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Portrait of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749–1806, frontispiece to an 1827 publication of her Elegiac Sonnets).
Early in her childhood, Charlotte Turner Smith lived in the Sussex downs that figure prominently in her writing. Years after the death of her mother, Smith’s father remarried, promising his new wife that the teenaged Charlotte would not remain in the household. Her father arranged her marriage to a man who proved to be irresponsible, promiscuous, and abusive. While in debtor’s prison with her husband and children, Smith earned enough money from her writing to obtain their release. After leaving her husband, she turned to writing in an attempt to support herself and their children.
Many of the hardships Smith faced in life—the death of her mother, her step-mother’s dislike of her, the death of several of her children, her husband’s abuse—found their way into her novels, poetry, and plays.
Charlotte Turner Smith(click to see video)
View a video mini-lecture on Charlotte Turner Smith.
Now recognized as the first woman Romantic writer, perhaps even the first Romantic writer, Charlotte Smith’s work was recognized by and an influence on Romantic poets such as Southey, Wordsworth, and Austen.
Her attention to nature and nature’s association with the supernatural is one of the characteristics that her work shares with other Romantic writers.
Smith is also noted for her use of the sonnet and for initiating a new interest in the sonnet among later Romantic writers such as Wordsworth and Keats. The sonnet form, which had flourished during the Elizabethan Age, was little used during the Age of Enlightenment. Sonnet sequences such as Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella emphasize the emotional ups and downs of a love affair. During the Age of Reason, such blatant sentimentalism was abandoned in favor of reason and rational thought, but with Romanticism came a new interest in literature of sensibility.
Ah, hills belov’d! where once, an happy child,
Your beechen shades, “your turf, your flowers among,”
I wove your blue-bells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song.
Ah, hills belov’d! your turf, your flowers remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?
And you, Aruna! in the vale below,
As to the sea your limpid waves you bear,
Can you one kind Lethean cup bestow,
To drink a long oblivion to my care?
Ah, no!—when all, e’en hope’s last ray is gone,
There’s no oblivion—but in death alone!
Like many of Smith’s sonnets, “Sonnet V. To the South Downs” begins with a description of nature intricately tied to memories of her childhood, a pattern later found in much of William Wordsworth’s poetry. The poem’s content soon turns from natural description and the joy of childhood it elicits to the current sense of the speaker’s pain. Lines 6–8 and lines 11 and 12 ask questions which serve as transition to the topic of the speaker’s heartbreak, asking if even the current beauty and the remembrance of past joy can mitigate the speaker’s emotional suffering in the present or the future. The couplet provides the answer: only death can provide the oblivion that will ease the speaker’s pain.
Smith’s volume of sonnets was first published in 1784. In the preface to the first edition, Smith notes that in these poems she records “melancholy moments” by “expressing in verse the sensations those moments brought,” an explanation echoed in Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Press’d by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o’er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed;
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore,
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doom’d-by life’s long storm opprest,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.
All along the southern coast of England, the chalk cliffs continuously erode into the sea. Famous for its South Down walks, the cliff area prominently displays frequent signs warning walkers not to approach the edges. Cliffs often collapse onto the beach far below, taking with them any objects or persons standing on the crumbling ground.
In the small village of Middleton-on-Sea, a church stood near the edge of the cliffs until centuries of erosion caused most of the building to tumble into the sea. As is common in English parish churches, the village graveyard surrounded the church building, allowing the dead to be buried in hallowed ground. During Smith’s lifetime, an unusually high tide swept away part of the ruins of the church as well as land containing graves. Exposed bones were found on the beaches afterwards.
In Sonnet 44, the speaker again describes the physical scene, the focus on the bones left exposed on the shore by the destructive tide. As frequently occurs in these sonnets, the final couplet turns to the speaker’s emotional state.
The last poem written by Charlotte Smith, published posthumously, “Beachy Head” exemplifies many of the characteristics that have come to define Romantic poetry.
Perhaps most obvious is Smith’s focus on the natural world. However, as is typical of Romanticism, nature is valued not just for its beauty but because of mysticism: the sense of a divine presence in nature. Note words with religious connotations in the poem.
The speaker’s references to the hind (the rustic country-dweller) who makes an honest living and to the shepherd who is involved in smuggling both typify primitivism, the interest in the lower social classes, people who live close to nature.
Also, the poem reveals sensibility, the valuing of human emotion over reason.
At the same time, the poem exhibits traits of poetry from the Enlightenment. Note the personification of attributes such as Hope, Fancy, Luxury, and Memory.