Elegiac Sonnets: Charlotte Smith's Formal Paradoxy

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In 1802, the year in which Wordsworth began his tuition of sonnet writing under Milton, the Critical Review noted that "the sonnet has been revived by Charlotte Smith: her sonnets are assuredly the most popular in the language, and deservedly so" (393). Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, first published in 1784 and expanded in ten editions by 1811, became the standard for the sonnet in the early Romantic period. Smith's critics praised her achievement, and her readers responded powerfully to the mournful melodies structured in the peculiar vehicles Smith calls Elegiac Sonnets. But

Smith's distinction of her sonnets as "elegiac" remains enigmatic today in studies of her poetry, as most critics take the term as a description of their consistently melancholy tone. Viewing the term "elegiac" as a formal rather than a thematic distinction will help us better understand Smith's achievement in reviving the moribund sonnet and making it amenable to the tastes of a reading public hungry for literature of Sensibility. Smith's innovation in the Elegiac Sonnets derives from the ways in which the formal traditions of sonnet and elegy converge. The first part of this essay explores the ways in which the eighteenth-century conception of "elegy" affects the formal construction of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets; building upon this, part two considers Smith's engagement of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition in the first edition of the sonnets. In innovating the "elegiac sonnet," Smith engages in what I call "formal paradoxy"--the deliberate yoking of seemingly disparate forms that has become such a characteristic feature of Romantic poetry.

PART ONE: ELEGIAC ...

We might ask, "What is an 'elegiac sonnet'?" just as we are tempted to ask, "What is a 'lyrical ballad'?" To understand Smith's formal distinction, we must attempt to recover somewhat the meaning of "elegiac" to her contemporary audience and consider how it can be combined with what we understand about the sonnet revival. The adjective in Smith's title ostensibly defines what sort of sonnets these poems are. But the elegiac sonnet, as such, has no clear antecedent, so Smith appears to be designating a new kind of sonnet, one that defies the traditional conception of legitimacy as defined by the Italian sonnet tradition. The title itself, therefore, boldly announces the illegitimacy of the poems it designates. (1)

The elegy tradition is much older and more mercurial than the sonnet tradition, going back to classical literature and the pastoral elegy form practiced by Theocritus, Moschus, Bion, and others. Originally, the Greek elegy expressed grief; but the form broadened widely with Latin adaptations, such as Ovid's love elegies, Amores, to include almost any kind of subject. Eighteenth-century discussions of elegy show that there was a considerable effort made towards defining this often-amorphous term. Joseph Trapp, Oxford's first Professor of Poetry, for instance, gave a lecture on the form in an attempt to formulate a "dissertation" on a subject, he remarks, not much understood at the time. According to Trapp, the elegy is "generally and primarily understood a mournful Poem, bewailing the Loss of some Person lately dead; and sometimes has any other melancholy plaintive Circumstance for its Subject" (163). Trapp traces the development of the form from the Roman poet Tibullus, whom Trapp calls "the best of Elegiac Writers," and identifies its "chief Subjects" as "Death and Love" (164-65). The basic thematic definition, a combination of the original mournful associations with death and the Ovidian associations with love, changed little during the century. The famous eighteenth-century elegist William Shenstone, furthermore, in a prefatory essay to his Elegies, Written on Many different Occasions (1764), wrote that the style of the elegy "should imitate the voice and language of grief" (1:7). Likewise, John Newbery, echoing Trapp in The Art of Poetry on a New Plan (1762), describes the form as "mournful and plaintive, but yet a sweet and engaging kind of poem," adding that "funeral lamentations and affairs of love seem most accessible to its character" (70). …