a Birkrigg Dawn, photo by Geraldine Green
Singing the Land – Exploring the influence of the land on the Poetry of Emily Bronte
“A human being is part of the whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and our feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein1
When I began this essay my original aim was to show how the land influenced the poetry of Emily Bronte. However, as I began to look more closely at her work, I began to be aware not only of this influence, but also the connection between her poetry and the poetry of others, that I knew to bear the name of mystical poets. The first poet I began to see a connection with was Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet. His use of metaphors and images is similar to those used by Bronte to describe the Holy Spirit, for example, breath, wind, murmur, north wind, zephyr and also her use of star imagery. Whether or not she knew of the work of Hafiz I did not, at the time know, however, as I began to delve further into work written about the Brontes, I began to find clues. Juliet Barker had written in the footnotes to her book on the Brontes’ childhood writings, called Charlotte Bronte Juvenilia 1829-1835, a brief explanation of Hafiz2. This was in connection to the fact that Charlotte Bronte, Emily’s sister, had written a short story that mentioned the work of this Sufi poet.
Stevie Davies, Emily Bronte: Heretic3, also suggested that Emily Bronte could have been influenced by the work of the German Romantic poet, Goethe. It seemed sensible to read about him. I made another connection, that of his admiration of the poetry of Hafiz, to the point where Goethe had written about him in his work East West Divan4. To continue this investigation I dug deeper, looking for any
connection to Hildegard of Bingen, another poet and mystic whose work I thought resonated with that of Bronte’s and who wrote much of her work during the times of the Crusades. I discovered that Goethe, whom one critic thought was the reason for Bronte learning German, went on a pilgrimage to this 12th century mystic’s shrine at Bingen5.
I began to realise that what we call mystical experiences are common, not only in religious followers, but also, amongst other people, poets. But what is the connection between loving and respecting the land and mysticism? Jonathan Bate, in his book, Song of the Earth, describes how:
“… to dwell means you must be content to listen, to hear the music of the shuttle … There is a distinctive sound to every bio-region … but there is also an undersound, a melody heard perhaps only by the poet, which harmonises the whole eco-system … [eventually] we could come to understand that every piece of land is itself a text, with its own syntax and signifying potential. Or, one should say: come to understand once again, as our ancestors did. For the idea that the earth itself is a text is a very old one.”6
Bate is saying here that each piece of land contains within it, its own diverse life forms, particular to that place and that each life form vibrates to its own note. It is what the poet and writer Lawrence Durrell called, “the spirit of place.”7 The idea of the land being a text is something that the poet Henry Vaughan would also have recognised. Throughout this essay I have drawn on the work of Henry Vaughan because of the similarity between his poetry and that of Bronte. Whether or not she knew of his work, I do not know but I think it helps illuminate her poetry by drawing upon what has become consciously, or unconsciously, part of our shared cultural inheritance.
Henry, and his twin brother Thomas Vaughan, wrote some of their work during the mid 17th century, at the time of the English Civil War, which erupted in 1642. It would appear that it is at times of personal or public crisis that mystical experiences are felt and expressed, particularly through art and religion. This could lead us to suppose that it is a purely physiological phenomenon, related to periods of intense emotional and physical suffering that initiates the experience and not a spiritual one. However, as we are, fundamentally, physical bodies composed of emotions, thoughts, feelings and senses, it is difficult to know where one body ends and another begins. Although our thoughts are not physically tangible in the sense that you cannot pick up a thought physically, in your hands, as you would a cup of tea, we can make them tangible through works of art, religion, engineering and science. Poetry is one way in which we try and make sense of the apparently chaotic world in which we live. It is also at times of crisis that we turn to something other than ourselves in order to make sense of our fragmented world. To do this we often look at what we call nature, to provide us with answers to unanswerable questions.
For example, in “Ritual Entries: Some Approaches to Henry Vaughan’s ‘Silex Scintillans’”, Michael Srigley describes:
“… how the insomniac Vaughan [was] excited but perplexed as he gazes at the Ogham script that Nature has incised upon these stones. The landscape [of south Wales] is now internalised and is explored in a journey of the mind. Both the stream flowing from the mighty spring and the stones with their ‘broken letters’ point to a mystery which is barred to profane human reason. The intuition aroused by natural objects brings him tantalisingly close to an answer, but it fails him, and the poet recognises his spiritual blindness. In ‘early day’ as the sun rises, ‘That little light I had was gone’. The inner light now fading into the outer light of day leaves his inner eye ‘eclipsed’.”8
In the following dissertation, expanding on the connections between respect for the sacredness of the earth and mystical experiences, I shall discuss four points:
- that the land conveys a sense of interconnectedness, which flows through all things, both animate and inanimate;
- in balance with this influence towards transcendence and unifying experience is Bronte’s intimate knowledge of the specificity and concreteness of locality – the other realm of her poetry – the earth that leads to heaven as interconnectedness;
- the way this local specificity becomes an ‘inscription’, or text of sound – a known polyphony which forms the basis of her poetry and
- the inter-relationships, tensions and possible contradictions between these three elements.
For example in “The linnet in the rocky dells” Bronte not only reveals her strong, spiritual vision of the interconnectedness of life, she also shares her intimate knowledge of the land and its inhabitants. I would go further and say that the moor and the sky are canvasses and the life on the moor, under it and in it are its inscriptions, its poetic voice into which Bronte tapped for her inspiration, or which she heard in the silence when her own little voice was still and silent and she allowed something else, something both herself and other, to speak,
However, I think as she grew older and “the shades of the prison house began to close”9, she lost that ability to listen simultaneously to inner and outer voice, lost that poise where inner and outer landscapes met in a dynamic interplay and fusion and this is what she tried hard to recover. It is almost as if she experienced an inner conflict between the poet and the philosopher, the artist and the scientist. This is apparent in the two poems I shall discuss in Chapter II, The Night-Wind and Shall Earth no more inspire thee? In Chapter III I shall follow her inward journey, by looking at two poems, Stars and The Prisoner – a Fragment. I shall begin by discussing two poems in Chapter I, “The Linnet in the rocky dells” and “Loud without the wind was roaring”.
Briefly, then, the poems I have chosen express the journey of Bronte from her deep love of the land she knew and cared about at Haworth, which was her familiar and family, through her struggle to explore her inscape, her inner landscape that was being shaped by her mature, more complex emotions. It seems to me that she used the land to act as a vehicle for her explorations, not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually and mentally. The Belgian schoolmaster, M. Heger, commented that Emily Bronte “should have been a man, a great navigator.”10 I agree with him, not that she should have been a man, but in the sense that she was prepared and indeed seemed compelled, to explore the dark, psychological landscape of herself, her inner nature, using nature, that is the land, to do so.
Even the titles of the poems seem to suggest a journey, a quest, an exploration of the mysteries of life and death, using the land as an anchor when Bronte did venture into these dark realms. The poem entitled “The Linnet in the rocky dells” explores the death of a “lady fair” and how the wild animals and birds live and feed on her breast. The next two poems, “Loud without the wind was roaring” and “The Night-Wind” use the wind to symbolise both a messenger and also a gentle, seductive voice. In the poem “Stars”, Bronte uses stars as a metaphor for her thoughts, exploring the boundless, inner imagination, synonymous with the outer, spaceless, timeless universe. The poem called “The Prisoner – a fragment”, explores the idea that the body is made of clay and that the spirit is chained inside until death releases it. The last poem I have chosen to examine, “No coward soul is mine” was written in the most defiant tone of all the poems I will examine. The image of the holy spirit in this poem as a dove is very powerful and the stanza,
“With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears”
is possibly one of the strongest she has written, apart from one in “The Prisoner – a fragment”, beginning, “Then dawns the Invisible, the Unseen its truths reveals.”
What I found interesting when I began this journey of exploration, was the apparent reluctance on the part of some recent critics to explore the idea of mystical experience, a tone of embarrassment or cynicism crept in at any mention of the words soul, spirit, mystical or visionary and I think this was perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this research.
However, rather than be afraid to examine what is meant by a mystical experience, how it can relate to a sense of dislocation and how perhaps in the 21st century we are still searching for meaning in our lives, it would be more productive to ask why there is a tradition of visionaries from very earliest human times and what this tells us about us, as humans. Are mystical experiences, poetry, art, music, dance, quantum physics and religion ways of reconnecting us to the rest of creation? Do they act as ways of filling a gap we might feel between ourselves and other creatures, the gap caused by self-consciousness? These are questions I held in mind as I worked through this research.
It is interesting to see how critics have changed from one century, one generation to the next, depending on trends. For example, in the body of the essay I have shown how G. K. Chesterton, who was writing in the early part of the 20th century, was comfortable discussing the mystical elements of Bronte’s poetry. However, later critics show a greater reluctance to engage with this aspect of her work. Such critics as Lucasta Miller, for example, in her book The Bronte Myth discuss the possible mystical influences in Bronte’s poetry in the following way, “As Carlyle uses it, the word ‘mystic’ has a far more abstract, philosophical resonance than it would have a hundred years later when applied to Emily by populist twentieth-century mythographers keen to prove that her poetry derived from paranormal out-of-body experiences she had up on the moors.” 11
The tone Miller uses is cynical, as is her description of Bronte creating her poetry “from paranormal out-of-body experiences she had up on the moors.” What it shows is how the meanings of words change over the centuries, but that similar experiences we call mystical have been around for a long time. Far from being abstract and philosophical and/or out of the body, the mysticism I will be examining in this essay is one grounded in the reality of our physical bodies; that to know and experience what can be termed ecstasy, or heightened awareness, is firmly rooted in the earth, which is why metaphors of sexuality are used to describe a mystical experience. The feeling we get of letting go at the point of orgasm, are akin to that of letting go into what is sometimes called the cosmic, or greater self, and can also be experienced as a moment when we realise that we are all part of each other, and I am including the inanimate here as well as the animate. It is when we are more firmly reconnected to our senses as animals that we have the potential to become spiritual beings.
Once we realise, as Einstein did, that “our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” then I believe we will truly fulfil what it means to be human.
CHAPTER I – LANDSCAPE: HOME AT HAWORTH
Only some spires of bright green grass
Transparently in sunshine quivering. - Emily Bronte
The Linnet in the rocky dells
I have chosen this poem to carry on the discussion begun in the Introduction, namely that a sense of heightened awareness can enable us to, literally, see things in a new light.
In this seemingly simple poem of nature, Bronte names the linnet, the lark and the bee, three winged creatures that live on and in the moors and sky and also the wild deer that feed off the vegetation which grows on the moors. The poem is written in a simple ab ab rhyme scheme but the complexity emerges with the dark imagery of “the grave’s dark wall” and before that the startling image of nourishment and birth woven into death with the picture of the “lady fair” breast-feeding the wild deer and the wild birds that raise their brood on her breast, the breast of the hill.
There is in the poem a blending of the specific, as evidenced in Bronte’s knowledge of nature and the poetic and in this way two worlds meet, with the poet acting as Hermes the winged messenger, bridging the material and the spiritual worlds with her use of poetic language; she is communicating the song of the earth to her readers,
through the use of her intuition, allowing herself to listen to what the earth is singing to her, in its unceasing lullaby, which we hear through the poet’s words, in the murmur of bees and the summer stream. The poet acts as a mediator to those “whose heart has not been moved to feeling by the mountains”12 and just as the earth can “centre both the worlds of heaven and hell”13 so too, through language, can the poet. The feelings that the poet puts into words are the shapes she feels moving in her inner landscape and which are prompted by what she physically sees of her outer landscape, thus setting up a dialogue between herself and the earth. We say “we were moved to
feeling, moved to tears” by a beautiful sunset, or an awe-inspiring mountain that, literally, takes our breath away and blends it, that is our breath, with the infinite. This
is something that humans have experienced for a long while and which, through art, we have tried to communicate.
Throughout the poem the reader can hear the sound of summer, in Bronte’s repetitive use of br sounds, of breast, brood,14 browse, and bird, which all seem to capture the essence of the summer humming and murmuring of bees, streams and behind and through it all what brings these sounds to us through Bronte, the poet, is the wind. The use of the word ‘breast’ and the stark image the word conjures up must have been seen to be daring in the early nineteenth century and yet, of course, we use the term “breast of a hill” without being fully conscious of its power and meaning, while Emily Bronte was.
There is a healing constancy in the song of the earth, as sung by the wind, the bees, the birds, and the larks, which reassure us that “all will be well, all manner of things will be well”15 and that there is constancy in change, a difficult concept for humans to grasp, but when grasped, has a comforting logic to it.
One could say that the moor was Emily’s cathedral space, her lungs, where she could discover herself through its vast “intimate immensity.”16 I think Emily Bronte worshipped the god in her own breast and I shall return to this point when I look at her later poems, for example “No coward soul is mine”. This god is called by many names, spirit, breath, Hu, chi and holy ghost, in different religions and philosophies, or the Wordsworthian “one life” the motion and the spirit “that impels all thinking things.”17
The image of the land as a living being is not a new one and is one that has been and will continue to be, re-cycled within the human psyche. It reminds me of a poem called ‘The Sleeping Lord and other fragments’ by David Jones, a 20th century poet18
“Do the small black horses
grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
Are the hills his couch
Or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
Him in slumber
Are the still undulations
The still limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
The furrowed body of the lord
Are the scarred ridges
His dented greaves
Do the trickling gullies
Yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
Or is the wasted land
That very lord who sleeps?”
Even the title, “The Sleeping Lord” carries echoes of Bronte’s image of a “lady fair” dreaming under the mound of earth, the breast of a hill, her breast breathing, the breath of the west wind, her sigh. These images also catch the older earth-songs of the Celts, who saw images of people, animals and birds in rocks, trees and clouds. It is also evocative of the cave painters of Lascaux, who caught the spirit of the rock in their representations of the animals they hunted. Perhaps they saw a shape on the
rock face (interesting how we use expressions such as rock face and not fully understand the significance) and, using the contours of the rock as a canvas, drew the animal’s spirit on it and from it, by blowing the paint onto the rock from the palms of their hands.
Bronte not only shows a spiritual, emotional and poetic sensibility that some readers may baulk at, she also has the scientist’s eye for detailed observation; time and again in her poems she displays her skill as a naturalist. She identifies the flora and the fauna with whom she shares her moorland home and she uses the names of birds, plants and animals in the first stanza to draw (again, in both senses of the word, as she
was also a competent artist) the reader in to a specific place. She invites us to share her knowledge and sense of place. However, although this specific detail fixes us to a certain time and place, that is the moors in summer, it is simultaneously timeless. The
linnets were nesting in the rocky dell and the moor larks were in the air before and after Bronte’s lifetime and hopefully ours, too. I think this is part of her strength, an ability to be both specific and timeless.
The poem sets up tensions between opposites, such as life and death, dark and light, sleep and awakening, birth and death, active and passive. She contrasts images such as “the grave’s dark wall” with, “the light of joy.”
It is a poem about loss, how it affects us, and how we deal with it; the people who once mourned the “fair lady” and who thought they would never smile again because she had left them through death, did smile again. Although it is a poem of loss and grief, it is also about hope and renewal, and just as the seasons come round from dark to light, winter to summer, eternal dark and eternal light, so too, even the grief-stricken learn to smile again.
It also contrasts the activity of life, the being born and dying, raising chicks, broods, families, all the crowded familiar19 busy ness of the everyday world, compared to the “solitude” of the ‘lady fair’ who once caressed the living world with her smile of love and warmth, like the soft breath of the west wind. The poem implies that those who were once caressed by her smiles have now deserted her, just as she has deserted them through death. She has deserted them in one sense because she is dead, and her loved ones can no longer enjoy her warm smile.
However, she has not deserted them because her composting body nurtures and gives life to the earth, to the worms in the earth, which in turn feed the brood of young birds, and the grass, which feeds the deer and their young.
It is a deceptively simple poem that encapsulates the eternal cycles of birth, death and renewal and one that can, like other Bronte poems, be read at many levels. One can follow many paths into her poems; science, natural history, geography, ecology and the arts, as well as the path of the emotions and the spirit, the breath that connects.
In the line, “They thought the tide of grief would flow” the mourners felt they would cry forever, but, as I noted earlier, it does eventually dry up, as streams do in summer. Even if tears were poured for her eternally, neither laughter nor could tears disturb the lady, as she has been changed by death and transformed into earth, and become part of the life of the mound. She no longer has any cares, she is “care less” in her sleep of death. The lines:
“She would not in her tranquil sleep,
return a single sigh!”
lead from the solitary, peaceful breath into the larger, universal breath of the west wind and the lines,
“Blow, west-wind, by the lonely mound
And murmur, summer-streams.”
This brings not only sound into the poem, connecting breath, wind and streams, through the use of the words ‘blow’ and ‘murmur’ it also brings other senses into play. It places the reader, once again, within the scene, sharing the sounds of nature and the feel of the wind on the skin. The reader has been invited by the poet to
experience what the poet is writing, to hear, see and touch the peaceful summer scene and we know it is summer, even if Bronte had not used the words “summer stream”, because it is the west wind blowing, not a raging north or east wind, and the streams are murmuring, not rushing torrents of melting snow.
Yet the reader is not in the picture because the poem is self-contained, secret, self-sufficient and an illusion, a myth created by the poet. It is the image of the ‘lady fair’ asleep under the earth, transformed through death into another world, one that neither the reader nor the writer, as far as we are aware, can ever experience. The picture contains the dead woman still feeding, still nurturing and also at peace in a sleep which completes the circle. The mound keeps the lady’s secrets from prying eyes but the reader of the poem, or the listener to it, like the poet, is a voyeur. The position of the poet is a strange one, she is in on the secret, tantalising the reader/listener, inviting them to share it, yet the poet cannot fully experience that which she is writing about, which is death, because the poet, like the reader/listener, is alive.
The word “murmur” is not only onomatopoeic and a half-rhyme with”‘summer” it also links back to the bees in the heather bells at the beginning of the poem, again completing the circle/cycle of life and death.
To more fully complete the circle we learn that the lady is woven into the tapestry of sound and silence because she hears by being at one with the listening, breathing earth and air. She is the listener and also part of that which is listened to. The lady has been consumed by earth, and the earth, that she is a part of and not apart from, has consumed her. As in the myth of Persephone, the fair lady is underground and returns as Persephone did, each Spring in the form, not just of anemones, but in the re-birth of new life on the moors.
Loud without the wind was roaring
This poem builds on the earlier poem I have looked at, developing the argument that it is the wind, or breath, that unites all living creatures. The similarity between poetry and the wind is that both use rhythm to communicate, the poet sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously and the wind, in the form of breath, has its own inherent rhythm, for example in the beat of a heart, or the way trees sound and sway rhythmically when the wind plays on them. One could argue that planets, rocks and other inanimate forms are not united to living creatures because they are inert, but they have their own rhythm; planets revolve around the sun, they have their own cycle of life and death and the oceans respond to the cycles of the moon. Everything, whether alive or inert is in a state of flux, even mountains are not static they are transformed by ice and fire, wind and rain.
In this poem, the “spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things”20 shakes the poem and the reader, awake. Through the vivid
sensibilities of the poet, the reader simultaneously feels the presence and power of the wind on the page, in the heart and on the moor. Thus the sense of sight is called into play and also of sound, feeling and imagination, by the poet’s words. “The wild words of an ancient song” are, I feel, what the wind that the poet is hearing reminds her of, namely, the Spring. So, although it is Autumn, the wind is the messenger that is reminding her of Spring. It reminds me of Shelley’s, “Ode to the West Wind” which ends with the lines, “If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?” 21
The wind is without the poet and also within her, prompting her to remember how the wind, which is mutable, protean, and hermaphroditc, perhaps like the Holy Spirit, blows night and day and through all seasons, and, like breath, never dies, because the breath of animals and humans become transformed and absorbed into the eternal breath of the wind.
The poem is also of longing, perhaps for the Spring of the poet’s childhood, the May-time of her younger days that now she is in her November-time, maybe not in age but in spirit and feeling, she longs for the ‘music of May’. Like Henry Vaughan, Bronte uses images of light and fire to show how the light that burns within can be rekindled and that the wind, which “kindled the burning ember, Into fervour that could not decay.” is that which fans dying passions.
This poem is a song of home, a remembering of what home is like to a wanderer; it reminds me of what I have read by Glyn Purlsove22 of Heidegger’s words on Holderlin, “where, to quote George Steiner’s paraphrase of Heidegger, ‘the theme of pilgrimage … enacts a fundamental ontological homecoming.’ For Heidegger, ‘it is the poet who, supremely perhaps even alone, is guarantor of man’s ultimate Heimkehr (homecoming).’”
It is interesting to note that, apart from the second stanza, which is six lines long, and is written in an aa, bc, bc rhyme scheme, all the other stanzas are four lines long, written in a ballad form, in an abab rhyme scheme. Even the first stanza whose theme
is Autumn and which is separated from the Spring part of the poem by the six line stanza, is, however, still linked to Spring by the winged messenger, the wind.
The lines, “Awaken on all my dear moorlands, The wind in its glory and pride!” is like a trumpet call by angels, or the cavalry, or evangelical preachers calling to members of their congregation who have perhaps fallen asleep. The poet is excited “into fervour” by the wind calling her and the word “fervour” is telling, it is a feverish excitement, almost a passionate longing to be united with the wind as if the wind is her lover. The lines also sound like an invocation, a spell, a prayer and a poem which enables the poet, and through the power of words that the poet casts also enables the reader to re call (literally re call) the moor in all its seasons, glorying in the yellow starlike stonecrop, the blue harebells, the snow and the swollen “hill-river”. With a painter’s eye the poet creates images of the blue and yellow of Spring, the
“corn-fields all waving, In emerald and scarlet and gold” of Summer but it is the moors that the poet offers up her song to, “where the north wind is raving” and which she finds lovelier than the corn-fields.
In this poem the word ‘moor’ appears five times, the word “moorland” once and “mountains” twice. The repetition of the phrase, “For the moors!” sounds to the reader like a cry of a child to its mother; there is a sound of desperation, a yearning tone in this phrase, which, as well as a cry, is also like that of a spell that the moors have cast over her; it is both a supplication and a command.
The poet appears to prefer the wildness of Artemis to the cultivated cornfields of Demeter. The use of the word ‘raving’ is interesting in its connection with the wind, it implies a madness, a sense of abandonment, an almost Dionysian, pre-lapsarian era when one could rush down the slopes of the hill, pretending you were a windmill, as I did as a child. The word ‘raving’ also has echoes of ravens, ravenous and ravishing, words associated with death, violent appetites and perhaps rape, evoking as they do images of Eros and Thanatos, erotic love and death, the devoured and those who devour. The use of the word raving reminds me of the use of the word by Coleridge in his poem “Dejection: an Ode”23 lines 99-100, “… Thou Wind, that rav’st without, Bare crag, or mountain tarn, or blasted tree”.
Simultaneously, I also feel the poem could awaken in the reader a remembrance of what it was like to be a child, running and chasing the wind. The word “blithely” in the line “But blithely we rose as the dusk heaven”, reminds me of “blithe spirit” from Shelley’s “To a Skylark” which is apt, as larks rise to the heavens24. The poem also resonates with images from Keats’ poem, “To Autumn”25 especially the line, “Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?”
Bronte often evokes contradictory feelings and images in her readers and in her poems, perhaps because they were such a constant source of struggle within herself. On the surface then, we have a child, running down a hill that is covered in harebells,
passed rocks with stonecrop growing on them, laughing in the May sun. Contrast this with the darker aspect of the earth; the gentle zephyr wind that makes the harebells nod, also creates storms and floods and can drive people to madness.
The poem blends passions, ecstasy and vision and is also sensually charged. The words ‘we’ and ‘us’ become lovers, lying on velvet grass, almost as if they are part of the earth, whether in death, birth or coupling; the child is growing up and tasting sexuality. The ‘we’ are still in the pre-Adamic world, but only just; the world is still full of innocence, but with a hint of menace that we read further on in the line, “It [the brown heath] was scattered and stunted”. But before reaching that point, the place of the Fall, the ‘we’ “… rose as the dusk heaven was melting to amber and blue”. The word ‘amber’ here, echoing the word ‘ember’ used in stanza four. Like Hermes who also had winged feet, the couple, rose to heaven like birds, “And swift were the wings to our feet given, While we traversed the meadows of dew.”
It is a meditative poem in that the poet is trying to recall what she heard and saw as she lay supine on the grassy slope, as she listened to its inner and outer songs. The
moor would appear as high mountains if you were lying down, “Where each high pass Rose sunny against the clear sky!” She would hear the linnets, larks and bees singing their song, creating a miniature universe, of which the poet and speaker in the poem is a part. The word “rose” is used three times in the poem, in the lines, “But blithely we rose as the dusk heaven”, we read that the moors “Rose sunny against the clear sky” and “What language can utter the feeling That rose, when, in exile afar.” The use of the word “rose” evokes a sense of the mystery of the way spirit wants to break free of matter and rise upwards. As Glyn Purslove writes in “Henry Vaughan and the energies of rhyme”26 “I suspect Vaughan would have agreed with Richard of St. Victor in saying: ‘Watch birds to understand how spiritual things move, animals to understand physical motion.’”
There is a delicate balance, an awareness of ecosystems, in the poem, that the linnet sings its song whilst sitting “on an old granite stone”, which conjures up a lovely
image of the spirit, symbolised by the song of the bird trilling into the air, and the earth, symbolised by the stone, not just a stone, but a granite stone. The lark goes one further than the linnet, for the lark sings its song as it rises higher to melt “into the amber and blue” of heaven, its song filling not only the wide open sky, but also every breast that heard it. The whole feeling of the poem at this point is up, everything is being raised up as gravity is being defied, gravity in all senses of the word.
I would suggest that a poem could be seen to be an ecosystem, a form of energy that contains many strands shaped into a poetic pattern. Maybe this is why poems have been associated with healing, because their inner song resonates with something deep within our psyche that lies too deep for words, but that, sometimes, can magically be made into a shape that fits our emotions and so healing is done almost homeopathically.
The idea that a poem is a form of energy, is reinforced by Glyn Purslove, again taken from Scintilla 1, in the same article as footnote 26 above, where he states,
“…we might borrow, however inappropriate it might at first seem, some ideas from Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, with its poetics based, ultimately, on the model of physics and its definition of a poem as ‘energy transferred from where the poet got it … by way of the poem itself , all the way over to the reader’, seeing the poem has a ‘highly charged construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.’”
What seems to sadden the poet is the inability to find the language to express her feelings at such a time, such a memory and the knowledge that even this feeling, like the memory, is transient. She is literally brought down to her earth as we read in the lines,
“What language can utter the feeling
That rose when, in exile afar,
On the brow of a lonely hill kneeling
I saw the brown heath growing there.
It was scattered and stunted, and told me
That soon even that would be gone
It whispered, ‘The grim walls enfold me
I have bloomed in my last summer’s sun’”
The sense of one who has lost their way home, one who is an exile from home is poignantly depicted in the image of someone kneeling on the brow of a lonely hill, seeing brown heath, not green, juice-filled velvet grass but heath that is brown, scattered and stunted, implying the whole tapestry, or holy memory, has been unpicked and is ready to become composted back into the hill. However, the poem has not lost all hope, because the next stanza begins with the word, “But”. The loved music is eternal, it may have played its last song this Summer on the hare bells, “the half-blighted bells”, but it will play again the following Spring. There is a deep sense
of sacred place and space to this poem and to the moment the poet is describing, the heath is animated by the wind and even though the heath blooms and dies, as do the flowers that grow on it, the wind still exerts a magic which moves the listener to tears. But the tears are healing and if she could have wept “Those tears had been heaven to me.”
The tears seem to me to tell the reader/s and the poet that the heath is an extension of the poet and the poet is the heath, just as Cathy says, “Nelly, I AM Heathcliff!” Interestingly, the names Cathy, phonetically spelt Ka-thee, K and TH E and Heathcliff, phonetically spelt, Heeth-Kliff, with the sounds reversed as in E TH K are almost mirror images of each other, as in a Rorshach test; they run on one from the other, where one ends, the other begins.
The poet, then, both longs to be part of the wind and also to be the heath, simultaneously, both “burning to be free”, yet rooted in the earth. When one is dead and buried, one becomes, as we learned in the poem “The linnet in the rocky dells”, like the lady, part of the song and part of the earth.
In the penultimate stanza the use of the word “burn” in “How it longed, how it burned to be free!”27 does not have to include the word ‘yearned’ because it is there, in the absence and in the echo of the rhyme scheme. The burning is an intense longing to be reunited with the universe, with oneself, with another, with the earth and I feel it is also desperation and a longing that is a common experience to most humans. The burning and the tears are like a baptism of fire and water, the reader is left wondering why the poet could not cry, what stopped her. “If I could have wept in that hour” is puzzling, would she, once she started crying, have let go and gone to pieces and dissolved, but then, is not that what she wanted, to let go and become part of something greater then herself, like the heath, she is burned to encourage new growth.
Then the “old stoic” part of herself admonishes her, bringing her down to earth, literally with a “Well, well” meaning “well, well, it was not to be, put that dream
away, store it in my imagination for another day.” The word “well” also has another meaning, that of a place where water can be stored and brought up when needed to refresh, both spiritually and physically. The words are also prosaic and philosophical, rather than poetic and exalted. Linear time is expressed in the words, “… the sad minutes are moving” and the poet moves from being light as bird song or the wind to being, like time, “loaded with trouble and pain”. I think the word “moving” is also meant in its other meaning, or it could be, that is, emotionally moving.
The poem ends on a hopeful note that “… sometime the loved and the loving Shall meet on the mountain again.” implying that unity is possible, sometime.
CHAPTER II – CONFLICT BETWEEN INSCAPE AND LANDSCAPE
In this complex, beautifully seductive poem, I shall look at how Bronte was searching for her own belief system, which was not necessarily in line with that of conventional religions of the day. There is evidence in this poem, once it is examined closely, that Bronte was aware that god was not perhaps the monotheistic deity that the Christian church depicted him as. Indeed, it would appear that she was more akin to the belief that god was female, or rather both male and female. This is an ancient belief and one that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, Arabs, Persians and Indians, and which can also be seen in such terms as hermaphrodite and in the religions of Sufism, Taoism and Hinduism. In medieval England the symbol of the vesica piscis was incorporated into the architecture and building of cathedrals, its meaning is that of the female genitals, the sacred orifice from which Christ entered the world. This female aspect of the deity became blurred, diminished and finally lost until most religions today are based on the monotheistic deity of the phallus, a male god, leaving people to create their own balanced, or imbalanced, belief systems, which incorporate the female as playing an important part in creation.
In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne
I shoop me into shroude as I a sheep were
‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland fl. 1375 28
In the first lines of the poem “The Night Wind”, if you pronounce the word “through” with two syllables and similarly the same with the word “dew”,
“In summer’s mellow midnight
A cloudless moon shone through
Our open parlour window
And rosetrees wet with dew
you have the same rhythm as “In a somer seson whan softe was the sonne” of the poem “Piers Plowman”. The Norton Anthology footnote to this poem states: “The poem takes the form of a dream vision, a popular genre in the Middle Ages in which the author presents a story as a dream of the main character. … Travelling forth on a May morning [which the main character in the poem is doing] often initiated a dream vision in medieval poetry.”29
The “Night-Wind” is interesting in that although it is written in quatrains, that is in four-line stanzas, it is not in a ballad form, it does not have an abab rhyme scheme, rather it depends, in a similar way to “Piers Plowman”, on alliteration to carry the poem through. Referring again to the Norton Anthology, we find that “Piers Plowman” is written in “accentual meter, sometimes called ‘strong stress meter’ which is the oldest [meter]. …as in most Old English poetry, each line is organised by stress and by alliteration (the repetition of speech sounds – vowels, or more usually consonants in a sequence of nearby words) One and generally both of the stressed syllables in the first half-line alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half-line. Accentual meter continued to be used into the late fourteenth century, as in Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’”30
I have quoted this in full, as I think it is worth noting the similarities between Bronte’s poem and Langland’s. Unlike Langland, Bronte splits the first two lines, whereas Langland would have placed them on one line, with a caesura. However, both use alliteration, “suMMer’s Mellow Midnight/A cloudless Moon shone through”. Bronte also uses masculine endings in the first stanza, perhaps indicating that the light shining through is masculine, then feminine line endings in the second stanza, indicating that the “I” who “sat in silent musing.” was female. The word “musing” is
a feminine ending, having two syllables. Line two of stanza two is, however, masculine, when the “soft wind waved my hair”.
The whole poem is an interweaving of feminine and masculine line endings and is highly seductive, erotic as well as spiritual. It reminds me of another medieval writer, painter, musician, mystic and nun, Hildegard of Bingen.31 The “marriage” of spirit and matter is an ancient one, one which has been incorporated into many strange sects, for example, the alchemists in their search for the philosopher’s stone which they thought would transmute base metal (matter/body/earth) into gold (spirit/breath). Alchemists based their belief on the “Corpus Hermeticum”, a body of work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, As Hilary Llewellyn Williams states:
“The Hermetic system is dualistic and from the Two proceed the many or, as the Taoists would say, ‘the Ten Thousand Things’. In fact, it is rather like Taoism in its duality of light and dark, positive and negative energies. These principles were
symbolised as male and female. … The Divine Source was hermaphroditic in nature, as was humankind in its perfect state.”32
The reason I have laboured over these points is that I believe that Bronte, from whatever sources she found her philosophy or knowledge, gathered it together and wove it into her own dynamic philosophy, which acted as her “religion”.
The constant dualism that runs throughout her poetry and which is also inherent in Wuthering Heights, reflects this knowledge, from whatever source she gleaned it, of the idea of a dualistic, hermaphroditic source of energy that resides in the universe and which was totally at odds with the conventional idea of a monistic system of belief.
The “Night-Wind” was published in 1850, “with a commentary by Charlotte Bronte:
“here again is the same mind in converse with a like abstraction. The Night-Wind, breathing through an open window, has visited an ear which discerned language in its whispers.” 33
I think Bronte was talking to herself, or to the wind, just as in another poem she addressed the stars, because she was striving to sort out her belief system, her philosophy, to work out how life could have meaning for her and perhaps had no-one with whom she could work it out.
In this poem, I do not think Bronte meant literal death, or death as in the little death of the orgasm, rather she meant, the death of the little ego, the individual self, which has to “die” symbolically, in order to be more fully alive in god, or in oneself. I think the struggle Bronte was aware of was what or who was god? Now, in most countries, we can go on the internet, key in questions on many ‘isms’ and ‘osophies’ without fear of persecution. For Bronte, although she would not have burnt at the stake for perhaps having sympathies with, for example Gnosticism, Manicheeism, Hermeticism or Orphism, she would have been ostracised. Her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, who perhaps knew, or were aware of, Emily’s unorthodox religious beliefs, were a little fearful for her because of them.
As the critic, Stevie Davies, has pointed out, “But Emily also shocked Charlotte. So much so that Charlotte felt obliged to ‘tone down’ Emily’s life and work for the public eye. For within Emily Bronte’s shyness and reclusiveness lay the power to defy and reverse prevailing social norms and values. Denying her father’s God, scorning hypocrisies and illusions, and fiercely expressing her own sexuality, Emily Bronte rejected the bias and control of her culture.”34 Quoting Novalis, Davies says, “… the wedding of love and death, in which death is understood not as an ending but as a liberation into the higher spiritual potentialities of life, freed from the petty restrictions of causality and filled with the Divine spirit.”35 It is this that Bronte was searching and researching for, in and through her poetry.
The death that Bronte, or the speaker in the poem, is considering surrendering to, is, paradoxically, a chance to experience life in a fuller, more universal sense. Although this longing to be reunited with the mythical “other” can be explained in a spiritual sense, or as some critics have done, for example Irene Tayler, in a biological sense, stating that Bronte wanted to be reunited with her dead mother, I feel that it is a deeper, more collectively experienced, longing to return “home” but we don’t know where home is.36 Unlike other creatures with which we share our earth-home, we have, or think we have, something that distinguishes ourselves from them. If it is our imagination, then that is both a gift and a curse. If this distinguishing faculty is to be used positively, we could use it to empathise with others, both animate and inanimate, and try to give voice to those that do not speak in a human voice.
To return to Bronte’s poem, “The Night-Wind”, the speaker is being seduced by the Night-Wind; the use of words containing th and h emphasise the soft breath, the whisperings of the wind. Consider the use of these letters in the names Cathy and Heathcliff, they symbolise, phonetically, the wind that separates and the wind that has the power to unite. This is again evidenced in this poem. The whole scenario is like an old-fashioned dance, where each partner comes together, briefly, before swinging away. A message is there, in the wind, in the leaves rustling, for the speaker of the poem and for the reader, if only we could hear it and understand.
The speaker does not need the wooing voice of the wind to tell her that Heaven was glorious and that Earth was fair, she can hear it not only in the single voice of the wind, but also in the “myriad voices, instinct with spirit seem.” A resistance is set up
between the singer, that is the wind, and the speaker, who is being seduced against her will. It is this phrase “against her will” which is emphasised by the lines,
“I said, ‘Go, gentle singer,
Thy wooing voice is kind
But do not think its music
Has power to reach my mind –
Play with the scented flower,
The young tree’s supple bough –
And leave my human feelings
In their own course to flow.’”
And again in the lines,
“The Wanderer would not leave me
Its kiss grew warmer still –
‘O come’, it sighed so sweetly
‘I’ll win thee ‘gainst thy will – ”
It is interesting that Bronte, through her persona, the poet/speaker, calls the wind, “it”; so the wind, the spirit, is neither masculine nor feminine, but neutral, ambivalent, hermaphroditic37, yet paradoxically, whether intentionally or not, when Bronte the poet, makes the wind speak, she makes the line endings masculine and when the speaker muses or speaks to the wind, the line endings are mostly feminine. I think there was a struggle within Bronte’s psyche that expressed itself, almost in a psycho-dramatic way, in her poetry and in her novel, Wuthering Heights. What I am suggesting is, that she externalised her internal struggle through the use of space on the blank page and by the written word, through language.
The night, which is usually symbolised as evil, diseased and threatening is not, because “The divine is present within nature, through which we experience its blessings and truth. … even Night – usually symbolic of evil, fear and ignorance – becomes a holy thing38 Night is the “day of Spirits, when the greatest and most secret mysteries can be made known; so it is that in our times of greatest inner darkness we may be visited by something divine.”39
The last stanza has masculine rhyme endings,
“And when thy heart is laid to rest
beneath the church-yard stone
I shall have time enough to mourn
And thou to be alone.”
The last words on each line are single syllable, “rest” “stone” “mourn” “alone” and give the impression, through their sound, of heavy clods of earth, dropping onto a coffin. The overall tone of this last stanza is totally different from the carefree tone of the first stanza,
“In summer’s mellow midnight
A cloudless moon shone through
Our open parlour window
And rosetrees wet with dew”
The rhythm of the last stanza reminds me of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” and “thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return”, used in the Christian burial service. I think the Night-Wind had the power to move the speaker and this sometimes excited and sometimes troubled her. For example, when she was struggling with whether or not to submit to this inner voice, which is personified and externalised by the wind, she exercised her Stoic philosophy and willed herself not to listen. Other times she submitted to it and we get the poems that have flashes of what is called a mystical experience, or what Wordsworth called “Intimations of Immortality.”
Shall Earth no more inspire thee?
In this poem, Bronte, through the speaker in the poem, is asking questions, and as Rowan Williams, soon to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury has recently said, “what am I but an asking of questions?” The difficulty with Bronte’s poems is trying to differentiate between the speakers, who is speaking what and to whom? The poem creates a mood of sadness in the reader, through the persona of the “lonely dreamer” who appears to have lost her way. This loss is synonymous with an inability to remember where home is. If the poem was only about a dreamer, this meaning would not be evident, but the persona is a lonely dreamer, thus lending weight to a sense of isolation and alienation.
To interpret this, I understand the first stanza to mean that the lonely dreamer, because he or she is no longer fired by passion, may also no longer be inspired by Earth. It reads almost as if earth and passion are synonymous, because they are linked by the rhyme scheme “inspired” and “fired”. But who is the “thee” and the “thy”? The second question is intriguing, “Since passion may not fire thee Shall Nature cease to bow?” meaning, I take it, that just because the “lonely dreamer” has lost her passion, her fire and her inspiration, then is that a reason for Nature to also stop bowing, or attempting to influence the lonely dreamer’s wandering mind.40
These two questions link the Earth, Nature, the “lonely dreamer” and fire, passion and inspiration, in a double triumvate, that perhaps mirror each other, certainly it indicates that they are all interconnected, one with the another. The speaker is asking the lonely dreamer, who may or may not be the poet Emily Bronte, to stop her mind from uselessly wandering into dark regions and return to the Earth, to Nature. The speaker gives a reason why the “lonely dreamer” should, “return to dwell with me”, and it is because,
“I know my mountain breezes
enchant and soothe thee still –
I know my sunshine pleases
Despite thy wayward will –”
As in the last poem, “The Night-Wind”, we have the “wayward will” recurring. This poem, I feel, is the crux, part of the transitional phase that Bronte was going through, when the earth, the linnets, bees, harebells and larks, the humming bioregion, the under song of where she dwelt, was no longer a cause for inspiration. The “lonely dreamer” however, has a “wayward will” as we have seen before and this will seems to deliberately set the dreamer at odds with what she most loves. It is a perverse reaction, or response and one that Charlotte Bronte was aware of as we can see in a note that she provided to accompany this poem,
“the following little piece has no title; but in it the Genius of a solitary region seems to address his wandering mind and wayward votary, and to recall within his influence the proud mind which rebelled at times against what it most loved.” 41
So for Charlotte Bronte, the spirit of place, its ‘Genius’ seems to be talking to his or her wandering mind and his wayward ‘Votary.”42
For Juliet Barker “the poem shows Bronte’s pantheism in its most extreme form, partly because there is no comment from the ‘fond idolator’ herself.”43 I think Charlotte Bronte’s comment, through the use of the words Genius and Votary, do emphasise how she felt her sister was perhaps one who had taken a vow, who was
devoted to a certain place, in this case Haworth Moors, but whose wayward will took the devoted dreamer off into dark regions away from the Earth.
The Earth tried to recall the dreamer to the passion, love and inspiration with which the Earth fired her; the Genius, that is, the earth that had begotten the dreamer, or the Votary, knew that even though the dreamer wandered, it was useless to rove too far because she would always return home. The time of day in three of Bronte’s poems
that I have discussed, or will discuss, in this essay, that provide an overlap between the inner landscape of Bronte’s imagination and the outer landscape of the moors, is dusk. That time of day,
“When day with evening blending
Sinks from the summer sky,
I’ve seen thy spirit bending
In fond idolatory – ”
The word “idolatory” is an interesting one, meaning as it does to worship idols. Every hour the dreamer is watched by the Earth, the Genius, the Genus Locus, who says, “I know my mighty sway/I know my magic power.” There is great strength in these two lines, a complete confidence in the power of the Earth to works its magic over the Votary. The dreamer is lonely, and the loneliness is maybe self-inflicted, caused by turning away from the power of the Earth who has the ability “To drive thy griefs away.” The Earth, the spirit of place, knows, too, that few people have been given hearts that pine so much, yet none of those hearts would ask for a Heaven which is more like the Earth than the lonely dreamer’s.
It is a convincing argument for the lonely dreamer to stop wandering and return to his or her true home, the Earth, nature or one’s own self. The poem ends,
“Then let my winds caress thee –
Thy comrade let me be –
Since nought beside can bless thee
Return and dwell with me.”
The word “dwell” has been used twice in this poem and reminds me of what Jonathan Bate in his book “Song of the Earth” has to say about Heidegger and what it means to dwell.
“Lord Byron’s community of species is a necessary antidote to the Wordsworthian solitary. Yet William Wordsworth remains the founding father for a thinking of poetry in relation to place, to our dwelling upon the earth. … For Wordsworth, poetry is something that happens at a particular time and in a particular place.”44 I think that Wordsworth, like Bronte, like Vaughan, like Basil Bunting, and like Norman Nicholson whose poetry was grounded in a particular place, was in touch with the earth where they lived. Not only in Cumberland, West Yorkshire, South Wales, Northumberland and again, Cumberland, but within specific places in those regions. At the beginning of this Chapter I quoted from Jonathan Bate, “to dwell you must be content to listen” and that, “there is a distinctive sound to every bioregion.” Bates goes on to say,
“But there is also an undersound, a melody heard perhaps only by the poet, which harmonises the whole ecosystem. … [Shelley knew] that the poet can only give us a trace, not the thing itself. Locked in the prison-house of language, dwelling in the logos not the oikos, we know only the text, not the land. Unless, that is, we could come to understand that every piece of land is itself a text, with its own syntax and signifying potential.”45
I think this is the struggle experienced by Bronte, the struggle to dwell, should she dwell in the word or in the land and not wishing to ally herself fixedly with either one or the other she oscillated between the two. This tension, is what I feel creates the
poems. The rhythm of the oscillation between, perhaps at first in her childhood, unconsciously “knowing” something other than herself, a knowledge of something external to her, which she apprehended through her close relationship with the land and her inward search to explore this apprehension of something other, is as systolic and diastolic as breathing. By this I mean that, first her awareness was through an expansion of herself into the macrocosm, then, when her search led her inwards, it contracted into the microcosm. Perhaps if she had lived longer her journey would have been outward again, leading her back to the land.
The Australian poet, Les Murray, wrote, “There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry, or a lack of it”, in ‘Poetry and Religion’.”46 “The mode of being to which Rilke aspired in poetry was that which he called ‘open’. The ‘open’ is akin to Schiller’s ‘naïve’, where there is no division between nature and consciousness.”47 Schiller was one of the German poets whom Bronte read and admired, and whose work published in Blackwood’s Magazine.48
In order to link what I am saying about dwelling, with Bronte’s poem under discussion, let me finally quote Bate, talking about what it means for Heidegger to dwell. “What is distinctive about the way in which humankind inhabits the earth? It is that we dwell poetically (dichterisch). … For Heidegger poetry can, quite literally, save the earth. … language is the house of being; it is through language that unconcealment takes place for humans beings. …But then humankind alone among species also knows those afflictions we call doubt, despair, derangement. … our knowledge of mind, our self-consciousness, brings the possibility of alienation from self and from nature.” 49
The poem “Shall Earth no more inspire thee?” is, once again, written in quatrains, using an abab rhyme scheme, until the last two stanzas, which in the penultimate stanza although it is abab, is almost aaaa, with the rhymes being half-rhymes, and the
last stanza, where the rhyme scheme is aaaa, signifying perhaps, acceptance at last into the Earth, into unity, as the wanderer finally returns home to Earth. If it was plotted on a heart monitor the continuous aaaa would signify death.
Finally, before I finish my discussion on this poem, let me expand on why I think the rhyme scheme of this poem is important. To do this, I shall draw on the observations of G.K. Chesterton,
“… something much deeper is involved in the love of rhyme as distinct from other poetic forms, something which is perhaps too deep and subtle to be
described. The nearest approximation to the truth I can think of is something like this: that while all forms of genuine verse recur, there is in rhyme a sense of return to exactly the same place … Rhythm deals with similarity, but rhyme with identity. Now in the one word identity are involved perhaps the deepest and certainly the dearest human things.”50
CHAPTER III – BOUNDLESS IMAGINATION: AN INWARD JOURNEY
I have chosen this poem to deepen the theme of this essay, which is to depict the way
that Bronte sang the earth through her poetry, through a recognition that we are all of us interconnected, that humans are composed of male and female aspects, which are sometimes shown as opposites, such as night and day, life and death, and that we live in the world simultaneously inside our heads and outside, in the everyday world. The struggle Bronte experienced is one with which I think we can identify, as we try to make sense of a seemingly fragmented world and as we attempt to unite apparent opposites in ourselves. We have to live in the world, yet sometimes the outside world appears to be such a mess of pain and suffering that it is easier to retreat into our imaginations, whether in dreams or fantasy. Paradoxically, the ability to live in these two, seemingly disparate, worlds simultaneously, by exploring the inscape and expressing it through poetry, we can begin to see patterns and humans seek reassurance through patterns, hence the delight in rhyme.
This poem is written in a four line ballad form, with the simple rhyme scheme of abab. However, the simplicity of the form and the rhyme scheme belie the complex questioning that the poet is asking of the stars. It is unusual in that the poet is talking directly to the stars, asking them why they have disappeared simply because the sun has risen and also turns on its head the more usual praising of the sun that has risen and is warming the world. The poet, and perhaps Emily Bronte herself, without the persona of the poet, or rather Emily Bronte, under cover of the persona of poet, can ask questions that would normally be seen to be questionable.
The poet is mourning the loss of starlight because of the dazzling light of the morning sun, not only is she mourning this loss of starlight, she recognises that, perhaps to most people on the earth and also the earth itself, the dazzling sun brings joy in the
morning. To Bronte, the poet, the disappearance of the stars represents a “desert sky”. The sky, therefore, is no longer fruitful but barren. It has become a desert also, in the sense that it has been deserted by the stars. She calls the stars “glorious eyes”, reminiscent of Thomas Vaughan’s description of the “Philosophicall Fire” [that] Vaughan states … “sleeps in most things as in Flints, where it is silent and Invisible. When such a flint is struck the dormant fire leaps out, making it a silex scintillans, “full of small eyes sparkling like pearls or Aglets.”51 Thomas Vaughan also calls the scintilla a “Seed or Glance of Light” and that “this is the secret Candle of God, which he hath tinn’d in the elements, it burns and is not seen, for it shines in a dark place.”52
The words used by both Vaughans and both Brontes to describe the soul or the spark that lies within are very similar, words such as sparkling, glittering and glorious. The word scintilla itself means spark. Lucasta Miller in her book The Bronte Myth, states that “if, as Stevie Davies has suggested, Emily had had contact with the ideas of extreme idealists such as Novalis, either directly through her German studies or through English popularisations such as Carlyle’s, she could have thought of mystic in its positive sense. In 1849, Charlotte used the adjective in her novel, Shirley to refer to the heroine’s soul as a treasure chest whose secret heart contains jewels of a “mystic glitter.” 53 & 54 Interesting to note that both Thomas Vaughan and Charlotte Bronte describe the soul’s treasure both as secret and as jewels.
There are overlapping threads here that need some disentangling. For example, Novalis wrote a series of poems called “Hymns to the Night” where he states, “Before all the wondrous shows of the widespread space around him, what living, sentient thing loves not the all-joyous light, with its colours, its rays and undulations, its gentle omnipresence in the form of wakening Day?”55 This is similar to the opening lines of Bronte’s poem, where she acknowledges that the “dazzling sun restores our Earth to joy.” However, both Novalis and Bronte turn away from the light of day and look instead “to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world, sunk in a deep grave, waste and lonely is its place…What holdest thou under thy mantle, that with hidden power affects my soul?… I see a grave face that, tender and worshipful,
inclines towards me and a mind manifold, entangled locks reveal the youthful loveliness of the Mother.”56
This passage from Novalis seems to me very similar to that experience Bronte is describing in her poem. It could also mean that the stars represent a Mother’s eyes, perhaps Bronte’s mother’s eyes, gazing down on her sleeping child, guarding her and giving the earth-child peace. The poet might also imagine that the Milky Way is, metaphorically, describing the mother’s milk she is absorbing, “I was at peace, and drank your beams as they were life to me.” She likens the poet’s sleeping “day time” mind to the vastness of the “boundless regions” as “thought followed thought, star followed star and “one sweet influence proved us one.”
What is, or was, this sweet influence?
The dictionary definition of this word is: “ from L. influens meaning to flow in, a supposed power proceeding from the celestial bodies and operating on the affairs of men”57 Bronte also uses it in another poem, “Aye, there it is! It wakes tonight” and in the lines, “A universal influence from Thine own influence free.” In the footnotes for this Janet Gezari states, “A universal influence: all-embracing, or overpowering all others; the word influence appears frequently in Wordsworth; in The Excursion, influences are sweet, gladsome, soft, kindly, blended, sacred, salutary”. Regarding the line “From Thine own influence free”, Gezari states, “Presumably ‘Thine’ refers to the influence of the ‘thou’ to whom the poem is addressed, now a ‘spirit’, a ‘presence’, an ‘essence’, and a ‘universal influence’ outside the control of the ‘thou’ imagined as possessing a will of her own.” 58 I shall return to the poet Novalis when I examine Bronte’s poem, “The Prisoner – a fragment.”
To return to the poem, “Stars”, this “sweet influence thrilled through and proved us one.” It is as if the influence, the divine breath, the soft wind, or the holy spirit, touched the sleeper’s thoughts, penetrated her dreams and, yeast-like, “proved us one.”
As note above, the words and images both Emily and Charlotte Bronte use are similar to those of the 17th century poets, Henry and Thomas Vaughan. Such words as dazzling, glittering, gleaming and shining are used in much of Vaughan’s poetry, for example in the lines,
“…glows and glitters in my cloudy breast
like stars upon some gloomy grove.”59
Just as Bronte’s poetry is likened to that of Wordsworth and sometimes Coleridge, so Wordsworth’s poetry is likened to that of Henry Vaughan’s. In Norton’s Anthology we find, in a footnote to Vaughan’s poem “The Treat”, “ ‘Race’ is a traditional Christian metaphor for ‘life’; by ‘second’ race Vaughan evidently alludes to a belief in the soul’s heavenly existence prior to its human life. Such a belief was held by some Christian Neoplatonists and Hermetic authors; it reappears in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” 60 [my italics] As the poem progresses Bronte asks why the morning had to break the spell she was under the influence of, “And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek, Where your cool radiance fell?”
As in so much of her work, the reader constantly comes up with the seemingly irreconcilable opposites of day and night, black and white, good and evil, scorched and cool and life and death. Yet, in the previous stanza, she wrote that the influence “thrilled through and proved us one”, a highly charged sexual expression as well as a spiritual one. What could be the outcome of this union when it has proved and risen?
This erotic imagery is carried through into the next stanza, in the lines:
“Blood-red he rose, and arrow-straight,
His fierce beams struck my brow;
The soul of nature, sprang, elate,
But mine sank sad and low!”
These words appear to mean that the poet, rather than springing “elate” to meet the sun, in its war-like, blood-redness, wanted to shut it out as it was drawing her from her dreams, the daylight closing her world in to the daylight world of busy ness, and thus preventing her from wandering the “boundless regions” as “thought followed thought” in an eternal, limitless freedom. Bronte does not say my eyes closed down, but rather, “my lids closed down” almost giving the impression of a coffin lid being shut on her as the daylight penetrated her inner vision.
The poet eventually rises with the day’s insistence on shaking the world into external existence and although she tries to shut out the light by burying her head in the pillow, she eventually responds by arising and releasing the flies from their imprisonment in her bedroom. The flies can find freedom by roaming in the air, the poet cannot, her freedom was an internal flying in dreams as she pleads, in the penultimate stanza:
“Oh, stars, and dreams, and gentle night;
Oh, night and stars return!
And hide me from that hostile light,
That does not warm, but burn;
That drains the blood of suffering men;
Drinks tears, instead of dew;
Let me sleep through his blinding reign,
And only wake with you!”
This is a pitiful plea of a desire to escape from the daylight world of suffering, she wants to be free of a world of men that burns, scorches, suffers and is hostile to her. To the poet, the everyday world is hostile and aggressive, vampire-like as it “drains the blood of suffering men” as opposed to the night that is gentle, cool and non-threatening. The sun perhaps gets its nourishment and becomes blood-red by draining the blood of men and making the world a barren desert.
Bronte struggled to come to terms with her visions, with her strong sense of bonding with the earth, with the moors, the creatures on the moors with which she felt an affinity, and with the conflict she apprehended in the outside world. She lived at a time when the French Revolution was alive in people’s memories, including her Father’s. She was born in 1818, four years after the Luddites had wrecked newly manufactured machinery in the area around Haworth; when poverty, not necessarily her own but that of local people, and sickness had been felt close to home. She had also known grief brought about by the death of her mother and sisters. The strength she once gained from visions she experienced by being tuned in to the land, she now sought for internally. I think what she failed to understand was that without pain we do not grow. However, as Homans notes, “Bronte internalises this visionary faculty only as it diminishes because, like Dorothy Wordsworth, she cannot believe that any poetic power could be at once internal and powerful.”61
This poem is about conflict, the conflict Bronte felt within “her warring breast”62 between her daylight self of everyday consciousness that lived in external reality and was bounded by the phallic symbol of time and her night-time self of infinity, limitlesless space and symbolised by wide open spaces, moors, the ocean, the sky and the womb and also the space beneath the earth. What united this conflict she battled with was the wind, which is a major image in many of her poems and symbolises inspiration, which is spiritual, poetic and eternal. As Irene Tayler notes, the wind “differs from the sun in being available to both the day and the night worlds – both literally (the wind blows day or night) and figuratively, in that it provides the vehicle of ecstatic release as well as the wake-up call of mundane morning. Indeed its energies are necessary to both vision and the practice of art, inspiring and inspiriting the poet’s verse just as it link her mortal self with the immortal world beyond.”63
The wind has often been used by poets, mystics and others, as it symbolises freedom; Shelley used it in his poem “Ode to the West Wind” as a symbol of change, both a
“destroyer and a preserver”64 The wind bridges the space between ourselves and others, in the present and also in the past and the future; it is an unseen bridge spanning time and space. Wind, as in our breath, enables us to communicate, not only through the spoken voice, but also in the written word; for example, anyone reading this is alive and breathing. The wind, then, can also be seen as a symbol of eternity.
As Hilary Llewellyn Williams states “Hermes was also a bringer of healing and transformation. This need for an intermediary seems to have been crucial at certain stages of our religious development. The Gods, after the suppression of the older forms of Goddess worships, seemed remote and awesome. … We needed a go-between to pass between the worlds … We needed Thoth, Hermes, Persephone, Mithras and Christ”65 Hermes was also hermaphrodite and I believe this is one possible source of Bronte’s imagery and symbolism used both in her poetry and in her poetic prose of her novel Wuthering Heights.
Like the 19th century novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, her brother Branwell was also a Freemason with access perhaps, to documents and manuscripts which were maybe unavailable to non-Freemasons, documents that drew on the mysteries of the East and on the use of alchemy. I have no proof of this, but it is a theory I would enjoy researching.66
The symbol of Persephone is one I have touched on before, in Bronte’s poem “The linnet in the rocky dells”, where “the lady fair” sleeps beneath the earth yet is alive in the sense that her breath had become part of the universal breathing of the earth and that she continued to nurture the ‘wild deer feeding on her breast and the wild birds rearing their broods there’
In another poem, untitled, whose first line is “Alone I sat the summer day”, which I shall not discuss at length, Bronte writes, as she watches the sun set:
“And thoughts in my soul were rushing
And my heart bowed beneath their power
And tears within my eyes were gushing
Because I could not speak the feeling
The solemn joy around me stealing
In that divine untroubled hour
I asked my self O why has heaven
Denied the precious gift to me
The glorious gift to many given
To speak their thoughts in poetry.” [my italics]
This is such a despairing poem, revealing the deep, inner struggles she experienced, trying to give voice to her inner thought-shapes, her emotion-shapes and feelings. Again, to quote Shelley, who asked the West Wind to, “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” It is a paradox that we cannot demand inspiration to come to us, all we can do is prepare for that moment. I am reminded here of the words, spoken by Christ to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, “Will you not watch one hour with me?” It is hard to stay awake and ready, far easier to remain sleep in the affairs of the everyday world; it is hard to simultaneously inhabit both worlds.
The power Bronte once enjoyed of feeling at one with the earth, to listen to the silent song of the land and give voice to it spontaneously and joyfully, appears to have lessened, why we do not know, she may not have known herself. She may have become worn down by influenza and chest infections, which it is known she suffered from, this may have acted as a reminder that she was composed of flesh, blood and breath as well as divine breath. Certainly from her bedroom above the front door of the Rectory, she would have a good view of the graveyard, a constant reminder of how, when we die, our bodies merge with the earth. Like others, including myself, she might ponder the question, “where does our breath go when we die?”
Perhaps she felt increasingly imprisoned by everyday existence, unable to make contact with the divine (for want of a better word), or experience mystical union (for want of a better expression) and this may have led her to feel increasingly alienated and trapped within herself. This alienation would leave nowhere else for her to go but to dive deeper inwards, to explore inner landscapes in her search for that lost visionary power.
The Prisoner – a Fragment
“Now like the morning breeze to talk secretly with the rose
Now to hear the secret of loving from the nightingale…” - Hafiz
This poem, although dated as being written in 1845, was formerly part of a much longer, Gondal poem, so although I have included it in Chapter Three, the experience, whether Bronte had it or not, would perhaps have pre-dated the poems I have discussed in Chapters One and Two. The reason I have placed it in the last Chapter, is because I feel it belongs here and seems to show some way that Bronte might have found to release and relieve her inner struggles. The mystical experience it contains may or may not have been known to her, but what it does show is that through struggle and pain, whether real or intuited, we can sometimes burst our chains and breathe the light, until the next time. The mystery is when we die, do we enter the light, or the dark?
It is a long poem and I intend looking at only the latter part of it. Briefly, it is about a woman, a prisoner in a dungeon, revisiting a theme previously used whereby the prison is the body and the captive is momentarily freed from this physical imprisonment by escaping, at moments of ecstasy, whether sexual or spiritual, or, finally, death. In hermetic terms, the prison symbolises hell and the tower is a symbol of heaven and which I would also suggest symbolises the womb, the dark space and the “herm” or rock symbolise the phallus. “The bursting forth of the ‘column of
dawn’ is the epiphany of the soul bursting outside the material body, when the divine lights and most sacred flames suddenly come upon it.”67
I shall begin with line 37, “He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,” this is the first poem I have looked at that names the mysterious stranger “he” and I think it is because it was originally what is called a Gondal poem, that is, one set in the imaginary world of Gondal, that Emily and Anne created. In some senses the
question did Bronte experience this, or did one of her created characters, is irrelevant because what we have is a powerful charting of what is called a mystical experience. If she did make one of her Gondal character the recipient of the vision, then where did she get the knowledge from in the first place?
Once again, dusk is the time for the visitor to appear and it is the wind that brings him; his presence causes the winds to drop and grow “pensive” and the stars to burn tenderly. The next line “And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire” is powerful, the phrase “kill me with desire” is especially charged with eroticism and, as Georges Bataille notes in his book, Eroticism “In a highly interesting study Father Louis Beirnaert, considering the comparison implicit in the language of the mystics between the experience of divine love and that of sexuality, emphasises ‘the aptness of sexual union to symbolise higher union’.”68 It also takes us back to the Hermeticists, where Hermes, the agent of transformation and a hermaphroditic figure was the messenger between the “King and the Queen of the Mystical Marriage, or ‘Chymical Wedding, the Mysterium Coniunctionem’ without which no creation could proceed. This emphasis on the sexuality of God and the sacredness of the sexual act was totally alien to “pure” Christianity, which regarded sexuality as an evil resulting from the Fall, and God as uncompromisingly male without the taint of femaleness.” 69
The desire which “kills” is I would suggest, the desire to be reunited with the higher self, as well as being representative of the “little death” experienced in a sexual orgasm. C. Day Lewis called lines 37-60 “the greatest passage of poetry Emily
Bronte wrote.”70 The desire is that which mystics of all ages have experienced, that intense longing for a union with the unknown, that unknown which is simultaneously inside and outside of oneself. I could draw parallels here with Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Hafiz, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. However, I shall look at the idea of a mystical experience using the support of Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet and mystic, whom Goethe called his mentor.71
Charlotte Bronte mentions Hafiz in a story she wrote that appears in Juliet Barker’s book, Charlotte Bronte – Juvenilia 1829-1835, I think it is worth quoting a short passage in full. Briefly, a young man of the north is by the tomb of Hafiz, in Shiraz and a quack doctor, an empyric, also by the tomb declares that “no country had ever produced a good poet save Persia.” This is when the tall young man of the north replies, “Sir, said he addressing Messu rather fiercely, your observation is not just, it speaks the language of a narrow mind and I maintain that there are countries were [sic] poetry is produced equal if not superior to the finest you ever read!”
In reply the Messu recites some “verses to the nightingale by Hafiz”, the young minstrel from the north gave a “smile of scorn” as he listened “and when it was finished he replied.”72 However, Charlotte finished the story at this point because, as Barker explains in the footnotes, Charlotte seems to have intended to write a poem by the Marquis of Douro to challenge Hafiz’s supremacy, but “either imagination failed her or she was unable to write one of sufficiently high standard to be credible.”73
I think this was worth quoting, as it shows how Charlotte and I imagine Emily, too, though perhaps not Ann, would both have wanted to rise to the challenge and write “better” poetry than Hafiz, as most poets experience the need to “test” themselves against established poets. The Brontes may have read some of Hafiz’s works in German, translated by Goethe and some of Goethe’s poems, called ‘The West Eastern Divan’74 Indeed, Goethe said of Hafiz, “In his poetry Hafiz has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly … Hafiz has no peer!”75
In the footnotes to the poems edited by Janet Gezari, Irene Tayler notes how “the poem gathers Bronte’s key terms and images, wind, stars, tenderness, darkness, the longing for feelings lost since childhood, the dread of future tears, the celestial realm
internalised, the descent of peace onto the fretful spirit, the loss of consciousness and of all earth-awareness, the music (as in Wordsworth) of an eternal silence.”76
In the glossary of terms used by Hafiz we have, amongst other symbols, the sky, the wind, the moon, the sun, the breeze, the ocean, the boat, the pearl, the hill; and valleys, the rose, the nightingale [Bronte substituted the lark], the falcon [Bronte had a pet one], the wine, the friend, the beloved’s hair77, the ruin, the beloved’s eye. One could counter argue by saying that these images have been around for a long time and are available for anyone to use. However, I would suggest that it is no coincidence that so many parallel images have been used by Bronte, who it is known learned German and was familiar with Schiller, Goethe, Novalis and other German Romantics, through Essays and Reviews in Blackwood’s Magazine and also through translations by Thomas Carlyle.78 & 79
I think Bronte did have what are called mystical experiences and was perhaps simultaneously puzzled, afraid and exalted by them, sometimes welcoming them and at other times rejecting them, and that they, whether real or imagined, remembered or forgotten, seemed to become part of the fabric of her poems.
The description of the hush, which precedes the experience when the internal struggle ceases and calm descends is very powerful. The image of the dove, though not stated, is implicit and the “mute music”, the “unuttered harmony” “soothes her breast”, such music as she could never dream of until she lost consciousness of herself and became unaware of the sounds and sights of reality which we usually perceive in a narrow focus and entered a reality which parallels the everyday one, but which is felt with a
greater intensity and a wider focus. To put it simply, her vision was no longer blinkered. Some of the most powerful lines are,
“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free – its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops, and dares the final bound.” (49-56)
But it does not “dare the final bound” because its wings are not free, they are “almost free” and in the next stanza we read that the speaker is checked by being brought back into the consciousness and reality of the everyday world when her physical senses begin to function again. If she wrote this prior to 1845, when she was 27, and she adapted it, omitting any Gondal references, and submitted it for publication in 1846, she must have felt the need for it to be made public. My feeling is that this moment, if Bronte did experience it, had a major impact on her life and on her creative self. To have such an experience would create a desire to return to it and experience it again.
If one disregards the mystical element of the experience and focuses solely on the creative, if indeed there is a difference and I agree with the quotation I gave earlier by Les Murray, that “whilst there is poetry there will always be religion”, it must have had an impact on her creative energies. I agree with Jonathan Wordsworth who states, “The astonishing central lines of ‘The Prisoner’ were written by someone accustomed not only to mystical experience, but to the, in fact, more passionate loss of self in creative identification.”80 I think it is worth looking more closely at what is meant by the “passionate loss of self in creative identification.” There is something about the creative process that is akin to meditation, that is, an intense focus both inward and outward to the point where we lose ourselves in that which we create. The boundaries between self and other can become blurred and we use expressions
such as “lose oneself”, whether this is in whatever we are creating, or in the act of lovemaking, which is itself, potentially, an act of creation.
The lines that have the greatest impact on me, lines 49-52, have a similar ring to the words of Thomas Carlyle in his article on Novalis. Explaining how Novalis interpreted the idealism of Kant, Carlyle summarises the former’s worldview in terms which suggest an uncanny linguistic parallel with Bronte’s use of the phrases “mute music”, “the Invisible” and “the Unseen”:
‘The Invisible World is near us: or rather it is here, in us and about us; where the fleshly coil removed from our Soul, the glories of the Unseen were even now around us; as the Ancients fabled of the Spheral Music.” 81
Lucasta Miller comments on another possible mystical experience that the critic Winifred Gerin, thinks Bronte may have experienced, which appears in a poem called “A Day Dream”,
“A thousand, thousand gleaming fires
seemed kindling in the air;
a thousand thousand silvery lyres
resounded far and near:
Methought, the very breath I breathed
Was full of sparks divine,
And all my heather-couch was wreathed
By that celestial shine!
And while the wide Earth echoing rung
to their strange minstrelsy,
The little glittering spirits sung,
Or seemed to sing, to me.”
Miller takes Gerin to task for omitting “from her quotation … parallels with Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the strongest verbal echo being the visionary ‘thousand thousand gleaming fires’ which contrast with Coleridge’s sickening ‘thousand thousand slimy things.’ Gerin thus silences the literary context of the poem, making it as natural and naïve as the visions sent to the childlike Shirley.”82
However, what Miller fails to acknowledge is Coleridge’s possible literary engagement with Henry Vaughan’s poems “Isaac’s Marriage” and “White Sunday” where Vaughan uses the word “thousand” to describe “a thousand pearls”, “a thousand odours” and “a thousand suns.”83 These poems may also have literary links, possibly with the Bible. I think what Miller’s comments on Gerin’s acknowledgement of mysticism shows, is how embarrassed, scornful, cynical and uncomfortable we have become when faced with the words mystical or spiritual.
In the penultimate stanza of “The Day Dream” we read,
“’And could we lift the veil84 and give
One brief glimpse to thine eye,
Thou wouldst rejoice for those that live,
Because they live to die.’”
I feel that this resonates with the following, “In the lesser pagan mysteries which took place at Agrai and were preparatory to the greater mysteries at Eleusis, the candidate wore a veil over his head to symbolise his blindness.85 To further counter Miller’s comments regarding whether or not Bronte did experience a mystical experience, I agree with Giordano Bruno who once wrote, “To understand is to speculate with images,” because, “Imagination is the key to all knowledge, and the greatest of magical instruments. It is also the essential tool of poets.” 86
I think Bronte did experience moments of heightened awareness, when all her senses were more fully alive and functioning, and to a poet, whose task, like that of the scientist and naturalist, is to closely observe, such moments would make the “job” easier. To experience such moments may instil in that person a desire to know them again. Bronte externalised her internal creative inspiration, her muse, through the use of such symbols as the wind, breath, wanderer and mysterious stranger. However, I feel that the tension she experienced and which she explored in her poems, is the conflict between the creative element in her character and the more pragmatic side of her personality. Out of this tension came the impetus, and perhaps the need, to create poems, thus externalising her inner conflicts. This more philosophical, stoic, side of her is explored in the next, and final poem, called “No coward soul is mine”.
No coward soul is mine
I shall use this final poem to show where the position I have taken in my discussion is coming from and why. At first reading it seems that Bronte had finally achieved a sense of peace, of understanding; a balance between her affinity with the land and an acceptance of her inner struggles. On balance, I think she probably had achieved a kind of stoicism, but the tone of the poem is so defiant that it leads me to ask the question, if you were at peace with yourself, would you need to be so evangelical about it? Writing this poem may in itself have been therapeutic for her and helped her to believe, if only temporarily, that she had finally ceased to struggle. Fear can be disguised as defiance and perhaps the fear was that she needed to voice her belief system, but knew it would shock people close to her. To expand a little on this, in the United Kingdom in the 21st century, I could say “I believe that god is in me”, this statement might cause problems with some people, but on the whole no-one would care that much to be outraged. For Bronte to state this openly in the early part of the 19th century, especially as she was a woman, it would almost be an heretical statement to make.
This poem, like so many of Bronte’s, is composed of four lines to each stanza, with the abab rhyme scheme; the line lengths, alternating as they do between long and short, remind me of breathing, of the systolic and diastolic intake and out-take of breath. The first line has the tone of a defiant Evangelist, it is immediately challenging. I think the use of the word “trembler” in line two is interesting as it suggests, without saying it openly, that she may have been thinking here of Quakers and Shakers. The speaker is making her point known from the word go and the tone suggests she will not tolerate any opposition. She equates Faith with Heaven and as Faith resides within, is an internal strength, this implies that to the speaker, heaven also lives within. This seems to me to be confirmed in the line, “O God within my breast”, the speaker’s God lives inside, one would imagine in her heart, as that organ is inside the breast cage and the heart is likened to a bird fluttering.
This internal God, then, is not only ever-present, but Life also rests within, not only that, the speaker’s soul is courageous enough to state that it gives the speaker the power in Undying Life. God, the speaker, life and undying life are entwined. The word “thousand” appears again as she calls the many creeds “vain”87, again implying that you do not need external religions as the only true religion, the only true God lives within oneself88 and one is vain to follow such worthless creeds, the word “vain” perhaps used in its two meanings, that is vanity and to act in vain. Again, this poem has echoes of Henry Vaughan’s poetry, “Vain wits and eyes Leave, and be wise”. “The phrase ‘Leave and be wise’ echoes the formula uttered at the commencement of the pagan Eleusinian mysteries.”89
The poem also has strong similarities to the words of Nietzsche, “Have I been understood? – What defines me, what sets me apart from all the rest of mankind, is that I have unmasked Christian morality. That is why I needed a word that would embody the sense of a challenge to everyone. Not to have opened its eyes sooner counts to me as the greatest piece of uncleanliness which humanity has on its conscience, as self-deception becomes instinct…”90
I do feel, however, that if one is confident and has an inner serenity one does not need to state it so defiantly as Bronte does in this poem. Serenity and confidence contain their own inner strength. Bronte uses alliteration to good effect in line eleven, “Worthless as withered weeds”, it reminds me of the phrase “widow’s weeds”, the word “weeds” in this sense meaning the black mourning clothes, rather than dried up vegetation. The next line, as if we needed any more scorn pouring on us, adds weight to her views on religions, calling them “idlest froth amid the boundless main”. This suggests their shallowness, as froth lies on the surface of the sea, or at its edge. To the speaker, then, religions, all of them, have no depth or meaning, they chain people to one set of beliefs whereas God is within one and yet is also boundless, unchained,
infinite, which is what we become when we die, part of the infinite when the last breath we exhale enters the inhalation of the expanded universe.
The next stanza has echoes of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”, in that our home, our return, is to infinity as we are immortal and no ‘vain’ creeds alter that. There is a hymn-like quality to this poem, with its undertone of the hymn “Rock of Ages” and its evangelical overtones. The final three stanzas are a declaration of the speaker’s position as regards religious belief and I think Bronte expanded this belief in her novel Wuthering Heights. I shall quote each stanza in full and discuss them.
“With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above, [my italics]
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears”
This is quite a complex stanza to unpack; the image of a dove, perhaps the Holy Ghost, is conjured up with the first line “wide-embracing love”, a dove with its wings outspread. The spirit is that which animates all things, breathes through, into and out of all creation, this is shown by the use of the word “pervade.” The word “brood” takes us back to the poem discussed earlier, “The Linnet in the rocky dells” where we read that the “lady fair” nurtures the wild deer that browse on her breast, the breast of the hill, and also is a place where birds raise their broods. The word “brood” implies a mother bird, with wings outspread, brooding on her nest rearing her brood, year after year.91 This sense of the recurring creative principle in nature, when one generation dies and another is raised, gives continuity to life, when once the human animal allows him or herself to become one with the natural world, a part of it, and not apart from it and to understand that death is an inherent part of life and life of death.
The last line of this stanza is worth a close reading. The rhythm of the words, “changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears,” is in iambic pentameter, which, when used as it is in the sonnets of Shakespeare, works well to give a poem drive and a measured energy and reminds me of a piston, relentlessly, eternally driving the engine. The world which the speaker dwells in and whose spirit dwells in her, is one of constant change and flux, as are the natural, organic and inorganic worlds. The human animal can see and understand how we are like the plants that grow and die, or the broods that are reared and grow then die back into the earth in which they dwelt and can relate to this. It is comforting to know we are part of such a miraculous system. We cannot, however, as easily see the changes in the inorganic, inanimate worlds of rocks which change over a longer period of time and which seem to us
immutable, hence the reason for using them as symbols of “steadfastness”, but they too change, through the actions of fire, ice, wind and rain; rocks become grains of sand over time and we are part of this dissolving, evolving process.92
The diction of the poem is, as Janet Gezari comments in her footnotes to the poem,
“… scientific and philosophical. In a note on Bronte and Epictetus [the Stoic], Maison suggests that Bronte may have read Epictetus, in whose works there are references to ‘atoms, inward essences, chains and chainless souls, and all the Stoic attitudes to love, liberty, duty, fame, riches, poverty, pain and death that feature so finely in her poetry.’ The last chapter of the third book of The Discourses of Epictetus concerns the fear of death. The following is Elizabeth Carter’s popular translation of its final paragraph (1758):
‘Why do you not know, then, that the origin of all human evils and of the mean-spiritedness and cowardice is not death, but rather, the fear of death?’”93
It also has biblical echoes, here is a quotation from Acts 17 : 27, ‘That they should seek the Lord, if happily they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far off from every one of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being.’
These Pauline words state that the numinous is everywhere, if only we could see it or sense it.”94
Although I understand Irene Tayler’s comment, I do not agree with her when she suggests that the spirit is the male element, “is Breath, also called the ‘spirit’ that ‘animates … pervades … broods, changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.’ This is the traditional hagion pneuma or Holy Ghost of Scriptures.”95 Firstly, because pneuma is breath, or influence and is neither male or female and secondly, because the image of a brooding male does not ring true, rather, it suggests a female presence. For this reason I think that the holy spirit is hermaphroditic and represents the two in one, the male and the female, which, when woven together like Cathy and Heathcliff, are created by, and can also create, a third force which is symbolised by breath.
Interestingly, Barbara Hardy says that Bronte, “can only imagine spirit through nature, ‘Atom’ and Breath’ are physiological terms being made into absolutes,”96
It also resonates with something similar in a poem of Henry Vaughan’s called ‘The Night, where “Vaughan’s most effective passages show a tremulous physical reverence.”97 Both Bronte and Vaughan rely on their physical bodies to portray the spiritual. I suggest that this is because what we call the spiritual body is embedded in the physical; that if we are more finely in tune with our senses we are more likely to experience heightened awareness, it is perhaps a survival skill that the human animal has almost lost.
With regard to atomic and subatomic particles and to bring this discussion up to date, here is something that the HeartMath Institute in the United States has recently discovered, “that recent experiments have shown that dramatic changes are registered in the earth’s magnetic field in response to our experience of planetary love.”98
Some further quotations are worth thinking about with regard to Bronte’s poetry, “But Emily’s concern with nature was not limited to a depiction of the physical background to human living, she wished to know what forces lay beyond that background, and this enquiry gave rise to the pantheism, which is so potent a current in her writing. … her pantheism did not result in a system of religious belief, but found its consummation in a personal mysticism more closely allied to that of Novalis.”99
Ellen Nussey, a friend of the Brontes, noticed two things about Emily Bronte,
“her natural kindness when not constrained by shyness and her gaiety on the moors. Nowhere else was she so much herself, nowhere else so free; nowhere else had she so many friends, wild animals living their own lives with whom she was in intense sympathetic communion. It was a region made to the measure of her mind, which already could endure no boundaries. Emily knew every height and hollow, every expanse of pasture, every clump of bilberry,
every jutting rock, as landmarks in an otherwise ocean of bracken and heather.”100
Even if one disregards the sentiment in this passage of Nussey’s, one can still see how Bronte not only had an intimate knowledge of the moor and its inhabitants, its flora and fauna, as has been discussed in the first poem, “The Linnet in the rocky dells”, but also how perhaps this external landscape came to symbolise her internal mind. By this I mean that the outer landscape was a mirror of her inscape, by having the freedom of the moors, she came to explore, whilst in the vastness of moors and sky, her inner tensions and belief system that lived in her inner space. The outer and inner delicately balanced in a continuous dynamic interplay and exchange of energy.
In looking at Bronte’s poetry and tracing her journey from the physical landscapes of the moors to the imaginative landscape of her mind, I have focused on what Jonathan Bate calls an ecopoetic way of looking at texts. Indeed I would agree with Bate, that
the land is a text, a song that is there all the time, if only we could switch off our internal chatter and tune into to it.
Most ways of reading texts are anthropocentric, whether they are Marxist, feminist, ethnic studies, post-modernist, gay or lesbian or by psychoanalysis. However, by taking up a position whereby one looks at a text from a wider, more inclusive viewpoint, one can include the feminine, the hermaphroditic, the many creeds, races, voices, creatures, and other animate and inanimate with which we share our planet and our home.
Some would argue that it is difficult to give a voice to that which does not speak in a human tongue, for example polluted rivers, lakes and the sea, disappearing rain forests, animals in experimental laboratories or factory-farms, as well as those who do speak with a human voice, but who often cannot articulate what they want to say, for example, those in psychiatric hospitals, dementia sufferers, starving children who have not yet learnt to talk, but I think it is incumbent on us to do so. I feel there is an urgent need for the human animal to understand how imperative it is that we change our attitudes to the way we live. The discovery of the genome and the better understanding of how DNA functions, and also the recognition that we are not that far removed from the worm is something we should take note of, find comfort in and use as an image to help us to re learn how to dwell in our home the earth.
I feel that what I am writing about in this essay goes further and deeper than that which Jonathan Bate calls ecopoetic, although to date I have not come across anything else that describes my viewpoint. I recently received a leaflet from Sharpham College in Devon, whose teachings are mainly Buddhist informed, and noticed that there was a talk by Satish Kumar, editor of the Resurgence Magazine, called ‘Reverential Ecology – taking deep ecology a step further.’ The phrase “reverential ecology” is one that resonates with me and, until I find a more appropriate one, I shall take this to be the positional standpoint in my dissertation.
Post modernism looks at how human animals live in an increasingly technological, seemingly alienating world, focusing mainly on people living in urban areas; ethnic studies look at how we view the “other” who may come from a different country or culture to our own; feminism, which studies the way the female is viewed and treated in society, but none of them address the ‘other’ which is non-human. It is this non-human “other” that I have looked at through a close reading of Bronte’s poetry; showing how a way of dwelling can be remembered from dismembered fragments and re-learnt by recognising that in each bioregion there is an undersong and that this undersong can be listened to if we choose.101
An increased awareness of this “other”, whether through awareness of the land, or of how an oil spillage in one part of the world can effect the delicate eco-system in another, or how the disappearance of other species of life is indicative of how we might be next to disappear, seems to be an issue that urgently needs addressing.
To reinforce what I said in the Introduction, the undersong I am referring to is the rhythm of different parts of the earth and the songs, expressed through culture, religion and science that grows out of it.102 The song that grows out of each bioregion is embedded in it and also in the dwellers, both animate and inanimate, of that region. Bronte, through her poetry, shows how the role of the poet is almost akin to that of Hermes, acting as a go-between, in trying to give voice to the unspoken and to that which speaks in a non-human tongue.
She was keenly aware of the elements and wove them into her poetry, as she did the birds, animals and plants with which she shared her moorland home. I think the split she felt was one we all feel, that of being separated from dwelling on the earth as other creatures do, by our self-consciousness and that the longing to be reunited with the “other” is, in reality, the longing to be reunited with ourself.
To take this a step further, I suggest that, rather than this possibly becoming an exclusive, maybe nationalistic, or regionalistic way of dwelling, it will not do so if we remain aware and respectful of the undersong of other bioregions and acknowledge their specialness. Poetry is just one way of bridging the gap between self and other.
Throughout this essay I have been aware that other areas of research have opened up and that certain points I have raised are worth further exploration. For example, I would like the opportunity to expand and develop my research by focusing on what it means to “dwell” in the land; a closer examination of G.K. Chesterton’s idea of how rhyme is linked to a sense of identity and how separation from a loved and familiar piece of land can affect our health. For this last point I would look at the poetry of John Clare, examining how one’s native tongue gives voice when it has been superimposed by other voices, such as the colonial, and how language is constantly evolving. I would also welcome the opportunity to explore the liminal position of the poet, who is the creator of drama s/he has not perhaps experienced, such as death, and who yet seems to be “in on its secrets.”
Finally, since this dissertation is called “Singing the Land”, I would like to end it on a song and quote part of a poem by Ronald Johnson, called “The Song of Orpheus”
“I will sing
aloud in the morning: to tremble the breaches
I shall be moved as a bowing wall
in the balance
every man to his marrow…”103
footnotes to follow
'Singing the Land - Ecopoetics - An Exploration into the Poetry of Emily Bronte' 2002
With thanks to Professor Pam Morris, Liverpool John Moores University, her guidance and encouragement was invaluable
posted by Dr. Geraldine Green, 2.4.2013