FREQUENTED BY A LUNATIC: CHARLOTTE SMITH’S SONNET LXX

I could say that I chose today’s poem by Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) because it exemplifies the tendency of Western poetry to “muse” on a subject rather than to just present it as an event without added commentary.  The truth, however, is that I chose it  because of its amusing and unusual title:

Sonnet LXX:
On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic

The poem requires little explanation beyond clarifying some of its old-fashioned words.

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-utter’d 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.

Here, part by part, is a simple paraphrase:

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;

Charlotte asks us if there really is a “solitary wretch” — a lone unfortunate person — who “hies” — that is, who hastens, to the tall cliff high above the sea with “starting pace or slow,” meaning with sudden, jerky and quick steps or with slow steps, and who then looks on the scene “with wild and hollow eyes,” mentally measuring how far the cliff rises above “the waves that chide below,” — the waves below that gently scold.  Of course waves do not “chide,” but we are not yet in the modern period of poetry, and human attributes were often attached to forces of nature in earlier times.  What Charlotte really intends by “chide” is to convey the repetitious sound of the waves beating against the cliff, and she did it as she thought best in her day.

Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter’d lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?

Continuing, she ask if there is a lonely wretch who lies on his cold turf bed on the mountain above the sea, groaning and partly speaking his lamentations — his expressions of sorrow — to the pounding surf below, just as the gale that arises on the sea chills the poor wretch’s bed on the ground with “frequent sighs” — that is, with sounding gusts of wind.

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 sees — that is, she imagines — the poor lunatic standing in his impulsive, sad moods on the high cliff — so high it makes one giddy — above the sea.  And in her imagination he is more to be envied than feared.  Why?  Because he has no “nice felicities” — qualities that promote happiness, or rather here, tendencies toward desiring happiness over unhappiness — that cause him to pull back in fright from “giant horrors” such as the dangerous cliff  towering above the pounding waves.  Instead of being terrified by the fearful height, he seems not to know or realize at all the depth of his unfortunate circumstances or how long they are to last.  That is because, being a lunatic, he seems to have no capacity to think and reason about the matter.  In that, our Charlotte says, he seems “uncursed” with the normal human habit of always thinking about one’s sorrow in a bad situation, worrying about how long it is going to last.  And that is why she envies the lunatic wandering on the rocky headland above the sea, even though she sees him only from hearsay in her imagination.

All of that just from being cautioned about the crazy guy who wanders along the cliff above the sea.  One can make a moral from almost anything, it seems, as well as a poem.

There is an Italian poem by a poet whose name I do not recall, which says the same thing Charlotte says about those “uncursed by reason,” only presenting it a different way.  The poem mentions a goose who does not realize his future is to be killed and cooked, and consequently lives from moment to moment unconcerned.  And the point of the poem is that the goose — “uncursed by reason” — is fortunate in that regard compared to humans, who are all quite aware that one way or another, their end is death.

David

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