Setting the Record Straight, Part II

Once again a sloppy statement full of inaccuracies offered as total fact about a Brontë.  This time the unjustifiable statements are tossed in the direction of Emily Brontë. “Emily Brontë herself remains a shadowy, enigmatic figure, who lived a life of almost complete seclusion in a Yorkshire parsonage wrote a few poems of mystical ecstasy or impassioned romantic loneliness, and died at the age of twenty-nine.” This was written by Elizabeth Drew, a purported scholar, who had published two successful literary guides, including the one I had perused, The Novel: A modern Guide to Fifteen English Masterpieces.  In case we might defend her as a specialist only on novels, the cover of that book crows that she is also the author of a “successful” guide to poetry. This book hales from the 1960s, but that is no excuse: Emily’s poetry was available in the 1960s. This author either did not read Emily’s poetry at all or came across a few selections in some edition that she flitted through with little understanding.

How is she wrong? Let me count the ways.  The word “few” is vague, purposefully no doubt because the author did not check how numerous Brontë’s poems are, but under any understanding of the word, it is grossly inaccurate. Emily Brontë wrote poetry her entire life — before during and after writing Wuthering Heights.  She was foremost a poet, both in her view of herself and in her literary output.   In my book, The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, I selected eighty-six poems to discuss and had to leave many, many poems behind.  Next, Drew reduces the topical scope of Brontë’s work to two topics, suggesting Brontë dabbled a little to indulge her own mystical feelings and romantic loneliness. Brontë wrote poems on a variety of topics; I found it possible in my book to name eight topical categories and within those topics arrange poems that treat the subject from various perspectives, giving thematic statements on all sides of a topic. Brontë’s negative capability (the ability to be outside of herself and in myriad minds) is a hallmark of her oeuvre. Further, in terms of diversity, her poems take a variety of forms: dramatic monologues, dialogues, lyrical poems, long narrative poems.  The “mystical” feelings could be found in a few poems, but the term “mystical” bears scrutiny. Just because Brontë developed her own belief system, is she “mystical?”  Brontë’s beliefs and the power of her imagination, blended with her genius-inspired self-sufficiency underlie those poems on spirituality, which should not be reduced to the facile label of “mystical.” Worse yet, is the statement that her poems expressed romantic loneliness.  If Drew had used a capital “R” we might think she was making a somewhat valid connection to a literary period.  As written, she implies that Emily Brontë wanted a boyfriend.  Brontë wrote a precise number of poems in which love figures at all as a central topic.  They are Gondal poems, not lyrical poems in the author’s own voice, and they cover all stages in the course of a relationship, including betrayal, break-up, and separation from various causes. “Few” (and now this word serves correctly) could be interpreted as presenting romance and none would I describe as treating “romantic loneliness” even on the part of a character in the poem, much less her own.

As for the trifles standing in for biographical information – Brontë’s secluded lifestyle and enigmatic nature — they are true enough, but given that they are only two, are they the most meaningful? At least throw in a few more: a literary genius, she had little formal education, learning at home from her father and through her own reading: she was an accomplished pianist; she was artistic; she loved animals and nature; she reveled in the power of her own imagination; she was obsessed with death.  The enigma idea comes from a lack of traditional biographical information: letters, anecdotes of others, acquaintances. Although she did not socialize, have school chums, a job outside her home, or correspond, she is more knowable than has been generally assumed possible. The best source to become acquainted with her personality and thoughts (the incidents of what she did and where she went being the least of her life) is her literary work. Her poetry opens a window to her mind, as I insist in my book.  It is a continuing mystery to me why people, such as Drew, can be so little bothered to do Brontë the justice and themselves the pleasure of reading it.