On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.
Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) was born into a wealthy family. Her father, owned estates in Surrey and Sussex, but financial misadventures forced him to sell off much of his land, and Charlotte, motherless from the age of four, was forced into marriage at 15 to a slave trader, Benjamin Smith. Smith had financial misadventures of his own that resulted in his imprisonment in a debtors’ prison in France: Charlotte, a political radical opposed to slavery, had little choice but to join him. On their return to England, she left Benjamin and set about supporting herself and the children. Although an assiduous novelist, she thought of herself primarily as a poet, and her first collection, Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays was published to some acclaim. Walter Scott, Wordsworth and Coleridge were among its admirers.
Smith wrote about the Sussex landscape from first-hand observation, her sense of the dramatic challenging any idea that this part of England was merely a tame, fashionable resort. Unsurprisingly, given her formative experiences, her emotional orientation was towards the shadowy, nocturnal and mournful. This week’s poem, which didn’t appear until the second edition of the Elegiac Sonnets, broadens the focus on the natural world to include the human and social, although the figure of the lunatic is absorbed into the imaginative darkness the poet characteristically inhabited.
Cleverly, she devotes the first eight lines of the sonnet to an extended question. Its elements fused by the tight rhyme scheme (ababacac), it seems to ask if such a person as the “lunatic” exists, and, in so doing, allows the poet to build up a possible picture of him and his actions.
Despite the conventional “wild and hollow eyes”, she treats the figure with objectivity and a certain realism. He may move “with starting pace or slow” – suggesting, perhaps, an erratic mixture of the two. She imagines his sleeping rough on a “bed” of cold, windswept turf. He’s seen to note the distance of the clifftop from the surf beneath, perhaps conjuring a possibility of suicide. That object is abandoned. Smith ends her portrayal by asking if the lunatic “with hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies / Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?” He behaves almost as a romantically conceived poet might. As Shakespeare put it: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” The scene is now set for a reversal of a kind, in that the poet introduces herself in her “moody sadness” and perhaps hints at her own temptation towards “the giddy brink”.
The admission, “I see him more with envy than with fear” is carefully planned and expressed: it avoids the charge of sentimentality. In Smith’s view, the lunatic has been forced into an honest confrontation with nature and, whatever those “giant horrors” may be, his ability to encounter them seems an assurance of his authenticity. Behind the concluding sestet lies the heavy weight of the requirements of being – a woman struggling to make a living, a poet who must write prose, a radical cramped by polite society. The comment that the lunatic is “uncursed with reason” is placed in parenthesis, as if to lightly veil its shockingness.
Wikipedia identifies the quotation in the italicised phrase in line 11 as “an allusion to Horace Walpole’s controversial gothic play The Mysterious Mother (1768). The Countess of Narbonne is warned to stay indoors due to a violent storm, and replies, “Wretches like me, good Peter, dread no storms. / ’Tis delicate felicity that shrinks, / When rocking winds are loud.” The same entry includes an image of the engraving that accompanied the poem’s inclusion in the second edition of the Elegiac Sonnets.