Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Richard Garnett
Emily Brontë (18181848)
FEW persons of whom so little has been or can be recorded as Emily Brontë have made so deep an impression upon the popular mind, or are so distinctly present to the imagination. There is nothing to be said except that she was born in August 1818, and died of consumption in December 1848; that she was first a teacher without pupils, and then an authoress without readers; that her life was harassed by an impracticable father, and infected by a base, profligate brother; and that nevertheless she was visited by such noble inspirations, and was such a piece of her own moorland, that one hardly accounts her unfortunate. She was the laureate of the moors, and no fanciful analogy might be drawn between her and these scenes of her residence, and objects of her affections. Like them she was free, rough, wild; in a certain sense barren and limited; in another sense rich and expansive; from one point of view mournful, from another joyous. In one respect only is she false to the teaching of the nature that environed her: the moor is ever healthy, but it is impossible to acquit the creator of Heathcliffe of a taint of unsoundness. The hero of Wuthering Heights is indeed by no means untrue to nature; what is unnatural is the authoresss evident sympathy with the most repulsive traits in his character. By over-much insistence on these, she all but destroys our interest in her hero, who has after all found the pearl of great price. Her poetry, in general less powerful, is more pleasing than her fiction; harsh and forbidding as her view of life seems at first, it gains upon us as we realise her proud superiority to external circumstances, and the passionate affection for those she really loves, which redeems her unamiability towards the rest. Her scorn and her tenderness are beautifully combined in this simple and exquisite lyric:
Almost all the poetry which Emily Brontë published during her lifetime was of this character, though not always attaining the same careless beauty, graceful in its apparent negligence. Not until nigh to death did she compose a strain of quite another sort, which, if it were just to judge her solely by one supreme inspiration, would place her above every other female lyrist since Sappho. The grandeur and eloquence of her last verses have in our judgment never been rivalled by any English poetess: the question whether she could have maintained herself at such an elevation, were it capable of an answer, would help to elucidate the deeper problem how far poetical inspiration is the result of favourable conditions, and how far it is a visitation from above. It must remain for ever unanswered.
Of Charlotte and Anne Brontë as poetesses, little need be said. Charlotte,a nature as intense and passionate as Emily,as a prose writer rivalling her sisters genius, and vastly excelling her art, was comparatively ineffective in verse, because verse was not a native language with her. She had no real call to write it, and added one more to the examples which prove that mental power will not make a poet without the addition of something, partly indefinite, partly definable as a tune in the head, the instinct and accomplishment of verse. Still the quality of interest inheres in whatever Charlotte writes; and the same is in a measure true of Annea pallid touching figure, her sisters wraith. Charlotte is the most objective of the sisters; she alone manifests a faculty of imagining scenes and characters external to herself. Emily can place herself in imaginary situations, but at most only idealises her own experience and emotions. Anne cannot even do this; she simply sets down her thoughts in artless verse; her one really good poem, Lines composed in a Wood on a Windy Day, is composed when her thoughts are for the moment exalted above her personal sphere by an inspiration from external Nature:
My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how the proud waves are dashing,