Through lane it lay – thro’ bramble

Dark Wood - from The Inferno, 1861, Gustave Doré
Background Image: Dark Wood – from The Inferno, 1861, Gustave Doré

Perhaps she is referring to Pilgrim’s Progress or to Dante’s journey with Virgil, either way she takes us on a journey by following a straight line from point A to point B through life’s trials and temptations. This is an usual poem in that it has a definite narrative as we are carried along as if she were Virgil and we her charge.

She begins the poem simply with a lane, perhaps alluding to the “straight path” “wandered off” from (1:3) which otherwise is reference to the proper way of living. Yet unlike Dante who is a sinner and no longer lives a virtuous life and thus requires guidance, Emily invents the character of Banditti which is the plural form of the Italian word for bandit. Thus perhaps she is making reference to not just one person, but many people who have “often passed us” along the “lonely road” the way bandits would rob people who were helpless and far from the authorities.

The second stanza ups the tension and gives us the sinister forces of the “curious” “wolf” and “Owl” while a serpent “glid stealthily along”. Interestingly, though the word “glid” was obsolete by Emily’s time – and though she is using it as a contraction for gliding – the 1647 entry in the OED for “glid” means “To look awry, squint” (OED). This slithering coupled with the hunting animals watching and the implied oblique gaze of the serpent is very unsettling and gives the impression of sin and death lurking and watching the way a bandit does for their opportunity to strike.

The third stanza segues into more abstract dangers as the “tempests” blow the “garments” of the travelers while lightning clashes above with her use of the beautifully descriptive “poinards gleamed”. In fact there are elements of synesthesia here in that we not only can see the lighting but we can hear it, too. In fact she is calling on most of the senses in this poem: sight, touch, hearing, and even taste with the”hungry Vulture”. Only smell is left out. And what I think she is getting at is that one must use all of their natural senses to be cautious and alert from every dangers around us less we fall prey to the “Banditti”.

The final stanza stands out from the previous three in that she has moved on from combining the senses into combining the human with the animal. Here the Banditti have become the Satyr, the half beast half man, creatures which it seems Emily is suggesting have been corrupted because rather than being wary of disaster they have fallen victim to it and are now possibly employed by the “serpent” and now act as the tempters to ensnare more travelers from the “road”. The beckoning “fingers” of the “Satyr” is a very ominous and threatening image, with even the implied rape of the victims since Satyrs were known for their erections, and their sexual appetites weren’t limited to humans either. And to complete the synthesis of man and beast and nature the “Valley” itself speaks “Come” as if the “crags” themselves are speaking out from the shadows cast by the “lightning’s poinards”.

The final three lines of the poem are interesting in that whom are the “These”, and “This” she is referring to? The “Satyrs” The pilgrims? It would be easy to say the travelers have successfully navigated the “wood” and can continue on unabated, but it’s possible the Satyrs are the “mates” not just as companions (“Banditti”) but in the sexual sense, too which might further imply sexual violence. The word “road” might also be a clue in that if she is using it not as a noun but figuratively (as in “going down the wrong road” in which the road is the path of ruin) then it’s possible our travelers were captured and killed. Thus these “Children” might be the new bastard race of corrupted “Banditti” and their “fluttering” is not meant to be beautiful, but rather as in no longer having any direction – the “road” has been removed and they are now like the “Valley” which speaks temptation.