This is possibly the longest heading in the history of the blog, and that is because Smith liked to give her sonnets, to paraphrase Milne on Wordsworth, “a little Note at the top of each poem” to tell her readers where she was staying and what she was thinking about when the idea of writing her poem came to her. Which, by the way, also shows how much Wordsworth was indebted to Smith.
“To Night” expresses the poet’s love for the night, despite the fact that she calls it “mournful” and “sober-suited”. She describes the pale moon reflected in the sea. The mind “in deep depression sunk” can disburden itself, telling its grief to cold elements. Even though the night is gloomy and cheerless, at least it brings a wretched person calm and resignation. And when she tells her sorrows to “the winds and waves”, even though they are lost on earth, they may reach Heaven.
“Written in the Church-Yard…” is, as Smith’s note explains, inspired by her visit to Middleton (now Middleton-on-Sea), back then hardly a village, as it constituted of two or three houses and the church ruined by shore erosion. The sonnet begins with her description of the sea which “pressed by the moon” invades the land, including the churchyard and tears open the graves, breaking their “silent sabbath”. The bones of the dead are now mingled with shells and sea-weed on the shore, but this view doesn’t inspire the poet with horror: the dead themselves don’t mind anymore, do they? To the contrary, the poet is rather envious of them, because they are at rest regardless of the storm, while she is “by life’s long storm oppressed”.
“On Being Cautioned…” etc. casts the situation described in the title in the form of a question. So, you’re telling me there is a man who runs to the edge of the cliff and gazes down at the foaming sea, or lies down on his cold bed (he apparently sleeps somewhere in the wild), murmuring some kind of responses to the waves. Again, like with the dead in Middleton, the poet looks at him more with envy than with fear; “he has no nice felicities that shrink/From giant horrors”, which as Smith notes, is a paraphrase of a quote from Walpole, which the Unhelpful Footnote says has not been identified. Now, I understand that the NAEL footnotes may have been prepared at the time before the Internet made it so much easier to track down almost every quotation. So I’m adding that this is in fact a quote from Walpole’s controversial drama The Mysterious Mother Act II Scene 1 and I freely donate this discovery to the future editors of the NAEL, as took me all of three seconds to find it out. (If this footnote has been amended in the tenth edition, I apologize.) The point of this quote is that the people who are completely unhappy, like this man, are not afraid of anything anymore, and he, “uncursed with reason”, doesn’t even realize the extent of his misery.
“The Sea View” is inspired, as Smith’s note explains, by her having seen a battle between two ships from a hill near Brighton. This reminds one sharply that at the turn of the 18th century Britain was engaged in one of the longer wars in its modern history. When we think “the Regency era”, we tend to think about frilly bonnets and Darcy in a wet shirt, and indeed, the fact that the actual theatre of war was elsewhere makes us forget about it. It’s a little bit like in Edmund Cooper’s The Overman Culture (which I read as a child, so I may be remembering it incorrectly), which takes place during a kind of Blitz, but London is covered with some kind of Perspex dome, so its inhabitants can see just dogfights and the remnants of the airplanes sliding down the dome’s sides. “The Sea=View” is also about experiencing war from a distance. Here the poet assumes the persona of a shepherd, lying somewhere on the hillside and enjoying a beautiful summer sunset. The scene is tranquil and so beautiful that even “the rustic’s breast” can feel the joy, says Smith a bit patronisingly. But then it is invaded by the two dark spots of the war ships “fierce and red”, and soon the mangled bodies of the dying and dead pollute the beauty of the scene with blood. Thus the man ruins “Heaven’s glorious works”, ends the sonnet.