Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784-1807

December 22, 2011

While thanking earlier scholars of Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth in the preface to her new book, Jacqueline Labbe remarks that "in researching it I have learned vaster amounts than have made it into this study". This observation helps to account for the designedly myopic aspects of the book, suggesting that it has been constructed thus in the interests of correcting what Labbe sees as a "cultural myopia" whereby the adjective "Wordsworthian" gets the lion's share of attention for founding Romanticism when it was really a "joint poetic project". Labbe levers open the terms "Wordsworthian" and "Romanticism" in order to show that the "Smithian" underwrites both.

There is no new biographical evidence that Wordsworth kept closer tabs on Smith than on any other contemporary poet. Labbe mentions the familiar detail about Wordsworth calling on Smith in November 1791 and possibly outstaying his welcome, but Smith never mentions him again. In 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth records her brother "turning over the leaves of Charlotte Smith's sonnets", but, as Labbe admits, "Wordsworth himself keeps rather quiet" about Smith until she appears in a footnote in 1833 as "a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered". It is a bold move, therefore, to claim that "theirs is a cross-fertilization even more rich than the more familiar pairing of Wordsworth with Coleridge". Labbe finds no shortage of "unnoticed allusions" to corroborate a "purely textual" partnership, but these work as allusions only if we read with poetic blinkers.

Take the phrase "dear delicious pain" in Wordsworth's first published poem: Labbe points out that this is "not identical to, but not far from the 'dear delusive art' by which Smith identifies poetry making". "Not far from" as a piece of evidence is not really close enough - "dear delicious anything" is simply a standard bit of 18th-century poetic kit. When Smith herself later uses "dear delicious dream", she is not saluting the young poet who took up her time in 1791; she is deploying an idiom shared by many poets and dramatists, including the poetic apprentice Wordsworth.

Focusing on their "double act" in 1784-1807 allows us to appreciate the rich 18th-century nature, memory and self-based tradition that Smith and Wordsworth both inherited, but it does not help us to understand the ways in which their cadences lead in different directions, although Labbe provides a clue when she notices that Wordsworth's war poetry is "more restrained" than Smith's in 1793. Labbe expertly captures the ways in which Smith and Wordsworth share the medium of print and fixate on the ordering of their collections; she shows that they ask similar questions about the role of the poet and write short lyrics about flowers, but she does not explore or account for how different they sound. In 1798-99, Wordsworth's blank verse does something utterly strange and new: the blank verse in Smith's last volume of 1807 doesn't.

The book certainly succeeds in keeping Smith in the limelight she lost in the later 19th century and Labbe makes a provocative case for her centrality to English verse, but by placing Wordsworth in Smith's orbit, Labbe shows how easy it is to question one form of myopia while unthinkingly imposing another. Many other writers contributed to the formal and philosophical daring of Wordsworthian poetics: Labbe quotes one of them, but refers to her only by her first name and doesn't give her an entry in the index. Smith's fate is poignantly replicated in the way that, as far as this book is concerned, Dorothy Wordsworth has nothing to do with writing Romanticism.

Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784-1807

By Jacqueline M. Labbe. Palgrave Macmillan, 218pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230285491. Published 13 June 2011

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