Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608

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.”

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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 Chronicles” are incomplete; thus the full Gondal matrix is irrecoverable. Thanks, however, to Miss Ratchford’s The Brontë’s Web of Childhood and the work of other scholars the story can be outlined.

In this outline the lonely landscapes are sometimes called “moors” in order to stress that the “Gondal Chronicles” are as much sources for Wuthering Heights as they are the inspiration of Emily’s poems; these occur at static moments in the action and celebrate the emotions of the character concerned (identified by initials used in the headings to the poems, most of them now lost in Emily’s editing the poems for publication); the poems may refer to past events in Gondal and to the present situation of the character but the emphasis of the poem is on the emotion, and this is the prime justification for treating the “Ellis Bell” poems as the “selected poems” of Emily Brontë. A comparison of two such poems, both from the 1846 volume, will show the varying amount of Gondalian reference still in the poems and pose the question whether that reference is essential to understanding the works.

The two poems entitled “Remembrance” and “Death” were written to express Queen Augusta’s continuing desolation at the loss of Julius; both poems resolve to continue mourning because the first “May” (“Death”) or first “morn” (“Remembrance”) is the “Sweet Love of youth” (“Remembrance”) and is now gone forever. The resolution is achieved only after two different temptations have been resisted. In “Remembrance” the “Sweet Love of youth” is asked to forgive “if I forget thee,” not because the speaker wants to forget “memory’s rapturous pain” but because she apparently cannot die until her appointed time, even though it is her “burning wish to hasten Down to that tomb already more than mine.” In “Death” the speaker has been tempted by the return of Spring (or the healing passage of time):

Little mourned I for the parted Glad-ness,For the vacant nest and silent song;Hope was there, and laughed me outof sadness,Whispering, “Winter will not lingerlong.”

But the speaker rejects the available hope: “Time, for me, must never blossom more!” She asks Death to strike down the budded branch and return it to Eternity, and thus she rejects “Life’s restoring tide.” There are more overt references to Gondal in “Remembrance” than in “Death,” but in each case they simply give the emotion of the poem an objective correlative to sustain turning the emotion into a poem. In “Death” the references to Augusta’s love for Julius can be seen in the phrases “when I was most confiding/In my certain Faith of Joy to be” and “the vacant nest.” In “Remembrance” they are more concrete (“that northern shore” and “fifteen wild Decembers”), but in sum the references amount to a very small percentage in poems each of more than two hundred words. In effect these references, in the versions published by “Ellis Bell,” are no more essential to a satisfactory reading of the poems than is a knowledge of Arthur Henry Hallam necessary in order to understand Tennyson’s In Memoriam.

The emotion of the speaker in the two poems is conventional in poetry and natural in life; Emily Brontë’s claim to being a poet is her personal variation on that theme of loss of the loved one. In some of her other poems there is more reference to Gondalian names and situations—the mother who loses her baby on the moor in “The Outcast Mother” or the references to “Irene” in “Faith and Despondency” and to “Edward” in “A Death-Scene”—but it is still possible to see these as the necessary though extraordinary furniture of the poem.

Emily Brontë’s poems depend on the conventional antithesis of inner reality to superficial appearances, a reality discovered or celebrated in the course of the poem. Her unique handling of the convention was to prefer the eccentric or perverse to that normally celebrated in poetry; she seeks the moors, not a pleasant landscape (as Charlotte observed in introducing her Selections from the Poems of Ellis Bell); she chooses December before May; she prefers solitude to company and does not make the conventional return to society at the close of the poem; above all she seeks death, and she really means it. She conveys the intensity of her own emotions by dramatizing the situation and focusing on concrete objects, generally aspects of nature, to sing of sorrow; as in “Song”:

The linnet in the rocky dells,The moor-lark in the air,The bee among the heather-bellsThat hide my lady fair:

Needless to say the “fair” lady is in her grave and “in her tranquil sleep” where Emily rejoiced to go; as Charlotte dryly observed “the colour and perfume of the flowers [i.e. poems] are not such as fit them for festal uses.” Charlotte’s famous dictum—“Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils”—is shown in most of the poems, where the speaker chafes against restrictions and principally that of the body itself, especially in her three most famous: “The Old Stoic” (as it is misnamed), and the stanzas beginning “Often rebuked, yet always back returning” and “No coward soul is mine.” The popular choice of these is improved by acquaintance with the other “Ellis Bell” poems; together they sum up her rejection of the unreal world of “riches,” “long-past history,” and temporal doubts of God’s being. The poet affirms her faith only in the moors “where my own nature would be leading” and, given that nature, she achieves a resounding vision of earth which “can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell” and of total and real existence only in God.

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