Katie’s Key Passage Analysis on Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet V To the South Downs”

Can you one kind Lethean cup bestow,
To drink a long oblivion to my care?

Pg 682 lines 11-12

This Sonnet is autobiographical in the pain and depression Smith was feeling at this point in her life. “Sonnet V” was written in 1782 which was after Smith had been unhappily married for years, her son had just died, and her husband was heading towards financial ruin. Her life was unhappy to say the least and it was said that her only joy was her children. Losing her son was a shattering blow for her. Throughout “Sonnet V,” but especially in these two lines, her suffering is made clear to her audience by her allusion and word choice.

In the first line, Smith makes an allusion to the “Lethean cup.” As the footnote states, this is an allusion to classical mythology, where the cup was filled with water from the Lethe river (11). When one drank the water, they would forget their previous life so they could be reborn. This allusion especially due to the fact that line 11 calls the cup “kind” if granted shows a wish by the speaker, who can be interpreted as Smith, to forget (11). In addition, the line is the beginning of a question. The speaker is asking to be granted the cup, is begging to forget. With all the pain Smith endured in her life it is understandable to simply wish to forget that pain ever happened. The next line completes the speaker’s request and echoes the same sentiments.

Line 12 is asking for “oblivion” which by definition is either having something not be remembered, or being unaware (12). This is Smith repeating the wish to forget her pain. The interesting change is that she does not ask for oblivion to her memory, or mind, but instead to her “care” (12). Care can mean mental suffering which to once again strengthen her previous line about wishing to forget, but it can also mean concern. Through her speaker Smith is saying that not only does she want to no longer remember her sorrow, she also does not want to be worried anymore. She does not want to do anything or be anything anymore. In fact, the speaker does not even ask for a positive in these lines. The speaker does not ask to forget their pain and enjoy happiness. This exclusion of wishing for something better than simply forgetting shows the reader that she is suffering so much that simply being numb is all that is being asked for.

Smith’s “Sonnet V” was written at a very painful part of her life, when she had lost her son who had been what had made her happy in life. With his loss, the poem grows bleak and the speaker self-destructive.  The sonnet became autobiographical as Smith recounts her pain and loss through her speaker. These two lines especially bring attention to her self-destructive drive to find a way to be numb to the pain she was enduring at the time.

(485 words)

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