Sunday, July 16, 2006

Studies by the Sea

One of the pleasures of reading Charlotte Smith’s landscape poetry comes in consulting her endnotes, which give the Latin names of the flora and fauna she mentions and convey a sense of her intellectual engagement with nature. Here for example are two stanzas from the posthumously published poem ‘Studies by the Sea’ (1807) – these lines follow a description of the hushed beauty of a calm sea at sunset.
‘Forgotten then, the thundering break
Of waves, that in the tempest rise,
The falling cliff, the shatter'd wreck,
The howling blast, the sufferer's cries;
For soft the breeze of evening sighs,
And murmuring seems in Fancy's ear (1)
To whisper fairy lullabies,
That tributary waters bear
From precipices, dark with piny woods,
And inland rocks, and heathy solitudes.
The vast encircling seas within,
What endless swarms of creatures hide ,
Of burnish'd scale, and spiny fin !
These providential instincts guide,
And bid them know the annual tide,
When, from unfathom'd waves that swell, (2)
Beyond Fuego's stormy side,
They come, to cheer the tribes that dwell
In Boreal climes; and thro' his half year's night
Give to the Lapland savage, food and light.’

And here are the two endnotes, which almost give a sense of someone straining against her own poetic diction to convey a clear picture of nature:
‘(1) Whoever has listened on a still summer or autumnal evening, to the murmurs of the small waves, just breaking on the shingles, and remarked the low sounds reechoed by the distant rocks, will understand this.
(2) The course of those wonderful swarms of fishes that take their annual journey is, I believe, less understood than the emigration of birds. I suppose them, without having any particular ground for my conjecture, to begin their voyage from beyond the extreme point of the southern continent of America. Many of the northern nations live almost entirely on fish. Their light, during the long night of an arctic winter, is supplied by the oil of marine animals.’
There are of course many other examples that could be cited, as can be seen from the e-text of her collection Beachy Head: With Other Poems, which includes ‘Studies by the Sea’.

1 comment:

aurelia said...

An echo of Charlotte Smith's poem and her endnote (1) can be found in Elizabeth von Arnim's eloquent descriptions of the Baltic Sea in 'The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen': "the sun had gone and across the bay the dusk was creeping ... I watched the water rippling in slow steely ripples along the sand just beneath me, and the ripples had the peculiar lonely sound that slight waves have in the evening when they lick a deserted shore." (p139)