Heart not so heavy as mine

Late October, 1882, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Background Image: Late October, 1882, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hearing someone whistling as they pass under her window she is soothed by their joy and she hopes they will pass by again tomorrow night to once again lift her “heavy” heart. Of course the passerby would have no idea that their little happy ballad was bringing someone joy – such are the unintended consequences of our actions making others happy.

Emily does not explain why her “Heart” is “so heavy”, we only get the experience of her describing how the stranger has lightened her day. This is worth noting because she is not dwelling on herself or her problems, she is instead open to others and to the possibility that she will be made happy. Emily is not dwelling on sadness here, she wants joy and she finds it in even the smallest of moments that would otherwise pass by without anyone noticing, like the “minutes” on a clock. This theme of valuing even the smallest beauty is something she loves to explore, such as in “By Chivalries as tiny“.

The first stanza is quite beautiful because she does not describe two people, rather she describes two hearts. She does not refer to the whistler as a he or a she, but rather “itself”, as if the hart was like Gogol’s Nose walking about free of any constraints. By not grounding the poem in literal imagery but instead by implying that hearts and spirits are freely “Wending” their way about town, the image is dreamy and purely emotional. Even her use of the word “Wending” contributes to this dreaminess because instead of using the word ‘winding’, the sound of the word ‘when’ can be hear, rather than ‘whine’, and so there is a longing quality to her happiness that she gives this heart as it passes by her “window”.

The second stanza recreates the whistling she is able to catch in short bursts as it passes by and the stanza resolves itself with the softness of the word “anodyne” which juxtaposes to the earlier harshness of the word “snatch” and the staccato quality of “Ditty of the street”. The first two lines recreate who she feels – her heart is heavy and she is “irritated” – and so at first everything she hears irritates her “ear”, but by the end of the stanza she has been soothed and the gentleness of the word “anodyne” has the soothing sonic quality of the pleasant whistling she hears outside.

She connects this beautiful and joyful sound into the song of the “Bobolink” who, along with the passerby, is “Sauntering”. Yet the Bobolink’s song is quite hectic and she describes it as “bubbled”, as if it were a fast moving “brook” of sound travelling past her and so we have some competing images that at first don’t seem to fit together. First she connects the “anodyne so sweet” to that of the bubbling “Bobolink”. This image connects her troubled heart with the joyful sound of the whistler. Emily is still in a mad mood, but she is being cured as the poem goes on.

Yet she isn’t immediately cured of her heavy heart the moment she hears the whistling, rather the poem describes the process of her being cured and so joyful sounds are combined with the hectic yet joyful sound of the “Bobolink”. She next connects the song of the bird with that of a brook that “bubbled” as if her troubles (her “bleeding feet”) were being soothed and the pain carried away downstream. In each instance she uses a line break to connect these images as if she were taking a moment to listen to the whistler and allow the sound to slowly work on her. Thus the magic is working in the blank spaces of the poem where time passes. She enforces this image of time passing not only with the image of a “brook”, but the use of the word “minutes” which not only is a measurement of time, but also can just mean “something small” (OED). Thus her troubles are made less burdensome as she listens to the passerby pass by her window and the sound of the whistling enters her window then slowly fades away into the night.

Once again she uses the line break to convey the passage of time and by the last stanza the “Wending” “heart” has passed and she is left to “pray” that it will pass by again “Tomorrow”. Just as quickly as the sound entered her window it is gone again, and we are once again in her silent room hoping along with her that the traveler will return: which they do when we reread the poem.