Lesson #132: Mini-Lesson Monday (Part 2): A Look At The Imperative Tense Through Emily Bronte’s Description Of A November Day

One thing we might overlook when reading the first stanza of Emily Bronte’s poem, ‘Faith and Despondency,’ is how the poet used the imperative tense consistently.

When we are first taught the imperative tense, we are usually given examples that emphasise a command or order: ‘Stop that!’ or ‘Listen to her!’ or ‘Buy now!’ As if to emphasise this urgent, commanding tone of voice, these examples all use an exclamation mark (!) at the end.

Due to such examples, it is easy for us to look for a certain ‘loudness’ of tone or even an exclamation mark when we are analysing a sentence, hoping to identify an imperative tense.

However, Emily Bronte’s stanza here, quoted in the infographic above and in the last post, reveals a different aspect of imperatives. They can convey urgency, but also eagerness, anxiety, or even concern. Take the words of the poem’s narrator, spoken to a child: ‘Come close to me …’ and ‘Forsake thy books …’.

In other words, the imperative tense not only commands but can also encourage, request, and, at times, even implore another subject to act in a specific manner.

It is a tense that is frequently used in English poetry, for two main reasons.

🍁 1) The imperative tense establishes a direct mode of communication between the narrator and the reader.

🍁 2) It is one of the shortest tenses (e.g. the future tense, ‘Will you come close to me…’, is evidently longer than ‘Come close to me…’). Therefore, the simpler syllabic structure of imperatives is advantageous when writing poetry, a mode of expression where every syllable holds significance.

👉 Next time you sit down to compose something addressed to another person, reflect on how frequently and for what reasons you employ the imperative tense. Is it for the sake of directness or urgency, or do you run the risk of sounding excessively assertive and authoritarian by employing it?

The answer all depends on the choice of verb and the tone of your words. If you are concerned that you will sound too harsh (sometimes an issue for English language learners), try inserting ‘please’ or ‘kindly’ or even changing the tense to a conditional to ensure you are expressing yourself politely.

With a flexible tense like the imperative, you will be able to express a lot more than you may have initially thought!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)