Charlotte Smith – On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic
This sonnet explores madness and melancholy against a backdrop of dramatic but romanticized Nature. The speaker suggests that madness is not unnatural but in fact harmonious with the chaos of nature, and expresses a desire to escape what is felt to be the bondage of sanity.
A strong connection between nature and the lunatic is drawn in the octet of the poem. The ‘frequent sighs’ of the wind are echoed in the lunatic’s ‘hoarse, half-uttered lamentation’. The ‘solitary’ figure does not stand out from the landscape, but is seen as native to it – the violence and unruliness of the sea are a reflection of his deranged mind. ‘Hollow eyes’ become also caves along the bottom of the cliff, the ‘cold bed’ also the seabed. In the idea of ‘waves that chide’ is perhaps the suggestion of paranoid delusion, the lunatic being mentally assaulted by his environment. Yet at line 8 this paranoia becomes a conversation, the madman’s ‘murmuring responses’ seem to have the power to calm the ‘dashing surf’, or at least communicating with it. Perhaps there is an allusion to King Canute, whose legendary futile attempt to command the sea was an expression of madness. The lunatic does not command, but rather comforts – a suggestion of kinship between nature and insanity.
The syntax of the poem sets the tone of voice in the speaker as melancholic and reflective. The long drawn-out question that occupies the entire octet of the sonnet suggests lethargy and deep thought, as we are taken through a winding series of clauses qualifying and detailing one another. The accumulation of questioning clauses also implies a challenge to the reader, anticipating the subdued mood of defiance in the sestet. The idea of length that comes out of this extended sentence contributes to an interest in height in the poem. The ‘tall’ cliffs, ‘depth’ and ‘distance’ – the idea of remoteness, particularly vertical-ness, is one dwelt upon. With the connection of lunatic with nature, he becomes an almost mythical figure, such that the ‘tallness’ of the cliffs might also refer to him being imagined as a giant. This sense is built by the timeless way in which nature is described, and lines such as ‘his cold bed upon the mountain’ seeming to imagine him on a mythic scale. The verticality of this world reflects a limiting and stretching of space, distorting the lunatic to suggest his mental torment and anguish. The idea of height is also connected with vertigo, with the speaker ‘on a giddy brink’. Reading with this in mind we see the protracted sentence of the octet, not as a reflection of lethargy, but as a continually bringing us to the same ‘brink’. It dramatizes the feeling of confronting either physical or spiritual profundity by having us pause at the moment where the sentence should end and having us face an unfathomable depth of sense.
The sestet introduces the speaker’s own presence to the poem, who expresses a conflicted admiration for the imagined lunatic. The emotion expressed seems facile in comparison with the anguish of the madman, a ‘moody sadness’ suggests a transient frustration, a sulk. This directness with which we are informed ‘I see him more with envy than with fear’ gives the impression of someone making a point, an overdramatic emphasis. In the hissing sibilance of ‘nice felicities’ we hear scorn for the banalities of sane and civilised life, contrasted with the sturdy assonance of the lunatic’s ‘wildly wandering’. Thus the speaker challenges and defies ‘civilised’ ideas and principles of order and control. She seems unable to surrender urbanity entirely, however, for the tone itself is satirical and urbane – shown particularly by the paradoxical wit in parenthesis. The final line complicates matters, with a final glance – perhaps longingly, perhaps a departing look – back at the profound, mythical world of the madman. The alliterated ‘d’s seem to form a vast chasm that consumes the vision of the madman back into the speaker’s imagination.
This poem reflects on madness in nature and in the human mind, expressing with questionable sincerity a preference for the untamed, mythic world of the chaotic natural psyche. In its playfully ambiguous speaker and use of the sonnet form recalls the poetry of John Donne, while bridging to the mediations on Nature and lunacy of the Romantics.