There’s like minus ten things about this poem on the internet, so I guess I get to be first to decide what’s going on…
What’s it about?
This is a long one. Julian is a Lord who is visiting a prison, we assume in Gondal, where he sees many people suffering in a dungeon. There, he catches sight of a beautiful girl ,Rochelle, somebody he knew as a child. The jailer gets tired of watching them talk, so he gives Julian the keys, trusting that he will let himself out. Rather than “proving a jailer stern and true”, he decides to set Rochelle free and take her to live with him. Everybody begins to mock him for suddenly becoming a homebody, rather than behaving as a noble solider, but Julian thinks that giving up his status and freedom is worth it for Rochelle’s love.
This poem is told in rhyming couplets, with an iambic rhythm. The number of syllables per line varies roughly between 9 and 11, so at points it does sound a little fragmented, especially if you read it aloud. I can’t call this a traditional ballad, because that would require the 2nd and 4th lines to rhyme, but it certainly draws on ballad conventions because it tells a story from beginning to end. Bronte’s use of couplets creates a sense of unity and closure at the end of each verse, which mirrors the ultimate happy ending that the two characters achieve, while also paralleling the sense of enclosure in the prison setting. It’s a matter of opposing forces, so the structure also works in pairs.
There is also a lot of caesura in this poem, which creates the impression of a conversational tone, without it sounding informal. We can imagine that Julian is recounting the story in a flow of consciousness, which makes it feel more personal and realistic.
“soft and mild as sculptured marble saint or slumbering, unweaned
child” – I won’t lie, I find this line pretty creepy. It certainly draws on the romantic preoccupation with the beauty of childhood, but Rochelle is definitely infantalised to a degree by this description. The word “unweaned” suggests an animal that still takes its mother’s milk, suggesting that she is a dependant character, in need of another person to survive. Julian also refers to Rochelle as his “bird”, suggesting that she is like a captive pet, who he fears “would go” if he let her out of her cage, the prison. While the bird suggests freedom, it is also something to be looked on and possessed, hence the use of the possessive pronoun, “my“. It is totally up to you how you choose to read the relationship between these two characters, but I get the impression that Rochelle somehow feels in debt to Julian, because he talks about “at last” having “earned” an equal love from her, after having “guarded her by day, and guarded her by night.” In a sense, Rochelle enters another prison of a cushy kind when she goes to live with Julian.
“A messenger of hope, comes every night to me” – here we have typical religious references, explaining a similar situation to what we see in “to a wreath of snow.” Like Almeda, Rochelle uses imagination as an escape from her circumstances, but it doesn’t always work. “The soul to feel the flesh and the flesh to feel the chain” is a particuarly strong line which uses a semi-chiastic structure. The repetition of the word “flesh” establishes a link between the two halves of the sentence, it becoming the only barrier between the soul and the chains. In a sense, it is Rochelle’s soul that is harnessed by chains, as well as her physical body. Very Jean Jacque Rousseau – “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
“terror-blent delight” – this is just a particularly nice oxymoron. The idea of the feelings combined in a blend creates a very visual impression of the juxtapositions we see throughout this poem: the contrast between the light outdoors and the dark interior, the caged and the free bird, the physical realm of pain, and the unseen one of the imagination. Like I mentioned in the structure section, this is a poem of binaries, and in turn one of conflict.
It’s very difficult to apply context to Bronte, because these poems exist in a world of her own creation. I don’t feel as though it’s my place to decide for definite what this story is about – I don’t even know why Rochelle is in prison, or why Julian is going on a tour in the first place. We might choose to interpret the prison as being metaphorical, as I think that I mentioned for the Almeda poem. Perhaps it is about the confinement of womanhood, and the fact that a woman always had to compromise personal freedom for stability.