The Marginalian
The Marginalian

To a Wreath of Snow: Patti Smith Reads Emily Brontë

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.

Emily Brontë, age 15

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:

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




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