Unsexing Petrarch: Charlotte Smith's lessons in the sonnet as a social medium.
The intensity of Smith's early homage to Petrarch becomes diluted as Elegiac Sonnets expands through seven more editions and a second volume before her death in 1806. Readers who encounter her work in later and larger collections, including those produced in the recovery of her work since the 1990s, see Petrarch as one of several male voices she assumes or echoes. Critics who recognize a feminist strain in Smith sometimes underestimate or overlook her collusion with Petrarch, who is often read as a misogynist for objectifying Laura and denying her autonomy. (4) Daniel Robinson, for example, has acknowledged that Smith's "extensive poetic conversation" with Petrarch dominates these original editions, but he and others, including Kathryn Pratt, Karen Weisman, Theresa Kelley, and Edoardo Zuccato, read Smith as resisting or challenging the Petrarchan tradition by granting more voice or agency to Laura. (5) Smith may well have had reason to identify with Laura: Susannah Dobson's popular Life of Petrarch, published in 1775, presented Laura as the mother of many children who was trapped in an unhappy marriage. (6) The same profile fit Smith when she first began to publish after an early, arranged marriage, the birth of eleven children in eighteen years, and time spent in debtors' prison with her problematic husband. (7) However, Smith had stronger motivation to identify with Petrarch's speaker, who paradoxically proclaimed his agency impaired by Laura's repeated refusals to acknowledge him with love or pity. Smith's agency was restricted by the social and legal structures of her place and time that left her "[s] tripped by marriage of a separate identity and autonomous property." (8) In the 1784 editions of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith modeled her speaker after Petrarch's to elicit from readers an intellectual and emotional reciprocity missing from her immediate circumstances.
In Smith's lifetime, Petrarch and Laura had returned to British culture on a wave of French texts, creating multiple opportunities for encountering the pair as reconstructed "heroes of sensibility." (9) Rousseau's popular novel, Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, published in 1761 and quickly translated into English, put Petrarch on a short list of authors approved for Julie's reading by Saint-Preux, her tutor and lover, and Petrarch's poetry is cited throughout in letters that tell their story. (10) Susannah Dobson's two-volume Life of Petrarch, a selectively edited and editorializing translation of the Abbe de Sade's French Memoires pour la vie de Petrarque (1764 and 1767), provided a view of Petrarch's personality and poetry, blurring the distinction between the writer and the work by quoting lines from the sonnets as if they were spoken dialogue. Dobson's work, which circulated Sade's claim for the historical existence of Laura, was reprinted in at least six illustrated editions over the next thirty years. Petrarch also gained an honorary place in the English poetic canon that began to emerge in the late eighteenth century, as readers noted his imprint on Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Gray. With her first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays, Smith placed herself in this elite group by condensing and updating the Rime sparse for British readers in the late eighteenth century and adapting it in a new voice. From her reading of Petrarch, Smith learned and taught other poets how to use the sonnet as a social medium by constructing a self-reflexive dialogue in a conventional form with the hope that readers might be moved to respond; we might think of her impulse as similar to those driving many of today's Facebook postings or Tweets. Smith's lessons included the colloquy of a collection, the art of the remix, the staging of a self, and the hope for virtual immortality among an affective community of readers and writers past, present, and future.
The Colloquy of a Collection
Reading Petrarch's Rime sparse showed Smith how a lyric sequence created opportunities for dialogue among its autonomous constituent parts through repetitions and echoes. Known for revising and reorganizing the Rime sparse many times over several decades, Petrarch bequeathed a "flexible structural model" in which a group of relatively short poems could be sequenced, expanded, cut, and rearranged to create different effects at different points in time. (11) Smith paid similar attention to her collection, and although it was much smaller than Petrarch's--nineteen poems in Smith's first editions compared to 366 in Petrarch's final collection--its integrity was important to her. As she prepared her second volume of Elegiac Sonnets for the press in 1797, she expressly asked her publisher not to allow the poems to be printed separately in newspapers or anthologies, because that practice had done "an infinite deal of harm to the first Vol as to its sale--." (12) Smith's desire for her readers to see her collection in its entirety suggests that the whole for her was worth more than the sum of its parts; she arranged and rearranged the poems deliberately to create and to change the colloquy among them.
In the first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith separates two groups of sonnets with an interlude of three longer-form poems that position her persona as a skillful translator, imitator, and flatterer as they point toward the three sonnets "From Petrarch" in the latter sonnet group. In mixing poetic genres and nesting sub-sequences within a larger sequence, Smith follows Petrarch's practice in the Rime sparse. Her interlude of three longer poems--including the original French three-stanza "Chanson par le Cardinal Bernis," followed by Smith's "Imitation" of the same and her 113-line verse narrative on "The Origin of Flattery"--become the largest link within and between the sonnet "chain" Smith forges in these first editions through the concatenation of words, phrases, and motifs. (13) Recurring references to roses, garlands, nightingales, thorns, sleep, and oblivion link the poems to each other and to the images popularized in the tradition of Petrarchan poetry. The first two longer poems present three eight-line stanzas of apostrophe to a rose sent from a lover to his lady, "Themira," as a "carpe diem" plea to reciprocate his love and desire before she loses her proverbial bloom. The poem does not wait for the beloved's reply, but Smith's reference to the "cruel maid" in line 21 suggests Themira's reciprocity may prove difficult to obtain. With this poem, Smith first dons the cover of a Catholic churchman to show her skill at translating a vernacular poetry of one-sided love.
The third long poem in the interlude, "The Origin of Flattery," salutes its eponymous subject as the "balm of female life" (81) invented by Venus to compensate for the corruption of innocent pastoral love caused by the opening of Pandora's box. The familiar link between imitation and flattery had emerged in an earlier eighteenth-century claim that "Imitation is a kind of artless flattery, and mightily favours the powerful principle of self-love," contextualized in a story of women who flatter men by imitating their gestures and appealing to their narcissism. (14) This connection between imitation and flattery parallels Smith's strategy with regard to Petrarch. Although the poem begins by mocking women's susceptibility to flattery, it ends with the assertion that poets are eternally vulnerable to flattery's charms, even after their death. Apostrophizing flattery, the narrative concludes:
Nor thy soft influence will the train refuse, Who court in distant shades the modest Muse, Tho' in a form, more pure and more refined, Thy dulcet spirit for the letter'd mind. Nor death itself thy empire can destroy; Towards thee, even then, we turn the languid eye; Still trust in thee to bid our memory bloom, And scatter roses round the silent tomb. (106-13)
Those who "court ... the ... Muse" (107) are by heteronormative implication male, but the speaker includes herself in the subsequent "we" who "turn the languid eye" (in) toward flattery even after death. The rhyme of "bloom" and "tomb" suggests the poet's hope for immortality in readers' memories and later poets' imitation and makes Smith's sonnets into flattering roses she scatters in memory of and tribute to the form's legendary master: Petrarch. The roses here refer back through the rose for Themira to those in "fantastic garlands" (4) woven by the "partial Muse" (1) for the speaker's head in Sonnet 1, which introduces the sequence. They refer also to the poems in her volume, which she hopes to weave into her own crown of poetic achievement.
Following the interlude of longer poems, Smith juxtaposes three sonnets "From Petrarch," with three sonnets "Supposed to have been written by Werter," but she reverses the order of these sub-sequences between the first and second editions in a manner that reflects her growing confidence as a Petrarchan sonneteer. In the first edition, the Werter sonnets immediately follow "The Origin of Flattery" and align Smith with another flatterer of Petrarch, Goethe, whose popular German novel had appeared in English in 1779, mediated through a French translation, as The Sorrows of Werter. Goethe's epistolary novel recreates the problem of the unrequited lover from Petrarch's Rime sparse, but its protagonist responds to his plight by shooting himself rather than by composing sad love poetry. In Smith's original sequence, the sonnets "From Petrarch" follow the Werter sonnets to make living and writing a corrective alternative to suicide as an escape route from the "world of woe" that pervades all the sonnets in the volume. The first edition closes with two unattributed and unnumbered "Sonnets," one subtitled "To Spring" and the other beginning "Blest is yon shepherd. " Whereas Smith originally concludes her collection with an image of a shepherd whose blissful ignorance contrasts with the painful poetic knowledge Smith's speaker claims in the introductory Sonnet 1, the second edition reverses the order of the Werter and Petrarch poems, closing the volume with the Werter poems and circling farther back to the author's name on the title page. (15)
The revised Petrarch-Werter sequence of the poems in Smith's second edition of Elegiac Sonnets not only puts Petrarch closer to the poet's tomb at the end of "The Origin of Flattery" and places him in his proper chronological relationship to Werter, but it also allows Smith to finish with a self-reflexive flourish. As her still-living Werter borrows Petrarch's tactic of imagining himself dead and belatedly appreciated by his beloved, who shares Smith's name, his final sonnet concludes:
The tear shall tremble in my Charlotte's eyes; Dear precious drops! they shall embalm the dead. Yes! Charlotte o'er the mournful spot shall weep, Where her poor Werter and his sorrows sleep. (11-14)
In this final Werter sonnet "Charlotte" usurps the place of Petrarch, who last appeared three pages earlier weeping over the pale ashes of the late Laura in the third sonnet "From Petrarch." Thus Smith's second edition ends by enlarging its circular chain to include the "Charlotte Smith" on its title page as well as the compellingly forlorn identity constructed and attached to that name by the poems within it. Smith's play with these sequences suggests her pleasure at the response to her first edition: as noted in a biographical sketch of Smith pubhshed in 1801, "The immediate success of the thin quarto volume more than justified its author's confidence [in publishing at her own expense]; a second edition was soon called for." (16) In both marking and blurring the line between poet and constructed persona, Smith invites comparison of herself to Petrarch, an invitation distilled to its essence in her original three sonnets "From Petrarch."
The Art of the Remix
In her first editions of Elegiac Sonnets, Charlotte Smith "remixes" Petrarch "to create a new version by rebalancing or recombining ... to reinterpret or rework ... often in a radical way." (17) Just as Petrarch in the Rime sparse selectively borrows from and adapts the classical texts he was reading--most notably Ovid's Metamorphoses--to create something new from something ancient, so too does Smith in her first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets transform Petrarch into something historical yet modern: a sad sonnet speaker freed from gender constraints.
In both editions, Smith positions the three sonnets "From Petrarch" as the penultimate sub-sequence, marking the volume's climax and reminding readers explicitly of her original and familiar source. At the same time, Smith's three sonnets perform a workshop in the type of affective experience her poetry invites her readers to share. She could have expected her readers to know that Petrarch wrote in Italian, but her title for these sonnets implies "translation" in its etymological sense of moving meaning. Petrarch's poems function in her volume like the relics of a medieval saint, and effect their author's blessing by making Smith's poems seem as if they emanate directly from their original source. The title implies the logical chain "From Petrarch" to me (Smith) to you (reader), but it elides the link "to me" as Smith's persona "melts" into Petrarch's "eye" and "I." "Melt" becomes one of Smith's keywords in the first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, beginning with the introductory Sonnet i, which describes how her speaker's partial Muse still "bids soft Pity's melting eye / Stream o'er the ills she knows not to remove" (9-10). In the diction of Smith's day, "melt" was linked to three Petrarchan hallmarks: pity, poetry, and love. Her dedicatee and eventual patron William Hayley described in An Essay on Epic Poetry, published two years before Elegiac Sonnets, how a poet's lyre might "To Petrarch's Softness melt." (18) Edmund Burke also used "melting and languor" to describe the "inward sense" evoked in the confrontation with a beloved object in his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, (19) In ah these usages, "melt" connotes an affective connection that dissolves the distinction between two identities, merging one into the other.
"Melting" appears again in the first of Smith's three original sonnets "From Petrarch," which together condense the 366 poems of the Rime sparse to a brief narrative of their speaker's poetic misreading of Laura's potential to return his love or to offer her pity. (20) Smith's Petrarch moves from hopeful uncertainty in the first sonnet to delusional comfort in the second and finally to abject despair in the third, taking the reader along as a sympathetic spectator and affirming Smith's understanding of how Petrarch won his readers' pity and recognition by representing his speaker's futile efforts to get a response from Laura. The sequence begins with Petrarch's visual memory of the unnamed Laura from his sonnet 90 beginning "Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi," ["Her golden hair was loosed to the breeze"] from the first part of the Rime sparse, allegedly written during Laura's lifetime. (21) Smith's version reads:
Loose to the wind her golden tresses stream'd, And form'd bright waves with amorous Zephyr's sighs; And, tho' averted now, her charming eyes Then with warm love and melting pity beam'd. Was I deceiv'd?--Ah! surely, nymph divine, That fine suffusion on thy cheek was love; What wonder then those glowing tints should move, Should fire this heart, this tender heart of mine! Thy soft melodious voice, thy air, thy shape, Were of a goddess, not a mortal maid; But tho' thy charms, thy heavenly charms should fade, My heart, my tender heart could not escape; Nor cure for me in time or change be found; The shaft extracted, does not cure the wound.
As in Petrarch's version, the speaker recalls Laura from memory to the present "now," remembering when the beams from her eyes wounded him like the arrows of Eros, causing a permanent association between love and pain. Smith's Petrarch, like the original, clings to the wishful thought that Laura might have just once acknowledged his attention with her responsive blush (see Durling 192).
Conjoining in line four "warm love," a term absent in Petrarch's original, with the more intense "melting pity," Smith articulates the kind of love her speaker invites from her reader. In the Italian, Petrarch's speaker hopes he saw Laura's face take on "di pietosi colore" ["the color of pity"] (5), which Smith equates with love to satisfy her readers' expectations for a sonnet "From Petrarch" (Durling 191-92). In "Loose to the wind," Smith uses syntactic ambiguity to involve her reader in her circuit of sympathy with Petrarch. In lines five and six, for example, Smith's speaker personifies the remembered Laura and addresses her directly, dropping the earlier reference to pity but maintaining hope for the higher-stakes response of love: "Ah! surely, nymph divine / That fine suffusion on thy cheek was love." If Smith raises Petrarch's hopes, though, she also heightens his doubt with the betweenness of "Ah! surely." Luca Manini reads this line as affirmation of Smith's faith in the "certitude" of Laura's love for Petrarch, and Zuccato agrees that Smith makes Laura "involved in Petrarch's passion." (22) With a shift in perspective, though, "Ah! surely, nymph divine" becomes an affirmative response to the speaker's question, "Was I deceived?" Smith's reader may ask the same question in accepting these sonnets "From Petrarch." Within the small sequence, Smith's poetic identity melts in pity and in love with Petrarch's persona until the two are indistinguishable.
In Smith's second selection "From Petrarch" beginning "Where the green leaves exclude the summer beam"--her version of "Se lamentar augelli, o verdi fronde" ["If I hear birds lamenting or green leaves"], from the "in morte" section of the Rime sparse written allegedly after Laura's death--her Petrarch's unreliable memory of Laura's hoped-for blush escalates to his even more impossible desire for a posthumous message from her. (23) In Smith's poem as in Petrarch's original, memory morphs into an apparition of the late Laura, who speaks to Petrarch and says what he wants to hear in a voice that he of course controls. As Smith speaks through Petrarch, Petrarch speaks through Laura, and Smith performs as both subject and object of her sonnets. Laura's voice melts dramatically into Petrarch's as the sonnet crosses its turning point, between lines eight and nine:
To say, Unhappy Petrarch dry your tears; Ah! why, sad lover, thus before your time. In grief and anguish should your life decay, And, like a blighted flower, your manly prime In vain and hopeless sorrow fade away? Ah! wherefore should you mourn, that her you love, Snatch'd from a world of woe, survives in bliss above? (8-14)
Whereas in Petrarch's original sonnet the imagined Laura speaks "con pietate" ["pityingly"] (10), Smith's Laura mitigates her sympathy with "tough love," comparing his state to a feminized "blighted flower" and accusing him of wasting his "manly prime" (11). In at least one way, Laura has more agency in the original, in which Petrarch grants her a subject's "I," than she has in Smith's version, which refers only to "her you love" (13). Though both versions seem to give Laura the last word, Smith's third-person pronoun suggests the speaker's recognition that the voice he hears is his own performance.
In the third and last of Smith's poems "From Petrarch," beginning with "Ye vales and woods, fair scenes of happier hours," the rising optimism of the sub-sequence falls to its tragic conclusion as Smith's Petrarch admits his hopeful readings of Laura in the two previous sonnets were self-delusions. (24) Smith's speaker does not find sympathy from the landscape apostrophized in this sonnet as Petrarch's does, but he goes further in "melting" into a sympathetic identification with the late Laura through ambiguous syntax. In the second quatrain, Smith's Petrarch implies that his own passion and vitality have died along with his beloved, leaving him in a state of death-in-life:
For ye beheld my infant passion rise, And saw thro' years unchang'd my faithful flame; Now cold in dust the beauteous object lies, And you, ye conscious scenes, are still the same. (5-8)
Logically, the "beauteous object" should be Laura, but syntactically it is "his faithful flame," which has also grown cold through her death and ultimate absence. The line conflates Laura and his passion for her, but both are lost. Starkly alone, he is literally left in the dust of "pale ashes which her urn contains" (14). In Robinson's clever reading of this line, these ashes signify Smith's burning of Laura along with the text of the Rime sparse. (25) But Smith also invites pity for her abject Petrarch. Smith's sequence "From Petrarch" demonstrates how Petrarch originates and transmits what Lauren Berlant calls the "female complaint" about giving more than one receives in love. This complaint, popularized in Petrarch's verse, manifests a condition in Berlant's category of "cruel optimism": an attachment to a "toxic" object that compromises a subject's agency but also provides a sense of continuing identity and relationship to the world. (26) Smith's remix concentrates the "cruel optimism" that kept Petrarch's speaker alive and living for Laura's eternally indeterminate response. Her original sequence of three poems "From Petrarch" intensifies his hope to the point of exhaustion while still engaging her readers' sympathy.
Smith leaves her Petrarch holding the urn, absent from the original, the surviving tangible link to his beloved and a metaphor for the poem itself as a surviving tangible link between writer and reader. Her mini-sequence "From Petrarch" is perhaps less her comment on Petrarch's relationship to Laura than a lesson on the way Smith imagined the text of a poem as an imaginatively interactive encounter between writer and reader in which the respective speculations of response and intention become a virtual connection that enhances the pleasure of the exchange. (27) In Smith's Elegiac Sonnets as in Petrarch's Rime sparse, pity eclipses love as the more possible and desirable connection between subject and object and between writer and reader. Adam Smith suggests in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that pity--"the emotion which we feel for the misery of others"--depends on conjecture: we can never really know what another person feels but in stead only what we imagine we would feel in similar circumstances. (28) Although sympathy may be selfless in spirit, it is fundamentally selfish in its pretense of ascribing the other's suffering to the self. Yet as Adam Smith also contends, sympathy is a reciprocal exchange in which the spectator imagines and reflects the feelings of the sufferer, and the sufferer imagines and reflects the sympathy of the spectator in a staged double mirroring. (29) In this line of reasoning, pity performs as love by imaginatively reversing the subject-object relationship to create the pretense of intersubjectivity. In the lover-beloved dyad, intersubjectivity is impossible for Petrarch's speaker because Laura reveals nothing in her physical appearance to facilitate his reading of her. In the sufferer-spectator dyad of pity, however, he presents himself as sufferer (object), putting Laura in the role of spectator (subject) or reader, and creates the possibility for temporary connection through a transmission of an affect that might substitute for love. In the sonnets "From Petrarch," Smith invites readers to share her sympathy with the speaker by offering the example of her own dramatic "melting" with Petrarch.
How to Stage a Self
The noted theatricality of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets also relates to her reading of and relationship to Petrarch, whose crafted persona of the Rime sparse was both distinct from and connected to the historical person. As Ian Balfour has said, Petrarch made the sonnet "the vehicle for the staging of the self" before an imagined audience. (31) Smith starts staging her own poetic self in the ten sonnets that are not attributed to Petrarch or Werter in her first two editions. In these poems, Smith launches what will become her signature poetic identity: the thoughtful Petrarchan solitary wandering endlessly in search of connection and compassion. In the Rime sparse, this poetic figure is "solo et pensoso," as in Sonnet 35, which describes the speaker's aimless travel through nature, ostensibly apart from the gaze of other people. Smith echoes this sonnet of Petrarch's in the second line of her "Sonnet 4: To the Moon," which reads, "Alone and pensive I delight to stray." Smith's construction and performance of this figure suggests she learned from Petrarch to create a lyric subject that is both distinct from and related to its creator yet also generic enough to invite participation in its lyric "I" from a community whose members are self-selected through shared affect, regardless of gender.
Smith's poetic identity in her original sonnet sequence approximates the persona of the Rime sparse not only in its desultory melancholy but also in its resistance to fixed gender definitions. Throughout the Rime sparse, Petrarch's speaker claims that because of Laura, he becomes a prisoner of Love's arbitrary will, subordinating himself to the point of abjection. Through the pun on Laura's name with "lauro" (laurel), she also becomes a female embodiment of Petrarch's masculine audience and culture, the object of an ambivalent engagement comprising both alienation and identification. She is external and unknowable to Petrarch's speaker, seldom if ever reciprocating his attention. Her power is illusory, though, in that it depends completely on Petrarch's representation; in the text Laura is the creation of the speaker. The attraction to Laura and the laurel takes Petrarch's persona into a "labyrinth" of unstable and overlapping gender roles as power shifts back and forth between lover and beloved. (31) Petrarch's ability to become a world-famous poet by assuming a stereotypically feminine pose of passivity and subordinating himself to the will of a powerful woman seems to have challenged Smith's experience of gendered norms in a way she found interesting.
Smith follows Petrarch in confounding gender divisions through her speaker's engagement with the nightingale, a figure of melancholic song and shifting gender. Smith's sonnets 2 and 3, respectively subtitled "Written at the close of spring" and "To a nightingale," have sources in two consecutive poems in the Rime sparse: Sonnet 310, "Zefiro torna e'l bel tempo rimena" ["Zephyrus returns and leads back the fine weather"], and Sonnet 311, "Quel rosigniuol che si soave piagne," ["The nightingale that so sweetly weeps"]. (32) Petrarch's apparent cross-gendering of the bird between these two poems gave Smith another lesson in sympathetic identification, enabling her to fly above the labyrinth of gender that constrained her, just like the nightingale. For her sonnet speaker gender categories are indeed "fluid and changeable," as Jacqueline Labbe asserts, or perhaps just irrelevant to the affect of alienation. (33)
Petrarch's sonnet 310 positions "pianger Filomena" ["weeping Philomena"] and "garrir Procne" ["chattering Procne"] (3), (34) as harbingers of spring, invoking the section from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which sisters are transformed into a nightingale and a swallow after wreaking vengeance on Tereus, who betrayed one by raping the other and cutting out her tongue in a failed effort to keep the act secret. (35) In Petrarch's sonnet, which also inspired Gray's homoerotic "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," the birds and flowers that signal the renewal of the earth in spring bring no happiness to the speaker, who still chronically mourns Laura's death and his own continuing existence.36 Smith's version in her Sonnet 2 starts at the end of spring but already begins to anticipate the following May. Smith's version omits the bird, focusing only on spring's flowers and fine weather, but finishes with a Petrarchan contrast between seasonal cyclicality and human linearity in its closing sigh, "Ah! Why has happiness no second spring?" (14). Her readers who appreciated her Petrarchan sensibility likely heard the echo.
Whereas Petrarch's naming of "Filomena" feminizes the nightingale in "Zefiro torna," in the following sonnet numbered 311 he identifies with its sad song and refers to the bird by the name of its species, "rosigniuol," a masculine noun requiring a masculine possessive pronoun: (37)
Quel rosigniuol che si soave piagne forse suoi figli o sua cara consorte, di dolcezza empie il cielo et le campagne con tante note si piestose et scorte
In an English translation, Petrarch's nightingale seems male in this poem:
That nightingale that so sweetly weeps, perhaps for his children or for his dear consort fills the sky and the fields with sweetness in so many grieving, skillful notes (1-4) (38)
For Smith, this juxtaposition enables her to identify with both sad singers--Petrarch and the nightingale.
For Smith's speaker in her Sonnet 3 as for Petrarch's in his Sonnet 311, the nightingale becomes an object of alienation because its song, in a language requiring translation, cannot be fully understood by the human poet. Yet it is also a point of identification and a reminder of the speaker's own grief through what Smith calls its "mournful melody of song" (4). Smith addresses her bird as "songstress sad" in line thirteen of Sonnet 3 and envies the bird's freedom to weep, even though Smith, an amateur naturalist, likely knew it is the male nightingale that sings to attract the female. (39) Smith explicitly acknowledges Sonnet 3's debt to Petrarch's "Quel rosigniuol" in her endnotes to the third edition of Elegiac Sonnets, yet in her first two editions she nods to him indirectly by citing one of his well-known readers--Milton--who also took note of the bird's dual gendering. Smith's "Sonnet 7. On the Departure of the Nightingale," encloses her version of Milton's words in single quotes in line seven: "The pensive Muse shall 'own thee for her mate.'" Although in the 1784 editions she omits specific reference to Milton, presuming perhaps that her readers would recognize the familiar line, her endnotes to the third edition provide the entire reference from Milton's first sonnet (c. 1629): "Whether the Muse or Love call thee his mate, / Both them I serve, and of their train am I." (40) In heteronormative terms, the mate of the female Muse would be male, but the mate of Love, the masculine Eros in Petrarchan terms, would be female. Smith continues this tradition of mixing the bird's gender to make the nightingale both an icon for and a companion to her "unsex'd" speaker. (41) In Sonnet 7 her speaker addresses the bird as a gender-neutral "Sweet poet of the woods" in the opening apostrophe, and echoes her own Sonnet 1 when she describes "The gentle bird, who sings of pity best" in line twelve. Like Petrarch's, Smith's nightingale and speaker find reciprocity in mutual pity. (42)
Although Smith "melts" with Petrarch by limiting the marks of gender on her speaker, her unattributed sonnets name no beloved object equivalent to his Laura. For this reason, Mary Moore marginalizes Smith within the Petrarchan tradition by claiming her work is "not amatory." (43) Some critics have argued that Smith's unidentified love object is the precocious young woman she remembers being prior to her marriage. Judith Hawley, for example, calls it her "lost promise." (44) In making it difficult to distinguish her poetic subject from its object, Smith may also have been taking her cue from Petrarch, who constructed Laura in his poetry from his own imagination. Based on her sonnets "From Petrarch" and all the sonnets in her first editions, Smith read the Rime sparse as primarily self-reflexive, but she also saw how Petrarch's speaker opened the closed loop of solipsism and nearly suicidal despair by indirectly inviting and receiving a sympathetic response from legions of readers. She followed Petrarch in turning her need for recognition toward her prospective audience by pretending to turn away or inward, yet encouraging them to follow. (45) Smith shared with Petrarch a love of poetry acquired through reading and telegraphed through writing.
Virtual Immortality through Affective Community
Reading Petrarch showed Smith the possibility of achieving poetic immortality within a virtual community of readers and writers forged around a common affect of alienation. Although we do not know exactly how or when she read Petrarch, her primary contact seems to have been with an Italian original of the Rime sparse, as her sonnets "From Petrarch" and the notes she adds to the third edition of Elegiac Sonnets suggest. The fragmented yet loosely linear nature of the Rime sparse offered her the opportunity for episodic reading and rereading of the "intense and 'intensive' " kind that Roger Chattier attributes to the "revolution in reading" in eighteenth-century print culture. In Chartier's terms, Petrarch "invaded" Smith and "came to dwell within" her, so that by identifying with Petrarch "[s]he began to decipher [her] own life in the mirror of fiction." (46) By reading Petrarch, Smith found in her difference a way to connect to her culture; by revising herself as Petrarch, she found a way to obtain the recognition by readers that facilitated her ongoing existence in text.
Smith may have encountered Petrarch at a pivotal point in her development. Although Italian was likely part of the elite education she received as a girl, biographer Loraine Fletcher suggests she also studied the language in the late 1760s, when she was approaching the age of twenty and living in a suburban Southgate house subsidized by her father-in-law at a time when her family was still small, her husband often absent, and her time in some portion her own. (47) Smith's sister, Catherine Dorset, notes in her biographical sketch of the writer that Smith read "indiscriminately" in this period, and " [t]he result of her mental improvement was not favourable to her happiness." As evidence for this claim, Dorset cites a passage from a letter Smith wrote:
No disadvantage ... could equal those I had sustained; the more my mind expanded, the more I became sensible of personal slavery; the more I improved and cultivated my understanding, the farther I was removed from those with whom I was condemned to pass my life; and the more clearly I saw by these newly-acquired lights the horror of the abyss into which I had unconsciously plunged. (48)
If reading expanded Smith's mind, it also intensified her self-awareness; in this passage as in her sonnets, the subject is also the object of its own thoughts. Such self-consciousness, Rita Felski avers, often emerges from "an encounter with otherness" in reading, particularly in periods of perceived isolation or marginalization such as the one Smith describes. (49) A likely candidate for such "otherness" was Petrarch's sonnet speaker, who--despite his difference in terms of sex, language, and historical moment--affected her in ways that she remembered and returned to often in the years that followed.
Although she may not have identified with the historical Petrarch, Smith could identify with his speaker's senses of isolation, fatality, and frustration as the passage from her letter suggests. Smith's explicit assumption of Petrarch's lyric subject in her first "From Petrarch" sonnets suggests that she engaged in what Charles Altieri calls "reading for affect," in which she "complete[d]" the meaning of a poem by imaginatively assuming its lyric "I." (50) Contemporary affect theory provides a number of terms for describing Smith's relationship to Petrarch's texts. Her reading might have been what Michael Warner would call "uncritical," insofar as she relates to Petrarch's speaker to such a degree that she becomes him in her own writing. (51) Through the lens of "reparative" reading suggested by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Smith's reenactment of Petrarch, even when read as camp or vamp, assumes a positive valence as a form of imitation driven by love of that which is imitated, just as Smith's own narrative "On the Origins of Flattery" suggests, through the roses scattered around the dead poet's tomb. As Sedgwick says, the "reparative impulse ... conferfs] plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self." (52) For Smith, this object was the sonnet, a "vehicle for a single sentiment" as she defined it in her original Preface (vii), that one might send out into the world from a point of isolation--rather like a Facebook post or the Tweet of a nightingale--and find a point of emotional connection with readers familiar, imagined, or unknown.
In Smith's time, a similar theory of affective reading was proposed by Burke in the closing section of his Philosophical Enquiry, where he writes that strong words in poetry can excite a "contagion of passions" analogous to one "catchfing] a fire already kindled in another, which probably might never have been struck out by the object described." (53) As Smith would have seen, Petrarch's speaker stokes his passion through repetitive descriptions, both of the living and dead Laura and of the painful pleasures of his one-sided affection. His speaker's melancholy becomes contagious to his readers, but this transmission of affect wins from them the empathy his persona never receives from Laura except in his delusional imagination. As Smith shifts her position from reader to poet, she reinscribes the circuit of sympathy in which the reader and poet meet in a temporary and virtual community. This deliberately theatrical move parallels the "rhetorical situation" Robert Darnton identifies within and around Rousseau's Julie, in which "[rjeader and writer communed across the printed page, each assuming the ideal form envisioned in the text." (54) This strategy pulls Smith away from the edge of her abyss and beyond the people in her immediate proximity.
In her first editions of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith uses Petrarch to "melt" into the literary culture of male writers and readers. She begins with William Hayley, who, while not yet Smith's friend and patron in 1784, had two years earlier invoked Petrarch as support for his encouragement of women writers in An Essay on Epic Poetry. To his line, "ye Sisters of the tuneful Shell," Hayley adds a note citing Petrarch's legendary exchange of sonnets with an aspiring female poet in which he encouraged her to follow her passion and ignore the social expectations that she limit her ambition to sewing and spinning. (55) Smith likely appreciated the sentiments of both Petrarch and Hayley in this context, but her original editions also assume her community with earlier English poets, including Shakespeare and Milton, who were also known for their engagement with Petrarch. Shakespeare and Milton are the only two poets besides Petrarch whom Smith cites by name in her first two editions; not until her endnotes to the third edition does she fully acknowledge other lines she "borrowed" from Pope, Gray, Thomson, Collins, and Otway. Smith's original strategy of quiet reference, which Anna Seward labeled "notorious plagiarisms," mimics Petrarch's frequently unattributed allusions to the classical texts he recovered. (56) Like Petrarch, Smith showed her readers that she was a reader too, one who could engage in imagined intersubjectivity with other writers living and dead. In another lesson learned from Petrarch and transmitted in her own poetry, Smith's strategy also includes herself and her persona within a literary community of readers--however virtual or constructed--who absorb the poetic affect of alienation as their reading encloses them in the sequence's circuitous loop. Although she names no Laura or laurel, the beloved objects of Smith's persona in these first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets are poetry itself and its community of readers and writers.
Smith's speakers in these nineteen poems for the most part look inward or backward, but their creator looked outward toward an audience. Whereas Petrarch opens the Rime sparse with a direct address to the reader: "Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono / di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva '1 core" ["You who hear in scattered rhymes the sound of those sighs with which I nourished my heart"] (1-2), Smith's Preface more passively asserts poetry's charms when she says, "Some very melancholy moments have been beguiled, by expressing in verse the sensations those moments brought." And whereas Petrarch specifically asks for pity: "ove sia chi per prova intenda amore / spero trovar pieta, non che perdono" ["where there is anyone who understands love through experience I hope to find pity, not only pardon"] (7), Smith hopes for "readers among the few, who to sensibility of heart join simplicity of taste." (57) Without claiming gender for her speaker or assigning it to her reader, Smith appeals to anyone who can catch the feeling in her words. "Sensibility of heart" was to Smith what "affect" is to today's theorists.
Publishing brought Smith into the virtual community of readers and writers with aspirations of Petrarchan immortality. Although Petrarch never dominates Smith's later work in the same way that his presence may be felt in the first two editions of Elegiac Sonnets, he nevertheless remains a literary companion for her and her readers throughout the subsequent twenty-two years of her writing career. In Desmond (1792) she establishes the eponymous character as a Petrarchan lover to the unhappily married and Laura-like Geraldine, citing poems from the Rime sparse several times in the novel whose plot eventually unites lover and beloved. The second volume of Elegiac Sonnets (1797) carries an epigraph from Petrarch's "in morte" canzone in which he addresses his poem as a mourning widow who cannot be in happy company, a reference that not only acknowledges Smith's readers but also places the work in Petrarch's lineage. Smith names a key character "Laura" in The Young Philosopher (1798) and refers to Petrarch in her notes to Beachy Head, which she left unfinished at her death in 1806. In the year before she died, Smith described her hopes for Petrarchan immortality in a letter to her publisher: "it is on the Poetry I have written that I trust for the little reputation I may hereafter have & know that it is not the least likely among the works of modern Poets to reach another period." (58) This sounds much like the Romantic concern for posterity more commonly exemplified by Keats's hope to be "among the English Poets" at his death. (59) Smith puts this desire in poetic terms in "To My Lyre," the last poem she wrote but never published, according to Dorset's biographical sketch. Though not a sonnet itself, "To My Lyre" shows Smith's reading of Petrarch's sonnet 292, which closes with a pathetic image of his weeping lyre after the speaker acknowledges Laura's death and claims (falsely) to end his song of love to her. (60) Smith's unsex'd speaker, who claims to be "of a different species" than society's "Sons of Care" and "city dames," expresses the hope that "Pity shall my strains rehearse / And tell my name to distant ages," reinforcing her desire for Petrarchan immortality and an eternally sympathetic audience for her sonnet speaker (see 24, 16, 19, 47-48). (61) During Smith's lifetime, her erstwhile critic Polwhele suggested how her desire might be fulfilled. Despite his distaste for the "Gallic mania" of her political novels, he nevertheless found in her verse "a power to please, / Poetic feeling and poetic ease." Claiming he could read her sonnets "without lassitude," he placed her above Shakespeare and Milton in a category with the only other sonneteer he could "relish for a considerable time": Petrarch. (62)
United States Military Academy, West Point
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(1.) Polwhele, The Unsex'd Females; A poem addressed to the author of The Pursuits of Literature (New York: William Cobbett, 1800), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, http://fmd.galegroup.com.avoserv.library/ecco, accessed 24 July 2012 (same URL for this online source throughout).
(2.) Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays (London, 1784), viii.
(3.) The first edition of Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays printed in London is relatively rare. This essay relies on the copy at the British Library. The second edition is available digitally. See Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays, 2nd edition (Chichester: Dennet Jaques, 1784), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 24 July 2012. Smith's sonnets are cited by line from the 2nd edition, unless otherwise noted.
(4.) See, for example, Nancy J. Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Critical Inquiry 8, no. 2 (1981): 265-79.
(5.) Robinson, "Elegiac Sonnets: Charlotte Smith's Formal Paradoxy," Papers on Language and Literature 39, no. 2 (2003): 199; Pratt, "Charlotte Smith's Melancholia on the Page and Stage," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41, no. 3 (2001): 564-65; Weisman, "Form and Loss in Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets," Wordsworth Circle 33, no. 1 (2002): 23-24; Kelley, "Romantic Histories: Charlotte Smith and Beachy Head," Nineteenth-Century Literature 59, no. 3 (2004): 282; Zuccato, Petrarch in Romantic England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 60.
(6.) Dobson, Life of Petrarch, vol. 1 (London: James Buckland, 1775), 39, 534, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 24 July 2012.
(7.) Smith's twelfth child was born ca. 1785. See Sarah Zimmerman, "Smith, Charlotte (1749-1806)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eds. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edition, ed. Lawrence Goldman, October 2007, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25790, accessed 24 July 2012.
(8.) Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 5.
(9.) Roderick Marshall, Italy in English Literature, 1755-1815 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 125; Zuccato, Petrarch in Romantic England, 2.
(10.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise, trans. Philip Stewart and Jean Vache (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 1997), 49.
(11.) Neil Fraistat, The Poem and the Book: Interpreting Collections of Romantic Poetry (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 9.
(12.) Charlotte Smith to Mr. Davies, 25 April 1797, in The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith, ed. Judith Phillips Stanton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 268.
(13.) Paula R. Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 325.
(14.) The Spectator 605 (11 October 1714), in The Spectator, vol. 8 (London, 1776), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 24 July 2012.
(15.) In the second edition, Smith moves the two sonnets that closed the first edition, "To Spring" and "Blest is yon shepherd," making them Sonnets 8 and 9, respectively, in the opening sequence before the interlude.
(16.) [Mary Hays], "Mrs. Charlotte Smith," in Public Characters of 1800-1801 (London: R. Phillips, 1801), 51.
(17.) "remix, v.," OED Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014), http://www.oed .com/view/Entry/246356?rskey=BBWN07&result=i, accessed 25 July 2014.
(18.) Hayley, An Essay on Epic Poetry: in Jive epistles with notes (London: Dodsley, 1782), 58, http://openlibrary.org, accessed 24 July 2012.
(19.) Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), ed. James T. Boulton (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 149.
(20.) In the enlarged third edition of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith adds a fourth sonnet "13. From Petrarch" to the beginning of the previously unnumbered sequence. See Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, 3rd edition (London: J. Dodsley, 1786), 14, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 25 July 2013. While that poem adds another dimension to Smith's emulation of Petrarch, it lies outside this essay's focus on the first two editions of her collection.
(21.) Petrarch's Lyric Poems, by Francesco Petrarca, trans. Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 192-93. All numbering, citations, and translations of Petrarch are from this edition, cited hereafter in the text as Durling.
(22.) Manini, "Charlotte Smith and the Voice of Petrarch," in British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting, ed. Laura Bandiera and Diego Saglia (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 99; Zuccato, Petrarch, 61.
(23.) Petrarch's Sonnet 279 (Durling, 458-59).
(24.) Here Smith relays Petrarch's Sonnet 301 beginning "Valle che de' lamenti miei se' piena" ["O valley full of my laments"] (Durling, 480-81).
(25.) Robinson, "Elegiac," 216.
(26.) Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), vii; Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 24.
(27.) Lucy Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), vii.
(28.) Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London, 1759), I, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 24 July 2012.
(29.) David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau and Mary Shelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 5. For more on Charlotte Smith, Adam Smith, and David Marshall on sympathy, see Sarah M. Zimmerman, Romanticism, Lyricism, and History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 29-30, 49. Robinson also reads Charlotte Smith's sonnets in the context of Adam Smith. See "Elegiac," 195.
(30.) Balfour, "The Sublime Sonnet in European Romanticism," Romantic Poetry, ed. Angela Esterhammer (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2002), 185, http://site.ebrary.com.avoserv.library/, accessed 24 July 2012.
(31.) Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 53-54.
(32.) Zuccato, Petrarch, 56-57. For these sonnets, see Durling 488-91.
(33.) Labbe, Charlotte Smith: Romanticism, Poetry, and the Culture of Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 110.
(34.) See Durling, 488-89.
(35.) Smith references Ovid's tale in her footnote to "The Swallow," a poem from Beachy Head and Other Poems, published posthumously by Joseph Johnson in 1807. See Charlotte Smith, Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. Stuart Curran (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 275. The poet's note also references the "oriental story of the Loves of the Nightingale and the Rose; which is told with such elegant extravagance in the Botanic Garden." Isaac D'Israeli had made a similar observation in his note to "Mejnoun and Leila: An Arabian Petrarch and Laura," in which he writes, "The marriage of the rose and the nightingale the incessant theme of Persian poetry, is described, with an eastern luxuriance of imagination, by Dr. Darwin, in his Botanic Garden, Part ii. Canto 4. ver. 309" (D'Israeli, Romances [London, 1799], 37), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 24 July 2012.
(36.) For the connection between Petrarch's and Gray's sonnets, see Zuccato, Petrarch, 27-29.
(37.) The literary nightingale is generally female. Homer feminizes the bird in the Odyssey when Penelope uses its vacillating song of madness at twilight as a simile for her daily vexing internal debate about remarriage in Book 19, lines 599-619 (trans. Robert Fitzgerald [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998], 370). The myth described by Penelope has close parallels in Ovid's version.
(38.) Durling, 490-91.
(39.) James C. McKusick, "The Return of the Nightingale," Wordsworth Circle 38, nos. 1-2 (2007): 34.
(40.) Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, 3rd edition, 40.
(41.) In later editions, Smith adds a third nightingale to the group with a sonnet titled, "The Return of the Nightingale / Written in May 1791," in which the bird has no sex or gender and is the companion of an equally ungendered "wandering poet" and "solitary lover." See Smith, Poems, 49-50.
(42.) Smith's nightingale in Sonnet 7 recalls another bird from Petrarch's sonnet beginning "Vago augelletto, che cantando vai" ["Wandering bird that goes singing"], in which evening twilight, impending winter, and the memory of lost youth inspire the speaker to "parlar teco con pieta" ["to speak to you (the bird) with pity"] (14). See Durling, 550-51.
(43.) Moore, Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 3.
(44.) Hawley, "Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets: Losses and Gains," in Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon 1730-1820, eds. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1999), 187.
(45.) Zimmerman, Romanticism, 47-48.
(46.) Roger Chartier, Inscription and Erasure, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 114.
(47.) Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 37.
(48.) Walter Scott and Catherine Dorset, "Charlotte Smith," The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, vol. 4, Biographical Memoirs of Eminent Novelists (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1834), 2:32-33, http://books.google.com, accessed 24 July 2012.
(49.) Felski, Uses of Literature (Malden: Blackwell, 2008), 30.
(50.) Altieri, "Reading for Affect in the Lyric: From Modern to Contemporary," in Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, eds. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 40.
(51.) Warner, "Uncritical Reading," in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 13.
(52.) Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or You're So Vain, You Probably Think this Introduction is About You," in Touching Feeling, eds. Michele Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 123-52, 149.
(53.) Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, 175.
(54.) Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 249, http://quod.lib.umich.edu.avoserv.library/, accessed 24 July 2012.
(55.) William Hayley, An Essay on Epic Poetry, 75, 287-88.
(56.) Anna Seward to Rev. Berwick, 6 October 1788, in Letters of Anna Seward: Written between the years 1784 and 1807 (Edinburgh, 1811), 2:162.
(57.) See Durling, 36-37, and Elegiac Sonnets, 1st ed., viii.
(58.) Smith to Thomas Cadell, Jr., and William Davies, 18 August 1805, in Letters, 706.
(59.) John Keats to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 October 1818, in The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, vol. 1, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:394. Andrew Bennett suggests that the notion of deferred reception among early nineteenth-century poets such as Keats was a way of imagining an ideal audience that was "masculine, generalised and autonomous." See his Romantic Poets and the Culture of Poster
ity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3. Smith seems to have shared this view without gendered limitations.
(60.) See Durling, 470-71.
(61.) Scott, "Charlotte," 29-31.
(62.) Polwhele, Unsex'd Females, 21, 23.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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