Monday, 6 April 2015

The development of vision in Emily Brontë’s selected poems

After the portrait by Branwell Brontë, ca. 1833, in the National Portrait Gallery

Emily Brontë has often been described a “mystic” and many critics have touched upon this aspect of her works. Most of the claims reffering to her alleged mysticism are based primarily on her poems. It is undeniable that at certain times a kind of subconscious pressure seems to have invaded certain poems (both Gondal and non – Gondal) powerfully. Sections of the poems valued for for their transcendental qualties have often been taken as a description of the poet’s own feeling  when confronted with an experience thought to be “mystical”. In this sub – chapter I shall examine some of the poems which feature nocturnal visions or visitations by spirits, and I shall take into account those poems a major function of which seems to be to explore such visionary and imaginary gifts. The sense of visitation by visions which is powerfully and prevalently present in some of Emily’s poems, according to Derek Stanford can be associated with mysticism. He explains that he applied the term “mysticism” to certain poems, in order to “focus attention on the relationship which Emily’s mind established with something beyond it.”[10]
In Stanford’s eyes the notion of visitation and visions which permeate considerable number of Brontë’s poems, deals with her “interior”, personal religion, and is much connected with a gnostic cult of night, since the vast majority of such poems are known to be composed at night. As day illuminates the world with all its multiplicity so that the distinction of its objects become apparent, it is night that darkens the world and so that all disparity and difference seems to be blurred and cancelled out. He goes on further stating that the removal of distinctions appears to produce a new unity, which only “the mystical mind can recognize”[11].

The  aspect of vision and visitation in Emily Brontë’s poems

Many poems by Emily Brontë appear to chronicle moments when she achieves her visionary or dreamy states and when her vision seems to overwhelm her and surpass her art, the example of such experience is recorded in the poem Alone I sat on the summer day:

        Dreams have encircled me, I said
            From careless childhood’s sunny time(…)
            But now when I had hoped to sing
            My fingers strike a tuneless string.[12]

Poems preoccupied with dreams and visions put forward an argument that Emily’s visionary states might be treated as “mystic” to some extent. Many of them record the experience of feverish dreaming, very often nighmtmares, resulting in a sudden waking accompanied by an unearthy sound, or the experience of encountering a dead associate[13]. One of the poems which evoke the vision conceived while dreaming is in The night of storms has passed. The speaker awakens from a nightmare about the “gulp o’er which mortality has never been” and then she notices “a shadowy thing”, which she mortally fears. The “thing “evokes a supernatural phenomenon, its terrifying appearance so much penetrates the speaker that when awake she is unable to move, to breathe freely, is immbilized completely by the basilisk gaze of the “thing”. One of the most striking characteristics of the poems is both the earthly closensess and cosmic distance of the “shadowy thing” to the speaker[14]: “And truly at my side/I saw a shadowy thing  whose “fearful face and eyes were fixed on me”.

            It seemed close, but, and yet more far
            Than this world from the farthest star
            That tracks the boundless blue.[15]

The poem Laid Alone in the Darkened Room describes a visionary moment experienced by the speaker again. It tells about “stern power” which is ready do descend on the speaker, and which produces “strange sensation”. Then it says that the visitant, whatever it is, arrives. Precisely how the visitant is conceptualised is not clear, from the poem, it can be only concluded that Emily Brontë recoils from the difficulty of putting the experience into precise words. It is clear that the vision enodowed with “stern power” is monitoring and controlling the speaker in an inexplicable way.
In Silent is the House,  the poet seems to be talking about an experience which will not return, however she insists that that memory can bring back the vision: “Memory has power as real as thine”. The poem breaks off suddenly as if she finds she cannot make rational sense of her experience. Poems dealing with nocturnal visions are very frequent and considerable in number. According to Edward Chitham “ For Emily’s purpose, night provided an ideal theatre for the visitattion of that spirit which confessed to her alone; a solitary, private, and gnostic communicat.” He continues stating  that Emily’s mystic – quietist poems, provide with a sense of “communion within communion”. He believes that poems dealing with some nocturnal visions are the outcome of a communion with night, which “serves to usher in a deeper phase of a sacramental knowing.”[16]
Whether the recurrent dream and vision, “phantom bliss” as Emily prefers to call it, can be described as the proof of mysticism is an open question. However, it should be said that the sense of communion with something outside the poet is very strong, although the precise nature of the power inherent in this “something” is fairly nebulous. 

Author: Dora Lorenc 


[10] E. Chitham, T. Winnifrith, The Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems, p. 194
[11] M. Spark, D. Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work, p. 178
[12] Alone I Sat on the Summer Day, ed. B. Lloyd – Evans, The Poems of Emily Brontë
[13] E. Chitham, T. Winnifrith, Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems, p. 111
[14] J. D. Ghnassia, The Metaphysical Rebellion in the Works of Emily Brontë, p. 57
[15] The Night of Storms Has Passed, ed B. Lloyd – Evans, The Poems of Emily Brontë p.  67
[16] E. Chitham, T. Winnifrith, Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems, p. 201


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