Un-earthing the Eighteenth-Century Churchyard: Charlotte Smith’s Life Writing Among the Dead
Keywords:Charlotte Smith, graveyard poetry, churchyard, death
The work of poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (1749–1806) has been consistently associated with life writing through the successive revelations of her autobiographical paratexts. While the life of the author is therefore familiar, Smith’s contribution to the relationship between life writing and death has been less examined. Several of her novels and poems demonstrate an awareness of and departure from the tropes of mid-eighteenth-century ‘graveyard poetry’. Central among these is the churchyard, and through this landscape Smith revises the literary community of the ‘graveyard school’ but also its conventional life writing of the dead. Reversing the recuperation of the dead through religious, familial, or other compensations common to elegies, epitaphs, funeral sermons, and ‘graveyard poetry’, Smith unearths merely decaying corpses; in doing so she re-writes the life of the dead and re-imagines the life of living communities that have been divested of the humic foundations the idealised, familiar, localised dead provide. Situated in the context of churchyard literature and the churchyard’s long history of transmortal relationships, this article argues that Smith’s sonnet ‘Written in the Church-Yard at Middleton in Sussex’ (1789) intervenes in the reclamation of the dead through life writing to interrogate what happens when these consolatory processes are eroded.
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