Monday, 8 January 2018

Emily Bronte: High Waving Heather

I am preparing for a talk about Emily Bronte's life and writing, at Morley Library (details on my Upcoming events page), and one of the poems I plan to feature is High Waving Heather, whose form and structure I have been considering.  I have always liked the poem, but in recent days the experience of reading it aloud has drawn me to the particularly strident sounds and style of the poem, whose vowel sounds and line endings charge it full of purposive energy and bite. The poet's use of dactylic foot, as I shall demonstrate below, accentuates the aggression of the subject matter, and enables each line to thrust its self into life very much in the manner of the tempestuous weather she describes; but the poem, which has been interpreted allegorically, is also a wonderfully dramatic evocation of the sort of moorland world in which Emily Bronte felt most at home.

  
High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending, the poem begins, and notice how already we are tugged along by stormy weather into a brisk, or even bounding, pace; the authoritative syllabic sound of "High" kicks things off firmly; the alliterative opening, spiked with a Long "i" sound,  sweeps us into a rhythm of energy and movement. With the insistent sound of words like "High," "Mighty," and "Roaring," to initiate the lines, combined with the use of dactyls (syllabic units where the first sound is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables), Emily Bronte has injected the poem with a vigour and anger, a little like an athlete "pushing" off from the blocks for that first spurt of a race. 
Right from the start, we know this poem is not going to be a pastoral meditation on heather waving gently in the breeze - but a fast blast of sharp sounds, all enabled by the employment of the dactyl.  With line endings like rending, descending, flying and defying, this three-stanza flurry of a poem is designed to rouse the reader, or listener, and to summon up an urgent pace.  Yet the poem also imprints an imagery of stoicism in the echoes of a storm, contrasting the transience of the elements and the "gloom defying" lightning, and the advance of the river bursting its banks, with the permanence and immovability of the earth.

Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.



There is something in Emily Bronte's pace and rhythm which, for me, conjures thoughts not just of the heather and hills of Yorkshire, but of the Scottish Highlands, in these lines.  Indeed, when I first read the poem I half forgot that I was not casting my eyes over the words of Robbie Burns.  Much has been written about the author's veneration of nature, and her use of a lower case "h" in "heaven" (twice) is certainly interesting, especially considering her background as the daughter of a Parson, but whatever metaphors or allegorical themes might be deduced from this powerful poem, the sense of escape is ever-present:


Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

The ABAAAB rhyme scheme is both pleasing to the ear, and invigorating, in how it gives the stanzas' final lines a punch, and neatly compresses a story of midnight storms, thunder, and desolation.  Rhymes and half-rhymes within the lines are acutely stirring also - wild, and life-giving, glory and rejoicing, Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying.  The juxtaposing of stars and darkness, or earth and heaven, jolt us into shifting visions and spectral imaginings. The vision of survival, even of the triumph of the will, against a hard, bleak background, and in spite of tempests, dungeons is hard to overlook, yet though the poem's power lies in its wet and wild setting, the lasting imagery of sadness is surely underlined in the fleeting brevity of the storm's life-giving essence, fading from the desolate aftermath.

High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars,
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven, and heaven descending,
Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.


Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.

 

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