This essay was part of the 2016 Deal Me In Reading Challenge, where I read a short story, essay, or poem every single week. Each item on my reading list was assigned to a playing card, and every Friday I picked a card at random to choose my weekly read.
The Old Stoic
by Emily Brontë
Riches I hold in light esteem;
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn:
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.
I loved the rhythm and rhyme of this poem. It just flows so well. The first stanza is very apparent: Emily wants nothing to do with riches, love, nor fame. It seems to me she doesn’t care much for faith either, saying
“And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me”
The one thing desired is liberty–liberty from all that the human heart usually desires.
The following line is a bit chilling to me:
Yes, as my swift days near their goal
They are chilling because it is almost as though Emily can sense that her life will be cut very short (see her bio below). Or perhaps–although I’m not at all sure at what point in her life she wrote this–this poem is a reaction to the death of her two older sisters who died very young, and she believes the same will happen to her.
She is in a lot of pain, and she prays for
courage to endure
A courage to endure the loss of loved ones. Courage, of course, is not the absence of emotional distress, but the ability to face it and act, despite it. So maybe Emily does desire riches and fame and love, but wishes to move past those feelings; to let them flow through her as though untouched by them.
Emily Brontë is best known for writing Wuthering Heights, and was the younger sister to Charlotte Brontë. The Brontë family of 6 children suffered many deaths: their mother died of cancer, and then the two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, contracted disease and died a few years after having been sent to an abusive girl’s school. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell were then educated at home by their aunt and spent their leisure time writing fiction. Just a few months after Emily published Wuthering Heights, Branwell died (most likely of tuberculosis), immediately followed by Emily just 3 months later (definitely of tuberculosis), and then Anne just a few months after that (of influenza). Charlotte, the last remaining sibling, lived another 6 years, and ended up dying due to pregnancy complications.