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

By Myers, Mary Anne | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Myers, Mary Anne, Studies in Romanticism


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.