Emily Brontë’s Poem, ‘Spellbound’

Emily Brontë.

Tonight, given that we’re on the eve of All Hallows’ Eve, I sought out some spooky, dark-themed poetry, and not only found one, but one that resonated with me beyond a fun exercise. Emily Brontë really is quite something else as a poet, ain’t she? She has a way of truly making me stop in my mental tracks like few other poets can. To think, someone writing something like this poem at the age of 19 (19!) back in the early 1800s, and resonating with me today in the 21st century. What a remarkable achievement. To already have that command of both language and an insight into the darkness around her, that’s quite extraordinary.

Without further preamble, the poem is, “Spellbound,” and since it’s short, I will duplicate it here:

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.
And 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.

First off, before I even do my usual digging into the meaning of the poem, can we just appreciate how beautiful this poem is on a language level? In the first stanza’s last line, “And I cannot, cannot go,” the middle stanza’s last line, “And yet I cannot go,” and the last stanza’s last line, “I will not, cannot go.” There’s something so simple about how those lines are phrased (particularly with the comma added in) that is so lovely, heartbreaking, and poignant to me. It’s one of those poems I keep reading again and again my head because I like the way it sounds in there. “I will not, cannot go,” echoes a determination that almost feels like a nice life mantra when you’re facing dark times, whatever those dark times may be.

The image of being stuck in place, and not simply by a “tyrant’s spell,” since she says, “I will not,” which implies some level of autonomy even beyond that tyrant’s spell, resonates with me. How often have you felt stuck? In a relationship? A job? A situation? A lifestyle? Whatever the case, a lot of us can relate to the idea of being stuck as “the night is darkening round me.”

I can relate to that feeling of being stuck in a variety of ways, and it is that sense of a darkening night because when I’m stuck, I have a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It feels like whatever I’m stuck in in that moment, it’s always going to be like that. That’s a frightening feeling, and it’s the catalyst for many a spiraling moments of negative thoughts and sadness.

So, naturally, I read the poem the way my eyes see it, and the way my eyes see it is through the lens of depression. The idea of depression being all consuming, like a darkening night, with the forces of nature, like giant trees and a storm descending, compressing upon you, and depression itself the tyrant binding you to that spot. But also, again, there’s still some level of autonomy there, and yet, you still cannot go.

What is it about this spell that so binds Emily Brontë, though? That compels her and coerces her in equal measure, it seems, to bear witness? And to what? Maybe that’s the insight in and of itself: Sometimes we have to bear witness to the darkness around us instead of trying to turn away, to run, to seek that cliche light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe.

What do you make of this poem?

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