Charlotte Turner Smith Poems
Sensibility and Alienation in Charlotte Smith’s “The Emigrants”
In September 1792, French revolutionaries murdered over one thousand political prisoners to prevent them from being freed and joining enemy forces. After the September Massacres, many, including the English poet Charlotte Turner Smith, had to question their support of the French Revolution and its founding principles. In 1793, Smith published “The Emigrants,” a two-part poem about French refugees who settled in Brighthelmstone, a city in the south of England. The poem’s first part takes place a month after the September Massacres, and the second part takes place the following spring. Smith uses her poem’s setting, a place where civilization and nature meet, to show how the atrocities committed by French radicals throw humanity out of harmony with nature. In condemning French atrocities, Smith does not show the ways the revolutionaries literally destroy natural beauty; instead, she shows how her knowledge of the suffering in France prevents her from connecting with nature, even in England, which has been physically unaffected by the conflict. While writers of the literature of Sensibility view such emotional responses as admirable, Smith portrays them as destructive forces which break her connection with the natural beauty which surrounds her. Smith, then, uses “The Emigrants” not only to condemn the atrocities of the French Revolution, but to criticize the efficacy and validity of the literature of Sensibility, philosophically distancing herself from Enlightenment thought and anticipating later writers in the Romantic movement.
Smith begins Book I of “The Emigrants” with descriptions of the natural areas around the city to begin hinting at the way the conflict in France causes disharmony between humans and nature. Rather than describing the coast in terms of its beauty in the poem’s first lines, she portrays it in a disturbed state: “SLOW in the Wintry Morn, the struggling light / Throws a faint gleam upon the troubled waves” (1). With these labored descriptions of “struggling” light and “troubled” waves, Smith suggests that nature is having difficulty functioning as usual, or that she, at least, is unable to perceive nature without imaging it in conflict. Though this part of the poem is set in November, the weather is “Wintry,” further suggesting that nature is either not following its usual pattern, or that she is failing to perceive it as usual; this unseasonal description suggests that the weather is worse than expected, which may parallel the way that the French Revolution, falling into violence, is also not going as Smith had expected.
Smith does not yet explicitly allude to the Revolution, but hints at its effects: “Alas! how few the morning wakes to joy!” she writes, referring to those in France who are directly affected by the conflict (1). She writes of those who view “the day star, but to curse his beams” (2). The victims are not simply lamenting the start of another day spent struggling to survive; the sun itself has become a representation of their hardship, so they “curse” the sunlight, thereby rejecting a part of the natural world in which they should be able to find “joy,” but cannot. Smith continues to develop this connection between joy and nature through her descriptions of the landscape’s creator. She invokes an image of a benevolent, natural god “whose Spirit into being call’d / This wond’rous World of Waters” (2). This is not a distant and impersonal god, but one who is tied to “This” specific landscape. Here, she finally begins to describe nature as something beautiful and untroubled. She continues, writing that this god’s breath “Low murmuring, o’er the gently heaving tides, / When the fair Moon, in summer night serene, / Irradiates [the ocean] with long trembling lines of light” (2). This calm world of natural beauty she describes inhabits the same physical space as the beginning of the poem, but not the same time. She specifically places this image in a “summer / night serene,” situating it in the past, before nature was cast into the disarray she has been describing, further emphasizing the lack of such calm beauty in the poem’s current setting. This god bids humanity “Nothing but good: Yet Man, misguided Man, / Mars the fair work that he was bid enjoy, / And makes himself the evil he deplores” (3). Nature, then, is meant to be a source of joy or enjoyment, but the “evil” of the revolutionaries cuts humanity off from this joy.
While Smith herself is not directly threatened by the violence of the French Revolution, she, too, finds herself cut off from nature due to the conflict occurring on the other side of this once “wond’rous” and now “troubled” ocean. The victims of the Revolution are presumably cut off from nature by their preoccupation with the threat of violence and the actual destruction of their natural surroundings, but for Smith, safe in the unscathed south of England, this alienation from nature must have a different source. Faced with her own troubles along with news of the Revolution, she expresses the desire to leave society and live amidst the natural beauty surrounding her town, in “some lone Cottage, deep embower’d / In the green woods” (3-4). Only here could she appreciate “The beauteous works of God, unspoil’d by Man / And [be] less affected then, by human woes / [she] witness’d not” (4). Here, she begins to connect her relationship to nature with the ideas of the literature of Sensibility; in this genre, readers have the opportunity to display their virtue through their emotional responses to scenes of suffering or hardship which they read about; in other words, by responding to “human woes / [they] witness’d not” with their eyes, but through literature, or in Smith’s case, through the news or through her encounters with the emigrants. While these emotional responses are seen as admirable in readers of Sensibility, Smith expresses a desire to escape from having to emotionally respond to suffering she does not witness, suggesting that a connection with nature can prevent her from being subjected to the scenes which necessitate these responses. However, now that she is aware of the woes of the French people, not even nature can allow her to escape these feelings. She says that nothing, not “the Cot sequester’d, where the briar / And wood-bine wild, embrace the mossy thatch,” nor the “more substantial farm,” nor the “the statelier dome / By dark firs shaded,” nor “any of the buildings, new and trim / With windows circling towards the restless Sea,” can “shut out for an hour the spectre Care” (6). Here, for the first time, she actually begins to describe the city, but does not do so without commenting on the city’s relationship to nature, and only after describing several other dwellings that are more connected with the natural world. She describes her emotional responses to the Revolution as “the spectre Care,” – a ghost, something to be feared – and suggests that nothing, neither nature nor civilization, can get rid of this “Care,” this feeling of Sensibility, once she begins to feel it. Her tendency to describe the natural world as more important than civilization shows that she still somewhat aligns with Enlightenment thinkers, even if the revolution is making her question this alignment.
Smith’s lingering connection to the Enlightenment is most evident when she says that the French emigrants, who have “dwelt amid the artificial scenes / Of populous City… [forget] all taste / For Nature’s genuine beauty” (25). Echoing Rousseau, she suggests that the emigrants have been corrupted by the “second-nature” of city life and have cut themselves off from the true, original nature. She exemplifies this tendency with a French emigrant sitting by the shore with her children. This woman has become “wearied by the task / Of having here, with swol’n and aching eyes / Fix’d on the grey horizon, since the dawn” (22). Contemplating nature, for her, is a tiring task rather than a source of joy, because “In waking dreams, that native land again” appears for her; she sees “Versailles… its painted galleries, / And rooms of regal splendour, rich with gold,” only to open her eyes “On drear reality” (23). Smith continues to emulate Rousseau by criticizing the way in which the artificial supersedes nature for the French woman, but here, she also begins to anticipate the emerging movement of Romanticism. Twenty-four years after the publication of “The Emigrants,” the Romantic writer Samuel Coleridge writes about the concept of “Fancy” in his Biographia Literaria; “The Fancy,” he argues, is “no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space… it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will” (478). Coleridge believes that acts of the will cut humanity off from the “totality,” a mysterious conception of the world opposed to the rational gaze of Enlightenment thinkers.
Predating Coleridge’s text by over two decades, Smith’s work applies a similar concept to this French emigrant. This woman sees the beautiful natural setting as dreary and finds no joy in it because, exercising her will and seeing only combinations of images from her memory, she can only observe the old life which she has lost; she thereby fails to participate in the “totality.” She does not “[gaze] pleas’d on Ocean’s silver breast, / While lightly o’er it sails the summer clouds / Reflected in the wave” because, due to her willing use of “Fancy,” as Coleridge might later put it, the ocean now only reflects for her the lost land on its opposite coast (25). Smith, despite her safety in England, experiences the same alienation from nature as the French woman due to the Revolution. For Smith, looking at the ocean, she can hear only “the deep groans / Of martyr’d Saints and suffering Royalty” in the wind (19). She is still cut off from nature by Sensibility, by her emotional responses to the suffering she imagines in France. However, this is not “Imagination” as Coleridge would put it, but “Fancy,” as she too must borrow and recombine images from her memory to envision these scenes. Engaging in Sensibility, then, to borrow Coleridge’s later term, is an act of “Fancy” and will which lead to alienation from nature. While Smith does not use these terms herself, the language of Romanticism is easy to read in her poem.
Smith leaves behind Enlightenment thought and moves toward the Romantic movement in the second part of her poem. Book II takes place the following April, meant to be a time of beauty and rebirth. However, just as the ocean has become a mirror for suffering in Book I, the spring becomes little more than a reminder that the situation has only grown worse with the passing of time in Book II. “Fain would I snatch an interval from Care,” Smith writes, “Courting, once more, the influence of Hope / (For “Hope” still waits upon the flowery prime),” connecting the idea of hope with the newly budding flowers of spring (40). The French Revolution, however, has not become any less violent; the spring’s promise of peace, then, is not fulfilled. She continues; “No shade the leafless copses yet afford, / Nor hide the mossy labours of the Thrush, / That, startled, darts across the narrow path” (41). In another unseasonal description, the trees have not yet regrown their leaves, and therefore offer no shelter, either literal shelter from the elements or the spiritual shelter she seeks from the Sensibility to which she is continuously subjected. Again, Smith portrays nature with a sense of disorder, suggesting either that nature has become dysfunctional or that she cannot help but project the dysfunction from the Revolution over nature with her “Fancy,” as it would later be defined. Even the bird she mentions becomes started in her presence, exposed by the leafless trees. However, the bird, unlike Smith, can recover from its initial fright through its connection to nature; “But quickly re-assur’d, [the thrush] resumes his talk, / Or adds his louder notes to those that rise / From yonder tufted brake” (41). Much like the earlier poet Robert Burns in his poem “To a Mouse,” in which he praises a mouse’s ability to live purely in the moment and not worry about the past or future, Smith seems to envy this bird for its ability to participate in nature without external concerns for others’ suffering. Here, she clearly diverges from the Enlightenment philosophy she previously aligned with and helps pave the way for Romanticism; she has no desire to rationally understand or categorize nature. Similar to future Romantic writers such as Coleridge, who wish to cast off their will to participate in the “totality,” Smith expresses a desire to escape from Sensibility – an act of will centered in “Fancy” – and participate in nature, just as the bird is doing by adding his voice to the surroundings.
Near the end of the poem, her condemnations of the literature of Sensibility become more explicit. She acknowledges that although her country is at peace, writing that “o’er our vallies, cloath’d with springing corn, / No hostile hoof shall trample nor fierce flames / Wither the wood’s young verdure,” that “by the rude sea guarded, we are safe, / And feel not evils such as with deep sighs / The Emigrants deplore” (51). But though she is safe and her natural surroundings remain intact, she is cut off from them and cannot find the joy she once could. “Oh! could the time return,” she laments, “when thoughts like these / Spoil’d not that gay delight, which vernal Suns, / Illuminating hills, and woods, and fields [gave me]” (59). What cuts her off from nature is the “thoughts” of conflict which she does not directly witness, but imagines – an expression of her will which Coleridge might later say is not truly imaginative, but purely fanciful, alienating her from nature. “The Emigrants” clearly laments and denounces the atrocities committed by French radicals in the name of the Revolution, but also denounces the literary movement of Sensibility; not directly affected by the Revolution, Smith portrays her emotional responses to the conflict as being just as destructive to her ability to connect to nature as the actual destruction of her natural surroundings would be. She is alienated from nature all the same, and can think of no way to regain her lost connection. This is a problem which later writers of Romanticism endeavor to fix.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “From Biographia Literaria.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume D, The Romantic Period. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton & Company, 2006. 474-488. Print.
Smith, Charlotte Turner. “The Emigrants.” British Women Romantic Poets Project. Ed. Charlotte Payne. Davis: University of California, Davis, 1999. Web.
Close Reading: Sonnet 32 by Charlotte Smith
The new sensibility that characterizes Romantic literature often leads to the recurrence of melancholy as a powerful and recurrent motif, especially in poetry. Romantic poets recur to their poems to express personal feelings and anxieties and in order to capture this, poets use the imagination. As Addison and Shaftesbury put it, `the imagination must not be subordinate to the intellect and focuses on the beauty of wild nature as a source of melancholy.´1. This paper is going to analyse Charlotte Smith´s sonnet 32, `To Melancholy´ as a representation of the new mood and conception of the world that characterizes Romantic poetry and the strong influence of nature as a powerful and magical force able to connect different worlds.
Smith`s Sonnet 32 turns around melancholy and, since the very beginning, the poet states that theses verses are addressed `[t]o melancholy´, an element that is personified and which is attributed the power of a character itself. In this way, the poet’s mood will be one of the central theme in the poem and every element that appears in it is acting as a fellowship that matches perfectly with Smith`s feeling. There are many theories about the voice in Smith´s poems and whether or not is the poetess herself the one who is speaking in all her verses. As Paula R. Backscheider argues in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry , `Kathryn Pratt demonstrates that the speaker is both spectator and spectacle and uses individual sonnets as examples, as she does To Melancholy.[…](Sonnet LXXXV), which ‘‘sets up her speaker as a theatrical spectator.’’´(p-332). This essay treats the voice of the poem as if it was Smith´s voice, considering that the very setting of the poem is a place very familiar to her- the river Arun, in Sussex- in addition to the fact that Smith recurrently writes in her letters that she suffered of melancholy and misfortune.
In Sonnet 32, she is in an isolated place, staring at her environment, which becomes a source of inspiration but not because of nature itself. This turning to nature is produced in an egocentric way. The imaginative power of the poet, in this case the use of pathetic fallacies, subdues the real world and modifies nature as to make it a docile element that transforms in order to accompany her in her melancholy. Smith uses a sensory description of the landscape and its force: `I love to listen to the hollow sighs/ Through the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale´(l. 3-4). Recurring to the senses is a way of offering the reader the opportunity of entering her world and experiment the same feelings as hers and even taking us to the same setting of her poem; as Kristin M. Girten in Charlotte Smith’s Tactile Poetics puts it, ` [t]he visual imagery of Charlotte Smith’s poetry is striking for its microscopic attention to detail and its transporting effects´(p.215). Nature in this case is represented in its more decadent and destructive way; its elements have the capacity of being alive and moving the world around her. The first eight lines are focused in the description of her environment and this sublime and decadent nature that surrenders her. It seems somehow that nature wraps and absorbs her, transmitting the feeling that something supernatural is arising and taking her into another world.
Moreover, Smith is believed to be the founder of the basis of the gothic novel, easily noticed at this point of the poem where she recurs to gothic elements in order to represent her mood. She evokes ghosts and scaring elements that seem to be transported by the wind; again, her use of sensorial description- especially through the sense of hearing- produces in the reader an odd effect, as if we were being haunted together with poet. This effect is especially remarkable in the lines 7 and 8: `Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,/ As of night wanderers, who their woes bewail´, where the use of alliteration of the sounds s, m and w remind spectral and ghostly laments. In addition, since the very beginning, we find the strong metaphor of the autumn to symbolize how everything gets darker in her world; Smith evokes darkness and obscurity and finds inspiration in them. ` [When] latest Autumn spreads her evening veil´, light disappears little by little `and the grey mists from these dim waves arise,´ creating a deathly atmosphere of terror. We can notice the evocation of the sublime in nature as Burke in A Philisophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beauty puts it: `The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. […] No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. […] To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary´.
The second part of the poem, however, changes and offers a turn of structure. Here appears the volta and we find a sestet which introduces us to the meeting of Smith and the ghost of Otway in the shore of the river Arun. All elements in the poem seems to have they source in the river Arun and, somehow, it has the power to act as a link between Otway and herself. Smith was known to be an admirer of Otway, who was considered to have a special talent in representing pure human feelings and this is exactly what Smith is trying to do. The river Arun and its waters are considered by the poetess to be a link between past and present and they are able to make her meet Otway. In fact, it is in this setting where she imagines that he is coming back into life as if he emerged directly from the water, as the rest of phantoms that seems to come out to haunt her through the mist of the river. We can also find this magical effect of nature and its elements as a link between present and past in poems like `Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey: On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13,1798 by Wordsworth, where he turns to the water of the `sylvan Wye´ , and with the only company of nature that `[t]o [him] was all in all´, he is able to evoke the past and to find release to his anxiety in the pureness of nature. In this way he is `Almost suspended´( l. 47) and he is able `…to see into the life of things´(l. 51).
We should notice that Charlotte Smith does not reflect about the beauty of an ideal and perfect nature, as Wordswoth does, nor even adds any other person in this poem. She is focusing on herself and recurring to the elements that best match her melancholy, even personifying the nature or recurring to ghosts. It is curious how she is escaping from established literary preconceptions; she does not evoke classical figures for serving her as a guide but she implies some kind of patriotic feelings by recurring to the figure of Otway, who was born near the same river she is writing in. It is in this moment and in the inspiration produced by the encounter with Otway and the way he is able to emphasise with her when Smith finds the cure to her melancholic feelings and realizes that they are not something to be scared about but they are something from which she can delight. The poet addresses directly melancholy here- a literary figure called apostrophe- and recognizes in it some magical power and effect in her and in her poetry.
The use of the sonnet form following the structure of ABBA, evokes the Petrarchean sonnet, which theme is usually love, may be used as an ambiguous allusion to the melancholy not as something negative or sad but as a subject of idolatry and contemplation that can provide the power of creating beautiful things- in this case her very poem-; as Kathryn Pratt argues in Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia on the Page and Stage ,` The woman as source and object of persistent melancholia appeared first in the sonnets of Petrarch, who originated the persona of the melancholic lover writing of his unrequited passion.´. In this poem, and by rescuing the Petrarchan sonnet, ` […] Smith creates a poetic persona who insists upon melancholia as the sign of her authentic literary production´.
In her Sonnet 32, Smith finds the way to escape from a world that does not understand her, recurring to nature and isolation in order to find comfort and consolation. She turns to melancholy not as her enemy but as her staunch ally and by transforming nature according to her mood she chooses to call for the only person she thinks can understand her, the ghost of Otway. Thus, Smith finds the exquisite way to shift away from preconceived ideas about melancholy as it was understood by the society of her time. She manages to use it in her favor and she is able to creates a moving poem that reflects a great potential of imagination and sensibility.
`To Melancholy´.Shmoop:We Speak Student. Shmoop University, Inc. 2014.
Addison and Shaftesbury. From Only Connect… A History and Anthology of English Literature with American & Commonwealth Insights: Vol. 2 The Nineteenth Century.P. D 56
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beauty. in LRP Module Handbook (2014), pp. 4-5.
Hughes, William. Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature. Scarecrow Press, Inc. Plymouth:2013
Ingram, Allan; Sim, Stuart; Lawlor, Clark; Terry, Richard; Baker, John; Wetherall- Dickson, Leigh. Melancholy Experience in Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century: Before Depression,1660–1800. Palgrave Macmillan. London: 2011.
M. Girten, Kristin. `Charlotte Smith’s Tactile Poetics´. The Eighteenth Century, Volume 54, Number 2, Summer 2013, pp. 215-230 (Article). University of Pennsylvania Press. DOI: 10.1353/ecy.2013.0020
Pratt, Kathryn. `Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia on the Page and Stage´. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 41, Number 3,Summer 2001, pp. 563- 581 (Article).The Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/sel.2001.0031
R. Backscheider, Paula. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore: 2005.
Smith Hart, Monica. `Charlotte Smith’s Exilic Persona´. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2010, pp. 305- 323 (Article. The Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/pan.0.0183
Smith, Charlotte. `Sonnet 32´. in LRP Module Handbook (2014), pp. 34-35
Spiazzi, Marina-Tavella, Marina. Only Connect… A History and Anthology of English Literature with American & Commonwealth Insights: Vol. 2 The Nineteenth Century. Zanichelli. 2nd Edition.
Forms of Psychoanalysis in Keats, Smith and Wordsworth
While oftentimes viewed as contributing to the development of Freudian psychoanalysis, the psychological discourse, and specifically that which deals with the unconscious (the part of the psyche which subjects are actively unaware), of Romantic poetry can also be seen as possessing various methods of its own for examining the psyche. Romanticism is frequently seen as lacking the critical tool of psychoanalysis, rather than perhaps first putting into action the schema which Freud later codified. However, there is at work within the poetry of Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth and John Keats an individual struggle to understand the machinations of the unconscious which represents an early alternative to classical psychoanalysis. In the Romantic canon, the psychoanalytic project takes on various forms, most of which would be deemed heretical by Freud-olatry. Charlotte Smith’s texts use narrative commentary on the surroundings as an attempt at auto-analysis(in which either poet or narrator becomes both analyst and analysand). She describes her version of the unconscious as, “…mournful, sober-suited Night!/ When the faint moon, yet lingering in her and,/And veiled in clouds, with pale uncertain light…”(Smith 1-3). This act of sublimation results in her trials with the seemingly impervious nature of the unconscious. Here it is being related as external and unresponsive to conscious efforts at comprehension. Nonetheless, “the [narrator’s] enfeebled mind/ Will to the deaf cold elements complain,/ And to tell the embosom’d grief, however vain…”(Smith 5-8). The mind is enfeebled for some untold reason, however, it certainly appears possible, considering that she is crying out to her projected unconscious, that there is some repressed cause of her affliction. Apparently, the narrator believes that her dis-ease will not respond to this proto-“talking cure”, however she continues. This continuation of her auto-analysis leads one to consider the possibility that, given the odd internal/external nature of this conception of the unconscious, success and failure might be synonymous. Following in the same blending of analyst and analysand, Wordsworth’s texts use self-reflection as a way to inform an understanding of the present and in doing so uncovers repressed trauma. In “Nutting” the narrator happens upon a “…dear nook unvisited…[lacking any]…ungracious sign of devastation…”(Wordsworth 16-18). His recollection begins innocently, yet with foreshadowing of the violent reality. His play within the unconscious becomes transformed by its alterity and lack of social constraints. This motivation(what we would identify as almost exclusively id-driven) turns to sadism and violence against object used for sexual pleasure(Wordsworth 43-45). These acts have been repressed by the narrator and are difficult to talk about “…unless [he] now confound[s his] present feelings with the past…”(Wordsworth 48-49). Conversely, the narrator goes through reaction-formation after the act itself, as a mode of repression. He now views this act/desire as bad/wrong. In this way, Wordsworth’s text hints at a type of pre-Freudian analytical process. More interestingly than simply falling into the Freudian paradigm, Wordsworth’s “Nutting” creates a parallel form of analysis that evades Freud’s by the absence of an external analyst. The narrator, through internal discussion of the event, recognizes what he recollects to have happened, recognizes his feelings about his actions at the time and considers the event from his current social location. Thus, the forest scene takes on a dual significance, the unconscious itself and a sexual object, which has been acted upon by the unconscious. Following a similar path to the two previous poets, John Keats’ texts provide insights into Romantic auto-analysis. His texts posit the unconscious as accessible through various forms of altered consciousness. In “Ode to a Nightingale” the narrator is found in a state in between waking and sleep, unable to tell which(Keats 80). He has arrived in this state through poetry, however the feeling is similar to that of “hemlock…or some dull opiate…(Keats 2-3). These two drugs imply a forgetfulness which is the goal of repression, thus also this state which he has found himself in, a type of conscious and active repression. However once in this altered-consciousness, the narrator’s death drive is openly discussed. Which seems paradoxical, considering the forgetfulness normally attached to self-destructive acts. The narrator is “half in love with easeful Death…” openly and in a way that reveals the success wrapped up in his auto-analysis (Keats 53). Although, the narrators’ analysis is caught within this repetition-compulsion of trauma, it reveals itself as well. Following in this, the text refers to the “fancy”, or imagination, as not being able to “…cheat so well/As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf”(Keats 73-74). The fancy, here being his introspection, deceives about her ability to cheat. Clearly, Keats recognizes the difficulty in analyzing one’s own psyche, which Freud would later attempt to evade by bringing in an external analyst. However, it is similarly difficult to discount Keats’ poetic and psychoanalytic success entirely. His text clearly explores the possibility of self-analysis in a way that certainly informs Freud’s theory, if not rivals it. These three poets’ works present a parallel form a psychoanalysis, which intersect and diverge, that predates Freud’s and creates the foundation for his psychoanalytic canonization. While psychoanalysis tends to view itself as beginning with Freud and then sectioning into various schools of thought, the Romantic poets can be seen as having an earlier and not necessarily ignorant way of viewing and interpreting the psyche. Modern psychoanalysis “enthusiasts” (scholars, readers and others outside of medical practice) tend to congregate into codified schools of thought with formal structures (Lacanian, Kristevan), and a new take on the origins of psychoanalysis could create novel individual multiplicities of thought within this theoretical discipline. Works CitedKeats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Print.Smith, Charlotte. “To Night.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Print.Wordsworth, William. “Nutting.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature,Volume D The Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Print.
Close Reading of ‘Ode to Death’: Smith’s Paradox of Acceptance
Charlotte Smith’s late poem ‘Ode to Death’, published in 1797 in her collection of Elegiac Sonnets, draws on the idea of accepting death as a ‘friend’ (l.1) rather than fearing it. The ode carries a deep sense of desperation and sorrow, as it alludes to the grief endured by Smith in her own lifetime; predominantly referring to the passing of her daughter, Anna Augusta de Foville. This marks Smith’s capacity to manipulate her sorrow as a poetic construct, as the speaker acts as a substitute for her own identity. By dwelling on the ‘torturing pain’ (l. 7) of life, the poet succeeds in presenting mortality as somewhat desirable – personifying it as ‘Misery’s Cure’ (l. 21). This allows the reader to reflect on its ability to provide relief to those in suffering.
The speaker’s willingness to embrace death is evident in the opening line of the poem, as the stress on the word ‘friend’ (l. 1) elicits attention to itself. Despite the ode’s general use of iambic pentameter, here emphasis is placed on the first syllable of the line – meaning the image of death as a companion is more prominent. The abrupt nature of the exclamation ‘Friend of the wretched!’ (l.1) is also significant, as it hints at the despair of the speaker, who appears to be eagerly awaiting death. The caesura in lines 1-3 of the first stanza adds to this sense of urgency, as it produces a jolty rhythm. This weight of exigency is demonstrated throughout the poem, as Smith’s use of ecphonesis reinforces the speaker’s restlessness and inability to withhold their sudden outbursts of emotion: ‘Ah!’ (l. 3), ‘O Death!’ (l. 19), ‘Oh!’ (l. 21). Similarly, Smith incorporates a series of rhetorical questions in order to create a fast-paced verse – this is particularly noticeable in the third stanza, where the simultaneous use of three questions reveals the impatience of the speaker:
Sharp goading Indigence who would not fly,That urges toil the exhausted strength above?Or shun to the once fond friend’s averted eye?Or who to thy asylum not remove,To lose the wasting pain of unrequited love? (ll. 11-15)
A feeling of bewilderment is created, as the constant interrogations reflect the turbulence of the narrator’s distressed mind. The use of anaphora in lines 13-14 also intensifies the uneasy mood, meaning the speaker’s agitation grows more apparent, again producing a sense of haste.
Whilst to an extent the speaker’s behaviour appears slightly chaotic, at the same time Smith conveys a sense of measured logic behind their thoughts, as the continual focus on life’s miseries facilitates the justification of death. The poem therefore suggests that it is wiser to die rather than force oneself to endure constant hardship:
[…] -Ah! Wherefore fears to dieHe, who compelled each poignant grief to know,Drains to its lowest dregs the cup of woe? (ll. 3-5)
The rhetorical question allows Smith to rationalize death, as the speaker presents it as an escape from ‘each poignant grief’. The regularity of the quintain rhyme scheme throughout the poem also maintains a sense of uniformity. In this regard the poem takes the form of a typical Horatian ode; the tone remains balanced and poised as the speaker evaluates the arguments in favour of accepting death. The rhyming couplets at the end of each stanza also build on this sense of stability, as the form remains consistent and neat. The overall effect is comparable to that of the Petrarchan sonnet; where the internal couplets create the effect of rounded thought and reflection.
The vindication of death as an ally is further demonstrated through Smith’s hyperbolised description of life’s afflictions:
Fear thee, O Death!- Or hug the chains that bindTo joyless, cheerless life, her sick, reluctant mind? (ll. 19-20)
The jarring effect produced by the dissonance in line 20 is reflective of the speaker’s attitude of disgust towards life, as the repetition of the harsh ‘c’ creates a jolty, violent feel. The sibilance through the repetition of ‘less’ adds to the aggressive tone due to the sharpness of the sound; hinting at the speaker’s frustration. Smith’s use of imagery also builds on the idea of death as a form of relief, as the narrator’s metaphorical image of life as ‘chains’ implies that death grants liberation from a miserable, restricted existence. However, the tone in these lines differs from that at the beginning of the stanza, where Smith refers to the death of her daughter Anna, who died during childbirth in 1795. The use of apostrophe leads the voice to become much softer, contrasting with the generally bitter and harsh tone of the poem:
Can then the wounded wretch who must deploreWhat most she loved, to thy cold arms consigned,Who hears the voice that soothed her soul no more, (ll. 16-18)
The smooth sibilance throughout these lines creates a more subdued mood, leading to a slight lull in the verse. This means a more melancholic feel is produced, as Smith uses the voice of the speaker to reflect on her own family misfortune; as well as the loss of Anna, she had also witnessed the deaths of three of her twelve children during childhood. The sonnet therefore calls into question the preeminence of motherhood, and according to Jacqueline Labbe, allows Smith to explore the ‘ramifications of maternal grief’. Smith continues to present death as desirable by contrasting the distress of life with the supposedly peaceful act of dying:
Would Cowardice postpone thy calm embrace,To linger out long years in torturing pain? (ll. 6-7)
The use of the word ‘Cowardice’ here has a rather forceful effect, as the stress of the meter falls on the first syllable; producing an explosive sound. This creates a harsh, almost accusatory tone; the speaker appears frustrated by the feebleness of those who refuse to openly accept death. The sharpness of this word juxtaposed with the softness of the phrase ‘calm embrace’ emphasises the welcoming nature of death ; as the repetition of ‘m’ and ‘c’ constructs a soothing sound; conveying an image of hugging Death itself. It is also to be noted that Smith exaggerates life’s sorrows through the use of alliteration in line 7, as the repetition of ‘l’ in ‘linger’ and ‘long’ draws out the vowels to create a slower pace, hinting at the prolonged pain of life.
The idea of incessant misery is reinforced through the sonnet’s internal rhyme – for example in ‘linger’ and ‘years’, and ‘long’ and ‘torturing’ (l.7). Here the repetition of the vowel sounds ‘i’ and ‘o’ drags out the length of the line, causing the reader to slow down, hence reflecting this idea of perpetual suffering. This is noticeable throughout the poem; ‘lowest […] woe’ (l. 5), ‘who too’ (l. 9), ‘aid […] vain’ (l. 10), ‘once fond’ (l. 13), ‘wasting pain’ (l. 15), ‘wounded […] who’ (l. 14), ‘thy […] consigned’ (l. 17), ‘life […] mind’ (l. 20), ‘angel […] save’ (l. 22). The assonance created as a result contributes to the poem’s overall sound of despair, as the repeated emphasis on vowels produces whiney, eerie undertones and continues to draw on the idea of endless grief. Smith’s manipulation of meter is also significant in terms of reflecting pain. Despite the most part of the poem being in iambic pentameter, the last lines of stanzas 2 – 5 are in iambic hexameter. Here the additional two syllables are accentuated, as the altered cadence draws attention to the last word of each stanza. Likewise, this is indicative of the prolonged agony of life, suggesting that death is the solution to the unnecessarily long torture. This fixation on suffering is again influenced by the severe grief endured by Smith herself, as before facing the deaths of four children, at a young age her own mother passed away – meaning she was raised by her aunt from 1753. Loraine Fletcher argues that Smith’s works ‘increasingly focus on the middle-aged rather than the young’, therefore the voice in ‘Ode to Death’ resembles one such as herself; meaning ‘the reader who is aware of her age and personal history identifies the author with the character’.
The poem’s portrayal of death as a remedy to life’s sorrows is reflective of the author’s personal experiences with regards to grief, as the verse discusses the ‘ills that chase’ man (l. 8) and a life plagued with misery. However, it is interesting to note that the third person narrator is somewhat ambiguous – in the opening stanza the ‘wretched’ figure is referred to as a male; ‘He’, but then in lines 16-20 the character moves to ‘she’, before becoming a gender neutral ‘they’ in lines 21-23. The peculiar inconsistency of the speaker allows Smith to disguise herself, yet still achieve a sort of ‘self-revelation’ by adapting the voice to fit her own ordeals. ‘Ode to Death’’ displays a romanticisation of mortality and pessimistic attitude towards life that has consequently led editors to see just one narrator in the poem, and that is the poet herself.
Order of Experience in Charlotte Smith’s Sonnets
Through her series of celebrated published sonnets, Charlotte Smith has provided readers and critics with useful insights into the life and experiences of an 18th century woman whose life events met her with a great number of detriments. Her self-described melancholic state through which she mourns a lost happiness often stands as a focus of her writing. Literary critic and professor Adela Pinch closely observes Smith’s sonnets in her piece Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. She takes an in depth look at Smith’s references to other poets, and poses the notion that the acts of reading and writing precede Smith’s feelings – essentially causing them. While this idea is original and thought provoking, it is not wholly the case. Through close reading of Smith’s Sonnet I and Sonnet XII, we see that the acts of literary reading and writing influence, rather than plainly precede, Smith’s feelings and emotions.
Sonnet I presents itself as a great starting point for observing Smith’s understanding of her own melancholy in relation to poetry. She is quick to point to the idea that her sympathetic abilities, essential to reading and writing poetry, leave her less happy than those who go without. She writes “But far, far happier is the lot of those / Who never learn’d her dear delusive art” (5-6). She refers to the art form as “delusive” – something that has deceived her, and yet still holds it dear. Poetry is nonetheless vital to her experience. Smith spends this sonnet setting the reader up for the final couplet, through which she reaffirms the idea that her experience of sorrow and melancholy is deepened by her ability to write it. “Ah! then,” she writes, “how dear the Muse’s favours cost, / If those paint sorrow best – who feel it most!” (13-14). Smith is among those who paint sorrow best, and in these final lines she delivers a clear reference to another poetic great. The footnote she provides tells us that her closing line is a rewording from a work of English poet Alexander Pope. The nature of her influences is revealed here. The footnote reads “The well sung woes shall soothe my pensive ghost; / He best can paint them, who shall feel them most” (I, n1). Her woes are just that – well sung. Though, it is hard to say that they would not be felt and understood in the present if not for her literary disposition.
Here, we are led to Adela Pinch’s take on the topic. She says that this passage asserts the notion that, for Smith, writing precedes feeling. In Strange Fits of Passion, Pinch writes “But if feeling precedes writing in Pope’s couplet, Smith’s sonnet leads precisely to a reversal of that claim” (63). It is difficult to definitively put this forward in the manner that Pinch does. The critic seems to say that the prior poet (Pope’s) writing of his experience overtakes Smith’s mental state and consciousness in the present. Smith’s “well sung woes”, so to say, are indeed similar to the notion that Pope and other poets have put forward, and her poetic awareness deepens her emotion. It is a stretch to say, though, that her melancholic state comes as a result of her having read these poems. Smith undergoes similar experiences and so refers to the prior works, as she cannot help but be reminded of them. They therefore influence her emotions, rather than precede them. The thoughts and experiences are still hers – they are simply affected by her awareness of where they stand among the literary canon. She sees a painting within her mind that may feature another artist’s brushstrokes, but the painting is nonetheless hers. It is just that life is richer for the writer, they are highly aware of themselves and of the world.
Heading further into Smith’s collection of sonnets to Sonnet XII, we find the poet reflecting on her misfortune by the sea, crafting images of herself as a character who has been shipwrecked deep within the waters. In a similar manner, a key line from the sonnet refers to a past poet’s work, rewording their phrase. Staring into the sublime in front of raging waves and winds, Smith writes “But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me, / And suits the mournful temper of my soul” (7-8). She sees a resemblance between the wild and gloomy nature that is out of control, and her mind that she seems lost within. The chaos is almost comforting for her, as she feels it suits a person in her state. Drawing us back to the footnotes, we see that Smith rephrased poet Edward Young through this, who wrote “Rage on, ye winds, burst clouds, and waters roar! / You bear a just resemblance of my fortune, / And suit the gloomy habit of my soul” (XII, n1). It is clear then that Smith has been influenced by the previous poem, but this does not take away from her own melancholic experience that she goes through first hand, then relaying it to the reader. The literary image of the mariner, which she brings about in the following lines, is an original notion that she transcends into, perfectly relaying her hopeless state. Smith writes “Already shipwreck’d by the storms of Fate, / Like the poor mariner, methinks, I stand, / Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land / From whence no succour comes – or comes too late” (9-12). The poet sits in front of the raging sea and feels akin with a fictitious mariner who awaits his death in the rising tides. The land, salvation for the mariner, is within sight, but only there to tease him into thinking he stands a chance. The “succour”, or assistance, comes either too late or not at all. Thus, he is left to drown, just as Smith becomes swallowed up by her overwhelming melancholy and distress.
Of melancholy specifically, Adela Pinch says that it “…has the magic power to make one imagine other poets’ misery in the landscape, and hence allows an imagined relation to other poets” (66). It is clear in these sonnets that Charlotte Smith does imagine herself related in experience to these previous poets, but it is a stretch to say that their works are the root cause of her melancholy. Smith’s strong sense of empathy helps her connect with other writers – those with well sung woes – though she does not become them, or them her. Pinch does point out that the “order” of these conscious experiences is ultimately arbitrary in nature, as the need for valid or appropriate emotions should not be required. She writes “Hence, we could see what I’m calling sentimentality as that which reveals the arbitrariness of the distinctions with which we… discriminate inauthentic from ‘appropriate’ emotional expressions” (70). The idea that one of these emotional orders of experience is more appropriate than the other does not exactly further our arguments; it just asserts one as proper and one as improper. Viewed either way, Smith’s sonnets have earned their respect and deserve their spot within the canon.
The fact that we continue to find new meanings in Smith’s work all of these years later makes them timeless. In referencing and rephrasing prior poems, she breathed new life into them and brought about new readers. Pinch’s take on the sonnets is but one of many among those who have attempted to pin down the writer’s inner turmoil. Thanks to the original work’s lasting value and the critic’s thought provoking statements, the discussion is bound to continue well into the future.