Sandro Jung – Some Notes on the ‘Single Sentiment’ and Romanticism of Charlotte Smith

Some Notes on the 'Single Sentiment' and Romanticism of Charlotte Smith1)

Sandro Jung

Published in Connotations Vol. 9.3 (1999/2000)

Canon revision has not only established that there is a Romantic novel in general but it has also re−established Charlotte Smith's achievement as a novelist as well as a poet. My paper is to deal with Charlotte Smith's very successful and characteristically Romantic Elegiac Sonnets (1784) as well as with the revival of the sonnet as a form. By writing poetry reflecting the hardships she had to endure, Smith produces poems that might be understood as a 'poetical diary' but at the same time show her interest in the theory of the sublime and Romantic sujets such as solitude and nature. Since Smith, like Ann Radcliffe, produced extensive descriptions of landscapes which centre on the sublimity and awe−inspiring grandeur of nature, I shall refer to her novel Emmeline; or the Orphan of the Castle to support my points of Smith's understanding of the sublime.

Her autobiographical persona is prominent in all her sonnets except for her sonnets on Petrarch and Goethe's Werther.2) Charlotte Smith (1749−1806) combined the description of landscapes with an interest in meteorological phenomena, and, moreover, a serious concern for woman's emotional life, especially her personal coping with the problems of marriage.

I. Smith and Nature

Melancholy Nature and the River Arun

Charlotte Smith was very much interested in the capacity of nature as a vehicle for "plaintive tone[s]."3) This is comparable to Thomas Warton's The Pleasures of Melancholy, and his sonnet "To the River Lodon," which propagates the speaker's awareness that he has undergone many an [→page 270] unpleasant situation, that he has run "a weary race"4) since he last frequented the banks of the Lodon but that he has succeeded in re−animating his recollections and impressions first received on visiting the Lodon which now console him and bring back to him the impression of youthly pleasures and happiness.

The preface to the sixth edition of Elegiac Sonnets alludes to and thematises Smith's personal hardships which induced her to strike the "chords of the melancholy lyre":

I wrote mournfully because I was unhappy—And I have unfortunately no reason yet, though nine years have since elapsed, to change my tone.5)

Her writing poetry is not merely the result of her serious financial difficulties, or her fear to suffer persecution by her creditors, but it also reflects an escapist element in that she attempts to flee to a world of harmonious melancholy which is so dear to her. Her "extreme depression of spirit"6) and her need to provide for her children have worn out her health, so that she sees the necessity of defending herself against those who have been responsible for her "pecuniary distress."7) W. L. Renwick goes even so far as to say that "her strong sense of grievance dictat[ed] her theme"8) and that therefore the term "elegiac" is completely justified. "Many of Smith's poems might well be called elegiac because the protagonist looks to death as an end to a helplessly sorrowful life."9) Smith, however, departs from the common elegiac stanza10) although she preserves the iambic pentameter of it. Her sonnets—far from following the tradition of love poetry in sonnet form—are mostly in a "mournful and pensive style"11) and attempt to convey one "single sentiment,"12) either that of the Angstlust of the sublime or the personal unhappiness of the persona. How touching her "appeal to the emotions [of her readers] by the method of suggestion"13) was is expressed in contemporary reviews whose writers hope that the sorrows depicted in Smith's sonnets are merely fictitious. And since the "financial and marital problems behind her habitual gloom were not at first explained, […] reviewers tended to be both sympathetic to, and worried by, her melancholy."14) [→page 271]

On thy wild banks, by frequent torrents worn,

No glittering fanes, or marble domes appear,

Yet shall the mournful Muse thy course adorn,

And still to her thy rustic waves be dear.

For with the infant Otway, lingering here,

Of early woes she bade her votary dream,

While thy low murmurs sooth'd his pensive ear,

And still the poet—consecrates the stream.

Beneath the oak and birch that fringe thy side,

The first−born violets of the year shall spring;

And in thy hazles, bending o'er the tide,

The earliest nightingale delight to sing:

While kindred spirits, pitying, shall relate
Thy Otway's sorrows, and lament his fate!

Sonnet 26 ("To the River Arun") opens with an invocation of the "wild banks" which have been made wild by "frequent torrents" that have "worn" out the stone and the sand. By describing the water's force on the stone, Smith rejects the artificiality and constructedness of "glittering fanes." The "wild banks" as expressions of the wildness of nature are far superior to the "marble domes" in which the very precious raw−material marble has been used for the erection of a man−made monument.

The river is not polluted by human civilization, yet, and therefore "the mournful Muse," the only intruder on the banks of the Arun, is to "adorn" its "course." A profound desire for emotionalism and pastoral idyll is expressed in the "dear rustic waves" in which the past of the Arun and of those frequenting the river can be recollected. Otway, the playwright, is introduced in that he spent his childhood in the proximity of the Arun, whose "low murmurs sooth'd his pensive ear." The river, fringed with "oak and birch" and richly adorned with flowers in early spring, will inspire "kindred spirits" to "relate" the sorrows and pitiable fate of Otway.15) We are left wondering whether we are to interpret these spirits mythologically (as good−natured dryads or naiads, for example) or as manifestations of a natural sympathy inspiring, for instance, a Charlotte Smith to writing this sonnet.

[→page 272] Sonnet 30 is a further example of just such a kind of sympathy.

Be the proud Thames of trade the busy mart!

Arun! to thee will other praise belong;

Dear to the lover's, and the mourner's heart,

And ever sacred to the sons of song!

Thy banks romantic hopeless Love shall seek,

Where o'er the rocks the mantling bindwith flaunts;

And Sorrow's drooping form and faded cheek

Choose on thy willow'd shore her lonely haunts!

Banks! which inspired thy Otway's plaintive strain!

Wilds!—whose lorn echoes learn'd the deeper tone

Of Collins' powerful shell! yet once again

Another poet—Hayley is thine own!

Thy classic stream anew shall hear a lay,
Bright as its waves, and various as its way!

Comparing the Thames with the Arun, the speaker points out how dear a subject she is to deal with and what her personal feelings for this river are. In the first quatrain the three kinds of people attracted by the river are enumerated: lovers, mourners, and the "sons of song." The second quatrain and the sestet elaborate this pattern. All the three groups are in sympathy with the floating river and its banks with their simple and natural as well as typical vegetation ("bindwith" and willows). Lovers and mourners "seek" and "choose" this river, and poets, remembered by their names, have found in it their inspiration. As in the "kindred spirits" of Sonnet 26, here too, human sympathy with nature gets a mythological touch when "Sorrow" as well as "Love" are personified. Moreover, this nature−choosing "hopeless Love" in line 5 is expressly called "romantic." Or is this term applied to the "banks" of the Arun? Thanks to this double attribution it links nature with man's feelings in mutual sympathy.

Perhaps Charlotte Smith echoes Warton's Pleasures of Melancholy, in which solitude is considered essential for melancholy's musings and reflection, which makes the soul "secure" from any intrusion or harassment and [→page 273] "self−blest" because it knows that the "wild uproar of fleets encountering" does not concern it:

Few know that elegance of soul refined,
Whose soft sensation feels a quicker joy
From Melancholy's scenes, than the dull pride
Of tasteless splendour and magnificence
Can e'er afford.   (ll. 92−96)16)

Smith continues the tradition "of prizing melancholy as a contemplative mood"17) for it enabled her to "seek […] relief"18) in the solitary panoramas she developed in her sonnets. The sestet of Sonnet 30 turns the general reflection on the visitors of the Arun into a homage to Otway and William Collins, who are supposed to have also indulged in the beauty of the river. "Otway's plaintive tone" as well as the "deeper tone ⁄ Of Collins' powerful shell" took their inspiration from the banks of the river on which they used to dwell. The third poet in this triad is Hayley, who does not have anything in common with the other two except that his inspiration and poetic power is also indebted to the sublimity of the Arun. The couplet concludes with the hope that "Thy classic stream anew shall hear a lay, ⁄ Bright as its waves, and various as its way."

Another sonnet, whose subject is the melancholy solitude Smith longs for, is 32, with the Arun shown in autumn at the fall of night.


When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,

And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,

I love to listen to the hollow sighs,

Thro' the half−leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom, pale,

Oft seems to fleet before the poet's eyes;

Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,

As of night−wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,

Pity's own Otway I methinks could meet, [→page 274]

   And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden'd wind

! O Melancholy!—such thy magic power,

That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,

   And soothe the pensive visionary mind!

"Autumn spreads her evening veil" whilst "grey mists" arise from the moving and flowing waves of the river. The speaker is fascinated with the sounds produced by the dashing waves, which she does not perceive as mere clashes but as "hollow sighs." Even more than in the former examples nature here seems personified, i.e. imbued with human qualities.

The tone of the second quatrain resembles the mood of William Collins's "Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland" (1749), e.g. when the poet as the gifted seer perceives "the shadowy phantom pale" rise from the mist of the water. The poet is not afraid of the "strange sounds" and "mournful melodies" which seem to be produced by "night−wanderers, who their woes bewail!" The enchantment created by these unearthly sounds prepares the reader for the poet's imagined meeting with sad Otway and her praise of Melancholy's "magic power."

In Sonnet 33, Smith clearly confesses to mythology when she deals with the "Naiad" and other beings that dwell in or near the river.


Go, rural Naiad! wind thy stream along

Thro' woods and wilds: then seek the ocean caves

Where sea−nymphs meet their coral rocks among,

To boast the various honours of their waves!

'Tis but a little, o'er thy shallow tide,

That toiling trade her burden'd vessel leads;

But laurels grow luxuriant on thy side,

And letters live along thy classic meads.

Lo! where 'mid British bards thy natives shine!

And now another poet helps to raise

Thy glory high—the poet of the MINE!

Whose brilliant talents are his smallest praise:

And who, to all that genius can impart,
Adds the cool head, and the unblemish'd heart!

[→page 275] In addressing the "rural Naiad," the poet wants her to follow the windings of the Arun which lead "Thro' woods and wilds" and then culminate in "ocean caves" which are inhabited by the naiad's sisters, the "sea−nymphs" who "boast the various honours of their waves." The naiad can be proud of the Arun, for apart from the few vessels with which "toiling trade" burdens the river, the river and its surroundings have been the ideal places for "laurels [to] grow luxuriant." In addition to the fame "British bards" have already brought the Arun, "the poet of the MINE," John Sargent, has immortalised its beauty and calm sublimity. But of course no reader will fail to see in "MINE" a pointer to Smith's own sympathy and poetic achievement.

Smith and the Sea

Similar to Goldsmith in, for instance, "The Deserted Village" (1770), Smith favours and prefers the rural country to urban settlements. The same holds true for her love of the sea, which functions in her work as a metaphor of absolute and unlimited freedom.

Each of the following sonnets is concerned with the different (psychological) effects the sea may have on the spectator. The speaker tries to convey a psychological process which is initiated by being exposed to the sea's tranquillity as well as destructive powers.


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;

[→page 276] 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.

The first quatrain shows the effect of the moon on the swelling of the sea−water, i.e. the tide. The flood is personified in that it, like a hunter, "o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides." The waters move majestically and sublimely over the country and, by attributing sublimity to the waves, the speaker alludes Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime and the beautiful in which only the grand and the infinite is capable of producing an emotion of awe and being overwhelmed. Yet, this sublimity is connected with the thought of destruction in that the water floods a graveyard.

The second quatrain deals with the violent forces of the water which not only remains at the surface of the ground but which also penetrates the various tombs of the graveyard. By invading the sacred place of the graveyard, the sea disturbs and breaks upon the "silent sabbath of the grave." The water enters the tombs by "wild blast[s]" and "tears" the dead from their graves. This act of trespassing on the sacred monument of the tomb enlarges the notion of the wildness of the water. Repeatedly, the dichotomy of life and death is pointed out, here represented, on the one hand, by the "shrinking land" and the swelling sea and, on the other, by the tombs that are flooded. The function of the water is ambivalent, however, for although the sonnet does not explicitly refer to the destruction of human habitations, the water may be responsible for the killing of those that are unable to escape. The quatrain follows a cyclical structure in that the floods spring "from the western cave," thus from the dark, and pour all their destructive and violating forces into the graves of the dead. Thus, the water not only destroys and makes the people who live on the surface of the earth suffer but it also dissolves all the material remembrances of the dead.

In the third quatrain, the sonnet reaches its turning−point because all endeavours to destroy the graves and the dead have been in vain, for those whose bones were carried away "hear the warring [my italics] elements no more." Only the final couplet introduces the speaker, who considers herself "doomed" to be subject to "life's long storm" and also to the [→page 277] inundation which has proved so fatal to the graves and the remembrances of the deceased. This awareness of a doomed life makes her glance enviously at the dead who have found peace in "gloomy rest."19)


THE upland Shepherd, as reclined he lies

On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,

Mars the bright Sea−line mingling with the skies;

Or from his course celestial, sinking slow,

The Summer−Sun in purple radiance low,

Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene

Magnificent, and tranquil, seems to spread

Even o'er the Rustic's breast a joy serene,

When, like dark plague−spots by the Demons shed,

Charged deep with death, upon the waves, far seen,

Move the war−freighted ships; and fierce and red,

Flash their destructive fire[.]—The mangled dead

And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils Heaven's glorious works with blood!

"The Sea−View" opens with a rather untypical panorama of the sea meeting the horizon, for the sea is seen from a mountain perspective. This at the same time implies the contrast between the high and perpendicularly rising mountains and the horizontal sea−line. A country−shepherd is lying "on the soft turf" and watches the mingling of the blue sky with the blue sea. The scene appears sublime, "magnificent and tranquil" and has a psychological effect on the rustic. The shepherd is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the sea and so this image of the scene produces "a joy serene" in the "rustic's breast."

In contrast to "Sonnet Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex," there is no syntactic division into quatrains and sestet. Perhaps this continuous movement of language parallels the emotional tenor of this sonnet, which does not emphasise the destructive powers of the sea but stresses the tranquillity it "seems to spread." Despite this calm, the water is a vehicle for approaching evil and death, for it transports the various "war−freighted ships" that are "Charged deep with death." On [→page 278] sea, ships are "fierce and red," "fierce" because they threaten and destroy the ships of enemies and "red" because the fights will imply fire and bloodshed. The red "destructive fire" is contrasted with the "purple" "summer−sun" which reddens the sea−water naturally. Its antagonism to nature is summed up in the final couplet, where it is said to spoil "Heaven's glorious works with blood."

II. Romanticism

Smith's sonnets are very often representations of the "single sentiment" of melancholy but also laments of the vanity of human life as well as the inevitability of human hardships. This recalls, for instance, the final couplet of Thomas Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West,"20) for Smith also

… fruitless mourn[s] to him that cannot hear,
And weep[s] there more because [she] […] weep[s] in vain.21)

In a similar vein, Wordsworth thought that poetry was "truth […] carried alive into the heart by passion"22) and that "poetry sheds […] natural and human tears"23) for what cannot be changed or brought back.

The title of Sonnet 53 ("The Laplander") testifies to Smith's Romanticism in that it reveals her interest in Laplandic culture. The interest in the far away and the popular introduced by William Collins and James Macpherson is here focused upon a culture supposed to be still in accordance with nature.

In Sonnet 54 ("The Sleeping Woodman"), the speaker seeks shelter and isolation from "human converse" in a natural sanctuary which she calls the "pathless bowers" of the "wild copses." Similarly Mary in Ann Radcliffe's The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne "lulls her mind into a pleasing forgetfulness of troubles."24) Mary's escapism, however, is based on a deliberate decision whilst the woodman simply goes to sleep where his exhausted body may find rest and recreation:

His careless head on bark and moss reclined,
Lull'd by the song of birds, the murmuring wind …

[→page 279] The woodman's near−symbiosis with nature is another typical romanticist trait, as is the speaker's envy of such perfect tranquility and harmony, far from the Neo−classical "antagonism to 'feeling' and the […] championing of reason."25)

Ah! would 'twere mine in Spring's green lap to find
Such transient respite from the ills I bear!

By classifying the woodman as "unthinking" it becomes evident that the constraints of contemplation and reflection prevent the speaker from experiencing the woodman's refreshing sleep.

This, however, is granted to her only in death, the "long repose" in which she will no longer have to think of terrestrial problems that had formerly made her uneasy. This "last sleep" is therefore seen as a relief from all the confinements of human life.

Sonnet 55 ("The return of the nightingale." Written in May 1791) is, perhaps, most richly charged with romanticist motifs.

Borne on the warm wing of the western gale,

How tremulously low is heard to float

Thro' the green budding thorns that fringe the vale,

The early Nightingale's prelusive note.

'Tis Hope's instinctive power that thro' the grove

Tells how benignant Heaven revives the earth;

'Tis the soft voice of young and timid Love

That calls these melting sounds of sweetness forth.

With transport, once, sweet bird! I hail'd thy lay,

And bade thee welcome to our shades again,

To charm the wandering poet's pensive way

And soothe the solitary lover's pain;

But now!—such evils in my lot combine,
As shut my languid sense—to Hope's dear voice and thine!

The nightingale is considered a mediator between terrestrial and celestial existence, for it "Tells how benignant Heaven revives the earth." The bird's "melting sounds of sweetness" are called forth by "the soft voice of young and timid love" which is still pure and able to renew the innocence of those [→page 280] who listen to its message that is transported by the nightingale's song. It is to restore the natural goodness of Rousseau's tat naturel, which enables human beings to forget ambition and self−love. The sweetness of the song will make evil and egoism melt and will evoke the powerful "overflow of […] feelings" which came to be of central significance in Wordsworth's poetry.

The sonnet ends, however, on a note of melancholy: to the speaker the divine nightingale's song has lost its healing powers for she is deaf "to Hope's dear voice and thine!" The evils still to be faced (and there might be an autobiographical reference here) have hardened the speaker's sensibility to such a degree that she is no more able to indulge the sweetness and sanative powers of the nightingale's song.

IV. Sublimity

In Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788) Smith includes some landscapes of profound sublimity and grandeur. At the beginning of the novel, the heroine is introduced as living in a old castle in Wales. The mere mention of Wales evokes an idea of a rough and inaccessible kind of landscape. On parting from Mowbray Castle, the protagonist is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the towers under whose roofs she used to dwell.

It was venerable towers rising above the wood in which it was almost em−bosomed, made one of the most magnificent features of a landscape, which now appeared in sight.

The man−made towers are, for all their sublimity, almost completely absorbed by nature and thus very much resemble the ruins overgrown with moss and ivy in John Dyer's Grongar Hill.26) Nowhere in Smith's oeuvre will there be an exclusive attribution of sublimity to a man−made artefact but there will always be either the synthesis of art and nature or the glorification of the uncontrollable forces of nature. When the towers of Mowbray Castle are an example of the first type, here is one of the second:

Early the next morning, Emmeline arose; and looking towards the sea, saw a still increasing tempest gathering visibly over it. […] even amid the heavy gloom [→page 281] of an impending storm, the great and magnificent spectacle afforded by the sea [was to be clearly perceived]. By reminding her of her early pleasures at Mowbray Castle, it brought back a thousand half−obliterated and agreeable, tho' melancholy images to her mind; while its grandeur gratified her taste for the sublime.27)

Here it is the grandeur of the sea that appeals to Emmeline's "taste for the sublime," which is affected easily and deeply by the wild scenes of nature. Modern criticism argues that Emily, the heroine of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho was modeled upon the plan of Emmeline's sensibility and her interest in the natural sublime.

The sublime, however, is also subject to gradation and Smith's descriptions succeed in being most intense when it comes to an outbreak of the natural forces:

The gust grew more vehement, and deafened with it's fury; while the mountainous waves it had raised, burst thundering against the rocks and seemed to shake their very foundation. Emmeline, at the picture her imagination drew of their united powers of desolation, shuddered involuntarily and sighed.28)

V. Romantic Nature

In her descriptions of natural sublimity, Smith foreshadows Wordsworth's conception of nature as well as continues the tradition of natural description of Thomson and Collins, but she also introduces a fusion of elements nobody had attempted before. This is a "distinctive blend of natural description with an intense but mysterious melancholy"29) not to be found, for instance, in Wordsworth. What Smith has in common with him is, rather, enjoying nature and trying to model moral growth on the growth of nature.

Though both poets attempted to counteract the "vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life"30) by applying "inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind,"31) Smith redefines the "epistemological relationship of the perceiving mind to the object of perception"32) in that she depicts her own sorrows in terms of uncommon natural phenomena. Equally, to her the impact of nature comes first where her "environment" is concerned.33)

[→page 282] Smith's sensibility is of a melancholy kind as regards her own personality as well as mankind in general but "[i]n nature [Smith] […] found a solace which gave stability and purpose to the chaos of feeling."34) The elegiac tone of Smith's compositions seems to attack the cult of sensibility that is so prominently shown in Charlotte Lennox' The Female Quixote in which Arabella's hypersensitivity leads to her illusions.

Perhaps it gives Smith's Romanticism the final touch that she combines "the evocation of natural scenery with a [positive] melancholy and escapist recollection of childhood."35) Having become a poet she has realised the "insights of childhood"36) which are usually worn out and forgotten in adulthood. She propagates the intense and unspoilt "language of [a child's] […] heart,"37) for she is convinced that every child like Wordsworth's The Idiot Boy has a natural openness and good−nature that will be lost in growing up.

University of Durham

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