Sunday, 3 February 2013



“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:

  1. that the land conveys a sense of interconnectedness, which flows through all things, both animate and inanimate;
  2. 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;
  3. the way this local specificity becomes an ‘inscription’, or text of sound – a  known polyphony which forms the basis of her poetry and
  4. 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, 

Perhaps 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.

Dr. Geraldine Green, Ecopoetics Research Diploma, supervisor prof. Pam Morris. Originally written December 2002, re-read February 2013  

Albert Einstein 'The World Healing Project'
Juliet Barker 'Juvenilia' (London, Penguin Classics 1996)
Stevie Davies 'Emily Bronte Heretic' (London, The Women's Press 1994)
Richard Friedenthal 'Goethe his life and times' (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1993)
Jonathan Bate 'Song of the Earth' (Picador, 2000)
Lawrence Durrell 'Spirit of Place' (Faber and Faber 1969)
Michael Srigley 'Ritual Entries, some approaches to Henry Vaughan's "Silex Scintillans" (Scintilla 3 (Usk Valley Vaughan Association 1999)
Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter 'Norton Anthology' 1996
Stevie Davies 'Emily Bronte' (Harvester Wheatsheaf 1988)
Lucasta Miller 'The Bronte Myth' (Vintage Books 2002)

No comments:

Post a Comment