The Liberty System: Emily, the Diver

As I said in the last post about Anne, the Gardener, don’t read if you don’t like your songs thoroughly explained…

I bloody love Emily Brontë. When I was 20, a friend lent me his copy of Wuthering Heights. I turned my nose up at first, but he assured me I’d enjoy it and placed it in my hands (thanks, Neil B). I’ve now read that book more times than any other (except perhaps for Fantastic Mr Fox but I was somewhat smaller then.)

And the more I know about Emily, the more I love her. I had never read her poetry before this project, which is mainly what inspired the song – after all, I didn’t want to have to follow Kate Bush; I had to come at Emily from an angle other than Wuthering Heights. I loved finding out more things about her; she was nicknamed ‘The Major’, she could really whistle and she had a huge dog called Keeper. Her father let her shoot a gun out of the window every morning. She didn’t have much time for strangers. She refused to see a doctor when it was suspected she was dying, choosing to carry on with her usual duties up to her final day.

So back to the Liberty System…Anne’s garden is growing as she writes – though her plants are thirsty – and now her sister Emily is returning home to the Parsonage too.

Emily, the Diver (element = water / liberty = soul)

“…While gazing on the stars that glow
Above me in that stormless sea,
I long to hope that all the woe
Creation knows, is held in thee!

“And this shall be my dream to-night –
I’ll think the heaven of glorious spheres
Is rolling on its course of light
In endless bliss through endless years…” – Emily Brontë, ‘How Clear She Shines!’
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With all of the Brontë sisters comes this myth, a myth that seems to say ‘here were three weird, isolated Northern women who just happened to write some books somehow’. And in Emily’s case, she herself has been transformed into a Cathy-like ghost who must have wandered wild on the moors, and written in a trance*. I wanted to separate Emily from her myth and see her as a sophisticated, intelligent writer and someone with fantastic perspective and insight.

To begin, we see Emily in her mysterious, mythic form, and it’s a watery one for the purposes of these songs. In the poem ‘How Clear She Shines!‘ (excerpt above), Emily is lying on her back, looking up at the stars, and it feels like she is willing herself to have some kind of out of body experience. I picture her there, floating between the mirrored vastness of moor and sky, in that ‘stormless sea’, but now she is returning home. You cannot quite picture her though, for we don’t know enough about her; she is like a cloud of watery stars.

From depths returned, floated back to land
Face of fog and body of clay**
Diamond dust, evaporee

She crosses the moor towards home – the ‘tragedy’ of her certain death before her – angry and strong. Where Anne’s song is trellis-shaped, Emily’s at this point appears to be a straight line:

A river cut deep, a path drawn straight
Seen from above the line of fate
Face of fog and body of clay
The earth moves out of your way

Powerful and terrible as Heathcliff, lonely and cold as Cathy’s ghost, Emily appears as a black wave rolling towards the house, ready to smash through the windows and flood Anne’s garden. She is dragging that immense feeling of forever – the sky, the sea, the moor, infinity – along with her; all of history, all who came before her:

Myth sees you ride a dark wave neath the moon
Dredging all worlds from the ancient salty blue
A brideless train of eternity
Dragged in your wake across the cold country

An aside at this point…still avoiding Kate Bush, I instead channeled my no.1 hero Joanna Newsom for this song. I see similarities between Emily and Joanna – they both write about the big picture of existence and communicate it with painful beauty – so I wanted to bring this connection in. Attempting to use Joanna Newsom as an influence is a daunting thought in itself – I mostly wanted to channel her in order to create those looping long phrases in the chorus that go from major to minor to help make the point. This song did go through a few different incarnations, with more wandering sections and extra lyrics, before I cut it down by about a minute and a half!

Back to the lyrics, and at this point, just as Emily in her dark form roars towards the Parsonage, she shakes off this myth version of herself. When shadows are cast through a fog, the result is crepuscular rays (see top right in Oliver’s artwork, beneath the diving birds):

But on a damp and still morning – ah!
Your shadow there cast crepuscular

Now that the ‘real’ Emily is illuminated, we look to her talents. First, her ability to give just the right amount of watery inspiration to her sister Anne, as we briefly slip back into Anne’s melody. Then to Emily’s own writing powers; her superb ability to balance light and dark, to create great structure and drama:

And in the garden your rain falls far from the plain
Each mark met with arrow’s aim
Your current strong, your clouds right wrung
A bay where floats your galleon

Quencher, oh drencher, life-giver, life-taker
Feed these roots, fill these boots, blot and cross the wallpaper***
With port-wrenching power and starboard compassion
Love finds a lover, but a storm soon comes thrashing

Enter Charlotte. The story goes that Charlotte discovered some of Emily’s secret poetry, and it was this that gave Charlotte the idea that they should attempt to become published writers. Emily was furious with her sister, but Charlotte’s gentle campaign eventually won her around to the idea (with meek little Anne adding that she’d quite like to join in too). Charlotte, whose windy song I’ll be explaining later in the week, arrives as a steam-devil; a type of small hurricane that has the power to pick up and transport water (or make it invisible…), which she duly does, driving Emily to ‘advection’ – advection fog is caused when warm air (Charlotte) blows across a cold surface, such as water (Emily). This kind of fog can cause hazardous conditions. And so it is that Emily’s ‘coarse’ book is transported to the cities by Charlotte:

Then with mingled affection your steam-devil of a sister
Drives you to advection, that oft-brewing half-twister
And comes a creeping fog from her petting conquistar
Downward and townward to menace the vista

Emily’s work shocked the public. Her perspective is unwelcome.

A low-lying, eye-widening solitary cloud
A galaxy unfocused unsettles the crowd

But Emily is not concerned about the public and their day-to-day nonsense and what they might think of her – she knows how quickly time passes, how opinions change; see the generations skip by in Wuthering Heights. Anyway, she didn’t write it for them, she was not a fame-seeker like Charlotte, she was creating art for its own sake, whilst trying to help her family’s income. She didn’t announce herself in London when Charlotte and Anne went to reveal who the Bells really were. She was happiest at home, where she could focus on the thoughts that mattered to her.

But you’re far from there – you are diving again
For no soul can be loosed in this world of men
Closer to home is closer to you…

And so Emily, aged 30, dies. She returns to the watery ‘infinity’ of her poems, submerged in that long hand-to-hand chain of writers and artists; all those that came before her (like Byron, one of her influences) and after her (like Sylvia Plath, who she influenced):

…Closer still is the infinitely starry, salty blue
Diving and grasping for hands outstretched
Take your place in the chain reaching down to the depths

A consumptive Emily, refusing to see the doctor until her very last day, only adds to this idea I have of her; that she was so aware of her mortality, of her tiny window of existence, that she wasn’t about to lay down and waste the last few months she had because a doctor told her to. She was so fiercely alive, and tried to take in as much as she could while she was here. She was fascinated and frustrated by the infinity she knew she was a part of, but that she would not be able to consciously enjoy when her illness took her.

Al Reffell made a beautiful animated film to go with Emily, the Diver, which was projected onto the outside of the Upper Chapel (see pics here). I’ll be able to share a video from the night soon. in the meantime you can see it projected this Saturday 29 October onto the CAST building in Doncaster – more info.

Listen to Emily, the Diver

Get The Liberty System

Next time: Charlotte, the Levitator

*Lucasta Miller talks about this more eloquently in her book ‘The Brontë Myth’

**”I’m happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from its home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And the eye can wander through worlds of light – 

When I am not and none beside – 
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky – 
But only spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity.
– Emily Jane Brontë

***At the Brontë Parsonage you can see some pages of Emily’s notebook, where she has crossed out huge sections and blotted over others. It was an enduring image in my mind, not as neat and tidy as her sisters, but determined and alive.

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