Why has Happiness no Second Spring: The Poetry of Charlotte Smith

Spring by Francois Boucher. 1755. The Frick Collection

Some of my favorite discoveries in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets are neglected and new-to-me female poets.  Schmidt says of one such poet, Charlotte Smith:

Eighteen years after Cowper’s birth, in 1749, a unaccountably neglected poet (half remembered as a novelist) was born.  If Cowper had his hand on the latch of Romanticism, her foot was firmly in the door.  Wordsworth read her: Dorothy Wordsworth recalls his turning the pages of her Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays—the fifth edition, for she as popular in her time; and he visited her in Brighton. She treated him politely, introducing him to other women writers in the town.  In London at the end of the century she dined with the young Coleridge.  A recurrent footnote, doggedly represented in anthologies by a sonnet that is wonderful (“Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides”) and to which few attend closely, she is a key poet of the transition to Romanticism.

“Written at the Close of Spring” is one of her elegiac sonnets that showcases her intimate view of nature mixed with personal meditation:

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again—
Ah! poor humanity! So frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant passion, and corrosive care,
Bid all they fairy colors fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness—no second Spring?

For her elegiac poems,  like “To Night,” I agree with Michael Schmidt that, “She deserves to be read today.”

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane,
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.
In deep depression sunk, the enfeebled mind
Will to the deaf cold elements complain,
And tell the embosom’d grief, however vain,
To sullen surges and the viewless wind.
Though no repose on they dark breast I find,
I still enjoy thee—cheerless as thou art;
For in they quiet gloom the exhausted heart
Is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resign’d.
While to the winds and waves its sorrows given,
May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!

I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Smith’s complete collection of Elegiac Sonnets.  I am also tempted to try one of her novels.  If anyone has read any of her novels, please let me know which one(s) you would recommend.

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Poetry

8 responses to “Why has Happiness no Second Spring: The Poetry of Charlotte Smith

  1. Craig

    Wow! Thanks for the post Melissa. I was dimly aware of Charlotte Smith as a novelist, but hadn’t read her. Now I think I must check out her poetry. I am getting so much out of your Lives of the Poets posts. Charlotte Smith seems like a real find!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nat

    I love Charlotte Smith! I typically start my Romantic poetry course with “Beachy Head” (which reads very interestingly against “Tintern Abbey” and many other Romantic poems) and some of the “Elegiac Sonnets” (including “To Night”). In terms of novels, “Desmond” is very good, combining a love story with political debates around the French Revolution. I’ve also started “The Young Philosopher” which is similarly concerned with radical, democratic ideals. Fortunately, Broadview Press has a number of her novels in print (In addition to Desmond, they have an edition of Emmeline and, I think, The Old Manor House)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marina Sofia

    Emmeline is the only one of her novels I was aware of, alrhough I believe it’s one of her earlier, overly sentimental ones. She became increasingly preoccupied with social reform and the French Revolution in her later works.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had heard of Desmond because of the French Rev connection – it’s on my list of possible reads for that theme – but didn’t know she was a poet too. Obviously an author to explore!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Are you getting the collection that’s part of the Women Writers in English series from Oxford? That’s a pretty good book; I read it last year. It includes “The Emigrants” which is an excellent long poem.

    Smith had a sharp eye for details in nature, and some of her images of beaches and cliffs are quite striking. I find myself thinking of her poems when we go to the ocean.

    I haven’t read any of her novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. buriedinprint

    I enjoyed both Emmeline and The Old Manor House. I read one other (which at the time was only available on microfiche, a terrible reading experience as it was teeny tiny grainy type) which left me feeling like I didn’t *need* to read any more (all the others would have also been on microfiche) and that all three were pretty much the same. But I didn’t feel that in a bad way, if you know what I mean! 🙂

    Like

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