Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 life. With this last description of the “empty world,” Brontë returns to the image of coldness with which she began, and the tolling, elegiac poem is brought to rest, although with the phrase “rapturous pain” she points to the restless, unreconciled feelings of the speaker. These conflicting desires between the longing to remember lost love and the need to forget point in turn to the paradoxical nature of the whole poem: The speaker tells of the necessity of forgetting her lover, and yet the poem itself attests to her loving memory of him.
In the non-Gondal poem “The Philosopher” there is a description of “warring gods” within the “little frame” of the speaker’s physical self. This image could easily serve as a metaphor for much of Brontë’s poetry: Within the confines of poetic structure, she attempts to hold conflicting forces and their related images. “Oh Thy Bright Eyes Must Answer Now” is a significant poem in the Brontë canon, for it clearly sets forth the dimensions of these conflicts. The first half of the poem presents the conflict between imagination and reason, between spiritual needs and earthly cares. The speaker turns to the “bright eyes” of the “radiant angel” of her vision, to summon it to speak and defend her choice to worship its power, rejecting the demands of Reason, who in “forms of gloom” with a “scornful brow” judges and mocks her “overthrow.” By the world’s standards, she has been overthrown, for she has failed to achieve wealth and glory. She has shunned the “common path” and chosen the “strange road.”
The second half of the poem examines the inner conflict regarding her relationship to the overseeing “radiant angel” of this strange road. In stanza 5, she addresses this angel as “Thee, ever present, phantom thing—/ My slave, my comrade, and my King!” The speaker controls the influence, good or ill, of this angel. Consequently, he is her slave, and yet he is a comrade, an equal who is always with her, bringing her “intimate delight,” and finally—seeming to contradict completely these two roles of slave and comrade—he is her King, directing and dictating. In these lines, Brontë is expressing the conflicting desires within the soul itself: a desire to remain free without being isolated, and a desire to maintain individual identity while simultaneously merging with a larger and more powerful being.
The last stanza of this poem points to the troublesome question underlying the complicated life of Brontë’s visions: Is she wrong to choose a faith that allows her own soul to grant her prayers? In a very real way, her own imagination has conjured up the angel who will defeat Reason. It is characteristic of Brontë to place such emphasis on individual power and will. Although this emphasis prefigures the work of later writers in which the self creates its own reality and its own gods, the unorthodox road that Brontë chose to follow did not lead her to this extreme conclusion. The last two lines of “Oh Thy Bright Eyes Must Answer Now” return to her “God of Visions”: He must “plead” for her. Her power was expressed in her choice to worship him, and now he must come to defend her.
God of visions and nature
Throughout Brontë’s work there remains an emphasis on an outside power that could and would exist whether she herself existed or not. One of the last written and most famous of her poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” is a ringing affirmation of her faith in her choice of visions. Her soul stands sure in its relationship to the “Being and Breath” that “can never be destroyed.” When suns and universes are gone, it will still remain.
Many of Brontë’s poems describing nature also concern this prevailing spirit, and occasionally they seem to present a pantheistic vision; however, although the natural world clearly had the power to stir and inspire her, nature and her God of Visions are not synonymous. Primarily, Brontë uses nature to parallel a state of mind or soul, as she does in “Remembrance,” where the cold snow-covered hills objectify the restrained feelings of the speaker. Often the open moors and the movement of the winds are used to embody the wild, free feelings of the human soul. In “Aye, There It Is! It Wakes To-night,” Brontë uses the powerful and violent images of the storm to describe a person being transformed into pure spirit as her soul awakens to knowledge of some supreme spiritual power. Like lightning, her “feeling’s fires flash,” her gaze is “kindled,” a “glorious wind” sweeps all memory of this mortal world from her mind, and she becomes “the essence of the Tempest’s roaring.” The last stanza concludes that this visionary experience prefigures the life of the soul after death, when, free from the prison of the body, it shall rise: “The dungeon mingle with the mould—/ The captive with the skies.” In these last two lines, Brontë plays on a rather conventional simile of the body as prisonhouse of the soul to create an original effect. First, she unexpectedly and suddenly introduces the word “mould” to represent the process of the body’s decay and the dust to which it returns, and second, she compares the action of the soul after death to this process of decay: The body will “mingle” with the earth; the soul with the skies. There is in this last line a sense of triumphant release, effectively represented in the long vowel sound of “skies” that sharply contrasts with the earlier mournful sounds of “cold” and “mould.” Throughout the poem, Brontë has again controlled an intensely emotional subject through antithesis, simple monosyllabic rhymes, and terse metrical patterns.
“Julian M. to A. G. Rochelle”
Perhaps the most famous of Brontë’s poems depicting this visionary experience is the lengthy fragment of the Gondal poem “Julian M. to A. G. Rochelle,” which Brontë published under the title “The Prisoner.” The fragment consists of lines 13-44 and lines 65-92 of the original with four new lines added at the end to provide an appropriate conclusion. This slightly revised excerpt, although beginning with the voice of Julian telling of his decision to wander rather casually through the family dungeons, primarily concerns the mystical experiences of one of the prisoners. When she speaks, she displays a spirit undefeated by her imprisonment. Her body is able to endure the chains, for her soul is open to a nightly “messenger” who offers her the hope of “eternal liberty.” Her response to this messenger occurs in a series of stages. First, she experiences a mingling of pain and pleasure as visions rise before her. Then she loses all awareness of her earthly self; the world and the body are forgotten. She then is able to experience an “unuttered harmony.” Her outward senses and conscious mind have become numb so that the “inward essence” can be released. In the final stage, this inward essence—in one burst of energy, as if leaping—attempts to merge with the “Invisible,” the “Unseen,” which she also describes as a “home” and a “harbour.” At this point, because she cannot completely escape the body and still live, she suddenly and painfully returns to a knowledge of her earthly self and its prison, the literal prison in which she finds herself and the prison of her own body. Only after death can she finally and permanently join with the “Unseen,” and so she looks forward to Death as heralding the complete and lasting union with the source of these nightly divine visions.
Brontë’s decision to excerpt these particular stanzas from one of her Gondal poems, and the fact that once excerpted they still function as a unified whole, again suggest that Gondal merely provided the stage and the costumes for a drama that was actually taking place in Brontë’s own self. In fact, in this case the poem benefits from the cutting of the frame stanzas that are full of conventional descriptions of stone dungeons and Lord Julian’s somewhat expected romantic response to the fair prisoner. Obviously, Brontë’s interest and poetic talent lay in examining and capturing the visionary experience.