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.
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