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It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. (Jane Eyre)

I can’t find any relevant meaning in the dictionaries for earth. Is it a verb? If it is, what does it mean? If not, what does 'which people earth' mean?

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  • For more-general interpretive remarks (not answering your specific question) on the passage, also see sparknotes Mar 11, 2013 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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It’s the noun which describes the planet on which we live, and it’s the object of the verb people, which here means ‘populate’. It is possible to omit the definite article in contexts such as this.

EDIT: FumbleFingers provides an alternative reading which deserves serious consideration.

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    Aw shucks, I was hoping this was going to be a question about the UK usage of earthed from electronics, for the same thing that North Americans use grounded for.
    – tchrist
    Mar 11, 2013 at 12:04
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    @Barrie England Is this a standard and modern English or an obsolete usage of English considering the time of story? Mar 11, 2013 at 12:41
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    @user37324. The absence of the definite article before 'Earth' might be now be found only in literary contexts. In normal usage, we might be more inclined to talk about, for example, 'the Earth's population', rather than use a verb phrase. Mar 11, 2013 at 13:05
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    @Barrie: Think again. Brontë is a very precise writer, and grammatically I don't see how you can parse this one as a noun usage. Mar 11, 2013 at 15:50
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    @FumbleFingers: Grammatically it would fit either way. I would agree that the verb construction is correct (though I never read it that way before), but to state that it cannot be parsed as a noun is wrong. Re-read it as "the masses who populate the Earth" and you will see where Barrie is coming from. (A reading made easier, at least for me, by the repeated reference to "millions".) Mar 11, 2013 at 16:22
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It's a very obscure (and I would say, archaic) verb usage. Relevant definitions from OED include:

To bury (a corpse);
To plunge or hide (something) in the earth;
trans. Hort. To heap the earth over (the roots and stems of plants), esp. in order to prevent the greening of potato tubers, or to blanch the stems of leeks, celery, etc.

Jane (or more properly, Charlotte Brontë) is portraying [social and political] rebellion as an inevitable upswelling of a homogeneous animal life-force that "grows" in people the way vegetables grow in earth. She's saying that "the people" collectively not only bury/hide rebellion "beneath the surface"; they're also nurturing and protecting rebellion until it sprouts fully-formed into the visible world we actually perceive.

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  • That’s certainly a possible interpretation, and one which the Harold Bloom reference seems to support. Mar 11, 2013 at 16:19
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    @Barrie: I wouldn't want to be too dogmatic in saying exactly what Brontë means by the word "earth" here (that's basically Lit Crit, and Off Topic anyway). But I don't see how we can avoid accepting that it's a verb usage. Mar 11, 2013 at 16:32
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    To read earth as a verb requires us to understand rebellions as the antecedent of which. In that case, she would be saying people earth rebellions. As I said, that does seem to be a possible reading, but, if that is what she meant, she wasn’t being particularly helpful to the reader, who will normally take the relative pronoun as referring to the nearest preceding noun phrase, which, in this case, is the masses of life, and is the subject of peoples. Mar 11, 2013 at 17:02
  • @Barrie: I see your point. But I have to say if I parse people as the verb, that leaves me with the masses of life being the things which populate [the] Earth. Effectively, masses of life = human beings, which strikes me as a really clinical/dismissive type of reference that I find hard to square with the overall tone of the excerpt. Mar 11, 2013 at 17:13
  • I had a hard time with this idea, mainly due to the explanation of growing and vegetable gardens. However, the image of a heaping mass and fermentation is very easy to conceive of as a metaphor for composting...
    – horatio
    Mar 22, 2013 at 20:13

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