Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets

For Elegiac Sonnets, Charlotte Smith actually translates Petrarch’s works and adapts them for the English language (Sonnets XIII through XVI). There are, admittedly, several similarities between Smith’s sonnets and Petrarch’s. Firstly, Smith’s persona in the sonnets is similar to that of Petrarch’s in that she “takes on the persona of a lonely, grief-stricken wanderer” (Robinson 200). The landscapes in Smith’s sonnets and Petrarch’s sonnets, as Robinson points out, are similar in that they are “pastoral and melancholy” (200). Finally, the intimacy of both poets affects readers so personally that they conflate each respective poet’s persona with the poets themselves. But Smith’s sonnets simultaneously differ drastically from Petrarch’s in the elements just mentioned. Though Smith’s persona is that of the “lonely, grief-stricken wanderer,” her sonnets do not offer readers an explanation of her grief, nor do they offer any indication of the source of her persona’s grief (Robinson 200).  Additionally, though Smith’s landscape is pastoral, she adapts it to the English landscape—specifically, the South Downs—thus physically removing the Petrarchan sonnet from its traditional location and placing it in her own world.

There is another majorly important difference between Smith’s sonnets and Petrarch’s sonnets. In their respective sonnets, both Smith and Petrarch describe a yearning to die. For Petrarch, death will reunite him in paradise, or heaven, with his dead lover, Laura. But for Smith, there is no escape to paradise in death; there is only oblivion, or a “vacuous end to her pain” (Robinson 203). She closes Sonnet V with the lines, “Ah! no!—when all, e’en Hope’s last ray is gone, / There’s no oblivion—but in death alone!” Robinson points out that “Smith’s sonnets, by so blatantly undermining the consolation of the Christian heaven and poetic immortality, undermine Petrarch’s Laura…and ultimately Petrarch’s paradise” (208).

Robinson, Daniel. “Elegiac Sonnets: Charlotte Smith’s Formal Paradoxy.” Papers On Language & Literature 39.2 (2003): 185. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

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