Photograph from BBC website, originally taken at Abbot Hall Art Gallery & the Lakeland Arts Trust
Charlotte Turner Smith was born to a wealthy family in London in 1749, and she received a diverse education during her early years. She learned to paint with help from George Smith, a landscape painter, and from this experience Smith’s early love of nature, and particularly plant life, was nurtured. She was also educated at a boarding school for several years, where she learned to write sonnets- a significant lesson for Smith, as she would later come to be best known for her Elegiac Sonnets. Smith did not have a chance to fully pursue her gift for poetry right away, however. Her father was a gambler, and after losing a great deal of money, decided to marry Charlotte off at the young age of 15 to help his money troubles. She thus became trapped in a terrible marriage to a wealthy associate of her father, Benjamin Smith, and her years were drained away by bearing 12 children to him, going through significant financial trouble as a result of Smith’s embezzlement and crimes, and suffering his abuse to both her and her children. She began writing to earn money in 1782, contributing to the European Magazine and publishing several editions of her Elegiac Sonnets. These largely melancholy pieces were a great success, but her family remained in debt. In 1788, her husband left her and England for good, which gave Smith a fair amount of relief, but still her financial troubles remained. Smith wrote novel after novel and continued composing sonnets, producing works at an incredible pace to provide for her large family. Some ease came to her over time, and she received recognition for her great skill, but her constant working took a toll on her physical health and she died in 1806 with a great number of manuscripts and works either unfinished or unpublished. Her works greatly influenced other Romantic poets, most notably including William Wordsworth, and even her posthumously published poetry, including Beachy Head, arguably her masterpiece, received critical praise.
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On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime,
That o’er the channel reared, halfway at sea
The mariner at early morning hails,
I would recline; while Fancy should go forth
And represent the strange and awful hour
Of vast concussion when the Omnipotent
Stretched forth his arm and rent the solid hills. (Smith 1-7)
These opening lines of Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” set a defining pattern of expression for the rest of the epic poem. Throughout the poem, Smith describes the sublime scenery that surrounds her—“stupendous summit, rock sublime”—and then allows the sight to transport her to a more creative state of mind—“Fancy should go forth”—one in which she can see her natural surroundings as suggestive of larger philosophical and political ideas—“represent the strange and awful hour/ of vast concussion”. In these first few lines, for example, is reminded of the act of creation, the formation of the continents, and the strength and violence of God by the ruggedness and almost supernatural appearance of the cliffs of Beachy Head. From the sights she observes around Beachy Head, she extrapolates stories, political opinions, memories of her childhood, and idyllic ways of living.
One example of this pattern occurs when a natural sight evokes more political thoughts in Smith. Upon seeing several ships drifting in the ocean, she fancifully describes what their purpose and cargo might be, which leads her to remark incisively on the inhumanity of slavery.
And just emerging from the arch immense
Where seem to part the elements, a fleet
Of fishing vessels stretch their lesser sails;
While more remote, and like a dubious spot
Just hanging in the horizon, laden deep,
The ship of commerce richly freighted, makes
Her slower progress, on her distant voyage,
Bound to the orient climates, where the sun
Matures the spice within its odorous shell,
And, rivalling the gray worm’s filmy toil,
Bursts from its pod the vegetable down;
Which in long turban’d wreaths, from torrid heat
Defends the brows of Asia’s countless casts.
There the Earth hides within her glowing breast
The beamy adamant, and the round pearl
Enchased in rugged covering; which the slave,
With perilous and breathless toil, tears off
From the rough sea-rock, deep beneath the waves.
These are the toys of Nature; and her sport
Of little estimate in Reason’s eye:
And they who reason, with abhorrence see
Man, for such gaudes and baubles, violate
The sacred freedom of his fellow man¬
Erroneous estimate! (Smith 34-60)
Besides her obvious condemnation of slavery and its proponents, Smith also subtly introduces here one of the major themes of her poem, the importance of man living in harmony with Nature. In her description of the ships, she places the fishing vessels apart from the trade ship. She describes the fishing boats as a natural part of the seascape; they are suggestive of a simple relationship between humans and Nature, one in which humanity humbly takes only what it needs from the earth. The trade ship, on the other hand, a representation of commercialism and exploitation of human labor, is “more remote” and “a dubious spot” on an otherwise beautiful scene.
In another stanza, a natural scene again transports Smith’s thoughts to a more profound, creative state. The beauty of the hills around her reminds her of her youth, and in her exploration of these memories, she seems to be reflecting on the nature of time. As in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, she seems to be trying to see the world as she did in younger years, but through the lens of experience, her view is altered. She does not comment explicitly here on the changes brought with age, as she does earlier in the poem, with the lines, “I once was happy, when while yet a child,/ I learned to love these upland solitudes,/ And, when elastic as the mountain air,/ To my light spirit care was yet unknown,/ An evil unforeseen.” (Smith 282-287). But the comparison of her youth to her present age evokes, though more subtly, a similar feeling; her recollections of her early love of the natural world brings her mind to the present, and she meditates on the source of Nature’s complexity, the same way she did as a child, but in a way clearly influenced by her age and experience.
There honeysuckles flaunt, and roses blow
Almost uncultured: Some with dark green leaves
Contrast their flowers of pure unsullied white;
Others, like velvet robes of regal state
Of richest crimson, while in thorny moss
Enshrined and cradled, the most lovely, wear
The hues of youthful beauty’s glowing cheek.¬
With fond regret I recollect e’en now
In Spring and Summer, what delight I felt
Among these cottage gardens, and how much
Such artless nosegays, knotted with a rush
By village housewife or her ruddy maid,
Were welcome to me; soon and simply pleas’d.
An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine;
I loved her rudest scenes¬; warrens, and heaths,
And yellow commons, and birch-shaded hollows,
And hedge rows, bordering unfrequented lanes
Bowered with wild roses, and the clasping woodbine
Where purple tassels of the tangling vetch
With bittersweet, and bryony inweave,
And the dew fills the silver bindweed’s cups¬
I loved to trace the brooks whose humid banks
Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;
And stroll among o’ershadowing woods of beech,
Lending in Summer, from the heats of noon
A whispering shade; while haply there reclines
Some pensive lover of uncultur’d flowers,
Who, from the tumps with bright green mosses clad,
Plucks the wood sorrel, with its light thin leaves,
Heart-shaped, and triply folded; and its root
Creeping like beaded coral; or who there
Gathers, the copse’s pride, anémones,
With rays like golden studs on ivory laid
Most delicate: but touch’d with purple clouds,
Fit crown for April’s fair but changeful brow.
Ah ! hills so early loved ! in fancy still
I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold
Those widely spreading views, mocking alike
The Poet and the Painter’s utmost art.
And still, observing objects more minute,
Wondering remark the strange and foreign forms
Of sea-shells; with the pale calcareous soil
Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance.
Tho’ surely the blue Ocean (from the heights
Where the downs westward trend, but dimly seen)
Here never roll’d its surge. Does Nature then
Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes
Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling
To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world ?
Or did this range of chalky mountains, once
Form a vast bason, where the Ocean waves
Swell’d fathomless ? What time these fossil shells,
Buoy’d on their native element, were thrown
Among the imbedding calx: when the huge hill
Its giant bulk heaved, and in strange ferment
Grew up a guardian barrier, ‘twixt the sea
And the green level of the sylvan weald. (Smith 333-389)
Smith’s poem, overall, seems simultaneously like a premeditated manifesto of her beliefs, ideas, and personal worldview and an imaginative series of spontaneous declarations of her feelings and associations towards the sights surrounding her. She attacks organizes religion, war, slavery and imperialism, expresses her admiration for common life, reflects on her youth, and contemplates philosophies about life, presenting all these thoughts as naturally evoked by the variety of settings around her. “Beachy Head” is one of my favorite poems because of just this. It is all-encompassing in its subject matter, and one gets a very clear sense of who the poet is and what ideas she holds as important from its lines alone, and yet it is defined by its singular setting, the cliffs, sea, and hills around Beachy Head. From this one landscape, she draws the source for all the ideas she presents—the history of the hermit who lives in Beachy Head’s caves, the folk tales about giants from the archeology there, the paths where warriors once marched, and so on—and does so in a fluid way, alighting on each subject with the same ease and naturalness as eyes glancing around a sublime scene.