‘On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic‘ by Charlotte Smith is a traditional fourteen-line stanza that is written with a rhyme scheme of ABAB ACAC DEDE FF. The poem can be divided into two sets of four lines, or quatrains, and one final set of six lines, or sestet.
The poem begins with the speaker asking an initial question. If the man she has seen is the same man currently walking on the “tall cliffs.” This man is wretched in appearance, with “hollow eyes” that are wild with his insanity. He paces on the “headland” above the sea, looking down, measuring the distance to the waves below.
She continues on to ask if this is the same man whose bed is frozen with the mountain air, as he has long been away from it. She needs to know if he is the one who mutters down to the water, asking questions no one can hear.
In the second half of the poem it becomes clear that this is indeed the case. He is the man she has seen, and she knew it all along. The speaker admits to the fact that she is unable to fear him. All she can feel is a deep sense of envy. She desires the freedom that he has in his lunacy and his lack of knowledge of his own circumstances. He does not need to fear imminent death or danger nor conform to the standards of society.
Analysis of On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland…
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;
On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic begins with the speaker asking the first part of a two-part question. The question runs the duration of the first four lines, or quatrain, of the poem. She is seeking out confirmation that there is someone living and walking along the “headland” that looks out over the sea. The reader will later discover, in the second half of the poem that the speaker has the answer to this question all along. It is as if she is seeking out exterior confirmation that this person is indeed there.
She describes this person she sees along the cliff edge as being a “solitary wretch.” He is completely alone and appears to be in a wretched state. Perhaps this is due to his clothes and general physical appearance. In the third line, the speaker elaborates further.
This man is pacing along the edge of the cliff, looking down at the water and “waves that chide below.” They are both able to see the waves landing against the cliffside and it seems as if the man is “measuring” the distance from the cliff to the water.
The speaker goes on to say that his eyes are “wild and hollow.” It is as if they are seeking something and are drawn to the water. It is likely that the speaker perceives the man as on the verge of jumping, or throwing himself into the water.
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 the second quatrain of On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea… the speaker expands her question. She wants to know if this man has a number of different features, things she has recognized in him, and is hoping others have seen as well.
She asks, is the man on the “headland” the one whose bed is chilled by the “mountain” air as he wanders outside. She knows, or infers, that his bed, wherever it may be, is becoming colder and colder the longer that he stays away from his rooms. Perhaps he is not there often. He spends all of his time wandering the cliffside.
She continues on to ask if this man is the one who mutters “half-uttered lamentation” and attempts to speak to the “dashing surf?” It is clear that the speaker is able to recognize that this man has in some way, broken with reality. She does not state what is wrong with him, but he seems to be obsessed with the waves, and the distance one would have to jump to reach them.
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.
After this second quatrain comes the “turn” in the sonnet in which all of the speaker’s questions are answered. It appears that she knew she was right all along, that this man was the man she had seen in the past and that her emotions regarding him had not changed. She is not afraid of him as many would have her be but is instead drawn to his presence.
When she finds him on “the giddy bank” of the cliff she feels more “envy” than she does fear. This man does not have to worry about “nice felicities,” or appropriate expression. He does not have to feel afraid of imminent danger as she does. This is a freedom that she does not know as a part of modern society.
The man is not cursed by his state of mind, but “uncursed” with the burden of “reason.” The fact that he does not “know / The depth or duration of his woe” is a benefit to him. He is free in his lunacy.
About Charlotte Smith
Charlotte Smith was born in London, England in May of 1749, to a fairly prosperous family. Her father spent Charlotte’s early life gambling away their fortune and Smith was made to marry a rich, slave trader by the name of Benjamin Smith. Years into their marriage, Benjamin was imprisoned for debt, and in an attempt to flee prosecution, moved to France. She was forced to follow, along with her nine children.
In an effort to separate herself from him, she left her husband, moved back to England, and supported her children through writing. In total, she wrote over sixty volumes which included novels, poetry, and stories for children. Her writing is notable for the way that it reflected the losses she faced in life and the general troubles of her time. Although she was able to support her children, she struggled with poverty all throughout her life. She died in 1806 while attempting to gain money owed to her.
Her legal and financial struggles became the inspiration for the lengthy Chancery suit in Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House.