By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Hope’ is a short poem by Emily Brontë (1818-48); a poem we thought worth sharing at this time. In this poem, the author of Wuthering Heights personifies Hope, but here she is a false friend, who only seems to be interested in being with the poet if her ‘fate’ is a good one. Unlike Keats’s poem about hope, then, Emily Brontë reflects the idea that hope is so hard to find when we are at our lowest ebb, and this is precisely when we most need it.
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!
Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping;
If I listened, she would cease.
False she was, and unrelenting;
When my last joys strewed the ground,
Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
Those sad relics scattered round;
Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!
For Emily Dickinson, ‘hope is the thing with feathers’; for her namesake Emily Brontë, hope is a ‘timid friend’ but also has ‘wings’, like Dickinson’s bird-metaphor. To paraphrase the meaning of the poem: ‘Hope was only a shy friend who sat outside the den (with bars on the door and windows, like a prison), watching me, the prisoner, from outside. In this, she resembled the most selfish of men.
‘Her fear of coming too close to me made her behave cruelly. She didn’t want to know me, so that one miserable and overcast day when I looked out of my den at her, she turned her face away from me!
‘She was like a guard who isn’t really interested in keeping me safe, and only pretends to be looking out for my safety. She whispered peaceful words to try to soothe me during troubled times, and would sing to me when I was crying, but as soon as I stopped to listen, she stopped.
‘In short, she was a false friend, and didn’t stop pretending to help me while in actual fact doing very little to help. When all happiness had gone from my life, even Sorrow saw what she had done and repented to see all my woes about me.
‘In this, Sorrow showed more sympathy to me than Hope, who could have soothed or even cured me of my pain and worry by uttering the merest whisper of encouragement and hope, but chose not to. Instead, Hope spread her wings like a mighty bird and soared off to Heaven, and never returned!’
Emily Brontë personifies hope in this poem, suggesting that even the merest glimmer of light at the end of a dark tunnel can be enough: all we need to grab hold of to see us to shore during the turbulent times of anguish and despair. The image of the ‘den’ – not quite a prison, although with its bars or grates it’s certainly meant to resemble one – suggests mental confinement (or even someone who has chosen to lock themselves away) as much as physical imprisonment for some crime or transgression.
Shut away from the world, perhaps because unable to face the world without hope, Emily Brontë’s speaker is at her lowest ebb, and Hope – a poor friend – fails to provide her with the comfort or solace she needs.
‘Hope’ has a simple rhyme scheme, like many of Emily Brontë’s poems: it comprises rhyming quatrains of alternate rhymes, abab. Observe, though, how the first and third stanzas use a similar vowel sound for both the a and b rhymes: friend, den, tend, men, and then keeping, peace, weeping, cease.
The rhymes are kept close, almost constricted, to mirror the confinement of the poem’s speaker, before they broaden out in the later stanzas of the poem. Compare these earlier stanzas with the expansiveness and sheer roundness of ‘ground’ and ‘round’.