In her contemplative blank-verse poem Beachy Head, published posthumously in 1807, Charlotte Smith locates herself and her reader atop Beachy Head, investing the poem with the authority culturally allied to the prospect view and making use of her vantage-point to explore nature in all its ‘multitudinous, uncanny particularity’, in Stuart Curran's words.1Beachy Head participates in the Romantic revival of the prospect poem; it arises from the same impulse that produced Tintern Abbey and that would produce, for instance, Mont Blanc. In it, Smith creates a tableau fixing her own place – as poet, as woman – in a cultural, social, natural and poetical landscape, utilizing tropes of height, vision and dispossession; and inserting self-confidence and authority via the poem's footnotes, which act as a kind of running commentary on her own work. It is important to note where Smith situates herself and her poem: the prospect view, allied as it was with political and cultural power and dominance, and allied also with masculinity and breadth of vision, is not common property Smith's daring opening move is to claim the prospect, but to do so in typically Smithian fashion; that is, she gestures towards power but cloaks her moves in decorous propriety. Again, as in so much of her work, she gradually unfolds to the reader's eyes a more assertive, authoritative persona. This essay will sketch out the different methods Smith chooses to preserve a persona reliant on a multiplied sense of self; characterized by a keen awareness of the suitability of voice, tone, self-construction, self-placement and even self-promotion; ultimately, cognisant of the necessity of strategy and skilful self-manoeuvring in a culture itself dependent on increasingly rigid gender roles.
'The flowers fade, but all the thorns remain' - Melancholia in Charlotte Smith’s verse, from Elegiac Sonnets to Beachy Head
Charlotte Smith lived wholly by the pen. Such a totally independent achievement is worth honouring: Smith’s may well have been the first such literary career for a woman in the English-speaking world.
Over the course of the last three decades, much academic focus has been given to rediscovering the work of ‘lost’ writers, and re-determining their place within literature. One such writer is Charlotte Smith (née Turner), 1749-1806, whose prose and verse has received renewed attention, although still relatively small compared to many other writers in the period. Stuart Curran, editor of the only comprehensive collection of her verse in recent times, calls her: ‘the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would call Romantic’. Such a bold statement stands against received thought with regards to the literary canon, and gives Charlotte’s work a sense of primacy compared to many of her male counterparts, such as the ‘big six’ Romantic poets, who are often seen to exemplify the Romantic period as a whole. Indeed, Curran’s quote in the epigraph to this chapter, that Charlotte’s life and devotion to literature is worth honouring, suggests a call for a restructuring of the Romantic literary timeline. Studies of Charlotte and her writing have tended to focus on gender and her importance as a female writer, or else relate her literature to the act of writing itself and the importance of commodity.
This dissertation will analyse Charlotte’s verse in relation to melancholia, as I feel that this is a crucial way of understanding the importance of her work, and something which has been missing from criticism to date. Furthermore, Charlotte’s presentation of melancholia and deep emotional engagement represents a shift from the Romantic convention of primarily presenting an aesthetic and artistic depiction of the condition, as her biographer Florence Hilbish argues:
One unacquainted with [Charlotte] but knowing she lived in an age of sentimentality readily believes that the sadness in her poems is affectation to meet the demands of her age. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While Charlotte was undoubtedly a ‘Romantic’ poet in many respects, such as her powerful connection with nature and the inner soul, Hilbish’s suggestion that Charlotte’s work represented something more is exemplified in her use of melancholia. While melancholia can be seen in numerous works of other poets, Charlotte’s connection is arguably much stronger than most, as it pervades her work rather than being a simple allusion. The quotation used for the title of this study, taken from ‘Sonnet VI: To Hope’, in my view exemplifies Charlotte’s poetic outlook, in that a twisting of the natural world around her melancholic viewpoint is a trait which defines style. It is argued that melancholia takes a central position in Charlotte’s major verse works, as she often identified with dark imagery and the suffering of humankind from history, mythology and contemporary events. In addition, an understanding of various key theoretical constructs of melancholia, from literature, psychoanalysis and cultural history will be established. This will then be analysed alongside Charlotte’s place in the culture of melancholic literature, to show that her work is influenced both in terms of content and form, as an aesthetic quality to melancholia runs alongside manifestations of abject sorrow and despair in art.
Due to the relative obscurity of Charlotte in literary studies today, an overview of her life is essential within this study. This will hopefully allow the reader to better understand her approach to writing, and illustrate the effect of the suffering she endured on her poetry. It is no great exaggeration to say that Charlotte experienced greater hardship and endured more pain and loss than many of her literary contemporaries, particularly the ‘big six’. Charlotte was born to the relatively wealthy Turner family, and though her mother died while she was very young, she ostensibly had a good early childhood, with an education at schools in Sussex and London. However, following her father’s remarriage and the loss of much of his estate through financial difficulty, Charlotte was married off to Benjamin Smith, the son of a merchant director, at the age of fifteen. Benjamin would come to be the cause of most of Charlotte’s suffering throughout the rest of her life, as she bore a series of children, of which a number did not survive, to this alcoholic and abusive husband. Over the next few years, Charlotte would attend debtor’s prison with her husband, be exiled to France, and was constantly living on the verge of bankruptcy. Later on in life, Charlotte reflected on her adolescent years in letters to her sister, Catherine Dorset, and in these correspondences the extent of her suffering is apparent:
No disadvantage could equal those I sustained; the more my mind expanded, the more I became sensible of my own personal slavery; the more I improved and cultivated my understanding, the farther I was removed from those with whom I was condemned to pass my life; and the more clearly I saw by these newly-acquired lights the horror of the abyss into which I had unconsciously plunged.
The horror of this abyss would remain a large part of Charlotte’s life for decades after her marriage, manifesting itself in her major verse works, as well as many of her novels; bleak descriptions and imagery act almost as a stable point in much of her writing around which other thoughts orbit. However, although her early adult life was marred with abuse and neglect, Charlotte’s eventual escape from her husband meant that she lived her final years in relative freedom; although Charlotte fought a constant battle with the legal establishment for an inheritance which was meant for her children but not given until decades later. Furthermore, Charlotte’s prolific career as a writer enabled a form of gentle resistance, through expression in prose and verse, against everything which had worked against her. Indeed, academics such as Judith Wilson argue that through her miserable experiences, Charlotte learnt to survive and adapt to each new hardship she would face after her separation: ‘A writer who had experienced a fair number of the traumas an eighteenth-century woman could suffer, and who was tough enough to spend her life keeping one step ahead of them’. Having a large family to support, a later life plagued with illness and a legal system which, as a woman, worked against her, Charlotte utilised her skills and understanding of the commodity of literature to earn what would be a relatively meagre but crucially reliable living. However, her enduring legacy is perhaps best seen in the pragmatic form of autonomy she gained through the position of artist, which would see her voice take the fore and allow ample space to explore the inner workings of her mind.
This study focuses on Charlotte’s three major works in verse: Elegiac Sonnets (1784-1800),The Emigrants (1793), and Beachy Head (1807), a poem that was published posthumously. The rationale for choosing each work is discussed in each respective chapter, although the three choices as a whole provide an extensive exploration of melancholia, situating it in the spheres of the personal, the political, and finally a more abstract and pastoral setting. While each of these aspects can be said to run through all of these works, each has a distinct quality which sets it apart from the others. Thus, the separation of personal, political and abstract allows for the defining features of each to be exemplified. An analysis of each work, with a close textual reading of pertinent passages, will hopefully build an overview of the distinct way that melancholia formed Charlotte’s style. The dissertation is structured as follows: Chapter 2 comprises a literature review which outlines theories of melancholia relevant to the study. A brief history of melancholia in English literature is determined, along with a summary of criticism and the theme of melancholia within a theoretical framework. I also outline what I believe to be the key tendencies which exemplify an understanding of melancholia as a whole; however, I am selective about which theories will be used throughout the rest of the study, in order to make the best use of the ones which coincide with my reading of Charlotte’s verse, as explained in the chapter; Chapter 3 entails a detailed analysis of selected poems from Charlotte’s collection entitled Elegiac Sonnets. These poems articulate a complex interrelationship between Charlotte’s personal experiences and deep melancholic expressions, which I feel actually encapsulates the essence of collection as a whole; Chapter 4 discusses The Emigrants, its engagement with the politics of the French Revolution, and Charlotte’s identification with the suffering caused by that conflict; Chapter 5 focuses on Charlotte’s final work, the posthumously published Beachy Head. The poem’s more abstract style allows for a more nuanced perspective of the theme of melancholia to those previously discussed; I will conclude my analysis in chapter 6.
Melancholia: A Literature Review
I am saturine, bereft, disconsolate,
The Prince of Aquitaine whose tower has crumbled;
My lone star is dead, and my bespangled lute
Bears the black sun of melancholia.
The condition of melancholia has been the subject of considerable interdisciplinary study, as each new academic, artist or psychologist has endeavoured to determine both how it can be defined and what it means to be thus afflicted. Melancholia as a condition, a state of mind, or an aesthetic ideal, resists straightforward interpretation. There is, however, a distinct difference between melancholia and depression, or melancholia and pure grief; and indeed, whilst there is naturally some congruency between the two within an artist, the state of melancholia and a depiction of melancholia are often very separate feelings. For the purposes of this study, it would be counterproductive to attempt to psychoanalyse Charlotte, but it will be understood that the melancholia portrayed in her verse was present in her personal life, and thus a degree of recognition of both states is useful. With regards to establishing melancholia within this chapter, it will be split into what I see as its five foremost tendencies. Although a degree of crossover is inevitable, a précis of each tendency individually will provide a cogent overview of attitudes and criticism from the Ancient Greeks to the modern age.
The first melancholic tendency is of artistic weariness, with an intellectual melancholy that an artist attains through isolation and creativity. This tendency features the personified ‘Melancholy’ muse, who aids artistic contemplation, as seen in John Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’ (1645) where the final couplet ends with a communion with Melancholy as a result of her inspiration: ‘These pleasures, Melancholy, give, / And I with thee will choose to live’. Milton is often cited as first bringing the personification of Melancholy to English Literature from Petrarch, and the effect on subsequent literature is notable. A personified Melancholy can also be seen in Thomas Gray’s verse over a century later: ‘Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth, / And Melancholy marked him for her own’. The idea that artists could appeal to such a muse, or imagine her effect in a creative sphere, enabled artistic melancholy to develop separately from the scrutinised medical condition of melancholia. Thus, the personified Melancholy gave a readily recognisable form for this shared identity and expression.
As an extension of artistic malaise, a second tendency can be seen in melancholia’s fashionable nature among Romantic writers, where to be afflicted with such an introspective condition often held a degree of esteem. The idea of melancholia and mental illness being intertwined was so strong in the period, and taken on from there, that even now critics decry the view that ‘within artistic circles madness is somehow normal’. In addition to popularising madness, the Romantic poets also gave primacy to the artist as an individual, due to their keen insight into the human condition. However, as a consequence of this elevated status, a degree of arrogance can be seen in the work of poets like William Wordsworth, who declared ‘Dull’ anyone who did not see, and thus appreciate, the sight he saw from Westminster bridge in 1802. This frequently combined with representations of melancholia, giving the idea that the artist understood pain and sorrow to a much greater extent than the common person. Thus, although arguably using poetic licence to emphasise what they saw, the Romantics exhibited a strong connection with narcissism and the indulgence of melancholia, in order to express their production from sorrow.
Another tendency comes in the feminisation of melancholy, with a perspective of the condition based on oppositional gender. Treating women as the inferior-minded ‘Other’ has a long history in British culture, as successive patriarchies trivialised female melancholia; and as such, ‘mad’ women traditionally held a different identity to men, since they possessed what was seen as a dangerous knowledge. Hence, what could be harnessed by superior male rationality was seen as a threat in the weaker female mind, which did not have the capability to cope with such intense feelings. Representations of feminised melancholia often reflected this dichotomy, as seen in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781), where a prostrate female seems at the mercy of, and passive under the incubus. Incidentally, the same preconceptions can be seen in literary depictions of female suicide in the era, as Margaret Higonnett suggests: ‘[T]heir self-destruction is most often perceived as motivated by love, understood not only as loss of self but as surrender to an illness: le mal d’amour’. Thus, along with melancholia as a whole, the perceived ‘female’ psychological experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely at odds with a male one.
When discussing melancholic tendencies, a consideration must be given to the classical view of it being a disease of the mind, with forces that had an effect on one’s mental state. A classic preconception about melancholy derives from the Greek dichotomy between wise men and fools: ‘The Stoics affirmed that a wise man can never be overtaken by madness because the notions of wisdom and madness were mutually exclusive’. This viewpoint dominated thinking in many centuries to come, as rational thought attempted to logically explain ‘madness’. Thus in the Middle Ages the notion of the ‘four humours’, with black bile being strongly associated to a person’s predisposition to melancholia, helped to ‘scientifically’ explain an oddity of nature. Indeed, as Klibanksy et al suggest, such thinking defined melancholy as ‘mainly characterised by symptoms of mental change, ranging from fear, misanthropy and depression, to madness in its most frightful forms’, allowing for a whole range of psychological conditions to be attributed to a physical cause. In popular imagination, this physical cause began to be associated with supernatural forces, such as the black dog, Saturn, or a host of other supernatural influences.
The final tendency to be considered, of psychoanalysis, extends from mourning and loss, with the notion that incessant retrospection establishes the root cause of, or else exacerbates melancholia. Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) attempted to differentiate the two states, arguing that in melancholia the loss has been internalised, resulting in an abstract sense of despair. As such, Freud suggests that a melancholic features ‘an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard [...]. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’. The effect on the ego creates a basic law for which the examination of melancholia in practice can be centred on. Julia Kristeva extends Freudian analysis, referring to the lost object as ‘the Thing’, which she argues is both a necessary part of, and fundamental enemy to the melancholic: ‘The Thing falls from me along the outposts of significance where the Word is not yet my Being’. Thus, Kristevan thinking centres on a physical root cause, but unlike thinking in previous centuries it is a wholly psychological effect on the subject caused by loss which establishes melancholy.
Whilst the above five tendencies often conflict with regards to what constitutes melancholia, a sound understanding of each approach and theoretical viewpoint allows for the multifarious aspects of the condition to be appreciated in context. Since no easy definition of melancholia exists, a referral back to these tendencies when looking at Charlotte’s verse should aid a smooth analysis when specific issues are encountered. Two strands, however, which will not be carried on are psychoanalysis and the feminist reading of melancholia. Whilst each could potentially provide great scope for an analysis of Charlotte’s writing, my specific interest is in her place in the Romantic period and the importance of the poet to convey powerfully melancholic sentiments. This runs alongside the writing of Charlotte’s life into her work and the atmosphere of melancholia which permeates each poem. Therefore, it is shown through depictions of and interaction with melancholia, that each of the three works discussed has a distinct flavour which allows it stand apart and offer a momentary glimpse into Charlotte’s mind.
Personal Melancholia and Elegiac Sonnets
The little Poems which are here called Sonnets, have, I believe, no very just claim to that title: but they consist of fourteen lines, and appear to me no improper vehicle for a single Sentiment.
This rather unassuming preface to Charlotte’s Elegiac Sonnets may seem an odd starting point for the collection, presenting the kind of poetic modesty that ostensibly undermines its legitimacy. However, the idea of the sonnets giving a ‘single sentiment’ helps to explain my reading, that the overall body of work is largely composed of miniaturised instances of what might be described as personal melancholia. There is arguably a strong correlation between Charlotte’s personal life and her sonnets, as some of the defining experiences which shaped her experience of melancholia are explored, as well as her deepest thoughts. Critics such as Daniel White suggest that Charlotte was conscious of the need to write herself into her poetry, perpetuating ‘a consistently recognizable and stable character, the author, whose lived experiences [...] are interwoven with every poetic or fictional utterance’. This interwoven impression of Charlotte gives the sonnets a distinctly private quality, which brings the reader into the world of her melancholia and the feelings presented therein. Principal to the way in which this chapter will discuss Charlotte’s sonnets is the use of a poetic persona to present these experiences. This persona, Pratt argues, gives a personal representation of melancholia that sets Charlotte’s writing apart from her contemporaries:
[Charlotte] creates a poetic persona who insists upon melancholia as the sign of her authentic literary production, which occurs in a representational dimension closer to “real” experience than is the realm of masculine poetic convention.
Since the persona, and the way in which Charlotte presents melancholia, gives this authentic quality to her verse, the personal feelings written into the sonnets are integral both to an understanding of the importance of the collection as a whole, and of Charlotte as a poet. The sonnet form thus seems a wholly appropriate vehicle for this to be achieved, as it enabled Charlotte to ground each poetic narrative within familiar conventions, whilst at the same time giving room for her to experiment with versification and expression. In addition, the personal aspect of Charlotte’s sonnets allowed her readership potential insight into her life, as well as an idea of a connection with the tropes from which she drew influence.
From a collection of nearly one hundred sonnets, this chapter will largely focus on a close textual analysis of just two. It would be impossible in such a study as this to represent the intricacies and sheer range of the entire collection; thus, each sonnet has been carefully chosen as superlative examples which displays one recurring and key aspect of the way in which melancholia is explored. ‘Sonnet III’ (‘To a nightingale’) portrays a delicately lonely experience of melancholia, between Charlotte and a nightingale; however, it is through its engagement with the mythology of Philomela and her connection to sorrow, as well as Charlotte’s perceived status as a poet, that the sonnet exemplifies a classical and deeply personal representation of melancholy. ‘Sonnet XCI’ (‘Reflections on some drawings of plants’), epitomises the use of the sonnet form to express personal melancholia against a typically serene eighteenth-century backdrop. This sonnet embodies a distinctly ‘feminine’ experience, presenting melancholy through an experience of maternal loss, and of the typically female sphere of middle-class domestic recreational art. Therefore, as will be shown, both sonnets typify Charlotte’s expression of single sentiments, whilst demonstrating great depth of influence and creative thought in the expression of melancholia.
‘Sonnet III’ engages with melancholia through nature and mythology, by transposing personal sentiment onto the nightingale motif and the myth of Philomela. Through the narrative technique of using the bird as a ‘muse’, Charlotte depicts isolation and sorrow as aesthetic notions and qualities that the nightingale possesses and understands. This way of off-setting emotion and using a proxy is well established in literature, as a means to allude to the ideas presented within a work, rather than giving an explicitly direct connection. Indeed, William Watkin argues that there can never be a true melancholic elegy, as it is impossible to truly state and articulate those feelings; thus the language of the symbolic is used. Charlotte’s use of the nightingale to emphasise melancholia could therefore be seen as an embodiment of this idea, as the allusions presented allow the topic to be apparent to her own life. Furthermore, as the sonnet is part of a triadic series within the Elegiac Sonnetscollection, with ‘Sonnet VII’ (‘On the departure of the nightingale’) and ‘Sonnet LV’ (‘The return of the nightingale: Written in May 1791’), Charlotte is able to relate personal melancholia to the changing seasons; the departure and return of the nightingale suggests a sense of timeless despair, as the feelings have not gone. Therefore, while the focus will be on ‘Sonnet III’, a brief consideration of its companion sonnets will invariably aid discussion by providing relevant parallels.
Firstly, however, an analysis of sonnets with a nightingale motif undoubtedly requires an examination of the use of nightingales in the arts as symbolic of melancholia. Their significance can be attributed to a distillation of the Greek myth of Philomela, princess of Athens. Philomela was raped by Tereus of Thrace, husband to her sister Procne, who subsequently cut out her tongue, thereby removing her ability to express herself coherently, as a result of her threat to vocalise what had occurred. After being reunited with her sister, Philomela exacted revenge but was transformed into a nightingale as she fled, rendering her vocal capabilities incomprehensible. Thus, translated into literature, Philomela, popularly referred to as ‘Philomel’, largely came to symbolise the repressed and misunderstood voice of melancholia. The nightingale became the ‘poet’s bird’, which was catalysed by the tendency of the artist to act as voice for melancholia because of a perceived understanding of sorrow, from their vocation of seeing the world from a different perspective. Charlotte’s nightingale poems therefore entered a rich heritage, from Ovid through to her contemporaries such as John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and indeed far beyond.
‘Sonnet III’ opens with lament for the nightingale’s sorrow, giving no doubt that this bird is worthy as a subject for such a sonnet. The opening lines of the sonnet set up the sonnet’s premise, giving a sympathetic stance with the nightingale, introducing the nature and the night, and personifying the bird: ‘Poor melancholy bird—that all night long / Tell’st to the Moon thy tale of tender woe’. The focus on the nightingale, and thus the myth of Philomela, enables Charlotte to express personal melancholia in a rising Romantic fashion, by projecting feelings onto nature – in this case the solitary moon – and use it as a mirror to the poetic soul. Indeed, a look at Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) shows that this fashion, particularly with the nightingale as a muse, continued well into the Romantic period. However, Keats’s use of the nightingale represents a distinct shift from Charlotte’s, not least because he views the nightingale as being happy and not bound by sorrow. Keats academic Neil Fraistat argues that the poem creates a situation where ‘an invocation to a muse becomes the means of discovering the muse’s own insufficiency’. By comparison, then, Charlotte offers a more sympathetic and gentle recognition of the nightingale’s influence on her melancholic feelings. Sonnets VII and LV, which show the departure and return of the nightingale, further this idea by suggesting a link to the seasons, with ‘Sonnet VII’ showing a sense of loss without the nightingale muse: ‘Ah! ‘twill be long ere thou shalt sing anew, / And pour thy music on “the Night’s dull ear,”’. Charlotte’s use of the nightingale is thus a much more personal affair than writers such as Keats, as she sees it as both intrinsically linked to melancholia and to her own life.
Furthering the nightingale motif, ‘Sonnet III’ also links an acknowledgement of the bird’s melancholic woe with the poet’s special ability to ‘translate’ its songs for a mass audience. The speaker claims to possess an attuned understanding of the nightingale’s apparent melancholy, which will be passed on: ‘Thy poet’s musing fancy would translate / What mean the sounds that swell thy little breast’ (5-6, p.14). A degree of ‘Romantic’ superiority can be read in such a statement, as the idea given is that a poet undoubtedly possesses an attuned understanding and ability to translate Philomela’s woes onto paper; although, this is in-keeping with a poem which promotes a strong connection between Charlotte and the melancholic bird. Indeed, the connection continues as Charlotte seems to find a kindred soul in Philomela, and uses this opportunity to state her own sorrow in the rhyming couplet: ‘Ah! songstress sad! that such my lot might be, / To sigh, and sing at liberty—like thee!’ (13-14, p.14). However, Charlotte does have a degree of liberty in being able to convey these feelings through her poetry, which Philomela did not have in her avian form. The proposed connection, then, stands at odds with the dissimilar situations of the two women. Thus, although resisting a straightforward interpretation, the nightingale motif provokes thought from the reader and provides depth to a depiction of personal melancholia in isolated nature.
‘Sonnet XCI’ presents melancholia through a private feeling of despair, and transposes this into the ostensibly typically tranquil world of watercolour art. Melancholia is presented in such a potent form, that when the theme is introduced half way through the sonnet it irrevocably disrupts the narrative flow and prevents a return to the initial subject. The idea presented is that once melancholia has entered the mind and the thought of grief has overtaken the physical capabilities of a clearly adept artist, the outside world ceases and instead the inner world of grief takes primacy. The focus is redirected to the loss of Charlotte’s daughter, Anna Augusta De Foiville, who features in the preface to the second volume of Elegiac Sonnets: ‘The loveliest, the most beloved of my daughters, the darling of all her family, was torn from us for ever’. Charlotte is thus openly writing her melancholic experiences into the sonnet, and allowing the reader to engage with her personal life through the medium of the persona. In ‘Sonnet XCI’, the persona sets up a scene in which she can relate the nature of isolated domestic life and silent grief after Anna’s death.
The sonnet is made up of two distinct parts, with the opening lines showing a skilled, but ostensibly isolated artist, who appreciates the subtleties of her craft: ‘These bells and golden eyes, embathed in dew; / Catch the soft blush that warms the early Rose’. The serene scene is arguably orchestrated to portray a relatively typical middle-class feminine activity and distraction from the outside world, whilst also providing a backdrop from which to suddenly introduce mourning. The volta, which switches from the first part to the second, forces the sudden introduction of grief into a previously serene sonnet. As such, the flow of the sonnet is disrupted, as the narrative thought suddenly changes direction:
And bid the pencil’s varied shades arrest
Spring’s humid buds, and Summer’s musky gems:
But, save the portrait on my bleeding breast (6-8, p.78)
The idea presented here is that the poet’s grief is so powerful that it completely shatters the formerly serene scene. However, the volta also represents a hybridity of influences, appearing near the point of a traditional Petrarchan volta – although in this case occurring at line 8 rather than the typical line 9 – yet embodying the classic twist of a Shakespearean sonnet. This unexpected change, both in subject matter and in terms of form, merges an unfinished description of watercolour art into a chance to shock the reader with a frank depiction of the effect of grief: the ‘bleeding breast’ being symbolic of both a broken heart and the lost motherhood. Indeed, Wilson suggests that the change both clashes with, and complements the sonnet’s artistic beginning:
[T]he miniaturising prettiness becomes an expression of women’s silenced experiences, the unarticulated grief that breaks out into that “bleeding breast” which is both poetically conventional and shockingly unfeminine. The narrow focus has itself become a means of looking, and interpreting.
The sonnet, then, makes great use of its limited space by juxtaposing the two worlds and entering a thought-provoking world of private grief. Furthermore, the botanical setting, whilst positioning the narrative in a distinctly feminised setting, also enables Charlotte to give the sense that she has translated a lived emotive experience onto paper.
Following the sonnet’s volta, the metre becomes noticeably disrupted, seemingly representing necessary pauses in the thought process as the memory of Anna becomes difficult to vocalise. With stressed syllables represented in bold type and caesuras given as double vertical lines, the effect of the lines following the volta can be seen as follows:
I have no semblance of that form adored,
That form, ‖ expressive of a soul divine,
So early blighted; ‖ and while life is mine (9-11, p.78)
Whilst these lines follow the sonnet’s iambic pentameter structure, it becomes apparent through the aural quality of the words that the melancholic feeling stemming from the death of Anna has a profound effect on the way in which it can be authentically represented, stunting the flow of feeling. The caesuras after ‘form’ and ‘blighted’, though arguably heard with a subjective ear, suggest that the pain is still so unresolved as to, in effect, disrupt the writing flow and leave pause on these important words. It is here that we can observe what Watkin refers to as the paradox of the elegy, that whilst there is often a desire to testify as to the nature of the lost, at the same there is a need to get over that loss and move on. ‘Sonnet XCI’ shows that the melancholic pain is too intense to move on, yet too fresh to ignore; thus invariably her lugubrious thoughts will at times overtake and consume any semblance of a normal life she might be trying to lead. The sonnet therefore acts a timeless memorial to Anna and that moment of abject despair in the author’s life, in addition to relating the ways in which grief and melancholia affect the artistic mind.
Politicised Melancholia and The Emigrants
For never yet could I derive relief,
When my swol’n heart was bursting with its sorrows,
From the sad thought, that others like myself
Live but to swell affliction’s countless tribes!
Adopting a much different focus to Elegiac Sonnets, the suffering of others, particularly those without a mass audience to hear their voice, acts as the central theme to The Emigrants. In a manner typical to Charlotte’s poetic style, her own life and emotional state is directly placed alongside her thoughts on the subject matter, as she projects her feelings out and relates to the suffering she sees. Thus in contrast to the overarching personal theme of Elegiac Sonnets, The Emigrants balances Charlotte’s own sadness with the narrative of the French Revolution, as she strongly identifies with the plight of those affected by the conflict. The epigraph above, from the first book of the poem, exemplifies a work which seeks to condemn the collateral damage and human suffering. The dominant image of Charlotte’s heart bursting from the thought of the emigrants’ suffering, as well as the notion of ‘affliction’s countless tribes’ sets a powerful tone for an appraisal of contemporary politics and strong stance against unjustifiable suffering. In essence, The Emigrants relates the plight of those displaced by the French Revolution and offers a sympathetic and empathetic view with regards to their suffering.
The poem’s melancholic effect can be seen in four main strands, which this chapter will discuss in order to exemplify the way in which The Emigrants explores melancholia. Firstly, its form and formative influences create the framework for Charlotte to explore the effect of the displacement at length, whilst giving space for frequent digressions and weaved-in, layered ideas, which allow multiple angles to be considered with regards to the melancholia. Secondly, the poem’s engagement with the emigrants and other sufferers of the French Revolution enables Charlotte to comment on the politics of the conflict and promote her viewpoint. As an extension of this, of particular interest is Charlotte’s sympathy for Marie Antoinette, which although only briefly expressed, sets human compassion above politics by looking directly at the suffering of one individual, who Charlotte ostensibly identifies with. Finally, the sense of timelessness and perpetual misery within The Emigrants promotes the idea that human suffering through conflict and animosity is an inevitable constant. As in Elegiac Sonnets, Charlotte uses her position as an artist to situate herself alongside the suffering she sees, suggesting that she has suffered as well, and that this gives her a privileged position from which to comment.
In terms of form, Charlotte arguably uses the convention of epic poetry to highlight the melancholia that will flow from the narrative, since the epic form gives scope to explore the theme of mass suffering in-depth. As its fundamental message, The Emigrants conveys the plight of the French emigrants from the revolution, highlighting their displacement to England and elsewhere, as well as their underclass status. Charlotte makes plain that she can relate to the plight of all who have suffered, regardless of status, class, or nationality. This acts as the principal theme of The Emigrants, running through the entire poem and intersecting other thoughts; however, the framing at the beginning of each book with a key date in contemporary Anglo-French relations adds another level to the narrative, as the reader is given a physical perspective and a suggestion of emotional stance. The first book is set in November 1792, which was shortly after the declaration of the French republic, and a period in which the spirit of continued European revolution ostensibly posed a major threat to the ruling classes in Britain. Thus, the speaker’s location on the cliffs east of modern-day Brighton suggests a privileged position between Britain and France, from which to comment.
In addition to the effect of form on the poem, a number of strong literary influences can be seen in its style; the most notable being John Milton. Indeed, an early section of the first book offers an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667):
[...] Yet Man, misguided Man,
Mars the fair work that he was bid enjoy,
And makes himself the evil he deplores. (I. 32-34, p.136)
Charlotte acknowledged Milton’s influence on her writing in a letter to William Cowper in 1793, which forms the preface to the poem, showing a conscious engagement with her literary forebears. The importance of an allusion to Milton within The Emigrants becomes apparent when the above passage is read in the context of the poem as a whole. Charlotte takes a similar vein to Milton by suggesting an inherent misguided nature in humankind, and crucially that this has brought out an evil within us, leading to conflict and moving us away from the beauty of the world. Thus the speaker’s position on the coast, implies that she is looking out to the actions of her fellow human beings, but her physical distance allows a detachment from the horror that is going on. However, the poem’s second book, set in April 1793, propels the narrative into a period shortly after the outbreak of war between Britain and France, which catalyses the political nature of the poem. The speaker’s position on the South Downs, looking both towards the sea and back inland, again suggests movement towards France and away from Britain; and Charlotte’s sympathy for the emigrants, and even more so the later compassion shown for Marie Antoinette, becomes a politically-charged message, in addition to a plea for humanity.
From the perspective of melancholia, the main theme within the poem’s narrative is Charlotte’s identification with the emigrants, their plight, and crucially their suffering. The Emigrants exposes what Charlotte sees as the truth behind the politics of the French revolution, focusing on those who perhaps may have been forgotten among the rhetoric and monumental regime change. Charlotte informs the reader that ‘the name / Of freedom misapplied’ has forced the emigrants to wander ‘Thro’ the wide World unshelter’d’ (I. 98-103, p.138). This ostensibly Biblical language offers connotations both that they have been unjustly displaced, and that Charlotte is taking on the role of shepherd to watch over and protect the interest of the people by speaking out. As Wilson points out, ‘at the time [Charlotte] herself was giving shelter to French refugees who had crossed the channel’. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that Charlotte sought to vocalise an attack on the situation when she was intervening in the overlooked aspect of the conflict in her private life.
The narrative of the poem frequently moves back and forth between sympathy for the emigrants, and introspective reflections of Charlotte’s life and its relevant history. Shortly after lamenting their situation she reminds the reader of her own misfortunes: ‘I mourn your sorrows; for I too have known / Involuntary exile’ (I. 155-156, p.141). As mentioned in the introduction, Charlotte joined her husband in debtor’s prison for a time, and even temporarily relocated to France and for a time; thus the connection with the emigrants’ situation is quite potent and relevant to her, as she spent a good deal of her life in uncertainty. Fletcher argues that ‘[o]nly those who have suffered will consider figures as remote as refugees from another country’, which resonates with a poem that stands out with bold subject matter, addressing the plight of the overlooked ‘Other’. Indeed, the second book gives an even greater sense of displacement as Charlotte suggests that both she and the emigrants suffer a melancholic situation that makes them only focus on the present:
[...] They, like me,
From fairer hopes and happier prospects driven,
Shrink from the future, and regret the past. (II. 14-16, p.150)
The importance of the present and the relegation of everything else, suggests that the mere act of surviving is a task for both Charlotte and the emigrants. It is through this that the poem gives insight into the despairing lives of two separate groups, which Charlotte promotes as having a shared situation and shared identity.
As an extension of the identification with the emigrants, one of the poem’s most striking aspects is the lament given for Marie Antoinette in the second book. Charlotte makes plain that she feels sympathetic towards the imprisoned and soon to be executed monarch: ‘Ah! much I mourn they sorrows, hapless Queen’ (II. 154, p.155). In altering her stance in The Emigrants between being against a situation which could so thoroughly brutalise the lower social strata of French society, and supporting a figurehead from the opposing end of the scale, Charlotte fosters a sense of universality when looking at suffering. Crucially, the reader is reminded that whatever her faults she has committed, Marie Antoinette is still simply an imprisoned woman:
[...] every English heart,
Ev’n those, that highest beat in Freedom’s cause,
Disclaim as base, and of that cause unworthy,
The Vengence, or the Fear, that makes thee still
A miserable prisoner!—Ah! who knows,
From sad experience, more than I, to feel
For thy desponding spirit [...] (II. 165-171, p.155)
The idea that ‘every English heart’ fosters sympathy for Marie Antoinette, however, is a strong political statement, as Charlotte promotes her view of universal sympathy and humanism beyond herself and pushes it through her writing. Furthermore, beyond calling for sympathy for Marie Antoinette, the above passage once again injects Charlotte’s life into narrative of another, stating that no one could relate to Marie Antoinette’s sadness more than her. The theme of isolation is particularly strong within this section of the narrative, and a similarity could be seen with Tim Blanning’s assessment of the loneliness of Romantic artists: ‘Rescue from isolation could be achieved by connecting the self to a greater entity, with the nation in pole position for most romantics’. Whilst the British nation arguably did not hold the same emotive importance for Charlotte as many of her contemporaries, her association with the emigrants, and particularly with Marie Antoinette’s suffering, could be seen as an attempt to connect herself to something greater.
The final aspect of The Emigrants to consider here is the way in which Charlotte universalises melancholia, giving the sense of perpetual and timeless suffering. Throughout the narrative, the reader is given the sense that the pain, and the melancholic thought stemming from that pain, will not abate: ‘(And every day brings its own sad proportion) / For doubts, diseases, abject dread of Death’ (I.14-15, p.135). The undeniable feeling presented is of unending misery, that for the emigrants about to be discussed, and indeed for the poet herself, life is an inevitable journey, a step at a time without remission, towards greater suffering and death. From a melancholic perspective, Klibansky et al’s consideration of it changing the mind and its outlook, as seen in the literature review, suggests that Charlotte’s obsession with endlessness could be seen as a manifestation of the condition:
The melancholic primarily suffers from the contradiction between time and infinity, while at the same time giving a positive value to his own sorrow [...] since he feels that through his very melancholy he has a share in eternity.
Charlotte arguably wrote the emigrants’ suffering, and indeed her own, into what she saw as an infinite timeline; giving the sense that she is connecting to a much greater entity. Fletcher argues that this quality of the poem shows a sad, but maturing psyche negotiating the pain it sees in the world: ‘The Emigrants shows a mind coming to terms with the sufferings of adulthood and hearing that still sad music of humanity in the recognition of universal sorrow’. Whichever way the emotion presented in the poem is seen, its powerful sense of endless sadness suggests that while Charlotte wishes to fight the injustice she sees in the world, her outlook is grounded by the reality she knows too well. Essentially, in the world as Charlotte sees it, suffering and melancholia is a ubiquitous experience and she can sympathise with the plight of any who are mistreated by powers beyond their control: ‘Whate’er your errors, I lament your fate’ (I. 107, p.139). In universalising the horror and the blame for such, Charlotte places herself outside of, and above a society which cannot foster a desired level of sympathy. This strikes a chord with the Romantic tendency to take an intellectually superior role as the artist, when looking out and assessing the world through literature. However, the melancholia Charlotte presents in The Emigrants also takes the focus away from her while she testifies to the misery of others, as Wilson argues: ‘In evoking long vistas of time in which the suffering of the powerless is a constant, [Charlotte] transforms epic into a bleak memorial to unrecorded lives overwhelmed by history’. Melancholia thus becomes a useful tool in political engagement through literature, as Charlotte draws together all of the sadness and lugubrious reality together to stand up for the emigrants.
Melancholic Abstraction and Beachy Head
Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word
That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born,
Misleads the wanderer, destin’d to contend
In the world’s wilderness, with want or woe—
Yet they are happy, who have never ask’d
What good or evil means.
Representing a further degree of poetical experimentation than Charlotte’s previous writing, the posthumously published, and ostensibly unfinished Beachy Head presents melancholia in a much more abstract sense, musing on the state of the world, time and mankind’s sorrows from atop the Sussex cliffs. The chalk cliffs provide a powerful position from which to express melancholia, as Beachy Head has long been a famous spot for suicide, of which Charlotte would very likely have been aware. Within the poem, the reader is offered long descriptions of the beautiful and striking landscape surrounding the speaker, intersected with historical, social and personal commentary; in such a way that while the narrative flow remains relatively steady overall, the array and variety of thoughts presented act almost like an early form of stream-of-consciousness. The poem transforms from an outlook suggesting the loneliness of the British Isles, through numerous narrative digressions, to an abrupt ending on an individual; the progression maintains a theme, but shows that the thought process has developed far beyond the beginning. However, despite its experimental form, Beachy Head shares some of the qualities of The Emigrants, featuring lengthy passages on the nature of life and death, and the melancholia inherent in the human existence; and it is this aspect which frames the narrative wanderings.
While such a weighty poem, being over 700 lines in one book, offers a myriad of potential passages to analyse and influences to discuss, the epigraph above exemplifies Charlotte’s view of the futility of life. The idea given is that ignorance is a favourable state to be in, rather than being the poet who attempts to reasonably explain the sorrows of the world, as they will invariably fall subject to melancholia. This chapter will principally discuss four facets of Beachy Head which build on that idea. Firstly, its unfinished state and the ethics and practicalities of analysing an unfinished work. Secondly, the poem’s pastoral influences and the abstract side of the narrative will be analysed, as they show melancholia being considered alongside nature, but also seemingly outside of temporality. Following this, the ‘Shepherd on the hill’ poem within Beachy Head will be considered, which progresses towards the poignant, melancholic ending with the death of the Hermit, which abruptly concludes the narrative. Finally, running through all three of these strands is the sense that the poem is somehow ‘modern’, with the ostensible use of narrative devices such as the stream-of-consciousness mentioned above.
A crucial aspect of Beachy Head which must be considered first is its unfinished state and the implications this has on any analysis of its potentially intended meaning. The poem was published with an anonymous textual note, giving the editorial state of the work and explaining Charlotte’s passing away the previous year:
The Poem entitled BEACHY HEAD is not completed according to the original design. That the increasing debility of its author has been the cause of its being left in an imperfect state, will it is hoped be a sufficient apology.
In excusing the delay in publication and directly referring to Charlotte’s death, this foreword elicits an emotional response of empathy for the poet, before the poem is even read. However, without supporting evidence, the issue of the ‘original design’ raised in the note, raises questions when looking at the work, since it is not clear on whose opinion this design is based. Indeed, as Curran indicates, after Charlotte passed away, ‘the sweepings of her closet were, without exception, committed to flames’, thus we will arguably never know what plan the author actually had. Furthermore, from the perspective of literary analysis, it is important to use extreme caution when making assumptions as to the potential complete state of an unfinished work, especially when there is no concrete evidence to ascertain the changes which might have been made, had the author lived on. Academics such as Theresa Kelley argue that competing theories make the task of judging the poem’s true potential state problematical, since one view is that Beachy Head was only incomplete in so much as having a missing preface. However, examining its melancholic sentiments and following what seems a natural progression of style from The Emigrants, an analysis of Beachy Headas it is presented is both justified and vital to understanding Charlotte’s verse melancholia overall.
Melancholia in a pastoral setting arguably grounds the main focus of the poem at first, as Charlotte reflects on a wide range of social and historical issues, tempered with the feeling of loss and abjection. Critics looking back at Charlotte’s work often appreciate her connection to landscape, such as Anne K. Elwood, who wrote that for anyone well acquainted with Sussex scenery, ‘the poetical descriptions of [Charlotte] convey a peculiar charm, and please, because they are correct and natural, as well as elegant and pathetic’. However, the verse portrayals being correct and natural aside, the striking Sussex landscape had great potential to resonate with Charlotte’s melancholic outlook, her lugubrious moods, and the literary heritage she wished to engage with. Thus, the ‘pastoral’ as a sub-genre of poetry often associated with elegies, may serve as a useful way of categorising Beachy Head. When defining the pastoral elegy as a combined genre, Watkin argues that it offers a distinct way of thinking:
Not in the real world but an unreal world where the reality of loss, loss as an event, can be, if not encountered, at least not infected with pathos. Pastoral keeps loss real to itself as loss. It is where singularity lives.
Although Watkin’s analysis of melancholia is largely based around loss in the sense that Kristeva and Freud propose for melancholia, it could be argued that loss as an abstract idea underpins much of Beachy Head. Furthermore, the idea of singularity that Watkin associates with the pastoral elegy is very much applicable to much of Charlotte’s narrative, as it is her memory, thoughts and voice which takes primacy in the depiction of melancholia.
Within the pastoral genre, the landscape and the natural world are core to the understanding of a poem’s message; thus, if merged with the elegy genre, it offers a way of framing and presenting melancholia. The pastoral elegy as a theme ostensibly features in a number of Charlotte’s poems, although in Beachy Head it seemingly underpins the overall message. As a case in point, Wilson’s introduction to a recent publication of the poem highlights Charlotte’s health problems in the last years of her life and the debilitating effect of her arthritis: ‘[Charlotte] creates dizzying vistas of space and geological time from the summit of the cliff she could have no longer climbed’. The dynamic and lasting effect of the work is altered when the realisation is made that Charlotte is writing from memory and imagination. Indeed, considering Charlotte’s ill health, the pastoral elegy offers a way of mourning her inability to climb and experience Beachy Head again:
Ah! hills so early loved! In fancy still
I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold
Those widely spreading views, mocking alike
The Poet and the Painter’s utmost art. (368-371, p.232)
Charlotte’s memory, poignantly projected onto the landscape in ‘fancy’, suggests that Beachy Head still holds an importance to her at the end of her life; and thus the depiction of melancholia in her final work is centred on the events which shaped her life and the nature which inspired her.
From the above passage, Charlotte also offers the idea that her skill as an artist is tested by the awe-inspiring beauty of nature; giving the kind of astonishment in the face of nature which characterised much of Romanticism. Curran furthers this idea, suggesting that Charlotte created:
[A] world of such microscopically exact beauty in which no human being, even the observer honouring it, can participate. In “Beachy Head” [Charlotte] may be thought to have recovered the regenerate Eden that Wordsworth and Blake pursued through their poetic fictions across long careers.
Curran makes a bold claim here, as Charlotte does not explicitly refer to her ‘Edenic’ landscape in the same way that many of the Romantics did, as spiritually fulfilling and an appropriate backdrop to their thoughts. However, the idea of a beauty that no one can really participate in does hold resonance with a landscape which tests her abilities as an artist, and forces her mind to wander so frequently. Indeed, as in The Emigrants, Charlotte’s focus and direction frequently shifts from vast historical musings, back to the present, small-scale and natural:
How gladly the reflecting mind returns
To simple scenes of peace and industry
Where, bosom’d in some valley of the hills
Stands the lonely farm [...] (168-171, p.224)
These shifts in focus disrupt the narrative flow, moving from abstract to specific and then back again. This offers the notion that the thoughts inspiring Beachy Head were being translated directly onto the page, as Wilson argues: ‘Few poems with such an epic subject convey so immediate a sense of unfolding within the mind of the author’. Indeed, sections such as these give a strong feeling of a stream-of-consciousness coming from the author, although perhaps lacking the explicitly self-reflexive nature of the Modernist works which defined this style of writing a century later. Melancholia in the poem, then, seemingly transcends many of the conventions of the time, as Charlotte uses experimentation to define sadness in her final work.
The abstract nature of Beachy Head gives impetus for its theme and focus to shift throughout, arguably to a much greater extent than previous works such as The Emigrants. The reader is given in-depth history, a sense of aging and decay, and a loose feeling of timelessness between incidents past and present. Two key moments of specific focus within the largely unbound body of the poem, are in the ‘Shepherd on the hill’ poem, and the final narrative event, the melancholic tale of the Hermit. Both of these mini narratives allow Charlotte to build upon her historical and social passages, and turn the attention onto individual tales of love and loss. The ‘Shepherd on the hill’ poem in the latter half of Beachy Head, engages with an idealised form of love in folklore, which is undercut with the loss felt looking back. The poem tells a touching story of melancholic lamentation, in a pastoral setting: ‘Believe, that from the woody vale / I hear your voice upon the gale’ (538-539, p.240). In this passage, Charlotte again brings in malaise in the tradition of Romanticism, as the speaker is transfixed on lost love, and the idea that nature is somehow attuned to her feeling. This poem then, as a narrative interruption to the main thrust of Beachy Head, complements its elegiac nature. Indeed, the subsequent poem within the main, ostensibly following on from the ‘Shepherd on the hill’, transforms loss and distress into a more abstract sense of memory and unrequited feeling:
Ye phantoms of unreal delight,