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.

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

Samuel Rowe
University of Chicago

1.        In the brief essay on the sonnet included in his 1797 Poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge nods to William Bowles and Charlotte Smith as “they who first made [the sonnet] popular.” Coleridge offers a brief genre-theory of the sonnet, beginning by describing it as “a small poem, in which some lonely feeling is developed” (Poems 71). As any reader of Smith’s sonnets would attest, so far so good. Coleridge elaborates:

In a Sonnet then we require a development of some lonely feeling, by whatever cause it may have been excited; but those Sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with, the scenery of Nature. Such compositions generate a habit of thought highly favourable to delicacy of character. They create a sweet and indissoluble union between the intellectual and material world. (Poems 72)
I want to argue that it is precisely this “sweet and indissoluble union” between inner and outer worlds that that Smith’s sonnets fail to achieve—or, perhaps, programmatically evade. Coleridge, famously, championed Bowles rather than Smith, despite the latter’s arguably greater prominence in the 1790s. The impulses that Coleridge derived from Bowles, as W. K. Wimsatt and M. H. Abrams both seminally argued, allowed him to develop an intricate form of lyric coordination between the inner and the outer. The best of Smith’s sonnets, in stark contrast, use the form to maintain subjectivity as an unarticulated space that withdraws from lived experience, in a kind of refusal of the dialectical imperative to integrate mind with nature. Coleridge’s preference for Bowles over Smith, then, may be historically significant in ways that we have not fully appreciated. In fact, criticism since Abrams has given us ample reason to regard this preference as a defensive one. That is, it has led us to suspect that Coleridgean lyrics, and Romantic lyrics in general, are not able to effect the “sweet and indissoluble union” between mind and world that they aim at. [1]  While criticism has demonstrated the intricate varieties of failure, dissociation, and loss in Smith’s successors, Smith herself has largely remained confined, within literary historiography, to a late eighteenth-century tradition of sentimental women’s writing. What follows is an attempt to dispute this classification, and to claim Smith for a Romantic tradition of lyric negativity. [2] 

2.         In recent decades, Smith’s place within the Romantic canon has seemed increasingly secure. This security has been afforded, in large part, by an emerging understanding of her singularly influential role in the Romantic sonnet revival. My aim here is to contribute to this consensus, but also to argue that we have yet to fully grasp the nature of Smith’s innovations in the form. Smith’s recuperation of the sonnet, I will argue, should be understood as motivated by her discovery of a certain way of using the resources of the form to articulate a gesture of affective dissociation and phenomenal withdrawal from the world. I will call this gesture the “negative turn.” The negative turn invests Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784) with a certain silence or reserve that is central to the affective contours of the poetry. It is a phenomenological gesture, but also first and foremost a technical procedure, a certain way of using the sonnet’s “turn” or volta function. The most technically accomplished and interesting of Smith’s sonnets utilize this device to construct a mode of address that disarticulates the subject from its environment. They stabilize subjectivity in relation to a world that is hostile, demanding, or bewildering, and do so not by a gesture of mastery, but of disengagement. This distinctively Smithean [3]  gesture of phenomenal withdrawal, I want to suggest, casts a longer shadow over Smith’s inheritors than we have yet acknowledged.

3.        Throughout the recovery of Smith’s work during the past several decades, it has often been assumed, and sometimes argued, that she was something called a Sentimental Poetess. [4]  Her work has been pointed to, accordingly, as a substantiation of the link between high Romanticism and the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility (McGann, Poetics of Sensibility; Nagle; Özdemir). [5]  If we read Smith’s sonnets for their diction and rhetoric, there is a great deal to be said for this claim. If we turn to the underlying lyric structure of the sonnets, however, something deeply counter-sentimental in Smith’s writing emerges—which is to say, something predicated on a lack of sensibility and responsiveness to social and natural worlds. Many critics of the sonnets notice a curious lack of specificity in Smith’s laments (McGann, Poetics of Sensibility 157; Labbe, Charlotte Smith 75–76; Weisman 25). With only a few exceptions, the sonnets maintain a stony silence on the cause of their despondency. This fact is all the more remarkable given what we know about Smith’s life, which furnished her with ample cause for lament. [6]  Nor can the sonnets’ taciturnity be plausibly attributed to feminine modesty: Smith was not at all reticent about discussing her grievances in correspondence, and publicly alluded to them at length in the 1797 preface to the second volume of her Poems.

4.        Michael Hansen has helpfully situated Smith (and the sonnet revival writ large) within a different tradition, that of the eighteenth-century elegy. As Hansen argues, the word “elegiac” in the book’s title should be taken as a generic affiliation, not just a modal description. This generic redescription of the Elegiac Sonnets (as elegies written as sonnets rather than sonnets that happen to be elegies) is crucial to understanding Smith’s pedigree: according to Hansen’s lineage, she descends as much from the Graveyard Poets as from sentimental writing. Yet to describe the sonnets as elegiac we must have recourse to a strange concept: that of the object-less elegy. With the exception of a set of sonnets spoken by fictional characters and another set that allude to Smith’s deceased daughter Anna (and even here footnotes may be necessary to catch the reference), these elegies consistently decline to say what there is to elegize. Nor do they seem particularly concerned with extricating themselves from the impasses in which they dwell. The lyric function of the elegy, it seems safe to say, is generally to designate a lost object, and then to propose a means of recuperating that loss. The majority of Smith’s sonnets are notable for taking neither of these steps.

5.         We have accrued a number of rich and precise ways of talking about dissatisfaction and loss in Romantic poetry. If I venture to coin a new phrase to describe the gesture that recurs in Smith’s sonnets, it is because it does not seem to me to be perfectly described by any existing paradigm. Rei Terada describes phenomenophilia as a therapeutic retreat from the coercive pressure of ontology into the domain of pure phenomenal appearing. Yet Smith’s dissatisfaction consistently fails to find any appearance that it might attach to as recuperative. Jerome McGann makes an incisive distinction between two different forms of elegy with different economic characters: compensatory (Wordsworth; replacement and remuneration) and ecstatic (Blake and Byron; pure expenditure and loss) (Poetics of Sensibility 150–73). McGann situates Smith’s sonnets in the latter category, yet the poems fit the label awkwardly: they tend to end neither apocalyptically nor orgasmically, but with a demurral. Laura Quinney locates Smith within the genealogy of the “poetics of disappointment,” a tradition of writing that tracks the fall from narcissistic self-validation into the raw, formless flux of mere life. (28-30) Despite their references to the lost plenitude of childhood experience, however, Smith’s sonnets are notable for their refusal to have much to say about the lived affective present that has replaced that plenitude, other than that it is painful. Perhaps closest to the Smithean gesture is the state that Anne-Lise François has described as “recessive action”: a withdrawal from the imperative to action into a state of modest, anticipatory attention. Yet the theoretical force of François’ thought is to show that recession can count as a kind of action, while the force of Smith’s sonnets derives from a more stringent form of stasis, from the feat of engineering closure out of impasse itself. The negative turn, a procedure Smith seems to have discovered within the formal resources of the sonnet, finds a stable ground for subjectivity in the fact of dissatisfaction, the inability of the mind to wholly endorse the world in which it finds itself. This kind of subjectification, in its purest form, is essentially empty, declining all phenomenal content except that of quiet demurral from the world it is offered. Supported by the negative turn, the lyric subject withdraws into the shadow cast by the plenitude of the phenomenal world.

6.        A crisp example can be found in sonnet XXXI, “Written in Farm Wood, South Downs, in May 1784.” As with many or most of Smith’s sonnets, this one adopts formal elements of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan variants. Most crucial, however, is the strong rhetorical break before the concluding couplet—a feature that marks it, arguably, as more English than Italian. For three quatrains, we are comfortably situated somewhere in between the pastoral and georgic traditions, alternating between personified or agential natural features (“Spring,” “slow-descending showers”) and typified human agents (the “shepherd” and the “hind,” the prototypical inhabitants, respectively, or pastoral and georgic space). The sentiment expressed here fits comfortably enough within William Empson’s classic description of the pastoral: as articulating class difference via a vision of the simple, if melancholically finite, life. Yet, upon reaching the couplet, we enter a very different rhetorical space: the appearance of first-person pronouns shifts the sensorial organization of the poem from pastoral/georgic to lyric, retrospectively inflecting the entire scene described in the quatrains around the failure of the lyric subject to take pleasure in it. In fact, the relationship between quatrains and couplet is almost paratactic, as if rigorously separating the lyric subject from its world, rather than trying to rearticulate a relation between them. The turn into the couplet, then, is also a turn into elegiac subjectification. It registers the presence of a mind that hovers on the edge of its world without engaging it.

7.         One of the most rhetorically virtuosic instances of the negative turn appears in a late sonnet, “To the sun” (LXXXIX). Among the rare sonnets that articulate an object of loss (Smith’s daughter Anna), this poem unfolds as a single sentence. Two quatrains organized by conjoined “whether” clauses follow the sun’s diurnal course: morning in the first quatrain and, with accelerating rhythm, noon and sundown in the second. With the apostrophe to the sun as “celestial lamp” at the beginning of line 9, the subject of the sentence (the word “influence”) is announced, and appears to initiate an episode of paint-by-numbers apostrophic praise. Though the sonnet is quasi-Petrarchan in form, its actual turn occurs at line 11, with the appearance of predicate and object: “shines not for me.” Across the enjambed line break, what appeared to be a formulaic paean to the sun has collapsed into something quite different. The appearance of the first-person pronoun opens up an inner space of non-participation in the sun’s universal illumination. While the first two thirds of the sonnet sing the praises of the sun’s illuminating powers, the last third posits an un-illuminable inner world. The sonnet, characteristically, is disinterested in mediating between these two worlds. Its form functions to sustain subjectivity as a kind of negative space that emerges against the background of lived experience. This space is articulated by a gesture of misrecognition and non-participation in just the kind of reliable natural process that is generally held to support a common world. The lyric subject here sets herself up as an exception to the famous designation of universality in Ecclesiastes: “everything under the sun.”

8.         The complexity and rigor of Smith’s negative turn is perhaps nowhere more striking than in her most famous sonnet, “Written in the church-yard at Middleton in Sussex” (XLIV). The scene described here is hardly one of pastoral contentment or sunny illumination, and one might think that Smith had finally found an external scene with which she could express sympathy or identification. The poem systematically develops the familiar Romantic theme of mutability, interweaving concentric cycles of flux: astronomical, geological, maritime, and human. A fitting tableau, it would seem, for a writer so concerned with loss. Yet the poem’s culminating gesture, accomplished in the couplet, is one of disaffiliation with the dead, and rigorous separation of inner and outer storms. Rather than immersing itself in the grim scene it witnesses, the lyric subject articulates itself as an excluded remainder. The contrast between the pronoun “they” in line 12 and the “I” line 13 is characteristic: the lyric “I” sets itself up by demurring from a given world, by refusing to recognize itself therein. This is certainly not, within the canonical Romantic theory of lyric expressivity, how lyric subjectivity is supposed to work. In this sense, the sonnet is a much stranger and more radical poem than the more canonical contributions on the same subject (mutability) by Wordsworth and Shelley: it is as if the inevitable disintegration of human worlds within the flux of natural change were not, taken on its own, tragic enough.

9.        The structure I’ve tried to outline appears persistently throughout the Elegiac Sonnets, from the slender first edition to the full, two-volume version of 1800. [7]  By my count, thirty-nine of the sonnets display the dissociative structure of feeling I have tried to describe, in which the lyric subject articulates its experience of dissatisfaction against a world that fails to reflect that experience. Of these, twenty-six use the turn function of the sonnet form to articulate the affective disjunction between subject and world. (This sometimes occurs in the traditional locations of lines 9 or 13, and is sometimes slightly displaced, as in “To the sun.”) In the formal resources of the sonnet, Smith found a support for a phenomenological procedure of disarticulation between dissatisfied self and indifferent world. The sonnet’s renowned turn function, in her poetry, becomes a turn into subjectification, into the detection of the self as a kind of vacant space of disavowal of the exterior world. The type of Romantic practiced in the sonnets, then, is quite different from that stipulated by a critic like Abrams, who acknowledges the Romantic interest in dissatisfaction and misrecognition, but emphasizes the ultimate re-coordination of inner and outer worlds as fundamental to the structure of Romantic lyric. Subsequent criticism has, again, been more skeptical about the possibility of this re-coordination. Yet it has largely continued to assume that lyrics seek mind-world closure, even if unable to achieve it. In their rigorous avoidance of such closure, Smith’s collection of dissociative sonnets was perhaps never quite equaled in the decades following the 1780s. If one reads Smith’s successors with one’s ears cocked, however, traces of Smithean dissociation remain audible.

10.        The Smithean negative turn has a sporadic but persistent presence in the next three decades of canonical poetry. The most pristine example, after Elegiac Sonnets, is probably found in William Cowper’s “The Cast-away.” The poem’s famous final gesture has become so familiar that we may need to refresh ourselves as to its strangeness:

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone;
But I, beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he. (Cowper 319; ll. 61–66)
The poem’s entire project, up to this point, has been to construct a correspondence between two forms of woe, that of the drowning sailor and that of the poet. The latter, though completely undescribed in the poem, is presented as its true subject, the former as an extended simile. As Cowper explains: “mis’ry still delights to trace / Its semblance in another’s case” (ll. 59–60). This analogic argument is completed in the final lines with a compact statement of symmetry: “We perish’d, each alone.” The abyssal experiences of sailor and poet may be incommunicable, but they are nevertheless mutually intelligible as two cases of a general condition of incommunicability. This is a grim recuperative gesture, but basically a stable one. Yet, with an unmistakably Smithean use of the first-person pronoun, the final couplet punctures this closure, shifting from an analogic argument to a comparative one. This “I,” which has been tacitly present throughout the poem as the occluded referent of the maritime simile, quietly withdraws from the analogic closure that has supported it. The final couplet—recognizably sonnet-like in its economy—is a gesture of the utmost rigor: it withdraws subjectivity from the most minimal form of content or correspondence with an external object. [8] 

11.        Several striking examples of the negative turn appear in Wordsworth’s early poetry. The fragment “A Night-Piece” recounts the passage of the moon through a gap in the clouds. Upon the completion of this “solemn scene,” the poem enters a new rhetorical space:

At length the vision closes, and the mind
Not undisturbed by the deep joy it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene. (Wordsworth 45; ll. 20–23)
It is only with the closure of the “vision” that the envisioning mind becomes sensible. Mind exists as an after-resonance of vision, yet is stringently partitioned off from it. A similar gesture occurs in “An Evening Walk,” a poem in which the evidence of Wordsworth’s early admiration of Smith is well-documented. [9]  The poem’s remarkable sunset sequence concludes as twilight fades into darkness:
But o'er the soothed accordant heart we feel
A sympathetic twilight slowly steal,
And ever, as we fondly muse, we find
The soft gloom deepening on the tranquil mind.
Stay! pensive, sadly-pleasing visions, stay!
Ah no! as fades the vale, they fade away.
Yet still the tender, vacant gloom remains,
Still the cold cheek its shuddering tear retains. (Wordsworth 11, ll. 381–88)
The diction and rhetoric here seem akin to that of Elegiac Sonnets, but a more striking correspondence can be found in the apparent redundancy of the final couplet. The passage’s argument seems complete without it: twilight steals over the heart in sympathy with the corresponding external phenomenon, and the “sadly-pleasing visions” it produces are in danger of fading from view in sympathy with the environment that engendered them. “Yet,” something of the “tender gloom” remains: a certain coldness and shuddering. This “yet,” and the apparent excrescence of the couplet it initiates, marks the turn into elegiac subjectification, the detachment of phenomenal experience from its objects. The “shuddering tear” may be melodramatic, but it should not be mistaken for sentimental: the tear here serves a highly unusual function, articulating the element in experience that fails to enter sympathetic resonance with the world. [10] 

12.        Coleridge’s “Dejection” ode (1802) offers a striking and well-known negative turn:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are! (Coleridge, Poetry and Prose 156; ll. 30–38)
By the eye’s “blankness,” Coleridge turns out to mean a disjunction between seeing and feeling, a failure of objects in the sensorium to find internal correspondents. In this gap between seeing and feeling, subjectivity detects itself as precisely what fails to appear in the phenomenal field. As Tilottama Rajan argues, this “failure of communion . . . radically calls into question the vision of life eddying ‘from pole to pole’ (l. 135) projected in the concluding benediction,” in which Coleridge attempts to vicariously recuperate his own dejection via an address to Sara Hutchinson (232).

13.         Nearly two decades later, several similar negative turns would occur in Shelley’s late, dejected lyrics. “Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples” offers two full stanzas of luscious maritime description before breaking off into affective dissociation: “How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion” (Shelley 136, ll. 27). “To Jane. The Recollection” concludes with a long description of the pines and sky outside Naples reflected in a motionless pool of water, only to conclude with a reassertion of “Shelley’s mind”:

Though Thou art ever fair and kind
And forests ever green,
Lest oft is peace in S’s mind
Than calm in waters seen. [11]  (Shelley 474; ll. 85–88)
“Shelley’s mind” is here understood as that which remains unassimilated to the world’s basic quality of habitability (the perpetual kindness of Jane and greenness of forests). The mind here has a purely negative phenomenal profile, articulating subjectivity as that which is subtracted from the world. It is registered through the detection of turmoil where the world offers none. The Triumph of Life itself, finally, opens with what might be seen as a massive elaboration of the same procedure Smith undertakes in her sonnet “To the sun.” As the sun rises and the “mask / Of darkness [falls] from the awakened Earth,” (ll. 3–4) a universal sympathetic motion occurs among things illuminated:
And in succession due, did Continent,
Isle, Ocean, and all things that in them wear
The form and character of mortal mould
Rise as the Sun their father rose […] (Shelley 484; ll. 15–18)
Yet, as in Smith’s sonnet, however, this sweeping designation of solar universality has at least one exception:
But I, whom thoughts which must remain untold
Had kept as wakeful as the stars that gem
The cone of night . . . (ll. 21–3)
The introduction of the first-person pronoun into the poem is accomplished via a negative conjunction: not “and,” “but.” Subjectification is introduced into mere sensation via the quiet failure of the “I” to align with what it senses. The poem designates the mental phenomena that resist absorption into universality as Shelley’s “thoughts that must remain untold.” This can be read in two ways: thoughts that Shelley declines to communicate (of which more below), or thoughts implicitly incommunicable because contentless, composed of the mere demurral comprised by phenomenal dissatisfaction with a given world.

14.        There is thus reason to speculate that the possibilities Smith discovered in the sonnet were disseminated among a variety of verse forms. To return to the Romantic sonnet tradition, however, we can consider an unusual, delicate Wordsworth sonnet of 1802, “Composed after a Journey across the Hamilton Hills.” Up through the first three lines of the sestet, this poem offers a micro-elegy resolved by a modest compensation: Wordsworth and his travelling companions arrive too late to enjoy the view of Yorkshire from the Hambleton hills, but are treated instead to a magnificent prospect of the sky at dusk. McGann’s distinction between compensatory and ecstatic elegies is useful here: the language of compensation in the sonnet is explicitly economic (“sights that might well repay all disappointment”), setting up a logic in which a lost pleasure is, in the manner of double-entry book-keeping, balanced out by an unexpected one. Yet a subtle negative turn, occurring in the middle of line 12, seems to articulate an exterior to this compensatory logic: the replacement of one prospect by another occurs, it turns out, within an inexorable condition of forgetfulness, the loss that always occurs when human minds attempt to register the unearthly. The delight that the eye takes in the aerial prospect, prior to the turn, is wholly unironic, almost embarrassingly Wordsworthian. The negative turn, however, retroactively registers a contrast: “the eye may be delighted, but as for me . . . .” This gesture is, in a quiet way, quite strange: it causes the compensatory closure established above to unravel, as well as abruptly cancelling the equation of things of the sky (clouds) and things of the earth (buildings) that the second quatrain works so hard to achieve. Marked by an inscrutable affective timbre, the final two and a half lines end the poem with a retreat backward into the void of subjectification, a content-less dissatisfaction with lived experience that seems, retrospectively, to have been resonating under the poem all along.

15.         Perhaps the single most striking example of the negative turn in post-Smithean Romanticism is found in one of Keats’ best-known sonnets, “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” As in Smith’s sonnet to the sun, a parallel grammatical structure organizes this sonnet’s quatrains as antecedents of the conclusion reached in the final couplet. Three objects of loss—inner and outer poetic objects and a woman that Keats had glimpsed at Vauxhall gardens years earlier—are proposed in each of the quatrains, setting up a proleptic elegiac structure in which the couplet, we might expect, will play a compensatory role. A famous Shakespearean procedure, for example, might use the couplet to find a kind of durability and immortality within the poem itself: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The compensation that this sonnet’s turn offers, however, is quite ambivalent and subtle:

—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. (Keats 118–19)
The sonnet might appear to be imperfectly Shakespearean in form in that it enjambs the line preceding the couplet. However, a fundamental disjunction—the disjunction I have been calling the negative turn—occurs between the situation described at the end of line 12 and that of lines 13 and 14. Prior to the enjambment, we are presented with the prospect—a highly Smithean one, as it happens—of standing despondently on the shore. Once we enter the rhetorical space of the couplet, however, we encounter a much stranger idea: “standing on the shore of the world.” This form of elegiac subjectivity involves not the replacement of lost objects, but the fact of their “sinking” into “nothingness,” falling away into a void. Standing on the shore of the world propels the lyric subject into an infinite inner distance from which the objects of the world approach inconsequentiality. Keats’ sonnet thus offers an austere account of melancholia: the death of an outer object world and the retreat into an inner replacement.

16.         If the literary genealogy hypothesized here is plausible, we can suggest that the primary historical importance of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets lies not in their popularization of sentimental topoi, but in their discovery of a new lyric technique for detachment from the world. The originality of this procedure is all the more striking if we recall that Shakespeare’s sonnets, with their aphoristic, rhetorical use of the turn function, had yet to undergo critical recuperation in the 1780s and 90s. [12]  Nor do the other scattered collections of sonnets produced in the late eighteenth century (by Thomas Warton and Smith’s patron William Hayley, for example) provide much precedent for the Smithean negative turn. [13]  Ever since Stuart Curran’s recovery of Smith’s poetry in the 1990s, critics have noted the remarkable energy with which Elegiac Sonnets resuscitated a dormant genre. I wish to add the suggestion that the formal and phenomenological impulse I have been calling the negative turn was the motor of this astonishing revival.

17.         Different ethical and political interpretations of the negative turn might be imagined. Mark Seltzer fortuitously settles on a related term (the turn away, the “turn turn”) to describe the process through which persons create inner spaces “away” (Erving Goffman) from the “official world.” The official world is understood, in a Luhmannian, systems-theoretical idiom, as the collection of self-generating systems that sustain ordinary life. To turn away from the official world, for Seltzer, merely articulates the system’s function of exo-reference that defines and stabilizes its operations. Turned-away subjectivity thus feels, phenomenally, exterior to the official world, but remains enmeshed in its capture. (Seltzer’s systems-theoretical approach is marked by that intellectual tradition’s characteristic affect: gentle paranoia.) The lyric negative turn, following this line of argument, can be viewed as sustaining the integrity of a coercive reality precisely by inwardly refusing to align with it.

18.        Jonathan Flatley offers the materials for a different interpretation when he theorizes a connection between melancholic inner distance and “affective mapping.” The latter is a process of attunement to the correspondences between inner affective space and outer political space. Such correspondences, for Flatley, are most likely to come into view when affective life is approached in a depressive mode—the movement into the depressive position being, in a Kleinian idiom, a gesture that makes the world whole by falling out of it. Melancholic detachment thus provides the opening for new mappings of affective and political space. In Smith’s case, we might think of the fact that she expanded her technical range, starting in the 1790s, to include political verse as well as the elegiac sonnet. (While continuing to compose and publish sonnets, Smith went on to write first “The Emigrants” [1798], a poem that curiously blends elegiac subjectivity with political commentary, and then “Beachy Head” [1807], which, as Kevis Goodman has shown, is concerned with the mapping of political space and time from within a georgic sensorium.)

19.         The problem that comes into view, then, is whether phenomenal detachment from a dissatisfying world should be viewed as buttressing or eroding the normative facticity of that world. This dilemma, as Terada has shown, stems from the phenomenological intractability of the fact-value problem, the tendency of reliable experiences to gain normative gravity. [14]  Smith began writing sonnets in the shadow of an Enlightenment tradition of optimism about the fact-value problem (Hume’s firm is/ought distinction, Bentham’s counter-normative theory of legislation) and before the consolidation of conservative counterarguments affirming the ethical weight of established custom (Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790]). In these two currents, dissatisfaction with what is demands either the construction of an account of what ought to be or a stance of principled resignation to the identity of is and ought. Smith’s sonnets chart a third course, detaching rigorously from what is while declining to articulate a corresponding ought. As I have argued, the negative turn holds subjectivity in a contentless void at the edge of lived experience. In doing so, it fully acknowledges the facticity of an unsatisfying reality, yet leaves unspoken the reality that the subject wished to find instead.

20.        In this way, Smith’s sonnets stage acts of non-communication in a very precise sense, that offered by D. W. Winnicott in a paper titled “Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites” (1996). In Winnicottian clinical theory, healthy adult psychic organization involves the splitting of experience into “true” and “false” selves. The former is composed by object-relating with internal, subjective, unreal (and therefore real-feeling) phenomenon; the latter by compliance with external, objective, real (and therefore unreal-feeling) facts. It is crucial for the subject to remain in communication with her internal objects to maintain this organization, yet this enterprise is attended by the danger that the true self might become fully communicable and thus be exhausted. Such danger explains “the frightening fantasy of being infinitely exploited . . . the fantasy of being eaten or swallowed up . . . the fantasy of being found” (179; Winnicott’s italics). Thus the curiously elliptical forms of communication practiced by certain people, for example artists, in whom “one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found” (185).

21.         In Winnicottian terms, the feat accomplished by the Smithean negative turn is a quiet refusal of compliance. It communicates nothing other than the possibility that there might be something to communicate other than an assent to external facticity. Such a non-communication by no means guarantees the existence of some particular, revelatory secret, but does reserve a place for such secrets. The Winnicottian name for this place is the “true self,” or the “non-communicating central self, for ever immune from the reality principle, and for ever silent” (192). This silent void of inner unreality is both elided and indicated by the negative turn. [15]  Winnicott, reading his paper to the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Society in 1963, finds himself surprised that his thought has led him “to staking a claim . . . to the right not to communicate” (179). A clinician rather than an ethicist, he does not develop this idea. However, it should not be confused with, for example, the Foucauldian polemic against the repressive hypothesis, which holds that individuals should be free to pursue artificial self-fashioning rather than unfold the innermost truths of their being. Rather, the Winnicottian right not to communicate designates a right to dissociation, a right to demur from the facticity of a commonly-held world. It describes the cultivation of inner distance from the real as something that persons must respect in one another.

22.         As critics of Smith (especially Adela Pinch) have long pointed out, the language Smith speaks in the sonnets is often not her own: Smith frequently borrowed and repurposed lines from other poems, and her diction relies heavily on the tropes of eighteenth-century sentimentalism, elegy, and georgic. Thus, even more than self-consciously innovative poets, a writer like Smith works in the communal medium of linguistic exchange and circulation. This lexical bricolage has made it easy to misread Smith as a Sentimental Poetess—that is, a writer who facilitates the circulation of affects and sentiments among persons. Yet the Elegiac Sonnets shape their borrowed linguistic material into a lyric structure designed precisely to afford dissociation from the commonly-held world mediated in language. Oren Izenberg, in the context of twentieth-century American poetry, has argued that one significant strain of poetic experimentalism seeks to replace poems with persons, or to use poetry as a technique for discovering accounts of personhood that might serve as a ground for the social. The Smithean negative turn functions in a related but inverted fashion: it utilizes poetic form (in the most literal-minded sense of the term) to allow persons to withdraw themselves from the ground of social being. It permits the lyric subject, even as she is immersed in the linguistic material of communal life, to remain silent.

23.         Not communicating is thus, for Smith as for Winnicott, a way of dissociating from the facticity of a commonly-held world. In psychoanalytic thought, the concept of facticity or reality has tended to be attached, in one way or another, to the experience of dissatisfaction. That is, the fact of having an experience to which one cannot fully assent serves, for Freud and his students, as a guarantee that that experience bears a relation to external reality. [16]  This tradition of Freudian epistemology places in a new light the question that Seltzer and Flatley identify: whether subjective dissociation from the factical world has the capacity to change anything about that world. This is, as in Seltzer and Flatley, a problem that pertains to the relation of the individual to the social aggregate, but also, as in the broader Freudian tradition, a problem that grounds subjectivity. In Winnicott, the splitting of the ego into “true” and “false” components is a result of “compliance” with the intractable facticity of the external world. The self cannot afford, most of the time, not to comply with the real, but it is rarely fully prepared to do so. In a crucial sense, compliance is thus always false compliance, and the splitting of the self allows external compliance to coincide with internal demurral. Smith’s innovations in the sonnet-form are, I hypothesize, the result of one mind’s negotiation with this problem. The negative turn provides the means of addressing reality from across a gulf of inner distance. It thereby preserves the silent reservoir of inner unreality that makes this distance bearable.

24.        In one of the late sonnets, “To the invisible moon” (LXXX) we find Smith more or less explicitly invoking her right not to communicate. This epistle to the moon, written in the apostrophic second person, communicates an intention not to communicate. Smith would like the moon to know that she is hidden from it, but this is not the same as wanting to be found. The italicized “I”—here, as always in Smith, the signal of negative subjectification—expresses a clear preference: not to transact with the commonly-held world that might be supported by affective or meteorological phenomena. The “I” counts itself as an exception to the gentle, melancholic agency of moonlight, which might sooth others, but does not sooth me.

25.        However, it should be made clear that this sonnet does not offer a pristine specimen of the negative turn, and indeed is rather unusual for Smith. It permits us to cross over from the negated, moonlit world of commonality into the unilluminated inner void that this negation preserves. “But I . . .”: generally, Smith uses this disjunctive conjunction to absent herself from the phenomenal world. Here, however, the dissociative “I” takes on a verb of affirmation: “prefer.” This preferring marks an exit from the pure impotentiality—as with Bartleby—of preferring not to or preferring nothing. [17]  That is, it constitutes a lapse in Smith’s rigorous object-less-ness. On the dark side of the earth, we encounter Smith’s unreal, introjected objects: Mars, the “red comet,” the “fire-ting’d waves.” [18]  By reporting the gleaming and flashing of these quasi-hallucinatory phenomena, Smith suspends, for a moment, the silence that underlies the most ostensibly melodramatic of the sonnets. This communication is brought to a close by the couplet, which returns to an “I” that can only be articulated by negative comparison (“beings less accurst than I”). Yet in allowing this dilation and closure of a hallucinatory inner space, Smith waives, ever so briefly, her right not to communicate.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric.” The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. Norton, 1986.

Agamben, Giorgio: Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford UP, 1999.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poems, by S. T. Coleridge, Second Edition. London, 1797.

---. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Nicholas Halmi et al., Norton, 2003.

Cowper, William. The Task and Selected Other Poems. Edited by James Sambrook, Longman, 1994.

Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Harvard UP, 2015.

Curran, Stuart. “Charlotte Smith and British Romanticism.” South Central Review, vol. 11, no. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 66–78.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. The Hogarth P, 1986.

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Harvard UP, 2008.

François, Anne-Lise. Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience. Stanford UP, 2007.

Goodman, Kevis. “Conjectures on Beachy Head: Charlotte Smith’s Geological Poetics and the Ground of the Present.” ELH, vol. 81, no. 3, Fall 2014, pp. 983–1006.

Hansen, Michael. “Elegy, Ode, and the Eighteenth–Century Sonnet Revival: The Case of Charles Emily.” Literary Imagination, vol. 12, no. 3, 2010, pp. 307–18.

Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787–1814. Harvard UP, 1987.

Hayley, William. Poems: Consisting of Odes, Sonnets, Songs, and Occasional Verses. Dublin: 1786.

Izenberg, Oren. Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life. Princeton UP, 2011.

Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton UP, 2005.

Jackson, Victoria and Yopie Prins. “Lyrical Studies.” Victorian Literature and Culture, no. 27, 1999, pp. 521–30.

Jacobus, Mary. The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein. Oxford UP, 2005.

Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Jeffrey Cox, Norton, 2008.

Labbe, Jacqueline. Charlotte Smith: Romanticism, Poetry, and the Culture of Gender. Manchester UP, 2003.

---. Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784–1807. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Levinson, Marjorie. Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems: Four Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

McGann, Jerome. The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Oxford University Press, 1998.

---. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. U of Chicago P, 1985.

Nagle, Christopher. Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the Romantic Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Özdemir, Erinç. “Charlotte Smith’s Poetry as Sentimental Discourse.” SiR, vol. 50, no. 3, Fall 2011, pp. 437–73.

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford UP, 1999.

Quinney, Laura. The Poetics of Disappointment: Wordsworth to Ashbery. U of Virginia P, 1999.

Rajan, Tilottama. Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism. Cornell University P, 1980.

Seltzer, Mark. “The Official World.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 724–53.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Norton, 2002.

Smith, Charlotte. The Poems of Charlotte Smith. Edited by Stuart Curran, Oxford UP, 1993.

Terada, Rei. Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno. Harvard UP, 2009.

Warton, Thomas. Poems. A New Edition, with Additions. London, 1777.

Weisman, Karen. “Form and Loss in Charlotte Smith’s ‘Elegiac Sonnets’.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 33, no. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 23–27.

Wimsatt, W. K. “The Structure of Romantic Nature Imagery.” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. U of Kentucky P, 1954.

Winnicott, D. W. “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. Karnac, 1996.

---. “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena: A Study of the First Not-Me Possession.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, no. 34, 1953, pp. 89–97.

Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford UP, 2000.

Poems Cited

Spring’s dewy hand on this fair summit weaves
The downy grass with tufts of Alpine flowers:
And shades the beechen slopes with tender leaves,
And leads the shepherd to his upland bowers,
Strewn with wild thyme; while slow-descending showers
Feed the green ear, and nurse the future sheaves!
—Ah! blest the hind—whom no sad thought bereaves
Of the gay season’s pleasures!—All his hours
To wholesome labour given, or thoughtless mirth;
No pangs of sorry past, or coming dread,
Bend his unconscious spirit down to earth,
Or chase calm slumbers from his careless head!
Ah! what to me can those dear days restore,
When scenes could charm that now I taste no more! (Smith 34)

Whether awaken’d from unquiet rest
I watch “the opening eyelids of the Morn,”
When thou, O Sun! from Ocean’s silver’d breast
Emerging, bidst another day be born—
Or whether in thy path of cloudless blue,
Thy noontide fires I mark with dazzled eyes;
Or to the West thy radiant course pursue,
Veil’d in the gorgeous broidery of the skies,
Celestial lamp! thy influence bright and warm
That renovates the world with life and light
Shines not for me—for never more the form
I loved—so fondly loved, shall bless my sight;
And nought thy rays illumine, now can charm
My misery, or to day convert my night! (Smith 76)

Press’d 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 doom’d—by life’s long storm opprest,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest. (Smith 42)

Ere we had reached the wished-for place, night fell:
We were too late at least by one dark hour,
And nothing could we see of all that power
Of prospect, whereof many thousands tell.
The western sky did recompense us well
With Grecian Temple, Minaret, and Bower;
And, in one part, a Minster with its Tower
Substantially distinct, a place for Bell
Or Clock to toll from. Many a glorious pile
Did we behold, sights that might well repay
All disappointment! and, as such, the eye
Delighted in them; but we felt, the while,
We should forget them: they are of the sky,
And from our earthly memory fade away. (Wordsworth 287)

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before this pen has glean’d by teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I may never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. (Keats 118–119)

Dark and conceal’d art thou, soft Evening’s Queen,
And Melancholy’s votaries that delight
To watch thee, gliding through the blue serene,
Now vainly seek thee on the brow of night—
Mild Sorrow, such as Hope has not forsook,
May love to muse beneath thy silent reign;
But I prefer from some steep rock to look
On the obscure and fluctuating main,
What time the martial star with lurid glare,
Portentous, gleams above the troubled deep;
Or the red comet shakes his blazing hair;
Or on the fire-ting’d waves the lightnings leap;
While thy fair beams illume another sky,
And shine for beings less accurst than I. (Smith 69)


[1] This post-Abramsian development might be divided, for heuristic purposes, into at least three strains: a De Manian line (positing that the Romantic lyric’s very materials, language and image, irrevocably alienate it from the reality it seeks to attune itself to) as in the work of Tilottama Rajan (204–59); a phenomenologically-inflected line (positing the abyssal intractability of the inner world that lyric tries to align with the outer), as in the work of Geoffrey Hartman; and a historicist line (positing that lyric attains subjective-objective closure only by excluding historical processes), as in the work of Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann (Romantic Ideology). Each of these lines was in place well before scholars began to seriously read Smith, and she therefore is largely or entirely absent from the seminal arguments. BACK

[2] Throughout this paper, I assume, along with Coleridge, that there is a recognizable form of poetry that concerns itself with procedures of “deduction” and “association” “between the intellectual and material world,” of attunement between subjectivity and its external objects. The consensus that this form of poetry self-evidently exists and is called “lyric” has recently been shaken (Jackson; Culler). While I am unable to address this important and productive controversy in this paper, it does seem to me that retaining “lyric subjectivity” as a plausible analytic category allows one to describe currents in Smith’s poetry that a historicist approach might miss. In Smith’s particular case, I find the (solid) historicist conclusion that Smith’s work can be understood within the late eighteenth-century “culture of sensibility” to be inadequate, for reasons I will try to describe below. BACK

[3] Throughout, I use the term “Smithean” to refer to Charlotte and not, as is customary, Adam. It may come to seem ironic that the most accomplished theorist of interpersonal sentimental transaction shares an adjective with the inventor of the negative turn. BACK

[4] Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins helpfully describe the importance of this figure (the Poetess) in the “lyricization” of Romantic and Victorian poetry. Without necessarily concurring with their claims for the historical specificity of the lyric mode, I share their dissatisfaction with the way in which the figure of the Poetess has been adopted in our reception of women’s writing, very especially in the case of Smith. BACK

[5] A subtle and interesting variant of this argument can be found in both Adela Pinch and Jacqueline Labbe’s work on Smith. While both scholars essentially situate Smith within a tradition of sentimental women’s writing, they also argue for the essential artificiality or impersonality of sentimental conventions (Pinch; Labbe, Charlotte Smith). BACK

[6] For a brief overview of Smith’s early, unhappy marriage and lifelong financial and legal problems, see Stuart Curran’s helpful introduction to his edition of Smith’s poetry (Smith xix–xxviii). BACK

[7] Further striking examples include sonnets III, VIII, LV, LXVII, LXXI, and XCII. BACK

[8] “The Castaway” can be usefully compared with Smith’s narrative poem “The peasant of the Alps,” which concludes with a negative turn that proposes a correspondence between two forms of suffering, only to qualify the equivalence: “A fate too similar is mine, / But I—in lingering pain repine, / And still my lost felicity deplore!” (Smith 91; ll. 49–51). Cowper and Smith corresponded briefly in 1793, after Smith’s dedication of The Emigrants to the former. BACK

[9] The poem contains what appear to be several direct allusions to Elegiac Sonnets, one of them initially appearing, in true Smithean fashion, in scare quotes, but never explicitly attributed. Wordsworth and Smith had spent an afternoon together, according to Smith’s correspondence, in 1791, after the composition but before the publication of “An Evening Walk” (Labbe, Writing Romanticism 1–14). BACK

[10] This Smithean current in Wordsworth can arguably be followed to the first two stanzas of the “Immortality” ode. BACK

[11] The disarticulation between inner turmoil and outer calm in this poem does not, admittedly, quite live up to Smithean standards of rigor: Shelley’s troubled thought appears to be initiated by a breeze that disturbs the tranquil image in the pool. Yet even if some degree of connection between inner and outer turmoil remains, the meteorological phenomenon in question is very quickly displaced by its mental counterpart: “Until an envious wind crept by, / Like an unwelcome thought / Which from the mind’s too faithful eye / Blots one dear image out” (ll. 81–4). BACK

[12] There is no reason to think that Smith had read Shakespeare’s sonnets: her poetry alludes in several places to the plays, but nowhere to the sonnets, nor are the latter referred to in her correspondence. BACK

[13] For partial exceptions, see Thomas Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West” and Warton’s Sonnet I (Warton 75). Both poems, however, are isolated within their respective oeuvres, nor do they contain all the elements I have tried to describe as pertaining to the negative turn. BACK

[14] Again, Smith’s sonnets model on a very different response to fact-value conflation than the one Terada finds in Coleridge and other phenomenophiles. BACK

[15] Mary Jacobus helpfully explicates Winnicott’s paper at length. She also points out passages remarkably resonant with this theory in Book III of The Prelude (152–59). It is worth mentioning that Smith would have been fresh in Wordsworth’s memory when he arrived at Cambridge, as he had been lent a copy of Elegiac Sonnets by his schoolmaster only a few years earlier. BACK

[16] Variations on this theme occur, for example, in Freud’s account of the inhibitory function of the “reality principle,” Klein’s argument that the ego can integrate its objects only by (depressively) acknowledging the fact of their separateness, Lacan’s account of anxiety as a signal of the Real, and Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects. BACK

[17] See Giorgio Agamben’s Aristotelian reading of Melville’s story (243–71). BACK

[18] The sonnet, of course, does seem to describe an actual landscape. If, however, this landscape supports Smith’s inner object-relating, the fact that it happens to exist by no means cancels its unreality (Winnicott, “Transitional Objects”). BACK