When interpreting Emily Brontë’s poetry, one must first confront the Gondal problem: What is the significance of that exotic world of emotional drama that so occupied her imagination? Some readers argue that this imaginary world of rebellion and punishment, death and lost love, permeated all her work; others maintain that her finer poems were composed outside its dramatic, at times melodramatic, influences. Brontë’s own division of the poems into two notebooks, one titled “Gondal Poems,” the other left untitled, would suggest a clear separation; yet a subjective lyrical voice can be heard in many of the Gondal poems, and echoes of the Gondal drama can be heard in non-Gondal material. Because the original prose saga has been lost, perhaps no completely satisfactory solution can be found; nevertheless, a thematic approach to Brontë’s poetry does provide a unifying interpretation.
Many of her Gondal characters are isolated figures who yearn for a time of love or freedom now lost. In the non-Gondal poems, the same voice of longing can be heard: The speakers of such poems as “The Philosopher” and “To Imagination” desire a time of union and harmony, or, as in “O Thy Bright Eyes Must Answer Now,” a time of freedom from the restraints of reason and earthly cares. The Gondal characters, with their exotic-sounding names (such as Augusta Geraldine Almeda and Julius Brenzaida), are not beings separate and distinct from the poet herself; they are masks through which Brontë speaks. Therefore, although Brontë often uses the dramatic forms of direct address, inquiry, and dialogue, none of her poems can be adequately analyzed as if it were a dramatic monologue prefiguring the work of Robert Browning. She does not attempt to delineate a character through the subtleties of his speech in a particular time and place. The desperate situations in which she places her dramatic figures merely provide appropriate circumstances in which to express the emotional and at times mystical experiences of her own private world. Continually, her poems emphasize the creative power of the individual spirit as it struggles to define itself in relation to the “Invisible,” the unseen source of all existence. This struggle in all its intensity is the predominant theme of her poetry, whether it is set in a Gondal prison or on a Yorkshire moor.
Intensity is one of Brontë’s distinguishing characteristics. Her poetry gives the impression of having been cut as close to the center of feeling as possible. The portrayal of such passionate intensity can easily lead to excessive exclamations in which meaning is scattered, if not lost; in Brontë’s case, however, her skillful handling of form provides the needed restraint. She achieves this control over her subject through such structuring devices as simple metrical patterns (she was especially fond of tetrameter and trimeter), strong monosyllabic rhymes, parallel phrasing, repetition of key words, and appropriately placed pauses. Her use of these devices allows her to shape the intensity into ordered movements appropriate to the subject, whether it be a mournful one or one of joyous celebration.
“Rosina Alcona to Julius Brenzaida”
One of the best examples of Brontë’s use of these structuring techniques to control feeling can be found in her best-known love poem, “Rosina Alcona to Julius Brenzaida,” one of her Gondal poems often anthologized under the title “Remembrance.” Rosina Alcona is addressing her lover Julius, now dead for fifteen years. She asks to be forgiven for going on with her own life after losing him. The anguish the speaker feels is captured in the wavelike rhythms established in the first stanza through the use of pauses and parallel phrasing: “Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee!/ Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!” Monosyllabic rhyme and the repetition of significant words also aid in embodying the emotional quality of a yearning that is held in check.
Brontë often achieves control through repetition of a key word, one that is repeated but with varying connotations. In the beginning lines of the poem, the word “cold” presents two aspects of the literal circumstances: The lover lies cold in the grave, and the coldness of winter is upon the land. As the poem progresses, “cold” evolves in meaning to encompass the life of the speaker as well. Without her lover, the warmth and light of her life are gone. He was both the sun and stars, and without him the heavens are now dark. Her life through the fifteen years following Julius’s death has been winter, continually as barren as the snow-covered land, and to endure such barrenness, she herself has had to become “cold.” She has had to “check the tears of useless passion” and to chill the “burning wish” to follow him to the grave. Moreover, losing him to death has taught her one of the “cold” realities of life: “existence can be cherished” even after all love and joy are gone from one’s own life.
This expanded definition of the word “cold” is underscored by Brontë’s use of antithesis, another technique typical of her style. In stanza 3, Brontë juxtaposes the image of the lover lying cold and still in his grave and the wild movements of the weather that will ultimately lead to the warmth of spring. In the final stanza, she returns to the same pair of opposites: stillness and movement. The speaker refuses to indulge too much in “Memory’s rapturous pain,” her wild feelings of love and sorrow, for fear that she could not then face the “empty world again,” the still frozen world of her own...
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