Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
An Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully
Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering her power
To mount and fly away
And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity
This poem seems to ripple through me and caress each little ambition, each vision of the future, each thought of present and future circumstances. Its simplicity is bold, its metaphor demonstrates a shrewd approximation and sympathy with that time of life before life properly begins and, for me, its emotional resonance is soft, sweet, and strong.
Its tone is conversational, indulgent: Brontë uses the direct address, the singular informal pronoun, a dialect form, ‘thee’, is loving and familiar. Like the relation or family friend who, still youthful themselves, chatters to a child with that tender mix of condescension, wisdom, and affinity, which that slight advantage of experience affords them, her question of ‘what the past is like to thee’ doesn’t invert the word order as is typical of a question, though it wouldn’t disrupt the rhyme. This gives it a casual, familiar tone, and perhaps the sense that the question isn’t really an invitation – after all, Brontë, with the voice of superior experience, proceeds to answer it in the following lines.
‘Smiling’ sets the mood of the poem, and it’s as if we transfer the imperative command of ‘tell me’ to this adjective when we read, and unconsciously smile with the ‘child’, just like friends have the power to infect us with the giggles. As the secondary audience, we take on the attribute of this juvenile listener and immediate addressee as if to get closer to the sunny picture that Brontë paints for the infant.
But Brontë may not be addressing a child in the literal sense. ‘Autumn’ typically signifies maturity and soberness, and the ‘wind that sighs mournfully’ evokes an image of hardship endured and softened simply by the distance of the event; perhaps Brontë’s ‘smiling child’ is not youthful and innocent in years, but in experience and suffering. Is there an element of scorn towards the countenance which can be so illumined after supposed hardship, a mocking of the soft winds of misery which are comparatively little? Or perhaps not scorn, perhaps this contrast between ‘smiling’ and ‘mournful’ winds points out their relatively low impact, and subtly undermine the ostensible hope for the future in the poem, by regretting the painful experience which it may bring. I’m reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s consideration of Shirley’s eighteen-year-old Catherine Helstone, as yet little bruised in the world of love, and labouring under sweet delusions:
‘Alas, Experience! No other mentor has so wasted and frozen a face as yours, none wears a robe so black, none bears a rod so heavy, none with hand so inexorable draws the novice so sternly to his task, and forces him with authority so resistless to its acquirement.’
Brontë goes on to build a sunny picture which, whilst it makes this glimpse over the shoulder to a sorrowful past all the more interesting, we’re happy to move towards with her. So, this lovely image of a bird ‘gathering her power’. The enjambment (when a line could be read as end-stopped even if it runs on) makes us pause, replicates the hesitancy and deliberateness of this little creature, suggesting contentedness for now, but steady ambition, steady determination to soar when the time is right. (It’s amazing that Brontë, nearly two centuries ago, could capture a feeling which is so relevant to 21st century eighteen-year-olds working hard at university applications.)
And though ‘fly away’ has connotations of escape, we feel that this is going from one strength to another, and the remaining isn’t reluctant: ‘gathering … power’ suggests more than just conserving energy and building strength in isolation, it suggests a comfortable, secure, supportive environment, and the delay of ‘mount and’ before the ‘fly away’ implies deliberateness, forethought, and, above all, with its intervention in the syntax, a helping hand. The present, too, is more tangible than the past, and has all the connotations of fertility, abundance, and youthful lushness which we would expect – ‘a green and flowery spray’ (a bouquet of flowers) which one could hold, rather than elusive, maybe disruptive, ‘wind’.
In the final stanza, Brontë reinforces the sunny mood of the poem with ‘happy’, repeating the question which has its parallels in the preceding stanzas and gives the poem a structured, secure, but also cyclical fee, as if moving forward in life is inevitable. The rhyme scheme, though, changes from ABAB (then CDCD) to EEFF, to give a sense of the exciting differentiation which the future offers. But there is no ‘tell me’ here – here the voice of experience takes definite control and asserts their faith in the shining future of the infant, or at least their certainty of the child’s perception of it as such.
The powerful simplicity of Brontë’s style shines in the loaded final three lines, which, with their average length of less than five words, evoke a multitude of images and emotions. ‘A sea’ is vast, open, at once daunting, mesmerising, calming, and destructive; ‘cloudless’ implies openness, transparency, a beautiful summer’s day and all its prospects; and a ‘sun’ is symbolic of hope, goodness, warmth, but, like the sea, it is mighty and blazing, and is not mitigated by any clouds here.
Could the penultimate line be a transferred epithet? That’s to say, could ‘mighty’, ‘glorious’, and ‘dazzling’ describe the child and its prospects, rather than the sea? This triple-loaded adjectival phrase could have blindingly strong, crushing connotations, but the firmness of ‘glorious’, stable between the two ambiguously good/bad adjectives is positive, thriving, and that the repeated ‘sea’ is end-focussed on this line asserts the positivity of its mightiness, the freedom that implies, the vastness of its prospects. The long vowels of ‘stretching’, the four syllables of ‘infinity’ which reinforce its lengthy detonation show Brontë drawing out this three-word line, like the parent who doesn’t want to let go or, perhaps, as if unwilling to relinquish such a happy prospect to another, or sighing at its elusiveness for her.