The Negative Turn: Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and the Right not to Communicate

This essay proposes a reinterpretation of Charlotte Smith’s role in the romantic sonnet revival. It argues, against the predominant trend in Smith criticism, that Elegiac Sonnets is a counter-sentimental work. Smith’s primary innovation in the sonnet form was a particular way of using its “turn” function to dissociate the lyric subject from an unsatisfying reality. This gesture—the “negative turn”—occurs throughout the many editions of Elegiac Sonnets. Emphasizing this aspect of Smith’s sonnets prepares the ground for a hypothesis about her influence on subsequent generations of poets: similar rhetorical devices can be found in works by Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. The phenomenological efficacy of the “negative turn,” in Smith and other poets, can be usefully described via D. W. Winnicott’s psychoanalytic argument for a “right not to communicate.” Smith’s sonnets invoke this right, and provide a crucial poetic technique for dissociating from the coercive facticity of an unsatisfying reality.