I try to approach the OBVV each week with an open mind, ready to write about whatever leaps from the page for whatever reason. I generally try to keep to the order that the poems appear in the text, regardless of whether that works from a chronological perspective. Beyond that, I’m mostly looking for something that’s manageable both for retyping and reading–I’m sure there are many fantastic poems that go on for several pages that I am missing here, such as Frederick William Faber‘s “The World Morose” (#221).

But of course I’m always driven by obscure, less articulated desires, looking for something I can’t describe but swear I will know by sight. Some weeks this is all more clear than in others. Some posts become retroactively autobiographical. I’m not going to tell you which ones.

Tonight’s trajectory went something like this: I began by deciding not to write about Robert Browning (#195-213). Thing is, Bob and I are going to be spending quite a lot of time together this summer as it is, so there’s no need to rush into things. There will be all kinds of opportunities for you to hear what I have to say about him. (However, Maggie will be happy to know that “The Laboratory” comes in at #198.) After this, I paged listlessly past Aubrey de Vere–best known in my world for a comment he made about Tennyson writing Maud backwards–then on through Henry David Thoreau (you all know that there are Americans in here, I’m just being horribly non-transatlantic and not writing about them because, ack?) and a host of minor poets with names like Wathen Mark Wilks Call (#229-31) and Thomas Toke Lynch (#233) and no Wikipedia pages. You can, however, read about both of these last figures as “Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century” in the Cambridge History of English and American Literature in Eighteen Volumes.

Normally a name like Thomas Toke Lynch and a poem about children as cannon fodder in spiritual warfare would be enough to get me going here. Yet my eye was drawn instead to #234, which I present to you without further ado:

“Stanzas” — Emily Bronte (1819-1848)

Often rebuked, yet always back returning

To those first feelings that were born with me,

And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning

For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day I will seek not the shadowy region;

Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;

And visions rising, legion after legion,

Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,

And not in paths of high morality,

And not among the half-distinguish’d faces,

The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:

It vexes me to choose another guide:

Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding,

Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.*

There are any number of reasons to love this poem. To be fair, I’m probably too groggy to do justice to them all, and this grogginess may be the reason why the poem seems to be somewhat shimmeringly suspended among several levels right now, not just in terms of the literal and figural aspects of the proposed walk itself, but also in its generic positioning.  And perhaps this has to do with the poem’s material aspect–the physicality of those last two lines after all those tropes that come before. It’s not exactly unexpected, since the entire poem is, in a sense, going through all these different tropes of walking and where one might walk if one were so inclined–all, of course, to reject it for some return to the moors. There’s a certain romanticism to this–and we know that it’s coming from that first stanza, a kind of return to self against the incursions of the world, turning aside from all teachers that are not nature, and so on. The “unreal world” is “too strangely near” and the answer is clarity, hardness, wind on mountains, and the present moment (that is, whatever is not occluded by “the clouded forms of long-past history).

Yet to the extent that there is a romanticism to this pedestrianism, it, too, seems to get turned back and refused for something more stark. It’s difficult to write well about refusals, to write well about other people’s refusals, and to write well about the kind of refusal that involves the invocation and citation of what is being refused. And this is why you should all immediately go get a copy of Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling and read the chapter on the periperformative utterance. It’s not exactly applicable to what Bronte’s doing here, but it at least approximates the process that interests me.

But I think what attracts me to this poem most of all right now is its reminder to focus on the present, to be mindful of what is needed, to take a break from speculations and bleak prospects of uncertain futures and ungraspable pasts. It doesn’t really, in my view at least, make grand claims for self-identity or authenticity–to a certain extent, to “walk where my own nature would be leading” is presented more as a choice among other choices, all valid and helpful at times, but not entirely in this particular case. This is not the agonistic longing of Arnold’s “The Buried Life” or some straightforwardly gendered rejection of predominately male poetic forms. (Though now as I type that, I can see it as an entirely plausible way to read the poem.) Indeed, despite the reference to “first feelings,” there’s not much of a hierarchy in this poem, which reveals those feelings–and the physical act of walking according to one’s own inner guide, away from striving and the “busy chase”–to be as important, as sacred even, as the sublime, epic, morality, history. And this, in turn, gives these stanzas a kind of grace.

It’s a grace (and I mean that in a loosely spiritual sense) that I’m seeking myself right now at the end of an exhausting, uncertain, wildly productive, intensely painful semester. It’s been that way for lots of reasons and not just for me either. Even the best things can tear our focus away from–well, from whatever it is we’re doing, from our efforts to be good to each other and our students and ourselves. The time it’s taken me to write this post is a case in point. And it’s not to say that Emily Bronte is going to solve all of my problems or keep me from getting sucked into Gawker rather than Zizek tomorrow or–whatever. But Bronte’s right about one thing: “unsustaining vastness” does wax pretty damn “drear.” And that makes me want to accept poetic grace where I can.

*Ed. note: I was checking the wording of one of the lines, and I found the poem on wikisource. There’s one more stanza:

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
  More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
  Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

In any case, Emily for the win. And it’s nice to think what happens to poem when they’re suggestively truncated.

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