"Still the poet consecrates the stream": Elegiac Sonnets, Petrarch, and English Landscape
This thesis examines the influence of Petrarch's Canzoniere on Charlotte Smith during her writing of the first and third editions of the Elegiac Sonnets from 1784-86. First, I discuss how Petrarch serves as a model of sensibility for Smith in various ways, as she recasts the unrequited, melancholic lover as the relentlessly mournful victim of society. Then, I explain how she Anglicizes the Petrarchan love sonnet by relocating the scenes of memory and despair from Vaucluse into the South Downs landscape. I trace an evolution in Smith's ideas about nature and its relation to the past, and I connect this with the changes that occurred in her life in this two-year period of her early poetic career. I differentiate between her association of the South Downs with early childhood memories in the first edition, and her fascination in the third edition with the local literary history of the Arun River region. Throughout, I argue that her changing conceptions of the English landscape refer back to Petrarch's conceptions of the land and its relation to his inamorata, Laura. Two of Petrarch's sonnets that Smith translates belong to a series he wrote in Valchiusa after the death of Laura, and herein the Italian poet imagines the natural landscape as being haunted by his own emotional past, his grief over Laura, rather than by the spirit of the woman herself. It is this Petrarchan idea of the land wherein nature offers a look into the past, inner world of the poet that Smith gravitates towards in her early sonnets to the South Downs. She would later move onto a new, consoling vision of the land as a way of accessing in the present the spirits of her poetic kindred spirits. Rather than examining her influence on Romantic poetry or her role in the sonnet revival, I consider Smith as a person responding to and reinventing a poetic form that spoke to her as a woman mournful and vulnerable, and as a lover of the local landscapes and histories in which she immersed herself.
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