Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718
Brontë shared much with the Romantic poets, whose works she had read during childhood. Underlying all of her own poetry and prose is the Romantic ideal of transcendence, the desire to rise above the domain of time and space that encompasses ordinary human experience. Brontë’s works are filled with human...
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- Critical Essays
Brontë shared much with the Romantic poets, whose works she had read during childhood. Underlying all of her own poetry and prose is the Romantic ideal of transcendence, the desire to rise above the domain of time and space that encompasses ordinary human experience. Brontë’s works are filled with human passion and longing that drive toward this goal. In its emotional turmoil, the love between Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights exceeds the boundaries of the mortal world and endures beyond the grave. This lack of established borders between life and death provides much of the excitement in the novel, as characters communicate as ghosts and in dreams through the veil of time, in a setting that simultaneously assumes supernatural qualities.
Brontë’s poetry expresses the longing for freedom from the chains of mortality, depicting life as “cold captivity” (in “The Caged Bird”) and death as liberation of the soul. The subject of one of her most renowned poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” is her Romantic desire for a mystical union with the deity, whom Brontë saw as the God both within and without her. In Brontë’s poetry, crossing over the lines of the mortal world establishes a resonance, exemplified in “Remembrance,” where speakers, events, and audience exist in different realms: for example, in the distant past, in the present, and in the realm beyond death. All of Brontë’s poetry and prose is highly imaginative, which points to a final means to freedom in her work: the world of imagination, a gift more highly prized by the Romantics than reason.
Another important Romantic element in Brontë’s work is nature. Growing up in the stormy northern England countryside, Brontë knew the great potential of the tempestuous moorland weather to communicate the vast range of human emotions. Brontë uses the outer world of nature as a metaphor for human nature, that is, as something heavily symbolic, carrying an equivalence to a person’s inner world. There is interplay and even interchange between Brontë’s characters and the natural elements. In Wuthering Heights, Lockwood’s surreal dream of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost on a stormy night is prompted by the wildly knocking branch against the window pane, which becomes a “little, ice-cold hand!” when he reaches for it. Heathcliff himself assumes enough aspects of the moor in his brutal, remorseless nature that he becomes inextricable from it. The dynamic role of nature also adds much excitement to the action in the drama, continually energizing the characters.
For all the passionate overflow of Brontë’s created worlds, her presentation is highly controlled, giving her work unexpected power and intensity. This aspect of her writing stems not only from the nature of the themes that she explores but even more from her own skill in delivering the material. The narrative of Wuthering Heights is a complex chronological layering, yet Brontë delivers it cleanly and ingenuously, as the narrator is brought under Heathcliff’s roof by the storm and, in a single night, brings three names, three dates, and the ghost of Catherine Linton into view. Likewise, Nelly, the housekeeper who relates the tale to Lockwood, quotes the characters directly without encumbering interpretation or embellishment. Brontë’s own description is always vivid and striking, with no extra words spent, moving her plot forward at a delightfully exciting pace.
Brontë’s poetry exhibits the simplicity and austerity inherent in her style. She uses ordinary, uncomplicated language, direct address, and subtle methods, such as the repetition of single words or alliteration, to create moods and deepen their effects, often achieving a profound lucidity. Even the pauses in her lines work to expand or command a mood, as exemplified by her poem “No Coward Soul Is Mine” with her words to the immortal deity who “Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.” These singly delivered, sibilant words demand the slow pace of deliberation and awe. Likewise, Brontë constructs her literature from natural materials. As a result, her images endure humbly yet vividly in the memory. The correspondence posited in Brontë’s poem “Love and Friendship” between love and the seasonal rose-briar and between the evergreen holly and friendship is simple, yet powerfully effective. In “The Bluebell,” a single bluebell that can remedy homesickness for the more passionate “purple heath” of the moor quietly persists in miniature.
Brontë communicates her own fierce independence, as well as her well-known mystical yearning for transcendence, in all of her work, from her young poems of the childhood world of Gondal to the rich harvest of her single novel, Wuthering Heights. In all Brontë’s work, it is apparent that her attachment to the natural world is always as strong as her desire to transcend it. This enigma of individuality that seeks to go beyond itself was the one that Brontë chose to write from and live through. It is this concern that haunts her poetry and lives unsettled and restless in her novel.
First published: 1847
Type of work: Novel
A jilted lover’s passion becomes a storm of vengeance in the wild moorland of northern England.
First published in 1847, Wuthering Heights is an enduring gothic romance filled with intrigue and terror. It is set in the northern England countryside, where the weather fluctuates in sudden extremes and where bogs can open underfoot of unsuspecting night venturers. Under this atmospheric dome of brooding unpredictability, Brontë explores the violent and unpredictable elements of human passion. The story revolves around the tempestuous romance between Heathcliff, an orphan who is taken home to Wuthering Heights on impulse, and Catherine Earnshaw, a strong-willed girl whose mother died delivering her and who becomes Heathcliff’s close companion.
The setting is central to the novel. Both action and characters can be understood in terms of two households. Wuthering Heights, overtaken by the sinister usurper, Heathcliff, becomes a dark, winter world of precipitous acts that lead to brutality, vengeance, and social alienation. What Wuthering Heights lacks in history, education, and gregariousness is supplied by the more springlike Thrushcross Grange, where the fair-haired Lintons live in the human world of reason, order, and gentleness. Unfortunately, these less passionate mortals are subject to the indifferent forces of nature, dying in childbirth and of consumption too easily. They are subject to Heathcliff’s wrath as well, losing all assets and independence to him.
Brontë uses the element of unpredictability to spur the action in Wuthering Heights, which adds excitement and suspense at every turn and enlivens the characters by infusing them with the characteristic storminess of the moorland weather. Seemingly chance events gather like ominous clouds to create the passionate tale of Heathcliff and Catherine. They are brought together by chance and are left to roam the moor together, far from the world of shelter and discipline, when Catherine’s father dies, leaving her tyrannical brother, Hindley, in charge. Accident also accounts for Catherine’s introduction to the more refined world of Thrushcross Grange, when she is bitten by a watchdog while spying on her cousins, who then rescue her. Even Heathcliff’s angry departure and vowed vengeance is the result of eavesdropping, hearing only what he could mistake for rejection, and not Catherine’s true feelings for him.
In Heathcliff’s character, Brontë explores the great destructive potential of unrestrained passion. In him, human emotion is uncontrollable and deadly. In the ghostly union of Catherine and Heathcliff beyond the grave, however, Brontë suggests the metaphysical nature of love and the potential of passion to project itself beyond the physical realm of existence.
The ending of Wuthering Heights depicts Brontë’s final answer to the theme of destructive passion—the answer of mercy and forgiveness, which Brontë holds to be the supreme quality in human beings. Hareton, whom Heathcliff once unwittingly saved from death and then forever after abused, forgives his captor for everything. This forgiveness is accompanied by the mercy that Catherine Linton shows Hareton, teaching him to read after years of mocking his ignorance. Together, these acts of grace nullify the deadly effects of their keeper, who dies soon afterward. The passion of winter becomes the compromise of spring; the storm has passed, and life continues in harmony at last.
First published: 1846 (collected in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846)
Type of work: Poem
A woman mourns the death of her lover, fifteen years later.
“Remembrance” is one of Brontë’s well-known poems, one originally from the world of Gondal that Brontë created with her sister Anne at a young age. This poem is an elegy, a sorrowful lament for the dead. Queen Rosina Alcona speaks directly to her lost love, the emperor Julius Brenzaida, fifteen years after his assassination, in yearning that does not recognize the limits of time and space. Such an emotional state is typical in Brontë’s poems, as is the simplicity and earnestness of the lines. The key feature of her style is repetition:
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?
Brontë repeats single words, such as “cold,” throughout the poem, insisting on their effect, but only subtly. When the repetition occurs in each line (“cold,” “far,” “love,” and “sever”), a resonance is established that expresses the unfilled span of fifteen years through which the speaker’s words must travel.
Brontë also uses assonance, the less obvious repetition of vowel sounds, as in the second stanza line, “Over the mountains, on that northern shore.” She uses alliteration to unify the speaker’s experience of life and death, sorrow and joy, as well. In the sixth stanza, “days of golden dreams” are tied to the “despair [that] was powerless to destroy” by strong consonant alliteration. To further the emotional effect of joy turned to sorrow, “destroy” is rhymed with “joy” in the last line of the stanza.
The pauses that occur at the ends of the lines are unusually long. This effect certainly adds to the resonance and feeling of words that must travel a long way, perhaps never reaching the listener except by the web of quiet persistence that exists in repetition. This is the memorableness of Brontë’s poems, that they linger like faint strains of music.