Lesson #224: Reflecting on Emily Bronte’s Poem ‘Plead for Me’ (including new vocabulary list)

If you have been reading these Lesson posts for some time, you may remember how much I like Emily Bronte’s poetry. She was a poet I discovered only in the last few years, and I wonder how I could have been reading literature for so long and yet not have read her poetry before!

I think this is in partly because she wrote the famous novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), which has eclipsed (surpassed, become more famous or greater than) her poetry in the public eye. And yet, in my personal opinion, her poetry contains some of her best writing! 🖋️

I would not like you to miss reading her poems for so long, as I did! So here is a specimen (example) for us to read together, with a vocabulary list, a paraphrased version of it, and some explanations provided for you below.

This is ‘Plead for Me’, a poem about an artist’s relationship with the art that inspires her in the first place and which she wishes to recreate in her own way. It is one of my favourite poems (in my top three, at least!) by Emily Bronte, and what a pleasure it is to share it here.

📜 ‘PLEAD FOR ME’ by EMILY BRONTE

O thy bright eyes must answer now,

When Reason, with a scornful brow,

Is mocking at my overthrow;

O thy sweet tongue must plead for me

And tell why I have chosen thee!

Stern Reason is to judgment come

Arrayed in all her forms of gloom:

Wilt thou my advocate be dumb?

No, radiant angel, speak and say

Why I did cast the world away;

Why I have persevered to shun

The common paths that others run;

And on a strange road journeyed on

Heedless alike of Wealth and Power—

Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower.

These once indeed seemed Beings divine,

And they perchance heard vows of mine

And saw my offerings on their shrine—

But, careless gifts are seldom prized,

And mine were worthily despised;

So with a ready heart I swore

To seek their altar-stone no more,

And gave my spirit to adore

Thee, ever present, phantom thing—

My slave, my comrade, and my King!

A slave because I rule thee still;

Incline thee to my changeful will

And make thy influence good or ill—

A comrade, for by day and night

Thou art my intimate delight—

My Darling Pain that wounds and sears

And wrings a blessing out from tears

By deadening me to real cares;

And yet, a king—though prudence well

Have taught thy subject to rebel.

And am I wrong to worship where

Faith cannot doubt nor Hope despair,

Since my own soul can grant my prayer?

Speak, God of Visions, plead for me

And tell why I have chosen thee!

📝 A VOCABULARY LIST

Note: Some of the words that Emily Bronte used here are ‘archaic’, that is, they are older words that are not really used nowadays although most English speakers still understand them. Put differently, they are passive words, not active words, in the English language – and as such, are still worth understanding.

thy: (archaic) your/yours

scornful: expressing deep dislike or disrespect for something or someone

brow: the forehead

mocking: making fun of

overthrow: remove from a position of power; defeat

plead: beg [someone] for something; justify someone’s cause for them; advocate

thee: (archaic) you

stern: serious and with a look of anger

arrayed < to array: show, display, or arrange something (often clothes) in a particular order

gloom: partial or total darkness; a state of depression

thou: (archaic) you

advocate: (noun) a person who publicly supports someone strongly, often when they are in a vulnerable position; (verb) to support someone in this way

dumb: silent, unable to speak

radiant: glowing bright

cast: throw away, reject wholeheartedly

persevered < to persevere: to be determined (on a course of action), to continue even when faced with difficulties or lack of support

shun: to reject, to turn away from something

heedless: not paying attention to (dangers or risk) – ‘heed’ is another word for ‘carefulness’

alike: similarly, both

wreath: a garland; a hoop or ring made of leaves, symbolising power or victory (is also used as a Christmas decoration)

divine: God-like

perchance: by chance, perhaps

vows: promises

offerings: sacrifices

shrine: an alter or high-place that is considered holy and dedicated to a god or saint

seldom: hardly ever; rarely

prized < to prize: to value highly; to consider worthy

worthily: truly

despised < to despise: to hate and see as worth little or nothing

a ready heart: an eager heart, ready to act

swore < to swear: to promise strongly; to make an oath

altar-stone: the stone on which something is sacrificed to a god/God

adore: love and respect deeply (especially a god/God)

thee (archaic): you

phantom: a ghost

slave: someone who is captured and serves another person without pay and usually against their own will

comrade: a colleague, especially a companion in a military scenario (e.g. a fellow soldier)

incline: lean towards; bend; submit [someone] to [something]

changeful: likely to change a lot; full of change

ill: [in this context] wrong or evil; [in other contexts] sick, very unwell

intimate: very close in a deep way

wounds < to wound: to hurt, to cause a cut, to injure as to cause a cut

sears < to sear: to burn the surface of something with a sudden, intense heat

wrings < to wring: to squeeze and twist as to hurt or squeeze liquid out

prudence: wise and sensitive caution; controlled carefulness in situations

rebel: to refuse to obey and to rise against something/someone’s authority

worship: to adore and acknowledge the worth of someone, especially a god/God

doubt: the fact (or state) of not being sure about something; lack of certain knowledge about something

despair: an agonising, terrible lack of hope

grant: give permission or give some special favour [to someone]

📝 A PARAPHRASED VERSION (by J.E. Gibbons, for comprehension purposes only!)

O your bright eyes must answer me now,

When Reason, with an angry, sneering face,

Is mocking me in my failure;

O your sweet tongue must plead (beg) my cause for me

And tell them why I have chosen you!

..

Angry, serious Reason has come to judgment

Dressed in all her gloomy forms:

Will you my advocate (defender) be silent?

No, radiant beaming angel, speak and say

Why I rejected the world;

..

Why I have been determined to reject

The common paths that others run;

And on a strange, unusual, lonely road I have journeyed on

Not minding either Wealth or Power –

Nor Glory’s wreath (garland) nor Pleasure’s flower.

..

These once indeed seemed to be divine Beings,

And perhaps they heard my vows (promises)

And saw my offerings (sacrifices) on their altars –

But, careless gifts are seldom valued,

And mine were readily despised (rejected, scroned, looked down up, not valued);

..

So with an eager heart I swore (promised)

Never to seek (search for) their altars

And I made my spirit to adore

You, always present, dream-like thing –

Who are my slave, my comrade (colleague), and my King!

..

[You are] a slave because I rule you still;

I incline (bend) you to my changeful willpower

And I can transform your influence to be either for good or for ill (wrong, evil) –

[You are] a comrade, because by day and night

You are my intimate (very deep) delight –

..

[You are] my Darling Pain that wounds me and burn me

And draws out a blessing for me from tears

By deadening me to real cares;

And yet, [you are a king] – although prudence (carefulness) has

Taught your subject [myself, as your subject] to rebel (not be obedient to authority).

..

And am I wrong to be devoted and in awe where

Faith cannot doubt nor Hope despair,

Since my own soul can answer my prayer? [by its inward resources]

Speak, God of Visions, plead [my cause] for me

And tell why I have chosen (here, dedicated myself to) you!

(This has been paraphrased by Joyce E. Gibbons, for English comprehension purposes only).

📝 SOME THOUGHTS

✍️ As we have mentioned at the start of this Lesson, this is a poem about the artist and her art. Its lines always impress me in several ways:

  • Firstly, because the poet sees the process of making art (such as writing a poem, or painting a picture) as a struggle that can result in failure if she is not careful (she writes about ‘my overthrow’, meaning her failure to create a good poem, picture, or any kind of art). Reason, judgment, criticism – all these can stiffle (smother, stop the life-breath of something) true art from being able to develop naturally.
  • The poet realises that she needs to come into closer communion with what inspires her art in the first place. By the end of the poem, we have an idea that she calls this source of inspiration her ‘God of Visions’. It seems likely that she sees all her inspiration coming from a spiritual source – her God (based on our knowledge of Emily Bronte’s life, herself a daughter of an Anglican priest). This seems to be confirmed by her use of words such as ‘worship’, ‘adore’, ‘prayer’, ‘plead’, ‘angel’, and even the archaic words ‘thy’, ‘thee’, ‘thou’, all of which are commonly found in Christian hymns and Biblical writings.
  • The poet is also aware that the artist’s journey is lonely at times. To become a good artist, you need to be prepared to reject what is popular – here described as ‘the common paths that others run’. You have to be so convinced about the value of what you are creating that you do it for its own sake, regardless of whether it will make you wealthy, powerful, or glorious.
  • The poet started making art while hoping to be liked and appreciated by others, especially by those who seen to be near the ‘altar’ of ‘Wealth and Power / Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower’. But as time passes, and the poet keeps improving her art, she realises that she needs to abandon (leave, reject) trying to please the wrong people. What has been precious and special for her is not always valued by these kinds of people: ‘But, careless gifts are seldom prized, / And mine were worthily despised’.
  • The poet sees art and inspiration as 3 things: firstly as something that she can form, shape, and create according to her own vision (‘a slave’); secondly as a ‘comrade’ or companion who is her friend through all the hurts, rejections, and pains of making art (‘My Darling Pain that wounds and sears / And wrings a blessing out from tears’). Lastly, she sees art and inspiration coming from a King, a divine King (notice the capital ‘K’ – capitalised words in English usually refer to God). Yet she acknowledges that this relationship with her King is not a smooth one: she writes of being taught to ‘rebel’ or to struggle with what her King seems to lead her to do. It appears this relationship with her ‘King’ is full of energy and ambition to do well.
  • Even though the poet is so energetic and dynamic, she has her doubts. ‘And am I wrong to worship where …’ describes the tension (stress) between being able to create art in a self-sufficient way (‘my own soul can grant my prayer’) and her need to worship the unchangeable Source that made both her and the art that she makes (‘where Faith cannot doubt nor Hope despair’). She ends with a passionate prayer to her ‘God of Visions’ – from which the poem takes its title – ‘plead for me / And tell [proclaim, tell everywhere, justify me] why I have chosen thee!’

I think that this is the kind of poem that nearly everyone can relate to, whether or not they see themselves as an artist of some kind.

We are all unique individuals with a special purpose in life, and in our journey towards discovering that purpose, we may face tensions, doubts, criticisms, and even the loneliness of having to ‘travel’ alone sometimes. This poem describes the creative life as a solitary journey, yet it acknowledges someone – a divine source – who can ‘plead for me’, justify us and guide us onward to our purpose. Its last note seems to say that, in spite of how difficult the journey can be, we are never completely alone on that journey – there is a ‘God of Visions’ for every person, someone we can call out to and who will ‘answer now’. ✨