‘Self-Interrogation’ by Emily Brontë is a thought-provoking poem about life. The speaker in the poem is the poet’s inner self. It constantly poses several questions to the poet. At some point, she concludes, there is nothing left to do instead of passive suffering. Then comes the Victorian spirit, proclaiming its existence at her heart. She resists the temptation of being swayed by her temporary musings. In this “long war” of life, she may lose her ground but the Christian spirit will rise again. The future awaits with the gift of “glorious morn” to welcome the brave hearts who have denied to yield.
Summary of Self-Interrogation
In ‘Self-Interrogation’, the poet Emily Brontë appears to be sad while musing over her death. She can see herself standing in the evening of his life. The metaphorical night is approaching to take her away. At this critical juncture, she asks herself what he has done in her past. Is it worthwhile? The poet cannot decide either.
Whenever the thought of death comes to her mind, she finds herself entangled in the “countless links”. It makes her feel that she has still a long way to go before closing her eyes. She cannot leave this battle in the middle. The poetic voice firmly declares, “But, a brave heart, with a tarnished name,/ would rather fight than rest.” It is better to be defeated by death rather than admitting submission. Challenges may come to stop her spirit, but her Christian soul knows, the “glorious morn” is waiting to welcome her in heaven. You can read the full poem here.
The significance of the word choice and the sustained spirit in each line of the poem will be more meaningful after listening to the poem more than once.
Structure and Form
‘Self-Interrogation’ by Emily Brontë consists of short four-line stanzas. There are a total of 12 stanzas in the poem. In the poem, each stanza follows a definite rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is ABAB. As an example, in the first stanza “away” rhymes with “day” and “rest” rhymes with “breast”. The lines of the poem are short but they are swift in movement.
The metrical analysis of the poem reveals another pattern. The first and third lines of each stanza contain eight syllables. Whereas, the second and fourth lines contain six syllables. Hence, those lines having eight syllables are in iambic tetrameter. Those having six syllables are in iambic trimeter. The rising rhythm of the poem is appropriate to the tone and mood of the poem. In the first six stanzas, the poet stresses on her depressed mood. Thus the rhythm heightens her mental tension. In the next six stanzas, the poet catches a positive tone. In this case, the rising rhythm is appropriate to the optimistic tone of the poet.
The poem, Self-Interrogation by Emily Brontë begins with a personification. The poet personifies the “evening” with the idea of passing away. In this stanza, the poet uses a metaphor of “vanished day”. There are several rhetorical questions or interrogations in the poem. There is an anaphora in the second stanza as the second and third lines begin with the word “of”. Here the poet uses a paradox. She says that instead of grief she has received nothing more from life. It is also a kind of hyperbole. There is another personification in the third stanza where the poet personifies “time”, “death”, and “conscience”. “Black reproach” in this stanza is an example of a personal metaphor.
The poet uses another metaphor of “sea” in the poem to signify “life”. There are some alliterations in the poem. It is present in the following phrases, “weary woes”, “heart has”, “lingers long”, and “little learnt”. The poet uses a synecdoche by associating “voice” with a human being in the poem. In “laurelled fame”, the poet uses metonymy. There is an epigram in the line, “But, a brave heart, with a tarnished name,/ Would rather fight than rest.” Apart from the literary devices mentioned above, there are some more devices that make the poet’s thought appealing to the readers.
Analysis of Self-Interrogation
Stanzas One and Two
“The evening passes fast away.
’Tis almost time to rest;
What thoughts has left the vanished day,
What feelings in thy breast?
“The vanished day? It leaves a sense
Of labour hardly done;
Of little gained with vast expense—
A sense of grief alone?
In the first two stanzas of ‘Self-Interrogation’, Emily Brontë presents her state of mind. She metaphorically suggests that death is not far away from her. At this critical juncture, the poetic persona contemplates the things she has done in her life. After thinking over and over on those questions, she feels that there is nothing left in her life instead of grief and passive suffering. After laboring hard throughout her life, there is nothing in her life to count on.
This section projects a critical phase of the poet’s life when she lacked the spirit and she was unable to sustain further.
Stanzas Three and Four
“Time stands before the door of Death,
And Conscience, with exhaustless breath,
Pours black reproach on me:
“And though I’ve said that Conscience lies
And Time should Fate condemn;
Still, sad Repentance clouds my eyes,
And makes me yield to them!
The poet finds herself just before the “door of death”. She thinks she has not utilized her “time” for some meaningful purpose. That’s why her mind is in a constant feud with her “conscience”. In this way, the third stanza makes it clear that the poet is not fully satisfied with her life.
In the next stanza, the poet tries to console the inner self by saying that her conscience is lying to her. Still, the reality comes to haunt her and it makes her sad again.
Stanzas Five and Six
“Then art thou glad to seek repose?
Art glad to leave the sea,
And anchor all thy weary woes
In calm Eternity?
“Nothing regrets to see thee go—
Not one voice sobs’ farewell;’
And where thy heart has suffered so,
Canst thou desire to dwell?”
The speaker is in a dilemma now. She rhetorically asks herself whether there is a sense of satisfaction in dying. The poet cannot understand whether forgetting the “weary woes” of life or accepting death is satisfying. Here Emily uses the images of “sea” and “anchor” to signify the problems of her life.
In the next stanza, the poet states that no one regrets her death. The poet has suffered for so long in her mortal life. She has no one who will drop a tear in her farewell. After realizing all this, she feels dejected.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
“Alas! the countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay;
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away!
“And rest is sweet, when laurelled fame
Will crown the soldier’s crest;
But a brave heart, with a tarnished name,
Would rather fight than rest.
From this section of ‘Self-Interrogation’ the attitude of the speaker towards life changes. She makes it clear that the “countless links”, she made in this world, will not let her leave. For the love of human companionship, she cannot leave this world. In the next section, the poet compares herself with a soldier. She will be happy when she will get the reward of her struggles. But the fact is, she will rather fight instead of waiting for the rewards of the future. According to the poet, her heart is “tarnished” with worldly sins. That’s why she prefers to fight. She cannot accept death mutely without doing something worthwhile in her life.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
“Well, thou hast fought for many a year,
Hast fought thy whole life through,
Hast humbled Falsehood, trampled Fear;
What is there left to do?
“’ Tis true, this arm has hotly striven,
Has dared what few would dare;
Much have I done, and freely given,
But little learnt to bear!
In this section, Emily Brontë expresses what she has done in her life. The poet has courageously fought against “Falsehood” and “Fear” throughout her life. She has never taken recourse to evil means for material benefit. The poet is and always was truthful to her work. She dares to do such unconventional things. The burning zeal inside her soul is always alive to support her. She has done her part diligently and freely shared her experience with the world. At last, the poet paradoxically says, she has learned a little to bear the consequences of her honesty and courage.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
“Look on the grave where thou must sleep
Thy last, and strongest foe;
It is endurance not to weep,
If that repose seem woe.
“The long war closing in defeat—
Defeat serenely borne,—
Thy midnight rest may still be sweet,
And break in glorious morn!”
In this section, the inner self of the poet urges her not to be fearful of death. The “last” and “strongest” of all the enemies is death. The poet’s inner-self tells her that she has learned the art of endurance from her life. So, it is foolish to be grief-stricken with the thinking of death. It is just a “repose” of the journey called life.
In the final section of the poem, the poet introduces the Christian belief of the rebirth of a soul after death. After the “long war” of life, death will appear at the final moment. Despite being hopeless with the thought of death, she says that her “midnight rest (death) may still be sweet,/ And break in glorious morn!” Though death will defeat the body in the battle, the everlasting soul of the poet will remain victorious. It will awake to a new dawn in heaven. Thereafter God will reward her lifelong perseverance, dedication, and hard work.
‘Self-Interrogation’ by Emily Brontë was published in 1856. It appeared in the poetry collection, “Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell” under Emily’s nom de plume “Ellis Bell”. In the history of English Literature, the three Brontë sisters namely Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë were famous for their experimentation with different themes and their logical mode of writing. They belonged to the Victorian Period when there was a sophisticated zeal inside all the writers. The “Victorian Spirit” of indomitable courage and unyielding attitude is present in this poem by Emily Brontë.
There are several poems like ‘Self-Interrogation’ by Emily Brontë which reflect Christian optimism in the face of defeats and struggles. Here is a list of the poems which reflect Emily’s sentiment and positivity.
- Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou – In this poem by Maya Angelou, a similar perspective on life can be visible. In Emily’s poem, the speaker is a mature one, and in this poem, the speaker is a child.
- Life by Charlotte Brontë – Emily’s elder sister, Charlotte Brontë, presents another perspective of life in this poem. Like Emily, her thoughts are also novel and interesting.
- Death, be not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10) by John Donne – The poet, John Donne is not afraid of death at all. The tone at the end of Emily’s poem is consonant with Donne’s poem.
- Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson – In this poem, Emily Dickinson has not any time to think about death at all. In ‘Self-Interrogation’, the poet comes to this conviction at the parting section.
If you liked the Victorian spirit of Emily Brontë’s ‘Self-Interrogation’, you can read about 10 Incredible Poems about Death here.