Smith (1789) As a result of trying circumstances Charlotte Smith often imbued her poems with a melancholy tone, as in "Pressed by the Moon," written in the sonnet form on which Smith built her reputation. She focuses on one of her favorite subjects, nature, as metaphor for her turbulent feelings.
The somber tone begins with the sonnet's first word, Pressed, a verb that indicates the power of one entity over another. In this case Smith expresses the moon's power over the ocean's tide. Because the moon has long served as a symbol of the female, one might guess it is referred to in this poem as something that empowers the poet. However, the speaker remains frightened by the effect of the "mute arbitress of tides," as she refers to the moon, because under its influence, "The sea not more its swelling surge confines, / But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides." In this instance the sea gains its power because the moon no longer controls it, having, when full, released that power. Smith's use of alliteration with the s sound at the beginning of words is echoed as well at the end of the verbs confines and rides. The sound supports the visual image of water sliding forward and back again over vulnerable land. The water's power is clear as well in the fact that the land shrinks, as the water "sublimely" covers it. Psychoanalytic critics might view this imagery as sexual, particularly in light of the water's energetic power over the unmoving and silent landscape.
Smith's evocative description continues as she notes a "wild blast" that rises "from the western cave, / Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed." Her continual use of strong verbs, such as rises and drives, adds to the power of the scene. A destructive bent continues, as the speaker notes that the "village dead" are actually torn "from their grassy tombs" as the sea "breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!" In this usage, sabbath means "rest." The ocean commits a true atrocity by disturbing the sacred sleep of the dead.
The remaining narrative presents in vivid horror the scene, beginning with the declarative "Lo! Their bones whiten in the frequent wave; / But vain to them the winds and waters rave." Smith uses irony in her description of the washing clean of the bones by water, often seen as a symbol of cleansing or rebirth. However, in this case those to whom the bones originally belonged do not benefit from the cleansing. They remain deaf to the raving of wind or water. As Smith notes with italics for emphasis, "They hear the warring elements no more." The emphasis shifts the attention back to the speaker, for while the dead cannot observe the frightening scene, which Smith emphasizes by using FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (FIGURE OF SPEECH) to compare it to the destruction of war, the observer can.
In the Shakespearean or Elizabethan form the final rhyming couplet of the sonnet comments on the 12-line topic that precedes it. Smith closes her sonnet with a personal comment by the speaker that reads, "I am doomed—by life's long storm oppressed, / To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest." The melancholy tone turns completely cynical, as the speaker conceives of her situation as worse than death. Smith deftly adopts the extended metaphor of the storm to aid readers in understanding the conflicted nature of her own existence. She feels doomed and oppressed, so much so that she envies those who are dead. However, she never romanticizes death. She remains completely realistic in calling the rest of the dead gloomy.
Critics in Smith's day were said to have found her work so disturbingly melancholy that they feared for her mental and emotional health. Trapped in a bad marriage with many children to support, Smith did at times share the feelings of her speaker.
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