About Charlotte Smith
Charlotte Turner was born in 1749 into the landed gentry. Her father owned two prosperous estates, Stoke Place in Surrey and Bignor Park in Sussex, but gambling losses destroyed his fortune; aged fifteen Charlotte was married off to the wealthy but irresponsible Benjamin Smith, whose money came from the slave trade. Later Charlotte called her marriage legal prostitution. Benjamin was imprisoned for debt and then ran off to France to avoid his creditors, insisting that Charlotte follow him with their nine children. Finally she decided to leave him and to raise the money to feed her family by publishing a large body of works in prose and verse. In all she produced 63 volumes, including several novels and stories for children.
She suffered sorely throughout her life. Her mother died in childbirth when Charlotte was three. Charlotte’s own first child died a day after her second child, Benjamin Berney, was born and Benjamin Berney lived only ten years. Poignant passages about childhood death in Smith’s novels give the lie to the notion that, because infant mortality in the eighteenth century was commonplace, the pain was less for those affected.
‘The Sonnet Written at the Close of Spring’ was published in Smith’s first book of verse, Elegiac Sonnets, published in 1784. This poem and the whole collection reflect her sadness: the beauty of the flowers closely observed and named gives way to her loss of happiness and the certainty of no second spring.
All Smith’s writing reflects the time she lived in and the places she knew. She is sometimes called the Sussex Poet: at different times she lived at Bignor, Storrington, Brighton and Midhurst. After the French Revolution she helped look after refugees from France, and used them as inspiration for her meditation on the Revolution, Emigrants, from which the ‘Fragment Descriptive of the Miseries of War’ is taken.
‘Sonnet on Being Cautioned against Walking on the Headland by the Sea Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic’ is number 70 in the edition of Elegiac Sonnets produced near the end of Smith’s life. Of course it describes the Sussex cliffs she knew, but also the madman’s mental turmoil reflected in the chaotic power of the natural scene. Significantly, Smith envies rather than fears the lunatic who can so lose himself.
Charlotte Smith struggled with poverty until her death in 1806. She was involved in a convoluted and endless legal battle to recover family money owed her: this later became the inspiration for the interminable Chancery suit in Bleak House. More happily, both Wordsworth and Coleridge acknowledged the debt they owed to her, and Jane Austen felt her influence. ‘Sonnet Written at the Close of Spring’ is probably the poem going through Anne Elliot’s mind, in Persuasion, as she sadly walks after hearing the man she loves talking intimately to another woman.
Poems by Charlotte Smith
Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic
Read by Denise Riley
Books by Charlotte Smith
Charlotte Smith: Selected Poems
Fyfield Books, 2003
The Poems of Charlotte Smith
Oxford University Press