A state of nature: madness

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Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was a forerunner of English romantic poetry. Not unexpectedly, her poetry embodies the tenets of romanticism, including the adoration of nature, a rejection of rationality and intellect in favor of sentiment and creativity, and a general propensity to challenge society's values and norms. Thus, notions of insanity and social normalcy may be updated to yield entirely new insights. In her sonnet entitled On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic, Charlotte Smith portrays madness as a positive attribute that allows an individual to be in a desirable state of nature, a sense of well-being enriched by melancholy and freedom from the restrictive bounds of the society. Madness thus not only enhances union with nature, but also liberates humans from the artificial restrictions resulting from reason in the enlightenment and industrial eras. In the poem, she illustrates madness and melancholy through the use of naturalistic and spatial diction, ironical title, and sonnet structure.
The diction derived from nature demonstrates the connection between 'solitary wretch' of the poem and the landscape to express his unique harmony with nature. The lonely figure, a supposed lunatic who has climbed onto a cliff overlooking the sea to observe nature from there, has cultivated a communicative relationship with the sea so that he murmurs 'responses to the dashing surf'(8). In the octave of the poem, the poet draws a comparison between the lunatic figure and the nature through the use of diction. Physically, a sonic parallel is framed through the similarity in voice between the 'frequent sighs' (5) of the gale and the 'hoarse' (7) utterance of the lunatic; the 'hollow eyes' (3) of the lunatic point to the caves among the bottom of the cliff; the 'cold bed' (6) that the lunatic lies on is another form of the native sea bed (Impracticalcriticism.wordpress.com). Although the figure appears to be ostracized from civilized society, he merges with the landscape so that he morphs into nature through the use of indicative nature images. The author suggests that figure's freedom of having the choice to express emotions of would be considered lunacy is natural. Emotionally, the use of diction describing the wilderness of the sea such as 'gale' (5) and 'dashing surf' (8) symbolizes his mental torment and anguish. The violence and unruliness of the sea are reflections of his deranged mind and madness. Since a romantic atmosphere is created by the naturalistic diction, the poem equates the lunacy of the figure with perfect health rather than sickness. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the conception of excellence in mental health shifted to make madness a condition for achieving it. Thus a person who was considered mad was not necessarily to be diagnosed or given treatment, and but was considered to be in the state of nature (Woodman 2005: 20). Through illustrating the madness of the figure, the author is suggesting that the lunatic's character shows a positive quality that deserves to be praised. The use of naturalistic dictions helps to carry out the extent of link between madness and the human's natural state. With the naturalistic elements creating a romantic atmosphere for the backdrop of the sonnet, the author glorifies madness through romantic ideal.
Meanwhile, spatial adjectives contrast the level of ownership in freedom between the lunatic and the author to show her reverence. She not only justifies the existence of the madness, but also admits her envy for the figure for his harmony with nature. Her fascination over his freedom is expressed in her use of spatial adjectives and nouns, such as the words 'tall' (2) and 'distance' (4), which appear in the octet, giving the idea of remoteness, particularly vertically. The octave focuses on describing the lunatic. Putting the words that emphasize tallness elevates the mad figure to a high position, thus praising the power of his mental state with nature as if imagining him as a giant. On the other hand, the sestet in the later half describes the author's connections on the madman with her thoughts and emotions. The word 'depth' (12) appeared at the very end of the sestet, therefore it is describing the author herself as in the bottom in the scale of ownership in freedom. Through the use of spatial adjectives, the author is degrading herself in contrast with the height of the lunatic in order to stress the value of being in the state of nature.
The author's respect for the lunatic social outlier leads her to despise the ignorance of her society, which is suggested through the irony on the title. The title is not about "walking on an headland," but rather about the warning against such an act. Ironically, the author begins the poem as a negative premonition of what she might encounter if she breaks the rule, and shifts to an empathy with the criticized figure. Although she is warned not to go out to avoid the lunatic, she identifies with him rather than see him as a danger. For her, such a lunatic, who is in the state of nature, is not harmful to the world. Therefore, it is rather meaningless of her society to warn people against a non-existent 'danger'. Not only is it an act of vacuous purpose, it also denies people the freedom of visiting the headland. On the one hand, people who believe in the harm caused by the lunacy continue to spread rumors about him, increasing the size of his detractors. On the other hand, those who dare to question the credibility of the rumor lose their freedom of creative thoughts just to conform to social normality. It appears ironical for the author that all the possibilities of spending time on the headland is wasted because of the majority rule in her society. Through the contrast of the content and the title of the sonnet, she levels her criticism on the ignorance of her society.
However, as she is unable to escape from her society, her knowledge of the earthly world draws her away from pure admiration into a melancholic state, the process of which is described by the sonnet's structure. On the surface, the first eight lines consist of a long drawn-out question, suggesting ennui and meditation over the credibility of rumors describing a figure who is out of his mind. The buildup in the descriptive phrases such 'who hies'cliff' (1), 'with starting'slow' (2), 'measuring'eyes' (3) is a winding series of doubting clauses qualifying and detailing one another. They continue to complete the author's imaginary scene of the headland as well as stress the magnitude of her uncertainty. On another level, figuratively, with the accumulation of the sense of hesitation, the author expresses her torn feeling between her stance in the knowledge of society's criticisms and her hidden empathy with the pure naturalistic character of the lunatic. The mad man's purity is revealed in his wandering ways and absence of worries''uncursed with reason'not to know/The depth or the duration of his woe.'
This sense of freedom is also built by the double-sided manner in which the questions are asked. The uncertainty expressed in the phrases 'is there' (1) and 'who' (4), seems to belong to the author who is casting doubt on her own viewpoint of the lunatic. While she wishes to believe the claims about the wandering lunatic, she is doubtful of the credibility of the statement. Furthermore, while she is cautioned against walking on a headland overlooking the sea, as the title states ironically, she rather drifts into an act of rapt empathy with the supposedly dangerous lunatic. Although she holds opinions contrary to her society's, she cannot flee from her world. Therefore, she is trapped in the mental state where her worldly knowledge keeps contaminating her admiration for the perfect natural state of the figure. The ambivalence she experiences is perplexing and melancholic, and is derived in the syntax of the sonnet. The long question which occupies the octave suggests the depth of her inner struggle, reiterating the author's conviction that it would be better to live in nature innocently and blindly than to be self-aware and forced to deal with the trials of everyday life.
Through diction, the sonnet relates madness to the romantic state of nature, expressing with sincerity a preference for the chaotic natural psyche. In its ironical title, the persona scorns her society's banalities and recalls how her existence in the society traps her by the use of sonnet structure. With a deeply melancholic tone, Smith suggests insanity as a kind of reprieve from the pains of reality.

Works Cited
Impracticalcriticism.wordpress.com. 'Charlotte Smith ' On Being Cautioned against Walking'' 2011.Web Oct 25. 2017
Charlotte Smith, Charlotte. 'On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic.' In McMahon, Lynne and Curdy, Averill (eds). The Longman Anthology of Poetry. New York: Pearson, 2006.
Woodman, Ross. Sanity, Madness, Transformation: The Psyche in Romanticism. Edited by Joel Faflak, Toronto; Buffalo; London, University of Toronto Press, 2005.

August 18, 2021

Sociology Literature

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Society Romanticism Poetry

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