At Castle Wood by Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë, poet of At Castle Wood, has been a widely renowned poet almost since she began writing poetry; her contributions to English literature are famous. She also famously led a very difficult life, one that was rife with misfortunes and tragedies that would undoubtedly have been very difficult for the young woman to deal with. In many ways, her writing style reflects many of the difficulties she endured in her life, and gives her present-day readers insight into the ways her hardships affected her personally. At Castle Wood is one such poem, a moving piece that invokes depression in a way that sets Brontë apart from so many other artists of her field.

The precise meaning of the title, “At Castle Wood,” is difficult to determine — the phrase doesn’t appear within the text of the poem itself, and appears to not have been a historic location of relevance to the Brontē family. It seems likely, then, that “Castle Wood” is meant to be a metaphoric image for the poem, invoking an aged fortress, strong, foreboding perhaps, and isolated — when the Brontë siblings lived, there were almost certainly no wooden castles in use anywhere in England (or castles of any sort, for that matter, making the wooden ones of particular rarity). Judging from the content of the poem, an isolated and foreboding fortress may be a fair interpretation of the titular image.


At Castle Wood Analysis

The day is done, the winter sun

Is setting in its sullen sky;

And drear the course that has been run,

And dim the hearts that slowly die.

Brontë begins her work by creating a powerful setting to establish her story as a primarily atmospheric piece. Her word choice here — the alliteration on “sullen sky,” for instance, or with words such as “drear” and “dim” — creates a very gloomy scene without creating much of a plot for the reader. The verse describes a period of dusk in wintertime, and uses that imagery as a parallel to the end of life, or possibly loss of hope, depending on whether the slowly dying heart is meant as a literal or figurative event.

No star will light my coming night;

No morn of hope for me will shine;

I mourn not heaven would blast my sight,

And I ne’er longed for joys divine.

The second verse introduces a character as the narrator of the piece, who continues to use the winter night metaphor as a means of describing her emotional and spiritual state. The first two lines of this verse establish a parallel between light and hope, where an absence of stars and of sunlight describe the despair of the speaker — a “morn” of hope implies that daytime is the metaphor that would be used were the speaker a hopeful or happy person. The closing lines of the verse are more straightforward in meaning, as the speaker declares that they have no desire for divine favour, which suggests that they both believe in a deity and afterlife, and do not care much for whether or not they are favoured by the divine.

Through life’s hard task I did not ask

Celestial aid, celestial cheer;

I saw my fate without its mask,

And met it too without a tear.

The third verse continues to describe the narrator’s relationship with spirituality, as well as sheds some insight onto their life. The description of life as being a hard task suggests that this character is largely consumed  by a job of some sort, and that they have difficulty in finding meaning in a life they consider to simply be laborious. Despite this, they have never complained, despaired, or wished for different, and never so much as prayed for meaning or aid — they seem to believe that hardships simply must be met, and that there is nothing else that can be done. The repetition of the word “celestial” in the second verse is a simple way of emphasizing its meaning, an interesting juxtaposition with the meaning of the verse, which seems to be that there is no aid to be found in the divine.

The grief that pressed my aching breast

Was heavier far than earth can be;

And who would dread eternal rest

When labour’s hour was agony?

The first line in the fourth verse suggests that the bleak atmosphere presented in At Castle Wood is not the natural disposition of the speaker, but rather the product of a devastating personal loss. This kind of backstory is important, even in poems that focus primarily on atmospheric elements, because it helps to make those feelings seem more real to the listener. The rest of the verse is presented in far more blunt fashion than the ones preceding it — the speaker wonders why anyone should dread death when death simply means being able to rest forever. This is juxtaposed with the idea of hating laborious work in life; the two are presented as opposites, with the idea of labour being the hated one, which explains why the speaker neither fears death, nor the idea that they might not be brought into Heaven after they die — because eternal rest would be just as good a thing in their mind.

Dark falls the fear of this despair

On spirits born of happiness;

But I was bred the mate of care,

The foster-child of sore distress.

As Brontë prepares to conclude At Castle Wood, the subject matter of her verses once again drifts towards a more atmosphere-based, thematic kind of storytelling. Lines like “Dark falls the fear of this despair” are especially grim, where in that particular case, over half of the line is made with words that have distinctly negative connotations to them. The speaker describes themselves as having been adopted by misery after being born into happiness, which supports the idea of a personal loss devastating them into their current mindset. Once again, the choice of words to convey depression is what carries the meaning of the verse through its own abstraction.

No sighs for me, no sympathy,

No wish to keep my soul below;

The heart is dead in infancy,

Unwept-for let the body go.

The final verse concludes At Castle Wood with a simple wish that the speaker could depart the world, unwept for and without commotion, to “let the body go” and be free as a manifestation of their own soul. To be tied down to a body that can feel the way At Castle Wood has described is something the narrator of the poem has no desire to continue doing. They have lost contact with their faith, with other people, and with the world around them to such an extent that death has become synonymous with freedom.

Emily Brontë is almost certainly trying to say something about depression in the text of At Castle Wood, which certainly suggests that a person can be born into happiness and become depressed as their live moves on. In this case, she suggests a personal tragedy as the cause, but the true focus of the poem is on the feeling itself, and the different way of seeing the world that is so difficult to understand by those who do not feel that despair themselves. Brontë’s statements here are designed to be general enough to speak to a wide audience while being simultaneously specific enough to stay with their readers for a long while after reading; she wanted the idea of depression to

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