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Calm – not before, but in the midst of, the storm

May 17, 2011

Charlotte Smith is perhaps best known for her epic (i.e. long!) poem Beachy Head, in which she invokes the sublime. Her sonnets, meanwhile, are often overlooked, despite their relevance and poignancy.

In ‘Written at the Close of Spring’ Smith writes: Ah! poor humanity! so frail, so fair/ Are the fond visions of thy early day, while ‘To Night’ gives us some insight into the human heart and its contradictory nature: …in thy quiet gloom the exhausted heart/ Is calm, though wretched; hopeless yet resign’d.  

Why is the heart still calm and resigned though it is essentially wretched and hopeless? I asked myself this as I typed out those lines. Maybe the answer can be found in the final couplet, in which the persona ponders on her plea: While to the winds and waves it sorrow given, [it]/ May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!


Aspects of Smith’s poem appear to echo Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
   an ever-present help in trouble. 
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
   and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 
though its waters roar and foam
   and the mountains quake with their surging. (vs. 1-3)

Earlier on in the poem ‘To Night’, the sea – “the restless main” – is paralleled with “the enfeebled mind”. While this link between raging waters and restless chaos is a metaphorical one, it brings to my mind a literal and historical event as documented by one of the eye-witnesses of Jesus’ time.

“There arose a great storm of wind,” documents Mark, “and the waves beat into the ship” (Mark 4v37). While the disciples tremble, Jesus is the epitome of calm, “asleep on a pillow” (v38).

Yet the disciples’ plea – “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (v39) – shows that they had even less faith than Charlotte Smith. Indeed, Jesus asks them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v40)

In Smith’s poem, there is at least a possibility that her prayers “may reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven”. As for the disciples, they should have known that “the Lord […] is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). They had no need to fear or doubt, because the “ear of Heaven” was there before them, even Jesus Himself.

Jesus responds by rebuking the wind and saying to the sea: “Peace, be still.” (v39)

Jesus’ words echo those of the Psalmist in the Old Testament: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46v10).

And what is the result? “The wind died down and it was completely calm.” (v39)

Completely calm. Not nearly calm, not just about there, but completely calm. No wonder the disciples said, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41)


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