William Wordsworth once described early romantic poet, Charlotte Turner Smith as, “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered”. This is true, as despite Turner Smith’s popularity during the early romantic period, her trailblazing writing has largely been overlooked. However, her work inspired Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats, so why is her work lesser known?.
By Hannah Donlan: Literature Columnist
Charlotte Turner Smith’s first poetry collection, Elegiac Sonnets, was published in 1784. As this was the very beginning of the Romantic period, this makes her one of the earliest writers and founders of the movement.
Her poems centre around isolation, loneliness, motherhood and, true to the romantic style, nature, and are highly self-reflective about her difficult life. She began writing in order to provide for her twelve children who she was bringing up single-handedly after leaving her abusive husband and, despite reservations about publishing her work, it was very well received.
The unhappy life and dismal existence she bore is captured in her poem, Written in the Churchyard at Middleton is Sussex. The poem, focuses on the unpredictable storm and how it results in the church yard flooding. This flood awakens the bodies, and the bones end up, “With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore.” Despite this disruption, the souls of the dead remain at peace and undisturbed. The last lines of the poem are as follows:
While I am doomed, by life’s long storm oppressed, to gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.
While she endured a life of hardship and poverty, the dead rest easily and Smith is somewhat resentful of this. Her poetry is not divorced from her reality, but rather an exploration of her circumstances as within her work she explores the complex emotions resulting from the difficulties she faced. It was these hardships that allowed her to write such emotive work and strengthen her deeply personal and powerful writing.
Turner Smith was one of the first female authors to compete with male authors in terms of sales and literacy reputation; however, she was well aware of her place as a woman author in the eighteenth century. In her preface to the second volume of Elegiac poems in 1797, she understands that she may be condemned for “bringing forward ‘with querulous egotism’, the mention of myself.” This is perhaps why Charlotte Tuner Smith favoured the sonnet as this repetitive form lends her poetry a sense of control and structure, resulting in her work being taken more seriously. This preference re-popularised the sonnet and resulted in future romantic poets using this form.
Her work is largely overlooked in comparison to many of the great romantic poets, and yet her trailblazing, thought-provoking work laid important foundations for the romantic period and, therefore, she should remain at the forefront of our minds as a strong female voice in an era dominated by the male perspective.
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