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Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems

The Brontë sisters are three of my all-time, all-star favourite authors. I first read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre when I was at school and was instantly bewitched by them, and have re-read them both often in the years since. Every time I read the Brontë sisters’ novels (not just those two) I find more in them to love. By the time you read this post, I will be in the midst of two long weeks off on holiday, and during that time I’m going to make my very first trip up to Howarth to see the parsonage where the girls lived with their brother and father – I can’t wait – talk about kid in a sweet shop! So, in celebration of this fact, today I bring you an excerpt from Janet Gezari’s 2007 book Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems.

[Elizabeth] Gaskell’s well-known image of the three sisters pacing up and down in the sitting room of the Parsonage while talking over their stories, reminds us that poems were not among the creative achievements shared during those evening sessions. When Charlotte, who knew that her sister wrote poems, came upon her Gondal Poems notebook in the autumn of 1845 and read some, Emily felt violated. Once persuaded to participate in Charlotte’s publication project, she readied only twenty-one of her poems for printing. In the 1846 volume, her poems usually alternate with those of her sisters, so that relations between her poems are subordinated to relations between them and the contiguous poems of Charlotte and Anne. All of the poems Brontë selected for publication in 1846 came from the two books into which she had begun transcribing some of her poems about a year earlier, the Gondal Poems notebook and the so-called Honresfeld manuscript. After transcribing her poems, she almost always discarded earlier drafts. Her single-leaf manuscripts preserve many apparently unfinished or incomplete poems, usually described as fragments, and we cannot know what she intended to do with them. The posthumous publication of seventeen more poems in the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey nearly doubled the number of Emily Brontë’s poems available to nineteenth-century readers. What knowledge we have about Charlotte Brontë’s aggressive editing of these poems relies on a comparison of the manuscript versions in Emily Brontë’s hand to the published versions and not on Charlotte Brontë’s correspondence with her publisher about the edition, which says nothing about her editorial judgements. 1850 added one poem to the canon for which no holograph manuscript survives, ‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning.’ For generations of Brontë readers, as for T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, this poem has sounded ‘the keynote to her character’, yet its authorship continues to be disputed. In my last chapter, I argue that Charlotte, not Emily, is the author of ‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning,’ and that the poem promotes Charlotte’s view of Emily, not Emily’s view of herself or her own poetic project.

My title registers my starting place. A concern with endings, and with how we defy, resist, blur, or transcend them, characterizes Brontë’s life, her art, and this book. In Carson’s words, ‘She whached the bars of time, which broke.’ Brontë’s approach to an end is most evident when death or memory is the subject of a poem, as it so frequently is. But there is no poet for whom immortality resolves less, or for whom ordinary temporal elements—night, day, evening, fall and spring—are more miscible. She gives us a vision of life sub specie iterationis. Her poems’ formal resistance to endings can be seen in the recurrence of the word again both at the end of lines and at the end of poems, where it appears more often than any other word, disrupting our feeling that the experience the poem has recorded is over and done. Or in her fondness for circular structures and for outcomes that resemble openings rather than endings. If time is a prison that confines us, then Brontë’s poems return again and again both to the prison site and to the prison break. Although I do not discuss all her poems, the view of Emily Brontë’s poems presented here seeks to be comprehensive. It relates to individual poems, to the progress she made from the beginning of her career as a poet to its end, to her poetical fragments and her writing practice, to her motives for writing poetry, and to the connections between her poems and her famous novel. When Brontë’s ordinary life enters into my account of her poems, it does so to illuminate them, and not vice versa. I do not ignore the presence of Gondal in the poems, but I resist dividing poems that belong to a Gondal narrative from poems that probably do not, either because Brontë transcribed them into her Honresfeld manuscript instead of her Gondal Poems notebook or because they include no references to Gondal characters or places. A specious distinction between ‘Gondal’ and ‘personal’ narrative contexts continues to thrive, especially when biographical interpretations are at stake. Believing that a Gondal poem is less personal than a non-Gondal poem is like believing that The Bell Jar is less personal than ‘Daddy’. Although she separated Gondal poems from non-Gondal poems by transcribing them into separate notebooks, Brontë composed both kinds of poems intermittently for as long as she wrote poems. For me, a Gondal poem is one in which a lyrical impulse converges with an occasion provided by a narrative about invented characters with aristocratic names. One way to look at Gondal is as intentional dreaming, a release like the one we experience in a dream when the self is freed to act various roles, but always under the aegis of an informing self-idiom that organizes and unifies whatever experience is being represented. The chapters that follow endeavour to describe both the range and the distinctiveness of the experience Emily Brontë’s poems offer.

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