Daily Archives: May 9, 2019

Flees so the phantom meadow

Lovers in a Wood, 1873, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Background Image: Lovers in a Wood, 1873, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Often this poem is attributed as the second stanza to “Distrustful of the Gentian“, however the source I am using breaks these two up into separate poems and so I too shall consider them as individuals.

The first image that comes to mind is of the night’s shadows racing out across the “meadow” after the sun has set while the “Bee” either chases breathlessly off after the sun which is setting behind the horizon or is “breathless” after its day’s labor in the “meadow”. In either case, the day is over and this is typically Emily’s allusion to life coming to an end.

The rhyme scheme is also unusual in that “Flees”, the first word of the poem, rhymes with “Bee”, the last word of the second line, as well as shares the sonic quality of the “f” in “Flees” with the “ph” of “phantom”, while “so” and “meadow” also rhyme. She also uses heavy “b” alliteration to complete these opening images with “Before”, “breathless”, and “Bee”, and the alliteration is carried over into the third line with “bubble”, and “brooks”. Yet the last word of the fourth line, “lie” stands out in contrast since it doesn’t match anything else in these first four lines; it sort of just “dies”, as if everything that was connected to nature and shares a dependence on the “meadow”, the “Bee”, the “brook” and the “desert” has been upset and broken.

Yet she employs a dash after “lie” to imply that there is something more to come. The “evening spires” might be in reference to the stars, or perhaps a church steeple still visible in the moonlight, but an older (and now obsolete usage since the middle 17th century) definition of “spire” refers to the act of breathing and air (OED, v2: 3a) and this word can be traced back to the Latin spīrāre which means ‘to breathe’. She may be connecting the stars or milky way, with the church steeple, and the last, “breathless” struggles of the “Bee” or of anyone who is dying. And just as the “Bee” sees its “meadow” plunge into evening darkness, so too do the eyes of the dying “burn” with the light of the world to come in “Heaven”.

Finally, and this is such a fun thing that Emily likes to do, is place the grave at the very bottom of a poem or stanza with “To a hand below”. Yet she’s never quite so literal, because the whole poem visualizes movement with “Flees”, “breathless”, “go”, and even “Hangs” that it’s possible she is describing the hand of God or of the angels reaching down to grasp the the spirit of the “dying” and lift them up to “Heaven”.