Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Charlotte Smith's Tactile Poetics

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Charlotte Smith's Tactile Poetics

Article excerpt

But look at my little botanist, Henrietta; she is upon her knees to examine every minute flower unknown to her.

-Charlotte Smith, Rambles Farther1

I have wished myself transformed into a squirrel, that I might live amidst these delightful shades, and bound from bough to bough, finding my food in the beechnuts, and my shelter among the leaves.

-Charlotte Smith, Minor Morals2

The visual imagery of Charlotte Smith's poetry is striking for its microscopic attention to detail and its transporting effects. However, while attending to visual features of Smith's poetic works, scholars have neglected to acknowledge that sight is regularly accompanied, and at times supplanted, by touch within them.3 This article aims to determine the significance, and contexts (aesthetic, empirical, and educational), of Smith's recurring depiction of haptic perception. I argue that the tactility of Smith's poetics implies a version of aesthetic pleasure that challenges the principles informing more common versions in the mid- to late eighteenth century. Whereas prominent theorists such as Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, and Immanuel Kant associate aesthetic pleasure with physical distance, especially as perceived by sight, Smith's tactile poetics conveys a version of experience that is, to the contrary, associated with physical proximity in which touch coordinates with other senses to induce a highly palpable form of aesthetic transport. Informed by both contemporary botanical methods and educational practices influenced by John Locke, Smith establishes a type of aesthetic pleasure that radically reconfigures the self, transforming it from a compartmentalized, closed, fixed, and detached entity into one that is highly responsive to and intimately entwined with its environment. Moreover, as this pleasure reconfigures the self, it also reconfigures the way the self engages with human and non-human others, facilitating an inclusive ontology of kinship wherein one's experience and understanding of self is inseparable from the experience and understanding of others.4

I

A focus on haptic perception marks Smith's poetry. The opening of her posthumously published fragment Beachy Head illustrates dramatically her emphasis on tactility:

On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!

That o'er the channel rear'd, half way at sea

The mariner at early morning hails,

I would recline; while Fancy should go forth.5

With its first line, "On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!," Beachy Head evokes, and encourages readers to expect, a conventional sublimity. In the tradition of Burke and Kant, this line associates sublimity with physical vastness ("stupendous[ness]"), portraying such vastness to offer a highly affecting occasion for aesthetic transport. However, with the beginning of the fourth line, "I would recline," Smith eschews convention as she portrays the speaker in physical contact with the cliff.

According to Burke and Kant, physical distance is a prerequisite for the sublime. For Burke, who portrays sublimity as evocative of pleasurable terror, distance sets aesthetic experience apart from quotidian, lived reality: "When danger or pain press too nearly," observes Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), "they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience."6 Without distance, terror can only be horrifying. Kant places similar emphasis on physical distance in his Critique of Judgment (1790): "We must see ourselves safe in order to feel [the] soul-stirring delight" of the sublime.7 In their identification of the sublime with distance and safety, Burke and Kant echo Addison who, decades earlier, made a similar argument regarding "the pleasures of the imagination" that derive from "what is Terrible":

we look upon the Terrors of a Description, with the same Curiosity and Satisfaction that we survey a dead Monster. …

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