Category Archives: Grimshaw, John Atkinson

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.

Nobody knows this little Rose

The Lady of Shalott, 1875, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Background Image: The Lady of Shalott, 1875, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Consider that instead of her writing about an actual “Rose” which she has plucked from the bush and now leaves an empty space which only the “bee will miss”, she is instead talking about the impossibility of art (a poem) to accurately depict its subject, which in this case is a “Rose”. All through the poem she talks about how the absence of this “Rose” affects the natural world, but never once does she describe the rose other than to use the adjective “little”. Obviously she knows we all know what a Rose looks like, but she only describes how the loss of a “Rose” creates a sadness in nature while it might bring happiness to the person it was plucked for.

Thus the paradox at the heart of this poem is that when the artist goes out into nature and sees a “Rose” and wants to share their vision with someone else – such as by writing a poem about that “Rose” – it is nevertheless impossible to accurately capture (“take it from the ways”) a true representation of that “Rose”. In nature the “Rose” serves to provide for the “Bee” and the “Butterfly” and is thus beautiful in its place in nature, yet when it is plucked “how easy / For such as thee to die” because it no longer can be supported without the natural world it once inhabited. The “Rose” / poem cannot truly exist independent of its natural setting and thus becomes a wilted corpse whom the “Bird will wonder” where it has gone and the “Breeze will sigh” as if they are both saddened that their friend, the “Rose” has died. The “Rose”, in “Hastening from far journey” cannot survive on its own and lies in repose, the way a flower might be pinned to a dead person’s “breast to lie” for all eternity.

Emily knows there is no way to adequately describe a “Rose” that can come anywhere close to doing it the justice a mere “Bee”, “Butterfly”, “Bird”, and “Breeze” can do and so she has written a poem not about a “Rose” but about the lack of a “Rose” in art. It’s a wonderfully complex and modern trick she’s playing with and my first thought when reading this poem was of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. I thought of that poem because when Lancelot finally sees this beautiful woman, she is already dead, she has left her tower (“from far journey” in Emily’s poem) and cannot survive out of context on her own. She is the very essence of beauty, but that beauty can’t exist independent, it requires that this ideal beauty remain in its tower where none can approach it but when it is plucked it immediately dies and all we can do, like Lancelot, is admire the corpse which, though still very beautiful, like a poem about a rose, we know it pales in comparison to the real thing.

And I think the clue Emiy gives us to this meaning is in her line “Only a breeze will sigh” because in order to hear the breeze, there must be something for the breeze to encounter to make any sound at all but if the “Rose” is absent, the breeze has nothing to encounter and thus cannot make any sound. Only in poetry can the absence of something create a sound and this is what Emily has done in writing about the lack of a “Rose”, but the “breeze” is this poem and it is sighing against the nothing that is there. In other words, the poem cannot do justice to the real thing and thus it is impossible to truly appreciate a “Rose” in art / poetry – you have to go out in nature with the “Bee” and the “Butterfly” and the “Bird” and the “Breeze” to truly appreciate beauty. One has to climb the tower and peer in through the window to see The Lady of Shalott in her natural habitat because she can’t survive anywhere else.

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”.