Elegiac Sonnets: Charlotte Smith's Formal Paradoxy
Robinson, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature
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). An anonymous essay, published in the Annual Register in 1767, makes a similar point about the elegy: "The elegiac muse seems to be the natural companion of distress; and the immediate feelings of the heart, the object of all her expression" (220). (2) These definitions of elegy demonstrate a very general conception of the form that explains how the title of Elegiac Sonnets denotes much of the character of the book in terms of subject, theme, and, most important, tone. Another layer of meaning, however, further and more accurately explains the way in which Smith yokes the elegy and the sonnet together.
Eighteenth-century discussions of "Elegy" and "elegiac" show that they were also formal distinctions. William Bowyer produced an English translation of Trapp's Lectures on Poetry, originally in Latin, in 1742--the year in which James Hammond published his influential Love Elegies. Trapp says little about the metrical conventions of the elegy, which in Greek poetry consists of alternating hexameters and pentameters called the "elegiac distich." Before Hammond, it was conventional in English to write elegies in heroic couplets, such as Pope's "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," in order to imitate the formality of the original prosody; Hammond's Love Elegies, however, introduced the iambic pentameter quatrain (abab) that came to be known first as "Hammond's metre" and then as the elegiac stanza or elegiac quatrain. (3) Trapp, years before, had stipulated that elegy's "chief Property is to be easy and soft; to flow in one even Current, and captivate the Ear with Melody" (167). Hammond's Love Elegies, based on Tibullus's, gave a formal shape to the elegy for the rest of the century. Most of Hammond's elegies develop erotic subjects such as his frustrated desire for aloof, unattainable women. The elegies, composed in what we now call heroic quatrains, rhyming abab, are erotic pastoral fantasies; as such, they defy our preconceptions of elegy solely as a thematic distinction, suggesting that the designation is, to a great extent, a formal one for eighteenth-century poets.
Shenstone, following Hammond's example, distinguishes "Heroic metre, with alternate rhime[sic]" as the most appropriate for the elegy, which requires a principle of versification, he says, that "indulg[es] a free and unconstrained expression" (1:7). The influence of Hammond's elegiac quatrain was so great, in fact, that William Mason encouraged Thomas Gray to change the title of his famous poem from "Stanzas Wrote in a Country Church Yard" to "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" based on the meter alone (Gray 106). The success of Gray's Elegy, as Wellek and Warren put it in their Theory of Literature, "effectually destroys any continuation in English of elegy as any tender personal poem written in end-stopped couplets" (231-32). (4) The Annual Register, however, objected to this precedent in 1767. Defending the couplet tradition, the author of "Essay on Elegies" points out that "The elegy, ever since Mr. Gray's excellent one in the churchyard, has been in alternate rhyme, which is by many ridiculously imagined to be a new measure adapted to plaintive subjects" (221). (5)
Thus, Gray's Elegy solidified a conception of "elegy" and "elegiac" closely associated with the heroic quatrain in the eighteenth century. The title of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, then, is a complex play on literary terms. Ostensibly, the title designates the thematic qualities of the sonnets, but it also announces their formal qualities as well. Smith's "illegitimate" sonnet consists of three elegiac quatrains and a couplet, thus combining both English elegiac meters. The defining metrical feature of the sonnet, therefore, is that it is elegiac. Her sonnets are elegiac in both senses of the word, making a unique formal pun that Wordsworth would imitate for his "Elegiac Stanzas" (1807), a poem that deals with grief in the traditional sense of elegy but that also develops this theme in elegiac quatrains. When Keats complains that the illegitimate sonnet is "too elegiac," moreover, he is specifically referring to the elegiac quatrains that make up the sonnet popularized by Smith, not to its theme or tone (Letters 255). (6) Smith's title, therefore, gave the period not only a new kind of sonnet but also a new designation for it. Capel Lofft's 1814 sonnet anthology, Laura, for instance, distinguishes between (and designates its sonnets as either) Petrarchan or "Elegiac Quatuorzains," thus dropping altogether the pejorative "legitimate" and "illegitimate" sonnet distinctions.
In order to exhume further the elegy in the Elegiac Sonnets, we now might consider the extent to which the work resonates with traditional notions of "elegiac" and the elegy as a poem of mourning. The early sonnets, first called "elegiac sonnets," confound this approach, however, because there is no lament for any particular specified death. There are a few sonnets that mourn particular deaths, such as Sonnet 49, "Supposed to have been written in a church-yard, over the grave of a young woman of nineteen," from the sixth edition of 1792, and Sonnet 82, "To the shade of Burns," from the second volume of 1797. (7) These specific requiems appear late in the course of the book's publication, more than ten years after the first edition of Elegiac Sonnets, and are uncharacteristic of the sonnets as a whole.
Smith's five sonnets, three of which appeared in the first edition, written in the voice of Goethe's gloomy hero of Sensibility, provide an early view of the elegiac tone of the series. These sonnets dramatize the events from The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) leading up to his dramatic suicide, offering an elegiac lament for this popular character that captures somewhat the flavor of the cultural phenomenon of Wertherism during this period. But these sonnets, written in the voice of a male character, finally reflect the reader's grief back to Smith herself, as Werther contemplates the mourning of his lover, Charlotte:
The tears shall tremble in my Charlotte's eyes; Dear, precious drops!--they shall embalm the dead! Yes--Charlotte o'er the mournful spot shall weep, Where her poor Werter[sic]--and his sorrows sleep! (11-14) (8)
It is significant that, in the first edition, Smith would end her short sequence with this sympathetic moan for Charlotte, who becomes the weeping mourner, an attitude conspicuously similar to the speaker of most of the other sonnets--also named Charlotte. Smith creates for herself a double posture of grief that draws her readers to a sympathetic contemplation of the poet's own sorrow.
The title becomes descriptive of the intense despair and poetic melancholy that frequently leads Smith's speaker to morbid thoughts of death and a desire for oblivion. Death pervades Smith's sonnets; but it does so in more vague, generalized and, thus, ultimately more oppressive ways than in traditional elegies, such as, in English literature, Milton's Lycidas (1638), Pope's "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" (1717), Shelley's Adonais (1821), or Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850), all of which lament the death of a particular person. (9) Smith's speaker is, as Keats would put it, more than "half in love with …
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Publication information: Article title: Elegiac Sonnets: Charlotte Smith's Formal Paradoxy. Contributors: Robinson, Daniel - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 39. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 185. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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