Charlotte Smith, the Elegiac Sonnets, and her Influence on the Romantics
Born in 1749, Charlotte Smith was perhaps the first Romantic poet (Curran xix). The creation and perfection of this genre, which lasted from around the 1780s to the 1830s (Buzzard “Romantic Poetry” xxxvii), is typically attributed to William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and these men have deservedly been a part of the literary canon since they first published their work. However, Smith not only produced technically masterful and commercially popular Romantic poetry throughout the first 20 years of this period, she also significantly influenced these male poets who were and are so accredited and praised, in particular William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. In fact, perhaps the most well-known quote concerning Smith is one from Wordsworth in which he asserts her as “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered” (Linkin and Behrendt 103); and Coleridge affirms a similar sentiment, going so far as to say, “that he had learned the rules for his sonnets from Smith’s … sonnets” (Backscheider 338-339). Despite this sweeping influence, Smith was forgotten and left from the canon for the better part of two centuries; although given her fairly prolific writing, which included poetry, prose, and children’s book writing, her warm public reception, as well as how significantly she shaped the most important writers of the age, ignored is probably a more apt description. Her most famous works include the extended poem Beachy Head, which is without a doubt one of the best works of poetry to come out of the Romantic age, and her collection of sonnets, Elegiac Sonnets. Sonnets was first published in 1784 (Backscheider 317), and essentially brought back in fashion and transformed the use of the sonnet (Backscheider 319-320). They were written during an incredibly difficult period in Smith’s life during which she was confined to a debtor’s prison due to her husband’s extravagance and gambling (Curran xxii), and the personal and profound emotion behind the poems is beautifully portrayed through the strict form of the sonnet. Immediately successful, the Sonnets, and the subsequent demand for Smith’s work, was enough to pull her and her husband out of prison (Curran xxii). In order to discover what makes these sonnets, and Charlotte Smith’s work in general, such powerful writing, it is helpful to look at the technical, measurable aspects of her poems; by breaking down three of the Elegiac Sonnets – Written at the Close of Spring, To Sleep, and On being cautioned against walking on an headland overlooking the sea, because it was frequented by a lunatic – through her masterful use of comparison, contrast, imagery, diction, syntax, and the overall intent and impact of the poems, it becomes clear why she was such an influential poet of the Romantic period.
Sonnet 2 of Elegiac Sonnets, Written at the Close of Spring, is a stunning show of Smith’s ability to convey her personal suffering and sadness through strict form and tight imagery in order to manifest the private as public or universal. As all of the Elegiac Sonnets found in the first edition, Close of Spring was written when Smith was detained in prison due to her husband’s actions; she was only 25 years old (Buzzard “Charlotte Smith” 70), but this sonnet aches for the permanent loss of youth and happiness. The final couplet laments, “Another May new buds and flowers shall bring; / Ah! why has happiness – no second Spring?” (Curran 14), the juxtaposition of which helps to create a chagrined longing for happiness, as if to ask “If May and the flowers can do it, why can’t I?” with a melancholy certainty that it can’t be done. Smith also conveys a sense of extended time and impermanent surroundings in order to contrast the speaker’s emotional stagnation (Linking and Behrendt 113). The use of “[a]nother” in line 13, of “fade” in line 1, of “till” and “again” in line 17, and “[n]o more” in line 15 (Curran 13-14), are all part of Smith’s carefully crafted diction that allows the language itself to become a foil to her speaker’s immobility and inability to move past her unhappiness. In addition, the spatial placement of the reader at the end of spring, a recurring and changing time that is moving away from the season of growth and new birth, is an effective way of demonstrating the speaker’s conviction that they will never grow again. The consistent end caesura throughout Close of Spring creates a measured, almost march-like feel to the poem as well; even the form and restraints of this poetic form are keeping the speaker from attaining happiness and freedom. The intensely personal nature of the Sonnets are evident in each individual poem, but Smith manages to stay within, and arguably set forth, the usual elements of Romantic poetry, not straying from the genre into what we know today as confessional poetry. Her ability to do this, especially from the point of view of modern readers, is not only in her use of formal diction (Linkin and Behrendt 113) or the strict form and rhyme, but the separation she creates between the speaker and the audience. The speaker’s pain, exhaustion, and despondency are extremely evident, particularly in the last couplet with her direct lament about the isolated nature of happiness. But the way in which Smith anthropomorphizes spring as “Spring” (Curran 13) and constructs a parallel between her speaker and, not necessarily a goddess, but a being beyond humanity, which creates the speaker as someone close to untouchable – relatable with their depth of feeling and their view of nature, but apart from the reader because of the connection with something so Other. Smith subtly sets up the speaker as she does the flowers, wanting for something or someone to nurture growth and happiness, but the speaker, and as the poem asserts, humanity in general, doesn’t have a benevolent Spring to rebuild them like the flowers do, creating them as “lightly anthropomorphized” (Fletcher 49),
Ah! poor Humanity! so frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant Passion, and corrosive Care,
Bid all thy fairy [colors] fade away! (Curran 14)
These first four lines of the sestet not only serve as a device to further the speaker’s distance from the audience, they also manage to capture the heart of the sonnet – a lamentation on the loss and ephemerality of youth.
Sonnet 11 of Elegiac Sonnets is called To Sleep, and following the standard she created in writing these sonnets, Smith broadly reveals a deep personal anguish, but To Sleep specifically uncovers the speaker’s trouble with sleep, and discusses the complete lack of relief they feel even when they are least connected to the world. The first four lines,
Come, balmy Sleep! tired Nature’s soft resort!
On these sad temples all thy poppies shed;
And bid gay dreams, from Morpheus’ airy court,
Float in light vision round my aching head! (Curran 19)
begin with an extremely private, distressed call to the anthropomorphized “Sleep” (Curran 19), hearkening back to the Greek tradition of asking the Muses for help in composing a song or story; it is also reminiscent of the first sonnet in this collection. Smith’s further allusion of Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams, cements this similarity – the speaker is calling for assistance in finding respite in sleep, perhaps in finding the ability to restfully sleep at all. Smith conveys this sense of exhaustion very skillfully through syntax with contrast, using a “peasant,” a “sea-boy,” a “shepherd,” and “village-girl” (Curran 19) as opposites to the speaker – one the audience can assume is apart in some way from the lower class through the pointed use of only those in the working class, as well as lines 7 to 8 which state, “the poor sea-boy… / [e]njoys thee more than he who wears a crown” (Curran 19) which draws a another shorter comparison between the sea-boy and “he who wears a crown” – which demonstrates that despite not going through the same physical trials or daily tasks as those of the lower class, the speaker still does not rest as easy as those who do. Smith seems to push the metaphysical ideal of those in the lower classes living the best life as a way to further create her speaker in a pitiable light, particularly in lines 8 through 10 which images the quaint life of a shepherd and his wife, “[c]lasp’d in her faithful shepherd’s guardian arms, / Well may the village-girl sweet slumbers prove; / And they, O gentle Sleep! still taste thy charms” (Curran 19-20). These lines work through the “tired poetic diction” (Fletcher 49) of the earlier metaphysical and pastoral tradition in order to make the metaphor and these “characters” fresh and relevant for Smith’s sonnet. The following line is important in asserting what exactly the speaker is missing, the heart of why they can’t sleep and why they aren’t satisfied upon waking, “[w]ho wake to [labor], liberty, and love” (Curran 20). Because of the contrast Smith creates between the speaker and the people she pulls in, it is implied that the speaker is without “[labor], liberty, and love” and to wake to anything else is without purpose. In the last couplet, Smith strengthens this assertion by claiming the overall impotence of sleep in helping someone without these this, “[b]ut still thy opiate aid dost thou deny / to calm the anxious breast, to close the streaming eye” (Curran 20). The finality of the couplet’s declaration in juxtaposition to the better lives of the shepherd and village-girl acts as the final twist of the sonnet, confirming both the speaker’s belief in the ineffectiveness of sleep and explicating the reasons that the speaker is scornful, sleep doesn’t help their “anxious breath…[or their] streaming eyes” (Curran 20).
The final sonnet in this essay, Sonnet 70, called On being cautioned against walking on an headland overlooking the sea, because it was frequented by a lunatic, is especially important because it asserts the speaker’s absolute woe. It describes, as the title implies, the speaker seeing a madman that lives on a beach that they were cautioned against visiting. Thematically, the speaker of Sonnet 70 feels abject and lost, and upon seeing the madman from afar, enviously states,
He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe. (Curran 61)
Smith’s expert use of subtle comparison between the madman and the speaker implies that though the madman may not know his plight, the speaker knows theirs and the madman’s as well. The melancholy that comes with completely knowing your situation is horrible, and recognizing that in another, is present throughout Sonnet 70. Interestingly, Smith uses a non-regular pattern of end caesura and intentional diction in order to create the sight of the madman within the lines and measures of the poem itself. Beginning with a line with no end caesura and alternating between lines with end caesura and without until line 9, where it repeats a line with end caesura and then starts to alternate in again, the poem feels without proper measure. Especially when read aloud, the eye and mouth seem to stop and start at unexpected intervals. This lack of an easy rhythm with which to follow the sonnet mimics the “starting pace” (Curran 61) of the madman himself. The words themselves used within this poem are important as well; Smith seemed to use words with a stuttering or shuttered quality about them – words with three or more syllables that the readers don’t usually read, hear, or say. “Half-utter’d” and “lamentation” in line 7, “nice felicities” in line 11, and “uncursed” in line 13 are a few examples of unexpected words. This pointed choice of terms and expressions and specific, strange punctuation lends the sonnet a sense of irregularity that is disconcerting and hard to follow, in addition to making the speaker just that much more distant from the audience, through a closeness to the madman, due to the connectedness which Smith creates textually and which the speaker explicitly states with line 10, “I see him more with envy than with fear” (Curran 61). Imagery found in On being cautioned works to create the madman as someone untamed, unapproachable, or truly distant,
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter’d lamentations, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf? (Curran 61)
The association of the madman with “the sea-born gale with frequent sighs” marks him as senseless or unaware and potentially harmful as a storm coming in off the ocean. The speaker’s envy of the madman’s condition, as “uncursed with reason” (Curran 61), is jolting and uncomfortable as the depth of the speaker’s unhappiness becomes clear in this wish, this uneasiness only cemented by the diction, punctuation, and imagery found throughout the poem, which echoes the themes found beginning to end in Elegiac Sonnets.
Over the course of the six editions (Curran xxvi) and two volumes of the Elegiac Sonnets, Smith wrote 92 poems (Linkin and Behrendt 112) which cohesively tell a narrative of personal woe and anguish made public through the distant form of the sonnet. This collection of sonnets created Smith as one of founders of Romanticism, influencing Wordsworth and Coleridge especially (Linkin and Behrendt 103), but broadly nearly every memorable name of the Romantic poets. Her contemporaries, in particular Wordsworth despite his decline in discussing her influence on him when he was older (Linkin and Behrendt 103) took many of their cues from her, and this due to her absolute mastery of form and restraint.
Backscheider, Paula. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry. John Hopkins UP, 2005.
Buzzard, Laura, et al. “Charlotte Smith.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry, edited by Laura Buzzard et al, Broadview P, 2016, pp. 70-71.
Buzzard, Laura, et al. “Romantic Poetry and the Romantic Age.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry, edited by Laura Buzzard et al, Broadview P, 2016, pp. xxxvii-lxv.
Curran, Stuart. Introduction. The Poems of Charlotte Smith, by Curran, Oxford UP, 1993, pp. xix-xxix.
Fletcher, Lorraine. Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography. St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Linkin, Harriet, and Stephen Behrendt. Romanticism and Women Poets. UP of Kentucky, 1999.
Smith, Charlotte. “On being cautioned against walking on an headland overlooking the sea, because it was frequented by a lunatic.” The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran, Oxford UP, 1993, p. 61.
Smith, Charlotte. “To sleep.” The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran, Oxford UP, 1993, p.19.
Smith, Charlotte. “Written at the close of spring.” The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran, Oxford UP, 1993, p. 13.