‘To Melancholy’ is part of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets collection. It combines the elements of traditional sonnets, usually written about love, and elegies which are quite often mournful and depressing in nature. There is a epigraph that comes before the first lines of this poem, southing that a reader should make sure to take note of. It reads:
Written on the banks of the Arun, Oct. 1785.
This provides the reader with this context that can help one understand where Smith was and the nature of the environment she is describing. The Arun River is in West Sussex, England.
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Summary of To Melancholy
The speaker describes what it is like to sit by the river as darkness is beginning to take over the sky. It is a peaceful, yet also sad and melancholy scene. There, she is amongst the phantoms of the past, specifically Thomas Otway, a poet of the same region. She alludes to the sorrowful end of his life and the way that his sorrow bleeds through the wind and allows her to experience it. She finds peace and some kind of solace in this experience, perhaps feeling as though it mimics her own.
Structure of To Melancholy
‘To Melancholy’ by Charlotte Smith is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows the traditional rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that aside from the fourteen lines, there is a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of ABBAABBACDECDE
Within Petrarchan sonnets, there are two halves, the first eight lines, or octet, which is followed by the sestet, a set of six lines. The octet always follows the rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA, but the sestet is open to change. IN this case, the final six lines rhymes CDECDE.
Another element that marks a Petrarchan sonnet is the turn, or volta. This is a shift in the poem that can be seen through a change in narrator, belief, or setting. It can even consist of an answer to a question posed in the first half.
Literary Devices in To Melancholy
Smith makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘To Melancholy’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, apostrophe, and personification. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “pale” and “poet’s” in lines five and six as well as “mournful melodies” in line seven.
Apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone, something, or creature, that does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. This technique can be seen in the sestet when the speaker addresses “melancholy”.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the first line of the poem when the speaker describes autumn as spreading “her evening veil,” or covering the lands in darkness.
Analysis of To Melancholy
When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil
And the gray mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half leafless wood that breathes the gale.
In the first lines of ‘To Melancholy’ the speaker begins by setting the scene. She is thinking about times in which she is able to “listen to the hollow sighs” of the woods while sitting outside in the evening, in autumn. This first quatrain is filled with imagery. The speaker describes poignantly the sights and sounds of this important, peaceful moment. There is a good example of personification in the last line of this quatrain. The speaker describes how the wood “breathes the gale,” as though the wind is coming from the woods. The technique is also seen in the first line when the speaker describes autumn spreading “her evening veil,” an image of darkness spreading at the end of the day. Although peaceful, these lines are undeniably melancholy.
For at such hours the shadowy phantom, pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night wand’rers, who their woes bewail!
In the second quatrain, the speaker goes on to say how at “such hours,” when she is sitting outside in this place, she sees “phantoms”. These ghosts from the past flit before “the poet’s eyes”. They cry out “Strange sounds” mournfully, adding to the darkness and growing creepiness of the scene.
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway, I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
Oh Melancholy!—such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!
The next part of the poem, known as the sestet, brings with it the turn. The speaker introduces Otway, a man who lives in the area. The stream is his “native stream”. This is a reference to Thomas Otway, an English poet who was well-known for writing about the emotional subject matter, something that Smith is also known for. He died poor and penniless and is in Smith’s words, “Pity’s own”. This is another example of personification. The poet describes “Pity” as a force with agency over Otway.
She feels so close to this poet that in these moments by the river it’s as though she can hear his sad sighs moving through the wind. The poet calls out to “Melancholy,” (an example of apostrophe) and refers to the force’s “magic power” over her and the landscape. She is soothed by the presence of this phantom and his dark, and weary life. It brings her a kind of peace that seems paradoxical.