In criticism today a poem is read first as an entity in itself; difficulties in reading may be clarified by reference to the author’s other poems, his life, his other writings, his times, and the like. Exceptions to this rule are the units of a poetic sequence which are lesser entities within a greater whole. But scholarship often imposes two kinds of superior entity on a single work: its place in the author’s canon and its significance as an artifact of its time. Emily Brontë’s poems may be read simply as single works of art; when understood, however, as a body of work—apart from the reflection of biography or their significance as mid-nineteenth century English verse—they form not one but two larger entities. Her two hundred poems, some still in manuscript, belong to the “Gondal Chronicles” which she and her younger sister Anne composed from the summer of 1832, when Emily was fourteen and Anne twelve, until Emily’s death in 1848; thirty-nine of these poems appeared in 1846 and 1850 as the work of “Ellis Bell” without any reference to Gondal. In the case of Emily Brontë, the smaller number of poems—her “selected poems”—have the greater universality of appearing as complete entities and are here treated as to all intents and purposes the collected poems of Emily Brontë as “Ellis Bell.”
The moot point in such a course is whether “Ellis Bell’s” poems make complete sense without the remaining poems of Emily Brontë, constituting the “Gondal Chronicles” as we have them. The affirmative depends on two grounds: how the “Ellis Bell” poems came to be published in the lifetime of Emily and her older sister Charlotte and the amount of Gondal reference in the original poems necessary to their meaning. If there is little significant reference in a poem, it can be easily released from its original frame and considered separately. POEMS BY CURRER, ELLIS AND ACTON BELL is the fourth step in transforming the Gondal poems into those of “Ellis Bell.” The first and third steps were taken by Emily Brontë herself. In the winter of 1843-1844 she transcribed some of the Gondal poems from the small printed notebooks of the “Chronicles” into two manuscript books of fair copies. One is dated February, 1844. In October of the following year Charlotte accidently read one of these books and, breaking the family code of the “secret plays,” began insisting that the poems be published simply as a book of verse. Emily reluctantly agreed, probably so that the poems of Charlotte (“Currer”) and Anne (“Acton”) could appear with hers and thus help Charlotte’s desperate gamble to capitalize on the writing ability of the three sisters against the looming possibility of their father’s death and their own return to teaching simply in order to live. Charlotte, as a mature literary connoisseur of thirty, was right in her belief in the imperishable quality of Emily’s best verse, and her decision—the most significant event in the lives of all three sisters—had three important results: it ended the “Angrian Chronicles” on which she had labored for twenty years with Branwell—the dangerously compulsive “web of childhood” that Miss Fannie Ratchford has shown it to be;it opened the way for the novels which did bring Charlotte money (but no privision against death), and, in Emily’s double insistence on keeping her identity secret and erasing the Gondalian references in the poems, it provided a body of her poetry which differs textually from the Gondal canon and appears before the world as the work of “Ellis Bell.” The transformation was completed when twenty-one of these poems appeared in the 1846 volume and eighteen in the 1850 Selections from the Poems of Ellis Bell, edited considerably by Charlotte but along the lines Emily had begun.
A final reason for following Emily’s decision to publish her poems as “Ellis Bell” is that the “Gondal...
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