on 18 November 2015
This edition of Charlotte Smith's poetry has been my constant companion for the past 15+ years since I first discovered Smith's poetry as an undergraduate at University. Smith first released her "Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays by Charlotte Smith, of Bignor Park, Sussex" in 1784. By announcing herself to the world as such, she was simultaneously revealing that she was a lady of a certain class and that the reader could expect genteel effusions (which, indeed, they are). The truth, in reality, was very different, as Smith was incarcerated in Newgate at the time for debt along with her profligate husband, Benjamin Smith. Smith's sonnets rescued them from jail, and she would go on throughout the rest of her life to earn her living by her pen, writing novels, one play, several works for children and re-releasing the sonnets (with additions) every other year or so, just to keep the money rolling in.
So what can you expect from this poetry, given this background? You might expect it to be hurriedly thrown together in order to earn a quick quid. However, this could not be further from the truth. These are indeed truly beautiful pieces of poetry. Much of them are based around the South Downs area of England, which was where Smith was from. Indeed, Smith's South Downs are as evocative as Wordsworth's Lake District. She uses location and setting in an extremely effective manner, which brings these vignettes of poetry to life. Smith, as Curran argues in his excellent introduction to this book, was one of the first female poets which we might latterly call Romantic, and her poetry influenced a whole generation of those Romantic poets. In fact, Wordsworth acknowledged his debt to her in his poem "St Bees".
This is my favourite poem from the collection (and probably my favourite poem ever):
On being cautioned against walking on an headland
overlooking the sea, because it was frequented by a lunatic
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter’d lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
I see him more with envy than with fear;
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.
In a later edition of the poetry, Thomas Stoddard would provide engravings to go with her poetry, including a rather picturesque lunatic to go with this one.
This is a pretty complete edition of the poems, although the Pickering and Chatto edition has some previously uncollected works including the excellent "Untitled" which pays tribute to artist George Romney who sketched one of the very few pictures of Smith whilst she was staying at Eartham House with William Hayley and writing her most famous novel, The Old Manor House. However, the P&C edition is £400+, so this is much the more affordable of the two editions - plus Stuart Curran's introduction, background information and notes are excellent.