Women Romantic Writers

Since we didn’t get to discuss Charlotte Smith and Dorothy Wordsworth in class today (or last week), I thought I’d post some comments on them here. Please feel free to respond or post on your own if you’d like to discuss.

Charlotte Smith’s “To Melancholy” (1785) embodies all of the features of Romantic landscape poetry that Wordsworth and Coleridge popularized in Lyrical Ballads thirteen years later. It is set in a specific time and place, as indicated by the subtitle “the banks of the Arun [River] October, 1785,” in order to convey the concrete uniqueness of an experience of Nature in mid-Autumn. That subtitle utilizes a convention that Wordsworth and Coleridge would later follow in their poems, the idea being to allow readers to return to the same location and have the same experience, connecting to each other through time and space.

Smith also exemplifies the Romantic notion of Imagination as an active and synthetic faculty of the mind, not a passive mirror held up to the world. Her description of the seasonal landscape, with its “grey mists” that arise from “dim waves,” bears an element of obscurity and fleetingness that suggest supernatural phenomena (line 2). In addition, the “native stream” of the Arun (line 9) seems to contain a national spirit deserving of pity, whose “deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!” (line 11). She then addresses that spirit directly–“O Melancholy!”–praising its “magic power” to “soothe the pensive visionary mind!” (lines 12, 14). In that way, the natural landscape serves not only as a projection of her inwardly gloomy emotional state, but also binds her with some element of the national spirit of Englishness. It’s that connection with her readers individually and with the nation in general through its native landscape that she expresses a vision of national unity, however distinct from politics.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) makes a similar appeal for connection based on a notion of Englishness as a natural, inborn essence. Though her poem is overtly political, there are several passages that invoke the names of rivers to suggest the flowing of time as well as geographic connection and “spiritual” (in the sense of national Genius) connection. I am thinking in particular of the stanza on lines 127-156, where various rivers and other landscape features of England and the United States form a network among some of the great British thinkers and leaders throughout its history: King John and the signing of the Magna Carta, sir Isaac Newton and his definitive model of physics (now deposed by Einstein’s relativity), and so on. What’s interesting here, though, is that Barbauld extends the landscape-inhabited-by-national-Genius to Britain’s colonies, where she seems to agree with the Imperial claim that “If westward streams the light that leaves thy [our] shores, / Still from thy [our] lamp the streaming radiance pours” (lines 79-80). The poem is generally anti-Imperial in condemning the injustices of appropriated wealth and the corrupt political and financial practices that they have led to, yet seems positive about the cultural inheritance it bestows on foreign peoples and their lands.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere” (1805) seems the odd member of this trio of women writers. It follows the tradition of picturesque poetry set in the English Lake District, up north near the border with Scotland, prized for its rugged beauty. The landscape is peopled by cottages in a valley, but one in particular catches her fancy. She goes for a walk that takes her off the beaten path, where she finds an unexpected scene. As we’ve discussed all semester, the Romantic quest for rural landscapes has to do with a searching for British identity, specifically away from the cities. It is a response to modernity, the industrial revolution, and unsavory foreign involvements, even though it might not always refer to them directly.

Dorothy’s landscape describes a pastoral setting in a valley that provides protection from harsher elements.

And when the storm comes from the North
It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And, piping through the mossy walls,
It seems delighted with its lot.

And let it take its own delight;
And let it range the pastures bare;
Until it reach that group of trees,
–It may not enter there!

The mild pleasure afforded by her journey and the scenes she describes represent the aesthetic of the beautiful, which is the least represented among the poems we’ve looked at. There is a faith in the ability of “England’s green and pleasant land” not only to provide unexpected wonder, but to protect and endure. I’m not sure we find the same optimism in Smith and Barbauld.

Can we find anything in Dorothy’s poem that seems to mark her as consistent with the other two women writers here? She expresses a connection to Englishness through a connection to the land, but apparently without the skepticism and concern for the damaging effects of Time we find in the other two. Perhaps you have an answer to this, or see some connections I haven’t teased out?


3 thoughts on “Women Romantic Writers

  1. One possible connection I see between the three writers is what the storm in “Grasmere” might represent. Barbauld also wrote about the storm in the far West that was brewing, in the form of American hostility. Wordsworth may not be referring to this directly, but I believe the storm represents the same concept in both poems, which is the storm of modernity, and war, and industrialism, and all of these things.

    The main difference in how it is represented between Barbauld and Wordsworth is in their treatment of England itself. Whereas Barbauld warns against hostile boots one day infiltrating British soil, Wordsworth, if her ideal cottage can be use as an analog for her country, seems to think that the cottage is safe and, like you quoted, “it may not enter there!” So while war and all economic trouble happens on the continent, Britain herself is sheltered from that storm.

    It’s a tenuous connection, but both women acknowledge the presence of a storm in their poetry.

  2. I have to agree, after looking at these three poems side by side, that Dorthy Wordsworth’s poem does not exactly “fit in” with the other two. All three are clearly Romantic poems that understand the importance of nature, and they all seem to admire and wonder at it, but Wordsworth is the only one that focuses on solely the beauty in it, without bringing in a harsher reality.

    As I read “Grasmere,” I picked up on an innocence that I didn’t see in the others. Wordsworth is connecting with the beauty of nature. The stanzas you quoted, about the storm being unable to enter the place she has found, seems to suggest that she trusts and believes that the beautiful place will remain protected and unharmed (and will stay just as beautiful), and that she too will be protected there. The other poets do not show this sentiment. Smith writes of melancholy and sadness, and Barbauld writes of the storms that are inevitably approaching. A connection with nature and the land is present in all three, but Wordsworth’s poem seems to be the only one that shows an innocent and trusting view towards it.

  3. Whenever I first read Dorothy Wordsworth, the first thing that I noticed was the drastic difference between her and her brother. In class we discussed how he utilized the sublime, however I felt as though Dorothy focused on the beautiful. Her descriptions and tone towards nature were one of emotional awe. She opens with how “peaceful [her] valley, fair and green, and beautiful her cottages” and how “that cottage with its clustering trees summons [her] heart”.

    So what I find the most interesting is that drastic difference that was pointed out. Wordsworth really does not dig into the comfort of nature in order to find something negative. Her naive ignorance (and I mean that in a positive way) was really refreshing compared to the other two poems and even her brother.

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