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British Romantic melancholia: Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, medical discourse and the problem of sensibility.

In the context of increasing British discomfort with the cult of sensibility in the 1790s, medical writers redefined the profile of the melancholic as a highly rational, rather than emotional, literary man. Charlotte Smith's representation of melancholia in her Elegiac Sonnets returns to the mid-eighteenth-century understanding of the illness, which portrayed the melancholic as a person of both sensibility and rationality. In her attempt to claim melancholia and its association with literary genius, Smith profoundly influenced the content of what was to be called Romantic poetry.

Keywords: Charlotte Smith; medicine and literature; melancholia; Romanticism; sensibility


Werther's suicide resulting from unrequited love in the wildly popular 1779 English translation of Johann Wolfgang yon Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther; the death of Manfred, the tortured melancholic of Lord Byron's play; and the ultimately redeeming melancholia in William Wordsworth's The Prelude, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode', and John Keats's 'Ode on Melancholy'--the portrayal of melancholia in these and other literary works made the condition, as Guinn Batten points out, almost synonymous with British Romanticism (Batten, 1998: 10). (1) In this essay I hope to demonstrate the ways in which close attention to the poetry of Romantic-era writer Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), deepens and complicates our understanding of Romantic melancholy. In an insightful and comprehensive introduction to her recent anthology, The Nature of Melancholy, Jennifer Radden (2000) asserts: 'the man of melancholy in Romantic writing was, like the suffering Werther, all feeling, all sensibility' (30). While the equation of melancholia and sensibility would seem to hold for Werther and for a legion of Byronic heroes, for Romantic-era women writers the relationship between melancholia and sensibility had significant complications. In this essay I argue that together the politicization of sensibility and medical accounts of melancholia at the end of the eighteenth century posed sharply gendered challenges for women poets who wished to express melancholia.

During the time that Charlotte Smith wrote her Elegiac Sonnets (1784-97), medical writers struggled to redefine melancholia in response to British culture's increasing discomfort with emotional extremes. Early--and mid-eighteenth-century medical portraits of melancholics had emphasized both their refined sensibility and their extraordinary rational capability. By the 1780s and 1790s medical writers began to associate melancholia with excessive rationality, thus side-stepping any connection to the increasingly feminized and problematic cult of sensibility. Male poets of the period were able to move easily between the medical definition and the literary tradition of melancholia because both were symptomatic of rationality and intelligence for men; both led to literary authority. In contrast, women poets who invoked the literary tradition of melancholia ran the risk of being culturally disempowered by medical definitions of women's nervous illnesses or by an association with unfeminine reason.

In the light of melancholia's cultural complications for women, this essay, then, begs the question, 'Why would a female poet represent melancholia at all?' The very vagueness of melancholia, captured in William Buchan's 1798 description of it as 'Proteus-like ... continually changing shape' (Buchan, 1798: 420), made the illness a useful site for working out the gender, social, and political issues of each age. The male melancholic genius, sketched by Aristotle in his Problems and more fully described in Marcilio Ficino's On Life (1489), is a figure, Juliana Schiesari argues, useful for transforming loss into masculine cultural power (Schiesari, 1992: 29). As Robert Burton's excessive verbal performance in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) demonstrates, the cultural power associated with melancholia is specifically linked to command of language. Smith acknowledges this conception of male melancholic genius in Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804), one of six books she wrote for children. The teacher figure Mrs Talbot informs her son George that men of genius, especially poets, are prone to melancholia: 'It has been observed, George, that almost all men of genius have a disposition to indulge melancholy and gloomy ideas; and in reading our most celebrated poets, we have evidence that it is so' (Smith, 1804: 100). Smith understood that by portraying herself as melancholic she placed herself in the company of England's 'most celebrated poets'.

Yet Smith's gender presents a problem. It is significant, as Schiesari points out, that Burton and other male melancholics seeking to describe the condition grant that women may also suffer from the illness, but assert that women display none of the genius associated with it (Schiesari, 1992: 15). In fact, according to Burton, many female melancholics 'cannot tell how to express themselves in words, or how it holds them, what ails them, you cannot understand them, or well tell what to make of their sayings' (quoted in Schiesari, 1992: 15). It should come as no surprise, then, that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, melancholia became a battleground in the gendered war to control cultural capital. (2) Specifically, the incomprehensibility that Burton assigns to women's melancholia was refigured in the 1790s as 'hysteria', and melancholia became more firmly identified as the illness of literary men. In her poetry Smith returns to the mid-eighteenth-century definition of the illness, which portrayed the melancholic as a person of both rationality and sensibility. In so doing, Smith pioneered two techniques in the Elegiac Sonnets that became core characteristics of poetry in the emerging Romantic movement--the displacement of emotion on to nature, and the poetic tempering of emotion through rational thought.

The critical attention that Smith currently enjoys in Romantic studies is largely based on the recognition that she revived the popularity of what was to become one of Romanticism's favourite verse forms--the sonnet. Critics such as Stuart Curran, Florence Hilbish and Daniel Robinson have demonstrated that Smith's experimentation with the sonnet form launched the nineteenth-century sonnet revival. (3) Smith wrote mostly Shakespearean (but some Petrarchan) sonnets and, more importantly, successfully altered and mixed the two forms. In his introduction to a 1796 poetry collection that includes two of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, Coleridge notes: 'Charlotte Smith and [William Lisle] Bowles are they who first made the Sonnet popular among the present English: I am justified therefore ... in deducting its laws from their compositions' (Coleridge, 1912: 1139). As many critics, including Curran, have noted, in 1833, twenty-seven years after Smith's death, Wordsworth assesses her poetic influence, including her revival of the sonnet form. He remarks: 'English verse is under greater obligations [to Charlotte Smith] than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered' (Wordsworth, 1940: 402-3). Smith's poetry was both a critical and a popular success; the Elegiac Sonnets, first published in 1784, saw ten editions in her lifetime, and was republished in posthumous editions as late as 1851. Although many critics have characterized Smith's poetry as a major influence on the melancholic content and experimental form of Romantic poetry, no one has contextualized her literary innovations within medical understandings of melancholia. I argue that, in her negotiation of the gendered medical and cultural definitions of melancholia in her poetry, Smith invented a model for managing emotion that had an enormous influence on what we now call Romantic poetry.

The problem of sensibility

Central to this essay is the argument that British discomfort with sensibility in the 1780s and 1790s inspired a shift in medical definitions of the illness melancholia. To understand the effect that the 'problem' of sensibility had on Romantic-era medical and literary discourse about nervous illnesses, one must look back to early--and mid-eighteenth-century medical and literary profiles of melancholia, which did not yet exclude sensibility. In fact, prior to 1780, melancholia and sensibility had a close relationship, and the person of sensibility--that is, the person of great sensory perception and intuition--was thought to have an increased capacity for the Lockean brand of rational thought that leads to moral reflection. Sensibility was synonymous with great feeling, refinement and femininity, but was still assumed to coexist with rational thought in a single mind, especially in a melancholic one. Early--to mid-century poems such as James Thomson's The Seasons (1726-30), Edward Young's 'Night Thoughts' (1742), Thomas Wharton's 'The Pleasures of Melancholy' (1745), and Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' (1751) popularized the connection between melancholia, solitary pensiveness and sensibility. For example, in Autumn, from The Seasons, Thomson characterizes philosophic melancholy as literary inspiration:
   He comes! he comes! in every breeze the Power
   Of Philosophic Melancholy comes!
   His near approach the sudden-started tear,
   The glowing cheek, the mild dejected air,
   The softened feature, and the beating heart,
   Pierced deep with many a virtuous pang, declare.
   O'er all the soul his sacred influence breathes;
   Inflames imagination; through the breast
   Infuses every tenderness; and far
   Beyond the dim earth exalts the swelling thought (ll. 1004-13).

In Thomson's portrayal, philosophic melancholy not only affects the rational, creative mind, but also refines the poet's sensibility. Although Thomson's metonyms for the poet are gendered in correspondence to sensibility and rationality (the feminine "breast' and the masculine 'swelling' of thought), this melancholic poet contains them both. The passage continues to intermingle the two qualities:
   Ten thousand fleet ideas; such
   As never mingled with the vulgar dream,
   Crowd fast into the mind's creative eye.
   As fast the corresponding passions rise,
   As varied, and as high ... (ll. 1014-18).

Thomson demonstrates that philosophic melancholy inspires both rational thought, 'ten thousand fleet ideas' and also sensibility, or 'the corresponding passions'. In mid-eighteenth-century literature, these qualities were companion aspects of literary genius.

In the 1780s the cult of sensibility was politicized, becoming associated with reform and the French Revolution, a trend, as Janet Todd argues, that was largely due to reports from English radicals in France. Helen Maria Williams, for example, reported the downfall of the monarchy and the initial Jacobin triumph in terms of domestic sensibility (Todd, 1986: 131). The subsequent Jacobin terror, then, implicated sensibility as encouraging an obsession with self-indulgent feelings that overlooked true justice. The man of sensibility, immensely popular just decades before, for example in Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768) and Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling (1771), became an effete embarrassment and the fear surfaced that over-refined sensibility would emasculate men and corrupt women (Todd, 1986: 131; see also Newman, 1997). Thus the post-French Revolution 'problem' of where to locate emotion emerged. The terms under which the general cultural acceptance of sensibility disintegrated were both political and gendered. Chris Jones argues that 'criticism of [sensibility in] the 1790s was not predominantly aesthetic, but political, social, and moral' (Jones, 1993: 4). In a complementary interpretation of this 'crisis over sensibility', G. J. Barker-Benfield suggests that debates about sensibility turned around disagreements about the 'natural' order of the sexes (Barker-Benfield, 1992: 360). I argue that in an attempt to save the long-standing profile of the English melancholic genius, the culture characterized sensibility and rational thought, once seen as partners in creating human knowledge, as gendered and oppositional. As I will demonstrate, medical discourse played a critical role in this realignment of sensibility and rationality.

In mid-eighteenth-century medical texts, as in literary texts of the period, melancholia was portrayed as resulting from the coexistence of great rational intelligence and refined sensibility. The physician George Cheyne, who claimed nervous illness as distinctly English in his influential treatise The English Malady (1733), describes nervous illnesses as affecting those who 'are quick, prompt, and passionate; are all of weak Nerves; have a great deal of Sensibility; are quick Thinkers, feel Pleasure and Pain the most readily, and are of most lively Imagination' (1733: 105). Cheyne does not regard sensibility and rational thought as oppositional; indeed, the English Malady most afflicts people who are 'quick Thinkers' and 'have a great deal of Sensibility'. Two years later, the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave describes the causes of melancholia as, among other things, 'A violent Exercise of the Mind; the dwelling Night and Day mostly upon one and the same Object; a constant Wakefulness; great Motions of the Mind, whether of Joy or Sorrow; great and laborious Motions of the Body much repeated' (Boerhaave, 2000: 176). Boerhaave's description of causes includes an obsessive studiousness, but also a strong response to emotions such as joy or sorrow. In addition, both physicians see the body--its weak nerves or its overexertion--as contributing to the melancholic state.

A crucial shift in these definitions occurred in the late eighteenth century, when medical literature began to exhibit a more pronounced focus on the melancholic's rational capabilities. This shift excluded sensibility from the realm of melancholic genius and placed it in an oppositional and feminine category. Women's perception, in turn, became associated with sensibility and was pathologized in terms of the emerging nervous illness, hysteria. (4) Indeed, the categories 'hypochondria' and 'hysteria', which Cheyne used in 1833 to describe an advanced melancholia characterized by 'fits' or near seizures, became important tools in making this gendered distinction in the 1790s.

William Buchan, the author of Domestic Medicine (16th edn 1798), the most widely used eighteenth--and nineteenth-century home health guide, associates melancholia and hypochondria with men and masculine activities, and hysteria with women and feminine activities. Though Buchan describes hypochondria as less 'violent' (acute) and more 'permanent' (chronic) than melancholia, this distinction is not nearly as significant as are the characteristics these two masculine disorders share. According to Buchan, melancholia is caused by 'intense application to study', or 'intense thinking' (1798: 420, 427), and hypochondria is induced by 'long and serious attention to abstruse subjects' (453). Buchan identifies the population most likely to suffer from hypochondria as '[mien of a melancholy temperament, whose minds are capable of great attentions, and whose passions are not easily moved' (453). Buchan registers the belief that men suffer from melancholia and hypochondria, then, both because their rational intellect and ability to concentrate predispose them to the illness, and also because they choose to devote themselves to a level of study characterized by abstract reflection and solitude. Both the perceived origin of the illness and its manifestation naturalize rationality as a male characteristic.

Just as they attribute male nervous illnesses to intelligence, medical writers attribute the female nervous illness, hysteria, to an essentialized body--women's 'nature', sexual characteristics, reproductive processes, or inactive lifestyle; to anything, that is, except the rational mind. Buchan ascribes the onset of hysteria to physical irritation and emotional excess:
   Women of a delicate habit, whose stomach and intestines are
   relaxed, and whose nervous system is extremely sensible,
   are most subject to hysteric complaints. In such persons a
   hysteric fit as it is called may be brought on by an irritation
   of the nerves of the stomach or intestines, by wind, by acrid
   humour, or the like. A sudden suppression of the menses often
   gives rise to hysteric fits. They may likewise be excited by
   violent passions or affections of the mind, as fear, grief,
   anger, or great disappointments (1798: 447).

In this model of nervous disorders, too much thinking pushes a highly rational man into melancholia/hypochondria, while too much emotion pushes a woman of refined sensibility into hysteria. (5)

By pathologizing sensibility, medical writers attempted to rescue the image of the melancholic genius for British culture. The physician Thomas Trotter's work A View of the Nervous Temperament (1812), notable for its emphasis on the social circumstances of the patient, specifically identifies 'Literary Men' as the primary group affected by melancholia. Trotter's account of the behaviour of literary men is extensive:
   The philosopher and man of letters, who devote most of their
   [sic] time to study, must lead a sedentary life ... The mind
   itself, by pursuing one train of thought, and poring too long
   over the same subject, becomes torpid to external agents: and
   an undue mental exertion seems to subtract from the body much
   of that stimulation which ... belongs to emotion and passion
   ... Hence the numerous instances of dyspepsia, hypochondriasis
   and melancholia, in the literary character (Trotter, 1812: 36-8).

Like Buchan, Trotter suggests that melancholic literary men think rationally to the exclusion of emotion and passion. The late-eighteenth-century opposition between rationality and sensibility portrayed by Buchan and Trotter differs greatly from the early--and mid-century understanding that melancholia affected men of both rationality and sensibility. These medical definitions were embraced by a culture eager to marginalize the type of dangerous passion that was thought to have led to the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

Melancholy in fourteen lines: Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets

Smith's negotiation of the cultural constructions of gender, melancholia and literary genius becomes vividly apparent in the tension between her publicly expressed troubles and her creation of a melancholic mood in her poetry. While an association with literary melancholia might have bolstered Smith's stature as a poet, she also actually suffered from what she terms 'extreme depression of spirit' (preface to volume II of the Elegiac Sonnets--Smith, 1993: 7). In her letters and in the prefaces to her novels and poetry, Smith describes the coalescence of financial difficulty and maternal grief that caused her melancholia. (6) Having grown up in a genteel family, she experienced a radical change in socio-economic position when she was forced at the age of fifteen to marry Benjamin Smith. During the twenty-three years they lived together, Benjamin Smith squandered his wife's money and failed to support his twelve children financially. (7) Twenty years into the marriage, Smith began her writing career, composing the Elegiac Sonnets while she stayed with her husband in a debtors' prison. In spite of severe bouts of melancholia and disabling chronic rheumatism, Smith continued to write at a furious pace, and with good reason. When the Smiths separated in 1787, she became the sole provider for eight children between the ages of two and seventeen (Turner, 1966: 36). (8) Although her father-in-law bequeathed a trust fund to his grandchildren, Smith never received the money for them and spent her life in a relentless battle with the trust fund's custodians. In addition, seven of Smith's twelve children died in her lifetime. The most devastating loss seems to have been her daughter Anna Augusta in 1795. Five years after this daughter's death, Smith expresses her awareness of the toll the grief had taken on her physical and mental health: 'the regret and anguish I have now felt five years for the loss of my loveliest and most deserving child, is slowly undermining not only my frame but the few powers of mind I possess'd' (letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, 18 May 1800 in Smith, 2003: 339).

With a few important exceptions, Smith confines her description of these troubles to the prefaces of the ten editions of the Elegiac Sonnets (and to the prefaces of her novels), allowing the sonnets themselves to express a more generalized melancholic mood. For the most part, this compartmentalization seems to have been effective. In her lifetime Smith was widely praised for her portrayal of subjective poetic melancholy. Her sonnets led the way in shifting the focus of British contemplative melancholic poetry from a preoccupation with the general transitory nature of life to an interest in the speaker's own state of mind. The majority of Smith's reviewers embrace her depiction of the melancholic mind, praising, as The Monthly Review does, 'the elegant writer's gloomy cast of thought'. Even the prickly Reverend Richard Polwhele expresses high regard for Smith's depiction of melancholic feelings: 'The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith, have a pensiveness peculiarly their own. It is not ... the gloomy melancholy of Gray ... It is a strain of wild, yet softened sorrow, that breathes a romantic air' (Monthly Review 1797: 18). Coleridge hails Smith's representation of depressive moods in her sonnets as a major literary innovation. Based on Smith's poetry, Coleridge asserts, 'In a Sonnet then we require a developement of some lonely feeling, by whatever cause it may have been excited; but those Sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with, the scenery of Nature' (Coleridge, 1912: 1139). Coleridge praises Smith's portrayal of nature's capacity to educate the emotions.

However, in his celebration of the melancholic sonnet developed by Smith, Coleridge quickly tosses out of consideration 'whatever cause [by which the lonely feeling] may have been excited'. The critical success of the Elegiac Sonnets, then, rested in part on Smith's recasting and depersonalizing the individual experience of melancholia into the interaction of the melancholic mind with Nature. Yet the multiple prefaces detailing her troubles, which Sarah Zimmerman terms 'an on-going plot', 'a serialized autobiographical narrative', were published alongside these melancholic sonnets (Zimmerman, 1991: 60). In the 1792 preface, Smith asks, 'can the effect [of melancholia] cease, while the cause remains?' (Smith, 1993: 5; author's emphasis). In 1797 she tells her readers: 'The injuries I have so long suffered under are not mitigated; the aggressors are not removed; but however soon they may be disarmed of their power ... they can neither give back to the maimed the possession of health, or restore the dead' (9). Each volume of the Elegiac Sonnets offered readers what Daniel E. White has described as a 'dual structure': both the 'real' autobiographical story of Smith's melancholia in the prefaces and the generalized, ideal representation of these feelings in the sonnets (White, 1998: 65). By restricting the details of her individual troubles to the prose, and expressing a more generalized melancholic mood in the poetry, Smith simultaneously exhibits her enormous poetic facility and claims the feelings she expresses as authentic.

In several instances, however, this boundary between autobiography and poetry does not hold. (9) Curran points out: 'the six sonnets impelled by the death of her favorite daughter ... represent a grief untransmuted from its actual sources in her experience' (Curran, 1994: 72-3). Although they are only six out of ninety-two, the sonnets that invoke her daughter's death with quiet references to 'the form / I loved', or 'that form adored' remind readers that Smith's melancholia in all the sonnets is based in authentic feeling (Smith, 1993: Sonnet 89, 11. 11-12; Sonnet 91, 1.9). The dedicatory footnote to Sonnet 65 'To Dr Parry of Bath', however, is not just a muted reminder of the autobiographical causes of melancholia, but actually threatens to encroach upon the general melancholic mood: "To the excellent friend and Physician to whom these lines are addressed, I was obliged for the kindest attention, and for the recovery from one dangerous illness of that beloved child whom a few months afterward his skill and most unremitted and disinterested exertions could not save!' (57n). This eruption of autobiographical detail into poetic mood is an exception that serves to highlight Smith's ability to hold these experiences at bay in the rest of the sonnets. The struggle between experience and art that this 'dual structure' re-enacts demonstrates to readers that Smith's literary facility is not founded upon facile emotion. In her 1797 preface, Smith distances herself from artificial, or 'feigned' sensibility: 'I am unhappily exempt from the suspicion of feigning sorrow for an opportunity of shewing the pathos with which it can be described' (11). Smith insists on a melancholia that has its roots in the deep feeling and reflection derived from lived experience, not in false sensibility and obsessive rationality. Smith displays her capacity for deep feeling with appropriately feminine maternal grief, yet, as I argue below, she is also careful to balance this deep feeling with evidence of her rational ability. She rejects the eighteenth-century medical definition of melancholia, embracing instead the mid-century understanding of the illness. Specifically, Smith emphasizes her capacity for rational thought in the midst of this grief by referring to her insomnia, by ventriloquizing male poets, and by modifying Goethe's version of Romantic melancholy. One would assume that sonnets entitled 'elegiac' would depict feelings of profound loss that modulate into acceptance, yet Smith's grief for Anna Augusta, expressed in Sonnets 65, 74, 78, 89, 90 and 91, is insistently unmitigated; there is no moral lesson to be derived from, no peace to be made with, the loss of her favourite child. Judith Hawley points out that Smith 'violates the genre of the elegy with her refusal to accept an aesthetic consolation' (Hawley, 1999: 188). Similarly, Kathryn Pratt notes that Smith's speaker 'emerges from her poetic visions to find her suffering unalleviated' (Pratt, 2001: 563). To protect herself from the potentially negative effects of representing this relentless grief, Smith complains of insomnia in her poetry, one of the major symptoms of melancholia. In Sonnet 74 'The winter night', the speaker cannot sleep because she is grieving for her daughter:
   'Sleep, that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care',
   Forsakes me, while the chill and sullen blast,
   As my sad soul recalls its sorrows past,
   Seems like a summons, bidding me prepare
   For the last sleep of death ... (ll. 1-5).

Smith does not fear 'the last sleep of death', but rather welcomes it, just as she would welcome ordinary sleep on this cold night:
   But wherefore fear existence such as mine,
   To change for long and undisturb'd repose?
   Ah! when this suffering being I resign,
   And o'er my miseries the tomb shall close,
   By her, whose loss in anguish I deplore,
   I shall be laid, and feel that loss no more! (ll. 9-14).

The 'sleep of death' would grant Smith 'undisturb'd repose', or relief from the mental disturbance of melancholic pain. Death would reunite her with her lost daughter in the grave, allowing her to 'feel that loss no more' and indeed to be free of all feeling. Smith uses insomnia to represent judiciously her desire for death. By blurring the distinction between a desire for sleep and a desire for death, Smith makes it clear that she does not intend to take her own life, though she wishes for oblivion from pain. This connection between sleep and death builds tension between, on the one hand, the rational mind that cannot stop thinking in order to escape into sleep, and, on the other hand, deeply felt, nearly suicidal emotions. In this sonnet, and in several others, Smith highlights the melancholic poet's intense desire for companionship and impressive, though painful, mental activity. The speaker's wakeful body offers physical proof of a melancholic mind that will not turn itself off: that is, physical proof of unusual rationality.

Smith further tempers the expression of her grief by quoting well-respected male authors, in effect ventriloquizing, or projecting her own potentially unacceptable thoughts and feelings through the bodies of their texts. (10) In Sonnet 90 'To Oblivion', another poem that mourns her daughter, Smith slightly alters the words of three male authors to express overwhelming despair and a desire for death. Smith is careful to place quotation marks around these lines:
   I only ask exemption from the pain
   Of knowing "such things were"--and are no more;
   Of dwelling on the hours for ever fled,
   And heartless, helpless, hopeless to deplore
   "Pale misery living, joy and pleasure dead:'
   While dragging thus unwish'd a length of days,
   "Death seems prepared to strike, yet still delays"
   (11.8-14; emphasis added).

In the footnotes, Smith identifies the authors of the second two quotations--respectively, Sir Brook Boothby, author of the sonnet sequence Sorrows. Sacred to the Memory of Penelope (1796), and Thomas Warton, author of 'The Pleasures of Melancholy'--and draws attention to the fact that she quotes them by providing the original lines for readers. (11) Although the first quotation, the phrase 'such things were', refers to the death of her daughter Anna Augusta, Smith relies on Shakespeare's words from Macbeth (Curran, 1994: 77n) to translate the specific cause of grief into a more general expression of mood. Smith's quotation of other poets demonstrates to her readers that in these moments of intense emotion the poet's rational mind is fully engaged.

Smith's ventriloquizing technique, then, emphasizes her reflective capabilities and sympathetic sensibility in the same moment. Adela Pinch argues in her study of epistemologies of emotion, Strange Fits of Passion, that when Smith quotes another poet she 'is in the odd position of sympathizing with her own feelings, of being feeling's object and subject' (Pinch, 1996: 63). Whereas Pinch characterizes this moment of being both subject and object as an expression of emotion, I would call it reflection. I argue that Smith's carefully footnoted replication of these words calls attention to passages by other writers not only to display Smith in the act of sympathizing, as Pinch suggests, but also to call attention to Smith's having read and internalized these texts. In effect, Smith's ventriloquizing technique in the Elegiac Sonnets constructs an elite community of despairing, yet venerable authors. Writers whose words Smith relies upon to express grief, despair and the desire for death include Goethe and Pope (quoted five times each for these purposes in the Elegiac Sonnets), Milton and Shakespeare (quoted four times each), Gray and Rousseau (twice each), and Young, Petrarch, William Collins, and Horace Walpole (once each). As Curran notes, 'thirty-six of the sonnets, over a third, assume a speaking voice different from Smith's own' (Curran, 1994: 72). Smith's ventriloquizing serves to represent hers as an educated melancholic mind in the act of intellectual reflection. In effect, Smith projects her voice--that is, her desires and thoughts that are in danger of being tagged as hysterical--through the textual bodies of respected male poets in order to make those thoughts more acceptable.

In her five sonnets devoted to the suicide of the melancholic hero of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Smith varies her ventriloquizing technique, in this case taking on Werther's voice in order to recreate the man of sensibility's experience with terminal love melancholia. The five sonnets depict Werther's unrequited love for Charlotte, his lovesick wandering in the woods, his desire for death, his selection of his own gravesite, his imaginary portrait of Charlotte weeping over his grave, and his thoughts moments before he kills himself. Smith inhabits Werther's excessive emotions at the moment of sensibility's greatest power in the culture, and then offers a corrective. Cross-dressing in the clothes of the man of sensibility, Smith re-appropriates emotion for women. If, as Schiesari argues, 'the male appropriation of a "feminine" position under the guise of "sensitivity" or "nostalgia" or "loss" can be oppressive to women', Smith challenges this appropriation, reclaiming what has been taken (Schiesari, 1992: 32). It is crucial that what Smith does with this chance to re-appropriate emotion is to transform Goethe's prose into poetry. In the higher-status genre of poetry, Smith modifies Goethe's version of melancholia, to offer her readers a glimpse of the balancing reason that might have saved Werther.

Although it would seem that Smith indulges in a dangerous association with sensibility in these sonnets, her representation of Werther's thought process argues for the critical role of reason, even melancholic reason, in preventing suicide. The first in the series, Sonnet 21, 'Supposed to be written by Werther', distinguishes between contemplative melancholia and love melancholia, associating the latter with madness. With the phrase 'Like the poor maniac' (1. 5), Smith refers to an episode in The Sorrows of Young Werther in which the hero observes a lunatic. Smith's footnote provides us with the passage from Goethe: '"Is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he possesses his reason, or after he has lost it?"' Smith quotes Goethe to suggest that rational thinking is an essential part of the unhappy, yet intellectually productive and self-aware, state of melancholia. Smith's Werther, though, notes that he is enslaved by Passion and is unwilling to listen to reason: 'I hurry forward, Passion's helpless slave! / And scorning Reason's mild and sober light, / Pursue the path that leads me to the grave!' (ll. 10-12). Reasonable reflection, the melancholic quality Smith holds so dear, has the power to keep Werther from suicide. In Sonnet 23, 'By the same. To the North Star', Smith repeats this point. Full of despair and pining for Charlotte, Smith's Werther cries 'So o'er my soul short rays of reason fly, / Then fade:--and leave me to despair, and die!' (ll. 13-14). Reason stands between Werther's desire for death and his actual suicide. When sensibility takes away that reason, death ensues. Even, or perhaps especially, at the extreme end of melancholia, Smith insists on the protective value of rational thought.

Smith's argument that one must temper sensibility with rational Reflection--implicit in the insomnia theme and in her ventriloquizing technique, and explicit in the Werther sonnets--informs Wordsworth's struggle to integrate emotion into poetry judiciously. Think, for example, of Wordsworth's famous assertion in the 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads" that poetry 'takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity' (Wordsworth, 1992: 756). Poems of value, Wordsworth asserts, are produced by a 'man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply' (744-5). Whereas Smith portrays the necessity of balancing passion and reflection, Wordsworth's 'Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement' (753). Wordsworth agrees with Smith that poetry should emerge from a thoughtful emotion, a feeling mind, yet he attempts to naturalize this tendency in the true poet, who, he implies, is male. This true poet has 'an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events' (751). Having passed through the poet's mind, passion, according to Wordsworth, becomes even more authentic than when originally felt. By inserting this step of contemplation into a poet's reaction to passion, Wordsworth saves the poet from the fate of the effeminate man of sensibility.

Smith's profound influence on this era's poetry, illustrated in this example, suggests that at this moment in the history of nervous illness much was possible for women writers. As medical writers struggled to accommodate the problem of sensibility, hysteria was not yet as firmly entrenched as the default diagnosis for women as it would become in the Victorian period. There was, then, an opportunity to claim eloquence rather than incomprehensibility in one's grief-inspired language production. In addition, Smith wrote while melancholia was an indicator of genius and cultural power, before depression became profoundly feminized and thus devalued. While Smith's critical and popular success in this moment seems to reflect these opportunities, her disappearance from the literary canon tells a different story. In spite of Smith's careful attempts to manoeuvre around the negative association between sensibility and hysteria, several of Smith's reviewers categorize her poetic voice as a mourning or hysteric one. The Critical Review praises the second volume of the Elegiac Sonnets for being more cheerful than Smith's previous poetry, but in doing so, the reviewer characterizes the preceding editions as 'whining production[s]':
   Poor Charlotte! still weeping and wailing, and gnashing thy
   poetical teeth! ... Believe us old critics ... even for us
   thou hast wailed too much ... In sooth, we have had so much
   lamentation, that we are tempted to cry out ... 'Oh! 'tis so
   moving, we can read no more' (Critical Review 1797: 149).

By characterizing Smith's melancholic poetry as a hysterical, nonverbal 'lamentation', and offering readers an image of Smith 'weeping and wailing, and gnashing [her[ poetical teeth', the reviewer undercuts Smith's command of language and denies her access to the symbolic realm. The reviewer's description of Smith's melancholia alludes to the biblical sufferings of the damned, a portrait of the writer that contrasts sharply with the image of the melancholic artist as a divinely gifted translator between the gods and humans. Even when she relies on male melancholic conventions to represent her condition, some reviewers read her expression of melancholia as a symptom of hysteria rather than of productive genius.

Because she was a woman poet who chose to present herself as melancholic, Smith had to negotiate the gendered medical and cultural definitions of melancholia. Smith's efforts in her poetry to balance emotion and intellect, to temper the excess of sensibility inherent in Wertherism and the obsessive rationality celebrated in 1790s medical texts led her to paint a new portrait of melancholic genius for the culture. If, as Schiesari claims, 'the historical boundaries of a great age of melancholia ... are coterminous with the historic rise and demise of "the subject" as the organizing principle of knowledge and power' (1992: 2), then what is at stake in Smith's representation of melancholia is the claim for subjecthood. Because the melancholic's command of language is at the core of this claim for subjecthood, it is no wonder the category is fraught with gender complications. Smith's strategies for negotiating the problem of sensibility at the end of the eighteenth century demonstrate the richness and complexity of Romantic melancholy. At this moment in history the category was a flexible, powerful, yet potentially volatile tool with which to establish one's literary legitimacy.


I am grateful to Jeanne Moskal for her responses to early versions of this material, to Jan Fergus for generously loaning books from her collection, and to Monica Najar for her insightful reading of final drafts of the essay.


(1.) Batten observes that the terms have been so closely associated, in fact, that only one book-length study of the topic--Sickles (1932)--preceded Batten's analysis of Romantic melancholy and commodity culture in the works of male Romantic poets.

(2.) For an account of gendered competition in the literary marketplace, see Ross (1989).

(3.) Curran, introduction to Smith (1993: xix-xxix), and Curran (1994); Hilbish (1941); Robinson (1995).

(4.) Helpful studies of literature and hysteria include Ender (1995), Logan (1997) and Showalter (1997).

(5.) The physician Robert Whytt's medical treatise (1797), to which most other writers dealing with nervous illness refer, offers a nearly identical account of the gendered nature of these illnesses.

(6.) In addition to Smith's letters and prefaces, consult Fletcher (2001) for biographical information.

(7.) For a full description of this marriage, see Stanton (2000).

(8.) For a detailed account of Smith's financial situation, including both expenses and income, see Stanton (1987).

(9.) Labbe (1994) argues that Smith told her sad story in the prefaces in order to elicit readers' sympathy and thus sell her poetry. Zimmerman (1991: 65) argues that Smith blurs the line between autobiography and fiction to keep her readers interested in her literary productions.

(10.) Almost every scholar studying these sonnets comments on Smith's ventriloquizing, most notably Kathryn Pratt and Judith Hawley. My use of the term 'ventriloquize', first suggested by Jeanne Moskal, revises E. E. Bostetter's argument that the Romantic poets saw themselves as the mouthpieces through which truth spoke; or as Coleridge said, 'I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist' (quoted in Bostetter, 1963: 4).

(11.) Smith's footnotes with Curran's editorial comments in square brackets are as follows: 'See misery living, hope and pleasure dead.' Sir Brook Boothby [Sonnet 13, line 6 from Sorrows. Sacred to the Memory of Penelope (London: Cadell and Davies, 1796), 19]. 'Death seems prepared, yet still delays to strike." Thomas Warton ['Ode I. To Sleep,' line 16: 'Death stands prepar'd, but still delays, to strike'].


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Elizabeth A. Dolan is an Assistant Professor at Lehigh University. Address: English Department, Lehigh University, 35 Sayre Drive, Bethlehem, PA 18015-3076, USA [email:]
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Author:Dolan, Elizabeth A.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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