This short, three-stanza poem lays out how the speaker used to feel (stanza one), what led to the speaker’s changed opinion (stanza two), and how the speaker feels about the world today (stanza three). It’s a simple and predictable progression that ends with a powering concluding couplet.
There was a time when my cheek burned Emily Brontë There was a time when my cheek burned To give such scornful fiends the lie; Ungoverned nature madly spurned The law that bade it not defy. O in the days of ardent youth I would have given my life for truth. For truth, for right, for liberty, I would have gladly, freely died; And now I calmly hear and see The vain man smile, the fool deride; Though not because my heart is tame, Though not for fear, though not for shame. My soul still chafes at every tone Of selfish and self-blinded error; My breast still braves the world alone, Steeled as it ever was to terror; Only I know, however I frown, The same world will go rolling on.
Explore There was a time when my cheek burned
‘There was a time when my cheek burned’ by Emily Brontë is a poem about truth and the world’s inability to change.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker begins by describing how when they were young, they would’ve died for the truth. They wanted to fight and rid the world of injustice, fools, and selfish people. But they’re older now and have realized that pure passion and anger will not change the world. They’ve had to accept that the world is how it is.
The main theme of this poem is a change or lack thereof. The speaker has realized, as they’ve aged, that no matter how hard they try or the burning passion they show, they can’t change the world. They say that they would’ve given their life for truth when they were young, but today, they know that this wouldn’t have made a difference. The speaker’s tone is resigned and defeated throughout as they describe their disappointment with the world.
Structure and Form
‘There was a time when my cheek burned’ by Emily Brontë is a three-stanza sextilla poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCC. The lines are also written in iambic tetrameter. This means that each line (mostly) contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include:
- Caesura: the use of an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Only I know; however I frown.”
- Asyndeton: can be seen when the poet deliberately omits conjunctions. For example, “For truth, for right, for liberty.”
- Metonymy: occurs when the poet substitutes an attribute for the name of something. For example, she writes, “My breast still braves the world alone.”
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Though not” in stanza two.
There was a time when my cheek burned
To give such scornful fiends the lie;
Ungoverned nature madly spurned
The law that bade it not defy.
O in the days of ardent youth
I would have given my life for truth.
In the first stanza of this Brontë poem, the poet begins by saying that when the speaker was young they were very passionate about life. They hated to see any injustice occur in the world and did what they could to promote “truth.” The speaker says (perhaps hyperbolically) that they would’ve “given [their] life for truth” when they were young.
It’s clear from the first words that the speaker is setting up a state of mind/opinion that’s going to be changed as the poem progresses. She wrote, “there was a time,” suggesting that this “time” has passed.
For truth, for right, for liberty,
I would have gladly, freely died;
And now I calmly hear and see
The vain man smile, the fool deride;
Though not because my heart is tame,
Though not for fear, though not for shame.
The second stanza elaborates on what the speaker used to believe in when they were young. They fought in words and actions for “right, for liberty” they say again that they would’ve “gladly, freely” given their life for these rights.
They believed that through positive action and justice that the world could be improved. But things have changed. Now, they look on and see “the vain man smile,” and the fool speaks about things he doesn’t understand. The speaker does not push back against these irritants or the poor choices they see occurring.
They make sure to emphasize that they haven’t changed their approach because they don’t care anymore or because their “heart is tame.” They’ve not backed down from this fight they’ve picked for themselves because they’re afraid or ashamed.
This stanza sets up what’s to come in the third stanza.
My soul still chafes at every tone
Of selfish and self-blinded error;
My breast still braves the world alone,
Steeled as it ever was to terror;
Only I know, however I frown,
The same world will go rolling on.
Still, the speaker says, their soul is bothered (or “chafes”) when they hear someone blinding themselves to the truth or making selfish decisions. It still bothers them, and they’re still capable of approaching all situations with strength.
But, now the speaker concludes, they know that the world is never going to change. There is nothing they can do to change how people act, and therefore some of that passion they previously had in reserve has drifted away.
The tone is defeated. The speaker used to feel a certain way about the world and its injustices. But time has passed and made the speaker realize that no matter how passionately they push back against bad behavior, the world will never change.
The message is that sometimes things don’t change for the better. The speaker knows now that no matter how passionate and determined they are about people’s poor behavior and injustice that the world isn’t going to change.
‘There was a time when my cheek burned’ is written in the form of a sextilla. This means that the poet uses six-line stanzas that contain eight syllables each. The poet also used the rhyme scheme of ABABCC.
The speaker is unknown. It’s not clear who Brontë saw as the speaker in these lines but it’s possible that she was thinking about her own opinion of the world as she wrote.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Emily Brontë poems. For example:
- ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ – a poem that speaks about the autumn season, shorter days, and snow.
- ‘Hope’ – depicts a personified version of “hope” and what it does in the world.
- ‘Encouragement’ – is about the loss of a mother and how families move on from tragedy.