by Anna M. Evans, Poet &
mily Bronte was the first woman poet of the Romantic era to write with an utter disregard for the moral and religious conventions of the day. As her sister Charlotte observed, no woman had ever written poems like those Emily was writing. Although not often hailed as a forerunner of high modernism, her poetry influenced such forerunners as Emily Dickinson, and her willingness to defy the traditional forms of women's poetry gave all who followed her permission to strive to be unique.
For over 150 years our images of Emily, and of Bronte family life in general, have been mediated predominantly through two people--the eldest surviving Bronte sister Charlotte, and Charlotte's first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, who never knew Emily or Anne. Charlotte, who survived Emily by around seven years, was incensed at the criticisms leveled at Emily's masterpiece Wuthering Heights, and sought to justify Emily's choice of subject, and unequivocal view of the coarseness of human nature, by describing Emily in the Biographical Notice and Preface for the 1850 combined edition of Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey as follows: "An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest."
Charlotte's desire to function as Emily's interpreter went further. The 1850 volume also included eighteen of Emily's previously unpublished poems, but with customary zeal Charlotte not only stretched her role as editor by considerably re-writing parts of the poems, she is also now believed to have added a poem of her own "Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning," which if taken autobiographically personified the Emily that Charlotte wished the world to remember: a solitary genius with the powers of a naïve visionary.
Some things are, of course, incontrovertible. Emily entered this life on July 30, 1818, in Thornton near Bradford, the fifth of six children born to Patrick Bronte, an ambitious young clergyman of Irish descent, and Maria Branwell. Her siblings were Maria (1813), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Patrick Branwell (1817) and finally Anne (1820.) In the April after Anne was born the family moved to Haworth Parsonage, where Bronte senior remained the perpetual curate until his death in 1861.
Unfortunately, Maria Branwell was diagnosed with cancer in early 1821 and died in September of that year. Emily could hardly have remembered her mother at all, although the prevalence of motherless children in her novel and the poems gives us an indication of the hollow left by her absence.
Still, children can recover from such emotional blows with sufficient support, and in the case of the Brontes, their Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, who took up permanent residence at Haworth to care for the brood, provided this. In 1824 a 53-year-old villager called Tabby Ackroyd joined the household as a servant and also became a much-loved part of the family.
In mid-1824, Patrick Bronte took the fateful decision to send his eldest daughters to the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School, where they would receive an education sufficient to set them up as governesses for the bargain price of fourteen pounds a year. Maria and Elizabeth were enrolled in July; Charlotte followed in August; and Emily arrived in November of the same year. The harsh regime of Cowan Bridge, immortalized forever by Charlotte in her depiction of Lowood School in Jane Eyre, was not perhaps unusual for a school of this type in that era. However, conditions at Cowan Bridge were more unsanitary than many other schools, and in spring 1825 a typhoid epidemic descended upon the school. Both Maria and Elizabeth sickened and eventually died, precipitating Charlotte and Emily's return to Haworth.
Patrick Bronte was determined not to risk the health of his remaining offspring and kept them all at home from that date until early 1831. For over five years the four intelligent and imaginative siblings were left pretty much to their own devices. As they read, talked, and acted out the ideas that sprang to their imaginations, the conditions that would ignite their literary aspirations had been born.
One of the Bronte siblings' favorite games soon became the elaborate plotting of the adventures of a set of wooden soldiers--the "Young Men," as they were called, who each ruled one of four mythical kingdoms that comprised the Glass Town Confederacy, theoretically located in Africa. From 1829 the young Brontes began to record the adventures of their Glass Town heroes in tiny handmade booklets that they called "The Young Men's Magazine." A few of these booklets are on display at the museum in Haworth, showcasing the miniature handwriting that all four children used in the booklets, and that Emily maintained as her adult script.
Charlotte's schooldays recommenced when a near fatal illness prompted Patrick Bronte to once again consider his daughters' future, and in January 1831 he sent her to Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Without Charlotte's softening influence, Emily and Anne became unhappy with Branwell's obsession with the military and the political side of Glass Town, and they decided to invent a new country, an island kingdom in the North Pacific that Emily named Gondal.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Gondal to Emily and to her creative output. Whereas the other three siblings eventually gave up writing stories and poems about Glass Town and its successor, Angria, Gondal remained a part of Emily's life to the very end. One of the last poems she worked on, in September 1846, was a Gondal epic entitled "Why Ask to Know the Date--the Clime?" (This finding, based on manuscript evidence, contradicts Charlotte's claim that "No Coward Soul Is Mine"--a more romantic choice--contains the last words her sister wrote.)
Unlike Glass Town or Angria, Gondal was a female-dominated world with a landscape close to that of the Yorkshire Emily knew. Its beautiful and ruthless Queen, Augusta Geraldine Almeda, is the speaker of many of the Gondal poems, though claims that this makes her an alter-ego for Emily need to be treated with skepticism.
After three years back in residence at Haworth, ostensibly instructing her sisters in the lessons she had learned at Roe Head, Charlotte was offered a teaching position at that former school, which enabled Emily to take up a place there as a student at no cost to the family. Emily was miserable at Roe Head, however, and returned home after only a few months to let her place be taken by Anne, who remained at Roe Head with Charlotte for almost two years. Emily, meanwhile, was content to be at Haworth, close to her beloved moors and, of course, to Gondal. Her earliest extant poems date from this period.
Apart from a brief job as a governess at Law Hill School, Emily never worked outside the home, but between 1839 and the end of 1841, she wrote more than fifty surviving poems and verse fragments, many of which are among her best. After quitting yet another governess position Charlotte decided that she and Emily should open a school of their own at Haworth, and when this scheme did not immediately meet with enthusiastic applicants, she suggested that they needed to distinguish themselves with a course of study abroad. To that end, she persuaded her Aunt to finance a six-month term for both girls at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, beginning in February 1842. They remained there until word reached them of their Aunt Branwell's fatal illness the following October.
The fact that Emily was able to spend eight months of her life, not just away at school, but also in a foreign country where lessons were conducted in French, and where her sister was her only touchstone, should go some way toward countering the popular image of her as anti-social and unsophisticated. Indeed, her surviving French philosophical essays demonstrate that she was thriving on the intellectual stimulation of the school. While Charlotte famously fell in love with her married French teacher, Constantin Heger, Emily was beginning to formulate the somewhat unorthodox Christian views she later unveiled in Wuthering Heights.
Charlotte went back to Brussels as a teacher early in 1843 while Emily remained at Haworth, pro facto housekeeper now Aunt Branwell was gone, and also back in command of her fantasy world of Gondal. She wrote many more poems that year before Charlotte, on her return home in January 1844, attempted to revive the idea of their own school. Once again, nothing came of this, but Emily was now committed, in a private way which prefigures that of Dickinson, to her own writings. In February 1844, she took stock of her work and transcribed all the poems in which she still saw merit into two separate manuscript booklets--one for Gondal poems and one for regular verse. Both manuscripts survive today. By October 1845 things were looking grim for the Brontes--all four children were unemployed at Haworth, and the depressed Branwell was well on the route to dissipation, while Bronte senior was near-blind thanks to cataracts. Then Charlotte discovered Emily's poetry manuscripts.
After some effort, Charlotte persuaded Emily to join herself and Anne in a venture to publish a joint volume of their poetry. This was eventually printed at their own expense in May 1846, but despite a couple of favorable reviews, only two copies were ever sold. The experience had given the sisters a taste for publication, however, and also gave them their androgynous pen names, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. By the time Poems came out, all three sisters were hard at work on novels, The Professor, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. The Professor did not find a publisher at this stage, but Charlotte's second novel, Jane Eyre, found its way rapidly into print in October 1847, beating the other two sisters' novels, which came out in mid-December.
Despite uneasy reviews, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights both sold well, and correspondence exists to suggest that throughout the first half of 1848 Emily was hard at work on a second novel. The manuscript has never been found, unfortunately, and given Charlotte's high-handed attitude toward her sister's legacy, it is not unthinkable that she destroyed it. Nor was the novel ever completed. During 1848 Branwell's health, compromised by drink and drugs, finally gave way to tuberculosis, and he died in September. Emily, having caught a cold at Branwell's funeral, almost immediately began to weaken and succumb to the tuberculosis bacilli so rampant in the Haworth environment. Aware of the popular treatments for tuberculosis, which included bleeding and internal medicines of dubious value, Emily refused to see a doctor until it was too late, and she died on December 19, 1848.
Emily Bronte's most famous poem is the one that Emily Dickinson wished to be read at her funeral, "No Coward Soul is Mine." Although the text Dickinson would have been familiar with is the 1850 version included in the posthumous new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, it is now known that Charlotte had tampered substantially with these poems. Therefore I provide here Emily's fair copy version from the manuscript of non-Gondal poems that she began transcribing in 1844.
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And thou were left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
It is interesting that Charlotte's changes--regularizing punctuation and capitalizing all the "thou"s--made this declaration of a personal faith more orthodox, when Charlotte clearly knew that Emily's religious beliefs diverged significantly from her own. As Katherine Frank says, "Emily was the only Bronte daughter who was exempted from teaching Sunday school and who did not attend church regularly." Other readings of the poem have used the third stanza as evidence that Emily rejected the "thousand creeds" of orthodox Anglican religion as "withered weeds."'
We should assume that in this minimally punctuated poem, line breaks are often substituted for commas, and stanza breaks are typically expected to stand for omitted periods; otherwise the whole would be one long run-on sentence. Given that, like most poets of the period, Emily typically wrote in complete grammatical sentences rather than sentence fragments, we can, however, postulate a comma instead of a period at the end of both stanzas two and three. This reading suggests that the "thousand creeds" are vain "to waken Doubt in one Holding so fast to thy Infinity." In other words, Emily Bronte's faith in her God was unshakeable despite the proliferation of religious theories and sects that surrounded her.
This poem is the apex of religious thought for a poet who found beauty, even ecstasy, not in church-led prayer or doctrine but by walking on the moors and reveling in the natural world. It therefore identifies Emily Bronte with the transcendentalists--we know the Brontes were interested in the works of Emerson, because Charlotte was reading from Emerson's essays aloud to Emily the night before she died.
Another relevant observation made by Janet Gezari, among others, is the similarity of this, Emily's penultimate poem, to the language Catherine uses in Wuthering Heights, when she describes her relation to Heathcliff: "If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn into a mighty stranger." It is tempting to assert that Emily, a spinster who rarely spoke to men, let alone had any personal knowledge of romance, adored her God with the single-mindedness of a lover.
From a technical point of view, this poem stands out from Emily's oeuvre because of its unusual meter. Emily's preferred meters were tetrameter and common measure (4343). In a subtle criticism of religious rigor, "No Coward Soul" reverses common measure, not by chance the meter of most of the hymns with which Emily would have been familiar. (Incidentally the regular pentameter of "Often Rebuked Yet Always Back Returning" is one argument for it having sprung from Charlotte's more poetically conventional pen.)
Before leaving this poem it is worth noting that the phrase "coward soul" was actually borrowed from the preface to Elizabeth Carter's translation of "Epictetus" (1758), an ode by Hester Chapone (1727-1801). This poem is therefore in part an invigorating response to Chapone's more capitulating stance toward the prevailing religious climate, while at the same time acknowledging Emily's debt to her female forebears.
Critical opinion is divided as to the importance of the distinction between Gondal poems and personal poems in Emily's work. Perhaps the best way of reconciling the two is to suggest that Gondal provided a fantasy narrative framework, which stimulated certain lyrical impulses in Emily that her real life as a solitary housekeeper could not. There are no concrete differences in craft or tone that can be legitimately assigned to each poem category, and when Emily selected the verses which would appear in the 1846 volume, Poems, she proved amenable to the suggestion that she remove all references to the Gondal narrative that had framed them. She also gave them all titles very much in keeping with the prevailing traditions. I will quote her poem, "Remembrance," as it appears in that volume, given that these are Emily's emendations and not Charlotte's, pausing to note that the original title in the Gondal poems manuscript is "R. Alcona to J. Brenzaida" and that Rosina Alcona and Julius Brenzaida were Gondal characters who appear in other poems.
Cold in the earth--and the deep snow piled above thee!
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my Only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart for ever, ever more?
Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring--
Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!
Sweet Love of youth, forgive if I forget thee
While the World's tide is bearing me along:
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong.
No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me:
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given--
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.
But when the days of golden dreams had perished
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened and fed without the aid of joy;
Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine!
And even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in Memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?
Emily's re-titling of this poem is noteworthy not only because it illustrates a desire to be part of the mainstream poetic movement of the century (Shelley, Byron and Southey had all published poems with the same title), but also because it demonstrates the deep relationship between love and absence that pervades Emily's work. In the original title, the speaker is addressing a dead lover; the new title makes us aware that the dead man has entered her thoughts involuntarily in a resurgence of love that threatens the speaker's equilibrium.
Love that transcends the grave is a key theme in Wuthering Heights and a feature of many more poems, including "There Shines the Moon, at Noon of Night," "Oh Wander Not So Far Away," and "Lord of Elbe, on Elbe Hill." But importantly, even where the subject of Emily's love poems is not dead, he or she is invariably absent, either due to faithlessness or war, for example "For Him Who Struck Thy Foreign String" and "I Knew Not eTwas So Dire a Crime." One explanation could be that Emily had little personal experience of romantic love--affecting her confidence to write a poem addressing an ardent and present lover--but plenty of experience of being parted from people she loved, albeit unromantically, by death or distance.
Regardless, there is no doubt that "Remembrance" is a hugely powerful lyric exemplifying what Janet Gezari calls "unresolved loss and mourning." The rhythms of the poem are particularly striking: a cursory scansion of the poem would identify it as one of the few iambic pentameter poems that Emily Bronte wrote, but in fact Emily has created a new rhythm, one in which pretty much every line begins with a trochee. Reading the poem aloud, by the time you reach the eighth line with its potentially more conventional scansion "Thy noble heart, for ever, ever more," Emily's rhythm has taken over, and the "Thy" receives undue stress, as she no doubt intended. Furthermore, she sets up a pattern of alternating feminine rhymes for the first and third lines of each stanza, and masculine rhymes for the second and fourth lines, without once resorting to the easiest feminine ending of ing. The result is hypnotic and somewhat eerie--a melody played in a minor key.
On a damp April Monday in 2009, I found myself driving to Haworth down a narrow, looping road which traced the rolling contours of the Yorkshire moors. Futuristic three-pronged white windmills now harness the wind's wuthering, but much else is unchanged, both in the stern yet uplifting landscape and in the village itself, cobbled onto the side of a hill. I approached Haworth Parsonage through the graveyard, which is much as it was in the time of the Brontes--Emily, Charlotte, and Branwell are buried in a crypt in the church, and Anne in Scarborough where she died five months after Emily. Black crows cawed above the small lawn, upon which a group of local students were staging an al fresco version of Jane Eyre. In the dining room, I shuddered at the sight of the black horsehair sofa on which Emily is reputed to have died, and I marveled at the tiny children's study, where the four Brontes began their literary endeavors. I saw Keeper's brass collar and the china-lidded workbox left to Emily in Aunt Branwell's will. Ultimately, however, I communed with Emily not in the Parsonage at Haworth, but where her spirit remains for all who wish to find it in her great novel, and in her fierce, inspiring poems.
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.
The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995
Last Things, Emily Bronte's Poems. Oxford: Oxford University press, 2007
Chainless Soul, a Life of Emily Bronte. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990