Monday, 16 December 2019

A Churchyard Sonnet

Browsing in an anthology of sonnets, my eye – the eye of a churchyard-lover – was naturally drawn to this gloomy, but artfully constructed, specimen. It's by Charlotte Smith, whose Elegiac Sonnets were an instant success in 1784, paving the way for a revival of the sonnet form and making an early contribution to the 'Romantic' school of poetry. Her poetical development was frustrated by the need to write popular novels (file under 'Gothic' and 'Sensibility') for a living, a spendthrift husband and an endless lawsuit ensuring that she was always financially embarrassed: even the Elegiac Sonnets were written while she was living in a debtors' prison with her husband and children. However, she continued to write poetry throughout her career, much of it tending towards the lugubrious, often featuring extreme weather and perilous coastal locations: titles include Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore and Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic. Here is the sonnet that caught my churchyard-loving eye:


Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex

Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent Sabbath of the grave!
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore,
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed – by life's long storm oppress'd,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

As it happens, I once knew Middleton (now Middleton-on-Sea) quite well. It was my sister-in-law's home village, and she and my brother were married in the church there. This, however, was not the church Charlotte Smith would have known: that building, much of which had already been destroyed by the sea, was reduced to a ruin by an exceptionally high tide in 1838, and replaced by a wholly new church a decade later. Charlotte's Middleton sonnet dates from 1789, by which time the sea was already eroding the graveyard, with the effects described so graphically in the poem. 

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