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Huge Vapours Brood Above the Clifted Shore -- Charlotte Smith

(Poem #345) Huge Vapours Brood Above the Clifted Shore
 Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
 Night o'er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
 Save where is heard the repercussive roar
 Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
 Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
 Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell
 The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone,
 Singing the hour, and bidding "strike the bell."
 All is black shadow, but the lucid line
 Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
 Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine
 Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
 Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
 That wavering reason lends, in life's long darkling way.
-- Charlotte Smith
clifted (adj): having clefts or fissures; split

As I've remarked in the past, it is often the last line that makes or breaks
a poem. Nor is this assigning it an undue prominence - as in today's piece,
the poet often deliberately structures his or her poem to hinge upon the
ending[1], where the hitherto meaningless or disconnected images resolve, as
if by magic, into a focused and coherent whole. A lovely theory, which has
produced some great poems, but likewise a dangerous one to follow, since
when it fails, it can fail all the way, taking the entire work with it.

I'm not entirely sure, though, in which category to place 'Huge Vapours'. It
starts off as a nice piece of descriptive writing; vivid and observant, if a
trifle 'overwritten'[2]. And in the best poetic tradition, it segues into a
conceit that at once overlays the surface meaning with a metaphor, ties
together and explains the particular images the poet chose to focus upon,
and wraps the whole up rather neatly. On the other hand, though, the
transition is slightly abrupt, and the sense of revelation was pleasant but
not stunning, lacking both the deliberate cleverness of the metaphysicals
and the carefully setup twist that later poets have used to good effect.
Nothing concrete, just a vague feeling that it didn't do quite enough.

Formwise, this was a delightful work - the rhyme scheme and metre faithfully
follow those of the Shakespearean sonnet, but the stanza boundaries are far
more fluid, making a refreshing change from the usual formality of the
typical sonnet. The Spenserian hexameter in the final line was likewise
unexpected, and went a long way towards balancing the ending against the
rest of the poem.

On the whole, I'd give it a positive verdict - it is, as I've said, both
evocative[3] and enjoyable, with some very nice imagery. And perhaps as
importantly, it is a poem that improves with rereading - it does take a
couple of passes to grow on you[4], but the effort is worth it.

[1] I'll present a slightly different example in my next poem
[2] to use a word I picked up just recently
[3] someday I'll actually make it all the way through a commentary without
    the aid of the e word
[4] which might explain my slight dissatisfaction - the majority of poems
    grip me either immediately or not at all. today's is a rare exception.


Biography and Assessment:

Smith, Charlotte

née Turner
 b. May 4, 1749, London, Eng.
 d. Oct. 28, 1806, Tilford, near Farnham, Surrey

  English novelist and poet, highly praised by the novelist Sir Walter
  Scott. Her poetic attitude toward nature was reminiscent of William
  Cowper's in celebrating the "ordinary" pleasures of the English
  countryside. Her radical attitudes toward conventional morality (the novel
  Desmond tells of the innocent love of a man for a married woman) and
  political ideas of class equality (inspired by the French Revolution)
  gained her notoriety, but her work belongs essentially with that of the
  derivative 18th-century romantic tradition of women novelists.

  Smith's husband fled to France to escape his creditors. She joined him
  there, until, thanks largely to her, he was able to return to England. In
  1787, however, she left him and began writing to support her 12 children.
  Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays, which she had published in 1784, had
  been well received, but because novels promised greater financial rewards,
  she wrote, after some free translations of French novels, Emmeline; or,
  The Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake
  (1789). Desmond appeared in 1792 and was followed by her best work, The
  Old Manor-House (1793). Toward the end of her life, she turned to writing
  instructive books for children, the best being Conversations Introducing
  Poetry for the Use of Children (1804).

        -- EB

  On the Sonnets ...
  "Their powers either of invention or expression are nothing, save in the
  ability to reject what is false and superfluous; yet that single merit is
  a thing so necessary to excellence, and so rare, that everybody likes the
  sonnets because nobody doubts their being in earnest ..."
      -- The Book of the Sonnet (1867)

  "[a] very trifling compliment is paid Mrs. Smith, when it is observed how
  much her Sonnets exceed those of Shakespeare and Milton ..."
          -- Gentleman's Magazine (1786)

  [no comment -m.]

  The elegance, the polish, the taste, and the feeling of this highly gifted
  lady, may no doubt be traced in Mrs. Charlotte Smith's poetry. But for her
  invention, that highest property of genius, her knowledge of the human
  bosom, her powers of natural description, her wit, and her satire, the
  reader must seek in her prose narratives.
          -- Mis)

  "Charlotte Smith was the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would
  call Romantic." -- Stuart Curran, ed. and intro. Poems of Charlotte Smith


There's a wonderful Charlotte Smith page (from which the above assessments
were taken) at [broken link]

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