Here is a chance for you to decide for yourself one of the cultural issues of our time. The issue is whether or not the sonnets of a woman named Charlotte Smith deserve to be included in anthologies of English literature. That, anyway, is what the issue seemed to boil down to when I listened to a group of literature professors arguing on a morning talk show. They kept using Charlotte Smith as an example -- of a really interesting poet passed over because she was a woman, or of a really mediocre poet suddenly put into the company of Wordsworth and Keats because she was a woman.
No one on either side read or quoted a single line of poetry, even while they dueled about its value. So here is the background. Charlotte Turner Smith was born into the English gentry in 1750 in London. Her mother died when she was 3. When her father remarried, she was 15, and, according to one biographer, she "plunged into a ruinous marriage to the dissolute son of a wealthy West Indian merchant." This sounds, so far, like a subplot of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Then it turns into Dickens. She had 12 children. She worked as an accountant in her father-in-law's shipping firm. When he died, he left his financial affairs in such a mess that the lawsuit to settle them went on for 40 years.
In the meantime, Charlotte's spendthrift husband ran up debts that landed them in a debtor's prison for a few months in 1783. Once she was free, Charlotte fled to France to avoid her husband's creditors. She published her first book of poems in 1784, while she was still in prison. Later she supported her eight surviving children by writing novels with titles like Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle and Ethleinde, or The Recluse of the Lake. She wrote long poems, more sonnets, children's books, translated French literature, and produced one play. She died in Sussex in 1806.
Here are three of her (intensely melancholy) poems. The first comes from 1789:
Written in the Churchyard at
Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides,
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!
With shells and seaweed mingled, on the shore
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more;
While I am doomed -- by life's long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.
This is the moody, turbulent style of the period. Jane Austen makes fun of this taste for melancholy a little in Persuasion, in the figure of the widowed sea captain who likes brooding poetry. Here's one from 1797 -- nearer Austen's own time -- about sounds from a ship heard on shore. It calls up that era of naval war between England and Napoleonic France, when for civilians the life of a poet must have felt both a bit romantic and a bit dangerous:
Written near a port on a dark evening
Huge vapors brood above the clifted shore,
Night on the ocean settles dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen in the anchored bark that tell
The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding, "Strike the bell."
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the Pilgrim -- Such the dubious ray
That wavering Reason lends, in life's darkling way.
And here, from the same year, she imagines a shepherd on a seaside cliff on a summer evening watching a naval battle in the distance:
The Sea View
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 o'er 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 fires. The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils Heaven's glorious work
So -- what do you think? The issue -- at least for me -- has to do with writing. There are some period cliches -- the storm is "a wild blast," the shepherd feels "a joy serene" -- in the poems. There is also some vivid description. A poem wants to be fresh and alive, to catch something of life or make available to consciousness something that wasn't there before. Would you put Charlotte Smith in your anthology? I think of the young Keats, hoping that he could do something, someday, that would put him "in the company of the English poets."