Sonnet. 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 lamentations, 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.
This poem was published in England in 1797. The French Revolution had begun in 1789 with the destruction of the royal prison, the Bastille, and as the country across the channel slowly descended from talk of liberty and the Rights of Man into the murderous convulsions of the Reign of Terror (convulsions which ended around 1794, to be replaced by a slow crawl towards Napoleon's dictatorship and a new series of wars), both the inhabitants and the government of Great Britain were increasingly aware of the impoverished, the lowly, the struggling, the beggars and cripples, the miserable and crazy and usually invisible in their midst – aware of them not only as individuals deserving sympathy and understanding instead of ridicule and condemnation, but also deserving of dignity. There was also a growing and linked awareness that they were a potentially dangerous social force, an angry mob-in-the-making, like the ones in France that had killed the king. (Never mind that the British had killed their own king in 1649 and been ruled by their own dictator for a while; they had later reverted to monarchy, and times had changed.) A changing attitude towards the dispossessed led what we might call the possessed, particularly the government, to keep a watchful wary eye on those who seemed too interested in French ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity. The world was looking much more unstable. It was a jittery time.
In 1798, the year after this poem was first published, Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first (anonymous) edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection that not only concentrated on what we might these days call "the marginalized" as suitable subjects for poetry – no fine ladies and witty gentlemen, no gods, but only the humble, the poor, farmers, fishermen, "idiot" children, mumbling old women in crooked country lanes – but did so in language that was mostly radically stripped down, sounding much more colloquial than people expected when they picked up a book that called itself "poetry."
One of the fascinating things to me about this particular sonnet is how it joins two eras; it still uses the elevated, slightly formal diction of the eighteenth century, but presages the coming Romantic movement in literature, with its interest in wandering, melancholy, alienation, and insanity: a wild subject held fast in a traditional form. I've sketched broadly some of the political, social, and artistic currents informing the time, but of course there's more than that going on; this also seems like an intensely personal poem, with an unusual approach to an unusual subject. The biographical headnote for Smith in my source for this poem (Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale) states that one reason for her "considerable reputation" was "an intense but mysterious melancholy. . . ." and this quality is much in evidence in her other poems in the collection.
In addition to inner alienation, and the unavoidable social currents that form the figurative air we breathe and shape the thoughts we think, there might be other literary influences: this is just a feeling of mine, but this sonnet – with its cold winds blasting the beetling cliff, the dangerous waves far below, its wandering hollow-eyed lunatic, and particularly its deeper consideration of whether insanity is not perhaps the appropriate response to our existence – reminds me of King Lear, particularly the scenes in which Edgar, disguised as the mad Poor Tom, guides his newly blinded father Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover.
The sonnet is of the type usually described as Italian or Spenserian, meaning it consists of an octave and a sestet in iambic pentameter (as opposed to the English or Shakespearean form, consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, again in iambic pentameter). The octave is taken up with a vivid description of the lunatic and his setting; they seem inextricably linked and mixed, the waves and winds sighing and chiding as if they had human voices, the lunatic responding in incoherent murmurs (like the waves of the sea) and hoarse, inarticulate cries. He seems oddly more connected to the natural world than any rational person would be (a reminder that lunatics were also known as "naturals" in an earlier era). He is a "solitary wretch" but the headlands also seem solitary and, to sophisticated urban eyes, wretched: isolated from humans, stripped down to essentials. The description is so detailed that we can feel that the poet's imagination has been drawn in an empathetic way to the wandering madman (and bear in mind that earlier in that century it had been common practice to go to madhouses to laugh at or moralize upon the behaviors of the insane).
The opening line of the sestet ("In moody sadness, on the giddy brink") is where the poem really turns; after the first eight lines, we would initially assume that Smith is continuing her description of the lunatic, but the next line begins with (and so the preceding line must modify) I. And it is only then that we realize that she is now describing not the lunatic but herself; her grammar shapes our understanding, linking her with the lunatic she had been warned against. She then makes the startling, offbeat announcement that she envies rather than fears this wretched outcast, for two somewhat contradictory reasons. First: he is released from social conventions (the "nice felicities") and free to experience the "giant horrors" of life, instead of shrinking from them as in polite, conventional, rational society. These horrors might be the existential terrors that visit us in dark and half-dreaming states, or perhaps the sort of political paranoia and persecution that had seized France and was threatening England. But then she also says she envies him because his lunacy prevents him from understanding "the depth or the duration of his woe": reason is seen not as the ultimate human blessing, as in the Enlightenment, but instead is described as a curse; at least the lunatic, "uncursed by reason," is better off than the poet, since he seems not to know "the depth or the duration of his woe."