The Romantic era was an era filled with optimism, creativity, and a lack of realism. In high contrast with the Enlightenment era, this was one filled with emotional responses rather than responses based off of reason and thought. Charlotte Smith, a Romantic poet, composed a book called Elegiacs, Sonnets, and other Poems in 1784, which exemplified all of the qualities of this literary movement. Through all of these poems, Smith’s use of personification, symbolism, rhyme patterns, and nature-focused themes reflect not only the pattern of her personal style, but also the overall style of the Romantic era itself.
While analyzing five of Smith’s sonnets, I specifically noticed how often she used personification in her writings. In the poem, ““To the Moon”, she speaks to the moon as if it is alive, and says that it is the “queen of the silver bow.” Additionally, in the poem, “Sonnet LIX”, she personifies the night’s sky by saying it, “smiles at the tumult of the troubled earth.” Lastly, in the poem, “To Hope”, hope is personified as she calls out to it, pleading, “enchantress come!” It is notable that the things she personifies either reflect nature, as seen in her odes to the moon and the night, or reflect her emotional want, which is hope. This reflects the era she writes in, as it focuses on her feelings, and her appreciation for the natural world; it is remarkable that she dared to suggest that the earth was worthy of being spoken to as people were. She felt especially close to the world around her and the inner desires she had.
Smith also had distinct reasons for ways she organized her poems. Two of the sonnets I chose were not Italian, English, or Spenserian rhyme schemes (“Sonnet LIX” and “To A Nightingale”). These irregular patterns emphasized the unusual conditions both poems had. In “Sonnet LIX”, there was a “remarkable thunderstorm”, so monstrous that it had “deep-embattled clouds” with “awful pageants” surrounding it in the sky. The atypical magnitude of the storm is very likely the reason that the prosody can’t be confined to a pattern of sonnet that’s ‘normal’. In the poem, “To A Nightingale”, she used an unusual sonnet rhyme to comment on the unusual somberness that this particular bird type had. Generally, birds are associated with joy and jubilance, however the irregularity of the poem shows that this bird was different, and must have, “felt from friends some cruel wrong” to be singing so sorrowfully.
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The other three sonnets I chose were all English sonnets. Their rather conventional typing served a deeper purpose as well. In “To Hope”, Charlotte cries to hope, saying, “clear my painful path of pointed thorn!” She wishes things were better and more ‘normal’ in her life, so it’s fitting that this poem is a ‘normal’ sonnet. Additionally, in the poem, “To the Moon”, she views the moon as a heaven-like place, saying, “ the sad children of despair and woe forget in thee their cup of sorrow here.” She goes on to mention that she desires to, “soon… reach thy world serene.” This evidence, combined with the fact that she was imprisoned at the time she wrote this, reveals that she yearns for a regularity that she can’t find on earth, and so made sure that the poem’s organization was also a somewhat regular sonnet type.
Lastly, in the poem, “Sonnet: On Being cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it Was Frequented by a Lunatic”, she goes extremely deep in trying to break the social norms of the time. Charlotte had been advised to steer clear of the man who was, “with hoarse, half-uttered lamentation… murmuring responses to the dashing surf”, however she chose to defy the stereotype and look at his true person. This in itself is a big attribute of the Romantic era in general- Romanticists wrote to end labels and reveal their feelings, ultimately. On thinking of his condition, she unveiled that she “see[s] him more with envy than with fear.” This line was intended to make the feared ‘lunatic’ seem more like a human, not to be a spectacle among people. This is why the English sonnet was utilized- to make this man seem more typical, and not as different from the others. He had a place in society that wasn’t irregular, and so she didn’t make the poem an irregular rhyme scheme.
Another aspect of Smith’s writing that was prevalent in the poems I analyzed was natural symbolism. The moon was a symbol throughout three of her poems; in “To the Moon”, she parallels the moon with heaven, in “Sonnet LIX” she makes the moon a symbol for peace that is, “above the shocks of fate”, and in “To A Nightingale” she contrasts the beautiful moon to the, “mournful melody of song” the bird rings out. The moon’s mysteriousness intrigued Charlotte Smith greatly, as it hadn’t been ‘discovered’ by men yet. It was a place of hope, a place that her imagination could go when she was a “poor wearied pilgrim” desiring its “world serene” (To the Moon). The moon, specifically, may have been idealized because it was constant in her world. While writing the book, Elegiacs, Sonnets, and Other Poems, she was in jail. The moon may have been the only happy place she could think of because it was so far away from the earth and its hardships, and therefore influenced her writings greatly.
The last point I noticed in Charlotte’s writings was her wishful, longing tone. In every poem I analyzed, she mentioned at least one envy or hope. In the poem mentioning the lunatic, she envied that he was “uncursed with reason”. In “To Hope”, she ironically hoped for hope. In “To the Moon”, and “Sonnet LIX”, she yearned for the moon’s serenity. Lastly, in “To A Nightingale” she hoped that she could one day, “sigh and sing at liberty--like thee.” This longing tone isn’t coincidental. Her earthly circumstances motivated her to write with a hope. She, a true Romantic poet, wrote to express her inmost desires and to uncover her future wants.
Dreams can unlock the mysteries of a soul. Charlotte Smith dreamt of a place she could call ‘peace’, and expressed this beautifully through her writing. She eloquently spoke to the things she longed for- the moon, hope, a place ‘uncursed with reason’. Her choices in sonnet type and symbols added tremendous meaning to her well-thought out poems. Smith’s style was an alluring and unique one- although on the outside these poems may seem fanciful and somewhat unrealistic, all of her mysterious thoughts were deliberately poured out onto paper- all they need is someone willing to unveil them.
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