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Nature in the Poetry of Emily Bronte

Nature in the Poetry of Emily Bronte

It is impossible to know whether Emily Brontë’s inspiration to write poems about natural subjects came more from the Romantic poets or from her own life. There is no hard and fast evidence about which poets she read, but it is most probable that she did read the most notable Romantic poets: Robert Southey and George Gordon Lord Byron as well as Wordsworth and Keats. (Undoubtedly she also read Shakespeare, Milton, and probably the Latin poets.) Her own reading aside, Bronte hardly needed the suggestion that poetry lay in nature because she lived very much in the natural world.

The image of Emily Brontë roaming the moors is one mythic element about her that is true. Today a visitor to the Brontë Parsonage can literally walk in her path and rest upon a boulder by a stream that she is reliably known to have frequented. From very young childhood, walking on the moors was a prime leisure activity for the Brontës, and throughout her life, being on the moors meant more to Emily than to any of the rest of the family. Going for a walk of several miles over a wild landscape originated with Mr. Brontë, who was a great walker. Walking was a good method for her communing with nature. Close to the ground and at the relatively slow pace afforded by only two legs, walking gave her the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna that would be missed on horseback or carriage rides. Emily might have enjoyed a ride on horseback over the moors, however. In Wuthering Heights, she has the young Catherine galloping across the moors on her pony, Minnie. Horses were a large expense and beyond the means of Mr. Brontë, so walking was the normal method of transportation. A walk of many miles was not a daunting proposition for Brontёs. Again Wuthering Heights provides illustrations: Mr. Earnshaw has walked forty miles from Liverpool at the beginning of the story, carrying the little child Heathcliff, and Lockwood and Nelly Dean think little of traversing the six miles to take them to Wuthering Heights and back to Thrushcross Grange.

In addition to living close to the land, Brontë  marked the seasons. The importance of the change of seasons cannot be overlooked for her, or for any nineteenth-century denizen of the north of England, although her poetic sensibility no doubt heightened the impact for her. Without electricity or heat, the arrival of winter could certainly be considered a grim event, and hence the association so frequently of winter with death, sadness, and hardship. The seasons appear repeatedly in Bronte’s poems, not as filler, but with true meaning—a June day recalled in a poem really was the description of a glorious event that would make one think of heaven.

She also was particularly impressed by the wind—another common feature of life in Haworth. Wuthering Heights, as Lockwood tells us, is a name signifying the strong winds that race down the hillside and assault the house, causing the trees to slant one way “as if craving alms from the sun.” In several poems, Brontë ascribes to the wind a seductive power to charm one away from dreary thoughts.

Emily Bronte for most of her life slept in a very small room that had been formed out of another room, and her bed was situated under a window with a view of the sky unobstructed by trees. I can imagine that she made good use of it to observe the moon and stars, as she frequently depicts them and the effect they have to engender a feeling of another world beyond the mundane.

Aside from leading to near mystical experiences, the sky was a joy to her, if we can take her poetry as an indication, which I think we can. In a poem (which appears in the chapter on “Love and Friendship”) a voice reflects: “I gazed upon the cloudless moon / And loved her all the night / Till morning came and radiant noon / Then I forgot her light– // No, not forgot—eternally / Remains its memory dear; /But could the day seem dark to me / Because the night was fair?” Yet, surprisingly, in another poem (appearing in this chapter) night is preferable to a sunny day. The references to the moon and the sun raise the opportunity to point out a feature of her poetry that adds to its durability and attests to Brontë’s originality. The tendency to slip into allusions to mythology–Diana and Phoebus for the moon and the sun—might have taken hold of her. It was very common in the poetry of a close predecessor, John Keats. References to mythology were still current. For example, Charlotte Brontë edited a poem of Emily’s after her death to change the description of a willow’s branches from “gleaming hair” to “dryad hair,” a dryad being a mythological tree nymph. A small example, but it serves to show how Emily, free of a poetic convention of the time, was effective as a poet. She describes the tree as it looked in nature; Charlotte simply made an allusion. Indeed, if you see a willow tree in the sun, you can observe that the long weedy branches do look like hair and they do gleam.

Overall, nature plays a large and varied role in the poetry of Emily Brontë. Very often, a natural scene, complete with the description of a season, atmospheric conditions, and vegetation comprises the opening stanzas of a poem, but the main theme is not about nature per se. That approach figures so frequently that the first few lines often give no indication of the topic of the poem. (As with Shakespearean sonnets, the ultimate meaning of the poem frequently appears at the end.) For example, there are poems in which the description of a natural scene shifts to a different main topic, such as how things have changed from an earlier time when nature so appeared; or how the spectacle of nature triggers the imagination to envision a world without suffering or a happy eternity. Therefore, despite the large presence of a natural description, such poems would appear under topical headings of “Mutability,” “Spirituality and Eternity,” “Imagination,” or “Death.” (Likewise, poems in those four categories have shared thematic strains.) In addition to making use of the natural world as a setting for a poem, Brontë uses nature as point of comparison or contrast to the human condition. For example, nature reflects the mutability of life and brings harbingers of mortality with the prospect and arrival of winter. In other poems, the beauty of the natural world contrasts with a situation of sadness, which serves to deepen the pathos. Foremost in her thematic depcition of nature, Brontë presents the idea that nature has the power to console.

Emily Bronte, The Peerless

Knowing something about Emily Brontë adds to the appreciation of her poetry because the person behind the words was an unusual, iconoclastic, enigmatic individual, and a literary genius.  Further, as a general matter, it is important to get to know the poet to round out the poetry-reading experience, particularly when reading a body of work, rather than a few random poems.  More than prose fiction, poetry is a personal matter that invites the reader to feel a rapport with the author, who can become a compatriot soul and sharer of sentiments.

As for the outward incidents of her life, Emily Bronte lived for twenty-nine years, from 1818 to 1848, which period saw the close of the Romantic era and included the early Victorian era.  Her father, extremely intelligent, caring, and hardworking, was the minister of the Anglican Church in Haworth, having risen from the extreme poverty of his boyhood in Ireland to become an ordained minister and consequently an English gentleman—although, a poor one.  Her mother died when Emily was three, leaving six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.  Her two oldest sisters died in 1825, at the ages of eleven and ten, after a disastrous stay at Cowan Bridge School, a boarding institution for the daughters of poor clergymen, which turned out to be a harsh, cold, and unhealthy place.  Charlotte and Emily were also there at the time their sisters became ill, Emily, at five, being the youngest student on the premises.  Tuberculosis caused the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth and eventually claimed Emily and Anne, who died within five months of each other.  It also most likely caused or contributed to Branwell’s death, three months before Emily died, and Charlotte’s, in 1855.  Mr. Brontë lived to the age of 84.

Except for a very few brief periods when Emily was away at school or at a boarding school attempting to teach, she was at the parsonage, her beloved home, situated at the edge of Haworth, England, and a stone’s throw across a crowded cemetery from her father’s church.  The back door of the two-story brick parsonage opened onto the moors, vast, open rolling, brown earth, tufted with wild grass–a wilderness of hills, masses of boulders, and springs in green valleys bordered by trees, all of which Emily knew like a long-tenured game-keeper.  Her home still stands today, maintained by the Brontë Society, with rooms of Brontë artifacts–a place well-worth the visit.  Emily never married.  None of the Brontë children did except Charlotte, but her marriage ended with her death after only nine months.

When the three sisters were in their twenties, the necessity of making a living preyed upon them.  Once their father died, they would be without a home.  There was no annuity or savings; Mr. Brontë, although frugal, had never had sufficient means to do more than survive.  It might be difficult for the modern mind to imagine the solid and impenetrable lack of opportunity that surrounded the Victorian woman.  Particularly for a “lady,” which Emily would have been considered since her father was a clergyman, there were no paths to pursue except marriage, living as a dependent on a family member, or teaching, whether as a governess or in a boarding school.  These choices were grim for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.  None of the three seemed likely to marry.  In fact, historically, there was a shortage of men in England at the time, and Haworth was not a social hotspot.  Branwell, the son, was not going to support his sisters; his attempts at various careers ended in failure.  Charlotte and Anne had tried to accept the fate of a governess, although with the utmost hatred; but Emily could not bear to be away from home, much less interact with strangers in the subservient role of governess.  They would attempt at one point to operate their own school in the parsonage, but would not receive a single expression of interest.  The Brontë sisters also were not suited to follow the path of women who immigrated, where in the comparative freedom and opportunity of Australia or America they could better make their own way, such as by owning a shop.  One very slight opportunity existed for a few remarkable women–writing and publishing a novel.  Poetry and theater were male bastions, but the novel was fairly new to the time, and women, such as Anne Radcliff, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen had successfully exploited the opportunity.

As the question of their financial future grew desperate, one surprising twist to the plot of their lives occurred.  Their mother’s sister, who had lived at the parsonage since the time of Mrs. Brontë’s death, left, upon her death, a small sum to the three sisters.  It was astonishing to all, and although the sum was not enough to live on for long, it did give them the funds to publish a volume of poetry in 1846, containing poems by Charlotte, Emily and Anne, using their pseudonyms for the first time: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  One reviewer noted the beauty of Emily’s lyrical voice, and Charlotte and Anne acknowledged Emily as the most gifted poet among them.  Despite the merit of Emily’s poems, the volume went unnoticed, selling only three copies.  Poetry was the family hobby; Mr. Brontë had written and had published some poems, many of a religious nature, although he also would include a clever and thoughtful poem to a friend in a letter.  Charlotte and Anne, as noted, had poems handy to contribute when Charlotte discovered Emily’s poems one day and promoted the idea of the volume containing the work of all three sisters.  Branwell yearned to be a poet, but he met with no success in any of his endeavors, owing in large part to his addiction to alcohol and opium.  His presence in the parsonage, frequently raving drunk and in debt, created great unhappiness and tension.

After the failure of the volume of poetry, the legacy left by their aunt also allowed them to attempt to become novelists and be free, at least for a while, of the dreaded prospect of serving as governesses.  Every night after Mr. Brontë went to bed at nine o’clock, the three sisters gathered at the table in the parlor.  With ink wells, nib-tipped pens, and reams of paper, which constituted a considerable expense, they wrote their lengthy novels by the firelight from the grate and the glow of candles.  At the end of 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey appeared in print together as a three-volume set.  Emily and Anne, after numerous rejections by publishers, had paid a large sum of money to publish their novels, greatly diminishing their meager legacy.  Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was not accepted for publication even at her own expense, and she had turned her attention to writing her second novel, Jane Eyre.  It appeared even before her sisters’ novels because Charlotte’s publisher was far more reputable and productive than Emily and Anne’s.  Jane Eyre was a great success, and the financial worries would have been allayed; however, one can wonder how much that mitigated for Emily the failure of Wuthering Heights, as unappreciated as her poetry had been.  Her sisters, critics, and the public disliked and, apparently, failed to understand it.  A year after its publication, Emily died and was laid to rest in Haworth Church under the stone slab that served as the family burial vault

The Poet Who Wrote “Wuthering Heights”

Emily Bronte is best known, perhaps solely known to many, as a novelist, the author of one of the all-time great works, Wuthering Heights.  Readers for generations have paused at Lockwood’s final thoughts at the graves of Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff, with the wistful feeling that accompanies the end of a close relationship.  Eager to read something else that Emily Brontё wrote, one learns that she was a poet.  The novelists who also were great poets are very few.  Emily Bronte deserves the distinction of being both.

One should read and consider her poems several times.  Like songs or great art they only improve on better acquaintance.  Then, once her poems become very familiar, one can come back to them again and again because poems are for perpetual reading, like a spiritual source.  The sentiments and language of Bronte’s poems, on topics that touch everyone’s life at some time or other, are too good to be overlooked–and it is virtually all that we have of her to read after putting down Wuthering Heights for the third time.

An Opinion on Poetry

 

Poetry in rhyme and meter is embroidered silk, a surging wave, a clever device, a labyrinth, a song, an elder statesman, a stained glass window, and an inspiring sister of prose.  On the other hand, a compilation of words, dubbed poetry but lacking meter and rhyme, is by comparison rick-rack on polyester, a backyard pond, a tool in the bottom of the drawer, a sidewalk, a banal conversation, a salesman, a windshield, and a stunted twin of prose.

I posted a poem by Swinburne a few days ago and I offer it here as Exhibit A, conclusive!

Of course meter and rhyme are necessary but not sufficient causes for poetry.  Words on a page that scan and rhyme, but miss the mark otherwise, own the term doggerel.

I make allowances for blank verse because it has the rhythm of meter, if not rhyme.  Meter gives the words activity and the aural interest that is the reward bestowed from the efforts at keeping to a metrical scheme.  Meter frequently, through necessity, causes changes in word order that can surprise and stick.  One advantage in writing poetry in English is that it is so word-order bound that any reversals can be arresting and memorable.  Here is an example from a fairly current song by the Strokes: “On the mind of other men I know she was.”  The word emphasis fits the beat of the song and only works if the normal word order is reversed.  Compare to “I know she was on the mind of other men” — pure prose.

There is such a thing as “poetic prose.” I take that to mean language that makes use of literary devices because the author has a concern for the sound of a phrase and a desire to give the reader a sensory experience and to draw images of intangible things.  That can go awry with yeoman writers who toil in the shop to smith their poetic phrases, but who have lost membership in the storyteller’s guild.  Much of Wuthering Heights is poetic prose.  Although more poetic than much of what passes itself off as poetry, it is still a long, engrossing story written in prose; just really wonderful prose.

I have departed from treating various facets of Stoicism to indulge in voicing an opinion that is neither here nor there for anyone. I have, then, embraced the freedom of blogging—no assignment, no oversight, and no criticism. That situation does present Stoic aspects: the benefits of solitude, self-sufficiency, and doing things for oneself.  I have a platform though, however obscure, and with all this freedom I might run rampant …oh, that would be excessive—enter my philosophy again with the golden gift of moderation.