Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Emily Brontë (18181848)
[Emily Brontë was born at Hartshead-cum-Clifton, near Leeds, in 1819, and lived at the parsonage at Haworth from 1820 to her death. The monotony of this existence was broken only by a brief attempt to be a governess and by a short stay at Brussels in 1842, all exile from home being excessively painful and hurtful to her. She died of consumption at Haworth on the 19th of December, 1848. She published, in conjunction with her sisters, Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, in 1846, and, alone, the novel of Wuthering Heights in 1847.
NOT even the unstinted praise of three great and very dissimilar poets has given to Emily Brontë her due rank in popular esteem. Her work is not universally acceptable, even to imaginative readers; her personality is almost repulsive to many who have schooled themselves to endure the vehemence of genius but not its ominous self-restraint. Most people were afraid of Emily Brontës whitening face and set mouth when she was alive, and even now that she is dead her memory seems to inspire more terror than affection. Against an instinctive repugnance it is in vain to reason, and in discussing her poetical quality we must assume that her power has at least been felt and not disliked by the reader, since you must love her, ere to you she should seem worthy to be loved. Those who have come under the spell of her genius will expect no apology for her intellectual rebellion, her stoic harshness of purpose, her more than manlike strength. She was a native blossom of those dreary and fascinating moorlands of which Charlotte has given, in a few brilliant phrases, so perfect a description, and like the acrid heaths and gentians that flourish in the peat, to transplant her was to kill her. Her actions, like her writings, were strange, but consistent in their strangeness. Even the dreadful incident of her death, which occurred as she stood upright in the little parlour at Haworth, refusing to go to bed, but just leaning one hand upon the table, seems to me to be no unfit ending for a life so impatient of constraint from others, so implacable in its slavery to its own principles.
The poetry of Emily Brontë is small in extent and conventional in form. Its burning thoughts are concealed for the most part in the tame and ambling measures dedicated to female verse by the practice of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon. That she was progressing to the last even in this matter of the form is shown by the little posthumous collection of her verses issued by Charlotte, consisting of early, and very weak pieces, and of two poems written in the last year of her life, which attain, for the first time, the majesty of rhythm demanded by such sublime emotions. But it is impossible not to regret that she missed that accomplishment in the art of poetry which gives an added force to the verse of her great French contemporary, Marceline Valmore, the only modern poetess who can fitly be compared with Emily Brontë for power of expressing passion in its simplicity. In the 1846 volume there are but few of the contributions of Ellis Bell in which the form is adequate to the thought. Even The Prisoner, certain lines of which have justly called forth Mr. Swinburnes admiration, is on the whole a disjointed and halting composition. The moving and tear-compelling elegy called A Death-Scene, in conception one of the most original and passionate poems in existence, is clothed in a measure that is like the livery of a charitable institution. This limitation of style does not interfere with the beauty of her three or four best poems, where indeed it does not exist, but it prevents the poetess in all but these superlative successes from attaining that harmony and directness of utterance which should characterise a song so unflinchingly sincere as hers.
It is difficult to praise Emilys three or four greatest poems without an air of exaggeration. Finest among them all is that outburst of agnostic faith that was found by Charlotte on her desk when she died, a last poem not to be surpassed in dignity and self-reliance by any in the language. The Old Stoic might have prepared us for the Last Lines by its concentrated force and passion. But the chainless soul of the author found its most characteristic utterance in the Stanzas which stand second in our selection, the two last of which contain in its quintessence the peculiar gospel that it was the mission of Emily Brontë to preach. It was a message that brought no peace or happiness to the fiery soul that bore it. For her, in her own wonderful words,
intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
Under such a strain of being, no wonder that the pale and slender physical frame declined, and that our literature was deprived, at the age of twenty-nine, of an unrecognised, uncherished, undeveloped woman,