To a Wreath of Snow: Patti Smith Reads Emily Brontë
In praise of the “voiceless, soulless messenger” that comforts and sustains.
By Maria Popova
Everything we wish for, everything we plan for, is but a house of cards to be blown into oblivion by the slightest gust of chance. Somehow, we must live with this knowledge, stacking our days one over the other along the edge of life’s inherent uncertainty. In those moments when this elemental precariousness is exposed — by a global pandemic, by a personal loss, by a brush with some narrowly evaded inevitability — we seek grounds of stability in forces larger than us, none more assuring than the unassailable cycle of the season.
This is a lesson Emily Brontë (July 30, 1818–December 19, 1848) learned over and over again in her short life, wresting from her learning works of abiding beauty.
She was only nineteen when her beloved younger sister Anne fell gravely ill one icy December. Circling the event horizon of loss, Emily channeled her anticipatory grief and anxiety into a poem about the elemental consolation of the seasons, composed a decade before Wuthering Heights, yet already radiating the sweep of her genius.
In a December installment of her Substack, Patti Smith brings the poem to life with the lovely patina of her voice:
TO A WREATH OF SNOW
by Emily Brontë
O transient voyager of heaven!
O silent sign of winter skies!
What adverse wind thy sail has driven
To dungeons where a prisoner lies?
Methinks the hands that shut the sun
So sternly from this mourning brow
Might still their rebel task have done
And checked a thing so frail as thou.
They would have done it had they known
The talisman that dwelt in thee,
For all the suns that ever shone
Have never been so kind to me!
For many a week, and many a day
My heart was weighed with sinking gloom
When morning rose in mourning grey
And faintly lit my prison room.
But angel like, when I awoke,
Thy silvery form so soft and fair
Shining through darkness, sweetly spoke
Of cloudy skies and mountains bare;
The dearest to a mountaineer
Who, all life long has loved the snow
That crowned her native summits drear,
Better, than greenest plains below.
And voiceless, soulless messenger
Thy presence waked a thrilling tone
That comforts me while thou art here
And will sustain when thou art gone.
Complement with Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson and her animated reading of Rebecca Elson’s ode to dark matter, then revisit her reflections on the difference between writing poetry and songwriting.
Published December 25, 2022