Reading Wuthering Heights: An Appreciation

I just finished Wuthering Heights for the umpteenth time, leaving Lockwood poetically musing at the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, those quiet sleepers in the quiet earth. Those final lines are the culmination of a poetry-infused final section of roughly twenty pages, in which Heathcliff’s character as the greatest mourner in literature comes to the fore as he wills himself to death in order to achieve his heaven, reunion with Catherine, the only person in his tormented life with whom he has ever known happiness.

Emily Bronte was first and foremost a poet, not a writer of prose, although she had blended storytelling with poetry, penning long story poems, harbingers of her great prose work; however, I sense that having gotten through writing most of Wuthering Heights, in the end, she relapsed into poetry, especially when it came to her favorite poetic topic, death. Thus, we have those mellifluous words, haunting words, sonorous and rhythmic phrases gracing the final pages.  Start reading where Nelly Dean tells Lockwood, when he happens to be in the vicinity of Gimmerton and returns to Wuthering Heights, how Heathcliff’s death came about; then, we are privy to Heathcliff’s previous eighteen year-long, unrelenting grief. It requires Bronte’s poetry for Heathcliff to explain the phenomenon of living with a dream of death so sustained that it finally consumes his existence, defeating even his desire for revenge.

I can read a novel more than once, indeed several times, although I must ration it so as to not to completely wear it out — but, who can wear out poetry? Lines of verse are like scripture for the religious. One can memorize them and refer to them and reflect and call them to mind when needed. Amen. That evergreen quality of poetry helps explain why I can read Wuthering Heights limitlessly, but that does not mean to discount the novelistic aspects that I enjoy undiminished by great repetition: I study how the plot fits together, particularly over the complicated temporal landscape of two generations; I cozy up to my old friends and enter the world of two remote houses in the 18th century. It is not a welcome or desirable world, but it has the comfort of the familiar. Of the two houses, I, as a spoiled native of suburban comfort, would prefer to live at the Grange, with Nelly Dean to make up the fire, bring me soup, and tell me stories. Despite those  elements of narrative, character, and setting that hold up well to repeated use, it is the poetry above all that will support and sustain the pleasure of having the novel in my hands yet again even now, right after putting it down. I know of no other book that I can say that about.  I know of no other book comparable to Wuthering Heights. I am still in the phase of coming out from under the spell. “Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish how will I seek the empty world again.”  Bronte wrote that in the voice of a mourner in a poem with the first lines, “Cold in the earth and the deep snow piled above thee.”  Yes, I have to seek the real world again.


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