Literature

A Short Analysis of Charlotte Smith’s ‘Sonnet Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’

This week’s poem is a fascinating sonnet, ‘Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’, written by the little-known female poet who did much to bring the sonnet form back into fashion among English poets and readers.

Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex

Pressed by the Moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud 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 sea-weed 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.

Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet. Smith’s sonnets anticipate Romanticism partly because nature in her poetry is so often feared with an awesome power that verges on the terrifying.

‘Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’ is a curious poem, not least because of the form Smith employs: she does something subtle but innovative with the sonnet form here. But before we get to that, perhaps a brief summary of the poem would be useful.

The poem reflects the wild, turbulent nature of the sea, which – under pressure from the moon, whose gravitational force causes the tides – breaks free from its confines to flood the seaside churchyard. Accompanying the powerful waves of the sea, the wind’s force is so great that it succeeds in disturbing the dead bodies in the churchyard which lie buried there.

The bones of the dead thus end up on the sea shore, amongst the shells and the seaweed. However, the speaker of the poem tells us that she nevertheless envies the dead, because they cannot be troubled by this turbulent storm. Their bones may have been torn up by the wind and cast onto the shore, but the souls of those dead people are at rest. This is in contrast to the speaker, who must continue to bear ‘life’s long storm’ which is oppressing her.

Smith was writing just before English Romanticism really got underway as a literary movement. ‘Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’ was published in 1789, that year that heralded the start of the French Revolution which would prove to be such a pivotal event for Wordsworth and others. But Wordsworth and Coleridge’s big breakthrough collection, Lyrical Ballads, was still nine years away, and in many ways it makes more sense to speak of Smith as proto-Romantic rather than full-on Romantic. However, it depends on where one draws the lines and sets up one’s definitions of Romanticism.

Nevertheless, one thing is sure: there is plenty to say about this sonnet in terms of textual analysis of its language and form. First of all, it’s a Shakespearean or English sonnet in that it contains three quatrains and a concluding couplet. And yet Smith does a couple of interesting things with this form. First, rather than following the alternate rhymes of the Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcdefefgg), she uses enclosed rhyme in the quatrains (abbacddc, etc.). And second, she repeats the c rhyme (‘cave’ and ‘grave’) as the f rhyme in the third quatrain (‘wave’ and ‘rave’).

Why does she introduce these variations? One reason is that she wishes to reinforce the speaker’s own sense of isolation and confinement: the sea and wind may be able to break their confines (the wind is ‘rising from the western cave’), but the speaker is ‘oppressed’ by the tumult of living, and the enclosed rhymes of those abba quatrains, and the repetition of those c rhymes in the third quatrain, all reinforce this sense of being trapped amidst the turbulent storm that rages about her.

Even that first quatrain subtly hints at this state of entrapment, through the way the a rhymes and b rhymes narrowly stick closely together through that share long-i assonance:

Pressed by the Moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud 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,

So ‘tides’, ‘combines’, ‘confines’ (so close to its partner, combining with it but also confining it within its own sound-prison), and ‘rides’ all lock themselves intimately together as ‘wild’ and ‘rising’ continue the trend for long i sounds into the second quatrain. (Note also how the short i sounds of ‘shrinking’, to describe the land, give way to the expansive and overspilling long ones of ‘sublimely rides’.)

And ‘sublimely’ is a loaded word for this poem informed by Gothic and proto-Romantic notions of the relationship between man (or, indeed, woman) and nature: Edmund Burke’s influential 1757 treatise on the Sublime, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which would be so important for later Romantic writers, is here summoned. For Burke,

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

The dangerous, uncontrollable energies of the storm and the sea, and the passive helplessness and oppression of Smith’s speaker, conform to Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and make Smith’s poem a precursor to those poems of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) over a century later, in which the whirling wind and ocean threaten to overwhelm or engulf the female speaker. Note how ‘oppressed’, in Smith’s penultimate line, recalls the sonnet’s opening word, ‘Pressed’, and how the very last word of the poem, ‘rest’, rhymes with the first word but also represents a shrinking-down (or, if you will, compression) of ‘Pressed’.

If you enjoyed ‘Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex’ you might also like Smith’s other sonnets ‘Sonnet on Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland’ and ‘Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening’.

3 Comments

  1. I didn’t know the poem and really enjoyed it – not least because I leave fairly close to Middleton and can visualise the scene after a big storm:)). Thank you for sharing the sonnet and the excellent analysis…

  2. An unknown writer. And I really did enjoy the poem. The analysis, as always, very useful. The wind from the western cave image feels, by that time, to be perfectly usable again.Perhaps because it is preRomantic, and not Shelleyed to death?
    Thank you for this.

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