Charlotte Smith’s poem “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic” has come to be retrospectively regarded among the historically significant texts written by female authors during the Romantic Period. Smith’s body of work, as with those produced by her fellow female peers in the literary world at the time, was and continues to be largely eclipsed by the work of her most prominent male contemporaries, specifically by the enduring canonical legacy of “the big six,” namely, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. The historical pattern and precedent of critically-driven privileging of male authors’ works is an unavoidable factor one must consider in analyzing the literary landscape of an historical period, as the substantial exclusion of women writers’ contributions significantly narrows and obscures one’s understanding of human life in the past. The Romantic representation of the experience of women is, for the most part, severely lacking. The reality of this male-centric prism through which the development of literature is understood imbues the few outlying female writers whose work gradually manages to surface in the margins of the Western canon with a valuable distinction, unique in their capacities to convey to the modern reader a crucial and regrettably limited perspective on what it was like to be alive at this point in history. Charlotte Smith’s poem, “On Being Cautioned…,” emerges from a context of a stifling, dismissive, and supercilious climate of critical reception toward female writers, a historical detail that one might argue is evident in this particular text itself.
The poem opens with a question, as the speaker inquires of the interlocutor whether there is a “solitary wretch,” presumably the titular “lunatic,” lurking around a seaside cliff and regarding the ocean below with his “wild and hollow eyes.” This question is not directly answered in the lines that follow, though the speaker does describe the way in which she sees this lunatic, and how she envies, rather than fears, his existence. She describes this figure as seeming to be “uncursed with reason,” and therefore, to some enviable extent, ignorant of his woeful condition.
The title of the poem contains a number of details that inform the reader of the setting and subject Smith describes. It is a sonnet “On Being Cautioned Against” walking in a particular area for a particular reason (the threat of the lunatic), implying that some otherwise unmentioned figure(s) or agency has cautioned the speaker, and that the fact of this word of warning is what the title claims the poem to be about, or “On.” The title is longer than any single line of the poem, and the only information that the title includes which does not appear in the poem itself is the fact of “being cautioned.”
The titular “Headland Overlooking the Sea” is referred to in the text as a “tall cliff,” and the sea itself is described in terms of its relationship to the lunatic, both spatially, as he “measures… its [the cliff on which he stands] distance from the waves that chide below,” and in his interactions with it, as he is “murmuring responses to the dashing surf.” The use of the word “chide” is an interesting means of characterizing the the waves to which the lunatic looks down upon and responds with “half-uttered lamentation,” suggesting that the relentless cycle of waves crashing and lapping at the shore is somehow scolding him. His distance from and above the waves, or, more specifically, his position atop this cliff, is emphasized in both the title and a few times in the poem. It is seemingly important that he views the ocean from this height.
One significant detail is the use of the pronouns “his,” “he,” and “him.” The first instance of one such identifier comes in line 6, establishing that the “solitary wretch” whom the speaker is referring to is not explicitly the speaker herself. The next usage of a male pronoun comes in line 10, wherein the speaker claims that she sees him “more with envy than with fear.” The previous line reads: “In moody sadness, on the giddy brink.” There is an ambiguity as to whether this line is meant to be applied to the state of the lunatic or the speaker herself, since all the lines prior to this one have dealt only with the lunatic, and this description could speak either to what she “sees” in him or to her own emotional state as she envies him. The “giddy brink” may refer to the dizzying height of the aforementioned seaside cliff, or it may refer to an internal emotional landscape, a sort of disorienting precipice, the “brink” of insanity rather than madness itself. This is a possible reading, as the speaker’s attitude toward the lunatic’s madness is that it is liberating, rather than worthy of fear or condemnation. In the eleventh line, the word “he” is italicized, as is “nice felicities.” This emphasizes the fact of this lunatic’s maleness, which arguably has as much to do with his having “no nice felicities that shrink/ From giant horrors” as the fact of his lunacy. The italicization of these particular words implies a connective importance between them. “Nice felicities” are the distinctly feminine burden of the speaker, in no way applicable to the lunatic’s experience.
The speaker’s envy of the lunatic does not hinge solely upon their difference in gender, however. While she does observe this difference through the use of male pronouns, it is in the final two lines that illustrate the enviable quality of the lunatic. “He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know/ The depth of the duration of his woe.” Reason is shown to be a curse, and this description in the context of the speaker’s confessed envy suggests that her faculty of reason factors significantly into her experience of suffering. The implications of the difference of gender between the speaker and the lunatic are painfully apparent to her reasoning mind; she has been cautioned against entering the territory in which he is empowered to move freely, “wildly wandering.”
The iconic Romantic image of man beholding the sublime in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog might remind one of the poem’s lunatic in his solitary, wild and hollow-eyed contemplation of the waves below if one considers that, as Smith’s text illustrates, the female speaker is unable to approach this territory, let alone access this epic vista.
Smith, Charlotte. “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web.