Monday, May 18, 2009

She can bear her soul from it's home of clay - the mystical superpowers of Emily Brontë

I'm happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from it's home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And my eye can wander through worlds of light

When I am not and none beside
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky
But only spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity

This is an early poem of Emily Brontë's, written when she was 19, but not published until 1910. Does it sound like a 19 year old? It sure sounds like Emily Brontë.

This is early poetic mastery, varied in form, strange in concept, although perhaps not as weird as it looks (or, perhaps, weirder). That third line is fancy - an internal rhyme, and "wind/ when." I actually pronounce "win" and "when" the same way, a regionalism I'm trying to combat, so the effect is really strong for me.

That line is a bit singsongy, which is why the fourth line changes the order of the sounds. Line three stresses wind/night/moon/bright, while line four has eye/wand/worlds/light. She flips the location of the "I" sound and the "w_nd" word, a trick that looks so easy. The variety keeps the poem from sounding insipid. It sounds pleasing and sophisticated to me.

What does the poem mean? One pass - it's a celebration of the poet's imagination, with the soul and spirit as a stand-in. It's the poet describing how she does her job. The second stanza is tricky, and could use some punctuation, but it's consistent with this idea, mostly. The first "Nor" really means "Neither," an archaicism. So maybe it means:

"I am happiest
When I am Not and also None -
Not, for example, earth or sea or sky -
But only a spirit, etc."

This is still not quite English, and still pretty strange, and suggests another way to interpret the poem is to take its surface seriously. The speaker is happiest when her spirit mystically leaves her body and becomes Not, a perfect nothing, somehow existing only in some infinite world of light. But then why the eye, why the bright moon (itself a kind of world of light, I guess)?

Emily Brontë's poems share many characteristics with Wuthering Heights. One of them is that they're impossible to completely pin down. Just to add another complication, the "I" of the poem may very well be neither Emily Brontë nor a poet at all but a character in a lost fantasy epic.

I've demonstrated well enough that I barely know what I'm talking about, but that won't stop me from spending all of the week with Emily Brontë's poems. Or perhaps not all - I hear the songs of the Jewish gauchos in the distance.


  1. I've never been really moved by Emily Bronte's poetry, though I've never spent a week with it either. It often strikes me as having a kind of awkward sincerity without enough art to get to that next level. Christina Rossetti, on the other hand...

  2. I've always found this poem particularly touching. Especially the bit about the clay. I feel as if she's talking directly to me, and, for a moment, I am less lonely.

  3. The poetry actually does sound a bit like it was written by a 19 year old. There's this kind of... oh, teenage angst feel to it. But it seems to me a bit distant, like she isn't actually writing about herself or even something relevant to her. Like, yes, there's some hidden character but unlike many such poems, I feel nothing for the poet nor for the character. I'd definitely want to read some more of her poems (even just to prove that I do like poetry...) but I'm again finding Emily to be distant and cold to me. Perhaps I just don't know enough to start analyzing it properly? I've already proven how bad I am with poetry...

  4. This is great - a miniature version of the fascinating Wuthering Heights experiment at books i done read - the reactions are so visceral.

    I'm not moved by much of Emily Brontë's verse, either. Well, sometimes I'm moved to laughter. Her concerns and imagery are too private. I think a fairer comparison is with the mythological poetry of Blake.

    (Of course, it's hardly fair to compare anyone to C Rossetti. Sort of a crushing blow!)

    The distance is built into the poetry, is part of the project. It takes a special sort of sympathy to enter into it, like The Golem has, some sharing of the private mysteries (for example, definitely, teenage angst). Most of us have to stay outside. I do.

    AC, are you sure the sense of coldness isn't from the imagery of the poem - the windy night and the spirit wandering wide? It's a chilly poem, but the speaker is happiest in the chill. Not my idea of comfort; nor do I find the idea of transcending earthly things through death very appealing. But that's the poem.

    I am more in Rohan's court - sometimes Brontë could use more distance, not less, to allow more irony, to work against the sincerity and intensity. She has all sort of strategies to do this in Wuthering Heights, but if she has some equivalent in the poems, I have a hard time seeing it.

  5. I believe "When I am not and none beside" means when she's lost in her imaginings and there is NO-ONE beside her to disturb her. I don't mean she's following some archiac or personal diction to use "none" as a contracted form of "no one". Rather, she's using poetic license to get a one-syllable word in there to do the job of indicating her aloneness, which would otherwise require two. And she's relying upon the reader to figure that out.


    If I didn't know it was unlikely, I would say that she'd been studying Buddhism. "When I am not" is a pretty good description of a goal of Buddhist meditation--to directly experience the illusory nature of the self.

  6. Ah, yes, "none beside" = "alone" or "no one beside me."

    The Buddhist-like language shows up in other poems as well. Other ideas do, too - the lack of fear of death, perhaps. I'm too ignorant to pursue the subject, but I would be curious to read what links an expert would find.

    Thanks for stopping by, by the way.

  7. I like this poem very much. To me it os about the kinship one shares with their own imagination. Or an ode to the daydream. I think what she is saying that when she is daydreaming, she is indeed happiest.

    Me too.