Elegiac Sonnets

Elegiac Sonnets, Charlotte Turner Smith, 1784

Notable for:

  • bringing sonnets back.
  • kicking off the Romantic movement in literature.

Hooray!  The beginning of the Romantic movement!  It might not be my/your favorite literary movement, but it’s a huge improvement on the previous 50-80 years of literature.  Charlotte Turner Smith is considered more of a proto-Romantic writer than truly a Romantic writer, but there are plenty of legit Romantic elements in her poems.  Just like Wordsworth and the later Romantics, Smith treats Nature as both exalted deity and source of aesthetic awe and wonder.  She has a very Wordsworthy way of professing strong emotions as a method of self-expression.

Exemplary Sonnet:

Sonnet I

THE partial Muse, has from my earliest hours,
Smil’d on the rugged path I’m doom’d to tread,
And still with sportive hand has snatch’d wild flowers,
To weave fantastic garlands for my head:
But far, far happier is the lot of those
Who never learn’d her dear delusive art;
Which, while it decks the head with many a rose,
Reserves the thorn, to fester in the heart.
For still she bids soft Pity’s melting eye
Stream o’er the ills she knows not to remove,
Points every pang, and deepens every sigh
Of mourning friendship or unhappy love.
Ah! then, how dear the Muse’s favours cost,
If those paint sorrow best–who feel it most!

A very Keatsian ode to the woes of being an oversensitive poet-type, no?  For the record, I”m not sure that poets/writers feel emotions harder than others.  They sure do proclaim them harder, though.

Smith was a sad lady.  To help settle his debts her father married her off at age fifteen.  It was a very unhappy marriage that she described as “legal prostitution.”    Elegiac Sonnets expresses her dejection.  The majority of sonnets have the same subject and structure: a description of nature followed by an expression of sadness.  “Look at the pretty flower.  Oh, oh, my existential angst.”  Over and over and over.  Poor Charlotte Turner Smith.  I feel bad for her, I really do.  (I also felt bad for myself having to read the same sonnet 85 times.)  Women’s lives were shitty in her day.  She spent part of her life in debtors’ prison with her husband, until she finally left him and started writing as a way of supporting herself and her children.  Along the way she made a little niche for herself in the history of English literature.  She was an important influence on the Romantic movement and she is credited with bringing the sonnet form back to prominence in England.

You might like this book if:

  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic Era in literature.
  • you like sonnets.
  • you like sad poems.

You might not like this book if:

  • you’re not into sonnets.
  • you’re not into sad poems.

Final thoughts: If you’re interested in this era of literature or in female authors, read a few of Charlotte Turner Smith’s poems.  I wouldn’t recommend reading this entire volume of poetry.