Charlotte Smith – “Beachy Head”

beachy head

In her poem “Beachy Head,” Charlotte Smith uses the chalk headland Beachy Head as the setting to contemplate history, political power, and nature. Like her Elegiac Sonnets, “Beachy Head” includes Smith’s attentiveness to details of her landscape; Smith’s descriptions of the headland color a sublime picture of the cliff and the tumultuous sea below. Birds, “terns, and gulls, and tarrocks” soar above the “rippling tide of flood.” Flowers bloom and populate the scene of a nearby cottage garden, creating a vibrant, detailed scene:

The vine/ Mantles the little casement, yet the briar/ Drops fragrant dew among the July flowers;/ And pansies rayed and freaked, and mottled pinks/ Grow among balm, and rosemary, and rue;/ There honeysuckles flaunt, and roses blow/ Almost uncultured—some with dark green leaves/ Contrast their flowers of pure unsullied white.

At the poem’s opening “Fancy” or imagination, like the birds, flies and goes forth, using the headland as a place from which to take flight. Once Smith’s imagination, inspired by the sublimity of the cliff, goes forth, it travels through time, observing how the landscape and the history of the headland have interacted in the past. Smith goes on to examine the interactions between the landscape and human nature, questioning “Ah, what is happy?”

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