Charlotte Smith was a professional poet and novelist… and mother of twelve children. Impressed? We sure are. Especially since she lived and wrote during a time when it was frowned upon for women to earn money outside of the home. But Smith had to make money somehow, with all those kids to feed, clothe, and educate!
Smith was actually pretty well off as a kid and received an excellent education. But her father got into financial trouble and—over young Charlotte's objections—married her off to the wealthy Benjamin Smith when she was only 15 years old. (Yes, you read that right.) Smith was miserable in her marriage and said that it made her into a kind of "legal prostitute," since her father basically sold her off to pay his own debts. Smith's husband was kind of a deadbeat, too—he squandered his money and ended up in debtor's prison.
So, the young and brilliant Charlotte Smith was left with no money, a lot of kids, and a deadbeat husband that she was obliged to bail out if she could. What's an eighteenth-century woman to do? Smith was always interested in poetry, so she started working on a collection of sonnets, which she first published in 1784.
They were so popular that the publishers kept re-printing them, and every time they printed a new edition, Smith would add another preface and a few more sonnets, until eventually the Elegiac Sonnets became a two-volume collection. "Elegiac" means that the sonnets are "elegies," or mournful poems. The sonnets are almost all sad and miserable—go figure, when you think what Smith was going through as she wrote them.
"To Melancholy" was written in 1785, so it wasn't one of the original sonnets from the 1784 edition, but it has since become one of the more famous ones. It's sometimes referred to by its number in the final collection—XXXII. In it, the poet is hanging out by the banks of a river, listening to the wind and watching the mist rise up off of the chilly water. It's cold and damp and it's getting dark… the perfect breeding ground for ghosts. She imagines she can see the ghost of the poet Thomas Otway—someone she particularly admired. She concludes by saying that she actually likes feeling melancholy. How about that?
Why Should I Care?
Ever had a bad day? One of those days when it seems like the whole world agrees with your crummy mood? The sky is cloudy, the leaves on the trees are dead and brown, it's cold, and damp, and everything is miserable. And yet, somehow, you find yourself relishing your own misery. You wallow in it. You keep asking yourself if you're still miserable, and the answer is always, "yep!" You're pensive in class and stare off into space… you can't focus on your homework. You just muse about how awful the world is.
And then maybe you go off and write a poem about it.
Does any of this sound familiar? Because that's the kind of day Charlotte Smith was having as she wrote "To Melancholy." If Byron was the father of all emo poets and emo rock bands, then Charlotte Smith was the mother. She takes emo to a whole new level. If she were alive today, you'd find her wearing all black and brooding at a local coffee shop.
So if you've had a bad day—bad to the point that you almost enjoyed the total crummy-ness of it—then this is a poem for you.