Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Unsexing Petrarch: Charlotte Smith's Lessons in the Sonnet as a Social Medium

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Unsexing Petrarch: Charlotte Smith's Lessons in the Sonnet as a Social Medium

Article excerpt

CONSERVATIVE CLERGYMAN RICHARD POLWHELE INCLUDED CHARLOTTE Smith among "the Unsex'd Females" in his 1798 satire of women writers, failing to notice that Smith had effectively "unsex'd" herself in constructing her original Petrarchan poetic identity. (1) With her first small volume of poetry titled Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays, Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park entered the English literary marketplace in 1784 as a Petrarch for her era, aspiring to both the lifetime recognition and lasting fame achieved by her laureled fourteenth-century Italian predecessor. Petrarch's Rime sparse, the frequently expanded and revised sequence of sonnets and songs lamenting his failure to win reciprocal recognition from his beloved Laura, gave Smith her model for forging her own virtual community of poems and readers. Her poetic persona took shape as an "unsex'd" Petrarch seeking an affective connection with readers through what Smith refers to in her Preface as "sensibility of heart": shared feelings of isolation and frustrated desires transmitted primarily though not exclusively in sonnet form. (2) Smith acknowledges her debt to Petrarch most obviously in the small sequence of three sonnets "From Petrarch" that appear in her first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, but her reading and radical reenactment of the Rime sparse is deeply embedded throughout this introductory collection that established her as a popular poet. The first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays--printed within months of each other in London and in Chichester, respectively, and containing the same nineteen poems in slightly different orders (3)--suggest that Smith's reading of Petrarch imbued her with poetic ambitions as strong as those of the canonical male Romantic poets who succeeded her. Although she deviates from Petrarch's sonnet rhyme scheme and names no equivalent to his Laura, Smith's speaker emulates Petrarch's in giving sonnet form to the affect of alienation and in making poetry a proxy for love.

The intensity of Smith's early homage to Petrarch becomes diluted as Elegiac Sonnets expands through seven more editions and a second volume before her death in 1806. Readers who encounter her work in later and larger collections, including those produced in the recovery of her work since the 1990s, see Petrarch as one of several male voices she assumes or echoes. Critics who recognize a feminist strain in Smith sometimes underestimate or overlook her collusion with Petrarch, who is often read as a misogynist for objectifying Laura and denying her autonomy. (4) Daniel Robinson, for example, has acknowledged that Smith's "extensive poetic conversation" with Petrarch dominates these original editions, but he and others, including Kathryn Pratt, Karen Weisman, Theresa Kelley, and Edoardo Zuccato, read Smith as resisting or challenging the Petrarchan tradition by granting more voice or agency to Laura. (5) Smith may well have had reason to identify with Laura: Susannah Dobson's popular Life of Petrarch, published in 1775, presented Laura as the mother of many children who was trapped in an unhappy marriage. (6) The same profile fit Smith when she first began to publish after an early, arranged marriage, the birth of eleven children in eighteen years, and time spent in debtors' prison with her problematic husband. (7) However, Smith had stronger motivation to identify with Petrarch's speaker, who paradoxically proclaimed his agency impaired by Laura's repeated refusals to acknowledge him with love or pity. Smith's agency was restricted by the social and legal structures of her place and time that left her "[s] tripped by marriage of a separate identity and autonomous property." (8) In the 1784 editions of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith modeled her speaker after Petrarch's to elicit from readers an intellectual and emotional reciprocity missing from her immediate circumstances.

In Smith's lifetime, Petrarch and Laura had returned to British culture on a wave of French texts, creating multiple opportunities for encountering the pair as reconstructed "heroes of sensibility. …

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