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Transforming Nature with Charlotte Smith

This week, as the first post in Transforming Nature, a five-part series of blog posts on poems that approach nature, Carl Phillips looks at a 1797 poem by Charlotte Smith.

Sonnet. On being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It was Frequented by a Lunatic (1797)

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                    5
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;                           10
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 Smith

from The Penguin Book of English Verse, Paul Keegan (ed.)
Penguin, 2004

Charlotte Smith’s sonnet is an intriguing example of how prosodic strategies can at once reinforce and argue with a poem’s apparent content. Starting with the kind of sonnet we have here, Smith’s sonnet shows allegiance, in terms of sonic pattern, to the English sonnet: 14 lines of iambic pentameter—i.e., a five-beat line (ta DUM ta DUM ta DUM ta DUM ta DUM), with a rhyme scheme as follows: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG—but it wants to argue in the manner of an Italian sonnet, for the poem is clearly divided into two parts, an octave that consists of a single question, and a sestet that does and doesn’t answer the question. So, in terms of the sonnet tradition, this poem fuses English and Italian, and it is hard for me not to think of the long English (and later, American, with Henry James) literary tradition in which English travelers find that their own more conservative culture can be undone, for better and worse, by a culture comparatively more open, ‘wilder,’ potentially more erotic, more to be on one’s guard against, therefore; Italy is often the place where this ‘wilder’ culture exists. This combining of two different ‘moral’ cultures, reflected in the joining of the English and Italian sonnet, enacts the difference between the presumed uncivilized lunatic, and the civilized speaker who envies the lunatic’s lack of “nice felicities,” which can only hold a sensibility back, and it enacts the speaker’s desire to break free, to step into a wilder element.

So the form itself reinforces the poem’s content. It also announces the distribution of gaze—the majority of the lines are given to external observation of the lunatic; the smaller sestet speaks to the interior thought of the speaker and to her assumption of the lunatic’s lack of that particular interior that we call self-consciousness. At the level of line distribution, the poem shows a fascination with, and preference for, the self as mere body in the natural world, and a decided antipathy toward a self that’s been schooled to fear wilderness, a self for whom reason is not a gift but a curse that allows us to understand woe with painful precision.

Meter, too, makes its own argument, an ironic one. Even without scanning the lines, the roughness of the first eight lines is audible. This has to do with deviations from what we expect in a sonnet, more or less steady iambic pentameter, usually confined to ten syllables. Lines 3 and 8, though, have eleven syllables, thanks to some unexpected anapests (da da DUM); meanwhile, line 2 opens with an anapest, and lines 5 and 6 open with trochees (DUM da), the iamb’s opposite. All of this is in sharp contrast to the poem’s sestet, which is entirely iambic with the sole exception of the initial reversed foot of line 11, exactly when the lunatic is being emphasized (and even italicized). So the music of the poem is wilder when speaking of the lunatic, smoother in the world of reason, but ironically, insofar as the so-called sweeter music attends the life that the speaker longs to escape, and can’t, trapped in a civilization of reason’s making.

This blog post is based on Foliage & Pattern, a talk Phillips gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Carl Phillips is the author of 14 books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (2004). He is a professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Posted In: Close Readings