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SEL Pratt 2001)

41, 3 (Summer 563
ISSN 0039-3657

Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia on

the Page and Stage


Whether to praise or condemn Charlotte Smith’s art, the late-

eighteenth-century readers of her collection Elegiac Sonnets and
Other Poems similarly describe her work as poetry of “touching
melancholy,” “pleasing melancholy,” or even as “a mere flow of
melancholy.”1 First published in 1784 and appearing in nine edi-
tions and a second volume over the next sixteen years, Elegiac
Sonnets is a collection to which a melancholic mode gives aes-
thetic consistency.2 While most critics of Elegiac Sonnets acknowl-
edge that Smith’s lyric speaker is insistently melancholic, recent
studies by Adela Pinch, Judith Pascoe, and Sarah Zimmerman
emphasize the theatricality of this poetic persona, leaving
unexamined the significance of her sorrows. For these critics,
Smith’s theatricality emerges in her literary ventriloquism of other
writers’ voices, in her public dramatization of her private woes,
and in her staged appeal to the sympathies of the reader.3 Shift-
ing this discussion of Smith in order to focus on her speaker’s
melancholia, I suggest here that the sorrow of Smith’s poetic per-
sona generates and is generated by the theatricality of the
persona’s poetic productions. The lyric speaker portrays herself
as a poet who seeks to escape her sorrows through poetic cre-
ation, but only sporadically achieves a pleasurable literary mel-
ancholia. Even when she does so, the speaker emerges from her
poetic visions to find her suffering unalleviated. Smith’s speaker
presents her poetic performances as illusory and fleeting and
associates these qualities with the theatricality of sentimental
spectatorship as practiced by male literary authorities. The
speaker exposes the theatricality of the conventional poetic pro-

Kathryn Pratt is a visiting assistant professor at Tulane University. She is

writing a book on Romantic melancholia and theatrical culture.
564 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

duction of sorrow in order to claim that her own sorrow, which

exceeds the boundaries of traditional poetic representation, is
actually the most powerful form of theater. In the speaker of El-
egiac Sonnets, Smith creates a poetic persona who insists upon
melancholia as the sign of her authentic literary production, which
occurs in a representational dimension closer to “real” experi-
ence than is the realm of masculine poetic convention. By repre-
senting theatricality not as the illusory opposite of authentic
experience but as the inescapable mode of experience, Smith car-
ries her speaker’s melancholia beyond poetic conventions of sen-
sibility, and thereby claims a higher cultural standing for her
own productions.
Smith’s speaker continually praises, quotes, and imperson-
ates writers of sensibility. In the first sonnet of the collection, the
speaker echoes Alexander Pope’s passionate Eloisa to Abelard
(1717).4 The speaker most frequently alludes to the poets for-
merly known as “pre-Romantic,” including Thomas Gray, Tho-
mas Warton, William Collins, and William Cowper. The phantom
of Thomas Otway (1652–85), the Restoration writer of sentimen-
tal tragedy, haunts several sonnets. Smith’s speaker’s establish-
ment of a canon based on the qualification of sensibility is
unsurprising: as G. J. Barker-Benfield demonstrates, the late
eighteenth century is more convincingly characterized as a cul-
ture of sensibility than as a rational age pocked with oppositional
cults of sentimentality.5 With the exception of Collins, Smith’s
speaker’s poets of feeling were all accepted as aesthetic exem-
plars by numerous would-be canon makers of the late eighteenth
century.6 Smith also includes five sonnets “Supposed to be Writ-
ten by Werter,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s suicidal lover, one
of the most dominant figures in the culture of sensibility.7 In
presenting these literary men as exalted literary geniuses, Smith’s
speaker locates aesthetic authority in the man of sensibility rather
than in the advocate of a common human nature and disinter-
ested judgment.8
In her collection, Smith loosely translates or improvises upon
four sonnets from Petrarch (1304–74). While Petrarch cannot be
classified as a poet of sensibility, his adoption by eighteenth-cen-
tury sentimental culture is pilloried by Smith herself in her com-
edy What Is She? (1799), a work as yet unnoticed by contemporary
critics.9 In the first scene of the play’s second act, the aspiring
author Mrs. Gurnet announces that she is composing a sonnet
in the style of Petrarch.10 Mrs. Gurnet’s sentimentality and her
literary production are alike held up for the laughter of the audi-
Kathryn Pratt 565

ence. Contrasted with the literary hack Period’s calculating ex-

ploitation of the conventions of sensibility, Mrs. Gurnet’s senti-
mental posturing shows not only Smith’s capacity for self-mockery
but also her awareness of the cultural positioning of woman as
the figure of potential excess and artistic incapacity in the cul-
ture of sensibility.11 Late-twentieth-century critics argue in vir-
tual consensus that the culture of sensibility imagined women as
inherently more vulnerable to excessive sensibility.12 From this
cultural conception of feminized feeling issues both the mascu-
line tradition of poetic sensibility, which maintains the historical
position of women as the source and object of the male writer’s
feeling, and Smith’s invocation and rewriting of this masculine
poetic tradition through her representation of “excessive” female
The woman as source and object of persistent melancholia
appeared first in the sonnets of Petrarch, who originated the per-
sona of the melancholic lover writing of his unrequited passion.
Petrarch’s widespread popularity in Europe during the Renais-
sance inspired droves of English sonnet writers who adopted the
Petrarchan melancholic pose. Personification of melancholy as a
woman began in medieval allegorizations of Despair and Sad-
ness and in French romance in which “Dame Mérencolye” was a
hideous figure to be feared. Milton’s Il Penseroso (1631) brought
the female figure of Melancholy to English poetry.14 In Milton’s
poem, melancholy becomes the “sage and holy” goddess of pen-
sive reflection, as the title of the poem suggests. When melan-
choly returned to British literary favor over one hundred years
later, poets of sensibility including Warton and Gray followed the
lead of Milton, emphasizing the pleasures provided by melan-
choly.15 Like Milton, Warton and Gray personify and gender as
female this pleasurable melancholy. Although in the second half
of the eighteenth century readers applauded the melancholic sen-
sitivity of the male poet of feeling, he required the services of a
personified female Melancholy in order to maintain a stable mas-
culine identity safely distant from “feminine” sentimental excess.16
Only through the interaction with a female source of sentiment
could the poet attain the heights of feeling needed for poetic pro-
duction without losing his manhood. Gray’s “Elegy Written in a
Country Church Yard” (1751), for instance, offers the sentimen-
tal subject a succession of pathetic objects for melancholic pe-
rusal: the ploughman, the village-Hampden, the frail memorial,
the crazed poet. In this poem of sensibility, however, the femi-
nized domain where the object of melancholia resides is one in
566 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

which the subject cannot remain without losing the generative

power linked with male subjectivity. Even when the object of the
male author’s sentimentality is a man, like the crazed poet in
Gray’s “Elegy,” we read that in life, a female “Melancholy [had]
mark’d him for her own.”17 “Marked” in the feminized domain of
Melancholy, the poet is as much a written-upon object as he is
himself the writer. Through a final movement into masculine
space—the “bosom of his Father and his God”—the poet “escapes”
from the feminized realm of melancholic contemplation, and this
conclusion reinforces the masculinity of poetic tradition.18
Smith departs from the masculine poetic tradition by refus-
ing the convention of a temporary melancholic identification that
maintains masculine authority and creative power. Instead of
arising from contemplation of a pitiable object and ending with
the turn of sympathy away from that object, the speaker’s mel-
ancholia appears by means of her identification with a pathetic
object, but this identification with the object does not serve as
origin and end of the speaker’s melancholia. In sonnet 70, “On
Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking
the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic,” a madman
becomes the object of her melancholia, as the speaker questions:

Is there a solitary wretch who hies

To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below[?]19

The speaker’s melancholic musing on the lunatic takes a charac-

teristic turn at the end of the sonnet, as she turns from identifi-
cation with the object to a focus on her own melancholic state:

I see him more with envy than with fear;

He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.
(lines 10–4)

The speaker can contemplate the woe of the lunatic precisely

because she is cursed with reason; however, her distinction be-
tween the lunatic’s woes and her own differs from the separation
Kathryn Pratt 567

between the object of melancholia and the masculine subject of

sensibility maintained by poets such as Gray. The speaker repre-
sents her woe as akin to that of the object, but the sadness felt by
the speaker exceeds the contemplation of the object and appears
to originate from elsewhere.
Coupled with her relation to the object of sensibility, the
speaker’s representation of her own melancholia shows it to be a
condition that exists separately from the traditional pathos of the
poet. In sonnet 38 the speaker bewails the “fictitious happiness”
of sleep, personifying Reason as female and saying of her: “And
as the dear delusions leave my brain, / She bids the truth re-
cur—with aggravated pain!” (lines 13–4). Similarly, in sonnet 47
the speaker says to the female figure of Fancy:

Thro’ thy false medium, then, no longer view’d,

May fancied pain and fancied pleasure fly,
And I, as from me all thy dreams depart,
Be to my wayward destiny subdued:
Nor seek perfection with a poet’s eye,
Nor suffer anguish with a poet’s heart!
(lines 9–14)

Fancy is a female personification in the poem, and in the mascu-

line poetic tradition this gendering of Fancy would allow the male
poet to escape melancholia by leaving the feminized domain of
artistic feeling. If the collection ended with this sonnet, perhaps
the speaker could be seen to locate melancholia in the “anguish”
of feminized poetic sensibility, but the next sonnet places the
speaker’s melancholia outside the conventional limits of the po-
etry of feeling.
When Smith’s poet/speaker leaves Fancy’s domain, the
speaker exposes herself to melancholia rather than escaping from
it. The speaker declares:

No more my wearied soul attempts to stray

From sad reality and vain regret,
Nor courts enchanting Fiction to allay
Sorrows that Sense refuses to forget.
(sonnet 48, lines 1–4)

The speaker’s depiction of “Fiction,” or literary invention, as an

unsuccessful solace for sorrow shows the difference between her
568 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

own melancholia and the melancholia of traditional poetic sensi-

bility which begins and ends with contemplation of its pathetic
object. Yet the speaker does not represent her woe as entirely
alien to the sorrow of poetic sensibility. After all, the speaker
creates her melancholic critique of literary sensibility using the
same tropes, conventions, and forms used by the male poetic
authorities. Her identification with the woeful object of feeling is
never broken; rather, when as literary subject she contemplates
the object of sensibility, she reveals through that contemplation
that the pitiable object serves to reflect her own position as the
primary object as well as the subject of sensibility. Pinch ob-
serves that Smith establishes her status as “feeling’s object and
subject” through her echoing in sonnet 1 of Pope’s Eloisa to
Abelard.20 I differ from Pinch in maintaining that through her
melancholia Smith reworks the subject-object relations of poetic
sensibility. Smith creates a speaker who tries to alleviate her con-
tinuing melancholia through recourse to traditional melancholic
poetic production, yet continues to record in verse the failure of
that production to contain her excessive sorrow. Her melancho-
lia thus delineates a larger literary practice that incorporates and
transforms the melancholic identification of poetic sensibility in
order to create new powers for feeling subjects both female and
Smith links the illusory consolations of poetic production to
the theatrical nature of sensibility. Smith’s exposure of the the-
atrical relationship between feeling spectator and pitiable spec-
tacle illustrates the aptness of David Marshall’s observations on
the theatrical nature of eighteenth-century sympathy. According
to Marshall, Adam Smith in his influential treatise The Theory of
Moral Sentiments (1759) “transcends” the problem of his theory
through a faith in identification, in the ability of the spectator to
change places with the victim. Yet Marshall indicates that Adam
Smith remains perfectly aware of the “impossibility of really know-
ing or entering into someone else’s sentiments.”21 I am influenced
by Marshall in my representation of the sentimental spectacle as
inevitably reified into objecthood. For Charlotte Smith, the
subject’s identification with the object exposes the subject to
reification as well. That is, the theatrical nature of sympathetic
identification necessitates the subject’s failure to maintain the
illusion of superiority fostered by the masculinized subject’s dis-
tance from the feminized object. Her poetics emphasizes that her
object’s woes are ultimately unknowable—“He seems, (uncursed
with Reason), not to know” (sonnet 70, lines 13–4)—yet her po-
Kathryn Pratt 569

ems perform a “knowing” of the object’s sorrows through the rep-

resentation of the subject’s knowledge of her own woeful condi-
tion as object of melancholia. The vagueness of the hintings at
the nature of the speaker’s woes now becomes explicable: the
speaker’s sorrows can never be accessible to the reader due to
the very nature of literary sentiment. But the safe theatrical dis-
tance between subject and object is challenged by the speaker’s
double role as both spectator and spectacle: conventional poetic
sensibility itself becomes an unconvincing theatrical mode that
Smith’s theatrical melancholia supercedes.
Smith’s sonnets from Petrarch play an important role in her
representation of the poetry of feeling as limited theatrical per-
formance. Theatricality constitutes the female speaker’s relation-
ship with Petrarch as with the other men who represent the literary
tradition. By assuming the role of dead master poet, the speaker
refuses the binary gendering of poetic sensibility. Sonnets “from”
Petrarch, Metastasio, and “Supposed to Be Written by Werter”
appear almost at the beginning of her collection, and in them
Smith’s speaker writes herself into and out of the melancholic
literary tradition. Stuart Curran writes of sonnet 13, “From
Petrarch,” that “Smith does borrow Petrarch’s underlying con-
ception, but she treats it independently.”22 The speaker intro-
duces Petrarch’s melancholic authority into the collection, yet
she speaks in her own voice the lines purportedly written by
Petrarch. Her performance of Petrarchan sentiment shows the
limitations of traditional productions of sensibility. When his be-
loved Laura dies, Petrarch, as melancholic subject, becomes the
spectator in a theatrical scene featuring the object of his melan-
cholia. Petrarch witnesses Laura’s apparition, saying:

Pensive I lay: when she whom earth conceals,

As if still living to my eyes appears,
And pitying Heaven her angel form reveals,
To say—“Unhappy Petrarch, dry your tears.”
(sonnet 15, lines 5–8)

The consolation offered by the theatrical contemplation of the

object of feeling is, however, illusory. Unlike the eighteenth-cen-
tury poet of sensibility, Petrarch does not relinquish his melan-
cholia for the object, and consequently he becomes the object of
the melancholic gaze rather than its subject. Petrarch enjoins
the natural objects around him to become the spectators who
will witness his transformation into the object of pity:
570 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

Ye vales and woods! fair scenes of happier hours;

Ye feather’d people, tenants of the grove;
And you, bright stream! befringed with shrubs and
Behold my grief, ye witnesses of love!
(sonnet 16, lines 1–4)

With the disappearance of Laura, his object of feeling, Petrarch

disappears from Smith’s collection, admitting his state of loss:
“To heaven she’s fled! and nought to me remains / But the pale
ashes which her urn contains” (lines 13–4).
Through Petrarch’s transformation from subject into object,
Smith shows how the literature of sensibility maintains the the-
atrical distance between the contemplating subject and the ob-
ject of contemplation even when the subject cannot relinquish its
melancholic identification with the object. Similarly, in the five
sonnets “Supposed to be Written by Werter,” Werter’s melancholy
destroys his position as subject of sensibility. He depicts his death
as a conversion from spectating subject to object: “worms shall
feed on this devoted heart, / Where even thy image shall be found
no more” (sonnet 25, lines 11–2). From an impersonation of tra-
ditional poetic sensibility to an uncovering and refashioning of
sensibility’s theatrical structures, the speaker’s progress evinces
itself in the spectator that Werter imagines viewing him in his
future role as pathetic object. Werter writes: “Yes!—CHARLOTTE
o’er the mournful spot shall weep, / Where her poor WERTER—
and his sorrows sleep!” (sonnet 24, lines 13–4). The new specta-
tor is Charlotte, Werter’s former object of feeling, but the name of
Charlotte suggests not only a female spectator but one linked to
Charlotte Smith and her poetic persona. The Werter sonnets end
with the vision of the object of sensibility becoming a subject,
and from this point in the collection the speaker does not imper-
sonate authoritative poetic figures. Instead, she restages the dis-
tance between melancholic spectator and spectacle in ways that
fulfill the promise of the Werter sonnets to break the boundaries
between subject and object of sensibility, and in doing so to alter
the scripted positions of gendered and generic authority.
That Smith’s melancholia is not antitheatrical but intensely
theatrical becomes apparent with the speaker’s treatment of the
next literary authority to make an entrance. In sonnet 26, “To
the River Arun,” the speaker exhibits the playwright Otway as
the woeful object of her melancholia, writing of the “mournful
Muse” (line 3), “For with the infant Otway, lingering here, / Of
Kathryn Pratt 571

early woes she bade her votary dream” (lines 5–6). The speaker
finishes the poem by a conventional recourse to a storytelling
kindred spirit similar to that in Gray’s “Elegy” and Pope’s Eloisa,
but in this case, the kindred spirit is a female speaker. The speaker
portrays a tragic chorus of kindred spirits, who “pitying, shall
relate / Thy Otway’s sorrows, and lament his fate!” (lines 13–4),
but in fact, the speaker herself is the lamenter of Otway’s fate. As
a kindred spirit, the speaker carries on the tragic tradition of
Otway while reversing the historical Otway’s gendered roles of
subject and object—Otway’s most famous play in Smith’s day
was Venice Preserv’d (1681), popularized by the performance of
Sarah Siddons as the tragic Belvidera, systematically reduced in
the play to a mad, and then dead, object of pity.23 In this sonnet,
the speaker establishes Otway’s status as pathetic object, but
the theatrical speaker has yet to foreground Otway in Elegiac
Otway’s presence in sonnet 32, “To Melancholy. Written on
the Banks of the Arun, October 1785,” serves to reveal Smith’s
superior theatrical powers. I include the entire sonnet here in
order to show how from the sonnet’s beginning Smith sets up her
speaker as a theatrical spectator.

When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,

And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy!—such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!

Although dropping over the scene rather than rising to reveal it,
the autumnal veil suggests a theatrical commencement. Yet the
stage seems to lose its borders, as if the space of action has ex-
panded and the spectator no longer has a clear position on the
opposite side of the curtain.24 The speaker nevertheless aligns
herself with the theatrical spectator when she describes herself
572 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

enjoying a spectacle of sights and sounds in this theater of mel-

ancholy: she “love[s] to listen to the hollow sighs” when “at such
hours the shadowy phantom pale, / Oft seems to fleet before the
poet’s eyes” (lines 5–6). Like a figure onstage, the phantom ap-
pears to the poet, and the phantom named by the speaker as the
appropriate character for the melancholic scene is Otway. The
speaker effuses: “Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet, / And
hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!” (lines 10–1). But in
the final lines of this sonnet, the speaker’s “deep sighs,” and not
the sighs of Otway, strike the listener’s ear. The reading audience
who “hears” the speaker’s sighs enables her to step into the place
of Otway and play the starring role of melancholic object for the
spectator. Thus the speaker uses the theatrical relationship of
spectator and spectacle of poetic sensibility in order to upstage
traditional literary productions of feeling (here represented by
Otway’s sighs) with her own theatrical melancholia. “To Melan-
choly” dramatizes the ability of the speaker successfully to take
on the role of literary genius.
Not only does the speaker appropriate theatrical poetic con-
ventions in order to dramatize her own literary performance, but
her production of the sonnet suggests specific stage effects. The
autumnal veil from which mist arises also conjures up famous
eighteenth-century scene designer Philippe de Loutherbourg’s
creation of “mist” for the gothic drama, an effect that had made
its first appearance by the early 1780s. In Loutherbourg’s de-
sign, a scrim of gauze hung between the spectator and the scene,
and could be raised so as clearly to reveal individuals. Several
layers of gauze were used to simulate depth in the mist.25 As the
sonnet progresses, the speaker figuratively raises the layers of
gauze to reveal a performer. First, the spectator of the sonnet
sees merely mist, then a possible shadowy phantom, followed by
the more clearly seen but still uncertain figure of Otway, and
finally the poet/speaker herself, who utters the climactic melan-
cholic lines and gives the dimly seen human form a new shape
and dramatic action. Like the mist, the “strange sounds” and
“mournful melodies” heard in the sonnet also suggest gothic
drama’s mix of musical and dramatic genres.26 For Smith, to mix
theatrical conventions with poetic conventions is to blur the sepa-
ration and hence the respective standings of different artistic
genres and forms. The speaker acknowledges the male poets of
sensibility as literary authorities, but in her reworking of their
theatrical conventions and her hints of the gothic drama, she
shows that her new and improved poetic productions gesture
toward the stage from the page.
Kathryn Pratt 573

Smith’s speaker takes on the role of an impoverished stage

actor in “Written for the Benefit of a Distressed Player, Detained
at Brighthelmstone for Debt, November 1792.” Smith assumes
the voice of one in a group of players stranded in Brighton for the
off season. She describes their plight:

young Ammon there

Rehearses—in a garret—ten feet square!
And as his soft Statira sighs consent,
Roxana comes not—but a dun for rent!
Here shivering Edgar, in his blanket roll’d,
Exclaims—with too much reason, “Tom’s a-cold!”
And vainly tries his sorrows to divert,
While Goneril or Regan—wash his shirt!
(lines 30–7)

In signaling a cold that stems from both “real” and “dramatic”

sources, the Edgar actor eerily reflects the extramotivated per-
formance of the sorrowing speaker in her poetic personae of suf-
fering Petrarch and Werter. The actor must produce artistic
performances under much the same conditions of suffering as
the speaker:

Hard is his fate, whom evil stars have led

To seek in scenic art precarious bread,
While still, thro’ wild vicissitudes afloat,
An Hero now, and now a Sans Culotte!
That eleemosinary bread he gains
Mingling—with real distresses—mimic pains.
(lines 23–8)

The actor, afloat through wild vicissitudes, becomes integrated

into the sea scenery in the same way that actors in the late eigh-
teenth century were no longer being placed on the forestage but,
increasingly, within the scene for illusionistic effect.27 Yet the
speaker still maintains her identification with the actor to an
extent unseen elsewhere in the collection, speaking in the actor’s
voice lines that echo her own characteristic insistence on the
priority of her own melancholia:

More blest the Fisher, who undaunted braves

In his small bark, the impetuous winds and waves;
574 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

For though he plough the sea when others sleep,

He draws, like Glendower, spirits from the deep!
(lines 42–5)

The Fisher becomes the actor’s pitiable object, which shares with
him the same watery scene but serves to reflect the actor’s greater
woe. In the actor/speaker, Smith creates a character whose mel-
ancholia mirrors that of her lyric speaker, precisely because the
theatrical and real experience of the professional actor puts him
or her in a lived relation to art that resembles that of Smith’s lyric
speaker. Smith’s representation of the relationship between ac-
tor and private person reveals that melancholia is that excess in
literary production that suggests “real” experience, but also in-
corporates any notion of real experience into its theatrical per-
Smith may represent the actor as a melancholic artist like
her speaker, but she does not equate dramatic performance with
superior literary production as a general aesthetic principle.
Smith’s privileging of the theatrical mode extends only to drama-
tizations of melancholia. The speaker allies her poetry with the
tragic stage in sonnet 29, “To Miss C— on Being Desired to At-
tempt Writing a Comedy.” She questions:

Would’st thou then have me tempt the comic scene

Of gay Thalia? used so long to tread
The gloomy paths of Sorrow’s cypress shade;
And the lorn lay with sighs and tears to stain?
(lines 1–4)

While these lines seem to indicate an opposition between public

stage and private poetry, the following lines present a different

Enough for me, if still to soothe my days,

Her fair and pensive sister condescend
With tearful smile to bless my simple lays;
Enough, if her soft notes she sometimes lend,
To gain for me of feeling hearts the praise.
(lines 9–13)

The return to public spectacle in the praise of feeling hearts gained

by the speaker links poetic tragedy to theatrical tragedy, even
Kathryn Pratt 575

though the poet downplays the public performance just com-

pleted when she writes that her goal is to gain the praise chiefly
of her “ever partial friend!” (line 14). By opposing the speaker’s
theatrically melancholic poetry to comedy writing, Smith replaces
the traditional generic opposition of stage comedy versus trag-
edy. The speaker links stage tragedy with tragic poetry and asso-
ciates comedy and pastoral poetic tradition with her description
of Thalia’s domain:

the sunny mead,

And bowers of roses, where she loves to lead
The sportive subjects of her golden reign!
(lines 6–8)

Again, the speaker avoids the realm of a female personification

(the muse of comedy); but, once again she associates her art with
the excellence of tearful feeling and this time a female muse (of
lyric poetry) actually assists her melancholic art. Unlike the fe-
male Melancholy of masculine poetic sensibility, however, the lyric
muse gives the speaker not feeling, but artistic prowess—a gift
no less traditional to poetry but certainly not accompanied by
the specific gender positionings of eighteenth-century poetic sen-
sibility. Through her feminized lyric theater, the speaker distin-
guishes her own voice from the conventions of poetry and comedy.
That the speaker depicts comedy as a domain unfit for her
melancholic art is not surprising. Smith’s only play, What Is She?,
ensures its happy ending through the eradication of the central
character’s melancholia. The play opens in a setting that locates
the gothic world in the background of the pastoral comic action.
The playwright describes the scene onstage as follows: “A Small
House with a Garden before it, and a Seat on which Winifred is
discovered Spinning.—In the front of the stage a river and a
bridge.—In the back Ground the Abbey, Mansion-House, and a
distant View of the Welch mountains.”28 While the abbey, man-
sion, and mountains are each in themselves not unique to gothic
drama, the grouping of these scenic elements in a wide prospect
points to the sublime natural and supernatural landscapes that
occupied foreground and background of the gothic drama.29 The
gothic still shadows Smith’s comedy when the disguised hero,
Lord Orton, begins the action of the play by attempting to dis-
cover the secret responsible for the mysterious melancholy of his
beloved Mrs. Derville. When, at the end of the play, Orton (and
the audience with him) learns that Mrs. Derville, an aristocratic
576 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

Italian ward of an evil guardian, sought escape by means of elope-

ment from the convent in which she was immured, but that for-
tunately her dissipated husband died shortly thereafter, only the
location of these sad and terrible events in the past prevents the
comedy from entering gothic territory.30 In fact, the abandonment
of Mrs. Derville’s melancholia, which signifies the gothic’s linger-
ing effect on the comic world, provides the resolution of Smith’s
comedy. What Is She? provides an example of the theater that
the lyric speaker of Elegiac Sonnets rejects: the stage that offers a
generic comic resolution excluding incorrigible melancholics.
Smith’s lyric speaker tries to create a theatrical art that accounts
for the experience that exceeds the representational capabilities
of poetic and dramatic genres.
Despite her theatrical poetic production, in the textual appa-
ratus of the collection Smith’s literary persona’s attitude toward
the “theatrical” relationship of public spectator and performer
seems negative. I identify the voice of the annotator and collector
of the collection with that of Smith’s speaker because I concur
with Pascoe that throughout her career Smith produces an au-
thorial persona that she links to her “real” self.31 For this reason,
I argue, the footnotes and the prefaces to the collection are no
more spoken in Smith’s “real” voice than are her poems, but are
also a part of her dramatized “private” self. In the preface to the
sixth edition, Smith’s persona insists on her lack of artifice to a
friend who chastises her for lack of literary cheer. The persona
protests: “You know that when in the Beech Woods of Hamp-
shire, I first struck the chords of the melancholy lyre, its notes
were never intended for the public ear! It was unaffected sorrows
drew them forth.”32 The speaker here opposes authentic private
sorrow to “affected” public performance. But the speaker does
not identify public theater with empty artifice as did later crit-
ics.33 In the preface to the second volume, the persona declares:
“I am unhappily exempt from the suspicion of feigning sorrow for
an opportunity of shewing the pathos with which it can be de-
scribed—a suspicion that has given rise to much ridicule, and
many invidious remarks, among certain critics, and others, who
carry into their closets the same aversion to any thing tragic, as
influences, at the present period, their theatrical taste.”34 The
sharp distinction made by the critics of Smith’s age between lit-
erature read in the closet and spectacle produced on stage is not
made by Smith’s authorial persona.35 Instead, the persona deni-
grates “feigning” and the anti-tragic theatrical taste of certain
critics. Smith’s persona insists on the validity of theatrical woe,
Kathryn Pratt 577

solidifying her affirmation of “truth in tragedy,” rather than lo-

cating truth in private meditation in opposition to the delusion of
public spectacle or spectator. In Elegiac Sonnets, the truth of trag-
edies both felt and performed supports the leveling of art and
experience under the standard of sorrow. While Pinch argues that
Smith’s production of sentimentality reveals the impossibility of
reconciling writing and experience, I contend that Smith’s expo-
sure of the theatricality of sensibility is a way of revealing the
unknowability that defines experience itself.36
Just as the speaker’s representations of stage culture con-
tribute to her production of an art that redraws the boundaries
of artistic genre, so too do her utilizations of traditional poetic
forms. Smith’s choice of the sonnet as primary vehicle for her
theatrical poetry is appropriate both because of the sonnet’s ori-
gins in melancholic expression and because of the sonnet’s am-
bivalent position in English literary tradition as both an
authoritative literary form and a contested genre. The debate over
the legitimacy of various forms of the sonnet was raging when
Smith wrote her Elegiac Sonnets.37 Literary critics traced Milton’s
sonnet form to Petrarch and accepted it as “correct,” while Smith
and other poets wrote sonnets of “irregular,” not Italianate, struc-
ture. In her preface to the first edition of Elegiac Sonnets, Smith
herself acknowledges the authority of critical opinion: “The little
poems which are here called Sonnets have, I believe, no very just
claim to that title: but they consist of fourteen lines, and appear
to me no improper vehicle for a single Sentiment. I am told, and I
read it as the opinion of very good judges, that the legitimate
Sonnet is ill-calculated for our language” (emphasis mine).38 Here
Smith confesses the illegitimacy of her sonnets, but she also lays
claim to the power of the language and to an art proper because
illegitimate. The propriety of the sonnet as vehicle for a single
sentiment allows Smith to insist on her melancholia, and the
illegitimacy of her sonnet form suits Smith’s practice of rework-
ing literary forms with revolutionary results.39 Yet Smith’s explo-
ration of forms beyond the sonnet accords with her insistence
that her speaker’s melancholia exceeds the capacities of literary
genre and form.
Smith’s reworking of generic and formal limits includes those
of gothic drama and tragedy. When Smith’s persona comments
on some critics’ “aversion to any thing tragic,” she most probably
refers to the critical disdain for the gothic drama, a genre very
popular at the end of the eighteenth century. Smith’s Elegiac
Sonnets resembles gothic drama because of the collection’s mix-
578 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

ing of forms, and its illegitimate forms of verse. In the 1780s and
1790s, the theatrical reviewers anticipated Leigh Hunt and Will-
iam Hazlitt in deploring the gothic drama as an inferior style,
lacking the “manly majesty” of legitimate tragedy.40 As Jeffrey
Cox notes, many writers of gothic drama, including M. G. Lewis,
sought to “elevate” the form into tragedy by assigning heroic vir-
tues to villains.41 Smith’s collection outdoes the gothic drama by
forcefully claiming legitimacy for itself in its very illegitimacy,
rather than by trying to alter the attributes of its characters to fit
the requirements of legitimate drama. Without assigning to her
speaker a classical hero’s virtues accompanied by a tragic flaw,
Smith portrays the melancholic condition of the speaker as a
source of tragic grandeur.42 Melancholia, an “illegitimate” type of
tragic merit by traditional poetic or dramatic standards, makes
the artist into a tragic hero by conferring upon her the “heroic”
ability to produce from suffering a powerful representation of ex-
perience rather than an “inadequate” generic one. This continu-
ing rejection of generic limits stands in opposition to What Is
She?’s conformity to generic expectations.
What Is She? was presented at Covent Garden as the work of
a female author who wished to remain anonymous. Contempo-
rary scholarship has accepted the attribution of What Is She? to
Smith based on strong stylistic, thematic, and circumstantial
evidence.43 Smith’s biographer Florence May Anna Hilbish thinks
What Is She? is not Smith’s play, in part because she never claimed
it, and also because the author of the play is not, as Hilbish puts
it, a “true romanticist.”44 Hilbish’s placement of her discussion of
the play under the heading “Decline” offers sufficient evidence of
the aesthetic standards that lead her to disclaim the play for
Smith. In my exploration of Smith’s theatricality, however, I have
offered ample reason for Smith to conceal her authorship of What
Is She? In the comedy’s mockery of writers of sensibility sounds
an authorial voice antagonistic to theatrical sensibility, one that
would interrupt the melancholic speech of Smith’s authorial per-
sona. The epistemological status of melancholia in the comedy
also controverts the powerfully mysterious melancholia of Smith’s
poems. When the spectator of What Is She? understands the “rea-
sons” for Mrs. Derville’s melancholia, both her melancholia and
the play are ended, for, in Smith’s literary productions, melan-
cholia depends on the theatricality of human experience, on the
inability to know another’s sorrow. What could be less surprising
than Smith’s failure to claim a play that happily ended in perfect
accord with generic expectations and that placed theatrical suf-
Kathryn Pratt 579

fering within the limits that her poetic persona still resolutely
refuses? Smith’s alternative to traditional theater is the “stage”
in sonnet 32 upon which Otway appears to the lyric speaker.
Failing neatly to separate spectator from spectacle, this lyric
“stage’s” uncertain boundaries suggest how Smith’s poetry re-
jects the dividing line between art and experience, and embraces
a theatrical melancholia that distinguishes the “genuine” aes-


I want to thank Mark Schoenfield of Vanderbilt University and the anony-

mous readers at SEL for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this
Cited in Florence May Anna Hilbish, Charlotte Smith, Poet and Novelist
(1749–1806) (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1941), pp. 241, 250,
Hilbish, p. 110. The count is also taken by Stuart Curran in his intro-
duction to the Oxford edition of Smith’s poems (The Poems of Charlotte Smith
[New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993], p. xxiii).
Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume
to Austen (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 60; Judith Pascoe, Ro-
mantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.
Press, 1997), p. 17; and Sarah M. Zimmerman, Romanticism, Lyricism, and
History (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1999), pp. 48–9.
Pinch points out Smith’s literary echoing of Alexander Pope (p. 63).
See G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in
Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 152–3.
Trevor Ross describes Samuel Johnson as both type and advocate of
this disinterested aesthetic authority in The Making of the English Literary
Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century (Montreal and
Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 225, 256.
Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London and New York: Methuen,
1986), p. 53.
Ross notes Johnson’s antagonism to Thomas Warton’s emphasis on
imagination as the criterion for artistic excellence (p. 267).
Hilbish briefly addresses What Is She? in her biography of Smith (pp.
Charlotte Smith, What Is She?: A Comedy in Five Acts (London:
Longman and Rees, 1799), p. 17.
Smith, What Is She?, III.ii, p. 41.
See, for example, Barker-Benfield; and Terry Castle, The Female Ther-
mometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (Ox-
ford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 21–42.
Even Pope’s Eloisa succumbs to this tradition when she gives autho-
rial credit for her passion to the male writer Pope, who plays the role of the
sympathetic male bard who she prophesies will read and tell her woes (Eloisa
580 Charlotte Smith’s Melancholia

to Abelard, Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, ed. Aubrey Williams [Boston:
Houghton Mifflin/Riverside, 1969], pp. 104–13, 113, lines 359–66).
Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Mel-
ancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (New
York: Basic Books, 1964), pp. 123–6.
Eleanor M. Sickels, The Gloomy Egoist: Moods and Themes of Melan-
choly from Gray to Keats (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1932), pp. 13–6.
Todd, p. 53.
Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” in The Com-
plete Poems: English, Latin and Greek, ed. H. W. Starr and J. R. Hendrickson
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 37–43, line 120.
Gray, line 128.
Smith, “Sonnet 70,” in The Poems of Charlotte Smith, p. 61, lines 1–4.
All subsequent citations from Smith’s poems will be from this edition and
will appear parenthetically within the text by title and line number.
Pinch, p. 63.
David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot,
Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 5.
Zimmerman also discusses Marshall’s argument in relation to Elegiac Son-
nets, but she chooses to emphasize the theatrical dynamic only and not
Adam Smith’s recognition of the inevitable failure of transcendent identifica-
tion (p. 49).
Smith, Poems, p. 21, n. 1.
Thomas Otway, Venice Preserv’d, in The Works of Thomas Otway: Plays,
Poems, and Love-Letters, ed. J. C. Ghosh, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1932, rprt. 1968), 2:197–289.
David Garrick ended the practice of seating spectators onstage in 1763;
see Frederick Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, “Actors and Their Repertory,”
in The Revels History of Drama in English, ed. Michael R. Booth, Richard
Southern, Marker, Marker, and Robertson Davies, 10 vols. (London: Methuen,
1975), 6:95–143, 104.
Paul Ranger, “Terror and Pity Reign in every Breast”: Gothic Drama in
the London Patent Theatres, 1750–1820 (London: Society for Theatre Research,
1991), pp. 30–1. See also Sybil Rosenfeld, A Short History of Scene Design in
Great Britain (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973), p. 90.
For information on gothic drama’s mixing of theatrical, musical, and
spectacular genres, see Jeffrey N. Cox, “Introduction,” in Seven Gothic Dra-
mas, ed. Cox (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 1–77, 10; Paula R.
Backscheider, Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early
Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993), p. 167; and
Ranger, p. 1.
Southern, “Theatres and Stages,” in The Revels History of Drama in
English, 6:61–94, 80.
Smith, What Is She?, I.i, p.1.
See Ranger’s discussion of the popularity of sublime natural and reli-
gious scenery in gothic dramas (chaps. 2 and 3).
Smith, What Is She?, V.iii–iv, pp. 82–3.
Pascoe, p. 17.
Smith, Poems, p. 5.
Kathryn Pratt 581

Pascoe discusses the antitheatrical writings of William Hazlitt, Will-
iam Wordsworth, and Leigh Hunt (pp. 92–4).
Smith, Poems, p. 11.
See Catherine B. Burroughs, Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the
Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (Philadelphia: Univ. of
Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 8–12.
Pinch, p. 70.
Hilbish, p. 238.
Smith, Poems, p. 3.
Pascoe argues that the sonnet, while seemingly an antitheatrical form,
actually furthered the performance of passionate feeling because it “served
to tether women poets safely to a known and respected verse form and tradi-
tion” (p. 27).
Charles Harold Gray, Theatrical Criticism in London to 1795 (New York:
Columbia Univ. Press, 1931), p. 263. The entire chapter, “1780–1795,” is
filled with the negative sentiments of critics concerning the late-eighteenth-
century gothic dramas they characterize as inferior “tragedy.”
Cox, In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany,
England, and France (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 115–7.
I am using Backscheider’s helpful analysis of the philosophical differ-
ences among tragedy, gothic drama, and melodrama. In gothic plays, she
argues, “the laws of causality are suspended or made arbitrary and the rea-
sons for the evil impulses—the ‘demons’ within—left tantalizingly mysteri-
ous” (p. 201).
Hilbish documents the ascriptions of the play to Smith (p. 199).
Hilbish, p. 201.