At the beginning of this month, we had the wonderful Dr. Amelia Worsley of Amherst College visit and give a guest lecture on the writer and poet Charlotte Smith. MA students are encouraged to attend as many of these guest lectures as is feasible, even if they don’t deal with writers or topics that are specific to your degree; it’s refreshing, really, when you’ve been stuck somewhere in the middle of a forest with Thomas of Erceldoune for much longer than you had originally anticipated (how the Queen of Faeries stuck him, I’ll never understand).
I had never heard of Charlotte Smith prior to this lecture. I adore poetry, but most of my time tends to be dedicated to Old English alliterative verse rather than anything else, so I had no idea what to expect.
I immediately fell in love.
Worsley focussed on Smith’s ‘solitaries’ (like the hermit at the end of her most famous piece, Beachy Head) and the poet’s fascination with echoes and shells. Worsley’s analysis of Smith’s poetic techniques was fascinating; she illustrated an incredible image of Smith stitching together citations, allusions, recycled phrases, to create a vessel through which the poet could then ventriloquise.
“I wove your bluebells into garlands wild, And woke your echoes with my artless song.”
Echoes, for Smith, are exclusively plural, and meet in a kind of conversation; allusions (or echoes) are illusory in a way, because they mimic dialogue. There is no hierarchy to the echoes – it’s not about mapping who is echoing whom – which led Worsley to suggest that Smith’s echoes are distinct from masculine allusion, which can be fixated on genealogy. Instead Smith embeds quotes but pointedly does not attempt to slot herself into a masculine structure. She was likely sick of masculine structures leaving her bankrupt. Poor gal.
(Sidenote: She has a sort of Postmodernist feel to me, even though she is classified as a Romantic…the fragmentation, the intertextuality, even the way she seems to toy with the idea of collective consciousness. Would love to hear if anyone else thinks so!)
While Smith was solitary, and wrote extensively on Solitaries and Echoes, I do not think she was a ‘lonely’ poet as such. Who has not felt comfort in the embrace of a book? Who has not seen a friend in a writer that grasps your feelings? These friends, while maybe experienced as echoes, are not imaginary. Writing these echoes was the way Smith could fold the fabric of time and space to bring these friends together. It is the way I will fold that fabric in a similar way to bring Smith and I together, our echoes chattering across two centuries.
I found it difficult to get a copy of Smith’s work, but the Book Depository has a rather inexpensive collection, find it here. (Not sponsored, unfortunately. Just enthusiastic.)
Note: Featured image is by George Romney. Taken from Wikipedia.