Emily Brontë’s Faith Poem: “No Coward Soul is Mine”


I’ve always admired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a supreme literary achievement. In teaching it over the years, its structural complexity, thematic depth, and passionate intensity never failed to astound me. Putting it another way, Wuthering Heights has haunted me, much like Catherine’s ghost at Heathcliff’s window.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the parsonage where she lived out her brief life in Hayworth, Yorkshire. (Her father was a clergyman with Methodist leanings.) A cramped, but lovingly preserved house, eerily next door to the church cemetery, you could easily surmise the Brontë children were temporarily out and be back shortly and we could settle down to robust conversation over a pot of tea.

While we remember Brontë for her novel, she also wrote poetry, 200 poems in fact. Sadly, her sister Charlotte, renowned for Jane Eyre, subsequently revised many of them, adding whole lines, rewording others, attempting to widen their public appeal. Scholars, trying to recover Emily’s probable texts, have found her cramped script difficult to decipher.

Of her poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” is well-known and my favorite. Brontë wrote it in the context of her fateful illness from tuberculosis. I’m so fond of this poem that I’ve been tempted to memorize it. I could almost think I was reading Emily Dickinson with its dismissal of religious orthodoxy and affinity for nature. That same fierce voice element of Wuthering Heights, perhaps a Wesleyan revivalism influence, you’ll find here, carried out by its heavy trochees as in the poem’s initial two lines or lines one and three of stanza five with their opening trochee feet.

You can be a non-believer and still appreciate the poem, for good poetry offers reading variance, or to borrow from medicine, “referral” nuance through well-crafted interweave of image, structure and diction. Our mortality spells change, not ending; a return to Nature’s genesis, or to what was, and is, and will always be.

No Coward Soul of Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

The poem’s imagery, drawn from nature, supports the poem’s theme of Deity’s abiding presence. Composed of seven quatrains, reminiscent of Methodist hymnody, in alternating tetrameter/pentameter meter, rime occurs consistently throughout, lines one with three, and two with four, including the fourth stanza with its near rime, suggesting a purposive, or teleological, cosmos.

Brontë effectively softens “the world’s wind-troubled sphere” in line two of the initial stanza with alliteration, suggesting tranquility in context of storm.

Each sentence is declarative, resonating conviction. Unlike Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” there is absence of tension, no struggle with doubt in the persona’s resolute faith, “So surely anchored on/The steadfast rock of immortality” ( Stz. 4).

Emily’s God isn’t Dickinson’s transcendent, mysterious, removed deity or Blake’s “No bods’ daddy.” Refulgent in his creation, He lives in our hearts, canceling any fear we might otherwise have, given the “world’s storm-troubled sphere” (Stz. 2). A poem of faith, it finds its affirmation not through anthropomorphic rendering, but in a pantheistic vision of Deity’s universal immanence.

Stanzas 3 and 4 logically follow in their rejection of creedal orthodoxies that are but worthless speculations, promoting anxiety, not peace. The repeated use of “vain” proves double entendre, human speculations fruitless and conceited, or of no more significance than the “idlest foam” of an infinite ocean:

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

The stanzas that conclude the poem reiterate the persona’s vibrant faith in a deity who transcends the temporal, “Thy spirit animates eternal years,” and for all the volatile elements of impermanence, remains its arbiter, Who maternally “sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.”

Were the very cosmos to disappear, He would remain, for He is creation’s essence. The plural “universes” of the penultimate stanza intrigues. Did Emily believe in the modern concept of multiple universes? Whatever, God is infinite, boundless, present always:

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee.

How then can there be any cowering at death’s door? A deity synonymous with Nature, He is what has been, is now, and will be, the effulgence of it all:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Brontë dated her poems and wrote “No Coward Soul of Mine” on January 2, 1846. It would be her last poem (she passed two years later at age 30). At the time of the poem’s composition, she’d been completing Wuthering Heights. Emily Dickinson came upon this poem and loved it. She asked it be read at her funeral, her wish fulfilled by her friend and later editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at the funeral’s conclusion.

As for Brontë, following several labored days, she slipped into eternity on December 19, 1848, unafraid, and deeply mourned by her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, and canine friend, Keeper. As with Keats, a young talent struck down early by the same illness, her posthumous fame has restored her to us, though not without conjecture of future talent lost.

As I said at the outset, the poem endures as a favorite of mine, one I’d take gladly to a desert isle, or read repeatedly when my last day summons. It accompanies me, too, when I engage Nature in the present, the sense of a hovering spirituality, that everything is linked, and means, and infinitely bigger and grander than ourselves.

–rj

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