"No Coward Soul Is Mine" Themes
The main themes of “No Coward Soul Is Mine” are death, Protestantism, and nature.
- Death: Likely influenced by the numerous personal tragedies in her own life, Brontë’s poem concludes that death is ultimately powerless over the divine immortality that resides in the faithful.
- Protestantism: The poem reflects several tenets of Protestantism, including the belief in a deeply personal and individual relationship with God.
- Nature: The speaker claims that God’s spirit is present in all living things, suggesting that nature itself possesses an inherent divinity.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Death was something that plagued Emily Brontë throughout her entire life. She lost her mother to cancer at the age of three, then lost two of her older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) to tuberculosis at the age of seven. Sickness continued to afflict her family, and Emily herself would die from tuberculosis at thirty, less than three months after her beloved elder brother Branwell had succumbed to the same disease. With the spectre of death looming so large in her personal life, it is of little surprise “No Coward Soul Is Mine” seeks to rationalize and reclaim death through the power of faith.
In the last two stanzas, the speaker lays out her reasoning as to why, though death can decimate anything belonging to the physical realms, it holds no power over the divine. Anything imbued with the spirit of God “may never be destroyed,” the speaker claims. Thus, while the mortal body may die, a person’s immortal soul must necessarily live on, since God is their “Being and Breath.” It is this knowledge that allows the speaker’s soul to resist cowardice before “the world’s storm-troubled sphere”; she is secure in her belief that whatever befalls her mortal body will have little consequence for the piece of divinity that lives on “within [her] breast."
By the lifetime of Emily Brontë, the official state religion of England had been protestant for some centuries. Religion was a formative aspect of the Brontë sisters’ lives, since their father was employed as a perpetual curate in the United Church of England and Ireland for much of their childhood and adolescence. Protestant ideology permeates “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” appearing first in the second stanza of the poem and continuing through its conclusion.
When the speaker directly addresses God in the first line of the second stanza, she attaches the epithet “within my breast” to declare a personal and intimate relationship with God. This is distinct from the traditional Catholic view of God at the time, which broadly posited that people are not able to have an individual relationship with God but must rely on the clergy to act as an intermediary between themselves and the divine. The protestant belief in intimacy with the divine is only expanded by the speaker’s claim that the life that lives within her is a facet of the “Undying Life” that lives within God. Through this declaration, the speaker suggests not only that she is able to communicate directly with the divine but that the essence of God is imbued in her very being.
The poem’s meditations on organized religion become explicit in stanza three, where the speaker denounces “the thousand creeds / That move men’s hearts” as “unutterably vain.” Although creed can be taken more broadly to denote a set of beliefs or principles that guide men’s lives, such as the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, “creed” as used here likely refers to an organized system of belief or faith. This, combined with the repetitious description of such creeds as vain, may allude to the excessive wealth and opulence of the Catholic church, which was viewed by many protestants as a corrupting influence. Indeed, the increasing affluence of the Catholic church and its increasing reliance on physical representations of wealth—such as highly gilded altars—were two of the primary complaints levied against the church during the Protestant reformation. Thus, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” can be read as a deeply Protestant text due to its intimate portrayal of the speaker’s relationship with God and its expression of nature itself as an object of worship rather than physical objects like altars, pews, vestments.
Nature—and more specifically the divinity inherent in nature—remains a strong feature throughout Emily Brontë’s oeuvre. During her adolescence Brontë was heavily influenced by Romantic authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. “No Coward Soul Is Mine” continues the legacy of such Romantic poets, foregrounding the beauty within wild, untamed nature in response to the exponential growth of industrialization and widespread domestication of natural spaces.
Within the poem, the speaker connects the pure, untouched grandeur of nature as being inextricable from God’s divinity. For humanity to attempt to alter or destroy such beauty would be to raise their hands against God himself, although the speaker is able to comfort herself with the knowledge that even if the corporeal aspects of nature are damaged, their divinity would continue to exist within God.