Friday, 8 February 2013

"Only some spires of bright green grass"




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.

Dr. Geraldine Green, 8.2.2013, originally written December 2002 as part of a Research Diploma in Ecopoetics, supervisor Prof. Pam Morris, Liverpool John Moore University

Link to an article in The New Statesman by John Burnside, here:


  1. Thank you, Geraldine, for posting this. It is definitely a piece that will require careful re-reading. For the moment I thought you might also like this (not-entirely related) post I encountered yesterday by an East Anglian journalist ... about the 'wild' creatures in our homes, on our doorsteps etc. A far cry, perhaps, from those expanses of windswept moors known to the Brontes!

  2. Hi Caroline, and thank you. I've posted the Introduction to the Research Diploma, and will post the next three chapters and conclusion as and when. I'm enjoying the articles John Burnside writes in The New Statesman and thought his link an apt one to add as an 'extra' at the end - linking my 2002 essay with up to date thoughts by other writers. I'll check the link you shared, too. For the Brontes those moorland creatures were on her doorstep, but for sure we all can recall and engage with the 'wild' closer to home, whether where we dwell is rural, urban, semi-rural or suburban!

  3. Thank you for this Geraldine. I'm finding a kindred spirit under the type. The wilderness of Canada has drawn me deep into word and sensation. I'm deeply intrigued by "Ecopoetics" and would love to learn more.

  4. Rachelle, hello and thank you! I posted this (tentatively, really) as I wrote it in 2002 and wondered how it would be read now...I'm so pleased I did! It seems to have struck a chord with other people, like yourself, and that is beautiful! I'll rootle around in my notes and jottings, essays and PhD and share some links, thoughts, if that's ok? Briefly, it's exploring & understanding, how we 'dwell', how we truly dwell on earth with human, non humans, the animate and non-animate. Writers that come to mind include Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, Louise Erdrich as well as John Burnside -- plenty more tho!