July 30, 2018 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Emily Bronte, best known as the Victorian novelist who wrote Wuthering Heights. That novel, aside from occupying an eternal place in the literary canon, still has the power to captivate the modern reader. This 200th anniversary gives me the excuse to revisit that novel and explore what was so special and original about it as well as celebrate Bronte’s equally powerful and original poetry that takes the Romantic ethos into new regions of narration, form, and theme, as one might expect if a master story teller also happened to be a spiritual Romantic poet.
Emily Bronte was known by very few people during her life, and she did not write letters or keep a journal. As a result, there is a dearth of biographical sources about her. The information provided by her surviving sister, Charlotte, is colored by Charlotte’s own personality, revisionism, and remorse. The best way to know Emily Bronte is through her work: Wuthering Heights and her poetry.
My favorite scenes in Wuthering Heights are Heathcliff digging up Catherine’s grave and Isabella arriving at the Heights as the newly wedded Mrs. Heathcliff. Both scenes combine the strange yet real that permeate the novel and add to its originality. Even if I named twenty favorite scenes, however, none of them would be familiar to anyone who knows the novel as the great love story between Catherine and Heathcliff because not only is the novel so much more than that love story, it is in fact not that love story at all. Rather, it is a generational tale of dependence, addiction, early childhood experience, death, and grief so far ahead of its time that readers in its era and after generally missed its meaning.
Wuthering Heights takes place over thirty-years, starting in 1774 (not Emily’s generation, but that of her grandparents) in a contained world of two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, situated on the moors of Northern England and within three miles of each other. A saga of sorts, it covers two generations, with certain characters — Heathcliff, Ellen Dean, and Joseph — spanning both generations. The Earnshaws inhabit the Heights, the Lintons the Grange. The story begins in medias res and is told as a long look back mostly through two principal first-person narrators: Lockwood and Nelly Dean (there are other first-person voices heard through letters, but we will leave those aside). Mostly the story is told by Ellen Dean aka Nelly and Mrs. Dean, the longstanding family servant. The frame of her tale is Lockwood’s illness, which keeps him idle, isolated, and bored at Thrushcross Grange for many long weeks; he is curious about what he has seen during his two pre-illness visits to Wuthering Heights and invites Mrs. Dean to tell all. She complies to narrate the story of how Heathcliff came to live at the Heights and the many events that followed throughout the years. As she tells us, Mr. Earnshaw finds Heathcliff in Liverpool as a little, lost child and brings him home, to the dismay of all in his household. Everyone dislikes him, including the children, Catherine and Hindley, until Catherine, herself not much liked in the household, befriends him, and they become confederates in mischief making and the resulting punishments. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley inherits the Heights and takes revenge on Heathcliff for having entered his life and for having supplanted him in the affection of his father. Hindley marries and sets himself up as the new master of the place. Catherine and Heathcliff escape Hindley’s domination from time to time by running around on the moors, and, on one such excursion, going to Thrushcross Grange, where Edgar and Isabella Linton reside with their parents. Heathcliff and Catherine glimpse through the windows how the other half lives, seeing refinement, warmth, and comfort unknown at the Heights. The peeping Toms are attacked by watch dogs, one of which mangles Catherine’s foot. She must stay at the Grange to recuperate and finds favor with the Lintons as the daughter of the Earnshaw family, while Heathcliff is reviled and thrown out of the house. Edgar has thus entered the picture and, from this point on, rivals Heathcliff in Catherine’s attention, although Catherine’s affections for Heathcliff have always been as a sister, friend, and playmate. As the relationship between Edgar and Catherine, which is not just fraternal, builds, Heathcliff runs away after overhearing that Catherine has decided to marry Edgar. Catherine and Edgar eventually marry, although Ellen Dean tells us that Edgar is foolishly infatuated to do so and ignorant of Catherine’s real nature. A few years pass peacefully at Thrushcross Grange, while at Wuthering Heights, Hindley runs riot, drinking and gambling and endangering the life of his son, Hareton; Hindley’s wife Frances has died shortly after Hareton’s birth, leaving Hindley as bereft a mourner as Heathcliff will prove to be in due course, but in Hindley’s case, he succumbs to the consolation of “reckless dissipation.” Heathcliff returns after several years, having somehow made a sort of gentleman of himself. He has acquired money; having “gone for a soldier” seems the most likely explanation. Heathcliff intends to get a glimpse of old acquaintances and kill himself, but on receiving an effusively warm welcome from Catherine decides to stay and make trouble. He plots revenge on Hindley by encouraging his drinking and gambling, in particular by lending him money against the ownership of Wuthering Heights, eventually taking title to the place. Heathcliff hangs around the Grange too much and when he is suspected of wooing Isabella, a tense situation between Edgar and Heathcliff comes to a head. As Edgar declares once and for all that Heathcliff’s visits to the Grange and all association with his family must end, Catherine becomes enraged and suffers a relapse of brain fever, which, after causing her to deliver some Shakespearean quality soliloquies, ends her life. Her death sets Heathcliff on his course as the greatest mourner in literature: he twice goes to her grave to unearth her corpse, and the second time, years after her death, opens the coffin to see her again; his grief torments him undiminished. In poetic lines, Heathcliff describes his sorrow to Nelly Dean during various moments of reminiscence. Back to the chronology. While Catherine is ill, Isabella elopes with Heathcliff, as a further example of how silly romantic love can be. She soon finds out that he is not a dashing hero, but a cruel and hateful demon. She finally flees the region and has a son named Linton. Right before Catherine dies, she gives birth to a daughter named Catherine, which gives Edgar a reason to carry on, or else he, like Hindley and Heathcliff, would have been consumed by his grief on a life-long basis. Years later, once Isabella dies, Edgar fetches his nephew, young Linton; however, Heathcliff demands him and takes him to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff intends that his son will marry Edgar’s daughter, securing to him the ownership of Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff orchestrates their meetings, aided by the foolish emotions of love that Catherine imagines she feels for her cousin Linton — the third instance of how foolish and misguided romantic love is. Linton just does what his father tells him to do because otherwise Heathcliff will torture him. Heathcliff finally succeeds in trapping Catherine at Wuthering Heights and forces her to marry Linton; he also seeks to prevent her from being at her father’s bedside, for Edgar is on the verge of death and has no idea that Catherine is a prisoner at Wuthering Heights. Edgar dies, and Heathcliff forces young Catherine to live at Wuthering Heights. Linton who has been grievously ill from consumption for years, finally dies, opening up the way for Catherine to appreciate her other cousin, Hareton, who has been at the Heights this whole time working as a farm hand. Heathcliff has raised him as an ignorant, hardworking servant, but has also given free rein to any vice, which has served to endear Heathcliff to Hareton. Catherine and Hareton gradually develop an affection for each other and plan to marry and live at Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff dies, a smile upon his face as if the rapture of joining Catherine in death has descended upon him. Lockwood (our original narrator) assures his listener that all the dead are slumbering peacefully.
To lay to rest “twelve feet under” (as Catherine says about the depth of her grave) the idea that Wuthering Heights is a love story is the first step for revealing the truth about it. A romantic love story view of the novel willfully indulges a proclivity for that kind of tale; if you want a love story, there are many to cozy up to, but this is not one of them. How is there no great romance between Catherine and Heathcliff? Let me count the ways: they are not lovers; they have been raised from earliest childhood as brother and sister; there is never any incident in the narrative of any physical contact until Catherine is dying and the two finally kiss; when Catherine considers in a childish way the possibility of marriage, she shows a complete lack of understanding of what it entails, and opts for Edgar, foolishly thinking he will make a willing third party in a ménage that includes Heathcliff. Once Heathcliff is gone, she lives quite happily with Edgar, except for a sigh or two. Even when Heathcliff returns there is no physical contact or plan for Catherine to run off with Heathcliff, and Heathcliff marries Isabella (although admittedly for revenge). Obviously Heathcliff has an obsession with Catherine, but something other than romantic love is at work to create the utter dependence this unloved soul has for the only person who has ever been close to him in his orphaned and abused life. After Catherine dies he becomes not the greatest lover in literature, but the greatest mourner. Incidentally, Edgar and Hindley rival Heathcliff in his attachment to the dead; the presence of three characters in one novel who, respectively, mourn themselves into isolation, dissipation, or obsession suggests the author is trying to express something about death and grief, not romance. The only little bit of Victorian-style romance appears between young Catherine and Hareton; they are two young people who face impediments to their union, but seem suited for each other, and, at the end, their wedding day is set.
Another misconception is that Wuthering Heights is to some degree a Gothic novel. It is not known whether Emily Bronte ever read one of the Gothic tales popular during the turn of the century (the 18th into the 19th), which Jane Austen satirizes in Northanger Abbey. Even if she had read them, Gothic conventions appear in Wuthering Heights only in the mind of a reader who insists on finding them. There are no ghosts in the novel, just nightmares and grief; there are no castles with secret passage ways, only a farm house with a garret where Joseph sleeps; there is no stylized heroine frightened by specters, only idiosyncratic and suffering three dimensional characters, dealing with abuse, isolation, addiction, and grief. The moors of the setting are not Gothic wilds, but Emily Brontë’s own backyard.
So, what is it really about if not the love story of Heathcliff and Catherine? Next time you read Wuthering Heights, which easily bears numerous readings, lookout for the development of the following topics: death, alcoholism, the lasting effect of childhood experiences, revenge, dependence, and, did I mention, death and more death. Note the number of characters who die and how an attitude toward death and the dead defines all of the major characters. Appreciate the realistic depiction of Hindley as an alcoholic and the psychological prescience of Bronte with regard to the lifelong importance of childhood experiences. Revenge is Heathcliff’s raison d’etre after Catherine dies, and most of the book takes place post-Catherine; the centrality of revenge is seen by the fact that the resolution of his quest for vengeance heralds the end of the entire tale. Revenge is also at work to motivate other characters, Hindley, at various stages in his life, and Isabella.
Misunderstood or not, Wuthering Heights almost failed to attract any notice at all. It was not well received by critics or the public in a spectacular example of just how wrong those two segments of readers can be. It was saved only by extraordinary circumstances: the publication and success of Jane Eyre by Emily’s sister Charlotte. Charlotte Bronte had written Jane Eyre after Emily had completed Wuthering Heights, but Charlotte succeeded in getting her novel published before Wuthering Heights appeared, having a reputable and diligent publisher, something that Emily and her novel did not have. Both works, as well as Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, were published under the pen name Bell. Critics and the public suspected that Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell could also have been the work of Currer Bell, Charlotte’s pen name. That marketable suspicion spurred Emily’s publisher to finally bring the novel to print. One year later, after Emily died, Charlotte, who was on the road to becoming a writer of great renown, promoted Wuthering Heights, saving it from oblivion.
One can surmise that the lack of appeal of Wuthering Heights in its day came from the absence of the literarily familiar. It was ahead of its time and original in every literary particular — character, setting, thematic content, and plot. A housekeeper in a farmhouse is a major character; although ostensibly the narrator, Ellen Dean is a central character who appears in most scenes throughout the novel. The most prominent character, arguably, is Heathcliff; marred by an abusive childhood, he becomes a callous and even evil presence. He, most notably, has, seriatim, a quasi-incestuous affection, an obsession with a dead woman, and a thirst for vengeance. Catherine, his erstwhile confederate, is a pill: self-indulgent and unappreciative of her patient husband, Edgar. The characters of the second generation, Catherine (the second) and Linton Heathcliff, far from pursuing a typical romance, marry not from love, but under coercion. The setting is confined to two houses and the moors between in a self-contained world of late 18th Century seclusion. The novel lacks Christian virtue and contains scenes of alcoholic ravings, degradation, domestic violence, and child abuse. Brontë’s original and strange blend of stark realism and poetry did not hook the early-Victorian reader. Even today, when readers are not put off by alcoholism, degradation, and domestic violence, many still turn the pages of the novel overlooking her prescient thematic statements on topics such as childhood and death, searching for a love story – one that simply is not there, as I have taken pains to establish above. Whether ahead of its time or in a time warp, the novel defied expectations of early Victorian readers: lacking a protagonist, peopled with reprobates and the irreligious, the novel left readers nonplussed or repelled. Considering the novels that preceded Wuthering Heights, it is clear that there was simply nothing comparable that had been gone before — or after for that matter. The moralistic novels of Richardson or Burney, the picaresque tales of De Foe, the Gothic romances, and the philosophical treatise of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein do not approach the verisimilitude of psychological portrayal in Wuthering Heights. And indeed, modern readers would immediately feel the lack of psychological truth in those works. Jane Austen captures the realities of a segment of upper middle-class society, focusing on courtship and marriage, with themes within bounds of acceptable society and language of a non-poetic nature. By contrast, in Wuthering Heights, actions and emotions range far out of established bounds and the language veers into the poetic, especially when death is the topic, making it, for the alert reader, a poetic-prose narrative.
Why has Wuthering Heights suffered the distinction of being so great a subject of distortion in modern times? First, Hollywood and television (even PBS) get a great deal of the blame. What does it matter? First the novel as intended by its author is so much better — original, complex, strange, and prescient — than the diluted and distorted ideas about it. Readers, even those who might well miss much of the book’s idiosyncratic greatness — the thorough treatment of the topic of death and grief, the poetry of the language, the humor of Joseph’s character, the cynical view of romantic love — still found plenty to enthrall, such as the present-as-life characters, the intensity of emotion and the fast-passed and original storytelling that makes this novel not only great literature, but a true page-turner. I hate to think that for many people today, their concept of the novel comes from some movie or television versions (which no doubt have made the title part of modern culture) because there is not one that has ever depicted the entire narrative, remained true to the characters, or that in any way does justice to any part of the novel.
Also, such interpretations traduce the author; to know Emily Brontë is to know that a love story — boy and girl meet, fall in love, face impediments, overcome them, to a typical and satisfying end – would not fit with her actual view of romantic love as revealed to the careful reader of Wuthering Heights and of her poetry (note the foreshadowing — there are other literary works by Emily Brontë we will consider). The thematic statements in the novel about romantic love are mostly cynical or derogatory. Real passion comes with grief, following the observation of Byron, “. . . what are a thousand living loves to that which will not quit the dead.”
Aside from surviving a very negative reception to take its place as one of the most recognized novels in the English language, there is more to marvel at: Emily Brontë did not just write an immortal work, she broke new literary ground in doing so. The novel was a fairly new genre at the time and there had been nothing like her novel. In plotting the history of the novel as a genre, Wuthering Heights makes a sharp spike on the chart. There had never existed anything of its level of temporal complexity, its range of characters, its realism of scene, sensation, and dialogue, including Yorkshire dialect so authentically reproduced it takes reading out loud with careful attention to get it. How does a semi-educated young woman living in near isolation produce such a thing? Quests commence to find such answers.
Although there is no way to know when Emily Brontë first envisioned the plot or characters of Wuthering Heights, she began committing the tale to paper with the goal of publication ______. What was her background as a writer that led to producing this groundbreaking, enduring, poetic, prose tale? Since childhood she had immersed herself in an imaginary world called Gondal that she and her sister Anne had created. They invented stories in an ongoing tale that brings to mind a type of Game of Thrones, where bloody battles are won and lost between rival kingdoms, lovers betray one another, and the dungeons are full. From a few extant written statements by Emily, Gondolians and their affairs mattered as much to her as what went on in reality. Emily and Anne talked about the characters and playacted their episodic plot events rather than necessarily writing about them; in any event, no prose Gondal stories survive. The Gondal characters do turn up in her poems, as many of them are the monologues and dialogues attributed to Gondal princes, lovers, or mourners, blending the poetic and the dramatic. This habitual exercise of the imagination prepared her to create her long prose story; however, for WH, she left behind the exotic and by-gone realms of Gonadal and its noble princes for her own English moorland, in an era a few decades earlier than her own time, inhabited by characters from ordinary walks of life. Also, in considering inspiration for creativity, the storytelling of her father and family servants might have played a part. Creative imagination is crucial to great literature, but so are the writing skills, which Emily had in super abundance without much cultivation. There is no evidence of Emily having done much writing as part of her “eccentric” education, as her father termed it, which took place mostly at home from her father, a little from Charlotte, her slightly older sister, and a lot from herself. She and her sisters (Charlotte and Anne) read poetry and other literary works, the Bible, and the journals and newspapers of the day. She did write essays at the age of ——during her nine months at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, albeit in French, a language that she scarcely knew before arriving in Brussels. She and Charlotte left Haworth in ——-to spend a year at a girl’s boarding school in Brussels, pursuant to Charlotte’s scheme to perfect the French language to add to their qualifications as teachers. It was considered a great accomplishment that Emily did not develop debilitating homesickness and leave before their time was up. They did in fact leave before the year ended, but only because their Aunt, who had lived with them for twenty-two years since their mother’s death, had died and they returned to mourn with the family. Emily’s French homework exercises, or some of them, do survive and reflect a tone and outlook that is not alien to her personality and other writing, even given the foreign language and forced element of a homework assignment. What else did she write? She had not been practicing her writing through letters or journals, as she did not correspond with anyone, other than a few terse notes. In these, she seems determined to expend as few words as possible, as if she were texting. Aside from a few scraps of paper, she kept no accounts of life around the parsonage and certainly nothing that delved into her own state of mind as a diary or letter would do. Last, her penchant for and practice at writing poetry, discussed later, must not be overlooked as influential on her abilities and style as a novelist.
Of course Emily was not alone in deciding she could and would write a novel, as her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, at the same time undertook their respective works: Charlotte, The Professor and Anne, Agnes Grey. For all three, a literary career at this juncture in their lives represented a desperate attempt to make a living, and during the period of writing and seeking publication it is hard to talk about Emily alone as much as about “the three sisters.” Early Victorian England offered women few options: marry, live as a dependent on family members, or work as a governess or school teacher. None of those choices were attractive to any of the three sisters. Emily particularly, with her reclusive nature and need for personal and artistic freedom, would not have survived in the subservient role of governess surrounded by strangers. The Brontë family was genteel, but poor. Emily’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë was a priest in the Church of England. He had only managed to attend _college by admission as a sizar (a student receiving a scholarship based on need and merit that supported a very ascetic lifestyle.) His curacy in Haworth, a small town in Yorkshire, yielded a very small income to support his family, which at one time included a wife and six children. Aside from his salary as a curate, Patrick Brontë had no family wealth, having been born into abject poverty in Ireland. As an aside at this point, we can take note that two of England’s greatest novelists (Emily and Charlotte Brontë) were as much Irish as English by birth.
By the time of young adulthood, Emily’s mother had been long deceased as were her two oldest sisters. As Patrick Brontë advanced into old age, the harsh reality loomed: the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, would be out of their home, the parsonage, and entirely on their own once their father died. Thus far, their lives reads like a Victorian novel: Motherless, genteel young ladies face the prospect of losing the family homestead and the company of each other as each will be forced to take up the weary life of a governess. Their plan to run a boarding school, which would allow them to remain together, fails miserably. And the plot thickens: the only boy of the family, Branwell, and the erstwhile focus of the hopes of the family, suffers from alcoholism, gambles recklessly, and finally becomes ill with tuberculosis.
The turning point in the narrative of Emily’s life comes when she decides to write WH. Although all three sisters took up writing a novel, judging from the situation at the time, it seems to me that it was initially Emily’s notion. Charlotte, who had been the main instigator of opening and running a boarding school, was still thinking along the lines of teaching and was pre-occupied with her experience in Belgium, including in particular her infatuation with her mentor in Brussels, Monsieur Heger. After a period of time at home, Charlotte returned to teach and continue her studies in Brussels on her own, as Emily opted to stay and take care of the parsonage. Anne had been working as a governess for a wealthy family named Robinson. Her pupils became quite attached to her, and she would have continued with the family had not Branwell, who was also employed by the Robinsons as a tutor for the son of the family, been dismissed for impropriety with the lady of the house. Emily, however, had been at home with an unencumbered mind; given the role of imagination in her life, she was no doubt visualizing Heathcliff and Co. on the moors as she took her daily excursions. From a coincidence of circumstances, Charlotte returned from Brussels and Anne came back with Branwell in ignominy, to find the three sisters, together again. They turned to their lifelong penchant for storytelling and writing. With no connections in the publishing or literary world, the move was bold, financially risky, and even quixotic. An earlier attempt at publication, in that case a volume of poetry, had not gone well; the sisters had paid to have the volume published and sold almost no copies. The attempt to produce three novels would also be expensive from the cost of paper, pens, ink, and mailing the manuscripts, and would be a great financial risk if they were again to pay to publish. The little money they had at their disposal for both current expenses and future savings was running low from paying Branwell’s gambling debts. Whether desperation galvanized genius or genius took the opportunity, Emily and her sisters had the courage of their conviction in their literary powers. They wrote mainly late at night after their father went to bed. He knew they were up to something, but was a remarkably laissez-faire parent, and even supportive when called upon to be, certainly not the typical domineering and restrictive father one might imagine for the era. When it came time to submit their work to publishers, the sisters gave themselves the pseudonym “Bell” and, to disguise their gender, adopted male-sounding first names: Ellis, Currer, and Acton. Charlotte would give up after numerous rejections on publishing The Professor to write Jane Eyre and would succeed in seeing it published before the other two novels appeared in print. The delay for WH resulted from the dubious business practices of its publisher, who eventually fulfilled his obligations once Jane Eyre showed signs of success when he thought the name of Bell would be a selling point. It did not prove to be; the confusion (fostered by the unscrupulous or ignorant such as Emily’s publisher) about the authorship of WH and the possibility that it was by the same author as Jane Eyre, did not boost the popularity of WH. Emily and Anne had paid their dilatory publisher fifty pounds for a deal that required their works to appear together as a three-volume work—the standard at the time for literary works in three volumes linked these two completely unrelated novels. WH finally appeared for sale in 1846 and was on the whole unappreciated by the public, critics, and even Charlotte and Anne. At the time of Emily’s death, the novel showed no signs of enjoying a modest sale, much less of entering the literary canon. She had every reason to believe that she would take her characters with her to her grave.
If Emily Brontë started another novel after WH, she kept it a secret and destroyed the pages. I do not doubt that she was fully capable and inclined to keep secrets and destroy pages, but nonetheless I do not think that she did begin writing another novel. Charlotte, jettisoned The Professor and penned Jane Eyre; Anne turned rather quickly to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The difference between Emily and her two sisters on this score is that she returned to writing poetry, as she was the true poet of the three. Which brings us back to answering the question of what the novel is really all about. To really get the fullest understanding of her novel, one must realize that the novel shares its DNA with her poetry.
The canonical novelist was first and maybe one could even say foremost a poet. She wrote poetry before, during, and after writing Wuthering Heights. Some of her poetic work was published in a volume containing poems by the three sisters, which they paid to publish. It did not launch the poetic career of any of the three sisters, although one lone critic found Emily’s poems, i.e. those by Ellis Bell, to have emotional power. Circumstances can certainly be blamed for her poetry not receiving its due, not only during her time, but also from later Victorian readers. As for contemporary failure, she had no social or literary cliques to promote her. For English poets, the status of an outsider, whether from class, location, or station in life, posed an impediment, such as for Thomas Chatterton and John Keats, who were not among the upper class. Although as the daughter of a clergyman Emily was not lower-class, as Keats was, she had not attended Oxford or Cambridge or developed literary social circles. Above all, she could not have overcome her gender. Even later in the 19th Century, when the name of Brontë sparked an interest that might have compensated for Emily’s lack of literary connections, she would have faced a stalwart bias against women. Poetry was always a male bastion. Who was a woman poet from any period of English literature? The literary canon admits none for centuries. The mid to late Victorian poets, such as those who rescued John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley from near oblivion, were not going to take up and promote a woman poet. Women, such as Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Frances Burney, and the Brontë sisters, might write novels, but not poetry. I have heard that Emily Dickinson read Emily Brontë’s poetry, and I would love to know where I read that Henry James liked to chant Brontë’s poem “Cold in the Earth.” Whether those two writers valued her work or not, they did not do enough to promote it, and her poetry never did take off. There might be someone, such as a university English professor, who would challenge the assertion that Emily’s poetry was marginalized, but I would reply with the question: who knows that Emily Brontë was as much a poet as a novelist or that she was a poet at all? Without a revival by later poets or critics, Emily’s poetry rested below the surface, but luckily did not disappear due to its shared authorship with WH. Brontë scholars of the 20th and 21st Centuries get the credit for the availability of her poetry to the reading public – many who write critically about WH and study the work and lives of the Brontës eventually find their way to her poetry and thereby do their little part by discussing it in scholarly journals or obscure books.
There are few novelists who are also great poets — so few that it is hard to name any who truly have equal fictional and poetic talents, but Emily Brontë was such a writer. Continuing in the tradition of Romantic poetry, her work shows traces of George Gordon Lord Byron in theme and diction, but she enthralls with her own vigorous, arresting statements, with no half measures in sentiment or realism. At times the thematic statements make a reader do a double take—“is she really saying that?” one must ask on a first reading of certain poems. For example, her advocacy for suicide in Death that struck when I was most confiding in a certain faith of joy to be…..
She seemed to have taken John Keats’s advice to Percy Bysshe Shelly to “load every rift with ore.” Take this poem for example packed full to the brim:
Where, writhing ‘neath the strokes of Fate,
The mangled wretch was forced to smile;
To match his patience ‘gainst her hate,
His heart rebellious all the while.
Where Pleasure still will lead to wrong,
And helpless Reason warn in vain;
And Truth is weak, and Treachery strong;
And Joy the surest path to Pain;
And Peace, the lethargy of Grief;
And Hope, a phantom of the soul;
And life, a labour, void and brief;
And Death, the despot of the whole!
;The impassioned portrayal of love that is erroneously attributed to WH does appear in one of her poems,-“At such a time in such a spot.” She wrote more poems about love in all its phases, but only that one describes requited romantic love. The rest explore other potential emotions accompanying or following a romance—disappointment, weariness, nostalgia, and love turned to hate.
Her poetry lends an understanding of Wuthering Heights that can be achieved in no other way, as two works share themes, diction, tone, and characterization. It also serves an important biographical purpose, as it reveals her personality and thoughts that are unknowable otherwise, since Emily hardly left a scrap of a letter, journal entry, or other writing to give us clues about what was going on in her unusual mind. Taking the novel and her poetic work together there is little doubt that she was obsessed with death and that she had decided views on love, childhood, traditional religion, and an after-life.
Insights into her novel and her life aside, the real reason to read her poetry is because it offers the arresting and lyrical expression of ideas on nature, love, death, imagination, spirituality, freedom, hope, despair and such topics that express the woes of humanity and give what consolation there might be.