Friday, May 22, 2009

Like foam-bells from the tide - don't let your sister posthumously edit your poems

When Matthew Arnold published his tribute to Charlotte and Emily Brontë in 1855, Emily had been dead for almost seven years. Arnold could have known only a small number of Emily's poems, the twenty-one Ellis Bell poems published in 1846, and eighteen more that Charlotte included in the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, one of which may actually be by Charlotte. Now we have over 180 poems.

The Complete Poems that I read, the Penguin Classics edition, is too much. The shorter collections that I looked at had too little. Plus, there are serious textual issues. So I don't know what to recommend. The 1846 poems, plus the 1850 poems (see, for example, the Norton Critical Edition of Wuthering Heights), plus a little more.

Charlotte's editing of her sister's poems can be a problem. Mostly, Charlotte just smoothed out the punctuation and verb tenses. But on a few poems, she went to town.

Aye there it is! It wakes tonight
Sweet thoughts that will not die
And feeling's fires flash all as bright
As in the years gone by! -

And I can tell by thine altered cheek
And by thy kindled gaze
And by the words thou scarce dost speak,
How wildly fancy plays -

This is Emily's beginning. That floating "it" is a problem. Or maybe it's good, a source of mystery. Who is speaking to whom? I don't know. Here's Emily via Charlotte:

Ay - there it is! It wakes to-night
      Deep feelings I thought dead;
Strong in the blast - quick gathering light -
      The heart's flame kindles red.

'Now I can tell by thine altered cheek,
      And by thine eyes' full gaze,
And by the words thou scarce dost speak
      How wildly fancy plays.'

More comprehensible, maybe; more conventional, certainly. Note that the second stanza is now in quotes. Still not sure what "it" is. Which is worse - the red-kindled heart or the full-gazing eyes?

The next stanza is my favorite. Luckily, Charlotte barely touches it; here's Emily:

Yes I could swear that glorious wind
Has swept the world aside
Has dashed its memory from my mind
Like foam-bells from the tide -

I'll skip to the last stanza:

Thus truly when that breast is cold
Thy prisoned soul shall rise
The dungeon mingle with the mould -
The captive with the skies -

Wow, this is supercharged Emily: the prison and the grave and the unchained spirit disappearing into nature, all in three lines. Charlotte found it too heathenistic and actually added five banal lines of her own, ending:

Mortal! though soon life's tale is told;
      Who once lives, never dies!

Emily Brontë's poems, like the works of Mozart and Schubert, are now referred to by letter and number. This one is H. 123. My thanks to the scholars who disentangled this mess.

I have found these poems highly challenging to write about, and am not sure I have any greater understanding of them than when I started. So thanks also to everyone who had the patience to read along or who left comments.


  1. Looks like yielded up a keeper this time. As one who grew up simultaneously in Texas and (more pleasantly) in the world of 19th century novels, I think I'm going to like this blog.

    I could never get into 19th century poetry--maybe because I read a great deal of poetry of the period in a book my mom had unfortunately preserved from the beginning of the 20th century called "The 1000 Best Poems in the World". To say they were sentimental would be to say sugar is pleasantly tart.

    I see from this post that folks also wrote some good poetry during the period. I bet you have a lot more on here!

  2. I read your comment after just reading a Charles Baudelaire poem, ca. 1857, that begins: "You'd sleep with anyone at all, you slut!" and ends "O squalid dignity... Sublime disgrace!"

    So yeah, there's some not-so-sentimental poetry in the 19th century.

    Now, if you're looking for Texas, you want this guy.