Public Identity, Paratext, and the Aesthetics of Intransparency: Charlotte Smith’s
Beachy Head *
- Author: Jon Bumsoo
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 58, Issue6, p1167~1191, Dec 2012
For Romantic women writers the paratext itself is essentially a masculine literary space affiliated with established writing practices; however, this paper suggests that Charlotte Turner Smith’s mode of discourse in her use of notes and their relation to the text proper are never fixed in her contemplative blank-verse long poem,
Beachy Head(1807). Even though the display of learning in the paratext partly supports the woman writer’s claim to authority, this paper argues that Smith’s endnotes also indicate her way of challenging the double bind for women writers, summoning masculine authority on the margins of her book while simultaneously interrogating essentialist thinking and instructions about one’s identity in a culture and on the printed page. The poem shows how the fringes of the book can be effectively transformed from a masculine site of authority to an increasingly feminized site of interchange as Smith writes with an awareness of patriarchal, imperial abuses of power in that area of the book. There is a persistent transgression of cultural/textual boundaries occurring in Beachy Head, which explores the very scene and languages of imperial encounter. Accordingly, if Wordsworth’s theory of composition suggests a subjective and abstract poetic experience—an experience without mediation—in which its medium’s purpose seems to be to disappear from the reader’s consciousness, an examination of the alternative discourse of self-exposure in Smith’s poem reveals the essentially fluid nature of media-consciousness in the Romantic era, which remains little acknowledged in received accounts of Romantic literary culture.
Charlotte Smith , Beachy Head , paratext , medium , multivocality , material textuality , intransparency , Romantic subjectivity , textual politics
This paper discusses the significance of the materiality of text in
Beachy Head(1807), where Charlotte Turner Smith uses the margins of the printed page to challenge cultural formations of authoriality as they developed historically in relation to Lyrical Balladsfirst published in 1798 jointly by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Recent work in the burgeoning field of gender and authorship studies has turned to the analysis of Romantic women poets’ contribution to the discourse of subjectivity, and to the complex issues of authority, the public image of (female) authors, “Romantic theatricality,” entrepreneurialism, and gendered resistance to dominant male Romantic forms of poetry.1 This paper builds on this literature to explore how, and whether, the material book pertains to the ways in which Charlotte Smith interrogates putative, “feminine” and “masculine” models of writing and self-fashioning in her contemplative blank-verse long poem, Beachy Head, which was published posthumously in 1807 but remained largely unread until the modern republication of her poetry in 1993.2 Participating within a broader revisionary current in Romantic women writers studies, this paper challenges received notions of Romanticism by attending to the signal role that Smith’s material practices play in the way she offers an alternative discourse of authorial personae and/in the book, a contribution that remains little acknowledged in most accounts of Beachy Head. Thus the paper focuses on how Smith considerably enlarges the notion of what constitutes the “lyrical” by reimagining the authorial persona as a socially- andtextually-embodied self as her use of print apparatuses and textual spaces in the poem radically re-defines and ultimately rewrites the print culture which effectually confines feminine writing.
1See Mellor; Wilson and Haefner; Feldman and Kelley; McGann; Behrendt; Trilling; Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality; and Hoagwood and Ledbetter. 2Stuart Curran’s The Poems of Charlotte Smith (1993). References to Smith’s poetry are to this edition. My references to the text proper in particular areincluded in the text by line numbers, while an “n” is attached to a page reference number to refer to an authorial note on that page. Smith’s notes were originally attached to the end of the volume but reprinted in this edition as footnotes.
With the revival of scholarly interest in Charlotte Smith and other Romantic women writers in the early 1990s,3 modern readers began to explore how gender and poetic identity constitute a productive sphere of conflict within the poetics of loss and self-fashioning that Smith forged and Wordsworth, one of her greatest admirers, soon took up in
The Prelude(1805, 1850). For example, Sarah M. Zimmerman argues that Smith and Wordsworth share a Romantic impulse to fuse biography and poetic ambition, individually fashioning a lyric persona that is an autobiographical fiction.4 In fact, this modern explication of Smith’s poetics of self-defense and self-promotion chimes with Smith’s contemporary readers, who used to recognize the poet’s autobiographical impulse as the most salient feature of her works; with the publication of Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Poemsin 1784, followed by the multiplying editions of the collection from the same year onwards, and the appearance of The Emigrantsin 1793,5 Smith has become a popular cultural figure whose literary success—as well as critical discredit—are catalyzed primarily by her personal appeal and the fashionable side of her melancholy speaker.6 In 1786, for example, the Critical Reviewwrites that they are “sorry to see the eye which can shine with so much poetic fire sullied with a tear,” tacitly accusing Smith of exploiting popular taste and femininity for the success of her Elegiac Sonnetsvolume.7
Given the cult of Charlotte Smith’s public figure and her appealing self-portrait in the widely successful
Elegiac Sonnets, it is no wonder that, when Beachy Head,with Other Poemswas published a year after her death in 1806 by Joseph Johnson, reviewers and readers alike showed a keen interest in seeing the posthumous volume as a kind of coda to the story of Smith’s earlier poetic speaker and her habitual mournful tenor. For instance, the conservative journal The British Critic, which had been highly unfavorable to The Emigrantsfor its evident “egotism” and interest in “propagat[ing] popular cant against order,” found Beachy Headto be “characteristic of the author’s mind, a sweet and impressive tenderness of melancholy.”8 The Universal Magazineeven drew a parallel between the book and “the quaint moralizing of Cowper, and the plaintive tenderness of Gray.”9 The critical consensus was reiterated shortly after by the Monthly Review: The Monthly Review’swriter finds Beachy Heada steadily personal, unusually effusive and unartificial meditation on one’s life and nature, clearly encouraging readers to take their interpretive cue from Smith’s earlier poems. For all the contemporary reviewers cited above Smith’s posthumous volume Beachy Head, especially its title poem, supposedly constitutes a culminating, if subdued, account of her personal misfortunes and sufferings as all the readers curiously draw autobiographical parallels particularly between the poetic speaker of the title poem and Smith’s public profile—a lady “sullied with a tear”—developed in the earlier stages of her literary career.11
3The renewal of critical interest in Smith has been enriched by Curran’s “The ‘I’ Altered” and his modern edition of Smith’s poetry; Fletcher’s Critical Biography; and Stanton’s Collected Letters. For discussions about the historical reception of Smith and other women Romantics, see Linkin; Linkin and Behrendt; and Newlyn. 4See Romanticism, Lyricism, and History 51-72. See also Hunt and Hoagwood, who track the record of Wordsworth’s verbal, metrical and thematic echoes of Smith. 55We haven’t seen yet any book-length study of the publishing history of Smith’s poetry. For shorter accounts of the versions of Smith’s poetic volumes and their current textual status, see Labbe’s headnotes in her recent edition of Smith’s poems; see also Curran’s textual notes in his standard scholarly edition of Smith’s poems. 6Hoagwood offers a succinct outline of the contemporary tradition of “enveloping [Smith’s] work with a morose concentration on her miserable life” (142). For another discussion of the issue, see Zimmerman, “‘Dost thou not know my voice?’” 7Review of Elegiac Sonnets, Critical Review 61 (1786): 467-68. 8Review of The Emigrants, British Critic 1 (1793): 405; Review of Beachy Head, with Other Poems, British Critic 30 (1807): 171. In The Emigrants, Smith’s earlier blank-verse poem in two books, the author meticulously balances the poem’s political elements with a poetics of sorrow familiar to her readers from the Sonnets. 9Review of Beachy Head, with Other Poems, Universal Magazine 7 (1807): 229. 10Review of Beachy Head, with Other Poems, Monthly Review 56 (1808): 99. 11Review of Elegiac Sonnets, Critical Review 61 (1786): 468.
My discussion of a shift in the textual politics of Smith’s autobiographical appeal is manifold, and I want to address the matter, first, in terms of the changes in Smith’s own understanding of her audience, and in the ideological constraints on the production of the
Beachy Headvolume. Despite Smith’s influence as a popular cultural figure and her willingness to capitalize on it to address her financial and emotional needs,12 Smith’s popularity and the impact of her autobiographical appeal were in the process of waning for various reasons, including her prolific output and her own turn to political topics especially with the publication of the sixth edition of Elegiac Sonnetsand Desmondin 1792, The Old Manor Housein 1793, The Emigrantsin 1793, and The Banished Manin 1794. The sixth edition of the Elegiac Sonnetsindicates a “turning point” in the collection’s publishing history, as Zimmerman has suggested, in that Smith begins to allude more explicitly to the biographical sources of her melancholy speaker’s unhappiness and sorrows, which mainly involve prolonged litigation over Smith’s father-in-law’s estate; but, as Zimmerman agrees, it is worthwhile to bear in mind that Smith’s increasing explicitness about the sources of her speaker’s despair ironically gave her lamentations important political implications, too, that helped the author not only bring her own case against her husband, who had a legal entitlement to his wife’s earnings despite their separation, but also speak for her “fellow sufferers” of the juridical system, lawyers and abusive husbands (“‘Dost thou not know my voice?’” 117-18). The increasingly political overtones of Smith’s apparently autobiographical self-defense have been confirmed by Curran, too, who argues that many of Smith’s works indicate “her recognition that the law is a social code written by men for a male preserve, and that the principal function of women within its boundaries can only be to suffer consequences over which they have no control” ( Poetic Formxxi).
With the potentially inflammatory elements in her literary self-defense Smith’s public image was facing a drastically different political situation in the year 1793 and afterwards: a period affected by the September Massacres of 1792, the execution of the French king in January 1793, followed by France’s declaration of war on Britain in February, and the more tangible risks in Britain associated with the Seditious Libel Act, published in May 1792. Smith’s carefully nuanced portrayal of the French emigrants and her equally meticulous embedding of personal and literary imagery in
The Emigrantsshow the author’s understanding of the multiple bind over her literary career—the climate of the times, the desperate financial circumstances in which she was writing, and her own recognition that her habitual practices of self-promoting her sorrows could alienate an audience that was increasingly turning its back to her public image and political rhetoric.
Beachy Headvolume was published posthumously in early 1807 by Joseph Johnson, although two years earlier Smith had offered it to Thomas Cadell, Jr. and William Davies, as Labbe notes, “asking £335 for the poems and presenting it as a potential third volume to the Elegiac Sonnets.”13 However, the Beachy Headvolume contains fewer sonnets than the first published volume of her Elegiac Sonnets, offering longer, more experimental verse forms with highly decentered narrative strategies. Given the inherent differences between the collections, I would not think of Smith’s idea of printing the new poems under the rubric of the Elegiac Sonnetsas an evident sign of Beachy Head’s reliance on the author’s earlier public reception but rather an indication of her own unease about there being not enough poems in the collection for a full volume, or of how desperate Smith was for money to provide for her family despite her literary success.14 When Johnson, too, raised similar concern about the collection’s independent publishability, Smith corresponded with him about printing the poems as an addition to her Elegiac Sonnets: “the volume should be printed uniformly with the other two [volumes of the Elegiac Sonnets] because the probability is that those who are in possession of the other two Volumes will purchase this.”15 The letter clearly illustrates Smith’s mercenary motives for offering the new volume as a sequel to Elegiac Sonnets.
Despite her desire to make more money with the new poems by relying on the success of her earlier volumes of the
Elegiac Sonnets, it seems that Smith still thinks of Beachy Headnot simply as her “literary business” but a chance to prove herself to her audience, especially her “less partial judges”; in an earlier letter to Cadell and Davies, August 18, 1805, she writes: “I shall endeavor not to do what I see too frequently done—sacrifice quality to quantity & empty my port folio [ sic]. And I shall publish nothing,” she asserts, “that is not allowed by less partial judges than myself to be worth publishing” ( SL706). Importantly, given the negotiations between the cultural and textual boundaries Smith narrates so visibly in Beachy Head, which was conceived by herself as the last collection in her lifetime “on which much of [her] credit depends” ( SL704), I would like to suggest that the title poem is a particularly intriguing example of a Romantic literary project in which the writer deconstructs the putative lyric subject—the fiction of a stable self—by highlighting the material constraints on his/her own literary production, and by contemplating on the nature of his/her access to communication media.
12Stanton discusses what she calls, quoting the poet, Smith’s “literary business,” i.e., Smith’s close involvement in the processes of her literary production. Zimmerman also offers a convincing account of how well Smith herself understood the nature of “her readers’ receptivity to her solitary poet,” and thereby crafted the Elegiac Sonnets volume to make the most of the market for her dejected speaker (“‘Dost thou not know my voice?’” 112). 13Labbe’s headnote to the volume in her 2007 edition of Smith’s poetry, 149. 14For a discussion of how Smith’s financial predicament was particularly acute at this time, see Fletcher 321. 15Letter to Thomas Cadell, Jr. and William Davies, July 12, 1806, cited from The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith 741. References by page number to this edition of Smith’s letters, cited as SL, are hereafter included in the text. Unless otherwise noted, italics are mine.
The rediscovered Romantic poetess carries out the task of narrating a scene of gender and cultural conflicts by effectively splitting her book into a proper text and what Gérard Genette calls “paratext”—a “fringe” of the printed text, which in effect situates the text and suggests an interpretive frame.16 For example,
Beachy Headdraws on numerous endnotes containing quotations from, and allusions and references to other works of literature, science and human and natural history, as well as other paratextual devices such as a list of botanical terms with authorial explanations and publisher’s introductory “advertisement.” To some extent the author of Beachy Headexploits the margins of her book as a means to self-fashion a persona who, with a voice that is factual and informative, challenges male prejudice against women’s culture and writing practices. It is not a complete surprise that Smith’s contemporary readers saw the poem in simplistic terms of a woman writer’s claim to authority; praising Smith’s precise and sensitive documentation of the flora and fauna around her, the Literary Panorama, for example, acknowledges her claim to authority especially in her extensive use of the notes, which the reviewer sees as “proofs of her general attention and accuracy.”17
Smith’s preoccupation with paratextual practice is central to her poetic experiment in
Beachy Head, but the implications of the “split” voice and its relation to the problem of authority and the author’s sexual/cultural/textual politics are still under debate among scholars. A feminist interpretation of the matter has been articulated perhaps most clearly by Labbe, who attends to the rhetorical adeptness with which Smith allegedly achieves a coherent, if flexible, poetic self in the poem.18 Labbe’s interpretation of the role that Smith’s paratextual devices play in her poetic self-fashioning is recapitulated well in the statement that “[Smith’s] Readers were accustomed to associating their speakers—forlorn, lost, despairing— with the poet herself”; curiously, Labbe claims further that the author even “encouraged this by surrounding the poems [in the collection] with a print apparatus that linked author and speakers: that embodied the author as an acquaintance of the reader” (20). Ironically, Labbe’s contention reiterates—if to different critical ends— essentially what Smith’s contemporary readers used to find in her works; the critic assumes that Smith’s experiment on the margins of her text helps the woman author reinforce the elegiac image of herself as received by the reading public and thus inscribed in the text proper, and that the periphery of her printed page was arranged essentially to achieve this goal as the woman writer’s display of learning in the paratext primarily supports her claim to authority and implies her unquestioning conformity to the established, male-centered writing practices.
Gender and the poetics of self-fashioning provide a measure of the poem’s apparent achievement as Smith’s rhetorical craft in
Beachy Headhelps the Romantic woman author mourn her own marginal, inadequate relations to the male traditions of the literary world; but I would argue that it is equally worthwhile to note how Smith’s experiment with formal features and multi-vocal narrative marks the poem’s linguisticdifference, too, from her habitual elegiac tenor associated with her public figure, thus removing the poem from the autobiographical impulse with which she established herself in earlier works. I hope to challenge the proposition that in Beachy HeadSmith manages her autobiographical ethos along with other voices and gendered perspectives; I suggest instead that what the poem indicates is Smith’s critical engagement with the very idea of writing about oneself or the nation in a manner that is culturally— and formally—cohesive.
Of Charlotte Smith’s two long narrative poems (the other being
The Emigrantspublished by Cadell in early summer 1793), Beachy Headis more historically ambitious and more attentive to natural history. The local poem clearly shows a particularly Romantic engagement with the natural world, as does the collection as a whole, in a manner similar to Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne(1789). Writing in the form of a series of letters addressed to Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, known for their writings on antiquities, natural history, geology and geographical expeditions, White’s goal that he proclaims in his Advertisement to The Natural Historyis to “[lay] before the public his idea of parochial history, which, he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities” (iii, original emphasis). White thus collects information and analyzes data in The Natural History, incorporating a large number of tables, statistics, quotations of different genres and periods in the history, as well as engravings and catalogs of plants and animals of the region with detailed description.
Smith’s copious endnotes in
Beachy Headconstitute as a whole a condensed natural history of the chalky headland of south-east England as they offer the scientific classification of the genus, family or category of numerous birds, plants and minerals that are indigenous to the region and are referred to in the main text; and while the result is partly a matter of displaying her learning in the paratext, it is simultaneously a matter of interrogating masculine and imperial authority inscribed in the paratext as the poem provides supposedly descriptive but characteristically symbolic accounts of events, persons, things or places of historic interest that bring the very problem of writing history into question; and in doing so she explores, with a motive that is very different from that of White, the very scene and language of imperial encounter we notice in numerous writings of travelers, artists, captains, collectors and poets of this period of rapid expansion. Presenting herself as witness to an often-violent confrontation between different cultures, Smith records a compromise, transaction or even undermining of social mores and cultural beliefs occurring on the south coast of England andon the page of her poem.
In the opening stanza, for example, Smith presents Beachy Head as a natural habitat of many species of wild birds recorded in southern England. Attaching descriptive notes in which she catalogues the binomial name of each species in Latin, she identifies the genus to which the species belongs, and the species within the genus: “Terns.
Sterna hirundo, or Sea Swallow. Gulls. Larus canus. Tarrocks. Larus tridactylus” (217n). Unlike the scientific language she employs on the fringes of the book, through her distinctive vocabulary choice and style of expression in this portion of the main text, Smith portrays the “rifted shores” of southern England as a site of violence (9), with its people and the wild flying inhabitants described as held there as a punishment for some unexplained crimes they have committed:
Despite the impersonal tone of her notes explaining the “gray choughs” and other indigenous species of birds, the figurative language of the text proper helps us read Smith’s criminal and punitive metaphors as a sign of her social commentary on her country’s bigoted hostility to France at the present time. These lines provide additional political meanings, too, to both the opening emphasis on the “awful hour / Of vast concussion” (5-6) and a vision of a glorious sunrise over the English Channel described in the succeeding lines, since the sunrise — an icon of revolutionary hope—is marked by a picturesque mode of description and the conventional night-light symbolism, both of which in this case effectively reinforce the socialized senses of the nature-culture opposition highlighted in the opening stanza.
Landscapes and material culture furnish Smith with symbolic imagery, with which she projects her socio-political radicalism. Given British government’s repression of seditious statements published on its own territory during the revolutionary decades, Smith’s democratic contentions against slavery in lines 41-68 are embedded understandably in a figurative language, in a particularly Romantic engagement with the sensitive appreciation of nature watched impressively on top of Beachy Head. A magnificent prospect of the English Channel at midday is starkly juxtaposed here with the image of a “ship of commerce richly freighted,” a ship engaged in Britain’s cotton trade with “the orient climates,” presumably India, the East or West Indies (42-44). This image of British imperial expansion is closely followed by Smith’s repulsion to her country’s involvement in the enslavement of men in exchange for cotton and jewels: “The beamy adamant, and the round pearl / Enchased in rugged covering; which the slave, / With perilous and breathless toil, tears off / From the rough sea-rock, deep beneath the waves” (50-54).
Smith’s “abhorrence” of her country’s cruelty and inhumanity to “fellow man” is important (57, 59), but here I want to pay particular attention to the roles of authorial notes in her comment on the problem of cultural dominance. After she has appended a note to line 47, explaining a species of cotton (“
Gossypium herbaceum”) essential to Britain’s clothmaking industry, Smith adds another, this time explaining the phrase, “The beamy adamant”:
Renowned as a material with superlative physical qualities and optical characteristics, diamond, combined with efficient marketing, constitutes one of the most valuable commodities that have attracted miners, industrialists, imperial governors, and military men like Robert Percival. And Percival’s
View of Ceylon, to which Smith refers in her note and is betterknown as An Account of the Island of Ceylon(1803), is one of the many examples of how British men at home and abroad produced poetry, natural history writing, landscape paintings and botanical prints that played a crucial role in developing the idea of the tropics as simultaneously a rural idyll and a place in need of British intervention.19 Interestingly, the eighteenth-century enthusiasm for accounts, catalogues and drawings of colonial land, subjects and materials has been appropriated by Smith in Beachy Head, to different artistic and philosophical ends. By summoning the masculine authority in her endnotes while simultaneously indicating how Percival’s and other British writers’ intellectual mastery of the tropics accompanies her country’s material appropriations of land, labor, and natural resources of the regions, Smith doubly challenges her culture’s patriarchal and imperial abuses of power the masculine literary space typically signals. Therefore, as far as gender is concerned, Smith’s use of the paratext is not a defensive gesture simply imitating an authoritative writing practice; rather, as a woman writer whose previous works indicate her exceptionally acute understanding — and, sometimes, adept exploitation — of her culture’s essentialist view on gender, race and national identity, she reinvents the periphery of the text as a means to contextualize cultural tropes within a broader lens of discursive construction and historical cause and effect. She engages with the paratextual elements in order to alter, maneuver, or reimagine them as a means to publicize the site andglossary of imperial and patriarchal confrontation.
16Genette draws attention to those elements of a book that constitute the socalled “periphery” of the printed page, a space between text and “off-text,” such as a book’s cover, dedication, title, preface, introductory letters, notes, epigraph, advertisement, and so forth. Though the intermediate area of a book is typically considered marginal to the meaning of the text, Genette suggests that these materials are crucial to our appreciation of the literary work as a social construct. Unlike the common view of the matters as merely representative of “transitional” spaces in the book, Genette sees paratexts as indicative of transaction as these materials are often added during the book’s distribution process by the editor, the printer, and the publisher, as well as its author(s) (1-2). Genette’s study effectively creates a discursive space in which we might examine the “negotiation” between the institutions of publishing and individual authors, which enables a text to become a book and finally offers it as such to its reader. 17Review of Beachy Head,with Other Poems, Literary Panorama 2 (1807): 294. 18See Culture of Gender 3-9. 19For discussions about the ways in which British and other European accounts of tropical agriculture and landscapes worked as one of the ideological apparatuses of empire during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Tobin; de Almeida and Gilpin; and Pratt.
Complicating the relationship between the text proper and the notes, the poem contains dramatic reversals, too, in the narrative’s trajectory. A striking example can be found in the contrasting messages offered by the poem’s first two speakers: the initial “I” and “Contemplation.” When the initial “I” describes a sunset’s unique atmospheric conditions and intense colors, this speaker uses the magnificent visual rhetoric to call attention to the English nobility’s “poor” fetish for jewels (71), while this radical social comment is starkly juxtaposed later with Contemplation’s essentially nationalist and militant call for actions to regain England’s “naval fame” against “foreign arms,” especially France in this case (145, 157). Despite its disposition toward epic eloquence in dealing with the military history of England’s south coast, Contemplation assumes its own form of authority as the long note (222n) devoted to an account of the Norman invasions since the eighth century supplies detailed historical information from the margins.
Seemingly impersonal in his prose, gauging the note-speaker’s ideological orientation is tricky, though, as his account of the “North-men” (222n) on the distant coasts of France, Italy and England is invested ultimately in providing support for Contemplation’s patriotic account of England’s south-coast defense against foreign powers in the past and then; when the note-speaker is engaged ironically in representing what Contemplation calls the northern “invaders” (125) as a race of valor and dignity, who drove a group of Muslims off the shores of a town in Italy “notwithstanding the inequality of their numbers” and still declining “every reward” from the natives (222n), the subtle shift in the notespeaker’s intrinsic viewpoint facilitates Contemplation’s retelling of the story of the Norman conquest of England in lines 131-153 from William the Conqueror’s peculiarly
hybridstandpoint as both invader and ruler— he invaded England and became the first Norman king of the country in 1066, ordering “unceasing . . . requiems for the slayers and the slain” alike on the scene of the battle of Hastings near Beachy Head, as Contemplation reminisces (141-42).
And when, musing on the history of south-coast invasions from the Vikings to the Normans, Contemplation refers to an impending invasion from France (“modern Gallia” 143) and to the Italian and Spanish responses to the Napoleonic war, this discourse of strife and feudal ruins involves not an individualistic or nostalgic preoccupation with “the proudest roll” of English monarchs or the turbulent years of the region’s past (167), but rather a uniquely metaphoric vision of England’s current public unease about societal and historical change attendant on the revolution and its aftermath. Therefore, the productively complex interaction between Smith’s speakers, and the figurative and poetic projection of her views on pressing social issues constitute a crucial feature of Smith’s historical discourse, which contrasts strikingly with White’s idea of the fossilized past or his primarily ecological respect for the natural world of south east England. Smith’s account of the regional environment contrasts, too, with Percival’s interest in tropical nature’s potential for agricultural productivity.
Adding to the disagreement between the political awareness of the initial “I” and Contemplation, the poem takes a further turn when Contemplation is replaced by “the reflecting mind,” whose persona dominates the next 114 lines until the reintroduction of the “I.” The reflecting mind cheerfully recoils “From even the proudest roll [which is] by glory fill’d” and “returns / To simple scenes of peace and industry” (167-69). Interestingly, the reflecting mind’s uniquely poetic voice here is marked by a note of irony when its reference to “the proudest roll” alludes to the images of the book (of national history) highlighted earlier in Contemplation’s proud and affected account of England’s past resistance to foreign nations on its own southern coast: “Contemplation here, / High on her throne of rock, aloof may sit, / And bid recording Memory unfold / Her
scroll voluminous— bid her retrace / The period” (117-21, my emphasis). In other words, when the reflecting mind evokes the trope of written record at this crucial narrative juncture, the speaker is imitating— with ironical overtones — Contemplation’s earlier grand and patriotic style, with which the preceding speaker has just retraced history’s “scroll voluminous,” from the time of the Scandinavians landing on the British coast, to “a list” of “illustrious [British] men” who took a stand against France to compensate for the enemy’s “[o]ne day of triumph” in the past (159-63).20
Given the linguistic acuteness characteristic of the reflecting mind’s seemingly lyric persona the speaker’s panoramic overview of the “simple scenes of peace and industry,” delivered in a deceptively personal manner in lines 167-281, involves not an individualistic meditation on a rural life and private sorrows, but rather Smith’s imaginative treatment of social and cultural unrest during the Napoleonic wars, showing her persistent use of the landscape and natural imagery as political icons. The reflecting mind starts with an otherwise picturesque account of a “lone farm” quietly “bosom’d in some valley of the hills” (170-71), but the mind quickly distinguishes this vision of pastoral beauty as secretly involving war and public disorder, with an ordinary shepherd surprisingly engaged in smuggling, “Quitting for this / Clandestine traffic his more honest toil” (182-83). The socialized messages of this suspicious landscape become more prominent when the mind and the note-speaker (225n) univocally highlight the discontents and anxieties of the working class living on Beachy Head; the speakers jointly develop the idea of the ordinary shepherds and laborers of the Sussex coast as victims of current political turmoil, who are led to abandon “what the earth affords / To human labour” and instead to “hazard their lives to elude the watchfulness of the Revenue officers, and to secure their cargoes” (191-92, 225n). The unusual combination of voices toward a common goal contributes to the effect of portraying the ordinary men’s engagement in “the perilous trade” in a compassionate light (188), presenting the problem as essentially a matter of human suffering under the political climate, rather than a personal moral issue. Smith thus interprets coastal landscape as a site deeply involved with social changes, suggesting Beachy Head’s symbolic situation in the contemporary political scene. Furthermore, the reflecting mind’s somber meditation on the human “commerce of destruction” nicely parallels the poem’s opening emphasis on the “ship of commerce” (42), a seascape watched on top of Beachy Head and associated with Britain’s imperial identity and thus with Smith’s anti-slavery argument. The recurrent trope of transaction jointly involves the issues of class and race as Smith links the suffering of the natives of England’s southern coast to that of a colonial slave in India, who “With perilous and breathless toil, tears off [pearl oysters] / From the rough sea-rock, deep beneath the waves” (53-54).
The poem’s tone becomes increasingly confessional as the “I” appears again in line 282 and directly addresses reader in the first-person, reflecting on his own peaceful childhood, youth and other personal experiences. This portion of the poem appears to develop an unusually intimate relationship between the “I” and the reader partly through the speaker’s brief reference to his experience of “A guiltless exile” in line 288, which some readers have taken literally as an allusion to a distressing event of Smith’s married life.21 However, the speaker’s sense of unhappiness must not be construed too narrowly on a personal level, since Smith uses her speaker’s love of Nature (“An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine, / I loved her rudest scenes”) to show her engagement with issues of public concern (346-47). For example, when the contemplative speaker invokes the images of a happy, but ignorant, rural boy whose martial fantasies “[Have] led him on, till he has given up / His freedom” to find only misery “While yet a stripling” (280-81, 279), the imagined prospect of pastoral beauty embeds a stark Blakean contrast between the innocent and experienced states of human lives. A similar treatment of England’s social reality is involved in the speaker’s recollection of his own younger self looking down on “the sturdy hind” toiling with his “panting team” of oxen up “the hollow way” (307, 308, 305). This hilltop vision conveys Smith’s acute social awareness, presenting the surrounding view as a site free from the destructive forces of social evils, such as “illegal acts”(211), “hostile war-fires” (228), greed (“frequently the child of Luxury /Enjoying nothing, flies from place to place / In chase of pleasure” 245-47), and even London’s polluted atmosphere (“the polluted smoky atmosphere / And dark and stifling streets” 291-92).
20As a long note details on the boundary of the page (224n), the latter event refers to the defeat of Beachy Head, which the Allied forces of the English and Dutch allowed earlier to Admiral Tourville’s 1690 French fleet on the coast of England. 21Labbe, for example, has claimed that the “I” represents “the familiar figure of ‘Charlotte Smith,’ sorrowful and needy,” taking the phrase as a direct reference to Smith’s own enforced residence in France during the 1780s, a period Smith was seeking shelter from her husband’s numerous creditors (148).
The poem’s consistent emphasis on the language of science supplements the effect of Smith’s detachment from the language of subjectivity she once employed in her earlier collections of elegiac self-fashioning. The “I” who meditates on “Science’ [
sic] proudest boast” functions in this way when the speaker finds contemporary treatises on geological findings (including White’s Natural History) practically unable to explain the origin of “the strange and foreign forms / Of sea-shells” found on the chalky headland of East Sussex (390, 373-74). After the “I” has dismissed the “vague theories” of the earth as generally irrelevant to the quotidian reality of the herdsman on the knoll (394), Smith continues to use the perimeter of the volume in order to attack the authority and rhetoric of science involved with the explanations of “the teeth and bones of an elephant” discovered at Burton in Sussex in 1740 (234n):
In this explanatory note the reader is provided, first, with two different speculations about the elephant’s bones: that of the Reverend Langrish tracing the origin of the bones as far back as to the time of the biblical Flood, and another pointing to the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, an idea relying on the authority of the Roman historian Cassius and the English poet Milton. Second, there is a piece of counter-evidence found in North America, which tends to disprove both previous claims. Taken as a whole, attentive readers may see that the note-speaker has presented the archaeological findings as a matter of dispute, placing those “learned” explanations side by side that are widely different in the space, time, and motives they associate with truth.22
Interestingly, the long note concerning the authoritative accounts of the bones at Burton is followed by another, which supports the main text’s brief allusion to a folkloric account of the relation between the bones and the visible features of the South Downs:
By showing how the bony remnant of the past is described differently in popular oral myths of the region, Smith represents the contrasting rhetoric of expertise as an almost closed system of discourse posing a threat to the discourse of oral history and fables. She indicates the failures of scientific discourse to explain the profound human condition in the rural area of south England in a social, cultural and linguistic context. Furthermore, given Smith’s paratextual investment in showing the discrepancy between the accepted accounts of the matter, the poem brings the very idea of scientific or spiritual
authorityinto question, which is often based on rhetoric and assumptions (the Reverend Langrish’s clerical “conjecture,” for example) rather than formal deduction, and the use of inductive reasoning and examples (referring to the bones found at Burton or in North America, for instance) rather than huge amounts of evidence compiled as data. An imitation of dialectical arguments is a common goal of using examples and absolute authority (the Bible, for example, which supports the Reverend Langrish’s dating of the bones to the time of Noah’s Ark), but Smith’s notes illustrate that even examples and authority may lose persuasive power when manipulated by outsiders like the priest Langrish or even the poet Milton, whose self-interests and rhetorical motives do not necessarily coincide with that of scientists or philosophers. Using her notes to explore the nature of antiquarian inquiry, Smith shows how the “experts” in those specialized disciplines use their ethos and informational advantage to serve their own agenda.
22The note’s inquiry into the rhetoric of expertise evokes a twentieth-century conversation on the rhetorical motives for scientific discourse. See Burke, and Gross.
Beachy Headechoes the emergent Romantic preoccupation with the precise details of the natural habitat,23 but it does so to explore the interaction of Romantic botanical interests and the materiality of text. For example, early on in the Advertisement to the volume the publisher notes that “Flora” and “Studies by the Sea,” two poems placed in the middle of the volume, have already been published in Smith’s earlier collection of poems, Conversations Introducing Poetry, Chiefly on Subjects of Natural History for the Use of Children and Young Persons(1804); “[W]ith his usual liberality,” as the paratext suggests, the publisher “has permitted them to reappear in the present volume” because “as many of [Smith’s] friends considered them as misplaced in that work [the Conversationsvolume], and not likely to fall under the general observation of those who were qualified to appreciate their superior elegance and exquisite fancy, and had expressed a desire of seeing them transplantedinto a more congenial soil” (216, my emphasis). The publisher’s message indicates that the decision to reprint the two poems in the Beachy Headvolume has probably been made by the publisher himself following the author’s premature death on October 28, 1806 after an illness, though the primary reason for the action is unclear yet. An explanation for the matter might be that there initially were not enough poems in the collection for a full volume, a problem addressed already in Smith’s earlier letters to her publishers.24 Another excuse is provided by the publisher himself, who refers to an informed plea made by Smith’s “qualified” readers for putting the poems into “a more congenial soil” for them, in this case referring to the Beachy Headvolume. The botanical tropes of replantation not only echo Smith’s predominant subject in the Conversationsand Beachy Headcollections but invoke a particularly Romantic engagement with the idea of the poem as an aesthetic object that not only conveys meanings in its own right but has special significance as a result of its association with something else in the book, in its “place.”25
The trope of the material text plays a pivotal role on the level of the individual poem, too, as
Beachy Head’s fragmentary state generates, if unintentionally, the effects of highlighting its nature as poetic artifice. In July 11, 1806 Smith sends a letter to her publisher, indicating that the Beachy Headvolume is nearly complete, except that “the close of the [title] poem [she has] not yet sent up [to be printed]”; also in progress are “the notes & two short poems, [and] a long preface” ( SL740). While the notes, and possibly the poems, arrive in the end, it seems that “the close” and the “long preface” never do.26 The trope of the text-in-the-making or the text-never-finished effectually underlines the poem’s engagement with the aesthetics of self-consciousness; and Beachy Head’s closing emphasis on its absence of an aesthetic closure might be taken as a gesture of overcoming the fiction of a stable self through self-intransparency.
With all the marks of disparity, cross reference, juxtaposition, reversal, slippage and self-mockery consistently inscribed in the narrative, I see Smith’s characteristically multi-vocal self-fashioning in
Beachy Headas an indicator of her remarkable, if unsettling, meditation on the essential impracticability and absurdity of writing a history of oneself or the nation in a conceptually— and formally — coherent manner. What the formal and narrative discomfort in the poem tells us about its subject is not autobiographical parallels between the author and her speakers, so much as her experiment with—and difficulty in—writing history itself at so many dissonant levels that are framed in the poem. Perhaps, as Kelley has suggested, Smith accents the formal incongruity of these levels of narrative in order to dramatize the unsettling disagreement between two competing models of Romantic historiography: a narrative of “human and natural particularities that are insistently local,” and “the large, supervisory project often characterized as the grand march of history” as exemplified by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1776-88) (287-88). And I want to add that, in comparison to Smith’s earlier works, Beachy Headshows a far greater degree of formal discordance, which does not so much embody the poem’s premium on sincerity or a structure of intense identification between poet and reader, as draws attention to the poem’s status as a kind of enclosing structure of narrative, which reports, foregrounds and comments on the narratives spoken by the poem’s inner narrators. As my discussion above shows, Smith’s liberal use of paratextual elements and multi-vocal presence effectually forbids readers from “seeing” the poet as they see her words on the page.
23For discussions of the relationship between female writing, Romantic botanical interests and historiography, see Pascoe, “Female Botanists”; Ruwe; and Kelley. 24For example, see SL 741 for a letter Smith sent to Johnson on July 12, 1806. 25On the intertextuality and order of Romantic poetic volumes, see Stillinger’s Hoodwinking 1-13 and 116-17; and Fraistat. 26For a detailed account of the development of the collection, see Labbe’s headnote to the volume in her edition of Smith’s poetry.
While the Romantic desire for immediacy is apparent in the triumph of Wordsworth’s theorization of the poetic process as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in the Preface to
Lyrical Ballads,27 Charlotte Smith reacts against Romantic spontaneity in order to develop a very different notion of poetic voice and medium. Given the highly ironic relationship between the text proper and the notes in Beachy Head, and the persistent negotiations between cultural boundaries Smith narrates so visibly in her notes, it is unlikely that the point of surrounding the main text with paratextual devices is to help reader “link” the poem’s multiple speakers with the woman poet. While there is an argument that Smith manages her autobiographical persona along with other gendered voices, and that the woman poet ironically rehearses an essentially masculine, Wordsworthian and sublime merging of “the constituent parts of the Self, taking them apart so as to recombine them” mysteriously (Labbe 147), as far as gender is concerned I want to read Beachy Headas a resistance to dominant male Romanic forms of poetry, especially the forms that valorize the sublime. There is indeed an alternative feminist interpretation of Smith’s treatment of gender in Beachy Head; for example, Pascoe and Ruwe build on Mellor’s influential reading of the Burkean sublime and beautiful as essentially gendered categories, seeing the poem as a gendered resistance to the “egotistical sublime” of Wordsworth’s Preludein its feminine preoccupation with the stubborn otherness, localities and minute particularities of the natural, mostly botanical, world. And I want to add that Beachy Headis a splendid example of a Romantic engagement with the deconstruction of the putative lyric subject—the fiction of a unified, self-identical, stable self. My discussion above shows that Smith deliberately refuses to integrate the competing voices and styles she displays in the poem, preventing readers from easily associating the hybrid poetic persona with her earlier lyric ethos.
Smith’s preoccupation with print apparatuses and discursive modes highlights her awareness of the material and ideological constraints on her own literary production, showing her contemplation on the complicated nature of a woman author’s relationship to her communication media and print culture.
Beachy Headpresents a radically new mode of writing, drawing attention to the importance of those textual elements traditionally ignored in literary criticism, and of their interaction with literary-cultural meaning. By bringing the propriety of the main text into question, and simultaneously laying bare its troubled relationship to the endnotes in which she explores the very scenes and languages of imperial encounter, Smith doubly confounds the distinction between the center and the margins of the book and the world, and undermines her culture’s hegemonic inscription of the cultural and artistic singularity of the text. Her experiment with the reflexive roles of paratext—a textual space typically associated with masculine and imperial authority—demands a radically new frame of interpretation and thus complicates our notions of authorial agency, Romantic subjectivity and feminine writing practices.
27Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) is arguably the most important critical essay of the Romantic period for its bold cultural statement and political radicalism. Indeed, the Preface signals a revolution in literary history, proposing a new expressive model of poetry in which it is, in the end, not language (whether metrical or prosaic) that matters but in fact the human mind which, with its “inherent and indestructible qualities,” functions as the only medium free of distortion (747); and here we see the grand Romantic illusion of unmediated transmission. With his theory of poetic immediacy Wordsworth imagines a state in which the marking of mediation in one’s writing becomes untraceable — thereby an illusion of poetic experiences in which the form of poetry itself becomes paradoxically unnecessary. For discussions of the contradictions inherent in the Romantic ideology of solitary authorship that literary (re)production is dependent on the activity of a mind, see Bennett 64; Langan and McLane; and Stillinger, Solitary Genius.