This poem is based on the early life of Mr Rochester in 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte.
|‘A Fiery West Indian Night’
Blighted earth blows bitter, blind in despair
Of escaping scorched land on a fresh breath.
It fails, though it is free in the air.
Soon it shall be trapped by rain, brought to earth,
Compact in the savage onslaught. Corrode.
Across the sky, bruised storm clouds are furrowed.
Was that rousing cry some nightmare fragment?
No, it was without, a living Gorgon.
I lay, a corpse awaiting entombment.
Shut in. Close. I must bide in this dungeon
For eternity. The only motion flies
Hitting the ceiling. They must hate their days.
The storm rattles raw rage in the rafters.
I know she lies awake also, listening.
Her expectation bestial, sinister,
Assured, predatory. She waits to spring.
The wind only fans my grimy dishonour.
Unseen, violent, its breath turns the room sour.
Gibbeting the house, groaning, the squall blows
Wild, hungry to tear trees, bite flesh from bone.
She greets tonight’s orgy with wolfish howls.
A canker gnawing deep is all I own.
I hate the dazzled innocent I was.
Eager to please my family I crossed seas
To wed a Calumny not known or loved.
Of her vices never was I contemplative.
A mongrel, nowhere at home, in her mixed
The shadows of coloniser and native.
Though I sought to become a gentleman,
Like her I have no home here or with them.
My brother joined the plot to sell my soul.
I was tricked by my avaricious father.
He hates my disgrace, though he made me fall.
Now I live with the crime of another.
Suffer for a mistake made by someone
I am no more but must unwanted own.
Where is the right path? It is lost to me,
I flounder beside it. A pure hand will
Guide me back I pray. Yet it cannot be.
There is no rest. I can but flail on ‘til
Utt’ly exhausted. How long will that be?
I cannot bear that fate. I shall be free!
Loosing shrouding sheets, I open the window.
Sulphur-stream air cackles. Raindrops shatter
Like blood spurts around a knife. Streams sag, slow.
It is not me mirrored ‘neath storm’s batter.
A monster’s mask stifles all that was pure.
My being is sapped into that vampire.
Mosquitoes, tantrum children of bloodlust,
Trickle in. Hum sullen o’er the ceiling.
Search me out. Earthquake fast, waves snatch their feast,
The setting moon black clouds are outcasting.
Crimson cannonball, it flings a last, long,
Bloodied glance over its execution.
The partition quivers. In demon-hate,
With goblin curse, she mingles my titlement.
What care I for that old name, wealth, estate?
No need for Father’s careful arrangement,
My pain. I have all. Yet, it is nothing
To me. I possess nothing. Am nothing.
Mere flesh shackles my soul. Let it break free!
Compared to this life, even Hell would be bliss.
I do not fear burning eternity.
My ears ring as though I fall endless.
The world sinks, stills. I snatch back the chest catch.
Anticipate the pistol, smooth, cool. Flinch.
Up rushes a breath from a freer land.
Waves thunder in glorious liberty.
Fresh sap, sense relieves my thirst. Stays my hand.
Rain’s veil gone, Hope anchors, calls me away.
Beheaded pineapples scatter the stone.
Bertha grows silent. She is not the storm
Though she would create it, it destroys her.
What can I do with evil all round me
I can endure no more to meekly bear?
It is the least sinful option to flee.
A will-o’-the wisp I will travel. Roam
To glimpse a dream. Lamb-like, delight is come,
Child of the freedom after the storm.
To its victims my vision will be kind.
She gathers up the pomegranates torn
To the ground, releases frightened birds that find
Terror no more. Shall she release me too?
Dawn kindles. In refreshed orange groves, Hope woos.
The poem follows a pentameter rhythm and a,b,a,b,c,c rhyme structure, half rhymes being used to reflect Rochester’s discord. This structure is based on Charlotte Brontë’s Pilate’s Wife’s Dream as it describes a similar situation. Pilate’s wife is awoken as Rochester is by Bertha’s yells. She wishes for day and light, or at least to sleep again. Rising, she goes to the window and sees a ‘lurid glow,’ ‘All black- one great cloud,’ much as Rochester watches the hurricane. She has a vision of Christ’s crucifixion. She says she cannot stand her husband with his ‘triple lust for gold, and blood, and power,’ similar to Rochester’s avaricious father. She feels he ‘robbed my youth,’ ‘Crushed my mind, and did my freedom slay’ as Bertha does to Rochester. She then has a vision of her husband killing himself before dawn comes and renews her hope. Similarly, dawn renews Rochester’s hope and he resolves to free himself from Bertha.
The use of symbolic imagery follows Jane Eyre. Gorgons are petrifying monsters from Classical myth. Rochester often uses Classical allusions, indicating his learned, upper-class background. Flies were seen as witches’ familiars and Bertha is described as ‘a hag like one of those who appeared to Macbeth.’ ‘bite flesh from bone’ and ‘blood spurts around a knife’ drawn on Bertha’s violent attack on her brother when he visits Thornfield. ‘wolfish cries’ is copied from Jane Eyre. Wolves were believed to devour light, as Bertha devours Rochester’s youth. Wolves symbolise violence lurking beneath a thin veneer of civilisation, just as Bertha seemed outwardly normal when Rochester first met her. Calumny is sourced from the Ancient Greek allegory of Apelles. Lucian described her, like Bertha, ‘as a beautiful woman, beside herself with passion, as if about to explode with madness and rage.’ She holds a flaming torch, Bertha being associated with fire imagery. ‘she drags along by the hair a young man’ personifying Innocence, just as Rochester feels robbed of his innocence which he is desperate to possess again. Deceit masks Calumny and Envy guide her to a foolish judge whom Ignorance counsels. This recollects Rochester’s father’s deception of his son and the way ‘All the men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me’ that spurred ‘ignorant, raw and inexperienced’ Rochester to accept the arranged marriage. Truth and Repentance follow. ‘vampire’ and ‘goblin’ fit the supernatural imagery that Bertha is given in Jane Eyre. Mosquitoes symbolise wickedness and rebellion. The image of the full moon setting in the sea originates from Jane Eyre. Usually associated with beauty and perfection, here the moon takes on a strange red colour associated with Mars the war god, bloodshed and passion. It sinks into the sea; symbol of the negative forces of the subconscious mind which rule Bertha. Hope is symbolised by an anchor that St Paul said entered through a veil of despair. The religious connotation links with religious themes in Jane Eyre. Pineapples symbolise the supposed wealth of the colonies. Here they lie broken on the ground, like Bertha when she jumps from Thornfield’s battlement. Lambs embody Christ in his sacrificial role, symbolising innocence, meekness and gentleness. Lambs flock to the Good Shepherd. Defiant of religion, Rochester refers to Jane as ‘a stray lamb’ returning to him as if he were her shepherd. The Thornfield fire humbles Rochester and makes him see the power of God. There are few Biblical references in the poem, reflecting that at this stage in his life Rochester is abandoning formal Christian religion. Pomegranates symbolise love and the return of light since in Classical myth Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds in Hades, thereby creating summer and winter. Similarly, oranges symbolise love and Paradise.