An introduction to the calculus of finite differences by Clarence Hudson Richardson

By Clarence Hudson Richardson

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29 From this troubled landscape emerge the exiles arriving in England, whose unindividuated thoughts contrast with the detailed descriptions of the scene; the reader receives a sense of general suffering, of the pain of people uncounted and unknown. The poem’s speaker asks ‘How many murmer at oblivious night / For leaving them so soon’,30 and relates their shared dreams and miseries, always using the general and plural to describe them. Yet the reader’s time within the almost tangible sorrows of these still unknown people is short; the poet directs the reader’s gaze towards the heavens, and then moves beyond the imagined sorrows of the many to the particular afflictions of one individual, those of the poetic voice itself.

The narrative thread of Conversations draws attention to the physical practices of scientific collecting and Smith’s own literary practice of composing the educational text – the methods of stocking and organizing a museum find their counterpart in those of compiling and arranging a collection of poems. Smith’s references to museums also have a specific pedagogical valence: her word play picks up on a common eighteenth-century idea of natural history museums as exemplary educational institutions.

When the poetic voice next looks to the émigrés, then, the finality of the speaker’s assessment of her own situation serves to open up a potential duality. On the one hand, the resignation of the statement enables the speaker to have sympathy with her fellow sufferers, and perhaps to allow the reader to hope that their situation will not prove to be so terrible. 34 The speaker’s sufferings, in contrast, are presented with nothing that might detract from the reader’s sympathy. Smith may profess in her Preface and in the poem that the cause of the émigrés is her interest, but these stated aims are undermined by the qualifications which are attached to her sympathy, and by extension, the reader’s.

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