Form and Loss in Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets

By Weisman, Karen A. | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Form and Loss in Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets

Weisman, Karen A., Wordsworth Circle

Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets gain power in the context of the sexual identity of formalist experimentation. The sonnet had virtually disappeared from English literature after Milton and was held in disapprobation throughout the eighteenth century, at least until it was rescued, prominently, by Charlotte Smith. (1) For a woman to write in this tradition bodies forth not simply a vexed self-representation but also the presence of that very vexation as one grounding of poetic form. As such, instances of the relation between the modes in which a woman's subjectivity can be instantiated and the conditions of loss in which its formal articulation takes shape form the core of the argument that follows.

This history begins on familiar ground: Samuel Johnson's complaint that the sonnet is entirely unsuitable to the English language (the entry on "Sonnet" in the Dictionary). Charlotte Smith's re-invigoration of the sonnet can be contextualized as one expression of English nationhood as it occurs in the late eighteenth century. It also bears out the close consciousness of the reciprocity between her sexual identity and the specifically formal configurations of her nationalist daring. Elegiac Sonnets looks to the Renaissance looking to Italy, and so looks to a future whose poetic assertions of individual despair reclaim a cultural moment with authoritative sanction for the cultural transplantation of form. (2) Smith is known now as much for her reinvigoration of the sonnet as for the terrible fortunes she suffered at the hands of a philandering husband who squandered both their fortunes, and for her suffering at the hands of a legal system that denied her redress. Thus, she wrote in response to a public that cou ld pay: she urgently needed revenues from her subscriptions, which opens a difficult ground for considering the relations between form and public expectation. Important also in this regard is Smith's decision to write poetry at all, when clearly the real money to be made was in prose fiction. She did eventually make her mark as a prolific novelist, but she defined herself primarily in terms of the dignity afforded the lyricist. (3) In insisting upon her status as lyric poet, she asserts her membership in a cultural (and class-based) elite, one to which she would claim rightful inclusion in spite of her financial dependencies. She defiantly locates herself within the very public that knows what is worth paying for.

Smith appropriates the form associated, during its Renaissance heyday, with a particular kind of mythologizing of woman, one that absolutely cancels her physicality. This scenario resonates deeply with Smith's relentless predicament: a woman trying to make her way in a largely inhospitable world, amidst the dross of domestic despair and financial crisis, lamenting emphatically real losses within a forum that conventionally suspends the concrete actuality of the feminine in favor of mythic presence. For whatever the self-parodying postures inherent in the Renaissance sonnet tradition, the form remained associated with the treatment of woman as abstraction. In writing sonnets, then, Smith performs a sort of double-cross: she takes up the Englishman's right to claim the sonnet as his own, and she subverts the ease with which his affirmation becomes her negation. Smith looks to a form transplanted into England during the Renaissance, just when it had become a part of the greatly celebrated English vitality. Her a ppropriation of an already--and recently--appropriated form to write as a woman (and therefore in ironic response to one aspect of its structure of expectations) is a crucial part of the cultural history of the sonnet and its reemergence.

The sonnet "To dependence" is particularly instructive in this regard, and I cite it in full:

Dependencel heavy, heavy are they chains,
 And happier they who from the dangerous sea.
Or the dark mine, procure with ceaseless pains.
 An hard-eard'd pittance--than who trust to thee! … 

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