Spellbound – EJ Bronte
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me:
I will not, cannot go.
Let me ask you a little bit of a rhetorical question and let you decide what the answer will be; if this poem was about you, what would it be about?
The answer to that question will dictate just how you write about this short little poem. If you are of a spiritual nature, then you may write about death. If you are interested in the way nature enfolds around us, how it enables us to love and to live, then you may write about something entirely different, but at the end of the day, the true meaning of this poem rests on something that I was taught in my studies, about how as readers we need to consider the social and historical context of this poem.
Social and historical context? To what does this refer? Well, it is the social and historical context of the day when written, but the joy of literature is that over time, meaning can change as society changes and as beliefs change. Thus it may be the case with this poem as well.
Bronte was born in 1818 and died in 1848 aged just 30, when mortality rates were lower; in other words, when people died younger than they do now. She wrote in a time when it is perceived that people in society were more religious and the UK was more solely Christian than it is now. Now I am not too sure if that is an accurate depiction of life at that time because the history books are littered with lies and falsehoods, where the victor writes down what will then be considered to be the truth about those times. Who are we to know if people went to church or prayed more back then, than they do now? Yes, records show that to be the truth, but records can be distorted to show a ‘better age,’ a ‘bygone era’ that is somehow considered to be better than today.
So, we need to consider what it may have meant to a reader back then, over 200 years ago, and then consider just what it might mean for us reading it today. As we unpack this little gem, we do so with bifocals on, crossing the boundaries of time as we read on.
So, line 1 says that “the night is darkening round me,” which may suggest that either night has come where day once was, or if read as metaphor, then it reflects that the light is beginning to extinguish itself from her body as the point of death approaches. When we die, there is that sense that we are drifting off into something quite ethereal. Those of us who have been brought back from the brink of death by paramedics, will say that the time just before one loses consciousness is one that is spellbinding in every manner, at times too beautiful to contemplate. It certainly was for this writer!
So as the night is darkening we then read on into the next line and see a bit more, another snippet of information for us to work out, where we read “the wild winds coldly blow.” This use of alliteration helps the reader to feel the emotion being expressed here, the sense of cold as we shiver out our final breath. The sense of wildness about all of this suggests someone who is unsure in her faith, for one who was confident in going to heaven would anticipate the bright lights and warmth of heaven rather than coldness.
The next two lines however, show us why the person feels as if she is “spellbound,” or bound by a spell that keeps her here for she “cannot go” to where she believes she is going next. The word “tyrant” is a strong one indeed, one that denotes or even implies the Devil being the one who has cast the spell in the first place. A worse or deeper understanding might be that someone here on earth has cast the woman in a spell keeping her here on earth. If this is your thought too then the suggestion of witchcraft at play has to be adopted.
I however, take the approach that the “tyrant spell” is one that has been set there by the one person who Bronte would have undoubtedly believed in; Satan himself. It is something that is avoided in modern understanding of ancient poetry but one that has to be taken on board, even if not believed. I did say there was the ‘then’ approach and the ‘now’ approach when reading these old poems.
So, the woman feels that even in the throes of death, she cannot go, cannot depart this earth, or as Shakespeare might add, cannot “shuffle off this mortal coil.” But what then follows? Where we have seen the darkness of night approaching, we now see “the giant trees [that] are bending” in the night as the wild winds sway but these “bare boughs [are] weighed with snow.” There is more than a coldness being shared here, for if the natural elements are not cold enough, the introduction of snow compounds the deep seated feeling of despair at the person about to lose their life. Indeed, the use of the words “the storm is fast descending” show us that there is trouble brewing, where the passing of a person from this life to the next can be seen in terms of storms, but still this person “cannot go.” At this point as I am reading this, I am thinking to myself does the person actually want to go? Does the person want to die? Or is there a sensation that there is still work to do here on earth?
If my interpretation is correct then one then has to ask have I got something special I should be doing still in my life? Now if my answer to this is yes, then I am left with a dilemma where my body wants life to end, but my mind and my spirit do not. Now that would be a true dilemma, a spellbinding problem that needs fixing.
Finally, notice before now it has been a case of the night, the wind, the trees and the boughs that have been over her? Now it is the “clouds beyond [and] clouds above [her]” that make for the final stanza of the poem. Clouds are generally wispy when there is wind. Clouds are ethereal and spooky so to feel that clouds are “wastes beyond [and] wastes below” does show us a person who sees the oncoming storm, the prospect of death as something that for most people would be all consuming, all engulfing, but that for this person, “nothing drear can move” her forward.
Let me ask one last question and your answer will dictate how you read the last line of the poem; do we have control over death? In the poem, Bronte says she “will not, cannot go.” This suggests that we have a control over death but when our time comes, we do not. Yes we can fight it. And yes, we can breathe in our last breath and accept what is coming. But total control? No, we do not go in for that do we any more?
So, what is your take on this one? Do you agree with the 1848 rendition of this and other poems of the same ilk or does your modern mind say no to some of these thoughts? As there is no real wrong answer when it comes to literature, especially with poetry, your answer can be a good one.