Charlotte Smith


Now that the worst of the stormy weather is over, I find myself being able to enjoy the cool lingering of Winter. I’ve spent the last few nights with hot matza ball chicken soup and a sleepy cat on my lap. When the electricity went out for a day or so in my place, I was forced to read by candlelight. But really, it was a blessing in disguise, because that soft, intimate, and localised light sets such a different tone to your mood and surroundings. I found myself more relaxed, and more willing to let go of tasks and to-do lists away from the glare of the bright light in the ceiling. So even when my electricity returned, I huddled near a soft lamp light, reading next to a heater. It feels a million times better.

There’s a kind of pleasurable melancholy tone to such evenings, and whenever I’m in this mood, I return to one of my favourite melancholy poets, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806). Here is one poem that’s been read many times over the last few nights:

Written at the Close of Spring (1784)

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 thy fairy colours fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness--no second Spring?

Smith’s melancholy poetry is not the product of artistic affectation. Her writing began a source of support for her children during a separation from an unhappy marriage which she likened to ‘legal prostitution’. Women at that time had very little legal or financial support in abusive marriages, and her writing became both a refuge from, and a means of commentary on, her lot in life.

I suspect a lot of people don’t even know who Charlotte Smith is. But they probably know who Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake and Byron are. Smith belongs in this list of more famous names. Her work helped shape Romantic poetry and literature, and was greatly admired by Wordsworth and Coleridge. She also shaped the typical poetry we associate with the Romantics today: nature poetry. Wordsworth once remarked that Smith wrote “with true feeling for rural nature, at a time when nature was not much regarded by English poets.”

So why isn’t she more well-known? Well, that’s the product of the gender bias that has always existed in the selection of the literary ‘canon’ and influential authors. Although luckily, when I began to study the Romantics as an undergraduate a few years ago, she was rightfully included in a collection of Romantic poetry. I do wish though her name was as familiar on the tongue and in the consciousness of people, the way her more famous male contemporaries are. I’ll leave you with one more poem:

The Sea View (1797)

The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
   On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
   Or from his course celestial, sinking slow,
   The summer-sun in purple radiance low,
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
   Magnificent, and tranquil, seems to spread
Even over the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
   When, like dark plague-spots by the Demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves, far seen,
   Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red,
   Flash their destructive fire.--The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils Heaven’s glorious works with blood!

Image credit: Charlotte Smith (1792) by George Romney (1734-1802).