Emily Brontë, Poet of Solitude
English writer Emily Bronte (1818-1848) is remembered primarily for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, and her sibling Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre. But Emily clearly stands as a unique writer in her singularly evocative poetry. One compiler has assembled representative poems under the apt title of "Poems of Solitude," and solitude is indeed Emily Bronte's outstanding theme as a thinker and artist. She is preeminently a poet of self-conscious expression, of an interior life focused on observation, imagination and introspection. And Emily's life was that of a representative solitary.
Making of a Solitary
Among the elements in Emily Bronte's life that shaped her solitude must be counted:
- the death of her mother when Emily was age two;
- the death from typhoid of her two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth when Emily was six;
- her upbringing on the bleak and desolate moors of Yorkshire;
- her independent learning and intense intellectual and creative interests without formal schooling or socialization;
- the benevolent toleration of her father, a village clergyman of modest social and monetary means who encouraged the independent thinking of his children.
Early in youth, Emily developed her imagination around the influence of her natural setting as a keen observer of sky, animals, plants, rocks, soil, and water, but also around romantic contrivances of fictional worlds influenced by her reading. Her world of Gondal, developed with her older sister Charlotte and younger sister Anne, was a far-away land peopled with medieval-like and romantic-era characters: kings and consorts, princes and princesses, generals and rebels, implacable foes, irreconcilable traitors, and flawed lovers. Their land and seascapes were filled with castles, cathedrals, dungeons, warships and forest battles.
Though all three sisters and even brother Branwell partook of these childhood pastimes, Emily preserved, extended and matured these scenarios into adulthood. About half of her poetry she labeled Gondal poems.
The Gondal poems clearly overlap with her own sensibilities. She explores emotions and settings through the increasingly more complex characters who become personal masks for her own engagement with society and human behavior. No mere projection of an isolated life, the Gondal poems stand on their own as a vivid commentary on the world and human nature.
Among intellectual resources during Emily's day were the rising romantic voices like Lord Byron to complement her knowledge of folklore and local color. Byron's style and heroic sentiments, his "metaphysical rebelliousness," as one Bronte observer puts it, were an early influence to complement the nostalgic and non-intellectual Walter Scott.
Emily captured the zeitgeist of romanticism despite her physical and cultural isolation. Her father was an avid reader who regularly borrowed books from colleagues and brought them home -- not merely clerical tracts but the latest in literature, politics, art, and culture. Patrick Bronte subscribed to Blackwood's and other magazines of higher culture of the time and read them aloud with his children. He indulged Emily's refusal to teach Sunday school or even to attend Sunday services. He was proud of his daughters' intellectual achievements and the closeness of his family, even to the exclusion of outsiders.
Commentator Gérin summarizes Emily's youth and character:
In the solitude of the moors, and of the tiny room, in long uninterrupted communings with herself, she formed a character as much in advance of her age in some aspects as it remained childish in others -- this her diary-papers attest. The hermit's life of that uncomplicated household developed in her fearless questioning mind a natural bent towards metaphysical speculation.
And as Charlotte put it succinctly concerning Emily's relation to nature, Emily was "a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove."
She found in the bleak solitude [of the moors] many and clear delights, and not the least and best-loved was liberty. ... Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished.
Thus while Emily's nature poems are based on direct experience, absent the contrived romanticism of the speculator, they reflect beauty and a sense of enchantment precisely because they bring aesthetic joy but also mirror the liberty or autonomy she valued so much. One of Emily's more famous poems strikes this note perfectly:
Riches I hold in light esteem
And love I laugh to scorn
And lust of Fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn --
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is -- "Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty."
Yes, as my swift days near their goal
'Tis all that I implore --
Through life and death, a chainless soul
With courage to endure!1
Another set of factors in the making of Emily's character and solitude was her observation of people and the world. It is not only what Gerin observes, that "the conditions Emily hated were not the domestic conditions of her life but the human condition itself deprived of its spiritual dimensions." It was further that each experience with the world was a profound disillusionment for her.
On Emily's first occasion to attend school, she felt so stifled by the atmosphere of rules, authority, insensitive schoolmates, drab lessons and suffocating interiors that she fell seriously ill and was withdrawn, only to quickly recover at home. Emily missed the companionship of her younger sister Anne and the liberty of her home.
But it was Emily's observation throughout youth and adulthood of the fracas of personal relationships in acquaintances and others that truly confirmed her philosophy of life. Coveting her privacy and completely freed of public ambition, Emily was mortified by Charlotte's discovery and reading of her poems, only worsened when Charlotte sought to have them published, if only under a pseudonym. Emily was disillusioned by the publishers' fraud and complacence. When she obtained a position as a school-teacher, and as a governess, these lasted only several months, for Emily was unable to put up with the circumstances and demands of others. Further, she witnessed her brother Branwell's ambitions in art and writing eventually collapse, first in a series of temporary jobs from tutor to railway clerk, then in a descent into gin and opium -- and finally death.
Another disillusionment was the unmitigated panning of her novel Wuthering Heights, labeled too crude, violent, and masculine by literary critics who only knew its author as the pseudonymous Ellis Bell. Together with her publisher's fraud, Emily virtually gave up on the world, and, more tragically, seemed to lose her spirit, her inspirational muse, her refuge in imagination and creativity. Emily Bronte died at the age of thirty, only several months after catching a wintry chill at her brother's untimely funeral.
Poetry of Solitude
Emily Bronte began keeping her poems at eighteen years of age. As mentioned, she was to neatly divide them between the Gondal poems and the rest. The Gondal poems were identifiable at any rate by their ascription to a Gondal character using initials, for example "A.G.A." for Agusta Geraldine Almeda, queen of Gondal.
The Gondal poems allowed Emily exotic settings and sentiments through which see could experiment with her own feelings. Thus the failures of love and passion are charted first in these poems, and, of course, culminate in their treatment in Wuthering Heights. Likewise, the sense of loneliness and isolation, betrayal, revenge, pride, and arrogance. Gondal characters experience imprisonment, exile, desertion, despair, suicide. The Gondal poems are integrally ancillary to the personal poems, but with the provision that they are to the modern reader often sketches and experiments even as they stand alone in theme and quality.
A chronological approach has been the consensus of Bronte observers studying the poems, not only because of the short life of Emily but because she worked progressively, incorporating new experiences and feelings into new poems. Ultimately, the poems form a trajectory, a mystical spiral that deepens, refines, and perfects not just her life but her philosophy of solitude.
In an early poem at 18, Emily Bronte announced the birth of solitude. Here is a fragment:
My heart is not enraptured now,
My eyes are full of tears,
And constant sorrow on my brow
Has done the work of years.
It was not hope that wrecked at once
The spirits calm in storm
But a long life of solitude,
Hopes quenched and rising thoughts subdued,
A bleak November's calms.
What woke it then? A little child
Strayed from its father's cottage door,
And in the hour of moonlight wild
Laid lonely on the desert moor.
I heard it then, you heart it too,
And seraph sweet it sang to you;
But like the shriek of misery
That wild, wild music wailed to me.2
This early anthem of solitude identifies in her first retained poem a childhood incident (Emily's home at Haworth was not, of course, a cottage). The poem is structured on an impressive natural setting, and a decisive mystical moment. The poet was to thereafter identify the seraph, the angelic presence, the muse of imagination, as her guide, inspiration, and spiritual resource.
Interweaving of natural images with poetic assertions is also thereafter characteristic. A poem shortly after this one introduces an early spring evening without frost or snow but where, after long toil "in learning's golden mine," the poet walks in the growing warmth and moonlight of her beloved grounds.
O may I never lose the peace
That lulls me gently now,
Though time should change my youthful face,
And years should shade my brow!
True to myself, and true to all,
May I be healthful still,
And turn away from passions call,
And curb my own wild will.3
At this early stage, Emily is working out her place in the world.
I am the only being whose doom
No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn;
I never cause a thought of gloom,
A smile of joy, since I was born. ...
'Twas grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere;
But worse to trust to my own mind
And find the same corruption there.4
By the end of her life, in a late Gondal poem, Emily's assessment of society and the world was adamant:
Men knelt to God and worshipped crime,
And crushed the helpless ... 5
Solitude is not drear, especially when transformed with her private muse. Here is an excellent example of the mingling of nature and sentiment.
I'm happiest when most away
I can bear my soul from its home of clay
On a windy night when the moon is bright
And the eye can wander through worlds of light --
When I am not and none beside --
Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky --
But other spirit wandering wide
Through infinite immensity. 6
One senses that this intermingling is not just a poetic device but that nature inspires and animates the poet.
The themes explored through Gondal characters are Emily's own bold forays beyond her own sense of contentment. She takes the mask of tragic character to great effect, as in these fragments:
But the hearts that once adored me
Have long forgot their vow;
And the friends that mustered round me
Have all foresaken now ... 7
And in the heath on mountains far
From human eye and human care,
With thoughtful heart and tearful eye
I sadly watched that solemn sky. 8
Soon the Gondal poems announce a preoccupation with death, as in these fragments:
Deep deep down in the silent grave,
With none to mourn above. ... 9
In hut or hall there was no resting place;
There was no resting place but one -- the tomb! 10
These poems resonate with the spirit of romanticism that dominates the literature and arts of these years. Part of the poet's skill in interweaving self and themes is the difficulty of extracting the poet as person from the poet as artist and experimenter in sound, images, and atmosphere.
And for at least a year later, the style of Gondal dominates Emily's poems. But who can distinguish this style from the growing inner sensibilities she perceived in solitude?
She dried her rears, and they did smile
To see her cheeks returning glow;
Nor did discern how all the while
That full heart throbbed to overflow.
With that sweet look and lively tone,
And bright eye shining all the day,
They could not guess, at midnight lone
How she would weep the time away. 11
It is difficult, then, to distinguish the masks of Emily Bronte. But Emily reveals a stolid and consistent strength in dealing with the exigencies of daily life, a practicality of mind in dealing with the various personal and social crises around her. For example, when the Brontes' long-term domestic servant broke a leg and returned to work months later considerably older and weaker, Emily stepped into the role of what her sisters affectionately call "The Major" and ran the household, from daily bread-baking to washing, cleaning, and managing Haworth.
In this period, Emily's poetry breathes the air of liberty, maturing now not merely as autonomy and certainly not indifference but as union with nature, the embodiment of the opposite of contrivance.
And like myself lone, wholly lone,
It sees the days long sunshine glow;
And like myself it makes its mean
In unexhausted woe.
Give me the hills our equal prayer:
Earth's breezy hills and heaven's blue sea;
We ask for nothing further here
But our own hearts and liberty. ... 12
And again in the poem Charlotte entitled "The Old Stoic," beginning with "Riches I hold in light esteem" quoted earlier. And in the following poem, aptly described by Charlotte:
The Genius of a solitary region seems to address his wandering and wayward votary, and to recall within his influence the proud mind which rebelled at times against what it most loved.
Here is a ending portion of the poem:
Yes, I could swear that glorious wind
Has swept the world aside,
Has dashed its memory from thy mind
Like foam-bells from the tide --
And thou art now a spirit pouring
They presence into all --
The essence of the Tempest's roaring
And of the Tempest's fall --
A universal influence
From Thine own influence free;
A principle of life, intense,
Lost to immortality.
Thus truly when that breast is cold
Thy prisoned soul shall rise,
The dungeon mingles with the mould --
The captive with the skies. 13
This poem synthesizes several favorite themes. The spiritual presence that animates and dispels temporal cares is reflected in the windswept storm. That presence transcends everything, freeing the imprisoned soul and mingling life and death within a single nature.
Together with the nature poems, Emily moves swiftly towards the reconciliation of life and imagination, the latter a vehicle for the soul's understanding as it escapes the misery of daily life, of earthly life. Emily never read the mystics, and her imagery is not overtly Christian, yet, as Gerin puts it, "The degrees by which she attained her soul's release, and the agony of its recapture, are in essence the same as theirs [i.e., the mystics']."
A succession of brilliant poems emerge in this period to develop this theme. In a poem (entitled by Charlotte) "How Clear She Shines," the night is the abode of dreams and the descent of the poet's muse, the occasion of mystical insight. Night contrasts with melancholy daytime,
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 grief;
And Hope, a phantom of the soul;
And Life, a labour void and brief;
And Death, the despot of the whole! 14
In "The Comforter" is contrasted society and the world against that which the muse would bring:
Around me, wretches uttering praise,
Or howling o'er their hopeless days,
And each with Frenzy's tongue --
A Brotherhood of misery
With smiles as sad as sighs;
Their madness daily maddening me,
And turning into agony
The Bliss before my eyes. ...
But the world that vexes Emily falls away before the descent of her muse:
What sweet thing can match with thee,
My thoughtful Comforter ...
The poet supplicates the muse that it may soothe her distress:
And yet a little long speak,
Calm this resentful mood,
And while the savage heart grows meek,
For other token do not seek,
But let the tear upon my cheek
Evince my gratitude. 15
The sense of a division between the world and her spirit, her solitude, was helped by Emily's reading of Shelley at this time. But a casual eyewitness confirms that her mystical sensibility was not just poetic. John Greenwood, a neighbor and long-time resident, recorded an encounter with Emily returning from the moors (quoted by Gerin). It is an invaluable documentation:
Her countenance was lit up with a divine light. Had she been holding converse with Angels, it would not have shone brighter. It appeared to me holy, heavenly.
Probably the evocative sequence of poems from this era begins with "To Imagination", with its exquisite invocation of Emily's inner muse, and its famous lines on solitude:
So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty. 16
Solitude, purity of mind, inspiration, and liberty, dwell together in an inviolable place. But Emily must work to maintain this harmony, or, rather, must work to maintain herself against its easy dissipation. A short while after composing the poem, she rues the disappearance of her elusive muse, which leaves her restless and inconsolable.
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! 17
Thus prisons and death scenes from Gondal cluster in this period, as in "Remembrance" with its haunting first lines:
Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee!
Far, far removed, cold in he dreary grave! 18
Then, again, the mood shifts, buoyed by restoration of the mercurial vision:
How beautiful the Earth is still
To thee -- how full of Happiness; ...
The more unjust seems present fate
The more my Spirit springs elate
Strong in they strength, to anticipate
Rewarding Destiny! 19
Of this latter poem, Charlotte wrote: "Never was better stuff penned."
During this period came a series of important events that shaped Emily's point of view about social and worldly dealings. These centered around the reluctant (to Emily) publication (by Charlotte) of selected poems, largely ignored by critics and public, and the writing of Wuthering Heights.
But instructive events were not confined to these. Emily may have been convinced to pursue writing of the novel in witnessing the indecorous fiasco of Charlotte's infatuation with the Belgian headmaster of the Brussels school Emily and Charlotte had attended for nine months. Emily saw in this event the ultimate ruin of love and passion. She would have added to the novel the Gondal and personal insights that made the protagonists of Wuthering Heights so memorable.
Next came the failure of the sisters' plans for a school to be based at Haworth to enable them to be gainfully employed without having to leave their home. This even must have convinced Emily of the impossible reconciliation of her life and that of worldly necessities.
But the death of their aunt at this time left the sisters a sufficient inheritance for them to live without pursuing outside work. These funds gave them needed security as their father grew older and his eyesight failed.
The sisters witnessed in helplessness their brother Branwell's ruin. This event, too, pointed to the tragedy of art when thrust into the marketplace, plus the tragedy of moral weakness when confronted with ambition and failure.
Charlotte's attempts to edit and market the writings of her intransient sister Emily strained relations between them, especially, as mentioned, when the publisher Charlotte selected turned out to be unscrupulous, and the critics were largely hostile.
As Emily grew more taciturn, Charlotte complained: "I wish I knew her state of mind. ... I wish I knew her feelings more clearly ... but she will not give an explanation of her feelings." Emily was not simply reserved but was firm-minded about her social dealings. As Gerin puts it, "She had not seen much of the world, but she had seen enough to dislike its conventions."
The last years of her life were critical to the art of Emily Bronte. The theme of death come to dominate her personal and Gondal poems. She perceived that the blessed impersonality of nature is identifiable with the finality of death itself. She struggled to identify a creative region between "three gods," mundanity, vision, and death, as in this fragment from the poem called "The Philosopher":
Three Gods within this little frame
Are warring night and day ...
Emily strives to incorporate the vision that has guided her life, but that muse, battered by time and vicissitudes, is increasingly eluding her.
Even for that Spirit, Seer,
I've watched and sought my lifetime long,
Sought Him in Heaven, Heal, Earth, and Air,
An endless search -- and always wrong! 20
The poet laments that at least if she could see the vision once, she could take heart and carry on despite the tragedies around her. But this possibility closes quickly in the struggle of power and will against her, leaving only Hope. And still, in childlike innocence, Emily records a day trip with Anne in which they banter about Gondal characters, play their roles, and speculate about what these characters -- and the sisters themselves -- will be doing in a few years.
And then, after writing Wuthering Heights from October 1845 to June 1846, Emily suddenly stops composing poetry. Had she forever given up hope that the muse and messenger would return? Her last poems had dwelt upon death and taken on the Gondal mask of imprisonment and dungeons and spiritual despair -- reflections of her own soul.
In Emily's last poem, she fearless decries the world as without redemption. Humanity, she cries defiantly, is peopled with
Foot-kissers of triumphant crime
Crushers of helpless misery,
Crushing down Justice, honouring Wrong ...
Shedders of blood, shedders of tears ... 21
Emily avers that she has remained triumphantly a solitary soul who, in the midst of the world's arbitrary violence, "fought neither for my home nor God."
But her greatest poem, perhaps known best by its first line, "No coward soul is mine," is Emily Bronte's anthem. Charlotte claimed that it was the last poem Emily wrote. Its voice is full of confidence in a chosen path, regardless of the vagaries of muse and messenger, vicissitudes and sorrows.
The poem includes pointed social commentary, as in its statement "Vain are the thousand creeds," but referring more specifically to the notion of the solitary who cannot be beholden to their inadequacies. The creeds are as "worthless as withered words / Or idlest froth amid the boundless main."
Only the faith in one's own solitary enlightenment, one's own insight, brings certitude, even after the struggles with despair and the allure of death. It is not God but "God within my breast" that reveals itself, that animates, pervades, broods, changes, sustains, dissolves, and creates. One can sense Emily's enduring resolution and fearless will in this poem.
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty, ever-present Deity
Life, that in me has rest
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears
Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed. 22
In September 1848, Branwell dies a broken man. Emily had know of his condition for months and was his only confidant. She took his decline as emblematic of mingling with the world and desiring its fortune and blessing, what she once scornfully dubbed "lust of fame."
At the funeral she caught a chill and fell sick of a pulmonary illness, (various describes as pneumonia or tuberculosis) which worsened over the months, in part due to her refusal to permit a physician to see her. "She barricaded herself behind a wall of silence, inaccessible to human influence," notes Gerin.
Emily had always seen death not as dreadful but as complementary, leveling the personality to the elements of nature, a solidarity or deep sympathy with all the other creatures of the earth sharing mortality in mute acceptance. She often spoke regretfully of Heaven, preferring Earth as her eternal resting place, to abide within the nature so akin to her spirit.
That she had exhausted her creativity, her imagination, and life itself, therein welcoming death, has been suggested by many observers. The assumption gives a power to Emily that is plausible though simplistic.
Emily Bronte died in December 1848 at the age of 30. Her close sister Anne died five months later of the same apparent cause.
To a posthumous 1850 anthology of Emily's poems, Charlotte added what she claimed to be an undated poem of Emily, though it has been judged by observers to have been Charlotte's own composition. Charlotte had taken other license, as is well known. She claimed to have selected this poem because it seemed so representative of Emily's ideal of solitude and liberty. Indeed, the fragment is descriptive of Emily's character and spirit, however short the poem falls in style.
I'll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded Forms of long-past History.
I'll walk where my own nature would be leading;
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side. 23
Poems numbered are from the enumeration found in the definitive edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte, edited by C. W. Hatfield. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.
- 146. March 1841
- 7. Feb. 1837
- 11. May 1837
- 10. March 1837
- 192. Sept. 1846
- 44. Feb. 1838
- 47. Feb. 1838
- 55. Feb. 1838
- 48. Feb. 1838
- 58. May 1838
- 116. June 1839
- 144. Feb. 1841
- 148. July 1841
- 157. April 1843
- 168. Feb. 1844
- 174. Sept.1844
- 176. Oct.1844
- 182. March 1845
- 188. Jan. 1845
- 181. Feb. 1845
- 193. May 1848
- 191. Jan. 1846
- p. 256-257
The definitive collection of Emily Bronte's poems is The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte, edited from the manuscripts by C. W. Hatfield. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, reprinted with a new foreword in 1995. Other collections include The Poems of Emily Bronte, edited by Derek Roper with Edward Chitham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, and The Complete Poems by Emily Jane Bronte, edited by Janet Gezari. London & New York: Penguin Books, 1992. There are numerous biographies and criticism. A standard work is Emily Bronte: A Biography by Winifred Gérin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971