Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism

By Mary B. Moore | Go to book overview

6 Charlotte Smith and the Echoes of Melancholy

Charlotte Smith, a late-eighteenth-century novelist and poet who foreshadowed the romantic sonneteers, exemplifies some patterns in post-Renaissance revisions of Petrarchism by women. In writing her Elegiac Sonnets, poems whose reevaluation by Stuart Curran places them in the vanguard of the romantic sonnet revival, Charlotte Smith revises Petrarchism: although she chooses an epigraph to her second volume from Petrarch Rime sparse and includes translations of his sonnets in her collection, Smith's sonnets omit the beloved, focusing primarily on her own sensibility, setting this against a natural world replete with signs of melancholy. Petrarchan deictic gestures, however, reinforcing their author's own poetic power, suit Smith's desire to ally herself with a poetically powerful male literary tradition. She also demonstrates that desire by her own footnotes, which litter the text with allusions to male poets, and by what Curran calls "ventriloquization" of male voices through translation (Introduction xxvi). At the same time, Petrarchan forms are steeped in the culture's ideas of eroticism and femininity. Smith's generic choice, just as Donne's does, alludes to eroticism as a language of desire and as a metaphor of loss. Her Petrarchism thus reflects a complex allusionary strategy; these forms provide the scenery, in a sense, against which she enacts the economic dependency and erotic victimization of a female speaker. Her use of the form to depict victimization evokes several women sonneteers' voicing of female social and economic desires.

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