In 1850, Emily Brontë’s sister, Charlotte, told the story of how she and her sisters began to write for publication. According to the story, Charlotte discovered by accident a manuscript of verse that Emily had written. Charlotte encouraged her, stating that this poetry was better and different from any poems that are written casually by female poets. Despite being a very private person, Emily agreed to work on a book that would contain poetry from each of the three Brontë sisters. Although the book, published in 1846, only sold two copies, this encouraged them to continue to write for publication, each writing a novel after this book of poetry. Emily wrote and published Wuthering Heights in 1847 and a year after, died of tuberculosis.
Most of her poems were written for what is known as the Gondal saga, an elaborate set of stories recorded in a collection of manuscripts written by Emily and Anne during their childhood that chronicled the history of an imaginary island called Gondal. These stories, as well as the verses they spawned, deal with political intrigue, love, rebellion, war, imprisonment, and exile. These poems are written from the perspective of narrators very similar to Catherine and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights in that they tend to yearn for a freer world of spirits that would transcend the forms and boundaries of mortal life. Finally, her poems are often remarked for their connection to Romantic-era poetry, like those of Lord Byron and Percy Blysshe Shelley, however, her hymnlike stanzas and haunting tone help her work to stand out. 1
“The night is darkening around me” (1837, 1902)
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.
In her use of repetition (“I cannot go”), the narrator’s inability to move is deeply felt. At first, the narrator simply states that she “cannot go,” however by the final stanza, something changes. She instead states that “I will not, cannot go.” Does she want to stay? At first it seems that the violent nature (the darkness, the bending trees, etc.) are holding her hostage or imprisoned, however, this final line brings up the question of agency. Perhaps she prefers to stay, but for some reason must or desires to make it seem like she is held against her will. This sort of reminds me of that Christmas song “Baby it’s Cold Outside” in which a male and female blame the cold weather for forcing her to stay the night at his house. In this poem,the narrator claims that a “tyrant spell” keeps her where she is. This spell, of course could be threatening and evil, however, this could also be a spell that a lover places on another that then tyrannizes the love victim’s heart.
“I’m happiest when most away” (1838, 1910)
I’m happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from its home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And the eye can wander through worlds of light-
When I am not and none beside —
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky —
But only spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity.
This is a great example of Brontë’s narrators’ desire to break away from the bonds of mortal life. In the second line she states that she can “bear my soul from its home of clay.” While this may mean that she can travel away from her home, it is more likely that this paints a picture of the narrator’s soul leaving its mortal (clay) body and traveling either via the imagination or, perhaps, through death or some other supernatural ability.
Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?
Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!
Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!
No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.
And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?
This poem is very reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. Looking at the title (“Remembrance”) we can see the influence which the Romantic poets had on Brontë’s verse, as this title was used quite a bit already by Romantic poets. Additionally, this term is pretty loaded, considering the fact that, throughout the poem, the narrator considers forgetting this person and asks for forgiveness for letting go of the memory, lest this narrator would not be able to continue living. Additionally, this poem was originally titled “R. Alcona to J. Breznaida” and was a lament by the heroine of the Gondal saga for the hero’s death, according to the Norton Anthology. The sound of the poem helps bring the narrator’s emotions to the forefront. The poem opens with a lot of “o” sounds and longer syllables; however, by the seventh stanza this changes with the line “Then did I check the tears of useless passion” which contains short syllables, giving the sound of a sudden change. This fits well with the content of the stanza, in which the narrator decides not to commit suicide in order to join “that tomb already more than mine!”
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, 1311 ↩