Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Figure of the Hermit in Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Figure of the Hermit in Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head

Article excerpt

In The Guardian, October 2, 2007, Jon Henley tells the tale of Keith Lane, a fifty-seven year old window-washer who patrols the cliffs of Beachy Head nightly, talking would-be suicides out of ending their lives. Though he has saved twenty-nine people since his wife took her own life there in 2004, the combined forces of the Coastguard and volunteers from the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team put an end to his rescue efforts, charging that he is only seeking publicity and that he has no right to put his own life at risk. This contemporary tale suggests the timeliness of the ethical dilemmas highlighted by the figure of the hermit who concludes Charlotte Smith's posthumously published Beachy Head.

Beachy Head moves spectacularly from a sweeping and panoramic cosmological, geographical, and historical vision, to a regional portrait of the Sussex downs, to a series of village vignettes, before concluding with the single and isolated figure of "the lone Hermit" (686) in the final lines of the poem. This inward telescoping movement is accompanied and countered by the climbing of the poetic speaker who starts out reclined in contemplation on that "stupendous summit, rock sublime" (1) of Beachy Head and then proceeds upward "[a]dvancing higher still" as "the prospect widens" (309-10) until the view is so elevated that only the limitations of the human eye prevent the sight of London while "in the distant north it melts away / And mingles indiscriminate with clouds" (482-83).

The political, moral and historical lessons learned from this prospect are. however, far different from those taught by the traditional, reassuring 18th-century prospect poem which, as John Barrell and Jacqueline Labbe have shown, is associated with the class and gender privilege of the landed gentry and the male poet. As Smith's poetic speaker moves upward, the historical, political and scientific victories of European civilization and of Britain, in particular, are radically undercut just as soon as they are delineated and celebrated. Thus the subject of England's resistance, as "Imperial mistress of the obedient sea" (151), to Napoleonic ambition and her illustrious history of naval victories is easily abandoned, as the speaker asserts:

  From even the proudest roll by glory fill'd,
  How gladly the reflecting mind returns
  To simple scenes of peace and industry[.] (167-69)

The remarkable geological and archeological findings revealed by these hills only serve to highlight the limitations of human pride and scientific accomplishment:

  Ah! Very vain is Science' proudest boast,
  And but a little light its flame yet lends
  To its most ardent votaries; (390-92)

And the magnificence of nature humbles even the finest work of art:

  Ah! hills so early loved! In fancy still
  I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold
  Those widely spreading views, mocking alike
  The Poet and the Painter's utmost art. (368-71)

Similarly, skeletal remains of exotic elephants are witness to the vulnerable mortality of the greatest of the Roman Imperial campaigns:

  Hither, Ambition come!
  Come and behold the nothingness of all
  For which you carry thro' the oppressed Earth,
  War, and its train of horrors--(419-22)

The cultural/natural histories that constitute this meditative climb thus culminate in a recognition of dark ephemerality not to be outdone in power and eloquence even by that later master of mutability, Percy Shelley.

  All, with the lapse of Time, have passed away,
  Even as the clouds, with dark and dragon shapes,
  Or like vast promontories crown'd with towers,
  Cast their broad shadows on the downs: then sail
  Far to the northward, and their transient gloom
  Is soon forgotten. (434-39)

The reader of Beachy Head, then, follows the poetic speaker and "the wanderer of the hills" (442) in her continued ascent until, precipitously, in line 671, the focus drops from "Where Beachy overpeers the channel wave" to the cave of the hermit far below. …

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