August 23, 2009

The Poetry of Emily Jane Bronte


Everyone is generally aware that the Bronte sisters wrote some truly incredible novels. Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) was the author of Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and her first novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857. Emily Bronte (1818-1848) wrote Wuthering Heights in 1847. Anne Bronte (1820-1849), the youngest sister, wrote Agnes Grey (1847) followed by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.

What is not as widely known though, is that the Brontes first published work was a small book of poetry in 1846. It was submitted for publication under the pseudonyms of 'Currer' (Charlotte), 'Ellis' (Emily), and 'Acton' (Anne) Bell. The women thought it best if their first foray into the world of publishing were done under a masculine guise. They were required to come up with the full costs associated with publication and advertising. In the first year after publication, the publisher only sold two copies. After the death of the three sisters, a second edition of their poems was released and did much better.

Charlotte Bronte writes, in 1845, of her sister Emily's poetry, after she accidentally found Emily's handwritten collection of her poems:

"I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy, and elevating." (From, The Bronte Story: A Reconsideration of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Margaret Lane, published by Duell, Sloan & Pearce, and Little, Brown and Co., 1953)

Professor Harold Bloom, in his anthology, The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004) is of the opinion that Emily Bronte's poetry was "...the thing itself, strong poetry, of a wholly original kind." I tend to agree completely. It is a blend of the Byronism of the Romantic Era with Gothic passionate intensity. In her poems, it is easy to see the author of Wuthering Heights and her creation of the tortured love between Heathcliff and Catherine.

To give you a meaningful taste of Emily Bronte's poetry I want to highlight two of her poems: Lines (1836); followed by the poem Stanzas (1846), that Professor Bloom also included in his anthology, referenced above.

***

"Lines"

I die but when the grave shall press
The heart so long endeared to thee
When earthly cares no more distress
And earthly joys are nought to me

Weep not, but think that I have past
Before thee o'er a sea of gloom
Have anchored safe and rest at last
Where tears and mourning cannot come

'Tis I should weep to leave thee here
On the dark Ocean sailing drear
With storms around and fears before
And no kind light to point the shore

But long or short though life may be
'Tis nothing to eternity
We part below to meet on high

***

"Stanzas"

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I'll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I'll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

***

Finally, I want to share some short verses written by Emily at about 16 years of age at the school at Roehead; and by Anne, when she was about 21 or 22, and away as a governess. Both of the little poems are about missing their Haworth parsonage home on the moors. Even though these verses are separated in years, and by author, I was immediately struck by the similarity of voice, tone, and emotion.

***

Emily's verses:

"There is a spot, 'mid barren hills,
Where winter howls, and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.

The house is old, the trees are bare,
Moonless above bends twilight's dome,
But what on earth is half so dear--
So longed for--as the hearth of home?

The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The thorn trees gaunt, the walks o'ergrown,
I love them--how I love them all!

***

Anne's poem, entitled "Home":

"For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks and borders trim,
And velvet lawns between--

Restore to me that little spot,
With gray walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.

Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within--
Oh, give me back my Home!"

***

While I highly recommend reading their novels, I equally recommend that you look into their poetry as well; especially some of Emily's poems. In fact, it might be argued that Emily's real genius was in crafting verse versus prose. Such short lives too; and one can only wonder what might have been had these three amazing women lived longer.

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the background biographical information on the Bronte sisters and their publication history.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you old chap!

    Quite a discovery. Shall re-read.
    Good work!

    ReplyDelete