Beguiling the Melancholy

The Elegiac Sonnets of Charlotte Turner Smith

George Romney, “Portrait of Charlotte (Turner) Smith”, 1792


With twelve children, a feckless, profligate husband, and other troubles that ranged from legal woes to rheumatism to personal grief, Charlotte Turner Smith was not able to live the life of easy repose that she might have expected as a gentleman’s daughter. Instead, she turned her hand to writing, publishing the first edition of ​Elegiac Sonnets​ (1784) from debtor’s prison in an attempt to take hold of the family finances after her husband’s failures. She wrote in her preface to that first edition that “Some very melancholy moments have been beguiled by expressing in verse the sensations those moments brought.” This idea of building verse from feeling and memory made a deep impression on the young William Wordsworth, who was inspired by Smith’s style of expression and engagement with nature.


In this session, led by Alexandra Kelly, participants will closely examine several of Smith’s sonnets, investigating how they explore sensation and create space for its relief. We will also consider and interrogate the sonnet form itself, asking what it means to “turn” an idea, an argument, a tone, or a mindset, and we will create our own sonnets.


Image source: Abbot Hall Art Gallery