George IV). The press avidly followed his wooing and the subsequent affair (Mellor, 232), publishing cartoons depicting the Prince as an innocent child seduced by an older woman (she was three years his senior) (see Perdita). After less than a year the Prince abandoned Robinson; she, very much in need of money and her reputation already bombarded by the press, demanded 25,000 pounds for...