Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

An Explication of "The Maniac": Forming or Expressing Mania?

     Matthew Gregory Lewis’ “The Maniac” portrays the female speaker as she describes in her own words her captivity by her husband and concurrent descent into madness. She asserts her sanity throughout the first few stanzas of the poem through repetition of the sentiment expressed by the phrase “I am not mad; I am not mad” (8). As the poem draws to a close in the last two stanzas, the speaker appears to notice a change in her state of mind, and in the last line of the poem, she describes herself as having finally reached her breaking point: “I’m mad! I’m mad!” (64). However, the speaker’s denial of madness seems to contrast the mental state that her words and the title of the poem itself portray. Why would a poem entitled “The Maniac” describe the process of someone going crazy? Instead of taking the speaker’s words at face value, a different interpretation can be made of her mental state. The repetition of words and phrases by the speaker, the contrast between abundant use of and complete lack of punctuation at different times during the poem, and the intense and sometimes confusing diction utilized by the speaker, suggest that the speaker is indeed already mad and is instead trying unsuccessfully to convince herself of her own sanity.

     The significant amount of repetition used by the speaker is one of the more prominent features in the poem that displays the speaker’s madness. The most prominent instance of repetition is in the sentiment of denial expressed by the speaker; variations of her thoughts of “I am not mad” are expressed in the last line of the first seven stanzas of the eight (8). It is used verbatim in the first, second, sixth, and seventh stanzas and in a slightly different manner in the third, fourth, and fifth. The speaker continually tries to reassure herself of her sanity after multiple lines of each stanza are dedicated to the telling of a depressing tale, and she only admits defeat in the final line of the poem. However, there would be no need for the speaker to reassure herself if the question of madness did not continue to arise in her mind.

     In addition, the variation utilized in the last line of stanza five, “They’ll make me mad, they’ll make me mad.”, explicitly refers to a set of anaphoric thoughts the speaker shares earlier in the stanza and contributes to this concept of madness (40). The fifth stanza describes the speaker’s interactions with her child during what is presumed to be their final separation. The speaker uses the phrase “Nor how” at the beginning of multiple lines, each calling to mind a different image she will “ne’er forget” about this final interaction with her son (35-39). The final “nor how” is cut short by the speaker herself, coming to the conclusion that “such thoughts” will “make [her] mad” (39-40). However, since the speaker has already envisioned a number of these images, there is a likelihood that they have already affected her mental state in a negative manner.

     Even the less prominent moments of repetition in the poem strengthen the idea of the speaker’s madness. One such instance is a line in which the speaker describes her son: “My pretty, pretty, pretty lad?” (46). This line heavily utilizes the mute consonants “p” and “t” to give the lines a choppy, stuttering rhythm to them. This is similar to a more popular work, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which features the line “Double, double toil and trouble” that also relies heavily on mute consonants to create a broken rhythm (Macbeth 4.1.10). This rhythm, when spoken aloud, makes both lines seem abnormal, almost creepy, and due to this can call into question the sanity of the speakers. Other lines feature small amounts of repetition that add to this notion of the speaker’s madness. Anaphora is again featured in the line “How aches my heart! how burns my head!” (31). Other phrases are repeated in quick succession: “Help! help!” and “My brain My brain - I know I know” (53, 55). These instances of repetition, each alluding to the fact that there may be something wrong with the speaker’s mental state, are again quickly followed by the speaker’s quick denial of the thought of madness.

     In addition to the multiple uses of repetition, the punctuation utilized furthers the claim of the speaker’s madness. Out of the sixty-four lines in the poem, forty-eight, or three fourths, of them contain some sort of punctuation at the end of the line; forty of these are sharp breaks ending in a period, semicolon, question mark, exclamation point, or hyphen. Additionally, there are over twenty-five instances of caesura in this poem, each containing at least one of the five aforementioned punctuation marks. There are also at least fifteen lines, almost a quarter of the total number, containing one of these punctuation marks both inside and at the end of a line. The excessive punctuation of this poem requires a potential reader to pause a large number of times when reading the poem aloud. This joins the heavy use of mute consonants as another way of disrupting the fluidity of the poem’s rhythm, resulting in the speaker being portrayed as speaking in an unnatural manner. She uses a number of exclamations out of fright or frustration: an example of this is “Help! help! - He’s gone! - O, fearful woe!” (53). She uses phrases and sentences that don’t add up to complete sentences and trail off into other thoughts, as in the line “Yes soon; for lo yon - while I speak-” (57). She also uses sentences such as “He quits the grate; I knelt in vain;” that, while complete, only express very basic thoughts and end abruptly, which contrast with some of the more complex sentences the speaker uses at other times. The speaker is shown to not always be able to put together clear and complete thoughts, which could also portray a deficiency in her mental state.

     Despite the poem containing excessive punctuation, there are a few instances where enjambment continues on for multiple lines at a time: “O haste my father’s heart to cheer/This heart at once t’will grieve and glad/To know tho kept a captive here/I am not mad. I am not mad.” (13-16). The speaker occasionally has problems expressing complete thoughts, but on more than one occasion she also links two or more thoughts together without being able to completely separate or distinguish them. This combination can be interpreted as the speaker not maintaining control over how her mind processes her thoughts. Due to the abnormal number and placement of the punctuation marks throughout the poem, the lack of punctuation to portray a sense of the speaker losing track of her mind is certainly intentional.

     The punctuation can also be used to portray extreme emotional changes experienced by the speaker throughout the poem. One of the more prominent examples of this is seen in the last four lines of the sixth stanza: “And must I never see the more,/My pretty, pretty, pretty lad?/I will be free, unbar the door!/I am not mad; I am not mad,” (47-48). The second line, which sounds at least somewhat unnerving, still conveys the sound of a mother cooing to her son due to the softer implications of the comma used within the line. However, this emotion changes drastically due to the exclamation point usage in the third line, allowing the reader to interpret this line as the speaker yelling. Finally, in the last of the four lines, the punctuation transitions back into a semicolon and a comma, displaying an emotional shift of the speaker back down to a calmer state.

     The speaker’s word choices also call into question her mental state. In the first stanza, she states that she will remain calm and collected going forth: “I’ll rave no more… /My language shall be mild, tho’ sad” (5-6). However, in the next stanza, she immediately breaks this promise. She calls her husband a “tyrant” who made up a story in order to facilitate her imprisonment (9). She then calls herself a “wretch” who is “[bereft] of freedom, friends and health” (27-28). While either or both of these things may be true, the fact that the speaker immediately went back on her statement to keep her discourse calm and not get frustrated is surprising and influences the reader to not trust her as a result.

     The speaker’s point of view swaps back and forth at different times in the poem. In the first three lines of the poem, the speaker changes the assumed point of view twice: from first person in line one to third person in line two, and then back to first person in line three. This transition occurs again to a larger extent in the fifth stanza when the speaker discusses the final meeting with her son. She refers to herself as “a mother,” “she,” and “her” as opposed to the “I” and “me” that the reader is accustomed to seeing, and it is only when she shies away from the thoughts of her son that she regains this first person point of view (42-44). The speaker does not see herself as herself for the entirety of the poem, alluding to the idea that she is losing, or has already partially lost, her sense of self.

     Finally, the diction utilized generally expresses a scene and situation in which the reader could conventionally perceive the speaker going mad. The speaker constructs a scene in which she is “chained this freezing night” in “this dismal cell” (23, 10). She describes her beautiful son in the sixth stanza, which enhances her description of the scene by noting the absence of said beauty. In the final stanzas, she embellishes the scene by adding frightening sounds and sights that appear to have very little cohesion - she notes sensory information coming from a madman, a demon, and a reptile at separate times (50, 58, 61).

     Despite what the speaker states about remaining sane until the poem draws to a close, there are a number of reasons to believe that the speaker is merely in denial about her loss of sanity. The choice of words, punctuation, and use of repetition in the poem portray a sense of madness that overshadows what the speaker perceives as sanity, allowing Lewis to place the speaker into her true role as The Maniac.
Works Cited
Lewis, Matthew Gregory. “The Maniac.” Scrapbook of poetry, newspaper clippings, and pressed
flowers by Virginia Lucas. Ed. Virginia Lucas. VT Special Collections Online MS1995-012. 1860s. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. "MACBETH ACT 4 SCENE I. A Cavern. In the Middle, a Boiling
Cauldron." The Complete Works of Works of William Shakespeare. MIT, n.d. Web. 07
Nov. 2016.