Ghosts in Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets
I am haunted by the ghost in the footnote to the first sonnet. Footnotes in Charlotte Smith do much more than cite sources, and this first footnote interacts with the rhyme of the final couplet to emphasize the word ghost.
Ah! then, how dear the Muse’s favours cost,
If those paint sorrow best—who feel it most!*
* “The well-sung woes shall soothe my pensive ghost;
He best can paint them who shall feel them most.” Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard,” 366th line.
The end words cost/most produce an off-rhyme, but the asterisk sends the reader to the footnote in order to encounter the true rhyme. Since the sonnet’s couplet keeps the same rhyme sound as the Pope couplet, ghost is both present and absent from the sonnet. A ghost, not unlike an echo, can be a present absence or an absent presence. In Pope’s poem, Eloisa and Abelard are not the ones singing “the well-sung woes”; they are calling on a future bard to sing the woes for them. In addition to having to witness “every pang” and “every sigh” of the living, the speaker of the Elegiac Sonnets is haunted by the ghosts of Eloisa and Abelard. Elegies confront loss, but, more accurately, they must confront the trace of what was lost. In Poetics of Sensibility, Jerome McGann claims that the “peculiar force” of Smith’s sonnets “comes from the fact that they are not elegies for some particular person or persons” (157). These elegiac sonnets depict a dreary vision because the presence of those who are supposed to be absent haunts the poet/speaker out of all possible resort.
The content of Sonnet XLIV “Written in the Church-Yard at Middleton in Sussex” perfectly fits one of the classic plotlines for horror films: that which is supposed to stay underground keeps coming back. During a powerful storm, the sea “Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,/And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!” (lns 7-8). “Silent Sabbath” signals that the dead were at rest; somehow their silence is broken. The living world is still silent to the dead, and in “vain to them the winds and waters rave” because “they hear the warring elements no more” (lns 11-12). The dead, however, are no longer silent to the world. After providing a description of Middleton and its grave situation, the footnote to the poem says, “where human bones are found among the sand and shingles on the shore” (42). The asterisk signaling the footnote comes before the lines that emphasize the same information: “With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore/Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave” (lns 9-10). Despite the grotesqueness, the speaker, who looks on with an envious gaze, desires to switch places with the displaced dead. “Gloomy rest,” in the eyes of the speaker, is better than being haunted by human bones.
Ghostlike figures can be found throughout the sonnet sequence. After unsuccessfully seeking the flowers of Poesy, the speaker in Sonnet XXXVI wishes to be pointed towards the shore, “Where the pale spectre Care pursues no more” (14). The speaker is tired of the pursuit, of pursuing the “well-sung woes” and of being pursued by specters. In Sonnet XXI, Werter, as the speaker of the poem, says, “Like the poor maniac I linger here,/still haunt the scene where all my treasure lies” (XXI lns 6-7). This same sonnet offers another quote from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard;” thus, Werter becomes another present but absent lover mourning the loss of his absent but present beloved. Sonnet LXIX “On Seeing a Seaman Return Who Had been Imprisoned at Rochfort” depicts the first appearance of the seaman as an apparition: “Lo! on the deck a pallid form appears” (ln 7). The pall in pallid makes the image even drearier. Here are two more ghastly images: “air-drawn phantoms” (XLV ln 9) and “haunted streams” (L ln 8).
In a couple of sonnets, the speaker describes two figures that might not be ghosts but still engage in the interplay of absence/presence. The sleeping woodman in Sonnet LIV is depicted as having “sunk to calm tho’ momentary rest” (ln 8). The speaker envies the sleeping woodman’s “unthinking mind” in order to escape “from the ills I bear” (lns 10-11). The final couplet reads, “Till the last sleep these weary eyes shall close, And Death receive me to his long repose” (lns 13-14). Since the poem makes the old connection between sleep and death, the sleeping woodsman could be described as experiencing a momentary death. For the speaker, the woodman’s body is present, but the mind is absent. The woodsman, however, will eventually rise from his slumber, and, in this way, too, sleep and death are connected. In Sonnet LXXX, the speaker addresses the invisible moon: “Dark and conceal’d art thou, soft Evening’s Queen,” (ln 1). As invisible and concealed, the moon is both present and not present. The speaker understands that the moon is present and visible for people in another part of the world and says, “While thy fair beams illume another sky,/And shine for beings less accurst than I” (lns 13-14). The moon’s absence, like the woodman’s, is temporary, and the moon will rise from its concealment.
In the last sonnet, the speaker attempts to find resort and sanctuary in her childhood home. But the opening of Sonnet XCII “Written at Bignor Park in Sussex, in August, 1799” offers a spooky description of Bignor Park:
Low murmurs creep along the woody vale.
The tremulous Aspens shudder in the breeze.
Slow o’er the downs the leaden vapours sail,
While I, beneath these old paternal trees,
Mark the dark shadows of the threaten’d storm, (lns 1-5)
The words murmurs, creep, tremulous, shudder, dark shadows, and threaten’d provide a frightful tone to the poem. Once the sun breaks through, the speaker says of the dark shadows, “They pass!” (ln 9). Yet the warm visions of her youth are “obscured for ever” (ln 9). The last sentence reads, “Nor for me/Return those rosy hours which here I used to see!” (lns 13-14). At the end of the sonnet sequence, the speaker is still not able to use the elegiac mode to transform sorrow. I believe the speaker fails because her world is a haunted world. The elegiac sonnets are followed directly by “Ode to Despair,” in which the speaker addresses Despair as “Thou spectre of terrific mien!” (ln 1). Aware of the haunting, the speaker is then willing to conjure up the specter: “I woo thee with unusual prayer/’Grim-visaged, comfortless Despair’” (lns 5-6).
One last question concerns the intertextual nature of the Elegiac Sonnets. Smith borrows from Pope, Petrarch, Goethe, and herself. At times, a sonnet that is supposed to be written by Werter quotes from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.” I do find it interesting that haunting is present in Pope’s poem, in Goethe’s Werter, and in Petrarch. Nobody can say that Petrarch was not haunted by Laura’s presence (in life) or absence (in death). Is the inclusion of those poets and their work a sort of spectral haunting, or is Smith conjuring them up to use their services as, well, ghostwriters?
Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...