Written on the Sea Shore. - October, 1784.
ON some rude fragment of the rocky shore,
Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,
Musing, my solitary seat I take,
And listen to the deep and solemn roar.
O'er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.
Already shipwreck'd by the storms of Fate,
Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,
Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land
From whence no succour comes--or comes too late.
Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,
’Till in the rising tide, the exhausted sufferer dies.
Charlotte Smith, ‘XII. Written on the Sea Shore’, Elegiac Sonnets. London: T. Cadell, 1789.
This poem should not have been forgotten as it is a fine example of both confessional poetry and sonnet form done right. The title’s preciseness, set in a specific time and place (‘the’) nonetheless contrasts with its opening verse: ‘On some rude fragment of the rocky shore’ [emphasis mine] - the first clue that place might not be what is most important in the sonnet. The abruptness of the scenery is echoed in the ‘r’ consonance of ‘rude’, ‘fragment’, ‘rocky’, ‘fractur’d’, and ‘break’, as well as in the unruliness of the imperfect rhyme in the first two quatrains (‘shore’/ ‘roar’; ‘howl’/ ‘soul’). The melodiousness of the stanzas, created by an intermingling of consonance and alliteration, make of the ‘deep and solemn roar’ a description ambiguously suitable for scene and sonnet.
The introduction of the verb (‘[m]using’) is deferred to the end of the third verse, as is the subject who, gazing thoughtfully, takes the spectator's ‘solitary seat’. Whereas both the possessive pronoun and ‘take’ imply someone who has a precise, usual place in the scene, - ‘a’, rather than ‘my’, would be used for a seat taken for the first time - the use of the inserted rhyme (i.e., the rhyme scheme is abba) in the four instances where the subject directly refers to itself (‘I take’, ‘charms for me’, ‘temper of my soul’, ‘methinks I stand’) contributes to a sense of encasement of this solitary being in the tempestuous landscape.
The poet defies expectation (‘But’) in the second quatrain by affirming that the ‘wild gloomy scene has charms for me,/ And suits the mournful temper of my soul’. The use of ‘suits’ is curious: most likely meaning ‘to be fitted or adapted to, be suitable for, answer the requirements of’ (OED), it implies an interchangeability between scene and subject that suggests, on the one hand, that the long description of the former is also a description of the latter’s ‘mournful temper’, thus making the first two quatrains masked depictions of the ‘I’ ; on the other hand, it implicates that the sea shore has no effect on the subject, but rather mimics what the subject was already feeling. Although the appearance of the ‘I’ is deferred, and its role is subdued to that of a spectator, the sonnet’s volta nevertheless turns the poem in such a way that it becomes about the ‘I’.
The subject proceeds to embody a sailor in the final quatrain (‘like the mariner’). The use of the past (‘Already shipwreck’d’), along with the use of ‘Fate’ point to the poem’s ominous ending. As the ‘cliff’ marks the point where land and sea meet, so is the poet placed in the limbo between life and death: the two pathways available - marked by a caesuric dash - are lack of ‘succour’, or it coming ‘too late’. The existence of an actual choice is thus as misleading as the role of the ‘I’ in the poem, as both scenarios inevitably lead ‘the exhausted sufferer’ to the same end: death (‘dies’).
Inês Rosa is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her interest in poetry started with Shakespeare’s sonnets (read by Helen Vendler’s), but it was in Cambridge, while eating cakes and drinking tea, she began to talk and write about poems. Focused mainly on the work by Wordsworth, sonets, Smith and Philip Larkin are also part of her topics of interest in poetry.