Friday, August 5, 2011


Emily Brontë, portrait by Branwell Brontë 


Whaching a north wind grind the moor
that surrounded her father's house on every side,  
formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit,

taught Emily all she knew about love and its necessities –
an angry education that shapes the way her characters
use one another. "My love for Heathcliff," says Catherine,

"resembles the eternal rocks beneath
a source of little visible delight, but necessary."  
Necessary? I notice the sun has dimmed

and the afternoon air sharpening.
I turn and start to recross the moor towards home.  
What are the imperatives

that hold people like Catherine and Heathcliff  
together and apart, like pores blown into hot rock  
and then stranded out of reach

of one another when it hardens? What kind of necessity is that?  
The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.  
Autumn had begun,

my knees were cold inside my clothes.  
A chill fragment of moon rose.
He stood in my living room and spoke

without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,  
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold  
it was like burning. I put out my hand  
to touch his. He moved back.

I don't want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.  
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.

Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.  
He moved onto me.

Everything I know about love and its necessities  
I learned in that one moment  
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon  
at a man who no longer cherished me.  
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body  
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,  
where such necessity grinds itself out.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren't really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language  
like the children we used to be.  
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,

as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came  
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down  
on the two souls clasped there on the bed  
with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.  
I saw the lines harden.  
He left in the morning.

It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

~ Anne Carson, The Glass Essay, pp 10-12


"Law" is what the speaker calls the lover who abandoned her. Since the speaker's mother perceives this man a "taker," we can assume that he is the dominator in this relationship – as in "his word was Law." (Many thanks to Morgan for deciphering the lover’s name.) The name may also be seen as referring to an immutable “law of love”: one of the two lovers always loves more than the other, does more giving, and suffers more in case of break-up.

And yes, Law’s word was law: he was the boss, the dominator.

Of course he behaves sweetly when it suits him, e.g. calling her "My beauty," but that could be a narcissistic manipulation. The mother (who is a wise woman disguised as a housewife) notices that he is a taker, and the poet is the giver. That would fit the relationship with a narcissist (narcissists are excellent manipulators; Law knows that his partner need not be told she is bright; she craves to hear that she is a beauty).

Why does Law break off this sweet-sounding relationship (note that they have a private language, and can be childlike and sing to each other even at the time of breaking up)? “Not enough spin on it, / he said of our five years of love.” The meaning of “spin” that seems to fit the context is excitement, as in a fast ride (again, I’m indebted to Morgan, who pointed out that music “sprays” from Law’s car radio, and he takes the corner fast – like riding a carousel).

The quiet comfort of attachment love is not enough for Law. It’s possible that such deep attachment never developed for him; he prefers the fast ride of infatuation. Any long-term relationship is doomed to grow boring for those who crave intensity. The puzzle is that he lasted five years. Some men typically “move on” after only three months, or even sooner if there is a decrease in intensity before then. As one such Don Giovanni explained to me, with an ecstatic smile, “There is nothing like the excitement of a new body.” For him it was a matter of weeks, not months, much less years.

For me the most important and unforgettable passage in this section is what I call the “baboon scene.” The poem has already established speaker is a brilliant, highly educated, accomplished and successful woman.

Everything I know about love and its necessities  
I learned in that one moment  
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon  
at a man who no longer cherished me.  
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body  
that could have done otherwise.

The need, the “necessity” – both sexes tend to feel humiliated by erotic love, at least to a degree. Its power over us – and I don’t mean just the power of libido, but the power of attraction that leads to being “swept away” – is a blow to our sense of being rational and in control.

MORGAN: I can’t get the baboon scene out of my mind. She'’ so desperate, she’s lost composure to a mind-body split; the body takes over, as an animal’s would.

ORIANA: this part of the poem is utterly disturbing. You read it once, and remember it forever. Yes, the baboon scene makes it plain that the speaker is at that point out of control, irrational, compulsive. When desperation is strong enough, dignity goes out the window – to that extent? we ask, horrified.

I once wrote:

But love is shameless in its Schlamperei
from Schlampe, slut,
slouching by the lamp-post:
Don’t leave me, I’ll do anything
you want –
the soul on her knees in that dingy light.

Yes, the speaker is on her knees, literally and metaphorically. She’s begging. In terms of her values and any sense of self-worth, she’s become a slut. She’s using sex as if she had nothing else to offer. She assumes the position that is HIS favorite: the most animal-like, anonymous, faceless.

Our brains are wired not just for sex, but for falling in love – for reasons we don’t quite understand, reasons we would be embarrassed to confront more fully. Note men’s frequent complaint that women prefer bad boys (Sylvia Plath: “Every woman adores a fascist”), and women’s parallel complaint about “bitches” igniting passion. No wonder Why Men Love Bitches became a national best-seller, bought by all those good women wanting to possess the secret.

What’s wrong with “niceness”? As we mature, we begin to appreciate kindness and nurturing and little attentions more and more. We begin to understand that marriage is not about romance, but about stability, non-abandonment, “for better and for worse” (the speaker’s mother understands this perfectly). In youth, however, “spin” often seems more desired. A “bad boy” comes across as daring and masculine. A “bitch” also knows how to create excitement and a sense of challenge. And she looks great. She doesn’t spend her time and energy baking cookies for a charity drive. She expects others to please her, not the other way round. 

But that’s not all. Some people, and not exclusively women, have a great need to play the part of a savior. “Never go to bed with a man just because you feel sorry for him” was the most important relationship advice I ever received. On the surface this astonishes me, since I perceive myself as having to have a strong admiration for a man for anything to happen. But deep down I recognize the strange attractiveness of unhappy men who appear to need a savior – or, in less extreme terms, those in obvious need of healing, nurturing, consolation.

And then, what about my youthful eagerness to “help a man toward greatness,” as I put it in the previous post? The foolishness of it all is an embarrassment. Shouldn’t we be wiser? Falling in love usually shows us that we aren’t.

Later in that section, the vulgar term for having sex is almost painful, and not only because the sound of the word is so ugly. There is no other instance of the use of vulgar language in this long and on the whole elegantly phrased poem. But the speaker deliberately avoids the phrase “make love.” She knows Law doesn’t love her anymore, yet she tries to delay his departure and create at least some degree of union by using the power of a woman’s body to arouse male desire. But it doesn’t work. We often say, “The body doesn’t lie.” Law tries to respond, but his body doesn’t lie.

In his little-known memoir, Lost in America, Isaac Bashevis Singer describes his failed attempt to have sex with a woman he doesn’t feel attracted to:

“The cabalists called this organ “the sign of the holy covenant.” It bore the name yesod, the same as one of the ten spheres of the divine emanation. What I really felt now was a kind of negative erection . . . My penis tried to steal into hiding, to become shrunken, to sabotage and punish me for making a decision without its consent.” (p. 200 – 201)


With that essay, one pulls one thread or, more accurately, addresses one or two images that bring the two major "stories"/lives together, and one ought to address more – for instance, repeated images similar to "I felt my heart snap into two pieces"; they’re there; I could go find them later (the two halves also referring to Heathcliff and Cathy – and on and on) . . .

There is so much in this essay/poem, one could spend years on it. I went for the obvious first: Carson creates the possibility of an altered sense of reality, or of altered realities, right off the bat in the first few lines, especially with the dream and with the speaker's need to rinse her face (anxiety? fever?). 

I thought about how Carson merged the speaker’s experience with Emily Brontë’s. There is the shared primary landscape, the moors, of course. I counted 14 uses of the word “moor” or “moors” in reference to the speaker's experience, and 6 uses in reference to Emily’s. (There are also other words – such as “bareness” – that refer to the moors.)  Also, I found 3 instances of the word "sofa" in reference to the speaker’s (or her mother’s) experience, and there’s Emily's “death scene” on the sofa (in stanza 18 of "Whacher"). (Quick note: While clearing out my office at school, I kept coming across a post card of that heavy-looking black leather (?) sofa at Howarth. Now I can’t get the picture out of my mind.) . . . . . 

The scorpion passage ("Whacher," stanza 47) really grabs me:

The scorpion is inching down  
the arm of the sofa while Charlotte  
continues to speak helpfully about lightning

and other weather we may expect to experience  
when we enter Emily’s electrical atmosphere.
It is "a horror of great darkness" that awaits us there

but Emily is not responsible. Emily was in the grip.
"Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done,"  
says Charlotte (of Heathcliff and Earnshaw and Catherine).

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.
The scorpion takes a light spring and lands on our left knee  
as Charlotte concludes, "On herself she had no pity."

That scorpion's leap from the arm of the sofa to the knee makes the 19th century overlap, or conflate with, the 21st.  I love that scorpion. . . . . My favorite stanza is the seventh from the end of "Whacher":

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.


Yes, if this is the Vale of Soul-Making (formerly called the Vale of Tears), it seems that we are constantly shown that we are not in control. The ancient Greeks knew it well, and spoke of Ananke, Necessity. Our chief tragic flaw is hubris, pride and overreaching, imagining that we are the boss and make rational decisions. “Go with the flow” and “Let it be” are mantras that try to instill the wisdom of leaving things to larger forces, which will prevail regardless. Religion used to say, “Leave it in God’s hands.” Twelve Step programs say, “Let go and let God” (which I, an atheist with mystical leanings, translate as “Let go and let Life”). But that kind of surrender is terribly difficult in the take-charge Western civilization. And so we get broken and ground.

You are so correct about the conflation of the 19th century with the bareness of the end of 20th, continuing into the 21st. The back-and-forth interweave with Emily Brontë is seamless: paratactic (no transitional words), but often connected by a single image or some other “communality.” The speaker fears she is turning into Emily, with a life of total loneliness.

Let me say more about Emily and her knowledge of cruelty, of the demonic. By the way, is this a trinity: the demonic self, the human self, and the divine self? If Mother Teresa could acknowledge that there was Hitler inside her, shouldn’t we likewise admit that at least in thought we are capable of every cruelty, every evil?


Here is another passage that haunts me:

Girls are cruelest to themselves.  
Someone like Emily Brontë,
who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,

had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.  
We can see her ridding herself of it at various times  
with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.

Reason with him and then whip him!
was her instruction (age six) to her father  
regarding brother Branwell.

And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)  
into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied
them directly to her arm.

Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.
More than thirty years in the time of the novel,
from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen  
and vanishes over the moor

because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine's  
("It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff")  
until the wild morning

when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning  
on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.  
Heathcliff is a pain devil.

If he had stayed in the kitchen
long enough to hear the other half of Catherine's sentence  
("so he will never know how I love him")

Heathcliff would have been set free.  
But Emily knew how to catch a devil.  
She put into him in place of a soul

the constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system  
every time he drew a breath or moved thought.  
She broke all his moments in half,

with the kitchen door standing open.  
I am not unfamiliar with this half-life.  
But there is more to it than that.

Heathcliff's sexual despair
arose out of no such experience in the life of Emily Brontë,  
so far as we know. Her question,

which concerns the years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain  
came to her in a kindly firelit kitchen
("kichin" in Emily's spelling) where she

and Charlotte and Anne peeled potatoes together
and made up stories with the old house dog Keeper at their feet.  
There is a fragment

of a poem she wrote in 1839
(about six years before Wuthering Heights) that says:

                            That iron man was born like me  
                            And he was once an ardent boy:  
                            He must have felt in infancy  
                            The glory of a summer sky.

Who is the iron man?


The iron man is of course Emily herself. She did not need an external “iron man” to inspire either the lines of the poem quoted above or the character of Heathcliff. Critics no longer assume that Heathcliff was based on Branwell Brontë, Emily’s brother, whose talent came to nothing and whose last years were tragic. He became an alcoholic and a laudanum addict (the main active ingredient of laudanum was morphine). He may have inspired the character of Hindley, Catherine’s alcoholic brother, who becomes abusive toward Heathcliff after his father dies (“his” applies here both to Hindley and to Heathcliff; most likely Heathcliff was Earnshaw’s illegitimate son).

Emily Brontë may not have known sexual despair per se, but my guess is that as a deeply sensitive and introverted child she suffered a lot simply because of harsh child-rearing practices that were the norm in the not-so-distant past (she was born in 1818). We need go no further than Dickens or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to see that children encountered a lot of cruelty. And being disvalued and treated with cruelty is bound to create feelings such as anger, and result in the victim’s eventual cruelty to others and/or to oneself. I don’t find it puzzling that Emily could create the character of Heathcliff, who becomes a brutal revenge-seeker. The “iron man” was inside her psyche.

The Brontë sisters were the daughters of a parson, whose sacred task was to be a representative of Christ on earth. Christianity’s early appeal, its enormous charisma, derived from its revolutionary placing of love at the center of life. The most important commandment was love, without which we may speak all the tongues of men and angels, but are as the noise of brass and clanging cymbals.  In the commandment of love, the word is often translated as loving-kindness, charity, compassion, agape – but presumably a loving attitude was to extend to all human relationships, including erotic love. If love is the opposite of sin, then the main sin is cruelty, including cruelty to oneself. How ironic that societies presumably founded on Christianity rarely obeyed the commandment of love, preferring instead to find justification for cruelty.

Because a lot of women died in childbirth, or died young for other reasons, many children ended up being motherless orphans. Even those lucky enough to have a living mother could be separated from her at an early age by being sent to a boarding school. Add to this the innate human aggressiveness. Even aside from harsh child-rearing practices that can make a child internalize cruelty, let’s not forget that our ancestors were hunters, and not just gatherers. Aggressive behavior emerges already in infancy. Children can be notoriously cruel. With luck we tend to “mellow” with age, turning more to compassion and cooperation. It’s possible that Emily would have mellowed with age. Unfortunately she died when she was barely thirty.


There is a peculiar parallel in literature: Catherine and Scarlet O’Hara. Neither is the angelic heroine so typical of inferior literature. In fact each is closer to demonic than the angelic. Catherine and Scarlett are both “bitches”: strong-willed, they go after what they want. Both marry for reasons other than “true love,” and then keep yearning for someone else. Let’s not forget that Catherine married Edgar Linton for money and position. Mooning after Ashley/Heathcliff was one thing, but . . . It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff. That is arguably the most important statement in Wuthering Heights, a counterbalance to Catherine’s more famous and “romantic” exclamation: “I am Heathcliff.”

Ashley was of the same social class as Scarlett, but married and thus a forbidden love object. Readers would like the two novels to be great love stories, but are they? Both novels portray a lot of betrayal and frustration.

(I can’t help but share this. There is a Carol Burnett re-do of Gone with the Wind

that has a scene that sounds to me strikingly close to the book. Scarlett to Rhett: “You are not a gentleman.” Rhett to Scarlett: “And you are no lady. We’re cut from the same dirty sack-cloth.” Exactly like Catherine and Heathcliff!)

I think that in general, when we take a look at “great love stories” in Western literature, we get rather unsavory tales like Tristan and Isolde, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, Anna Karenina and Wronski . . .  Romeo and Juliet ends tragically. Mimi and several other opera heroines either die of TB or commit suicide. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester . . .well, the mad wife in the attic can’t be forgotten. Is there a single great work of literature anyone knows that is based on a happy romance? And even if the romance is happy, isn’t the heroine more likely to die rather than “live happily ever after”?

Note that Shakespeare does not portray a single happily married couple. The Macbeths may be regarded as compatible, but before Duncan’s murder Lady Macbeth seems to despise her husband for not being ambitious and decisive enough.

Or perhaps I shouldn’t say great so much as powerful and haunting, popular enough to have influenced the culture and entered the collective psyche, like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, who destroy their victims because there is no possibility of being loved. In any case, it’s the frustrated or lost love that has been amply portrayed in Western literature, along with adulterous relationships. As for great movie love stories, we have “Casablanca.”

Getting (almost) back to The Glass Essay, there is the matter of the almost unnerving similarities between Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, but that would require a whole separate volume. 


Both Emilies were mystics, ecstatics. Carson’s choice of Emily’s poems portraying “Thou” seems biased toward a distant and unloving deity in a master and victim relationship. Yet the speaker does report that a neighbor saw Emily return from a walk on the moors, “her face lit up by a divine light.”

It makes sense to think that what gave Emily strength was her mysticism. Critics like to quote from her poem, “The Prisoner,” in which the imprisoned young woman (“our guests are darkly lodged”) seems quite blissful because of her visions.

A messenger of Hope, comes every night to me   
And offers, for short life, eternal Liberty.

He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars.
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.

But first a hush of peace – a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast – unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.


I believe that it’s those mystic visions that sustained Emily – who did not have a single friend, and seems never to have been in love. Even at home, as the speaker of “The Glass Essay” notes, she was unsociable. She loved animals, as is often true of those who are not comfortable around people. But unlike the speaker, she did have her own private kind of consoling religious faith. As Carson says, “One way to put off loneliness is to interpose God.”

Like practically all mystics, Emily insists on a fundamental unity: She talks about a sweetness that "proved us one."  A sweetness that the speaker’s relationship with Law seemed to have, until the brutal abandonment (is it believable that the speaker did not see it coming? that the difference between the partners expressed in the complaint about “not enough spin” was revealed only then?) Emily’s “Thou” is within her, is of the same essence (like Catherine and Heathcliff), and separation is unthinkable. Like “for better or for worse” in the parents’ marriage, there will be no abandonment. This is a source of strength.

I love this passage in the last part of the poem, the section that Carson entitled “Thou”:

"No need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind.

Emily does not feel them,"
wrote Charlotte the day after burying her sister.  
Emily had shaken free.

A soul can do that.
Whether it goes to join Thou and sit on the porch for all eternity  
enjoying jokes and kisses and beautiful cold spring evenings,

you and I will never know.


This is actually a more attractive vision of heaven than any I've encountered! I'd make it a "cool" spring evening, but I know Carson uses "cold" deliberately. There is no passion, just sweetness – a pleasant fondness between Emily and her Thou (presumably the "God within my breast" whom she invokes in "No Coward Soul Is Mine"). "Beautiful cold spring evenings" suggests that we are still on the moors -- celestial moors, but sufficiently like Yorkshire to be Emily's paradise.

And there are jokes and kisses, but certainly no sex as these two sit on the porch for eternity. Emily Dickinson rides forever with Death and Immortality. Emily Brontë seems more cozy, seated on a porch with a view, next to someone she can talk with without paying "the terrible price of sex" that Carson evoked earlier. This is "attachment love," so named by psychologists who know all too well that romantic infatuation must end, leading either to break-up and emotional anguish, or else it must evolve into a deep attachment, leading to harmony and emotional security.

This imagined heaven of Emily Brontë sounds much better to me than the city paved with gold or a non-stop Sunday service with celestial choirs. Jokes and kisses – I’ll take it.

Now we come to the last tercets. Emily is safely with “Thou,” kissing him there on the heavenly porch overlooking the heavenly moors. But the speaker is still below, still immersed in loss: “I lived my life, / which felt like a switched-off TV.” But then, in the evening rather than in the morning, she has the vision of a Nude that seems to be the kind of vision that our brain can produce (most often in a dream, but also as waking vision) in order to heal itself:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,  
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.  
It walked out of the light.


The narrow, self-centered vision of depression has yielded to a large perspective: this is the body of all of us. No one is spared suffering, symbolized here by the "terrible winds" (a parallel with the wild winds of Emily’s moors). Everyone is learning "life lessons," as we euphemistically call it. Yet we transcend the pain of each loss. I don’t mean that this pain is trivial, or that “pain never hurt anyone.” But the mourning process has a built-in healing mechanism (“And there was no pain.”). Maybe Keats was right: this is the valley of soul-making.

This amazing poem about heartbreak ends on the word "light." The “body of all of us” “walked out of the light.” Whether or not this implies that we originate in “the light” and return to it, the symbolic connotations of “light” are positive. It is striking that this dark poem ends with the word “light.”


I agree that The Glass Essay is an absolute masterpiece, and I wouldn't have known about it if you hadn't shared it.

Yes, I do know Wuthering Heights fairly well. In fact, I used to teach it, but that was probably 20 years ago. I vividly remember Hareton hanging puppies, and later Heathcliff hanging his wife’s little dog, Fanny. Those of us who are mediated by great novels do have them circulating through us, along with lives of their authors. In fact, I had imagined writing such a poem, me going through my own life sort of in conversation with a great novel/novelist, particularly when I was taking care of my mother (who was never a reader and has no interest in literature). My intellectual/emotional/psychic/spiritual separation from my mother was allowed by my immersion in great literature that began at an early age. 

Also the central grief of the poet's own life, the rejection by Law, that she continuously works through by continuously working through the Emily Bronte story. And it's so long, it just goes on and on and on....working through the same old grief. 

I didn't have the time or talent to write this poem, but I'm grateful that I have the education, intelligence, and experience with poetry to appreciate it.


I love the statement you make about great novels becoming part of our psyche, and about Glass being a poem of conversation with a great novelist and her novel. It's like having a close relationship to a particular myth. And Wuthering Heights is a haunting novel, with Heathcliff being both a victim (a Gypsy foundling; imagine what that meant back then, and why Catherine says, “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”) and an abusive seeker of revenge.

One of the scenes that had entered me forever was Catherine's dream about rejecting heaven and preferring the moors – and how when Catherine says she went to heaven but wasn’t happy there, Nelly replies, “Of course not. No sinner would be happy in heaven” (a very Swedenborgian view, but I assume it’s a coincidence). But because Catherine isn’t really a sinner so much as a wild child, that opens up an interesting question of just who would be happy in the traditional kind of heaven (a non-stop church service, singing hymns of praise).

And I also often wondered about the famous scene where Catherine says, "I AM Heathcliff." That may be wonderful and romantic of Catherine to say, but we can't imagine Heathcliff saying, "I AM Catherine." Male superiority is unquestioned here, so he couldn't identify with a woman in that total way. Yes, he does call her his soul, but it’s never the same as Catherine’s passionate totality.

Simone de Beauvoir has commented on this famous love story (among the most famous in Western literature) by saying that “I AM Heathcliff!” is the cry of every woman in love. The woman is (or at least used to be; these days it’s no longer quite respectable for a woman to be so explicitly identified with the man she loves) ready to give up her own identity, her own special pursuits and interests, her whole world for the sake of the man whom she imagines as her male “twin soul.”

We are of course talking about a woman who “doesn’t have a life” – and let’s face it, there are such women in every age category (and an occasional man too). Simone dB sees this as the sexist arrangement in which the woman is conditioned by the culture to worship the man and be dependent on him; he is the powerful one, the self-confident and daring one, choosing a career early on, making more money, etc. So the woman is more often the one who loves more, or in fact “too much.” Disappointment and unhappiness are generally guaranteed to follow, one heartbreak after another – in my experience, until the woman “gets a life.”

Already Byron made this observation in Don Juan:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
'Tis woman's whole existence.

It’s only relatively recently that women have been able to “get a life” and not be so vulnerable to becoming obsessed with romantic love (which wasn’t so good for men either, being loved in this excessive, needy way). 


One thing that makes Glass so amazing is Carson’s honesty – or at least the sense we get that she’s being honest. When I think of the most painful passage in Glass, the one where the speaker talks about presenting herself like a baboon to her lover, I am shaken to the core by her honesty – and I also wonder if a male poet could write with equivalent frankness about the humiliations that sex can inflict.

I too feel infinitely grateful for having the ability to appreciate the masterpieces of literature and music. When I feel tempted to wail about all that life has denied me, I remember that this access to the first-rate has not been denied to me, and much else seems minor then.


Oh, the moor! As Emily Dickinson said, "I never saw a moor...." but now I've seen one thanks to you.  I read your blog over and over and get more out of it each time.  It is a work of literature.

One thought about the impossibility of the Catherine/Heathcliff relationship is that they (obviously) are half-siblings, even if not consciously aware of that fact. For them to join would be incest. On the genetic level they must know (that story about finding the child in the Liverpool slums is so half-baked!)

This leads to another reading of the statement "I am Heathcliff." Indeed, we are closer to our siblings than to any other persons, genetically closer than to our parents or two our own children.  That direct, unmediated bond between the two is the bond of brother/sister. 

You may know of myths that explore this (Isis/Osiris e.g.)  I am thinking of Marion Zimmer Bradleys' interpretation of the Arthurian legend, that Morgaine and Arthur are actually half-siblings, and it is she who takes in back to Avalon in the end.  There are some incredible passages about that bond, but I haven't read that novel in years either.


Yes, the foundling story is so thin . . . and even without the heavy probability that they are half-siblings, there is the obvious brother-sister relationship between the two, growing up as they do in the same household! And Bronte must have been aware of the incest theme in Byron, Heathcliff being "byronic," but of course beyond such posturings, a demonic capitalist, as Marxist critics say -- but to me, a demonic man spurned! (as he understands it, and anyway, she DOES marry Edgar, which is spurning enough).

I know the Avalon version you mention. The woman as the holder of pagan mysteries, closer to nature, nature itself being feminine and wild and ruthless  . . .


I've read "The Glass Essay" several times and light (and darkness) seem to be important images throughout the piece.  I was OK with all the interplay until the final image.  I can say honestly that I'm not sure what she means.  Is she rejecting Bronte's going into darkness as a shelter which is part of Bronte's isolation/ loneliness?  Is going into the light, death?  Because the Nudes are glimpses of her (Carson's) soul, what is she saying?


I think it’s the affirmation of the human spirit. She indicates her "nude" is the universal "human divine." For me the clue to that comes in the interchange with Mother, who objects that therapy isn't doing the daughter any good (I think the mother is a wise woman, and she has a good point about not brooding about the past, but putting on that pretty swim suit). The speaker says, in her defense, "Oh I prevail." The mother smiles: "Yes you do." The human spirit ultimately prevails over suffering. 


My top five favorite lines and passages:

"Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is to watch the year repeating itself"

"For someone hooked up to Thou
the world may have seemed like a kind of half finished sentence."

"To be as whatcher is not a choice. There is nowhere to get away from it.
No ledge to climb up to-like a swimmer."

"my nerves open to the air like something skinned" ~ chilling

“April snow folded its huge white paws over doors and porches.  
I watched a chunk of it lean over the roof and break off  
and fall and I thought,

How slow! as it glided soundlessly past”  

"I felt as if the sky was torn off my life."

and of course many phrases like "the most awful loneliness of the poet's hour" 


The poem is so rich in great lines, I almost wish it to be a novel or a movie, at the same level of craft, so it could get the attention it deserves.


The poem starts slow, but then it really picks up.  Below, I list some of my favorite passages:

Whenever I visit my mother  
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

the moor, paralyzed with ice…
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve…

I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland  
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.

Black open water comes
curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.  

why all this beating of wings?  
What was this cage, invisible to us

The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April  
carve into me with knives of light

it is the light of the stalled time after lunch  
when clocks tick

and hearts shut
and fathers leave to go back to work
and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering

something they never tell.
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,  
Where can I put it down?

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is  
to watch the year repeat its days.  
It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat  
a year ago in another country.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner  
up the hill to his house, shadows

of limes and roses blowing in the car window  
and music spraying from the radio and him  
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.
Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now  
still carries the sound of the telephone in that room

and traffic far off and doves under the window  
chuckling coolly and his voice saying,  
You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s

heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—
No, I say aloud. I force my arms down
through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water

and the videotape jerks to a halt
like a glass slide under a drop of blood…

Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.

I called them Nudes.
Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.  
She stands into the wind.

It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift  
and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle  
calling mutely through lipless mouth. 

Not enough spin on it,  
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold  
it was like burning. I put out my hand  
to touch his. He moved back.

I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.  
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes  . . .

There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body  
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language  
like the children we used to be.  
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,…

I came  
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down  
on the two souls clasped there on the bed  
with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.

It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

…Bluish dusk

fills the room like a sea slid back.  
I lean against the sink.  
White foods taste best to me

and I prefer to eat alone.

(eating only white food is a documented food disorder that mentally ill people sometimes have.

note insertion of song here..

…and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.
Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:

                                 Violante in the pantry
                                 Gnawing at a mutton bone  
                                 How she gnawed it
                                 How she clawed it
                                 When she felt herself alone.

Girls are cruelest to themselves.  

… had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.  
We can see her ridding herself of it at various times  
with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.

Reason with him and then whip him!
was her instruction (age six) to her father  
regarding brother Branwell.

And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)  
into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied
them directly to her arm.

Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.
More than thirty years in the time of the novel,
from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen  
and vanishes over the moor

because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine’s  
(“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”)  
until the wild morning

when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning  
on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.  
Heathcliff is a pain devil.

Thou woos Emily with a voice that comes out of the night wind.  
Thou and Emily influence one another in the darkness,  
playing near and far at once.

~ This is such a fresh and humorous way to speak about a spiritual relationship.


For me, the poem doesn’t start slow. It starts full-blast brilliant.  I read the lines

I can hear little clicks inside my dream.  
Night drips its silver tap

and I was hooked instantly. A long poem that is a page-turner -- that doesn't happen very often. The same happened when I read The Beauty of the Husband -- another masterpiece, a  novel compressed into verse. 

Carson writing is satisfying at every level except music. It’s  not entirely lacking in music – by no means. We have plenty of lines here that could be classified as having a kind of abrupt modern music, Barber rather than Brahms. But next to the lines by Emily Brontë, there just isn’t an equivalent magic – not that whispering, mysterious, musical poetry, lines you can repeat to yourself in a trance. Brontë was an ecstatic; Carson is a superb poet, but not, in my view, an ecstatic. She is too detached and ironic for that, thoroughly modern, with bleakness but without rapture.

Re: lines about Emily and Thou: It seems to me that all mystics eroticized their union with the divine. Maybe there is no other way. The thwarted libido and the need for a loving connection will find an outlet some way. I agree that “influence” is a marvelous term for what spiritual love making is going on.


What I think about falling into bed with a lover who has already given a woman the brushoff is that there’s an even more probable scenario--one in which a woman enumerates all the reasons for not going to bed with a man, carefully explicating these to the would-be-rejected lover, and then, shortly afterward, inexplicably finds herself exactly where she had said she would not be. It’s as if the enumeration of the reasons not to give in constitute a grand catharsis, leaving her at last entirely free of them.  

DISCLAIMER: The above scenario is obviously fictional, culled from the imagination, rather than autobiographical.


I think the scenario you present is quite plausible, and would be another example of “hormones over mind,” to put it in an oversimplified manner. Your comment also made me wonder if we can know to what extent Glass is autobiographical. Names and details certainly can be changed, but some of the scenes (the baboon scene or father’s dementia) have such searing quality, they seem to be a transcript of experience (because the imagination is less startling than reality; imagination has more plot, rationality, even dignity).  


I really love this poem. I think it is amazing how relevant to modern times it is, how universal. The speaker is isolated from emotionally supportive human connection, and even her connection with nature doesn’t really work. The moors are “paralyzed with ice” and light comes as “knives.” The mother does not offer much emotional comfort; the father is demented; he doesn’t even recognize his daughter. Thus, for the aging speaker (who is possibly entering menopause – note the night sweats), there is no one to turn to. Like Emily, she has become a watcher, but what she sees is bareness and isolation. The therapist is not nurturing either; she is yet another watcher. These are modern times, and you pay good money to a stranger to listen to you while remaining distant. So there is a break-down of human connection. There is nowhere the speaker has to turn to.

She turns to literature, to her favorite author – but with the fear that is she becoming as totally lonely and isolated as Emily was. Emily at least had a faith in God. Now many of us don’t have any kind of faith, and the integration of body, mind, and spirit is more and more difficult. Having lost the community and with the family not offering emotional support – if the family is there at all – there is the grief after a loss and no remedy for it. We have turned to romantic love for our most important human connection, and romantic love can’t be counted on to last. There is a lot of breaking up going on, a lot of heartbreak. And the speaker is no longer young, and may be experiencing the terror of realizing that love will not come into her life again. She universalizes her loneliness and suffering. It’s all of us, deprived of community ties and spiritually at a loss.


By the way, Morgan pointed out that the therapist’s name, Haw, rhymes with “Law.” This may be a mockery of Law, but it may also be an indication that we have a “ho-hum” kind of therapist here, distant and uncaring – as you say, “yet another watcher.”

I was also thinking of Carson’s brilliance, and how being a brilliant, erudite woman can isolate you. People may feel intimidated. There isn’t a single mention of a personal friend. I can’t say that Anne Carson has no “heart-to-heart” friend, but she has crafted the poem to parallel Emily’s life, and thus the human desert, and nature that seems hostile (ice and mud) and still far from bursting into blossom.

I wonder – but this is just based on psychological reasoning – if the speaker’s understanding of the mother’s terror at turning 80 is perhaps the daughter’s realization of how “time’s bars” are closing up around her too. Emily at least returned from the moors with “divine light” in her face – this is not the case with the speaker.

Going outside the poem again, we know the author is a famous poet and a university professor, so her life is not a vacuum. She “has a life.” There just isn’t enough love in it. Still, she is a woman who is very successful “in the world,” with critics saying she is one of the greatest living poets, perhaps the greatest. So it’s not Anne Carson I worry about: Carson has her writing and her academic career. It’s the obscure educated woman (or man), single and childless and without close friends, whose loneliness concerns me. Yes, we have Facebook friends, but where do we go for a deep and fulfilling connection, now that marriage has become so discredited? 
Somehow, heroically, we have to have the trust that a deep and fulfilling connection – with a partner, with a few close friends – is possible. When we find those special people, we must cherish them. Hold on to them, do not abandon them. They are simply too precious. What comforts me is the observation that as the years pass, people really do become more precious to us.

But something has happened to our collective idea of love. We sense a distrust, born perhaps of too much early disappointment. The words “love” and “divine” are no longer in close association. Carson, in her Eros the Bittersweet, writes about Plato’s ideal of erotic love:

Plato takes the traditional wings of Eros and reimagines them. Wings are no foreign machinery of invasion in Plato’s conception. They have natural roots in each soul, a residue of its immortal beginnings. Our souls once lived on wings among the gods, he says, nourished as gods are by the infinite elation of looking at reality all the time. Now we are exiled from that place and quality of life, yet we remember it from time to time, for example, when we look upon beauty and fall in love. Moreover, we have the power to recover it, by means of the soul’s wings. Sokrates describes how the wings will grow, given the right conditions, powerful enough to carry the soul back to its beginnings. When you fall in love you feel all sorts of sensations inside you, painful and pleasant at once: it is your wings sprouting. It is the beginning of what you mean to be.  (p. 157)

Through love, we are supposed to rise to the divine – not fall into the demonic, as seems to happen to Catherine and particularly to Heathcliff. We are supposed to be nourished by love’s tenderness forever (even if the love ends), rather than feel debilitated by the loss, as seems to be the case in Glass. Of course there are many fulfilled relationships and harmonious marriages – private stories of great love. But literature and movies keep giving us a negative picture of love as pain, closer to the these lines by Swinburne:

No thorns go so deep as the roses
And love is more cruel than lust –

I associate that cruelty with youth. What saddens me is that the two lovers in “The Glass Essay” are not young. They are middle-aged, or nearly so; they are supposed to have learned tenderness and a deep respect for the mysteries of the soul of another human being. They should know by now how difficult everyone’s life is, and how hard we try not to succumb to despair (“No one ever lacked a reason for suicide”).  Not that Law and the speaker should have necessarily stayed together. But the explanation about “spin” has little dignity. And the woman’s isolation in her grief is indeed frightening. 

“Today’s fast-paced world” has become a leading cliché. We live in a culture of “spin.” It’s a manic-depressive culture, the relationships of the manic phase being shallow, and the loneliness of the depressed phase leading to paralysis, just as the moors, even in spring, are “paralyzed with ice.”

Carson’s masterpiece may be mostly bleak, but it makes us ask what real love is like, as opposed to “spin.” It makes us wonder again about marriage, loyalty, spirituality. It amplifies the questions. It’s up to us to come up with answers. 


Best images of any website, and the writing isn't bad either.

Men don't care for Wuthering Heights. It’s "chick lit." No offense meant.


No offense taken. The novel is very "female," I think. Written by a virgin, too, though a very intense one. Think of Emily Dickinson as a parallel – though Dickinson was an even stricter recluse.

Men do enjoy "Gone with the Wind," however (I discovered this via Facebook -- GWTW has a huge fan club). Maybe it's the sexual chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett (especially in the movie), or maybe it's the "bitch" allure of Scarlett. Men want the physical, not the ghostly, unconsummated romance. Even Heathcliff actually craves Cathy's physical presence. I like men's greater simplicity, animality. 

John Guzlowski:

Yes, the class stuff – that got me.  and the landscape. I visited Haworth where the Brontes grew up and died. It was a sacred place. The town butted up against the Dells – the kind of place that exists in nightmares, a world tilted on its edge and waiting to collapse on itself.  I kept thinking why would anyone live here – except to say, I survived.

I feel sorry for the Brontë girls.  


I do agree with John.

Usually fearless when it comes to walking through graveyards, I could not bring myself to walk through the shadowy churchyard next to the parsonage bldg at Haworth. The vibes were too creepy. For one thing, apparently, in the Brontës’ time, the water table was just about at the level of the cemetery, wherein lay victims of consumption, etc. This would have contaminated the Brontës’ water (yuk). Add that to living in close quarters and a lack of knowledge of hygienic practices as disease prevention and it's a wonder Charlotte didn't immediately follow Anne (my fave) and Emily into the grave. And, yes, the town, at a slant, could pass for a "mystery spot." I enjoyed my visit but, like John, felt sorry for the Brontes – even as I admired their fortitude and creativity.


When I was in the Scottish Highlands in May, I saw the moors and was told that in August the heather IN BLOOM covers the moors.

Yes, that's what I read. In Poland, it's in early September. In the right places – the soil has to be acid – the blooms are wonderful. Heather is very hardy, sinewy. 

I wish to thank Danusha Goska for making me think about the parallels between Scarlett O’Hara and Catherine Earnshaw. 


  1. One of the great things about the gift of growing older (a gift denied my brothers Phil and Mike) is that I get to look back at my hormone packed days and say, "Wow, wasn't that all really rather weird?"

  2. When I look back at my first romantic involvements, for the most part I shudder. Yes, we should daily give thanks for growing older -- a privilege that a lot of people have not had. Not that aging and maturation are synonyms, but for the most part, we do get wiser and our values and priorities become deeper. The craziness of first loves seems rather shallow compared to what mature love can be.

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  4. In case anyone wonders, I used Charles's comment in the body of the post.

    It is indeed the case that women have always been the majority of fiction readers. I think women have been more flexible in their willingness to read novels with male protagonists, while men strike me as unwilling to read novels with female protagonists. But then I hardly ever see men read novels to start with. Bless those men who still do. How strange to remember my father reading novels out loud to my mother and me . . .