This essay was entitled: “Charlotte Smith: Exercises in the Elegiac”
“If you have ever stepped out onto a coastal edge in the dark of the late night, the surreal beauty of genteel waves is overcome by an overwhelming understanding that these shores care not for you, or your fragility, or your mortality. The tide is high and the air is sharp. The silence is deeply penetrating; you could sink in it. It is an absolutely sublime realization, the passiveness of an ocean, as your strewn body bleeds into the sands. In the moonlight, blood looks black. A greedy saline tongue laps at your remains until you are bloated, flesh stretching like taffy across rotting bones, reeking of the marines and marinating in depths so heavy and so crushing. You could be dashed into the midnight blue without a whisper and no one, not anyone person, would know.
It is easy to imagine how many people have committed suicide on the steep cliffs of Beachy Head.
In 2007, The Guardian ran a story about Keith Lane, a fifty seven year old man who conducted nightly patrols around the edges of the chalk headland in East Sussex, where he had resided for some time now. As a notoriously popular spot for suicide attempts, Keith patrolled the headland in hopes of talking to people who were minutes from death and, consequently, saving them from themselves. A benevolent man he may be, but this compassion for those who struggled with suicidal ideation stemmed from a personal trauma that hit too close to the hearth of his own home. In 2004, Keith’s wife threw herself down the side of the pale, jagged scarp, leaving the widower with only the waves and his small job as a window washer.
He saved a purported twenty-nine people since his wife’s passing, but briefly after reports of his seemingly heroic endeavors to remove the shroud of death that was endemic to Beachy Head, the combined efforts of the English Coast Guard and volunteers from the Beachy Head Chaplaincy team swiftly put an end to his rescue efforts. In a sick twist of irony, or perhaps a scandalous exposition of the gritty truth, the locals of the area charged Keith Lane of seeking publicity and attention. They stated that he had no right to put his own life and, potentially, the lives of others at risk in order to display these acts of heroism that they saw as pontifical and self-gratifying. So with that, the chronicles of Keith Lane and his messianic rescue mission along these lonely cliffs came to end. The story was to be forgotten and buried under years of Google Search history.
And yet it continues. People still kill themselves on Beachy Head. There is no Keith to guilt them into living. There is still the siren of the hopeful, dyadic poetry written along the biting sea wind all those years back. The ocean doesn’t weep anymore but the feeling… it’s there. Still tangible.
His story, and the story of those lost to those scraggy rocks and frigid sea, is one of a contemporary portrait of the internal ethical struggle between death, life, and the extent of human generosity. If we choose to believe the first account of Keith’s narrative, the one filled with romance and an almost martyrish belief in the human capacity for good, then we see a silently understanding old man with a lost love and an innate comprehension of the fragility of life. And, true to form, he embodies an au courant retelling of the timeless ethical dilemma concurrent to a lamenting ache for sympathy across human experience; a dilemma often found in the writings of Romantic poet, Charlotte Smith.
In many ways, Keith Lane’s story mirrors the melancholia exhibited in coastal sea life, especially on the sharp rocks of this Sussex headland that Smith so aptly reflected on in her posthumously published poem, “Beachy Head.” This is a poem that moves from panoramic grandeur to cosmological visions, from a sharp and profound appreciation of the geography peculiar to the narrator’s deeply cherished homeland to moralizing accounts of the painful history pertaining to her country. It is a poem that enters the mind of a narrator who is reflecting over life right at the hinges of death. The writer is, as William Wordsworth would say, recollecting her emotions in a period of tranquility- at a precipice where life exists very liminally and the ephemerally. The winding ringlets of the poem give the reader a romantic portrait of Sussex and travels through the regional village vignettes before the sweeping language swallows itself up and concludes with the “lone Hermit” wandering across the beach after years of rejecting society in its final lines. There is a sort of constant and continuous motion in a poem that is often lost in fragmentary thought as the writer travels through time and space. A writer grappling with the inconsequential along with the tumultuously significant, fighting with the reminiscent truths of her own life and the lives of the characters she creates. In her own rhetorical style, Smith subverted the literary cultural norms through her poetry by forging autobiographical truths with fictional conception all while participating in a tradition that barred women from using their emotional propensity as valid methods of analysis, intelligence, and talent.”