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.
– Emily Brontë (1818–1848)
Why do we turn to art? For inspiration? For a revelation of just how bad life really is? Or rather for a ray of light in a gloomy world?
In this poem, Emily Brontë addresses a harp—an instrument that evokes the presence of angels. The opening line has the undeniable flavor of true poetry, taking us into another world: “Harp of wild and dream-like strain.” The phrase rolls off the tongue, a melody that reminds us that the stuff of art is visionary, strange, and uncontrollable.
Seeking comfort, Brontë is bitterly disappointed by its absence. Longing for escape, she complains that she is troubled by the way the harp brings to mind “long-forgotten things.” Its ethereal music is linked with poetry—for don’t we repeat poems to ourselves, mechanically and yet with the freshness of prayer, the words resounding in our memory?
Certainly, Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley used the harp as a metaphor for their craft. In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley pleads to become a harp played and plucked by the wind, turning the torrential forces of nature into the beautiful harmony of verse. But where Shelley anticipates ecstatic release, Brontë finds instead sadness and self-enclosure.
Somehow the music of the harp has darkened. In earlier days, Brontë could sing to it, with no sense of past woes. Yet now the notes have quite different connotations. The same note that brought joy now brings “sounds of sorrow.” But is this, on reflection, such a terrible thing? Surely one of the functions of art is to make us sad. It is not there to take us away from our pain, but to deepen it—to help us stick with it. It helps us go inward, downward into the underworld. There may be darkness there, but there may also be riches.
Poetry helps to connect the past and the present, as the whirling mind moves into the unfolding future. With its guidance, we can recover names, faces, rooms, objects, impressions and emotions long thought lost—long pushed away out of sight. We can recover ourselves, in our fullness, amid all the distractions. Brontë plays with the echoes of “strain” and “stain,” “dyes” and “death” to explore the connections between art and artifice, truth and lies, meaning, despair, and transcendence.
I know in moments of sadness I have turned to certain poems not so much for solace, but for recognition. I love to repeat “Sheep in Fog” by Sylvia Plath, for instance, with its poignant images of hills stepping off into whiteness, glimmering stars and the looming presence of heaven, a “dark water.” What might seem depressing becomes, in fact, deeply life-affirming by helping us to cherish those uncomfortable aspects of being that we may otherwise seek to deny. Sometimes when the sun is shut out, the soul opens.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
- Charlotte and Emily Brontë (apostcardaday.blogspot.com)