Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead

Un-earthing the Eighteenth-Century Churchyard: Charlotte Smith’s Life Writing Among the Dead


  • James Metcalf King's College London



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.

Author Biography

James Metcalf, King's College London

James Metcalf is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London. He recently completed his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘The Contemplators: Poetry and the Churchyard in the Long Eighteenth Century’, which reappraises the conventional category of ‘graveyard poetry’ by focusing on the eighteenth-century occupation of the churchyard as the specific locus of a death-centred poetics of contemplation. Reconsidering the work of Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young, and Thomas Gray, James’ thesis also reveals a continuity of poetic preoccupation with the churchyard by including traditionally ‘Romantic’ writers such as Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth as they adopt and revise its history, culture, and poetics. His current research interests concern literary responses to the revelations of earth science in the long eighteenth century.





Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead