Echoes of Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith was a Romantic poet. I think the movement is pretty much always associated with masculine passion and individualism but of course there were female Romantic poets. Google Romantic poets or male Romantic poets and the row of faces along the top is the same. Google female Romantic poets and you get fewer names. The first question I asked when someone said she was a Romantic poet was “in what era was she active?”

Amelia Worsley, the visiting lecturer who delivered today’s talk about Smith in the latest UCC seminar series, said that Wordsworth admired her and was really excited to meet her. I suspect the Romantic community was more tolerant at the time, albeit imperfectly so. Wordsworth himself became increasingly conservative in later years, so I can see how the contributions of women such as Smith would become erased as the period drew to a close.

Amelia’s lecture was excellent, in no small part because of her beautiful renditions of Smith’s poems. I appreciated that she included a handout for poems which wouldn’t fit on the slides, both so we could follow along with her readings and because it will make finding the poems much easier than trusting my hazy memory and scribbly notes.

I’m interested in marginalised voices, which naturally fits with my chosen discipline of Irish Writing. Though her work was popular, my own initial surprise to hear the phrase “female Romantic poet” implies that her work is not widely recognised. The fact that she is not a household name carries similar suggestions, though I understand that this does not constitute objective evidence.

But then again, Romanticism does not typically concern itself with logic but rather emotion and passion and these vital components of the human experience were well-served in Amelia’s lecture.

While introducing Amelia, Claire Connolly referred to the Romantic poets as having been “alone together”. Smith’s elegiac sonnets prominently feature the theme of voice, not only in isolation as it usually manifests in poems but in concert with other ones. Echoes are a recurring motif in the sonnets. On reflection, I think there’s a certain loneliness to overlapping echoes, since they are, after all, the imprints of humans on the land. I imagine a series of echoes overlapping in a cave. If the stones could hold those echoes for millennia, playing them over and over, then surely even the most isolated of locales would develop a flock of cacophonous sounds, keeping company through the ages.

I’m interested in tactility and sensation in life and I think nature offers opportunities to engage those aspects of the living experience. I’m drawn more to forests since I have a small one near my house but I spent whole summers living on the Cork coast, so I have plenty of experience by the sea too. Not one for reclining on the beach, I loved to clamber over rocks and headlands.

Smith featured each of these environments in her poetry, inspired by her native Sussex. Forests, pastures, hills and seas hold memories. In Sonnet V, To the South Downs, she writes about how “once, a happy child,/ Your beechen shades, “your turf, your flowers, among,”/ I wove your bluebells into garlands wild,/ And woke your echoes with my artless song.” Far from a mawkishly sentimental poem, however, the rural idyll with which she opens runs into a lament for how the same locations can’t return to her the feelings contained in those memories. Nature locks them away from her and she can’t access them or use them to “For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,/ And teach a breaking heart to throb once more”.

Smith’s poetry reflects geological principles in its themes of landscapes locking memories and rocks holding secrets. I did geography in school and I loved learning about all these processes. It’s probably cliché to talk about the impermanence of human lives in the face of nature but that really was a major theme of Romanticism. I think poetry about rocks and the sea is more effective than poetry about fields and forests since they’re harder for humans to control.

In Beachy Head, Smith writes about “the strange and foreign forms/ Of sea-shells; with the pale calcerous soil/ Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance.” The shells become a part of the landscape. People too become a part of the landscape physically, as well as part of the psychic landscape. Amelia spoke about the mythological Echo who slowly faded into nature until she turned to stone. She was dis-incorporated and her remains partially transfigured into an element of the landscape. This reflects any number of processes at work in nature, especially fossilisation. Geological science, which had its modern beginnings in Smith’s own century, uses this record to construct a natural history. In other words, the mechanisms of nature can be used to reclaim lost memories.

I think there’s a comparison to be made with literary expression. Poetry utilises mechanisms to express feelings and memories and create them in whoever reads it. Though I don’t believe that the exact memories of Smith’s lost youth can be reclaimed, I think her poetry allows her voice to echo into the present.

I hope that work by Amelia and others allows Smith and other lost voices reverberate and resound into the future. In the interests of creating resonance between blogs, I would encourage you to visit this blog belonging to my classmate Lara O’Toole. She also wrote about Charlotte Smith, albeit the day of the seminar instead of almost a week later like I did. She goes into further depth on the theme of echoes, using her degree in music and wide knowledge of various groups/singers around the world to go into more detail than I could. She’s a really good critic with a distinct voice.


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