Feminine Despair in Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets

Image courtesy of romanticismanthology.com

Image courtesy of romanticismanthology.com

With the first publication of her Elegiac Sonnets in 1784, Charlotte Smith became one of the first and most influential Romantic poets. Though her writing was well received at the time of publication and highly regarded by later Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Smith’s poetry would “become… by the second half of the nineteenth century largely forgotten by literary history” (Curran xix). Despite this, however, Smith “was the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic” (Curran xix). Smith’s sonnets offer vivid and detailed portraits of the natural world and of the poet’s inner world. Yet Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets contain a distinct melancholy, often described by critics as “theatrical” or “sentimental.” The deeply personal tone of her sonnets, along with this “theatrical” despair, allowed Smith an outlet for her troubled personal life, while also endearing hers to her readers. This, combined with the foregrounding of gender in her sonnets, reveals the difficulty of life as a woman in eighteenth century England, and ultimately acts as a call for social change.

In her life, Charlotte Smith endured plenty of misfortune to inspire the despair that would characterize her Elegiac Sonnets. As Smith herself wrote in the preface to the sixth edition of Elegiac Sonnets, “I wrote mournfully because I was unhappy” (Curran 5). Smith spent her childhood at her father’s estate in Sussex and received an unusually good education from a boarding school in Kensington, London (Wu 81, 83). This good fortune, however, was not to last. Due to her father’s increasing debt, her father married her off at age 15 to the wealthy, but abusive and violent Benjamin Smith, an act that Charlotte Smith would describe as being “sold as a legal prostitute” (quoted in Wu 83). When her husband’s actions led to his imprisonment in King’s Bench prison for embezzlement, Smith joined him there for some of his seven-month sentence (Wu 83). It was during her time in prison that Smith published her Elegiac Sonnets and decided to make a career out of her writing to support her family (Wu 83). Though her father-in-law left provisions in his will to protect Charlotte and her children from her husband’s irresponsible behavior, complications regarding the will resulted in a lengthy legal battle that would not be solved until 1813, seven years after Charlotte Smith’s death (Curran xxi). These sorrows that Smith endured inevitably found their way into her poetry. Duncan Wu states that Smith’s “poems are distinctive for the way in which her hardships, though never detailed, color her observations, producing an intriguing blend of the confessional and the sentimental. It is a poetry that gives a remarkably precise account of the author’s inner and outer worlds” (83). Smith’s translations of the sorrows of her own life into her exquisitely detailed and atmospheric sonnets would go on to resonate deeply with her readers and propel the Romantic literary movement.

The sense of melancholy present in almost all of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets often manifests itself as an overwhelming hopelessness that not even the beauty or splendor of nature can relieve. Indeed, Smith’s sonnets frequently return to the idea that only death can provide relief from sorrow. “Sonnet XXII, Written on the Seashore. October 1784,” in particular, conveys this idea. This poem describes a female narrator’s observations of an awe-inspiring rocky shore, reflecting on how the “deep and solemn roar” of the waves and the “tempestuous howl” of the wind “suits the mournful temper” of her soul (Wu 93). While the narrator states that the landscape “has charms” for her, it is unable to alleviate her suffering or provide comfort. Instead,

Already shipwrecked by the storms of fate,

Like the poor mariner methinks I stand

Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land

From whence no succor comes—or comes too late;

Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,

Till in the rising tide th’ exhausted sufferer dies. (Wu 103).

A surface reading of this sonnet reveals the reoccurring idea in Smith’s sonnets of death as an end to suffering, as well as nature’s inability to really comfort the sufferer. Erinç Özdemir claims that this poem is “one of the most Romantic sonnets in the Wordsworthian vein,” suggesting that this sonnet effectively combines the sentimental (the despair) and the sublime (the rocky cliff) (463). Özdemir goes on to suggest that, in this sonnet, Smith also transforms the “masculine subject of Romantic sensibility” into “the feminine… sentimental subject” (464). Ultimately, this culminates in the despairing final sestet where the “sense of female victimization and helplessness at the core of sensibility is overtly expressed through figurative identification with a male victim of natural forces”(464). With this sonnet, Smith thus implies that her position as a woman in society renders her as powerless as the shipwrecked mariner. Christopher Stokes also briefly addresses gender in this sonnet and throughout Smith’s poetry. Stokes argues that “the resolution of the speaker to suffer and endure might be seen asa the expression of a particular female ‘I’ or identity” (154). Stokes suggests that the female speaker takes on a “masculine stance of exposure against the elements” and that this, as well as the poem’s “violent” and grim imagery indicates that the speaker’s identity, her subjectivity is “fractured” (152-153). This fractured identity implies that the speaker’s “‘I’ does not belong… entirely even to itself” (Stokes 152). He goes on to suggest that this “fragmented self” “reflects something of the actual condition of being within the discourse of the time” (Stokes 159). The despair in this poem of a female speaker whose identity is “fragmented,” who feels helpless, and who views death as the only sure end to suffering reflects Smith’s feeling in her own life as she battled a society that granted more autonomy and legal power to dishonorable men, such as her husband or her father, than to hardworking women such as herself.

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