Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: Best Poems of the Bronte Sisters

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Author: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë
Date: 1997
Publisher: Dover
Length: 58 pages of text plus introduction
Quote: “Oh, let me suffer and not sin!”
Here, for those who don’t already know, is the big secret about the poems of the Brontë sisters: they’re not passionate romances, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, or even charmingly intellectual romances like Shirley. They represent the best of the youthful efforts of three sickly country girls whose lives had consisted almost entirely of reading, sewing, walking in the rain, and going to funerals. Four of the first funerals had, of course, been those of their mother, brother, and sisters. Charlotte claimed that Anne’s last poem, which referred to Emily’s funeral, was finished moments before Anne died. Charlotte was the only Brontë who lived past age thirty—and she died at thirty-nine.
From such an unpromising background you’d expect sad, bad poems. You’d be favorably surprised; not all of the poems are funeral pieces, and none of them rates among the really bad verse in the history of English literature. Some of them communicate feelings other than whininess. Some of Emily’s even suggest romance, although they may have been meant to be things Cathy might have written to Heathcliff. Emily also managed a memorable poem expressing a sense of triumph over a fallen enemy, or rival, of some sort: “Well, some may hate, and some may scorn, / And some may quite forget thy name; / But my sad heart must ever mourn / Thy ruined hopes, thy blighted fame!” (Literary historians have always hoped it wasn’t addressed to her alcoholic brother, who managed to drink himself to death before coming down with tuberculosis. One would like to think the siblings got along better than that.)
However, when they first decided to publish these poems, the girls didn’t want either their gender or their identities to be guessed, so they confined themselves to expressing very generic thoughts. When the poems are about funerals, they emote without making it clear who died or what he or she did while living; when they’re not funereal, they’re religious. The girls enjoyed nature walks, but weren’t exactly naturalists. Anne managed to make the first pretty flower of spring a mournful reminder of a previous springtime when “My heart was not so heavy then / As it was wont to be,” and so “‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times / That never may return!’ / The lovely floweret seemed to say, / And thus it made me mourn.” There are only faint hints of the three distinct personalities that reveal themselves in the sisters’ novels. We can tell Charlotte’s poem for Anne’s funeral from Anne’s poem for Emily’s funeral mainly because Charlotte chose to explain which was which. And we can see why these staid, anonymous poems sold only two copies until the sisters’ novels had created a market for their juvenilia.
Even C.S. Lewis, a generous scholar and critic who pointed out the merits of many other obscure poems and novels, including other works by women and even less perfectly rhymed poems, thought the trouble with Charlotte Brontë’s poems might have been “lack of talent.” I suspect the trouble with all these poems may have been shyness. The conditions under which these poems were composed are a little less overwhelming than the conditions under which Phillis Wheatley penned her rhymes, but not much; the poems are a little better than Wheatley’s, but not much. And, like Wheatley’s collected works, these poems can be enjoyed, a few fragments even remembered and quoted on appropriate occasions—but not much.
Mostly, what readers can expect from this book is a sense of having known the inventors of Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, and Agnes Grey when they were young girls—shy, sickly, nervous girls who didn’t date, didn’t have much money, mostly stayed together, and weren’t even strong enough to go to school often, but might have shown you a poem whispering, “Do you think anybody can tell who wrote it?” They were the sort of girls who are easier to get to know by reading their poems than by actually having to hang out with them. They were both gifted and passionate, but at this age they were afraid to show it. So read the poems, then remember the novels, and consider the hidden possibilities that may be not boiling, but budding, within the narrow minds of the mousiest people you know. What the Best Poems of the Brontë Sisters has to tell us is that some of the best novels in the English language were written by, to put it charitably, sad apples.
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