‘The Visionary’ by Emily Brontë is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains conforms to a consistent rhyme scheme. They follow the pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poets saw fit.
In regards to rhythm, there is no fully structured pattern that lasts the length of the text. Instead, the lines vary from ten syllables up to fourteen or fifteen. The stress alternates between the first and second syllables, making it impossible to label ‘The Visionary’ as singularly iambic or trochaic.
One important aspect of this piece to note before reading it in its entirety is that Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s older sister by two years, is thought to have contributed to the text. Perhaps specifically through revision additions to the final two stanzas. These two stanzas are significantly different in tone from those which come before.
The Brontë Sisters, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte are known today as some of the finest novelists and poets of the nineteenth century. Emily is most famous for her work Wuthering Heights, Charlotte for Jane Eyre, and Anne for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Summary of The Visionary
‘The Visionary’ by Emily Brontë (and, to some extent, Charlotte Brontë) describes the imminent arrival of an undefined, spirit-like presence to a house in the middle of winter.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how she is the only one still awake in the house. The “sire” and the “dame” are asleep. They cannot see what she’s doing and even if they did, she’d reveal nothing about her intentions. There is someone she’s waiting for and her lamp, that she tends assiduously, is there in the window guiding this person in.
By the end of the poem it becomes clear that this visitor is nonhuman. He has a “Strange Power” and the ability to command her allegiance. He holds all the power in the relationship and she is determined to be true to him and keep his identity a secret from everyone. This is what’s going to maintain their relationship.
Although the full poem is quoted below, you can also read the poem here.
Analysis of The Visionary
Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep,
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins with a dark and somewhat foreboding image. There is a quiet house in which every one, save one, is sleeping. This single person moving through the darkness is the speaker herself. She is “alone” and is looking outside at the snow-covered landscape. The fact that it is winter when this scene is occurring only makes it darker and, naturally, chillier. The setting is not a comfortable one.
From where the speaker is, she can see “every cloud” and breeze. She dreads the arrival of breeze that moves the snow drifts or “bends the groaning tress.” This would disturb the quiet stillness of the night and give her false hope that her visitor has arrived.
Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Not one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer’s guiding-star.
Luckily, the scene improves. Inside the house it is not quite as dark as it initially seemed. There is the “Cheerful…hearth” and the “soft…matted floor.” These are indoor comforts that help to ward off the “shivering gust.” The winds do not make it into the house “through pane or door.” Everything is well sealed.
The speaker turn back to her immediate situation. There is a lamp, likely in the window. It is meant to be a signal for someone arriving at the house. The speaker explains how it is important to her to tend to the lamp. She “trim[s]” it well and makes sure that it remains the “wanderer’s guiding star.” Throughout ‘The Visionary’ the speaker does not reveal who she is waiting for, but her emotions around the impending arrival to give the reader some clues.
Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame!
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.
In the third stanza, the speaker pushes back against any who would attempt to get the name of her “wanderer” from her. She tells the “haughty” or stuck up, “sire” or king-like man, that he can “Frown” as he wants. The same can be said to the “angry dame.” She can “chide” and chastise the speaker but she won’t get any more information from her.
The speaker tells these listeners, who are perhaps those asleep in other parts of the house, that they can spy on her and threaten her all they want. It won’t change anything. There is no one, including the reader, who will know “What angel” is coming to the house “nightly.” This person traverses the “frozen snow” to get to her, so they must maintain a strong relationship.
What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.
The fourth stanza of ‘The Visionary’ informs the reader the speaker “love[s]” her soon to arrive visitor. Now it seems obvious that the person arriving is the speaker’s lover. But it is more complicated than that. She is unwilling to speak about who this person is but informs the reader that they are “of air.”
Her visitor transcends normal human boundaries. They are more than others could be, perhaps closer to God or containing general goodness about them. Because she refuses to tell the reader who this person is, they are safe from humanity. She also explains that her “faith” is important in maintaining their relationship, whatever that may be.
Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear—
Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air:
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.
In the final stanza, the identity of the wanderer becomes clearer and more obscured at the same time. The speaker directs her words to the lamp. It is a source of safety for both her and the person in the snow. It confirms to her that the wanderer will be able to find her. And gives the wanderer something to latch onto while making the final push to her house. In the next lines, it becomes clear that perhaps it is unnecessary for this latter purpose.
She then exclaims, “Hush!” And draws the reader’s attention to a “rustling wing” in the snow. At this point, a reader should be considering the fact that this visitor might be of the spiritual or God-like variety. The “He” she speaks on in the third line of this stanza seems to refer to God, as does her reference to his “Strange Power.”
Their relationship is defined in the last phrase. She upholds her end of their agreement by trusting in his “might” and he then trusts in her “constancy” or ever-present love and dedication. She is always going to be there with her burning lamp.