Charlotte Turner Smith: The Grandmother of Ecofeminism

 

Charlotte Turner Smith

Charlotte Turner Smith

Charlotte Turner Smith is often seen as the matriarch of Romanticism, and with good caused, given that her poetry was often reflective of personal feelings, featured sublime descriptions of nature, and rejected many human constructs: all core tenets of Romanticism.  When examining her elegiac sonnets, however, this rejection of the human world, and alignment with the natural world, particularly in a feminine context, suggests that Smith’s work, from a contemporary perspective, is something more than the foundation for Romanticism, it also lays the groundwork for the ecofeminist tradition.  Given that her poetry embraces nature and serves to suggest “new values and social structures” (Merchant, xv), it seems as though ecofeminists like Carolyn Merchant were describing Smith’s poetry when defining the tenets of ecofeminism, rather than creating a new set of prescribed values.  By challenging both the human realm, and patriarchal constructs, Smith’s work easily lends itself to and ecofeminist reading, making ideal for retrospective enlistment into the ecofeminist canon.

 

Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth

The most obvious way in which Smith challenges patriarchal and human constructs is through her use of the sonnet, as she removes that hypersexualized female form as the subject of the poem, and replaces it with the inner thoughts of a female voice.  Though it might be tempting to assume that the sonnet was a form commonly used at the time, the sonnet did not have the kind of currency in the 18th century that it held during the Elizabethan era.  Smith was responsible for revitalizing the style (she brought the sonnet back, kind of like how Justin brought sexy back), but though she adopted an antiquated structure, she did not adopt its antiquated content, and therein lies the ecofeminist elements of the work.  Whilst the traditional Petrarchan sonnet pays homage to the physical beauty of women, Smith’s sonnet rejects the patriarchal objectification of the female body and replaces it with brooding self-expression.  She was kinda like the Kurt Cobain of the 18th century.  It is true that both John Donne, who used sonnet’s for religious expression, and Lady Mary Wroth, who objectified her male beloved, both challenged the traditional content of the sonnet, but Smith’s construction is drastically different than even either Donne or Wroth as she employs the sonnet as a way to express the inner thoughts of a woman, which overtly contrasts the objectification of the conventional sonnet.  ‘Sonnet LXII’ proves a perfect example of this.  Smith begins the poem with the words “While thus I wonder, cheerless and unblest”, as if she was trying to start the emo movement 200 years early).  The word ‘cheerless’ immediately demands that the female voice be place in an emotive context, rather than a physical one, whilst the word ‘unblest’ positions the woman not as a beloved in a position of privilege who doles out her affection to whatever suitor she might fancy, but rather one whose life has no fortune (especially fitting for Smith who died penniless and ill).  Likewise, ‘Sonnet XLIX’ speaks of a young woman who is “by human ills opprest” and who feels “sorrow true”.  It is important to note that it is ‘human ill’s that oppress this woman, not elements from the natural realm, and so this can be read as a criticism of the human real, while the ‘sorrow’ again, frames women as an emotive beings, rather than simply being defined by a catalog of physical attributes as was typical of more conventional sonnets.

 

 

Charlotte Smith coverSmith’s construction of the feminine identity goes beyond emotion, though, and includes a spiritual essence as well.  ‘Sonnet XLIX’ is emblematic of this given that the sonnet was written for a woman who has passed, lamenting her spirit. Part and parcel with this is the fact that the poem was based on a novel that was reported to have been composed in a churchyard, adding a spiritual layer to Smith’s construction of the feminine identity.  Some of Smith’s poems were written in much the same fashion, such as ‘The Dead Beggar’, ‘Inscription’, and ‘A Descriptive Ode’, all of which were written on church grounds, thereby framing Smith as a spiritual person. Smith’s spirituality extends beyond the conventional, though, as demonstrated in ‘Sonnet XLV’, where Smith writes of making her “early vows… to Natures shrine”, employing the sonnet for spiritual purposes, much like Donne.  Through these vows, Smith’s poetic voice displays both loyalty and faith.  Smith, then, not only employs the sonnet to demonstrate how women exist beyond the physical realm by proving their emotive range, but also their spiritual range.

 

Jackie Gleason may have gotten his famous catch phrase 'to the moon' from a Charlotte Smith poem of the same name.  Or not.

Jackie Gleason may have gotten his famous catch phrase ‘to the moon’ from a Charlotte Smith poem of the same name. Or not.

While Smith is sure to maintain the female voice throughout her poetry, women are seldom the subject of the poem: Nature is.  This shift suggests a reordering of humanity’ priorities.  A simple cursory look at the subtitles of the sonnets makes clear the prevalence Nature has in Smith’s work: ‘Written at the close of Spring’, ‘To a Nightingale’, ‘To the Moon’ (I guess Jackie Gleeson stole that line), ‘On the Departure of the Nightingale’ (Smith really like nightingales), ‘To Spring’, and ‘Written on the Sea Shore’.  This is of course only a small sample, but the titles make it clear that Nature is, for the most part, the subject of her poetry, placing the natural realm in the position of the beloved.  In the poetry itself, Nature is framed as a muse in ‘Sonnet I’, where Smith writes about making a garland out of wild flowers.  The garland, long a symbol of poetic genius, is an element of the natural realm, and so it is the natural realm that has the authority to crown greatness in Smith’s work.  ‘Sonnet II’ is written like a love poem to spring, but rather than using hyperbolic similes to compare Nature’s beauty to some other pinnacle of beauty, she simply describes Nature itself, compelling the reader to consider how, in the traditional sonnet, these same descriptions were used metaphors to describe the beloved’s beauty and reminding the reader that Nature is the template of beauty and needs not similes. This positioning of Nature as the beloved alludes to a new social order where Nature is seen as the ennobling entity and humanity’s priority.

 

John Donne, who also challenged the conventional content of a sonnet.

John Donne, who also challenged the conventional content of a sonnet.

Just as Donne framed sonnet within a religious context, so too does Smith frame her sonnets as such, but rather than placing a constructed religion as her beloved, Smith frames Nature as the spiritual entity worthy of worship.  ‘Sonnet IV’, for instance, not only draws on the moon as a celestial orb, but describes the moon’s journey through religious rhetoric, calling the moon a ‘pilgrim’ in the poem’s closing line.  In framing the moon’s motion as a pilgrimage, Smith suggests that Nature’s trajectory works with divine purpose.  Likewise, ‘Sonnet XLV’ sees Smith speaks to vows made “to Nature’s shrine”.  Vows were typically made within a religious context, and so Smith is framing her relationship with Nature as a spiritual one, and likewise notes that she paid this vow to Nature’s shrine, framing Nature as a spiritual structure.  Of the poems Smith wrote whilst on church premises, it is important to note that none of them are actually written in a church, but rather, each of them are written in the church yard.  ‘Sonnet XLIV’, ‘Sonet XLIX’, and ‘Inscription on a Stone in the Church-Yard at Boreham, in Essex’ were all written in church yards, or based on works written in a church yard.  This places the religious experience outside of the human construct of the church building, and immerses spirituality within the natural realm.  As is the case with ecofeminism, Smith draws on the natural realm to prescribe new values by placing Nature on no less than parity terms with the church, and thereby challenging the antiquated system from which patriarchy sprang, and offering a cult of Nature in its place.

 

 

Smith's poetry merges Nature and women, like this image, from Arist Unknown.

Smith’s poetry merges Nature and women, like this image, from Arist Unknown.

The ecofeminist elements of the poetry are made especially clear when Smith links the feminine realm with the natural realm.  As is often the case in any literary form, Nature is feminized throughout Smith’s poems.  In ‘Sonnet II’, for example, Spring is referred to as ‘she’, and further aligned with the feminine realm when Smith writes that the Spring ‘nursed’ each flower in the dew, the role of the nurse held almost exclusively by women in the era.  When writing of the sorrow of a young woman in ‘Sonnet XLIX’, Smith writes the young woman “Shall mingle tears with April’s early dew”.  Here, Smith show Nature as a nurturing and empathetic entity that can share the pain of women, and frames the dew as Nature’s tears, creating an analogous link between the feminine realm and the natural realm.  Similarly, when describing female friendship, Smith employs ecological metaphor in ‘Sonnet XXVIII’.  A happy friendships is described as ‘unclouded’, and when the ‘rainbow’ of friendship fades, it is due to ‘misfortune’s storm’.  Here, Smith uses signifiers rooted in Nature to bring clarity and understanding to the female experience, much as ecofeminism suggests that Nature does.

 

Walt Whitman, who likewise tried to translates the songs of birds into English.

Walt Whitman, who likewise tried to translates the songs of birds into English.

Another component of ecofeminism is the notion that women are more in tuned with Nature and are therefore the ideal candidates to speak for Nature.  This is exemplified in ‘Sonnet III’, subtitled ‘To a Nightingale’.  In the poem, Smith articulates that the nightingale’s song is filled with “tender woe” and has a “mournful melody”, serving to translate the notes of the bird’s song that the reader might understand the emotive essence of the bird.  This frames Nature as an emotive realm, not simply a realm of resources, mirroring the way Smith frames women as emotive beings and not just physical ones.  The desire to represent and speak for Nature is reinforced when Smith writes that she seeks to “translate… the sounds that swell” in the breast of the bird.  ‘Sonnet XXXIX’ likewise speaks on behalf of Nature, detailing the Moon’s “deep depression”, “grief”, and “sullen surges”.  It is true that Transcendentalist Walt Whitman, among others, would later speak for Nature, and perhaps with more poetic skill, but they would also do so nearly a century after Smith had done so.  In ‘Sonnet XXXIX’, and many other of her elegiac sonnets, Smith frames Nature’s various components as a sentient entities who are each capable or emotive consciousness, which she seeks to represent, thereby speaking on behalf of Nature and giving a voice to the voiceless.

 

Charlotte Smith Though the form Smith’s chose would have seemed conventional, even in the 18th century, it is her content that made her words stand apart from the work of sonneteers who wrote in the centuries before her birth.  By positioning Nature as the subject of her poetry, and framing both Nature and women as emotive beings whose existence extends beyond the physical realm, Smith positions herself not simply as the matriarch of Romanticism, but as a proto-ecofeminist as well.  By rejecting the human and patriarchal constructs, and aligning women and Nature, Smith offers a new way to look at the world, and her framing of Nature as a divine, emotive realm suggests a new social ordering of values.  Each of these approaches fits in fluidly with the goals of ecofeminism, and though it may be anachronistic to project a term like ‘ecofeminist’ onto a work that was written nearly two centuries before the word was introduced into the vernacular, when one compares the tenets of ecofeminism, it becomes clear that Smith’s work not only fits with the goals of the theoretical approach, but were likely the blueprint for them.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.

 

Works Cited:

Merchant, Carolyn.  The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution.  Harper & Row.  New York, NY.  1980.  Print.

 

Smith, Charlotte Turner.  Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poems. 1784.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php