My heart is like a withered nut,
Rattling within its hollow shell;
You cannot ope my breast, and put
Any thing fresh with it to dwell.
The hopes and dreams that filled it when
Life’s spring of glory met my view,
Are gone! And ne’er with joy or pain
That shrunken heart shall swell anew.
My heart is like a withered nut;
Once it was soft to every touch,
But now ‘tis stern and closely shut;–
I would not have to plead with such.
Each light-toned voice once cleared my brow,
Each gentle breeze once shook the tree
Where hung the sun-lit fruit, which now
Lies cold, and stiff, and sad, like me!
My heart is like a withered nut—
It once was comely to the view;
But since misfortune’s blast hath cut,
It hath a dark and mournful hue.
The freshness of its verdant youth
Nought to that fruit can now restore.
And my poor heart, I feel in truth,
Nor sun, nor smile shall light it more!
Caroline Norton was an English feminist, social reformer, and recognized writer of the early and mid-nineteenth century who successfully advocated for married women’s rights in Victorian Britain. She not only wrote poetry, but novels and political pamphlets as well. Henry Nelson Coleridge, eldest son of Samuel Coleridge, compared her to Byron, saying, “She has very much of that intense personal passion…also Byron’s beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression.” Later in her life Norton grew more ambitious with her poetry, writing long poems that addressed social issues, such as the plight of the factory worker.
“My Heart Is like a Withered Nut!” was published in London in 1830 by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley as part of Norton’s second collection of poetry, The Undying One and Other Poems. In it the speaker regrets and resigns herself to the loss of her youthful hopes and happiness through an extended metaphor. Although Norton published this poem at the still-young age of twenty-two, it was likely inspired by her own life. Pressured by her parents, she married George Chapple Norton when she was nineteen, and it soon proved to be a very unhappy marriage. Not only did the two disagree on nearly every important issue of the day, but her husband began abusing her just two months into their marriage.
In “My Heart Is Withered like a Nut!” each of the stanzas begins with the same line with only one alteration – the words are always the same, but the punctuation changes. It progresses from a comma to a semicolon to a dash, the pauses signified by the punctuation lengthening. The changes reflect the speaker’s emotional journey; as time goes on, she finds herself further and further from the happiness of her past, further even from being able to mourn it. Her heart will feel “ne’er… joy nor pain,” not distinguishing between positive and negative emotion. The word withered suggests death, and what is dead can no longer bleed. The speaker’s condition seems to be nothing less than depression: a dulling of the senses; an inability to experience strong emotion, whether painful or pleasant; but nonetheless an oppressive unhappiness through a knowledge of what has been lost. Although the narrator claims otherwise, her heart does not seem dead yet – the poem has a kind of bitter liveliness, perhaps best expressed by the first (or fourth) iteration of that repeated line in the title. It uses the most aggressive of all punctuation marks, the exclamation point, which expresses strong emotion. Although the emotion is negative, the speaker plainly does feel it.
The ending lines of the poem show that the narrator has a bleak view of her future, and the same would hold true for Norton’s life. During her fourth pregnancy, her husband beat her so badly that she miscarried, and when she tried to leave her husband, she realized that as a married woman, she had no legal identity and therefore no right to custody of her children. This sparked her campaigning for the rights of married women, and she succeeded in passing three related laws. The emotional turmoil and drama in “My Heart Is like a Withered Nut!” marks it as a typical poem of its time, but although the content may be unoriginal, it is authentic. Ultimately, Caroline Norton’s life appears to be more interesting than her poetry, which could be seen as either a crushing failure or tremendous success.