Finding the beauty of Brontë
Paul Staveley looks at the poems of a complex but brilliant writer
There is a cliché that students studying the poetry of the Brontë siblings will fall into straightforward camps of opinion regarding the four writers. Branwell is self-obsessed and frustrating; Anne is simplistic but charming; Emily is caustic and bold; Charlotte is depressing and boring. It’s not hard to see where these clichés come from, but I believe it’s dangerously myopic to dismiss the writers as just one ‘thing’. Charlotte Brontë’s poetry, for so long considered inferior to her prose, could be summed up by the first line of ‘Retrospection’: “We wove a web in childhood”. Like a web, and like the woman herself, Charlotte Brontë’s poetry is complex and fragile, imbued with fear, love, loss, and childish naivety mixed with the cynicism of old age.
But the spring was under a mossy stone,
Its jet may gush no more.
Hark! sceptic bid thy doubts be gone,
Is that a feeble roar?
Charlotte is often dismissed as being ‘depressing’, but it’s hardly a surprise that her poetry is infused with thoughts of death and loss. Losing her mother at 5, her two older sisters at 9, her aunt at 26, and finally her three siblings and closest friends within the space of eight months between September 1848 and May 1849, (all to long illnesses; Charlotte was not spared any of their suffering) her life was so punctuated by tragedy that it hardly seems plausible that such devastation could have befallen one woman in one lifetime. By the time she writes, shortly after burying her sister Anne, ‘There’s little joy in life for me’, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken for her.
By the age of nine, Charlotte had lost her mother and her two elder sisters. This not only robbed Charlotte of the childhood innocence for which she would yearn in her writing for the rest of her life but also catapulted her into the matriarchal hot-seat of the family home. Becoming, at age 9, “the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters” cannot have been an easy step to take, and her feeling of injustice that such happiness was stolen from her remains ingrained throughout the rest of her work, through her novels and her poetry. In ‘Retrospection’, written when Charlotte was only 19, she feels that ‘life is darkly shaded, and its joys fleet fast away.’ Charlotte felt this sense of injustice fiercely-it simmered beneath her writing for the rest of her life, but she felt extremely conflicted when it came to handling the bitter anger.
Raised by a deeply religious man, Charlotte was in no doubt as to what was expected of her as a good Christian. Where both Emily and Anne explicitly question and dare to doubt their maker, Charlotte turns the blame for her misfortune squarely, and severely, on herself. Throughout her poetry, she begs God for assistance, and repeatedly turns back to Him when she has dared to stray from the path, most notably in ‘He Saw My Heart’s Woe’, which becomes an almost sycophantic act of supplication in the face of Charlotte’s rejection by her teacher, Constantin Heger. The poem is deeply self-critical, and Charlotte explicitly describes her shame at her lustful feelings.
In dark remorse I rose. I rose in darker shame,
Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,
Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.
This struggle with self defines much of Charlotte’s poetry. It is this struggle that makes her poetry so confusingly complicated, and so emotionally intense. Charlotte was the most uncompromising of writers, refusing as she did to hide away from life’s rougher edges. This tendency towards the bleak has led some to label her poetry depressing, but I feel this does her an injustice. A recent exam question for AQA asked candidates to discuss the “solemnity and lack of humour” in the Brontës’ poetry. Several students have jumped upon this question as a prime opportunity to explore what they consider to be the miserable nature of Charlotte’s poetry; but actually it’s important to remember that ‘solemnity’ and ‘lack of humour’ are two very different things. None of the Brontë siblings wrote for laughs, that much is for sure, but just because the poems aren’t funny doesn’t mean they are all solemn either. The word ‘solemn’ is defined in the OED as ‘formal and dignified’ or ‘characterized by deep sincerity’. There’s little doubting that Charlotte wrote with sincerity, but there is very little dignity in the ‘slashed…flesh’ and the ‘suffering worms’ of He Saw My Heart’s Woe or the ‘grinding agony of woe’ in her elegy to her sister Emily. Her poetry appears formal to us today because of the times in which it was written; but Charlotte’s dignity is not her primary concern as she goes through sheer mental turmoil in The Teacher’s Monologue or in the lust of Passion. She writes “If, hot from war, I seek thy love/Darest thou turn aside?” That’s a lot of things, but it isn’t solemn.
Some have won a wild delight,
By daring wilder sorrow;
Could I gain thy love tonight,
I’d hazard death to-morrow.
A struggle between her faith and her anger was not the only battle Charlotte faced. She underwent a life-long struggle to reconcile who she was with who she wanted to be, and more upsettingly, to be who she perceived others thought she should be. Trying to fit the role of mother to her siblings and supportive daughter to her father cannot have been easy, not least because fighting against her deeply religious upbringing was a dark, mazy, and fiery sexuality with no outlet.
Charlotte’s sexuality has long been the subject of discussion. Recently, ‘Jane Eyre’ was republished with added paragraphs to update it and make it ‘sexier’. Personally, I wonder what they could have done to it. The masochistic tension of Charlotte’s writing tremors throughout the book; as Tanya Gold writes, “Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely”. This tendency towards the darker arts of human sexuality is explored in her poetry as well, not least in He Saw My Heart’s Woe in which she kneels before her God and slashes herself open, and ‘moans’ to him, as she looks up at his ‘stirless tower’. Don’t let the Victorian-repression cliché fool you; Charlotte may have been poor, obscure, plain, and little, but she ‘welcome[d] nights of broken sleep’ and in Preference, defended her ‘quivering’ lip by saying ‘No woman could so calm before thee stand’. Finally, we see her passionate fire burn in this excerpt from Stanzas:
If thy love were like mine, how wild
Thy longings, even to pain,
For sunset soft, and moonlight mild,
To bring that hour again !
But oft, when in thine arms I lay,
I’ve seen thy dark eyes shine,
And deeply felt, their changeful ray
Spoke other love than mine.
My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
‘Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death’s congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.
This is no shrinking violet, no quiet parson’s daughter at work. Her verb use is fascinatingly visceral here; not unlike in He Saw My Heart’s Woe where she similarly employs the brutal to describe the anguish of unrequited love. Charlotte’s sexuality frequently bubbles under the surface of her work. Virginia Woolf thought it made her a better writer, saying, “All her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, ‘I love. I hate. I suffer.” This is no accident. Charlotte would have been all too aware of the need to keep her more explicit feelings under wraps. Although spurious clichés abound about Victorian attitudes toward sexuality, there is no doubt that Charlotte was aware of what Joan Z Anderson calls “the vociferous repulsion that female sexuality elicit[ed] in Victorian society”. Given her circumstances, such brazen and primal feelings would surely have left her readers more than merely shocked, and more likely rendered her work unpublishable.
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
Charlotte’s sexuality and fiercely emotional writing is far from boring. Lucy Hughes-Hallett writes that “It is high time [her writing] was recognised as the blazing work it is. Reading it you enter an area of experience – of passion and disappointment and the violent return of the repressed – that has seldom been so lucidly articulated.” Sometimes the length and verbosity of Charlotte’s poetry doesn’t seem to fit the description ‘lucidly articulated’, but given the complexity of the emotions with which she is dealing, I think she does a fine job.
The troublesome and troubling Teacher’s Monologue is perhaps the best example of this. Left alone, with ‘thoughts alone’ to ‘people’ the ‘mute tranquility’ of the classroom that felt so like a prison cell, Charlotte begins to slowly, and beautifully unravel. The internal war she fights is exposed so honestly on the page, it can make for uncomfortable reading, as if we are invading a moment of private disintegration. Here, finally the parson’s daughter with the fiery, near masochistic sexuality, the mother figure still trying to cling to her youthful, carefree childhood, the insecure eldest (but not favourite) sibling begins to perform a kind of written corporal mortification, viciously picking out her faults and chastising herself for them. She talks about her ‘narrow heart’, her jealousy, and the fact that her childhood has ‘decayed to dark anxiety’. She is terrified by the passing of time, exclaiming ‘life will be gone ere I have lived’, and she begs for escape, to lose all feeling, and eventually, for death, described in the poem as ‘a welcome, wished-for friend’. Throughout the poem, Charlotte’s use of metaphor is wonderfully imaginative, powerfully effective, and emotionally draining. At one point, a single 128-word sentence writhes in agony across the page, describing how the world punishes her for feeling sad at the loss of home. It’s achingly beautiful, confused, and builds to a devastating climax, as shown below:
And then, this strange, coarse world around
Seems all that’s palpable and true;
And every sight, and every sound,
Combines my spirit to subdue
To aching grief, so void and lone
Is Life and Earth–so worse than vain,
The hopes that, in my own heart sown,
And cherished by such sun and rain
As Joy and transient Sorrow shed,
Have ripened to a harvest there:
Alas! methinks I hear it said,
“Thy golden sheaves are empty air.”
Despite this desperation, I believe that Charlotte’s most surprising trope in her poetry is her dogged determination to find the positive in life. She rarely achieves this, but she always looks for it. She clearly loved to write; the opening stanza of The Letter ripples with action, passion, fervor and almost obsessive enthusiasm. As Retrospection develops, she chastises the ‘sceptic’ reader for thinking her web is faded, or the spring ‘may gush no more’. In He Saw My Heart’s Woe, despite describing the human race as ‘suffering worms’, she still remains sure that God ‘gave our hearts to love, he will not love despise’ and that ‘He will forgive the fault’. In a poem called Life, Charlotte displays a surprising mix of optimism and pragmatism as she explains:
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?
She even tries to find a positive spin to her sister Emily’s death when she writes, ‘Then since thou art spared such pain/We will not wish thee here again”. Only at the very end, after finally losing Anne as well, does her spirit finally seem completely broken.
THERE ‘s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I ‘ve lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.
Charlotte Brontë’s life was difficult, even according to Elisabeth Gaskell who described it as ‘a hard and long struggle’, containing ‘many cares and many bitter sorrows’. Charlotte’s poetry reflects this, but for all its apparent nihilism and unbridled negativity, it should not be dismissed so easily, and neither could it be termed ‘boring’. It is constructed with beautiful intensity, showcasing an insecure, frightened, angry, powerful and brittle human being in incredible detail. It is a study in human nature, vicious in its brutality, devastating in its honesty, and it refuses to shrink from the extremes of Charlotte’s vivid emotional spectrum. She wove a web, indeed.
Anderson, Joan Z (2004) ‘Angry Angels: Repression, Containment, and Deviance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre’. Accessed at
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/Brontë/cBrontë/anderson1.html (Jul 2014)
Baker, J (2010) ‘The Brontës’ Abacus
Brontë, C, Brontë, E, Brontë, A (1850) ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’ Smith & Elder
Cousin, John (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. E.P. Dutton & Co
Davies, S (1983) ‘Emily Brontë: Heretic’ The Women’s Press Ltd
Gaskell, E (1857) ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’ Penguin Classics
Gold, T (2005) ‘Reader, I shagged him’ Accessed at
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/25/classics.charlotteBrontë (Jul 2014)
Hughes-Hallett, L (2014) ‘Charlotte Brontë: Why Villette is better than Jane Eyre’. Accessed at
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10547414/Charlotte-Brontë-Why-Villette-is-better-than-Jane-Eyre.html (May 2014)
Logan, D. (1998) Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing: Marry, Stitch, Die, or Do Worse. London: University of Missouri Press.
Mellani, L (2005) ‘Jane Eyre’ Accessed at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/Brontë.html (Jul 2014)