Patricia Diane Rigg
Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 17, No 1 (2012)
In this essay, I suggest that Robinson shifted from the aestheticist socialism of The New Arcadia to aestheticist individualism popularized by Herbert Spencer and Samuel Smiles in the 1880s. An Italian Garden reflects Robinson’s intimacy with Vernon Lee, the unique liaison between the women informing the nature of love depicted in the volume. Therefore, I read An Italian Garden in the context of Robinson’s interest in Italy, in Italian poetic forms, and in Vernon Lee, interests which inform her poetic depiction of love developed within the framework of an androgynous, aestheticist, and individualistic form of human experience. Robinson poeticizes and aestheticizes conflicted feelings about love, desire, and death that blur gender boundaries and gendered expectations.
Augusta Webster complains in her Athenaeum review of An Italian Garden (1886) that Mary Robinson’s poetry does not reflect ‘the living workaday world of men and women’. Webster goes on in the review to link Robinson’s depiction of lost love and heartbreak in this volume with her youthful, immature experience of love, suggesting that An Italian Garden cultivates a ‘romance of a grief’ (517). Webster’s assessment is generally accurate, for Robinson’s poetic perspective is indeed developed through grief and self-pity as she aestheticizes the pain of lost love as a positive attribute of human experience in a process that depends upon the deliberate separation of abstract sensations of love from recognizable concrete markers, such as the development of married love marked by the seasonal metaphors of aging and mortality that Webster explores in ‘English Rispetti’, for instance. Instead, the complex experience of love reflected in the androgynous quality of the poetic voice in An Italian Garden emphasizes the intensity of woman’s passion that transcends time, place, and gender to elevate individual feeling above social constraints. An Italian Garden compels the reader to enter into an aesthetic world of intimate dreams and unspoken desires to experience forbidden pleasure and inevitable pain divorced from the expectations of heterosexual marriage.