Jessica’s Key Passage Analysis on Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head”

“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.

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)

Sonnet 1: The Partial Muse

Lines 5-8:

But far, far happier is the lot of those

Who never learn’d her dear delusive art;

Which, while it decks the head with many a rose,

Reserves the thorn, to fester in the heart.


Charlotte Smith’s poetry is tinged with bitterness, some slight anger, and an appropriate amount of nature references, earning her place amongst the great Romantic writers. These four lines from Sonnet 1: The Partial Muse capture her bitterness towards the manipulative muse that forced genius onto her. These lines reveal that Smith feels burdened by her genius, and that it would be better to be simple-minded rather than filled with inspiration. This moment in the poem is significant because while it shows Smith’s appreciation for her genius, it also shows her intense bitterness towards her brilliance and her inability to escape its clutches.

Lines five and six say: “But far, far happier is the lot of those / Who never learn’d her dear delusive art.” Starting with line six and working backwards to line five, the reader first learns that Smith believes the muse that has gifted her with her genius to be manipulative, controlling, and deceitful. She calls on the people unburdened by this muse, saying that they are much better off without the brilliance Smith has been given. By saying that people are happier without the muse’s gift of genius, Smith shows how bitter she is towards her brilliance.

Even though those without her genius are happier than she, Smith does acknowledge that the gift of the muse “decks the head with many a rose” (Smith 7). The rewards of her trade are great, and she recognizes that. Roses, though, have thorns, which is the downfall of her talent. Yes, the muse has gifted her with this great intelligence, but she “reserves the thorn, to fester in the heart” (Smith 8). Smith is trapped within her own brilliance, and the roses that her talent might bring give her nothing but suffering.

These four lines of the sonnet reflect the poem in its entirety, and how Smith longs to be freed from the muse’s grip. In the poem, Smith is reflecting on her life, and how it is controlled by the unforgiving genius brought to her by the muse. Lines five through eight of the poem show that she wants to be freed of her genius but knows that she never could. Once someone learns of the muse’s “dear delusive art” (Smith 6), it becomes inescapable. Better to be simple, innocent, and happy, rather than forced to be brilliant and haunted.