The Mutability Poems of Emily Bronte
Poetry does not have to be sad; it can joyfully celebrate an occasion, express the transports of some kind of love, or simply make observations on life. Yet, when tragedy, personal or large-scale, or loss, sudden or inevitable, strikes, writing poetry gives vent to sorrow and reading it brings a measure of consolation. Poems addressing change and loss–otherwise referred to as “mutability”–fall under the literary term “elegy” and have a long and constant history, from Greek and Roman works, through the poetry of today. Elegies have also come to include more particularly a sustained lament in verse upon the loss of a certain person.
As for the second and narrower use of the term, Emily Brontë did not write an elegy to any one of the several family members and close acquaintances whose deaths she experienced. When she does mention the death of a particular individual, he or she frequently seems to be a fictional Gondal character (Gondal was a land that Emily and her sister Anne imagined and filled with characters about whom they created stories throughout their lives). The staging of the fictional setting is a vehicle allowing her to express feelings of loss without making the poem a direct memorial of her own. I find the Gondal framework largely irrelevant, because the emotion of the poet comes through whether or not names and setting have an imaginary origin.
Emily Brontë wrote a number of poems that deal thematically with mutability and that can be termed elegies in the first and broader sense. Love lost, childhood past, dreams and plans failed— various experiences and stages of life that were special and dear, but that are gone forever—appear in these poems. Bronte creates the mood of nostalgia through settings of autumn and mists and through diction, using words that look back in time, such as “long-forgotten,” “earlier days,” and “old feelings.” There is on the whole little consolation for the sadness brought by change, and the various poetic personae must struggle under the tyranny of happy memories.
In these poems, particularly, music and musical instruments play a notable part, and quite appropriately given the ability of a song to take a person back to another time and place. Also, Bronte would have included music in her poems because she was musical. There was a piano at the parsonage, and she was the most musical member of the household. When she went to study French with Charlotte in Brussels, staying there eight months, when she was twenty-three, she had the opportunity to take lessons from an accomplished musician and became a good pianist. The upright piano was in Mr. Brontë’s study. As a visitor to the Brontë Parsonage, you can stand at the threshold of his study, see the piano still tucked against the left wall, and imagine how the loud and soft must have resounded and floated through a house that had stone floors and no curtains or carpets.
Here are some of her poems in the category of elegy, first a short overview, then the poems themselves for the Hatfield edition.
“Harp of wild and dream-like strain” depicts two layers of nostalgia. One is for that time in the past when the speaker of the poem could play the harp without feeling any sadness. The other is for the era when he or she still had the “long-forgotten things” of which the absence produces a sorrow that darkens the summer sky. Memories are the culprit; the sounds of the harp are tinged with memories darken the daylight. To me, this poem, with the harp and the word “lays” for songs, evokes an image of the Middle Ages. A woman, in medieval sleeves and trailing hem, her fingers still curled above the strings of her Aeolian harp, falls into reverie, while, through the gothic window behind her, the sky moves into shades of grey. My Pre–Raphaelite vision serves as an illustration that the reaction to a poem is subjective and personal and that poetry can be very visual.
“For him who struck thy foreign string” is a monologue in which a female voice questions how she can still feel sadness at the memory of “him” when she thought she was long beyond caring. It is a Gondal poem, and the speaker is Augusta Geraldine Almeda, as indicated by the initials A.G.A. at the top of the poem. Beyond telling us that the speaker is a woman, the Gondal origin has little or no relevance to one’s appreciation of the poem and its imagistic expression of nostalgia. Apparently, an unnamed man from the past played the guitar; now years after she ended her relationship with him, she herself has strummed the guitar or heard someone else playing it, and “its magic tone,” associated with him, revives the past.
The use of the word “ween” in the first stanza is an archaism—the word means “think” and was not used in current speech even in Brontë’s time. Likewise, Brontë frequently writes “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” (although not in this poem), which she would not have used in speaking.
This poem contains two beautiful and apt images to express the feeling we all have had– it just seems like things should still be as they once were. In the first, “the parent orb” (the sun) should still be lighting up the glen. In the second, the willow tree that used to border a stream, even after many years of absence, should still be reflected in the glassy waters.
“Where were ye all? And where wert thou?” depicts how memories of a long lost person arise upon meeting someone who bears some similar trait, in this case, similar eyes. The speaker’s anxious words conjure the feelings of eagerness and pain that occur upon seeing some similarity to a person who is gone–the momentary comfort and the fast following sadness. As in many of the poems in this group, the past has a dreamlike quality.
This poem is identifiable as a Gondal poem by the letters A.G.A, which appear under the date; they are the initials of a Gondal character that is a mainstay of the saga, Augusta Geraldine Almeda. As noted before, that fact has little if any relevance to one’s reading of the poem.
“Mild the mist upon the hill” presents the idea that an aspect of the natural world, here a misty damp evening, can transport one back to an earlier time when such a misty day occurred in the happier days of childhood. So, music, a similar pair of eyes, and here a misty day can all conjure thoughts of the past. In this poem and the immediately preceding one, the thoughts of the past are described as having a dream-like quality; here the scent of the rain is “dreamy,” and in the first of these poems, the harp’s music has “dreamlike strains.” The past is also a dream in the immediately following poem. One also encounters a variation of the notion that the past is like a dream in a poem that I would place in the chapter on “Love and Friendship,” in which, looking ahead rather than back, the speaker projects, in some of my favorite Brontë lines, that she will become like a dream to her former lover: “Day by day some dreary token / Will forsake thy memory / Till at last all old links broken / I shall be a dream to thee.” A life inhabited by waking dreams reminds me of Keats’s lines: “Can death be sleep when life is but a dream, / And scenes of bliss pass as phantoms by?”
“It is too late to call thee now” differs in its expression of mutability from her more usual view in that there is a clear consolation at the end for the pain brought by change and loss: childhood and knowing how fortunate he or she was to have shared those early years with the person who is now gone. However, before the poem takes that conciliatory tone, the speaker decries remembrance because the ensuing pain outweighs the dream-like joy. In the second stanza, Brontë depicts the idea of the finality of change with the image of a bare mountain on which the morning sunshine no longer glows.
“The wind, I hear it sighing” begins by creating a somber feeling: the season is autumn, the leaves are withered, and even the wind makes a wistful sound. Sometimes wandering off in thought brings an escape and joy, but not in his poem. The thoughts of the past descend like vultures. To capture the idea of irrevocability, Bronte compares retrieving the past to the inability of an aged person to appear childlike again. This poem is particularly interesting in expressing the idea that memories are deadly, even happy memories. In the wonderfully symmetrical and alliterative lines in the penultimate stanza, the speaker declares that he or she would be willing to give up all of the happy memories to eliminate even half of the pain caused by the loss—here, it seems the loss of a beloved person. That sentiment stands quite contrary to the famous lines written years later by Alfred Lord Tennyson in In Memoriam: “I hold it true what’er befall / I feel it when I sorrow most / Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
Harp of wild and dream-like strain,
When I touch thy strings,
Why dost thou repeat again
Harp, in other earlier days,
I could sing to thee;
And not one of all my lays
Vexed my memory.
But now, if I awake a note
That gave me joy before,
Sounds of sorrow from thee float,
Yet, still steeped in memory’s dyes,
They come sailing on,
Darkening all my summer skies,
Shutting out my sun.
For him who struck thy foreign string,
I ween this heart hath ceased to care;
Then why dost thou such feelings bring
To my sad spirit, old guitar?
It is as if the warm sunlight
In some deep glen should lingering stay,
When clouds of tempest and of night
Had wrapt the parent orb away.
It is as if the glassy brook
Should image still its willows fair,
Though years ago the woodman’s stroke
Laid low in dust their gleaming hair.
Even so, guitar, thy magic tone
Has moved the tear and waked the sigh,
Has bid the ancient torrent flow
Although its very source is dry!
Where were ye all? And where wert thou?
I saw an eye that shone like thine;
But dark curls waved around his brow,
And his stern glance was strange to mine.
And yet a dreamlike comfort came
Into my heart and anxious eye;
And, trembling yet to hear his name,
I bent to listen watchfully.
His voice, though never heard before,
Still spoke to me of years gone by;
It seemed a vision to restore
That brought the hot tears to my eye.
Mild the mist upon the hill,
Telling not of storms to-morrow;
No; the day has wept its fill,
Spent its store of silent sorrow.
Oh, I’m gone back to the days of youth,
I am a child once more;
And ‘neath my father’s sheltering roof,
And near the old hall door,
I watch the cloudy evening fall,
After a day of rain:
Blue mists, sweet mists of summer pall
The horizon’s mountain-chain.
The damp stands in the long, green grass
As thick as morning’s tears;
And dreamy scents of fragrance pass
That breathe of other years.
It is too late to call thee now:
I will not nurse that dream again:
For every joy that lit my brow
Would bring its after-storm of pain.
Besides, the mist is half withdrawn;
The barren mountain-side lies bare;
And sunshine and awaking morn
Paint no more golden visions there.
Yet, ever in my grateful breast,
Thy darling shade shall cherished be;
For god alone doth know how blest
My early years have been in thee!
The wind, I hear it sighing
With Autumn’s saddest sound;
Withered leaves as thick are lying
As spring-flowers on the ground.
This dark night has won me
To wander far away;
Old feelings gather fast upon me
Like vultures round their prey.
Kind were they once, and cherished,
But cold and cheerless now;
I would their lingering shades had perished
When their light left my brow.
‘Tis like old age pretending
The softness of a child,
My altered, hardened spirit bending
To meet their fancies wild.
Yet could I with past pleasures
Past woe’s oblivion buy,
That by the death of my dearest treasures
My deadliest pains might die,
O then another daybreak
Might haply dawn above,
Another summer gild my cheek,
My soul, another love.