Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Stoic Poem By Emily Bronte

Although the 19th century British writer Emily Bronte is best known, obviously, for having written Wuthering Heights, she also wrote poetry, as did her sisters Anne and Charlotte. Here is one of Emily Bronte's poems:

The Old Stoic

RICHES I hold in light esteem;
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn:

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, " Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty !"

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
'Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.


"To endure calmly" might be one brief, adequate way to summarize stoicism in general, although Stoic philosophy as elaborated upon by (first) the Greeks (Zeno) and then Romans such as Epictitus and Seneca, had a lot of parts to it. These fellows seemed to believe in a supreme being, but a rather indifferent one, and, like Buddhists, believed that such emotions as fear and dread were the result of false perception or false attachment. Nonetheless, Stoicism still seems to come down to the individual's having the ability to "gut it out," whereas I guess the Epicurean outlook was to fill the gut and otherwise enjoy life as you were gutting it out.

But what a wonderfully concise and musical way Bronte has of expressing a Stoic's outlook.

It's possible that following poem may reveal a hint of Stoicism. It concerns a heat stroke. I hadn't heard the term until after I had suffered what it describes.

Heat Stroke


One day in July,
Sierra Nevada
(sun unblocked, high, blazing)
--I was splitting and
stacking tamarack rounds
for somebody
in town. Heat
came up
through my body to my head.
I
went blind, was seventeen,
had learned by then to be
more embarrassed
than frightened
by affliction. I saw
just well enough
to stagger down to the general store,
stumbled
into an old man, who laughed. I found
a bench,
waited for
eyesight to clear.
Somebody got water. I went
back to the wood pile
eventually.
This has been
a pattern of sorts in my
life—
work hard until I go blind or fall over,
recover, go back to
work.
Tamarack sap smells sweet, and a person’s brain
can get too hot--
how odd.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, Hans Ostrom

Actually, "tamarack" is a misnomer. It's what most local people called the softwood conifer whose appropriate name is Lodgepole Pine. I think the real tamarack tree lives back East. Nonetheless, that was the local name, and that's what I thought I was splitting.

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