WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: A note on William Wordsworth: William Wordsworth was known for his habit of walking, sometimes up to five months at a time with only one change of clothes and a pencil. Also, his magnum opus, The Prelude, was “intended” to beaccording to Wordsworth himselfthe “prelude” to a larger work that was never completed called The Excursion. Is he a type of “flâneur” or must the flâneur dwell in cities alone? See Rousseau’s Solitary Wanderer and the Romantic obsession with vagrancy evident in writers like Charlotte Smith. Also, the concept of wandering as imperialisticthere’s an article about this somewhere in my stack on flâneurs. Perhaps the connection is one concerning the appropriation of exteriors, and the slow but steady evolution of poetic self-conception from a state of crystallized “self”a self rooted in childhood and the belief in “souls” into the kind of multiplicity and variable relationism depicted by writers like Deleuze-Guattari.
Whitman was a great flâneur--perhaps the greatest. His mixed background as a journalist and a "slacker" (Wacker 86) provided him with the panoramic literary technique that made his poetry great (Wacker 86). A Romantic in the heart of Manhattan, Whitman found refuge in the "democratic vistas" (Wacker 87) of city parks and Broadway's ever-present "flowing currents of humanity" (Dickstein 186). These organic entities within the grand city were all Whitman needed to pursue his Romantic nature within the confines of so unnatural a setting. Although many Romantics "felt swamped and nullified by city life, Whitman takes pleasure in the current, revels in its diversity. . . . For Whitman this chaos is a plentitude, a blurring of the hard boundaries of the self, the separations of space and time" (Dickstein 186-187). At the center of his relationship with the city, with nature, and with the world as he knew it, is the crowd--possibly the most prevalent image in his poetry and the store from which he draws the "rolling Homeric catalogs [that] are themselves word-crowds" (Dickstein 186). It is by way of the crowd that Whitman is able to achieve the vision that his panoramic style demands: "Emphasizing the body yet himself strangely disembodied, Whitman becomes the tutelary spirit hovering over all human activity" (Dickstein 188). The crowd becomes for Whitman what Nature was for the Romantics: "a scene of ecstatic fusion" (Dickstein 188).
And fusion is at the very core of his narrative, for it is his poetic aim: "Whitman wants more than to be recognized: he wants to be petted, known, loved, he wants to create the future, to dominate it, to merge with it sexually across time and death. The poem itself becomes the medium that 'fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you'" (Dickstein 189-190). In Leaves of Grass, Whitman develops a reciprocal relationship with the world that he encounters. For him, the line of distinction between his soul and the souls of others, his body and the bodies of others and the earth, is not so definite. Because of his belief that all things are related, that he himself "contains multitudes" ("Song of Myself" 51:8), while also being a part of the multitude,5 he holds no reverence for the boundaries and barriers humans place between themselves. In his brief poem "To You," Whitman laments the social barriers that so many have come to revere as natural law:
STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you? (1-2)
The social taboos on speech between strangers are in complete opposition to Whitman's primary theme: "Whitman's theme, his essential myth, is one of connection, of something far more deeply interfused: 'And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them . . . And of these one and all I weave the song of myself'" (Dickstein 188-189). Whitman is constantly in search of "others" to whom he can cleave and define himself (Trachtenberg 164). For Whitman, the other is the multitude, the unspecified "You." Through it, he defines and creates himself, for "[t]he lesson of Broadway, its instruction in the mutuality and interdependence of I and You, [which] constitutes Whitman's poesis: not a speakable lesson but a continuing process, the originating event of his discourse" (Trachtenberg 164). This particular perception is rooted in Whitman's deification of totality, which is based in his general belief that Truth is "'too great for any one mind,' [so] we need to learn to see through many lenses, multiple perspectives" (Trachtenberg 165). This totality supplies the poet's vision with breadth and his narrative with substance. Despite the various emotions that color the processions, their general "effect is to produce an idea of totality, an assembly of parts constituting an immanent even if not yet present whole" (Trachtenberg 170). More than anything, the poet wishes to merge the interiors with the exteriors and to stop placing barriers between the self and the world. Whitman's flâneuristic practices allow him access to this totality and to an inexhaustible store of human perspectives, all taken from a fluid point of view. The poet as flâneur "understands the constancy and thus inevitable incompleteness of its need, a permanent, agitating need, for the other, for you" (Trachtenberg 171)
In this way, Whitman serves as the link between the Romantic view of flânerie and the more Modern view taken by Benjamin. Because he values all things equally, viewing each individual as a component part of a greater whole, he is able to read as much into nature as he is into human beings; "bilingual" as such, and unconfined by a city’s perimeters, he is the poet of not only nature, but of human nature. In this way, he may, in fact, be the best flâneur of all, maintaining his individuality and yet somehow acknowledging himself as a part of everything else. Watching the passing faces of the crowd, acknowledging the singled-out traits of each within himself, he places himself, at last, swirling above the cosmos like a god, while simultaneously remaining present in every existing molecule. The procession that Whitman provides in the cataloging nature of his poems "dissolves the world into sensation in order to accomplish this reintegration. It is a lesson in a mode of being, a way of remaining within the flow even while disentangling oneself from it" (Trachtenberg 173). This perspective can be interpreted as a sort of egotism both beyond and above sin. Whitman ardently asserts himself as the great "I am," and yet the arrogance of this unforgivable sense of self-importance seems to be undermined by his expectation of everyone else to feel and do as he has done in their own productive ways--in essence, to achieve the level of greatness that he has attained in his poem.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual
look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you. ("Poets to Come" 7-9)
He not only actively absorbs his surroundings, but expects those with whom he makes contact to do the same with their surroundings. In this way he is far from the aloof, cool, and keenly observant flâneurs of which Benjamin writes; he is a perfect empath, becoming the crowd as he observes it--sometimes in an almost vampiric or conjugal way. The most obvious example of this is in his poem "City of Orgies":
City of orgies, walks and joys,
City whom that I have lived and sung in your midst will one day make you
Not the pageants of you, not your shifting tableaus, your spectacles, repay
Not the interminable rows of your houses, nor the ships at the wharves,
Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with goods in
Nor the converse with learn’d persons, or bear my share in the soiree or
Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes
offering me love,
Offering response to my ownthese repay me, Lovers, continual lovers,
only repay me. (1-9)
Whereas Poe’s narrator sees "long histories" in the varied forms that pass him, Whitman shares long histories with those he encounters on the streets, celebrating the love-filled gaze of the crowd as the city’s greatest attribute. A similar statement is made again in "To a Stranger."6
For Whitman, the final product is always about unity, unity of himself to all and all to each other. By acknowledging the myriad details of those outside of himself, he "attend[s] faithfully to the external world. This involves pulling oneself out of solipsism into sympathetic awareness of others" (Lopate 90). This awareness is what compels him to write; for it is the translation of such abstractions into concrete metaphors that his poems strive to achieve. He celebrates his anonymity and his celebrity simultaneously--always "a contradiction"--just as "Song of Myself" is a contradiction in that it is actually the song of everyone else. Merging with every passerby, he feeds himself: "All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,/I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there" ("Song of Myself" 33:122-123). His own personal experience, as well as his poem, is enriched by his contact with others, and by the empathy of which he is so supremely capable:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on acane and observe. ("Song of
If the relationship between the poet and the crowd is a figuratively conjugal one, it is not without the city's consent. New York "encourages the imagination to penetrate into it, it encourages the arousal and exercise of a sympathetic, social consciousness" (Robinson 83). By penetrating with his gaze and covering widely with his stride, the poet gains the empathy necessary to sketch, to know, and in a sense to own and be owned by the myriad faces of the crowd; he becomes his own suffering savior of himself and the world of his construction:
I know perfectly well my own egotism,
Know my omnivorous lines and must not write any less,
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.
("Song of Myself" 42:30-32)
Although Whitman’s desire to merge with the crowd is oftentimes sexually charged, Whitman’s ideal of merging with the whole is portrayed in other ways as well.
For instance, one recurring image Whitman uses to demonstrate his urge to merge with the rest of humanity is that of the ocean. The crowd as ocean metaphor is a large part of Whitman's "urban pastoral." Like the ocean, the crowd too "has a deafening roar. Like a swollen river or the ocean itself, the visible movement of the crowd registers the powerful, irrational energies that move it" (Robinson 98). The metaphor is exceptionally strong in "Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd", in which the speaker addresses a single drop of the ocean as though it were a lover, coming to meet him before his death. The drop says to Whitman, "I have travel’d a long way merely to look on you, to touch you,/ For I could not die till I once look’d on you, / For I fear’d I might afterward lose you" ("Out of the Rolling Ocean Crowd" 3-4). To this, Whitman responds, "I too am part of that ocean my love,/ we are not so much separated,/ Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect" ("Out of the Rolling Ocean Crowd" 8-9). Just as the ocean has been used as a symbol of the unconscious, in Whitman's poetry, the crowds come to symbolize the sort of Oversoul or collective unconscious that marks his work as Transcendental (Robinson 99). By immersing himself in the crowd, he rises freshly baptized each day, continually renewed by his empathy.
Of course, Whitman is not limited to empathic relations with humans; he is as capable of empathizing with a cow, tortoise, or pair of birds as he is with a human being. Because of his general openness to all life forms, and even inanimate objects, he manages to incorporate both the pastoral and urban ideals of unity. Whitman is capable of "[t]he delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hillsides" ("Song of Myself" 2:15); he does not require the crowd to feed his intellect, yet he is capable of drawing from it as a source of creativity, just as he is able to draw from the city’s architecture or the items in store windows.
The examples of Whitman as "part and parcel" to both Nature and Human Nature are endless. If he is not addressing the crowd of his own time, he is addressing the crowds of generations to come or generations that have come to pass. He is the poet of everything. He is also an omniscient voice capable of translating the hidden hieroglyphics of the earth and its inhabitants. Whitman says of the grass--the unifying image of Leaves of Grass:
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive
them the same ("Song of Myself" 6:8-11)
Grass, like Whitman, is democratic and unprejudiced. It, like the poet, flourishes in cities and deserted hills alike. For Whitman, the grass is the ultimate hieroglyphic, the one that he was sent to earth to translate for the rest of us:
I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
("Song of Myself" 20:15-17)
The poet knows that he too will one day become that grass that has taught him this lesson. The pastoral image of the grass will ever radiate through these images, just as the more urban image of the crowd will compensate for all the wisdom nature lacks and humanity hoards. For Whitman, each person is as much a hieroglyphic as each poem or leaf of grass: "Human bodies are words, myriads of words" ("A Song of the Rolling Earth" 1:7). Whitman encases these 'words' in a grammar of flânerie, composed of enormous catalogues of sights and sounds and characters and fragrances. The steady flow of images and sensations passes by the reader as though he were walking through the narrative. "To See" is the verb of flânerie, and it is this verb, in its imperative form that begins the first eighteen lines of "Starting from Paumanok" and continues to appear throughout Whitman’s work, in varied forms, such as "Behold" and "Look." As the reader makes his way through the thick descriptions, the detailed lists, and the strings of nouns and adjectives, he is forced to walk with the poet, to see the world through Whitman’s eyes, and, by doing so, perform a sort of secondhand flânerie. It is as if the poet himself were reaching across time and space and taking the reader's hand in his.
* * *
Wandering Around in Beachy Head
H. Marcelle Crickenberger
Because of its fragmentary nature and nonlinear form, Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head seems, at first, problematic. Perhaps this is one reason why so little has actually been written about this poem directly. Most critics have limited their discussion of Charlotte Smith to her fiction and her recently celebrated Elegiac Sonnets. However, when one looks at Beachy Head in depth, it is clear that Smith was doing something new and interesting with her narrative technique. She is taking on the sort of narrative structure that aims to both reflect and reflect upon the narrative consciousness that is driving it along. It is a technique that is rooted in the act of wandering, which begins with the construction of the sublime setting, a setting that provides the poet with a concrete vocabulary of natural images, to which she can affix the abstractions of her meandering imagination. The fragmentary nature of this narrative technique enables Smith to free herself from the bounds of both time and space, achieving a simultaneously panoramic and penetrative perspective, which lends unity to the poem’s fragmentary form and supplies Smith with a vehicle for digression. Such a narrative form lends Smith the necessary means to explore the way in which memory and fancy work together. However, it is a narrative technique that has been only partially explored, at best, and acknowledged, to any extent, only in reference to the poetry of Wordsworth and a few other canonical figures. Although Beachy Head is a rich, multi-faceted text, because of its meddling of genres, its powerful imagery, and its historical and scientifically informed footnotes, it is Smith’s narrative technique that infuses this mixture with meaning.
Smith’s narrative technique is rooted in the act of wandering, whether it be on foot along the sheep paths, in boats that float upon the “trembling tide”, or in flight above the purple clouds that disperse like smoke on wind. Like one’s mind in a contemplative state, her poem does not stay on track, trudging toward a predetermined purpose, but leaps forward and backward in time, circling back on itself like a meditation. The first thing one is struck by when reading the poem is the almost traumatic nature of the creation of the setting in the first few lines. The scene is not described as if by someone who has been approaching it for a long time, from a great distance, but as if the speaker had, in a reclined and settled position, suddenly witnessed the earth crack and rise up in front of her very eyes. The place is created with all the suddenness of birth, with all the force of geological rupture. This is not a place that has been slowly sculpted by the winds of time; it is a dramatic landscape of towering walls and deadly currentsa sublime portrait of a ghostly cliff, with “chalky clefts” (21) and glistening sands that is set in the midst of the tempestuous and cruel flood of the English Channel. Not long after erecting the place itself, Smith unleashes her poetic vision in one great explosion of time and light, hovering high above and establishing an almost cosmic point-of-view: “On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime! / . . . I would recline; while Fancy should go forth” (1-4). It is this “Fancy”, this projection of the poetic consciousness, that enables Smith to summon up the scene so suddenly, as if she were the “Omnipotent” (6) herself, who “[Bids] the impetuous main flood rush between / The rifted shores, and from the continent / Eternally [divide] this green isle” (8-10). The suddenness of her opening allows the reader to see this vast mass of rock arise out of the waters all at once. Such suddenness is essential if the drama of the setting is to be communicated. Beachy Head is not a place to be built up stone on top of stone in the mind of the reader, but a colossal force to be reckoned with all at oncelike the imagination of the poet herself. From the perspective of this panoramic viewpoint, one can assume that, if Beachy Head is emblematic of the poet’s consciousness, it is an associative consciousness, unconstrained by linear time and filled with the sound and light and texture, intriguing individuals, and secret knowledge that gives this fragmented form its substance.
Already it is clear, in the first stanza of the poem, that smooth transitions are not to be a part of this narrative. Shortly after she evokes this looming land mass, Smith points the reader’s attention to the sky: “Emerging, brilliant rays of arrowy light / Dart from the horizon; when the glorious sun / Just lifts above it his resplendent orb” (15). Time has been set in motion; however, even the transitional parts of the day, like dawn and dusk, are passed over in a matter of lines and, before we know it, “The high meridian of the day is past” (29). The way in which Smith treats the passing of time in this description of her setting is essential, because it gives a timeless quality to the narrative itselfa quality that lends well to the fragmented narrative that follows. As the poem progresses, Smith allows her fancy to engage the dramatic landscape in a game of actual and made-up memory, viewing the scene from outside the bounds of time and space, framing the great cataclysmic “concussion” that created this setting, reaching far back into the depths of prehistory to give it life, so as to forge it into an emblem of her own poetic consciousnessthe sublime consciousness. Judging from the dramatic way in which she evokes the poem’s setting, it is evident that Smith has chosen this place because she intends to make a dramatic statement. She asks the reader to wander “sublime thro’ visionary vales, / Where bright pavilions rise, and trophies, fann’d / By airs celestial” (86-88), to sojourn amidst the rolling tides of her plasmic imagination for a time, where “Fancy fondly soars” (85).
But it is not long after the scene has been set that Smith disengages the poem’s namesakethe geography itselfand proceeds to digress, setting up the contrast between the gems that people valuethe cultivated, manicured pearls and diamonds of the Orientand the gem of the big picture of Nature herself, of stars and starlight and a beauty so unqualifiable that the rude trinkets of worldly prizes appear “poor and paltry” (71) by comparison. As if to reinforce this idea, the poet proceeds to describe the sky in jeweler’s terms, lending it the quality of earthly value while at the same time capturing its unearthly beauty:
. . . the floating clouds
Suspended, move upon the evening gale,
And gathering round his orb, as if to shade
The insufferable brightness, they resign
Their gauzy whiteness; and more warm’d assume
All hues of purple. There, transparent gold
Mingles with ruby tints, and sapphire gleams,
And colours, such as Nature through her works
Shew only in the ethereal canopy. (76-84)
Such digressions pervade the poem’s narrative structure and help the reader to reconstruct not only a perspective that wanders through a sublime setting, but a mind that wanders as well. The digression in the above passage, not only imposes a sense of value on the natural scene that endures as the poem’s dominant trope, it also imposes a specific vocabulary on that scene, a vocabulary pulled from what this place called Beachy Head inspires the poet to imagine. Thus, she achieves a level of subjectivity in her description of the surrounding landscape that empowers the place itself with transcendental meaning. This sort of layering of meaning can only be achieved through such digressions, because the meaning is imbedded in the association between digressions and meditationsthe part that is left outthe leap. The use of a wandering narrative techniquea technique that allows objects to be both discarded as well as focused upon meditativelygives Smith the freedom to digress at will. Hers is a narrative strategy that does not order the world so much as it filters it. In this way, the poem becomes as much about the insides of Charlotte Smith’s head as it is about the sublime setting of Beachy Head and its inhabitants.
Enjoying the lack of temporal constraint that the wandering narrative form provides, Smith moves from these imagined objects of meditation to an almost unnameable abstractionhistory itself:
High on her throne of rock, aloof may sit,
And bid recording Memory unfold
Her scroll voluminous
At this point, the poet demands of herself a knowledge that can only be pieced together through imagination. As one can plainly tell from her footnotes, and from common sense, her sense of history (like everyone else’s) is fragmentary; thus, envisioning the passing of events on such a grand scale is an impressive imaginative feat. She must, in her imagination, go back to a time before she was born, filling in the gaps between the fragments through the process of writing; however, she is unableor unwillingto do justice to this history in verse, so she incorporates a footnote, a very long, seemingly well-researched footnote, to compensate; thus she demands the reader to do a bit of outside reading herself, reminding her that history itself is a chorus of many types of voices, subjects, and vocabularies. However, immediately following the digression concerning the martial history of England, Smith jumps to a discussion of the people of her present time, the people who try to sustain themselves on a land that is “Stony and cold, and hostile to the plough” (231): “How gladly the reflecting mind returns / To simple scenes of peace and industry” (168-9). Once again, the landscape intrudes upon her thoughts and her consciousness is redirected. The turn of mind indicated here is probably of more interest than her telling of the way in which her people were forced into illegal commerce. It is the sudden leap from the distant past to the immediate present that grabs the reader and reminds her that Beachy Head is not simply what it is "now", as Smith describes it, but simultaneously what it has been throughout time and what it will become to in the minds of its future inhabitantsand in the imaginations of her future readers. The temporal lines of distinction are blurred as the narrator wanders through history and then turns her head to notice parts of her physical surroundings:
Where the brook is traced
By crouding osiers, and the black coot hides
Among the plashy reeds, her diving brood,
The matron wades, (413-16)
This observation of the surrounding scene renews the speaker's interest in the present. She is transported from her previous imaginative flight concerning the history of her homeland to a more near-sighted imaginative flight concerning the interior lives of the locals:
The mother and the children pile the stones
In rugged pyramids;--and all this toil
They patiently encounter well content
On their flock bed to slumber undisturb’d
Beneath the smoky roof they call their own. (234-238)
Although this passage, at first glance, seems like objective observation, one cannot help but note the use of such subjective words as “patiently” and “content”, words used to describe the emotions that the poet bestows upon her subject via her subjective narrative technique. Such imposed emotional values leads the poet into an empathic state that forces her to turn her eyes inward on the self and to recollect her own personal experiences, experiences brought to mind because of the subjective language she uses to describe what she sees; assuming the locals are “patient” and “content”, Smith is prompted into a reverie concerning her own personal happiness and its dependence on both the scene that surrounds her and her imaginative ability to recollect the scene as she happily remembers it:
I once was happy, when while yet a child
I learned to love these upland solitudes,
And when elastic as the mountain air,
To my light spirit, care was yet unknown
And evil unforeseen:--Early it came,
And childhood scarcely passed, I was condemned,
A guiltless exile, silently to sigh,
While Memory, with faithful pencil, drew
The Contrast; (282-290)
Here, the consciousness of the poet is inseparable from the landscape. And yet the landscape beckons Smith’s mind to return to an earlier time, a time when her consciousness was unmarred by the experience of city life and the knowledge of human hardship. The place summons her back to her childhood, but not to the actuality of her childhood as much as to the flights of her childhood imagination“Haunts of [her]youth! / Scenes of fond daydreams, I behold ye yet!” (297-8). The Beachy Head that Smith longs for in the poem is not one that differs geographically from the one she stands before at present. It is the place as it is experienced through a more innocent state of mind. Just as her narrative wanders through the place of Beachy Head itself, it also moves freely between past and present, passes between interior and exterior worlds, and becomes capable of revealing the consciousness of the poet and penetrating the consciousness of the people about whom she writes. An airy omniscience reigns as the primary narrative force of Beachy Head. Smith is the poet-god-creator of this world as the reader experiences it. But hers is an omniscience that is the direct result of a narrative technique that fails to acknowledge temporal and geographical barriersbarriers between past, present, future, between landscape and poet, and, at last, between reader and poet. It is an omniscience that reflects the surrounding landscape while using that landscape to reflect back upon its own consciousness. The result is a poem that resembles a walk: the steadiness of place anchors the poet’s consciousness to the material world, while at the same time providing it with material for reflection. Thus the poem actually embodies the subjective. The representation of subjectivity is fragmentary because the mind works in fragmentsin images and impressions. This fragmentary narrative becomes subjective in the editing process, when the poet starts to make choices. The series of fragments presented in Beachy Head functions like a montage, a genre which is intrinsically vulnerable to the consciousness that chooses which image to keep and which to leave out. Once the reader has adjusted to the dislocated feel of Smith’s wandering narrative, she is able to see directly into the melancholic consciousness that rests at the center of the poem’s creation. This deeply personal part of the poem, one of the few instances where the poet directly acknowledges her own personal consciousness as suchnot as something that is simply embedded in the landscape but which is bound to itis where Smith allows her narrative to wander between the world that is before her and the world that she wishes she could see. Such longings lie at the heart of wandering, an action that leaves us free to follow our heart’s desire.
“Advancing higher still / The prospect widens” (309-10): Smith’s desire leads her to climb, to regain that panoramic perspective with which she began her narrative so that her poem is able to recapture is collectivist quality, couching her longing to recollect the past in the guise of scientific catalogue. She describes, not simply what she sees before her, but what she wishes she could still see, now that her mind has been tainted by experience:
With fond regret I recollect e’en now
In Spring and Summer, what delight I felt
Among these cottage gardens, and how much
Such artless nosegays, knotted with a rush
By Village housewife or her ruddy maid,
Were welcome to me; soon and simply pleas’d. (340-45)
Struggling to recapture that lost perspective, Smith acknowledges that even the poetic imagination lacks the ability to truly doing justice to such a sublime setting as Beachy Head:
Ah! Hills so early loved! In fancy still
I breath your pure keen air; and still behold
Those widely spreading views, mocking alike
The Poet and the Painter’s utmost art. (368-71)
Abandoning her bird’s-eye vantage point, the perspective of the visionary, she dives downward and wanders within the soil so search for that lost perspective within the fossils of the earth:
And still, observing objects more minute,
Wondering remark the strange and foreign forms
Of sea-shells; with the pale calvareous soil
Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance. (372-5)
Digressing once again in her description of the scene, Smith leaps from the “half-obliterated mounds / And half-filled trenches” (404-5) to a discussion of Memory, and the way that its fragmentary nature requires the imagination to fill in the gaps. Memory becomes the subject of the poem as Smith relates both her own recollective processes and the way in which the place of Beachy Head preserves relics of the pastrelics that disappear with the passing of enough time:
All, with the lapse of Time, have passed away
Even as the clouds, with dark and dragon shapes,
Or like vast promontories crown’d with towers,
Case their broad shadows on the downs; then sail
Far to the northward, and their transient gloom
Is soon forgotten. (434-39)
Almost as a way of escaping thoughts such as these, compounded with images of the ephemeral, the fleetingness of everything, Smith is jerked away to a “a more attractive study… / The wanderer of the hills” (441-2) a figure who, a wandering bard, reflects the character of the narrator but who, because of his gender, is also free to physically engage the landscape on foot.
It seems no coincidence that the figure of the wanderer takes on such a grave importance at this point in the poem. Up until now, it has been the voice of the narrator that has been wandering around in Beachy Headdisembodied and free from the constraints of time and space or the laws of physicsor the risk involved in inhabiting a female body. Now, Smith pulls back from her own consciousness and imposes it upon a human figurea figure who also composes fragmentary poetry as he wanders through the landscape, thinking of love and memory and the act of wandering itself. His “Unfinish’d sentences, or half-rased, / And rhapsodies like this” (575-6) reflect Smith’s own narrative structure. They are filled with the natural images that he seesimages that become his vocabulary: the rising day, the uprooted Elm, Retiring May, the Oaks and Birches and squirrels and Dove-vows, they all transport him to the past and make him long for what is now gone, just as Smith's previous fragments have expressed her own deep-rooted longings. Again, it is the scene that prompts such thoughtsin the poet’s mind, and in the mind of her characters. Somehow, Memory is woven into the poem’s setting, so that any contemplation of the cliffs and channel pull the observer backward in time. The wanderer’s rhapsodies, like Smith’s are guided in this way by the landscape of Beachy Head:
And as above him sail the silver clouds,
He follows them in though to distant climes,
Where, far from the cold policy of this,
Dividing him from her he fondly loves. (659-662)
Trailing off from her discussion of the wandering bard and a realization of the importance of Hope (a concept linked only to the future) and the need to cherish “ideal bliss” (667) (a concept linked only to the present), Smith proceeds to the last digression in her wandering narrative, a digression that returns to the rocks of Beachy Head and to herself in relation to her poem:
Just beneath the rock
Where Beachy overpeers the channel wave,
Within a cave mined by wintry tides
Dwelt one, who long disgusted with the world
And all its ways, appear’d to suffer life
Rather than live (672-76)
The Hermit, with all of his anger and disgust, chooses to live apart from the world and bury himself within Beachy Head, much as Smith does to her own consciousness within the poema vagrant consciousness that, though sickened by the sadness of life, still harnesses enough hope to empathize with those who are struggling. He, through wandering, like the poet, masters his surroundings in a way that enables him, in spite of his negative outlook, to live out the role of the poem’s hero:
Wandering on the beach,
He learn’d to augur from the clouds ofheaven,
And from the changing colours of the sea,
And sullen murmurs of the hollow cliffs,
Or the dark porpoises, that near the shore
Gambol’d and sported on the level brine
When tempests were approaching: (692-697)
Like Smith, the Hermit’s knowledge of Beachy Head is extensive. He has learned to read the signs of the landscape and is able to put this knowledge to use in a way to predict the future and to help those who have been tossed from their boats by the tide.
But if his generous cares were all in vain,
And with slow swell the tide of morning bore
Some blue swol’n cor’se to land; the pale recluse
Dug in the chalk a sepulchreabove
Where the dank sea-wrack mark’d the utmost tide,
And with his prayers perform’d the obsequies
For the poor helpless stranger. (710-716)
In an effort to do some good, in spite of the detriment of the mariners’ situation, he preserves the victims’ memory, providing proper burial, compounding the landscape with more hidden subject matter for contemplation. It only seems fair that, when his charitable efforts finally result in his own destruction, he too is remembered in the chalky whiteness of the cliffs, just as Smith is to be remembered by her poem about Beachy Head.
“Chisl’d within the rock, these mournful lines” (727) become a testament not only to the imaginative powers of Nature and their ability to transcend time and history, but to the powers of the poetic consciousness, a consciousness that is capable of freeing itself and wandering through, above, and within the landscape that stimulates it. In this poem, it is as if the poet has not only constructed a sublime landscape, through which she leads the reader by the hand, but a sublime state of mind that she invites the reader to share, digressing as she has done, leaping off her verse and into the uncharted realms of the imagination. Had she treated her story in the traditionally linear narrative tradition of her predecessors, such an effect would have been lost. She would have been forced to undermine her weightier message with abstract language that is not fit for such a purpose. Because the poem’s dominant cohesive element is that of place, Smith is able to pull from a vast store of concrete images, a language that is capable of transcending language. Wandering becomes her way of learning and teaching the lesson of her poem and leaves the reader feeling as if the poem she just read is somehow wandering within itself.
Cook, Kay K. “The Aesthetic of Loss: Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants and Beachy Head.”
Approaches to Teaching British Women Poets of the Romantic Period. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt and Harriet Kramer Linkin. New York: MLA, 1997.
Jarvis, Robin. RomanticWriting and Pedestrian Travel. London: MacMillan, 1997.
Langan, Romantic Vagrancy: Wordsworth and the Simulation of Freedom. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1995.
Pascoe, Judith. “Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith.” Re-Visioning
Romanticism. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Hayner. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994.
Smith, Charlotte. The Poems of Charlotte Smith. Ed. Stuart Curran. New York: Oxford UP,
Wallace, Anne D. Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic
in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.