Many of us have heard or studied great Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge or know about early romantic poets as William Blake, Thomas Gray and William Cowper. But very few have read or studied the numerous Romantic women writers and poets we have in English literature. So I thought I could dedicate my first post in the 18th and 19th Women Writers Challenge - hosted at Becky's Book Reviews - to one of them, one of the most representative.
Charlotte Turner Smith ( 1749 – 1806) was a successful writer : she published ten novels, three books of poetry, four children's books, and other assorted works, over the course of her career. She always saw herself as a poet first and foremost .
Smith's poetry and prose was praised by contemporaries such as Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well as novelist Walter Scott. Largely forgotten by the middle of the nineteenth century, her works have now been republished and she is recognized as an important Romantic writer.
But more than by her works, I have always been attracted by her unfortunate hard working life which inspired her novels and poetry.
Charlotte was born into a wealthy family and received a typical education for a woman during the late eighteenth century. However, her father's reckless spending forced her to marry early. In a marriage that she later described as prostitution, she was given by her father to the violent and profligate Benjamin Smith. Their marriage was deeply unhappy, although they had twelve children together. Charlotte joined Benjamin in debtor's prison, where she wrote her first book of poetry, Elegiac Sonnets. Its success allowed her to help pay for Benjamin's release. Benjamin's father tried to leave money to Charlotte and her children upon his death, but legal technicalities prevented her from ever acquiring it.
Charlotte Smith eventually left Benjamin and began writing to support their children. Smith's struggle to provide for her children and her frustrated attempts to gain legal protection as a woman provided themes for her poetry and novels; she included portraits of herself and her family in her novels as well as details about her life in her prefaces.
Among her novels, Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Celestina (1791)
For this challenge I read , little by little, and from time to time, many of her ELEGIAC SONNETS ( on line HERE).
Smith appropriates the form that during the Renaissance, was linked to a particular kind of "mythologizing the woman", one that absolutely cancels her physicality. Great sonneteers had depicted idealized unreacheable beautiful women whose chastity and spirituality were basic features of their personality.
Romantic poetry is pervaded by a deep sense of loss and mourning that renders much of it elegiac in tone, reflecting as it does a sense of the world in which it was written as alienated, broken and torn. The affective individual, newly shaped by contemporary debates on sensibility and feeling, was expected to respond compassionately, if dejectedly, to the ruination engendered by Britain’s war with France, the failed revolution, rural poverty and an enclosed and ravaged natural landscape. The elegiac mode thus offered Romantic poets a form in which to address the perceived devastation of society through subjective explorations of grief, death, bereavement and consolation. The latter is what is difficult to find in Smith's poetry. Her sonnets are defined elegiac but the melancholic tone of loss and sorrow are not followed by the conventional consolation which is , instead , typical of elegy. Here is an example of this attitude.
FAR on the sands, the low retiring tide,
In distant murmurs hardly seems to flow,
And o'er the world of waters, blue and wide,
The sighing summer wind, forgets to blow.
As sinks the day-star in the rosy West,
The silent wave, with rich reflection glows:
Alas! can tranquil nature give me rest,
Or scenes of beauty, soothe me to repose?
Can the soft lustre of the sleeping main,
Yon radiant heaven, or all creation's charms,
"Erase the written troubles of the brain,"
Which Memory tortures, and which guilt alarms?
Or bid a bosom transient quiet prove,
That bleeds with vain remorse, and unextinguish'd love!
Here’s a sample of how her sonnets are strictly linked to her condition of woman totally deprived of rights and freedom. She, thus, defies the male canon:
Dependence! 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!
More blest the hind, who from his bed of flock
Starts--when the birds of morn their summons give
And waken'd by the lark--"the sheperd's clock."
Lives but to labour--labouring but to live.
More noble than the sycophant, whose art
Must heap with taudry flowers thy hated shrine;
I envy not the meed thou canst impart
To crown his service--While, tho' Pride combine
With Fraud to crush me--my unfetter'd heart
Still to the Mountain Nymph may offer mine.
William Cowper, instead, a close friend of hers, witnessed her exhausting hard work to financially support her family: “Chain’d to her desk like a slave to his oar, with no other means of subsistencefor herself and her numerous children, with her broken constitution, unequal to sever labour enjoined by her necessity, she is indeed to be pitied (…) she will and ust ‘ere long die a martyr to her exigencies”She couldn't recognize, in her condition of mother-martyr, the consolatory power of Art.
Slow in the Wintry Morn, the struggling light
Throws a faint gleam upon the troubled waves;
Their foaming tops, as they approach the shore
And the broad surf that never ceasing breaks
On the innumerous pebbles, catch the beams
Of the pale Sun, that with reluctance gives
To this cold northern Isle, its shorten'd day.
Alas! how few the morning wakes to joy!
How many murmur at oblivious night
For leaving them so soon; for bearing thus
Their fancied bliss (the only bliss they taste!),
On her black wings away!—
(from THE EMIGRANTS Book I lines 1-12)