Emily Brontë: Freedom from Absolute Sorrow

The quietest ‘groan’, for Emily Brontë, could suggest that earthly sorrow has an absolute quality:

One hardly uttered groan –

But that has hushed all vocal joy,

Eclipsed the glory of the sky

And made me think that misery

Rules in our world alone! (Brontë: 172)

In Brontë’s poem ‘The Two Children’, absolute sorrow appears as the fated sorrow of the figure destined to a ‘grim fate’ (216), who – as Janet Gezari comments in the notes to her edition of Brontë’s poems – ‘anticipates Heathcliff, bereft of Guardian Angel or “kindred kindness”‘ (277).

Soul – where kindred kindness,

No early promise woke,

Barren is thy beauty,

As weed upon a rock. (217)

One of Brontë’s most devastating quatrains returns to how grief, like a lack of kindred kindness, results in a complete stilling of joy, as trauma decisively inhibits our capacity for experience:

In dungeons dark I cannot sing

In sorrow’s thrall ’tis hard to smile

What bird can soar with broken wing

What heart can bleed and joy the while (78)

The close of another poem pairs fated obscure sorrow or sorrowful obscurity – ‘it is doomed’ – with the way in which bereavement stunts early development: the organic growth of a child’s emotional life. As Gezari remarks, ‘the feeling is very different’ (242) here to in the comparable lines from Gray’s Elegy (‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air’); because in Brontë’s lines it is only specifically the bereaved environment which has turned the child’s morning light into a preparation for perpetual night.

Cut off from hope in early day

From power and glory cut away

But it is doomed and morning’s light

Must image forth the scowl of night

And childhood’s flower must waste its bloom

Beneath the shadow of the tomb (42)

The poem ‘At Castle Wood’ again focusses on the early stilling of emotional life attendant upon a sorrowful upbringing, when ‘[…] I was bred the mate of care/ The foster child of [sore] distress’: ‘The heart is dead since infancy’ (155). The protagonist in ‘H. A. and A. S.’ comments of ‘mortal grief’ that it ‘never heals with years’ (139); Gezari’s notes compare Brontë’s lines ‘For Time and Death and Mortal pain/ Give wounds that will not heal again’ (268, quoting 132). The following lines appear in a ‘Song’ dated 1844.

I ween, that when the grave’s dark wall

Did first her form retain;

They thought their hearts could ne’er recall

The light of joy again. (11)

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The emphasis on unhealing grief is distinctively Brontë’s. In her landmark study of Brontë’s poems, Last Things, Gezari observes that ‘[u]nlike the speakers of the English elegies [Peter] Sacks studies’, the speaker in Brontë’s ‘Remembrance’ ‘does not turn away from death and toward life after a circumscribed period set aside for grieving’, and instead ‘asks whether such a turning is possible’ (Gezari: 53). That poem points towards an awareness that ‘finality and composure in the face of deep and irrevocable loss are unattainable’ (44). Likewise in Wuthering Heights Brontë represents, with the indivisible pair Catherine and Heathcliff, ‘an unresolved and inconclusive melancholy mourning’ (114).

At this point, however, we need to think about ‘For him who struck thy foreign string’, a poem dated 1838 which was published by Charlotte Brontë in 1850 under her title ‘The Lady to Her Guitar’:

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 wrapped 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

Hath moved the tear and waked the sigh

Hath bid the ancient torrent flow

Although its very source is dry! (78)

The loss of the loved one, or alienation of the love object from the poem’s speaker, has inhibited the speaker’s emotional life seemingly absolutely: at ‘its very source’. As Gezari writes, this poem finds Emily Brontë ‘again creating a world without end where effects outlast their causes so that whatever was persists in a timeless present’. This visionary poem of unresolved mourning, Gezari notes, ‘shares Kubla Khan’s imagery of sunny spots enclosed by antique forests’ along with ‘shapes hovering on a watery surface’ (Gezari: 23). Yet in its resemblance too to the restorative natural sanctuary of the first poem published in Charlotte Brontë’s 1850 edition of her sister’s poems, ‘A little while, a little while’, the environment of the second stanza already suggests a less sorrowful kind of timelessness or persistence than that which we have tended to find in the poems. Here is how nature holds its light and lightens the speaker’s mood in the third and sixth stanzas of ‘A little while, a little while’:

There is a spot, ‘mid barren hills,

Where winter howls, and driving rain;

But, if the dreary tempest chills,

There is a light that warms again.

[…]

Still – as I mused – the naked room,

The alien firelight died away;

And from the midst of cheerless gloom,

I passed to bright, unclouded day. (Brontë: 203)

 

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A closer look at Brontë’s poetic vocabulary further develops our awareness of how, as C. Day Lewis put it in a 1965 essay, the ‘struggle of the soul against predestined doom is one form which the freedom motif takes in Emily Brontë’s work’. In her textual notes Gezari observes that in ‘For him who struck thy foreign string’, Brontë’s use of the rare archaic verb ‘ween’, meaning ‘think’ or ‘surmise’, in the first stanza, recalls her other use of the word in the 1844 ‘Song’ already quoted (251). In the ‘Song’, ‘ween’ questions the absolute nature of the bereaved ones’ sorrow: the speaker only surmises that they thought themselves incapable of remembering joy. Similarly, ‘ween’ in ‘For him who struck thy foreign string’ leads us to wonder, already immediately at the beginning of the poem, whether the speaker’s heart actually has ‘ceased to care’ for the guitarist, and whether the speaker’s emotional life really is absolutely inhibited. In the second stanza the use of ‘wrapped’, meaning only ‘concealed’ or ‘absorbed’ (251, 242), undermines the finality of the loss of the ‘parent orb’.

It is also worth considering the final stanza of the poem, which appears to present music, or the guitarist’s musical imagination, as enabling the rebirth of the speaker’s emotional life. In her discussion of the vital principle affirmed by Brontë in ‘No coward soul is mine’ – the principle which ‘Pervades and broods above,/ Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears’ (182) – Gezari argues that Brontë there ‘uses the vocabulary Coleridge had used to describe the secondary imagination’ in his Biographia Literaria :

It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. [Gezari: 131, quoting Coleridge]

The key distinction between Coleridge’s language and Brontë’s, as Gezari notes, is Brontë’s substitution of ‘creates’ for ‘recreate’. ‘In Brontë’s poetic universe, living forms may be newly created, not just recreated as in Coleridge’s.’ (132) It seems to me that this statement applies too to the final stanza of ‘For him who struck thy foreign string’, in which the speaker’s emotional life, even when its ‘very source’ is presently ‘dry’ (just like Coleridge’s ‘essentially fixed and dead’ objects), can in actuality be newly created – not just reborn – by the influence of the guitarist’s musical imagination.

Texts

Emily Jane Brontë, The Complete Poems, ed. by Janet Gezari (London: Penguin, 1992)

Janet Gezari, Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems (Oxford: OUP, 2007)

Richard Mabey’s ‘Nature Cure’

Towards the beginning of his 2005 book Nature Cure, nature writer Richard Mabey likened his personal experience of depression to becoming an ‘incomprehensible creature adrift in some insubstantial medium, out of kilter with the rest of creation’. Mabey figures personal lostness as alienation from nature; before suggesting that such lostness is simply a feature of a social, collective depression: ‘maybe that is the way our whole species is moving’ (4). Our general alienation from nature is seen to involve a form of dematerialization, a spectral or virtual drift which Mabey puts down to our increasing reliance on technology and intellectualization. ‘We’re becoming unearthly, freed, we like to think, from the physical imperatives of nature by technology, and exiled from its sensuality and immediacy by our self-awareness.’ (13) In some lines with which many writers, early/no career academics and other members of knowledge class precariats will readily identify, Mabey sees that, in terms of his writer’s lifestyle, heightened intellectualization plus drift equated to the excessive specialization and rootlessness which together brought on his nervous collapse:

I was a scrap of nomadic tissue, a kind of mobile epiphyte – an organism without its own roots – living on the land rather than in it, and letting others bother about my infrastructure. And like an epiphyte I was lost when my substrate started to collapse. I was, quite simply, too specialized, and didn’t have the flexibility and confidence to cope with changes in my niche. (10)

Mabey’s experience testified to what we could call the dialectic of success within overfocussed careers: precisely ‘at the most unexpected time’, when he should have been ‘awash with the sense of well-being that comes from high status and achievement’ (50), he tipped into the state Oliver Sacks terms ‘vegetative retreat’ – as Mabey describes it, ‘safe harbourage, a period when inward, protective processes take precedence over all that adrenalin-pumping’ (55). He ventures a comparison with the poet John Clare’s experience:

During his asylum years Clare was never in the remotest sense ‘vegetative’ in his depression. But he did go progressively into retreat, and the vivid, sensual, connected verse of his middle years was replaced by more introspective, abstract, almost metaphysical musings. (57)

Mental illness is again identified by Mabey with developing intellectualization, and his focus here on Clare’s shift towards a more philosophical verse could be said to echo his earlier emphasis on our elevation of ‘our particular brand of consciousness’ over nature. ‘Our role on the planet is compromised […] by […] the belief that our particular brand of consciousness makes us uniquely privileged as a species, entitled to evaluate and manage the lives of all the others on our own terms’ (13). In this statement Mabey is already implicitly asking what a different, more natural form of consciousness might represent. He is also anticipating his later stress on meta-mind or some type of collective intelligence:

[…] mind is a much broader entity than consciousness, and not necessarily confined in individual packages. It’s a function of all life, the learned-from, responsive record that experience makes in living tissue. It can be cultural, co-operative, perhaps even communal. And maybe in keeping with our new understanding of the unity of physical life, we could try viewing mind not as possessed by individuals, but shared between them, as a kind of field. (174)

(Mabey would doubtless want to remind techno-evangelists of virtual collective intelligence that technology now is merely reproducing nature’s traditional meta-personal qualities).

Mabey notes etymological confirmation of the status of mind as a function of the body:

[…] ‘animal’ itself springs from the ancient Sanskrit root anila, meaning ‘wind’, via the Latin animalis, ‘anything alive’, splitting off animus on the way as, first, ‘mind’ and then ‘mental impulse, disposition, passion’ – a reminder of the time that mind and nature were not thought of as contrary entities. (20)

From the perspective of someone interested in Continental philosophy it seems a little unfortunate, however, that Nature Cure does not recognize Schelling’s important focus on the interweaving of mind and nature, and on the status of mind as a function of the body; Mabey maintains that ‘the philosphical [sic] tradition that stretched from Moses to Newton and beyond took it for granted that humankind was the supreme earthly order, and that the rest of creation had been put there for our benefit’. Nor is Schelling referenced when Mabey goes on to admit that, in ‘the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, a ‘fascination with the mechanics of nature led, inevitably, to a realization of its interconnectedness and vulnerability – and that its intricate networks included us, whether we liked it or not’ (107).

In fact Mabey is critical of approaches to nature grounded primarily in natural science: he bemoans the absence of ‘personal narratives’ of our own experiences of nature from contemporary nature writing, ‘as if the experience of nature were something separate from real life, a diversion, a hobby; or perhaps only to be evaluated through the dispassionate and separating prism of science’ (22). He even echoes the analysis of our domination of nature put forward by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, when he pinpoints Francis Bacon as ‘the writer who most clearly signposted the transition between an organic view of nature and the mechanistic and reductionist model of the modern world’. ‘Nature, he [Bacon] wrote, must be “bound into service”, be moulded by science.’ (106) Mabey is preoccupied by the need to reassert the value of imaginative approaches to the natural world over scientific ones. ‘Despite our science and our humanism, our whole culture is infused with myths and symbols of landscape and nature’ (19), he notes at one point. Mainstream environmentalism is criticized for its custodial, managerial approach – man as nature’s caretaker or steward – which accords us ‘essentially a mundane, utilitarian role, leaving in the air all our ancient and complex psychological ties with nature’ (108). Thus it is not simply that Mabey feels that ‘language and imagination […] are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging’ (23) with nature. He also asserts ‘our imaginative affinities with the natural world’ to be ‘a crucial ecological bond, as essential to us as our material needs for air and water and photosynthesizing plants’ (37).

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Hence Mabey argues that, rather than being ‘the opposite or contrary of nature’, culture represents ‘the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane’. Clare is held up as ‘one of the few writers to have found that shared field’ straddling nature and culture, and to have ‘created a language that joined rather than separated’ (23) the two. Despite the ‘patient vigils’ and ‘diligent watchfulness’ supplied by the latest camera technology for TV nature documentaries, the ‘dispassionate objectivity’ of such scientific approaches has ruled out ‘the poet’s glimpse of a shared world, and […] his sense of cherishing rather than caretaking’ (110).

‘Isn’t a life of words the very antithesis of a life of nature?’ (34) Mabey responds to this worry by proposing that we see our very skills as ‘talkers and dreamers’ as in fact representing ‘our way back, rather than the cause of our exile’ (37). Writing proved to be Mabey’s own way back from paralyzing depression to mental stability – ‘[l]earning to write again was what finally made me better’ (23) – precisely because he started writing again about nature : ‘it was regaining that imaginative relationship with the world beyond that was my “nature cure”‘ (64). Language and imagination, he maintains, can awaken our sense of a nature/culture symbiosis because they allow us to articulate our own instability alongside nature’s: ‘they’re also the gateway to understanding our kindredness to the rest of creation, to fitting our oddness into the scheme of things, […] to add our particular “singing” to that of the rest of the natural world’ (37). It is also a case of fitting nature’s unpredictability and inventiveness into us; of accepting and internalizing its wildness. Rather than involving a submission to a rejuvenating nature, some healthy condition-out-there, Mabey’s healing process, so he writes, involved ‘a sense of being taken not out of myself but back in, of nature entering me, firing up the wild bits of my imagination’ (224).

Text

Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (London: Vintage, 2015 (first publ. 2005))