“Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word
That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born,
Misleads the wanderer, destin’d to contend
In the world’s wilderness, with want or woe-”
Page 701 Lines 258-261
In Charlotte Smith’s poem “Beachy Head,” Smith uses the setting of Beachy Head to reflect on life. Smith uses the word “wanderer” in the selected passage, which in many ways is the perspective given to the ghost like speaker throughout the poem. Smith is able to use the speaker in the poem to process the elusive term of “happiness” and ultimately come to the conclusion that happiness is simply a lie that we naively believe and search for, but never quite achieve.
In Smith’s poem, the speaker is wandering around Beachy Head, describing the sharp features of the landscape, and the quickly changing climate and beauty. The speaker has a ghostly presence and an all knowing sorrowful voice throughout, as if she was once a victim to what she is trying to convey in the poem. In a way the speaker is not only wandering around the landscape, but also through time and her memories. In the selected passage, Smith asks the question “Who is happy?” forcing readers to ask themselves that same question (258). When Smith writes that happiness is like “false fire, from marsh effluvia born,” it is interesting that she compares it to fire, because fire can both clear out the unpleasant and harmful odor of the marsh, but it can also quickly destroy, and the idea that the fire is false implies that it is not even really there, just something we create in unpleasant or desperate times (259).
The speaker goes on to explain how this so called “Happiness” leads wanders astray. People that are out searching for it and holding out for the idea of happiness and the dream of someday achieving it are led out into the “world’s wilderness” or rather the reality of life, and forced, or “destin’d,” to have to face the reality that happiness can never be achieved, regardless of whether or not they want to (260). Because of the speaker’s seemingly all-knowing perspective, readers are left with the impression that the speaker could have once been the wanderer mentioned in the passage, asking herself what happiness was and desperately searching to find it, only to be lead into the realities of life. The speaker may at first have been stuck facing these realities with want, but later after coming to an understanding, this dissolved into woe.
The message conveyed in this passage and poem can be linked to Smith and the tragic circumstances that she experienced throughout her life, ultimately forcing Smith to be like the speaker, wandering and reflecting, in her poems, on the idea of happiness and the inability to ever achieve it.