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This item is taken from PN Review 120, Volume 24 Number 4, March - April 1998.

The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer's lucidly conservative (small 'c') cultural journal, opens with 'Notes & Comments'. It was there that Adrienne Rich was pilloried for turning down a national award on emphatic political grounds. It is there that the merest hint of P.C. Newspeak is held up to ridicule. Kramer can be funny. But perhaps un-P.C. Oldspeak has a few lessons to learn - lessons of rhetoric - from those critics who talk through rather than against their foes, the way Sir Philip Sidney answered Gosson's unsubtle The School of Abuse, Containing a Pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Commonwealth with his courteous, decisive Apology for Poesy.

'Notes & Comments' in the February number, 'Abolish women's studies', is the culmination of three issues in which the magazine has attacked a women's studies conference held at the State University of New York at New Paltz. It takes up where December left off: '"Revolting Behaviour: the Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom" and "Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body" belong to a grotesque fringe of women's studies where antinomian politics blends with sexual desperation. Devoted to subjects like "Sex Toys for Women", "How to Get What You Want in Bed", and "Safe, Sane & Consensual S/M: An Alternate Way of Loving", they underscored the pathetic as well as the preposterous aspects of women's studies.' On the strength of these 'pathetic', 'preposterous' phenomena at New Paltz, the abolition of women's studies, and by extension of 'black studies' and 'homosexual ("gay") studies' is called for. Called for seriously, and in a single breath, as though all three 'disciplines' - oh, drop the quotation marks, disciplines - were aspects of the same revolting impulse stemming from three special interest groups. Women! Black people! Homosexuals!

Adducing a handful of examples, some from gay studies, The New Criterion declares that they 'show that there is much that is patently absurd about women's studies.' By metonomy, the absurd part becomes the whole. 'Sex Toys for Women' is of a piece with the challenge of republishing women's writing which - the women's studies people are right - has been erased, and of finding out, through research, why it has been erased. It identifies cultural systems which themselves eventually occasion the 'absurd' that affronts the fathering rhetoric.

Why has the verse of Charlotte Smith (known as a novelist thanks to women's studies) been forgotten? She was born eighteen years after Cowper, in 1749. If Cowper had his hand on the latch of Romanticism, her foot was in the door. Wordsworth read her: Dorothy recalls him turning the pages of her Elegiac Sonnets - the fifth edition, for she was popular in her time; and he called upon her in Brighton on a visit. She effected introductions to other women writers in the town. In London at the end of the century she dined with the young Coleridge. Represented in anthologies if at all by a wonderful sonnet ('Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides'), she should be read as a key poet of the transition to Romanticism. She isn't.

Her sonnets at first resemble Cowper's verse in tone, but without his specific anxieties. Meditative, judicious, she has a clear, unconventional vision. Her language seeks out representative detail, too many exclamations and vocatives irrupt into the verse, yet scene and sensibility are sharply delineated:

...The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
    Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
    Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!
With shells and seaweed mingled, on the shore
    Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
    But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed - by life's long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

Gothick, yes: but astonishing in visual, prosodic and tonal precision. Her self-description, 'an early worshipper at Nature's shrine', sells her short. It is true that she observes nature, walking out on the hills and along the shore, but her 'worship' is more 'witness'.

She was born at Bignor Park in Sussex and enjoyed a privileged childhood, though her mother died when she was three. Terrified at the prospect of her father's remarriage, she herself disastrously married Benjamin Smith, profligate son of a West India merchant, when she was sixteen. He spent them into debt and then into debtors' prison. She bore Mr Smith ten children, eight of whom survived; she left him, and began to make her way as a writer. She wrote on average a book each year for two decades. Mr Smith remains, in fictional guises, the villain of her life and occasions some of the gloomy skies in her poems. But she'd read Rousseau and was inspirited by the French Revolution. Her dominant note is not reticence. Her imagination emerges generally at night: in the dark shapes are larger, distant lights brighter, the landscape takes on an alternative, accepting definition. She does not - in her major poem Beachy Head - appropriate, colonise, or look through nature to an absolute. She witnesses and celebrates with gratitude for it rather than to God.

What makes her neglect unaccountable is that she achieved, avant la lettre, so much that is celebrated in the work of Wordsworth in particular, as well as in the Coleridge of 'This Lime Tree Bower' and the blank verse narratives. Beachy Head evinces a mastery of blank verse and a compelling, complex syntax which mimes the movement of thought. She is rooted in the eighteenth century, but an emancipation is taking place, she has created first a distance from the stylistic prejudices and reflexes of the age, and then a space for her own sensibility to identify a physical world and an independent physical self.

The high meridian of the day is past,
And Ocean now, reflecting the calm Heaven,
Is of cerulean hue; and murmurs low
The tide of ebb, upon the level sands,
The sloop, her angular canvas shifting still,
Catches the light and variable airs
That but a little crisp the summer sea
Dimpling its tranquil surface.

Pure description, and from its purity something more comes, as though we are returning to a literal world after the decorums of the 'social century'. Charlotte Smith is not like Smart and Cowper an exception, set apart as a consequence of illness or the estrangements of genius. She is propelled forward by Milton, by Thomson and Pope, there are the epithets, the rhetorical bric-a-brac, the large abstractions, yet in the foreground vision is trained upon an actual world. And she has a landscape as specific as Wordsworth's, the Sussex of her unimpeded childhood. Her personal hardship is there in tone, but seldom in the frame; celebration and reflection are given in a judicious measure:

Ah! hills so early loved! in fancy still
I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold
Those widely spreading views, mocking alike
The Poet and the Painter's utmost art.
And still, observing objects more minute,
Wondering remark the strange and foreign forms
Of seashells; with the pale calcerous soil
Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance.
Though surely the blue Ocean (from the heights
Where the Downs westward trend, but dimly seen)
Here never rolled its surge. Does Nature then
Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes
Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling
To the dark sea-rock of the wat'ry world?
Or did this range of chalky mountains, once
Form a vast basin, where the Ocean waves
Swelled fathomless?...

Such blank verse, with variable enjambements, creating the kinds of syntactical suspense that urges us on, so that description is vibrant, unpredictable and alive in the verse reflection, is unusual at any time of day. The diction is assured and 'modern' in the manner of Thomson, using a precise, scientific register, yet naturally, as an informed person would.

Beachy Head was published in 1807, the year after Charlotte Smith died. It is the work of an unsung maturity: at times humorous, full of a love of specific nature, marked too by longing, less for youth and romance than for that lost world when imagination was unattached and unconstrained, before Benjamin Smith and children and the labour of sustaining a family as a single parent. The world before she was, like some of her intimate friends and some of the Romantics she prefigures, an opium addict. These circumstances are not adduced in the poems. They inform only the tone.

Her life, her achievement and her neglect - like Emily Dickinson's, Charlotte Mew's and others' - are sufficient grounds for respecting the central discipline of women's studies whose task is not only to restore fine writers to circulation and string together their neglected works, but to understand and define the reasons for that neglect. Having understood, certain conclusions may be thought to follow from that understanding which lead to further questions - cultural, political and economic. These are questions it is hard to ask in the language of The New Criterion's 'Notes & Comments'. Race, sexuality and maybe even gender and gender preference are not matters of choice, but they carry with them in any society certain privileges and penalties. They should be understood, not only by those who belong to the penalised group but by the privileged.

Those who teach courses in lesbian and gay studies, as in 'black studies' (how ominous The New Criterion's phrase sounds: witchcraft, the School of Night!) may not be lesbian, gay or black; they are, whatever their orientation and hue, often surprised that the bulk of their students are not homosexual, or are not black. They are serious young people, not out for a quick novel pornographic fix or some off-the-peg radicalism, but to understand why their ancestors,, those with privileges and those with penalties, behaved as they did, wrote as they did, lived as they did. A proper study. A radical adjustment to a new world. No amount of rhetoric can discredit the serious and sometimes radicalising disciplines;, none of the silly, extreme antics 'on the fringe' of those disciplines can invalidate them. One can regret, with The New Criterion, that the fringe is so wide and so voluble. One can regret that those disciplines tend to look a little closed.

James Baldwin, thou should'st be living at this hour.

This item is taken from PN Review 120, Volume 24 Number 4, March - April 1998.

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