Monday, 15 July 2013

The Romantics and Emily Bronte by Dorothy J. Cooper

Here are extracts from the Bronte Society Transactions, 1952.

The Romantic Revival in English Literature was widespread in 1818, the year of Emily Brontë's birth, and during its lifetime its influence was felt in every form of Art. Her own work is highly individual and yet many traces of the movement, current in her day, may be found in it.
The most striking evidence of it is in her interest in the significance of the individual and the workings of the human mind. Like Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, de Quincey, she followed it in its darkest explorations and from this springs the intensity of her writings. Unlike the Romantics, Shelley, Byron and de Quincey particularly, she never indulged this individualism into creating a man "not as other men are"; no one could accuse her of shunning that contact with life which is the vital resource of great poetry.  She made great attempts to hide what she felt most deeply and it is this habit of putting aside her visions, attending to the ironing, baking picking the black-currants, before she will give her own thoughts a little space, which brings the driving force into her poetry, the familiar dark hour in which "Fancy," the "Strange Power", her "Angel" are permitted to come. We cannot insist too much on Ellen Nussey's remark that Emily liked her because she never treated her as a peculiar person. She did not dwell on emotion for its own sake, as an interesting record of experience, but because she was forced by circumstances into knowing "the agonies, the strife/Of human hearts" as well as her own spiritual agonies and strife; her work has a frankness of expression and a strength which distinguishes it from the poetry of her contemporaries.  Keats suffered under the same sentence of death, but he was lulled for a while by the world of sensations and colour and crowding sensuous impressions which checked his painful thoughts. The stone parsonage, the moors, the semi-Calvinist creed at home and at school gave little encouragement to the world of the senses, and it is with a sudden shock of pleasure that Emily observed the colours of the summer moors, the skies, the first yellow crocuses at the Heights and the languid shadows of an autumn evening. We value the spare sentences which describe them, all the more because of their rareness. 
The cherished Liberty of the Romantics is again seen with a difference in her work. Since she lived her own perfect pattern of Liberty, she invariably returned to it after a patient period attending the behests of others and the interim seemed immaterial. She had no interest in the political aspects of the other Liberty - "Vain are the creeds that move men's hearts" - and her religion was a matter between God and herself. And so the affairs of the numerous valleys below and beyond Haworth passed by almost as if unnoticed ...
The nostalgic melancoly of Keats and Shelley, the cry of human weakness from Coleridge, which she could have found it shameful to utter - "To be beloved is all I need," - Wordsworth's sorros that he can never again see with the innovent eye of childhood, all these seem slgiht and subtle beside that black melancholy of hers, understandably traceable to the shabby walls of the parsonage, the garden stones, "black with autumn rain," the dampness which is implicit in everything that the Brontës described and even came to love, in Haworth. Urged onlt be this, her poetry would be morbid, but it is informed by a familiarity with Death, that calm acknowledgement of it which often shocks us in "Wuthering Heights." Sometimes in her poetry she tries to remind herself of the coldness and decay of death: - 
 In the earth, the earth, thou shalt be laid,
A grey stone standing over thee,
Black mould beneath thee spread
And black mould to cover thee.

This, as often occurs, becomes the Elizabethan beauty and frankness of 

Well, there is rest there,
So fast come thy prophecy;
The time when my sunny hair
Shall with grass roots entwined be.

At her death, Emily seemed to have a moment, a feeling of the horor of it. Her description of Heathcliff's death, the vigil by Catherine's side, her love for Branwell during his last years and her pity for him as he died, give us a picture of a woman and a poet who was as far as possible removed from any mood which permitted her to be "half in love with easeful death."  Her melancholy does not descent without warning, giving the impression of the painful outpourings of adoloscence - "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" but is a purposive longing for the earth and a solution of the wrongs of life. External nature consoles for a while but the consolatoin is transient, no one knew it better than she. She liked Cowper's "The Castaway" and we feel that in one of his phrases is her attitude to death - "We perish each alone." She lived alone and made it her constant aim to learn how to die alone. Alfred de Vigny's poem on the death of the wolf suits her attitude, perhaps, more nearly than any of her Englsih contemporaries, for she, too, thought it cowardly to pray or appeal against her sentence and her wish was to complete fully the taste she had been given on earth and after that, like the wolf, to suffer and die without a sound.
In all Romantic poetry, we come across a preiod in which the sorrows of the world are the poet's. Coleridge, in such circumstances, writes,
But yesternight, I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Upstarting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!

and our first thought is reflective, pondering a sensitive mind which is confronted with the apparent ascendency of evil. Emily Brontë wrote:
Oh God of  Heaven! the dream of horror:
The frightful dream is over now,
The sickened heart, the blasting sorrow,
The ghastly night, the ghastlier morrow,
The aching sense of utter woe.


She was nineteen when she wrote it and after the first shock it arouses, we realise that sorrow was constant in this life, not in moods, but in an endless succession which could not be staved off beyond two or three light verses. Whether she writes of the Gondalian fortunes or discard that mask, the two or three times of sheer tragedy are implicit in her work and theirs is not a comforting inspiration; they go far beyond the pathos, suffering, regret of the Romantics.

Because of this, the lyric gift is rare in her poetry. A personal sorrow excludes preoccupation with the infiniate variations on the theme of nature, which delight us so much in Shelley's lyrics. Here is her attempt at it in a fragment which she left unfinished:

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers away;
Lengthen night and shorten day; 
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the Autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow.
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

There is a brave and beautiful beginning but it seems that the writers, conscious that the deeper melancholy will always intrude, give sup the lyric as she realises how it is shaping. Her choice of a theme such as "The Night Wing". one which Shelley would have loved, becomes instead of a series of a fast-flowing images such as Shelley would have made it, a poem touched with that some nostalgia leading here to a quiet, resigned irony.

And when they heart is laid at rest,
Beneath the church-aisle stone,
I shall have time enough to mourn,
And thou to be alone.
Of course, the lords and ladies of the Gondal tales derive from the Romances and novels of terror which became so popular during the Romantic Revival. "Lines written in Aspin Castle" is the very epitome of the Gothic tale and there is the real "Castle of Otranto" touch in the picture of moonlight illuminating the portrait,

And when the moonbeam, chill and blue,
Stream the spectral windows through,
That picture's like a spectre too.

All the Brontës enjoyed playing this game and too often Emily lets elaborate phrases, strained apostrophes and jaded figures of speech get the better of her as she plays it. Yet here, just as often, we suddenly sense the quickened pace, a striking and original idea or image, a sincere and forceful expression. She has risen above the childish convention and has informed it with the seriousness of her own gift.

Lord Byron had a very great influence on Charlotte Brontë's imagination. We can trace it distinctly in her sketches and in Mr Rochester and Louis Moore. Byron, rejected and admired of society and trying to make a glory out of his outlawed position, strangely, had much in common with the girl at Haworth Parsonage, who grew up to feel herself in a similar position in her own small world. Emily was always a rebel against the dependence of girls and she gifted the personality of her imagination with a man's freedom, no gentleman of society but a dark and threatening creature. He represented no compromise and he fits in almost identically with Byron's character. This description of Ellen Dean's is typical - 

"Do you mark those two lines between your eyes, and those thick brows that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly but lurk glinting under them, like devil's spies?"

As her life became more and more identifies with this outcast, he became not a Romantic attitude but a tragic personality with the pride and bitterness of Milton's Satan. Ellen Dean, later in "Wuthering Heights," says of him, "Poor wretch, you have a heart and nerves the same as your brother men! Why should you be anxious to conceal them? Your pride cannot blind God! You tempt time to wring them till He forces a cry of humiliation," and in this we see that Heathcliff has assumed greater proportions than the attractive parish. This language is beyong the range of the original model and the comparison with Byron ends here.

One outstanding point links her with Wordsworth. The power of nature realised in childhood is evident at once in both and the almost pagan freedom that it gave. Wordsworth, a child at the fireside, felt the work of the frost outside, splitting the trees and making weird noises on the fells with much thge same wonder as Emily Brontë watched the "waste of wintersnow."  Landscape is a state of mind in both writesr. Emily Brontë can convey Heathcliff perfectly in a sudden storm on the moorland or Catherine in a moment of spring suhshine at the Heights. Wordsworth gives us a vivid impression of his own personality in every landscape he describes. The end of the "Prelude" comes in the calm of a mountain top, above a belt of mist, and the end of "Wuthering Heights" has the same calm fulfilment through the earth. No other writesr have made us feel so deeply that the earth "Can centre both the worlds of HEaven and Hell" whether in the brute stone of a mountain peak or a day when the becks and brooks are all brim-full  and the voice of delight speaks through them. They have both traught us that the sun and rain visit all alike and that there is rest in the earth for each one of us.

There is a striking comparison to be made between Emily Brontë's poetry and that of Coleridge, and the central poems concerned in making the comparison are "Christabel" and "And now the house-dog stretched once more."  The first tells the story of a strange lady, received into a medieval castle by the young daughter of the baron, and the subsequent attempts of the stranger to win the girl over to the world of evil magic from which she comes. Emily Brontë's poem tells of a sea-farer, dark and forbiding as Heathcliff, who enters a shepherd's household and terrifies its occupants by his "basilisk charm.

No - there was something in his face,
Some nameless thing they could not trace, 
And something in his voice's tone
 Which turned their blood as chill as stone.
If Emily Brontë had completed her fragment, there is every indication that the mechanics of the story would have followed Coleridge's, but nowhere her does her atmosphere resemble that of "Christabel." The abrupt words of the Stranger are precursors of Heathcliff obviously.  Elsewhere we catch a phrase which almost echoes Coleridge; for example - (Coleridge: "Tears in Solitude")
Stand we forth, 
Render them back upon the insulted ocean,
And let them toss as idly on its waves,
As the vile seaweed.

and Emily Brontë - "The Old Stoic"
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds.
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.
Then there is that amazing poem of hers The Philosopher. There is only one passage in Romantic literature comparable with these lines and it is in Kubla Khan.

I saw a spirit standing, Man,
Where thou dost stand - an hour ago;
And round his feet, three rivers ran
Of equal depth and equal flow -
A golden stream, and one like blood,
And one like Sapphire, seemed to be,
But where they joined their triple flood
It tumbled in an inky sea.
The situation in which much of her greatest verse was written - that of the watcher gazing out over the snow in the depths of night - is reminiscent too of Frost at Midnight, in its union of the magic power of frost with the silence of a sleeping house. Many critics have commente donthe sea-imagery which so often enters her poetry, although she knew the sea less than her sisters did. I think it not impossible that she may have realised, in reading the ancient Mariner, that the symbol of eternity next most powerful to an unbroken stretch of moorland is that of the sea, for it is always used symbolically in her poems and never for its descriptive value. The use of nature, espcially at night, to suggest a rapt, mystical experience in the mind of men, linkes the tow poets at once, though Emily Bronë does not use her powers with the conscious narcotic effect that Coleridge so powerfully commands. She is by far the more individual poet and it is possible that she never read a line of Coleridge's work, though in a family that considered poetry of vital importance and considering the trend of her own verse, I think it unlikely.

Wild nature became the indispensable background to a Romantic novel or poem. Scotland came into its own, and as many poets as possible claimed Scots kinsmen, the others made protracted visits to the more rugged parts of its domains. Sir Walter Scott had first exploited the taste; the more barren his heaths, desolate his castles, gloomy his chapels and precipitous his mountains, the more his public was pleased. The Romantics, with varying degrees of subtlety, follow his example, one needs only to compare the lath and pasteboard of the Titans' cave in Hyperion with the opening of Wordsworth's Michael, to see it at once. It is rather difficult to see how, in this respect, Emily Brontë comes into the general trend. Haworth and its environs are thought by many people to be exciting in no way. There are complaints that the moors are uniform and too far-stretching to be interesting and various. Some of the people drawn to Haworth are not sensitive enough to see that here is a supreme example of the eternal truth that landscape is a state of mind. We talk of the moors as a "background" in Wuthering Heights, when Emily brontë used no such artificial means of suggesting their beauty. In no instance does she devote more than a line of two to a set description of landscape, yet more than Hardy, who strove for pages to get the effect she captured in a few words, we are throughout conscious of the wild landscape outside, because it exists within the characters themselves.

A better description of an isolated West Riding farm than this could not be found "One may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house, and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one say, as if craving alms of the sun."  It is more than a description, for the characters of Wuthering Heghts are in it too and there is more poetry in that single sentence than in all the "faery lands forlorn" of the Romantic movement. The Haworth landscape is not pleasantly romantic; there are no drams of the medieval past to associate with it, and yet it is uncanny that a desolation so complete exists within easy reach of Keighley and Bradford. It is this easy exchange between the practical and the absolute which makes Emily Brontë's work a thing apart from most Romantic literature, and her landscape so impressive, because we can see her own personality in it. when we think of her poem "The Visionary", we call the girl who performed endless household duties willingly and efficiently with, as a reward, those few hours when she was free to watch over Haworth moors with their covering of snow, an experience so much newer to us than the white forests lost in the Middle Ages, and a voice that says foru s in her poetry something that we have often tried to say.

Her life was near to us and practical in every detail and she endured much during her short span here,
Where pleasure still will lead to wrong
And helpless Reason warn in vain,
And Truth is weak and Treachery strong,
And Joy the shortest path to Pain;
And Peace the lethargy of Greig:
And Hope a phantom of the soul;
And Life, a labour void and brief;
And Death the despot of the whole!
This is not Romantic, fashionable disillusionment.
She saw life, her life, very steadily from the start, darkened as it was for her, but this is a penguins sadness of soul, expressed with the passionate sincerity of experience. 




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