The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XII. The Brontës

§ 6. Emily Brontë’s poems

Of Emily Brontë’s poems, it may be said that they are on the edge of greatness. So much cannot be pretended for those of her sisters. Charlotte’s have a strong autobiographical reference, and, when they are most autobiographical, the truthful tenderness of her emotion sometimes finds expression; but, in the main, they are not poetry. Charlotte Brontë, though she did not care for three volumes, achieves her results, as a prose authoress, by a series of effects, not by single blows. Such a method is unsuited to short poems, where poetry loses everything if it loses the quintessential. The verse-writing of the gentle Anne, like all her work, has something winning in its appeal, or, it would be more correct to say, in its absence of appeal. It compasses more only when it is religious; but the religious poems are distinguished rather by a few rare verses than as complete or satisfying wholes. At their best, they have more sincerity and less sentimentalism than most hymns.

Since the poems of Emily challenge a much graver attention, it should be noted at once that, judged from a higher standpoint, the chief defect of Anne’s is, also, very observable here. Except where the poems are very short—such as The Old Stoic, Remembrance, or Stanzas—they seldom hold attention to the end, and the poetical experience is not coextensive with the poem. It is there often—at the beginnings or episodically—but it is seldom continuous. Besides this, even the best of them are too frequently dependent upon scaffolding. They have a set theme, or they work through a set pronouncement. They have, generally, something definite to say, as prose has. The poetry does not express itself for its own sake or mould its own setting. Yet, they have been greatly prized by many fine critics. Their independence of the ordinary aids to comfort, their habit of resting on an accepted despondency, predisposes the modern reader in their favour. Especially their pagan feeling for nature, and their deeply melancholy but unrepining sentiment, appeal to minds that have been already influenced by Meredith. Moreover, Emily’s verse has—what is scarcely to be traced at all in that of her sisters—metrical music:

  • For if your former words were true
  • How useless would such sorrow be;
  • As wise, to mourn the seed which grew
  • Unnoticed on its parent tree,
  • and, sometimes, a very original feeling in the metre:
  • Silent is the house, all are laid asleep,
  • where the hesitancy of the verse, together with the stumbling treatment of the allegory, expresses perfectly the quiver of the girl as she withdraws into the world of dream. Occasionally, there is a tenderness for which one would hardly have looked in the author of Wuthering Heights—the real Emily that lived, one would think, and to whom that vision came:
  • To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
  • Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear.
  • In one farewell verse only, the great wind blows:
  • Though earth and man were gone,
  • And suns and universes ceased to be,
  • And Thou wert left alone,
  • Every existence would exist in Thee;
  • for, in poetry, what was elemental in her was not to find expression. The graves and the moors are in these poems as they are in Wuthering Heights, and it is the same Emily who is walking by them, but how differently—without the delirium of strength. Here, we are in contact with the actual human being, and find ourselves listening to the low tones natural to the girl who, all her life, and except when she was writing Wuthering Heights, controlled the utterances of the heart:
  • So I knew that he was dying,
  • Stooped and raised his languid head,
  • Felt no breath and heard no sighing,
  • So I knew that he was dead.
  • The feeling beneath those poems, perhaps just because it is a controlled feeling, does not always find full expression. One likes them the better on rereading, one has to come again and taste, for the atmosphere of the poet’s thought is not quite communicated: they are not poems that compel one to feel with the poet. To be complimentary, it might be said that they “speak in silences.” They do speak, but to an attentive ear, with something of soundlessness, something estranged, at least something very far away from the sounding sureness of the prose. The lyric medium did not supply her with sufficient imaginative material, and this, perhaps, may suffice to explain why there is not more to praise; for, in her verse, though she communes freely with her spirit of imagination, that spirit is not freely exercised. Perhaps it also explains why their constant readers love these poems; for, in them, in the absence of her strange imaginings, what is chiefly disclosed is her individualism, the author of Wuthering Heights in her loneliness.

    A word may be added as to the novels of Anne Brontë. Agnes Grey has interest, a record of her governess experiences, treated, so far as one can judge, not very freely, and, for this reason, affording, in its mild way, something of the pleasure of discovery. The eager interest in everything connected with the biography of the Brontës aroused by Mrs. Gaskell’s Life has given to those faint pages an attraction beyond their own. Yet, what her sister once wrote to Mr. Williams, in reply to a letter full of family references, is not without appositeness: “I think details of character always have a charm, even when they relate to people we have never seen, nor expect to see.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is as interesting a novel as was ever written without any element of greatness. It is pleasant to read of all sorts of intrigue and bad doings just as if they were a fairy tale and altogether outside the atmosphere of badness. There is one drawback—the tale is told by a man meant by the authoress to be quite “nice,” but, in fact, less likeable than Crimsworth in The Professor. The Brontës had observed men not unclosely; but they were not able to see things through the eyes of men.