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.

Setting the Record Straight

Are the Brontës particularly subject to inaccurate biographical statements?  I know that there is a general misunderstanding about Wuthering Heights and that recent biographers have had to correct some of the impressions left by the first biography of Charlotte Brontë written by Elizabeth Gaskell. I also know that movies have had a heavy hand in distorting most things that pertain to the Brontës.  But should the writer of an introduction for a reputable publisher rely on vague, sensationalized, and unsubstantiated snippets of misinformation?  I just bought an edition of Jane Eyre for my husband to read.  Mine disappeared last year when my son was reading it in English class.  I skipped the Penguin classic with the lengthy introduction and notes and went for the larger type edition, a “Puffin Classic.”  “Puffin” is a subdivision of “Penguin.” There I found two pages masquerading as an “Introduction.”

Luckily it was brief to limit the number of reckless and wrong statements.  Who wrote this thing? To begin with the errors, there is the statement about the Reverend Patrick Bronte being “remote and dour.”  Wrong; he was an involved and caring parent. Read Dudley Green’s Father of Genius. Then there was the erroneous statement that once Charlotte and Emily returned from school (Cowan Bridge School, although it was not named in the introduction), they were educated by their aunt.  All their aunt did with regard to their education was to oversee their sewing.  Their father taught them, and Charlotte went to boarding school.  Then this mysterious introduction-writer perpetuates the notion that the Bronte girls were lonely and in need of consolation. To the contrary, they enjoyed themselves when they were together; they took great joy in walking on the moors, creating stories; reading, talking and joking together.  The next paragraph brings another misstatement:  Charlotte worked as a governess to support his brother’s artistic education.  Mr. Bronte did pay for Branwell to take art lessons (all the children studied art), and Branwell tried to work as a portrait artist for a year, with little success. Charlotte’s income did not go to support his art lessons, although in his alcoholism his habits of drinking and gambling strained the family’s resources. Then, we confront a very strange statement: “All the girls had nervous dispositions.”  Although I can sort of see where some of the false statements came from, this one is unmoored from any biographical fact, even a distorted one. In light of the other statements the mere inaccuracy about the publication date of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appears minor, but it is wrong.  Likewise, it is wrong to say that all three novels were highly acclaimed.  Yes, they are now, but at the time, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were not at all successful generally or well received critically. The reluctance on the part of this befuddled or lazy author to check dates again comes up in the sloppy statement, “ Within a few months of 1848 and 1849, their brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died.   What does “within a few months of two dates even mean?  Branwell and Emily died in 1848 within three months of each other and Anne died in May of 1849.

Well, one might say, who cares. Probably few if any readers will read this introduction or remember it (thankfully).  It is of little consequence in itself.  However, it does represent a lot of misinformation about the Brontës that circulates generally.  Such a view of the Brontës has been a part of the abominable film and television versions of Wuthering Heights, which I resent because I would so love to see one that does the novel justice. Last, I feel like I know the Brontës, and knowing them, I like them and hate to read silly things about them.

Emily Bronte, the Poet

The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, published by Sussex Academic Press, is out and available on Amazon. Who might enjoy this book? Anyone who has read Wuthering Heights, has an interest in the Brontës, or 19th Century poetry, or likes poetry, biography, or discussions of literature. Unlike any other collection of Brontë’s poetry, this book arranges selected poems by thematic topic: nature, mutability, love, death, captivity and freedom, hope and despair, imagination, and spirituality. It gives a biographical and literary context for Brontë’s poetry and interpretations or explanations after each poem, with many references to Wuthering Heights.

Book on the Poetry, Life, and Novel of Emily Bronte

The Poetic World of Emily Brontë

Poems from the Author of Wuthering Heights

Laura Inman
Emily Brontë is known as a novelist, but she was first and equally a poet. Before during and after writing Wuthering Heights, she wrote poetry. Indeed, she wrote virtually nothing else for us to read – no other work of fiction or correspondence. Her poems, however, fill this void. They are varied, lyrical, intriguing, and innovative, yet they are not well known. The Poetic World of Emily Brontë brings an unjustifiably marginalized poet out of the shadows and presents her poetry in a way that enables readers, even those who shy away from poetry, to appreciate her work.

Unlike any other collection of Brontë’s poetry, this volume arranges selected poems by thematic topic: nature, mutability, love, death, captivity and freedom, hope and despair, imagination, and spirituality. It provides literary and biographical information on each topic and interpretations, explanations, and insights into each poem. Fans of Wuthering Heights wanting more from Emily Brontë will discover that her poetry is as memorable and powerful as her novel.





August 2014




200 pp. 216 x 138 mm


Laura Inman is an independent scholar who has long been fascinated by Emily Brontë and has written about Wuthering Heights and Brontë’s poetry in Brontë Studies and Victorians: Journal of Culture and Literature.  She is a freelance writer, whose essays and fiction appear in online magazines and blogs, including her own blog, Formerly she practiced law, holding a J.D. degree from The University of Texas Law School. She lives in Rye, New York.



In the united states, Direct phone orders: (312) 337 0747 In canada and asia, Direct phone orders: (312) 337 0747 In the UK & ROW, direct phone orders  +44 (0)1524-68765

The Self-sufficiency of Emily Brontë

I would not make a case that Emily Brontë was an accidental Stoic, as I did for John Keats in the article “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” that appears in this blog under “ Start Here.”  The expressions of philosophy in Keats’s life and poetry echo Seneca’s Stoic statements so precisely, it would seem that Keats had been influenced by him, although he never read a word of any Roman Stoic and held his philosophical notions through his own invention. One can only feel that there must be arch-ideas in the human realm that great minds discover coincidentally and naturally. Emily Brontë wrote no letters, as Keats did, but her view-point on life, if not her philosophy of life, can be discerned from her poetry. That process of defining her character from the lines of her poems figures largely in my book The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, published by Sussex Academic Press, which will appear in August 2014. On the whole, Bronte does not fit even unevenly into the Stoic pattern.

However, there is one truly Stoic element to Brontë’s personality, which is of great interest not just because it is Stoic but because it explains an essential character trait: she was exceedingly and unusually self-sufficient.  As I have written before, the value of self-sufficiency of a personal and intellectual nature is one of the most modern and invigorating ideas Seneca propounds as a Stoic virtue. He exhorts his acolytes not only to read or listen to others, but to develop a philosophy, guiding principles, and a way of living for themselves, independent of what others have stated. “Don’t be led, create something of your own,” he suggested vehemently.  It is in this context that he reminds his readers that ideas belong to no one, so that in formulating one’s own scheme for living, any idea that is good is available for adoption.

Why was self-sufficiency of spirit such a formative and essential trait for Emily Brontë? Consider that she had almost no formal education, learning mostly from her father and on her own at her home. She had no encouragement in her writing: no mentors, no college associates, no editors, no apprenticeships, no validation from the outside world, literary or otherwise. She, herself, relying only on her own powers and inner resources wrote Wuthering Heights, a giant in the literary canon, and a large work of powerful, distinctive, and intriguing poetry. That epitomizes a kind of magnificent self-sufficiency.  Not surprisingly, that character trait of self-fostering cropped up in other areas, and those are more precisely of the kind Seneca had in mind. She developed her own religion in which she, through her imagination, answered her own prayers and reconciled herself with death.  More on how she accomplished that can be found in my book.

Emily Brontë, Another Stoic

I have been immersed in a world of immoderate emotion because for quite some time I have read, thought about, and written about poetry, Emily Brontë’s poetry. I am writing a book about her poetry called The Poetic World of Emily Brontë. Her poems lavish anguish, pain, suffering, sorrow, nostalgia, passion, and despair on the pages. The Stoic mind in confronting such feelings might struggle to remember that they do not have to hold sway over our lives. I wrote in an earlier post how Byron was the Anti-Stoic: suffering nostalgia; lamenting; and sighing—yet what beautiful lines. I would say the same for Emily Brontë, except it does not always seem that the emotions filling the pages are actually her own, but rather frequently those of some poetic character.

I have, it turns out, surfaced from her poetic world with Stoic principles intact, maybe because I have made great use of them during this project. When undertaking something that has been long in the works, such as this book, one might tend to become ecstatic and have certain hopes. First, ebullience is distracting, at best. Also, it will end one way or another and then one will feel like something was lost, when nothing was ever possessed. As for various hopeful scenarios, focusing on how others might react to my work represents the epitome of pointless thinking. Some may like it, others could not care less, some might wonder how the thing got published—who knows and really what difference could it make.  One might say—oh there might be money.  There will be no remuneration, but even if there were, my imagining it and hoping for it has no effect on whether it comes and can only set me up for a defeated sensation, even when there never was a battle. I wrote it for myself and, as for readers — few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

My observation about poetry opposing Stoicism does not pertain, however, if a poem has as its theme an overt or tacit endorsement of the precepts of the philosophy, which does occur. I wrote an article, “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” which appears on this blog under the “Start Here” heading.  Part of it identifies the Stoic statements in Keats’s poems; the rest reveals how Keats was coincidently a compatriot of Seneca in his approach to life and death.  I found it fascinating how two minds could arrive at the same point without the path of influence. Emily Brontë is not a candidate for that kind of scrutiny, but she does make some pointedly Stoic statements in a few poems, which not surprisingly, echo at times lines from Keats’s poems. In particular she observes that the trivial and treacherous in life defeat tranquility and that mirth beguiles because, “Every phase of earthly joy will always fade and always cloy.” As for joy, it is simply “the shortest path to pain.” Those are her ingredients for unhappiness; however, on the other hand, she endorses things that are worth pursuing for a tranquil life: learning, friendship, self-sufficiency, and a love of nature.  Emily Brontë was rather a Stoic after all, in her own way, despite imagining all those emotion-roiled characters in her poetry and in her novel.


Emily Bronte and The Palace of Death

Emily Bronte wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, and poetry (which has been for the most part marginalized).  That body of work is frustratingly small for anyone fascinated by her, as I am. Also, I have noted in earlier posts the astounding dearth of biographical information about her: she did not write letters, she did not keep a diary; few people knew her and those that had met her had no reason to pay her particular attention. We have some description of her by Charlotte, who did write letters, have acquaintances, and was even famous enough at her death to be the subject of a biography. However, even her references to Emily are not numerous, and I have always been slightly skeptical about Charlotte’s view of Emily.

In searching for more of her work and information about her, one comes upon something that, perhaps for a more prolific writer, would not be so exciting: homework. Emily studied French at a girls school in Brussels with Charlotte, who had conceived of the necessity of studying in Brussels in order to learn French well enough to teach it in the school that Charlotte (and to some degree the other two sisters) were planning to open.  It was hoped to be the way out of becoming governesses.

Their teacher, Constantin Heger, assigned essays on various topics for them to write.  What a fabulous coincidence that he was asking them to write, with no notion that he was face to face with two of the greatest writers in English literature. On that note, he did come to suspect that they were beyond the norm. So here we have Emily Bronte, writing on assigned topics, in a foreign language—one that she did not know well at all at the time of her arrival at the school.

I have translated and include, below, an essay that she wrote that demonstrates several hallmarks of Bronte as the author of Wuthering Heights, but most notably her proclivity for  insights that are ahead of her time. I will explain how this essay reveals her innate grasp of human nature after the essay.  Here it is.

The Palace of Death

In the past, when men were few in number, Death lived frugally and with limited means. Her only minister was old age, who guarded the door of the palace and introduced from time to time a single victim to appease the hunger of her mistress: this abstinence was soon repaid; the prey of her majesty grew prodigiously, and Old Age began to find that she had too much to handle.

It was at this time that Death decided to change her manner of living, to appoint new agents and take a prime minister.  On the day appointed for the nomination, the silence of the somber palace was broken by the arrival of the candidates from all sides, the arch ways, the rooms and the hallways resonated with the sound of the footsteps coming and going, as if the bones strewn on the paving stones were suddenly animated, and Death looked from above on her throne, and smiled hideously to see such a multitude running to serve her.

Among the first to come were Anger and Vengeance who went before her Majesty, arguing loudly about their respective rights; Envy and Betrayal took their places in the shadows; Hunger and Pestilence, assisted by their companions Laziness and Greed obtained comfortable spots among the crowd and threw disdainful glances on the other guests; however they found themselves forced to make way when Ambition and Fanaticism appeared; the entourage of these two persons filling the council room, and they demanded imperiously a prompt audience.

“I do not doubt” said the first, “that your majesty will be just in her decision so why waste the time in vain disputes when a quick glance is sufficient to determine the only one worthy of the office in question? What are all these pretenders who besiege your throne?  What do they think they would do in your service? The most able among them could not govern your empire any more than a soldier who has no qualification except his bravery could command an army.  They know how to strike down a victim here and another there, they can catch the feeble prey, men on whom your mark is visible from birth and that is the extent of their usefulness; whereas for me, I will lead to your doors the elite of the race those who are the farthest from your power; I will strike them in full flower and offer them to you in entire groups all at once.  Then, I have so many methods; it is not only spears that win me victories; I have other helpers, secret, but powerful allies; Fanaticism her-self is only one of the tools that I will employ.”

In hearing these words, Fanaticism shook her savage head and rose up toward Death with a burning and maniacal eye and began:  “I know that this glorious one will easily borrow my weapons and march under my standards, but is that a reason that she would presume to compare herself with me?  Not only will I be as powerful as she in overthrowing states and destroying kingdoms, I will enter into families; I will create opposition between son and father, daughter and mother; inspired by me, faithful friend will become mortal enemy, the wife will betray her husband, the servant his master; no feeling can resist me; I will travel the world under the light of the sky, and crowns will be like stones under my feet.  As for the other candidates, they are not worthy of your consideration; Anger is irrational; Vengeance is partial; Hunger could be defeated by hard work; Pestilence is capricious.  Your prime minister must be someone close to men and possess them; decide then between ambition and me, we are the only ones you should consider.”

Fanaticism fell silent, and her Majesty seemed in doubt as between these two rivals when the doors of the gallery opened and a person entered before whom everyone recoiled in surprise for she had an appearance which radiated joy and health. Her step was light as the wind and Death herself seemed uneasy at her first approach; however, she soon felt reassured. “You know me” said the stranger, “I come later than the others, but I know that my cause is certain. Certain of my rivals are formidable I admit and it is possible that I could be surpassed in striking feats that attract the admiration of the vulgar, but I have a friend before whom everyone in this assembly would be forced to succumb; she is named Civilization.  In a few years she will come to live on earth with you and each century her power will increase.  In the end she will turn away Ambition from your service; she will throw on anger the brakes of the law; she will uproot the weapons of the hands of Fanaticism; she will hunt down Famine among the savages. I alone will increase and flourish under her regime. The power of all the others will expire with their supporters– mine will exist even when I am dead.  If at one time I knew the father, my influence will extend to the son, and before men unit to banish me from their society I will have changed their entire nature and rendered them a type entirely at the mercy of your Majesty, so effectively, that Old Age will have a sinecure and your palace will be filled up with victims.”

“Speak no more” said Death descending from her throne and kissing Intemperance (for it is thus that the stranger was named). “It suffices that I know you; for the others I have valuable and important offices, they will all be my ministers, but to you alone is reserved the honor of my prince.

The End


Intemperance is the old-fashioned word for alcoholism. Hindley, in Wuthering Heights, is an alcoholic, as was Emily’s brother, Branwell.  Maybe the latter fact explains why the topic appears in her novel.  However, when she wrote about it in the essay, she had not yet witnessed her brother succumb to drinking as he would later. What is not explained is how she understood alcoholism in a way that was not current at her time or even suggested and would only start to surface in our present age, as inherited and running in families; an infliction, not a personal defect or failure; an insidious evil that kills.



The Unadaptable Wuthering Heights?

The Unadaptable Wuthering Heights?

Any time a novel is made into a movie, changes must take place. However, frequently a film does capture the essential scenes of the book as well as the nature of each character, the tone and atmosphere, and some thematic ideas of the original. Adaptations of Wuthering Heights have not accomplished any of that. They invariably depict a love story that is hardly part of the novel and distort what little they do present to the point of complete deviation. The most recent version on PBS was an abomination, and the latest movie version, although I haven’t seen it, appeared from the trailer to be another great “love story”, this time with a multi-racial element. How can I say that a love story is hardly part of the novel? Heathcliff and Cathy never call each other their soul mates; do they even kiss? There is no support in the novel to think they do, until the scene when Catherine is dying. They are brother and sister and have forged the special bond that can only arise from childhood. Heathcliff depends on her entirely because he is an outcast, deprived and unloved since the death of Mr. Earnshaw, and he has no one else in his life but Catherine. When Catherine dies, he becomes the great “lover,” but actually he becomes literature’s greatest mourner–second only to Edgar Linton, who also never recovers from her death, but who has his daughter, Catherine, to give him a reason to carry on. Speaking of which, Heathcliff does find something as well– revenge. Catherine does make a reference to marrying Heathcliff, but what marriage involves is a little sketchy for Catherine; in the scene where Catherine confides in Nellie about her decision to marry Edgar, Catherine demonstrates a very immature and erroneous concept of it (she thinks that she will marry Edgar for the status and then have Heathcliff share in her good fortune, somehow—a sort of nonsexual manage a trois.) Further, Catherine is not at all unhappy with Edgar during the three years she lives with him until Heathcliff shows up, and even then, she thinks the three of them can co-exist.

In addition to forcing a love story from childhood dependence, film versions ignore the plot and characters– forget even getting close to conveying any theme in the work. Please give me the scene of the waif at the window when Lockwood is stranded at Wuthering Heights, the dinner table when Lockwood is invited to stay for tea, the death of Frances and Hindley’s life of “reckless dissipation”, Isabella’s arrival at Wuthering Heights as a “newlywed” and encounter with Joseph, Nellie’s conversation with Hareton, as a little boy, and Linton’s “tryst” with the young Catherine on the moors prior to luring her to the Heights to fulfill his father’s plan of revenge. I would even like to see Dr Kenneth, that rural sawbones, whose main Hippocratic role is to inform family members that someone is dying or dead, in a very matter of fact way. To have even a glimmer on screen of what Bronte had to say about childhood, alcoholism, revenge, and, maybe above all, grief.

Why can there be true movie versions of Jane Austen’s works, of Vanity Fair, various works of Dickens, even of Jane Eyre, but not of Wuthering Heights? The task might be too much for Hollywood and the limitations of the length of a feature film; but what about a series on HBO? An accurate movie version of the novel is not desirable solely to gratify a scholar’s desire for fidelity to the original and for doing right by its author; it is also worth doing for the great entertainment value that would result from being able to see the incredible tale unfold before one’s eyes. As I write this, I think maybe it is time to read Wuthering Heights again.




The Mutability Poems of Emily Bronte
Poetry does not have to be sad; it can joyfully celebrate an occasion, express the transports of some kind of love, or simply make observations on life. Yet, when tragedy, personal or large-scale, or loss, sudden or inevitable, strikes, writing poetry gives vent to sorrow and reading it brings a measure of consolation. Poems addressing change and loss–otherwise referred to as “mutability”–fall under the literary term “elegy” and have a long and constant history, from Greek and Roman works, through the poetry of today. Elegies have also come to include more particularly a sustained lament in verse upon the loss of a certain person.
As for the second and narrower use of the term, Emily Brontë did not write an elegy to any one of the several family members and close acquaintances whose deaths she experienced. When she does mention the death of a particular individual, he or she frequently seems to be a fictional Gondal character (Gondal was a land that Emily and her sister Anne imagined and filled with characters about whom they created stories throughout their lives). The staging of the fictional setting is a vehicle allowing her to express feelings of loss without making the poem a direct memorial of her own. I find the Gondal framework largely irrelevant, because the emotion of the poet comes through whether or not names and setting have an imaginary origin.
Emily Brontë wrote a number of poems that deal thematically with mutability and that can be termed elegies in the first and broader sense. Love lost, childhood past, dreams and plans failed— various experiences and stages of life that were special and dear, but that are gone forever—appear in these poems. Bronte creates the mood of nostalgia through settings of autumn and mists and through diction, using words that look back in time, such as “long-forgotten,” “earlier days,” and “old feelings.” There is on the whole little consolation for the sadness brought by change, and the various poetic personae must struggle under the tyranny of happy memories.
In these poems, particularly, music and musical instruments play a notable part, and quite appropriately given the ability of a song to take a person back to another time and place. Also, Bronte would have included music in her poems because she was musical. There was a piano at the parsonage, and she was the most musical member of the household. When she went to study French with Charlotte in Brussels, staying there eight months, when she was twenty-three, she had the opportunity to take lessons from an accomplished musician and became a good pianist. The upright piano was in Mr. Brontë’s study. As a visitor to the Brontë Parsonage, you can stand at the threshold of his study, see the piano still tucked against the left wall, and imagine how the loud and soft must have resounded and floated through a house that had stone floors and no curtains or carpets.
Here are some of her poems in the category of elegy, first a short overview, then the poems themselves for the Hatfield edition.
“Harp of wild and dream-like strain” depicts two layers of nostalgia. One is for that time in the past when the speaker of the poem could play the harp without feeling any sadness. The other is for the era when he or she still had the “long-forgotten things” of which the absence produces a sorrow that darkens the summer sky. Memories are the culprit; the sounds of the harp are tinged with memories darken the daylight. To me, this poem, with the harp and the word “lays” for songs, evokes an image of the Middle Ages. A woman, in medieval sleeves and trailing hem, her fingers still curled above the strings of her Aeolian harp, falls into reverie, while, through the gothic window behind her, the sky moves into shades of grey. My Pre–Raphaelite vision serves as an illustration that the reaction to a poem is subjective and personal and that poetry can be very visual.
“For him who struck thy foreign string” is a monologue in which a female voice questions how she can still feel sadness at the memory of “him” when she thought she was long beyond caring. It is a Gondal poem, and the speaker is Augusta Geraldine Almeda, as indicated by the initials A.G.A. at the top of the poem. Beyond telling us that the speaker is a woman, the Gondal origin has little or no relevance to one’s appreciation of the poem and its imagistic expression of nostalgia. Apparently, an unnamed man from the past played the guitar; now years after she ended her relationship with him, she herself has strummed the guitar or heard someone else playing it, and “its magic tone,” associated with him, revives the past.
The use of the word “ween” in the first stanza is an archaism—the word means “think” and was not used in current speech even in Brontë’s time. Likewise, Brontë frequently writes “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” (although not in this poem), which she would not have used in speaking.
This poem contains two beautiful and apt images to express the feeling we all have had– it just seems like things should still be as they once were. In the first, “the parent orb” (the sun) should still be lighting up the glen. In the second, the willow tree that used to border a stream, even after many years of absence, should still be reflected in the glassy waters.
“Where were ye all? And where wert thou?” depicts how memories of a long lost person arise upon meeting someone who bears some similar trait, in this case, similar eyes. The speaker’s anxious words conjure the feelings of eagerness and pain that occur upon seeing some similarity to a person who is gone–the momentary comfort and the fast following sadness. As in many of the poems in this group, the past has a dreamlike quality.
This poem is identifiable as a Gondal poem by the letters A.G.A, which appear under the date; they are the initials of a Gondal character that is a mainstay of the saga, Augusta Geraldine Almeda. As noted before, that fact has little if any relevance to one’s reading of the poem.
“Mild the mist upon the hill” presents the idea that an aspect of the natural world, here a misty damp evening, can transport one back to an earlier time when such a misty day occurred in the happier days of childhood. So, music, a similar pair of eyes, and here a misty day can all conjure thoughts of the past. In this poem and the immediately preceding one, the thoughts of the past are described as having a dream-like quality; here the scent of the rain is “dreamy,” and in the first of these poems, the harp’s music has “dreamlike strains.” The past is also a dream in the immediately following poem. One also encounters a variation of the notion that the past is like a dream in a poem that I would place in the chapter on “Love and Friendship,” in which, looking ahead rather than back, the speaker projects, in some of my favorite Brontë lines, that she will become like a dream to her former lover: “Day by day some dreary token / Will forsake thy memory / Till at last all old links broken / I shall be a dream to thee.” A life inhabited by waking dreams reminds me of Keats’s lines: “Can death be sleep when life is but a dream, / And scenes of bliss pass as phantoms by?”
“It is too late to call thee now” differs in its expression of mutability from her more usual view in that there is a clear consolation at the end for the pain brought by change and loss: childhood and knowing how fortunate he or she was to have shared those early years with the person who is now gone. However, before the poem takes that conciliatory tone, the speaker decries remembrance because the ensuing pain outweighs the dream-like joy. In the second stanza, Brontë depicts the idea of the finality of change with the image of a bare mountain on which the morning sunshine no longer glows.
“The wind, I hear it sighing” begins by creating a somber feeling: the season is autumn, the leaves are withered, and even the wind makes a wistful sound. Sometimes wandering off in thought brings an escape and joy, but not in his poem. The thoughts of the past descend like vultures. To capture the idea of irrevocability, Bronte compares retrieving the past to the inability of an aged person to appear childlike again. This poem is particularly interesting in expressing the idea that memories are deadly, even happy memories. In the wonderfully symmetrical and alliterative lines in the penultimate stanza, the speaker declares that he or she would be willing to give up all of the happy memories to eliminate even half of the pain caused by the loss—here, it seems the loss of a beloved person. That sentiment stands quite contrary to the famous lines written years later by Alfred Lord Tennyson in In Memoriam: “I hold it true what’er befall / I feel it when I sorrow most / Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

Harp of wild and dream-like strain,
When I touch thy strings,
Why dost thou repeat again
Long-forgotten things?

Harp, in other earlier days,
I could sing to thee;
And not one of all my lays
Vexed my memory.

But now, if I awake a note
That gave me joy before,
Sounds of sorrow from thee float,
Changing evermore.

Yet, still steeped in memory’s dyes,
They come sailing on,
Darkening all my summer skies,
Shutting out my sun.

For him who struck thy foreign string,
I ween this heart hath ceased to care;
Then why dost thou such feelings bring
To my sad spirit, old guitar?

It is as if the warm sunlight
In some deep glen should lingering stay,
When clouds of tempest and of night
Had wrapt the parent orb away.

It is as if the glassy brook
Should image still its willows fair,
Though years ago the woodman’s stroke
Laid low in dust their gleaming hair.

Even so, guitar, thy magic tone
Has moved the tear and waked the sigh,
Has bid the ancient torrent flow
Although its very source is dry!

Where were ye all? And where wert thou?
I saw an eye that shone like thine;
But dark curls waved around his brow,
And his stern glance was strange to mine.

And yet a dreamlike comfort came
Into my heart and anxious eye;
And, trembling yet to hear his name,
I bent to listen watchfully.

His voice, though never heard before,
Still spoke to me of years gone by;
It seemed a vision to restore
That brought the hot tears to my eye.

Mild the mist upon the hill,
Telling not of storms to-morrow;
No; the day has wept its fill,
Spent its store of silent sorrow.

Oh, I’m gone back to the days of youth,
I am a child once more;
And ‘neath my father’s sheltering roof,
And near the old hall door,

I watch the cloudy evening fall,
After a day of rain:
Blue mists, sweet mists of summer pall
The horizon’s mountain-chain.

The damp stands in the long, green grass
As thick as morning’s tears;
And dreamy scents of fragrance pass
That breathe of other years.

It is too late to call thee now:
I will not nurse that dream again:
For every joy that lit my brow
Would bring its after-storm of pain.

Besides, the mist is half withdrawn;
The barren mountain-side lies bare;
And sunshine and awaking morn
Paint no more golden visions there.

Yet, ever in my grateful breast,
Thy darling shade shall cherished be;
For god alone doth know how blest
My early years have been in thee!

The wind, I hear it sighing
With Autumn’s saddest sound;
Withered leaves as thick are lying
As spring-flowers on the ground.

This dark night has won me
To wander far away;
Old feelings gather fast upon me
Like vultures round their prey.

Kind were they once, and cherished,
But cold and cheerless now;
I would their lingering shades had perished
When their light left my brow.

‘Tis like old age pretending
The softness of a child,
My altered, hardened spirit bending
To meet their fancies wild.

Yet could I with past pleasures
Past woe’s oblivion buy,
That by the death of my dearest treasures
My deadliest pains might die,

O then another daybreak
Might haply dawn above,
Another summer gild my cheek,
My soul, another love.


On Hope and Optimism

On Hope and Optimism

Hope is foolish. There, I have purposefully throw down the gauntlet, attacking this gilded imposter. We hear constantly that we should have hope, never give it up, and even cling to it. Those who profess to have stores of hope also label themselves “optimists”. I heard recently two people confess, in similar self-congratulatory tones, their nature as “optimists.” One, interviewed on a radio show, said it twice in a brief space a propos of random future situations, “Well, I am an optimist.” The other crowed, “In case you haven’t noticed from my songs, I am an optimist.” Do you mean that regardless of reason you think that all kinds of impossible things are possible and that you live your life in anticipation of that? Would you also exalt, “Hey, I’m not reasonable!” Probably so, but let’s clarify.

Hope can be specific or general. For example, if I have hope regarding a specific event, I think that means that I desire a certain outcome although I have little or no have no control over it, and in many cases, if evaluated honestly, I would know that any given desired outcome is improbable. If hope sets up expectation and anticipation, we are living in a way that Seneca lamented as living a life in suspension. If we live like that generally, we are those vaunted optimists. Seneca wrote: “Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living; in anticipation of tomorrow it loses today. Everything future is uncertain; live now.” We not only miss the moment at hand, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, as Seneca described such a person as developing, “A soul unnerved by disappointed hopes.” I would add that we are also not acting from reason but from emotion. Reason would tell us what we can expect based on the odds, experience, or research. When we leave reason behind, we have to wonder why we have abandoned our special gift as human beings and thrown ourselves onto the spears of emotion.

An example would be the person who hopes to become an actor. He can envision that as his goal, but he has to calculate the chances and have a viable plan B. If he lives on hopes of a big break, he is doomed. The same is true for writers—I have learned that the hard way. Now, you might ask, does one give up and not try? One can still send off the manuscript, but if any moment is spent in hopes of someone publishing it, then harmful emotion has crept in and pushed your reason aside, to your great detriment. If, on the other hand I “hope” means, I want something (although I should not want it excessively in any event) and I am going to try hard to accomplish it, although I know that the outcome is not much in my control, then that makes sense and is not hoping so much as trying, although the difference starts to look like semantics. Speaking of which, it is very difficult to form a sentence about the future without using the word “hope”.

On a more general level, one speaks of hope, such as hope for the future–equally foolish as hope for a particular event. Will things get better? In any life there will be some good things and some bad things, with the possibility of undreamed for disasters. What else could one reasonably think is going to develop? Seneca, who lived admittedly in very turbulent times, wrote: “What can happen to somebody can happen to anybody.” He also identified the relationship of hope to fear. “You will cease to fear when you cease to hope. Though the two seem different they are in fact attached. Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring. The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes far into the future. Foresight, which is mankind’s greatest advantage, is thus turned to disadvantage.” I am always reminded when I read that of the conclusion to Robert Burns’s poem, “To a Field Mouse,” when the narrator of the poem sadly admits about his future: “I guess and fear.”

Last, in inspecting the imposter’s credentials, there is also the aspect that is synonymous with belief when applied to an afterlife– hope in heaven, as they say. Perhaps the most pointless, but also the kind of hope that is at least free of the ills of disappointment—we certainly won’t be disappointed when we find out that the hoping was in vain because we will be “where fear and hope fluctuate no more.” Having hope, in this context, means calling into service our imaginations about things unseen, unknown, and nonexistent in any sense that we know existence. Emily Bronte was an advocate of that approach, as I will show below.

First, however, Emily Bronte, in the following poem, considered the kind of hoping that focuses on an improvement, either through the occurrence of a certain event or generally. She reveals in the poem that hope is painfully elusive, and that it is best to abandon any concern for such a creature.

Hope was but a timid friend,
She sat outside by grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend
Even as selfish hearted men.

She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars, one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!

Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping,
When I listened, she would cease.

False she was, and unrelenting;
When my last joys strewed the ground,
Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
Those sad relics scattered round;

Hope—whose whisper would have given
Balm to all that frenzied pain—
Stretched her wings and soared to heaven;
Went —and n’er returned again.

If we move from that poem to others, we see that Bronte’s solution to the sorry state of affairs in life was not to hope for better, but to imagine better. Though that worked for her, I don’t think many of us have the depth of imagination to live in our own world. I suggest the Stoic approach for us mere non-Bronte mortals. If it is a future situation over which you have little or no control, do not pin hopes on it, or even give it much thought. Stay in the present, and, overall, remember the relative unimportance of many external events. Have, never give up, and cling to reason.

Here is her poem that describes her process; she prefers the world that she imagines to the one in which “the mangled wretch is forced to smile” (her line from another poem). The “friend” with the “kind voice” whom she addresses is her imagination.

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again–
O my true friend, I am not lone
While though canst speak in such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world, where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it if all around
Danger and grief and darkness lie,
If but within out bosom’s bound
We hold a bright unsullied sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days.

Reason indeed may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams may always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy newly blown.

But thou art ever there to bring
The hovering visions back and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring
And call a lovelier life from death,
And whisper with a voice divine
Of real worlds as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet still in evenings quiet hour
With never-failing thankfulness
I welcome thee benignant power
Sure solacer of human cares
And brighter hope when hope despairs.