Will the Day Be Bright or Cloudy?
Will the day be bright or cloudy?
Sweetly has its dawn begun
But the heaven may shake with thunder
Ere the setting of the sun
Lady watch Apollo’s journey
Thus thy first born’s course shall be –
If his beams through summer vapours
Warm the earth all placidly
Her days shall pass like a pleasant dream in sweet tranquillity
If it darken if a shadow
Quench his rays and summon rain
Flowers may open buds may blossom
Bud and flower alike are vain
Her days shall pass like a mournful story in care and tears and pain.
If the wind be fresh and free
The wide skies clear and cloudless blue
The woods and fields and golden flowers
Sparkling in sunshine and in dew
Her days shall pass in Glory’s light the world’s drear desert through
Note: There seem to be a number of slightly different versions of this and many of Emily Brontë’s poems, with different line breaks, for example. I’m working from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition, in which the punctuation seems more minimal than in other editions. I did conduct some research but can’t ascertain which is truest to Brontë’s originals.
In this poem Brontë compares a life’s journey – ‘thy first born’s course’ – to the Sun’s daily passage across the sky. Her question, which begins and titles the poem, and her continual use of the conditional (‘if’, ‘may’) seem to suggest the paradox of nature, both routine and cyclical, and wildly unpredictable, paralleling it with the same phenomena in human life.
The importance of this mighty force – nature – is subtly forced on us with a running semantic field of water, a life essential which we must depend on nature to provide. This is explicit in ‘quench’, ‘rain’, ‘tears’ and ‘dew’, and implied by images such as ‘buds … blossom[ing]’. And yet, whilst Brontë acknowledges the necessity of this nourishment in the third stanza, it is noticeably absent in the ‘sweet … dawn’, sun ‘beams’, and ‘clear and cloudless blue’ skies of the others. Are we to infer that there are aspects (of both life and nature) which are unpleasant in one way, but essential in another? Or is it that anything which we revere, as Brontë clearly does nature, can have a dark, destructive or gloomy side? Because I’m pretty certain that Yorkshire’s skies won’t have been a ‘cloudless blue’ for the majority of Brontë’s life there. Thus ‘bright or cloudy’ may not be a choice between two conditions, but two sides of the same coin which one must accept.
The poem leaves me with is a sense of the prophetic – a superstitious prediction – but, almost paradoxically, a definite sense of the unknown future. Though the rhyme scheme is hardly regular, there is at least one rhyme in each stanza, and a rhyme with ‘cloudy’ is only missing from the third stanza. This subtle consistency combined with the regular meter of each verse gives, if not an upbeat feel, at least a lull to the poem which is suggestive of the telling of an age-old legend, or an oracle’s prediction. ‘Thus thy first born’s course will be’ and ‘her days shall pass’ certainly have that prophetic ring.
But I’m not convinced that Brontë is being superstitious here. The second and third stanzas establish a formula: ‘If X, then her days shall pass like Y’. But the final stanza subtly undercuts this established pattern when Brontë omits the simile: ‘Her days shall pass in Glory’s light’. At the close of the poem, we get no comparison, no uncertainty, no hesitation, just faith in a greater being, with the personified ‘Glory’ and highly symbolic ‘light’ suggesting something divine. More on this ending later.
But, before that, the intriguing use of gender in this poem. It addresses a ‘Lady’, which is pretty unremarkable considering that it contemplates the fate of the addressee’s child. Yet the ‘first born’ which she refers to – a term, to me, strongly associated with a male heir, or the child in Rumpelstiltskin – is a girl. And she chooses to make ‘Apollo’, Greek god of the Sun, her personification of nature, which, instead, is typically a nurturing, maternal force.
Is she seeking to reinforce this idea that anything can happen, that things could go either way, which runs through the poem?
Or is the message that females are more susceptible to and affected by the influence of nature? The enjambment (when the line could be read both as an end-stop and a run-on) of ‘if a shadow / Quench his rays’ implies a fragility which could shatter under the smallest influence, the merest shadow of a change. Perhaps, in this way, she suggests that female emotion is more delicate.
Or, perhaps, this influence of nature stands for something larger. Did Brontë choose Apollo over Artemis, Demeter or Persephone because he can be read as a symbol of the patriarchy?
Back to the close of the poem. We are left with a rhyming couplet (which has more of a lasting impact than an unrhymed line), that ends with ‘the world’s drear desert through’. The divine allusion (‘Glory’s light’ – also in the final line) would suggest that a contrast is being drawn between this earthly ‘desert’ and a heavenly oasis. But wasn’t the suggestion of the third stanza that water, the essential nourishment, forebodes bad tidings for the infant’s future? Perhaps Brontë is showing us the sheer unpredictability of a divine force, or its power to make ‘glory’ and ‘light’ out of even the worst side of the natural world, human nature included.
Because, after all, Brontë is appreciating all aspects of nature in this poem. Though a ‘warm’ sun’s ‘beams’ may bode ‘sweet tranquillity’, and a ‘darken[ing] … shadow’ maybe bode ‘tears and pain’, it is only in the final stanza – where the final fulfilment is much higher, the barren world being illuminated by ‘Glory’s light’ – that Brontë gives us the full picture. Here she describes ‘fresh and free’ winds, ‘woods and fields and golden flowers’, ‘sunshine and dew’; here she urges us to cherish all parts of nature, not just to rejoice over the sun and scorn the rain. This, she tells us, this pleasure in both of nature’s good and bad, happy and sad, predictable and unpredictable is an essential part of achieving the greatest earthly happiness.
There’s so much more to say about this poem – please share your thoughts below!