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.
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