Let’s take a deep dive into a poem, shall we?
I first became aware of Charlotte Smith’s poetry during the first semester of my MFA, when, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I had to recite her “Ode to Death” for workshop. I distinctly remember its accepting attitude towards its subject—not quite Dickinson’s friendly relationship with it in “[Because I could not stop for death],” but still cordial, curious even.
Recently I decided to look through more of her work, and lo and behold, the first of her poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry deals with a similar theme:
“Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex”
Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the long equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o’er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave.
With shells and seaweed mingled, on the shore
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed, by life’s long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.
There’s a lot we can, and will, talk about here, but this being a sonnet, why don’t we start with the turn in the final couplet?
The ending of this poem is somewhat odd, even unsettling. After three quatrains of detached observations of a coastal graveyard, the speaker turns to her own, morbid concerns: she is “doomed” to “envy…their gloomy rest.” Not only is this turn emotionally dispiriting, but it also seems to rest on a false premise: what “gloomy rest” is there in this graveyard?
In “The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith” (published in Critical Survey 4.1, pp. 9-21, 1992), Stella Brooks focuses on the poem’s diction to get to the heart of the apparent contradiction. Although the speaker
longs for their oblivion for herself…the preceding violation of the “silent sabbath” of the graves, the shock of the “village dead” being “torn” from their tombs by the “huge billows,” the “raving” of the “winds and waters” have suggested anything but the claimed oblivion; the graves have been disturbed, there is no “gloomy rest” for their inmates. (p. 14)
Of course, Brooks does not see this discrepancy between the speaker’s description of the graveyard and her interpretation of it as a flaw in the poem. Rather, that discrepancy is emblematic of a “turbulent Romantic fantasy” (p. 14). The speaker has a need to express her heightened emotions, in spite of the constraints placed upon her.
I’d like to push Brooks’ reading a bit further, for the poem strains against more than just the facts of the case. The formal elements of a poem, after all, are another kind of constraint. In case of this sonnet, elements that would ordinarily suggest calm and composure in fact hold back an uncontrolled force of emotion.
To start, let’s continue talking about endings: line-endings. A quick glance reveals that of the sonnet’s 14 lines, 13 of them end with some form of punctuation, from the brief pause of a comma to the heavy stop of a period. End-paused lines are famous for slowing the pace at which one reads a poem, as they represent both the end of a unit of syntax (a phrase or a clause) and a unit of verse (a line). Further, when end-paused lines occur with such regularity, they give the poem another measured music in addition to the meter (more on which later).
There’s only one line in Smith’s sonnet, line 9, which lacks end-pausing punctuation, and naturally this moment represents a turning point in the poem: “on the shore / Lo! their bones whiten”. It’s an awkward line-ending, as the next line all but starts with terminal punctuation, with that exclamation point coming just one syllable in. The poem’s rhythm staggers right as the speaker confronts the full extent of the graveyard’s damage. The speaker has mentioned how the sea has degraded the graveyard prior to this, but those descriptions tend towards abstraction: “village dead,” “the silent sabbath of the grave.” Here, though, death is rendered concrete: whitened bones “with shells and seaweed mingled.”
Now, line 9 may be the point where the poem’s composure completely dissolves, but Smith has been building up to this moment throughout the first two quatrains. The apparent calm in the lead-up is illusory. For one thing, the sound-play in the first eight lines is incredibly emphatic. The first two rhymes are on the similar-sounding [aɪdz] (“tides”/”rides”) and [aɪnz] (“combines”/”confines”), with either sound amplifying the other. Internally, the lines are super-charged with repeated sounds: “Pressed”/”arbitress” and “moon”/”mute” in line 1, the double alliteration of “huge billows” and “heaving bed” in line 5, the sibilance of “breaks the silent sabbath” in line 8, and so forth.
It’s difficult to read this poem aloud without feeling a bit pompous, the sound-play is so heavy and the lines so measured. One imagines Smith declaiming this piece to the decay before her, arms raised to the heavens like a capital-R Romantic heroine, trying to convey her emotions to the spirits. But behind all that power, there’s also strain, and that strain comes through in the poem’s meter.
The first quatrain scans pretty regularly for a sonnet, with no line straying too far from iambic pentameter. Line 1 has an authoritative initial trochee (“Pressed by | the moon…”) and line 2 starts with a double iamb (“While the | loud e | quinox…”), but beyond those two substitutions, it’s four lines of forceful iambs. (Even if we give “power” its modern two-syllable scansion, the stresses stay on the same syllables in the line; the anapest changes very little.) What’s more, the stresses keeps accentuating words relating to strength: “pressed,” “loud,” “power” “swelling surge.” If not for the rhyme, I could almost see King Lear reciting these lines on the stormy heath.
But the second quatrain does not scan so easily. Consider lines 5 and 6:
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed
Forcing these lines to fit the mold of iambic pentameter is a challenge. The mid-line comma and the possibility of pronouncing “wild” as two syllables suggest we scan the first three words as two iambs (“The wi | ld blast“). The rest of line 5, meanwhile, has a fairly intuitive cadence: “ris | ing from | the wes | tern cave.” Putting both parts together, though, we end up with six stresses instead of five. We can either demote “from” to an unstressed syllable, which maintains the semantic emphases but producing an ungainly scansion (“The wi | ld blast | rising | from the wes|tern cave“), or we can elide “wild” into one syllable and demote either it or “blast,” which makes for a better-scanning line but is unsatisfying semantically. Who says “wild” or “blast” weakly?
Line 6 presents a similar problem, with a natural reading producing a six-stress line. Demoting “from,” as it did before, makes for an even worse scansion than before: “Drives the | huge bil | lows from | their hea | ving bed.” The other option, demoting “drives” or “huge,” as it did before, forces us to de-emphasize a strength-related word, exactly what the poem encouraged us to do in the first quatrain. Gone are the forceful declamations; uncertainty now reigns. The poem may get back on song in the next two lines, with just the initial trochee in line 7, but it does so just in time for the bodies to start surfacing.
All of the above may be interesting, but how does it factor in to the poem’s conclusion? Well, it justifies how the speaker could possibly see “gloomy rest” in this scene. The disturbed dead are numb to the chaos around them, unable “to hear the warring elements.” But more than that, the dead cannot think or feel, whereas the speaker is compelled to contemplate their fate, with all that loud language and emotion discussed above bouncing about in her head. The one thing someone in such a position could envy is quiet. But in the Romantic world of Smith’s poetry, that is impossible. The speaker can only “gaze with envy” at the possibility.
To end on a (slightly) cheerier note: Lit Brick has an amusing summation of the poem in webcomic form, so enjoy that!
What do you think of Smith’s sonnet? Have any suggestions for more classic poems to dissect? Feel free to share in the comments.