Monday, January 30, 2012

The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte Edited from Manuscripts by C.W. Hatfield

I’ll admit that I really wanted to read Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte), but I couldn’t find a copy in my library system anywhere. Has anyone else read the first publication of the Bronte sisters? Searching through the system, I noticed a lot of different versions of Emily’s poems, but none by the other sisters. I chose to read The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte edited from Manuscripts by C.W. Hatfield. After reading The Brontes: A Beginner’s Guide by Steve Eddy, I discovered that critically, Emily’s poems are the most beloved of the sisters’ as they are the most original. Thus the reason why I had troubles finding poems by Anne and Charlotte.

I will tell the truth, I am not the world’s greatest fan of poetry. While I appreciate a good poem, and especially loved learning about them in school, I don’t make a habit of picking up books of poetry to read. I enjoyed reading Emily’s poems, but I am unable to offer a great critical review of them myself.

While the poems were enjoyable and beautiful to read, the most fascinating part of the book to me was the Introduction by C.W. Hatfield. In this introduction, Hatfield discusses his process of tracking down and finding Emily’s original poems. After the death of all of the Brontes, Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nichols, moved to Ireland and eventually remarried. Over the years, the manuscripts of the sisters in his possession and then his wife’s, were parceled and sold off, especially after Bell Nichols death in 1906. As the Bronte sisters and their brother Branwell had very similar handwriting, some poems were attributed to the wrong sister when they were published. Words and grammar were also changed through the years by different publishers. Hatfield worked to track down the original of all of Emily’s poems and to put them back together in the way they were when originally written. Over the years he was able to find many different poems never published before that were scattered around the world on original manuscripts. I found it all to be fascinating.

Many of Emily Bronte’s poems were written for the fictional world of Gondal, an island that Emily and Anne invented and wrote stories and poems about from children to adults. Sadly, none of the Gondal stories have survived, but Fannie Ratchford has a section in this book where she tries to put together as much about this world has she can using their poems, a short journal fragment, and letters exchanged between Emily and Anne. Ratchford has an outline of the reconstructed epic of Gondal and gives a brief description that makes the heading of the poems make more sense.

Irene Taylor wrote a great introduction and obviously loves the work of Emily Jane Bronte and thinks that Wuthering Heights is also a masterpiece. Curiously she also calls Villette Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. While I enjoy Villette, I think myself and most people consider Jane Eyre her masterpiece. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

It was interesting reading Emily Bronte’s poems. I found myself wishing often that I knew more about the Gondal epic so that I could really understand the background of some of the characters, but the prose itself was beautiful. The poems often touch on sadness and despair, loneliness and heartache. Emily was not one to write cheerful poetry, but isn’t poetry often melancholy? I found that I preferred her non-Gondal poems and found them to be much more powerful.

I liked many of the poems, but I’ll conclude with one that I particularly enjoyed, labeled A26:

O thy bright eyes must answer now,
When Reason, with a scornful brow,
Is mocking at my overthrow;
O thy sweet tongue must plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!

Stern Reason is to judgement come
Arrayed in all her forms of gloom:
Wilt though my advocate be dumb?
No, radiant angel, speak and say
Why I did cast the world away;

Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run;
And on a strange road journeyed on
Heedless alike of Wealth and Power –
Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower.

These once indeed seemed Beings divine,
And they perchance heard vows of mine
And saw my offerings on their shrine –
But, careless gifts are seldom prized,
And mine were worthily despised;

So with a ready heart I swore
To seek their altar-stone no more,
And gave my spirit to adore
Thee, ever present, phantom thing –
My slave, my comrade, and my King!

A slave because I rule thee still;
Incline thee to my changeful will
And make thy influence good or ill –
A comrade, for by day and night
Thou art my intimate delight –

My Darling Pain that wounds and sears
And wrings a blessing out from tears
Be deadening me to real cares;
And yet, a king – though prudence well
Have taught thy subject to rebel.

And am I wrong to worship where
Faith cannot doubt nor Hope despair
Since my own soul can grant my prayer?
Speak, God of Visions, plead for me
And tell why I have chosen thee!

This is my third item for the Victorian Challenge 2012.

Book Source: The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. Yes, from what I've read, even Charlotte and Anne acknowledged that Emily wrote the best poetry (and was the most fervent to be anonymous!).

    I'm the same as you, we read poetry at school, and I haven't read any since. However recently I was going through some of my school books from over 40 years ago, and opened the poetry ones. My first thought was "I can give these away", but then I started reading them aloud to my mother and now I am keeping them! Maybe the secret is reading poetry aloud, you seem to appreciate them more.

    thanks for the review!

  2. I read the Bronte sisters poetry last year, and for the most part felt I had to force myself to read the poems. I like poetry but just felt very disconnected to them. I think part of it is that I expect poetry to be a direct line to the author's heart or soul or psyche, and yet the poems written for the Gondal stories are about fictitious emotions/situations, and that bothered me. Those not about ficitious emotions were about welcoming death, which proved dreary after the first dozen or so of these.

    I love WH and consider it brilliant, but I just couldn't enjoy her and her sisters poetry myself.

    Like you, I think reading about the poetry more interesting than reading the poems themselves :)

  3. Julie - Reading them aloud sounds like a good idea. I actually found the same for Shakespeare. I appreciate Shakespeare so much better when I read it out loud and can appreciate the beauty of the language.

    JaneGS - Emily's poems can definitely never be described as happy! I had a hard time with the Gondal poems as well. I think if they were part of a larger narrative, I might enjoy them more.

  4. Ooohh, so much for moving on to February (although I have reviewed 2 things for Dickens already, I keep going back to the Brontes!!)

    Just got a relatively new DVD of Jane Eyre from the library, hope to view this over the weekend!