When it comes to many of the essential ideas explored during the Romantic Movement, are women poets ever accredited in their influence over such themes? This is a question that arises when reading Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head.” The poem is so monumental, so breathtaking in its innovation, that one cannot help but to wonder why it is not more renowned in English Literature. Considering that the poem was composed around 1806 just before her death, “Beachy Head” truly strikes modern chords in its themes:
From a modern experience of Romanticism, nurtured by the sometimes oblique narrative strategies of its major poets, a work that begins atop a massive feature of the landscape and ends immured within it bears a remarkable coherence, the more so
since in no poem of the period can one find so powerfulan impulse to resolve the self
into nature. (Curran xxvii)
Although critics may not recognize it as a work equal to that of the major Romantic poets, it is not surprising that both Wordsworth and Keats were greatly influenced by this great poem.
The overall genius expressed by Charlotte Smith in “Beachy Head” can be attributed to her great fascination and love for the landscape of Sussex. The very nature of the poet’s artistic immersion in such a common, specific area is itself evidence of her understanding of a central Romantic idea. The natural beauty that inspires her is not that of some faraway classical monument, it is what she sees in her everyday walks through the county she lives in. Charlotte Smith uses the familiar landscape of southeast England to conjure up incredible allusions to Britain’s great past. She does this with the help of an extremely specific knowledge of the botany, archeology, and history of Sussex. In each section of the poem, Smith “charts the layered and universal nature of the world she knows” (Fay 85). “Beachy Head” is a true example of a poem that embraces many of the great themes of Romanticism and proves that Charlotte Smith should indeed be considered one of the movement’s greatest poets.
Here is an excerpt of some of the poem’s most interesting and beautiful stanzas and some of the major themes they express: The poem starts out in a very elevated tone with the speaker atop the overwhelming cliff on the south coast known as “Beachy Head.” Interestingly, the spirit that inspires Smith’s imagination is not a Muse, but the natural beauty and presence of the amazing natural promontory:
On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!
That o’er the channel rear’d, half way at sea
The mariner at early morning hails,
I would recline; while Fancy should go forth . . .(1-4)
From this amazing vantage point, Smith makes a very grand hypothesis that the British Isles were once joined with the rest of Europe and split at some point very long ago. Such a monumental idea about...