Though Charlotte Smith takes inspiration from the original Italian form, her sonnet, “From Petrarch xv” has considerably different in tone. Smith reinterprets Petrarch’s sonnet 279, which the speaker says that if nature hears his lamentations about the loss of his love, then Laura will surely appear to him and reassure him. Because this is a translation, style conventions and literary devices do not match, but the self-pitying tone of Petrarch’s sonnet remains.
Smith responds to Petrarch in an English sonnet form where her speaker is a first-person onlooker to the scene which carries a melancholy tone. Smith begins her reimagination much differently. Her speaker pays attention to the exact feelings of the natural scene, “Where the green leaves exclude the summer beam, / And softly bend as balmy breezes blow, / And where the liquid lapse, the lucid stream, / Across the fretted rock is heard to flow, / Pensive I lay:” (Smith l. 1-5). Smith’s speaker begins her musings in the middle of a sentence, as if she was slowly coming back to the present after a long meditation at one with nature. There are multiple occurrences of consonance in these lines, with the affective qualities of a soft beat in the “b,” a whisper, such as the repeated “l” and “f,” and the speaker is finally awoken with the slightly harder “p” sound from pensive. She delays the subject of the sentence until the end of the clause, after four enjambed lines to preserve that thought process, and in conjunction with hard punctuation of the colon in the middle of the line, the speaker’s attention is diverted toward the lover and his beloved.
The female speaker then notices how Petrarch recalls Laura selfishly from the grave: “When she whom earth conceals,/ And pitying Heaven her angel form reveals, to say – Unhappy Petrarch, dry your tears…” (Smith l. 5-6). “Conceals” carries a much different weight than “hides” which is translated directly from Petrarch. To conceal is to safeguard and protect out of view, while hide carries the implication of a game, as if Petrarch thinks he has a right to find her and recall her whenever it is convenient to him. We get a hint of cynicism in the second line when the speaker remarks on Laura’s appearance recalled for Petrarch’s benefit and disrupting her rest. Even though Laura is speaking literally to Petrarch, she likely had a more scathing tone understood by the female onlooker. She wants to be left alone, unobjectified by Petrarch’s poetry.
Laura then makes biting remarks to Petrarch whose manifest content give the impression of abrupt comfort but have a different appearance to the female speaker. In the final couplet, Laura says, “But raise thine eyes to Heaven – and think I wait thee there” (Smith l. 13-14). The dash mimics the lover grabbing a part of her dress to try to stay her even though she only wants to rest. The only way she can shake him off is to promise him that she awaits him in the afterlife, to take comfort in the promises of religion is not enough for the selfish lover. This poem is an expression of romantic thought inaccessible to women because when women go to the forest for that sublime individualistic experience described by male romantics, their realization of self is in the collective. Instead of finding peace in nature, she recognizes herself in how Laura is beholden to this man after death. It is painful to realize that it is Laura who is the Petrarchan solitary wanderer in Smith’s retelling because she is still tied to the lover’s wishes.
One thought on “Laura Finally Speaks: The Female Gaze and The Romantic Self”
This is such an interesting read beginning to end. Your analysis of the sounds and how the P sound wakes up Laura is especially convincing. The conclusion you make at the end, that nature isn’t the same kind of peace for women as it is for men is a really big move that seems like it could be useful for your research paper. I would love to see the contrast between the female experience and the mans supported with the kind of close reading you do in the beginning of this piece. Also, what are the societal factors that present women from finding peace? In Laura’s case it is the supernatural, but what about for Smith herself?