30 August 2018 Susannah

Poem of the Month, September 2018 – ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’

Bronte Sisters statue, Haworth Parsonage.

It was Emily Brontë’s 200th birthday recently. She was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, and soon afterwards her parents moved to Haworth, where the Brontë Museum is today. (The picture above is of a sculpture of the three Brontë sisters at Haworth Museum). Her mother died and then two older sisters died, and the four remaining children turned to each other and created imaginary worlds, which they peopled with villains, heroines, brave soldiers and wily politicians. Emily never really left her imaginary world of Gondal, which she and Anne created jointly, and many of the poems she wrote as an adult are Gondal poems, about the characters she invented there.

In 1846 the sisters gathered together some of their poems and paid for publication, in the hope that the little volume would sell well and save them having to go out to work as governesses. Two copies sold. One of the poems included was Emily’s fierce, elemental poem No Coward Soul is Mine.

No Coward Soul is Mine by Emily Brontë

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Many critics have read this poem as being a Protestant view of a deity, a “spirit within”, a God to whom she feels equal and who makes other creeds appear feeble. But I think that Emily’s view of religion was far from conventional, and I think this poem can also be read as a love poem. She was about to write Wuthering Heights, a novel about a love so powerful and elemental that when one of the lovers dies, the other can only wreak his revenge on all around him in his despair.

This is not a poem in any way typical of the Victorian era. There’s no sentimentality, or religiosity. It delves deep into the poet’s soul, examining the process of creativity (“dissolves, creates and rears”), it pulses with energy and calls on Imagination and Nature in a bold, and memorable way. This poet sees “universes”, condemns creeds as “withered weeds” and claims her place as a poet on “the steadfast rock of Immortality”.

Emily Dickinson, another strange and powerful female poet, requested that this poem be read at her funeral. Here are two versions of it and there are also various musical versions of the poem available on youtube.

Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

  Poetry Foundation: Emily Brontë

   Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
    Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
    Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, narrated by various artists

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Featured image credit- Bronte Sisters statue, Haworth Parsonage, courtesy of TripAdvisor, https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g186409-d211789-i226980012-Bronte_Parsonage_Museum-Haworth_Keighley_West_Yorkshire_England.html#226980012
Body image credit- Disputed portrait made by Branwell Brontë about 1833; sources are in disagreement over whether this image is of Emily or Anne. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36926650

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