Thursday, May 21, 2009

All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee - angst, heartbreak, and repetitive V sounds in Emily Brontë

A post or two ago, I looked at a poem written by Emily Brontë when she was 19 years old, and mentioned that to me it seemed much more mature. Biblibio politely suggested that it seemed plenty immature, detecting "teenage angst." I was actually thinking about her versification, not the content of what she wrote. Biblibio was committing the readerly sin of responding to what I actually wrote, rather than what I meant, but did not write. Unforgivable!

Biblibio is correct, completely correct. And it's not just Brontë's teenage poems that are packed with adolescent pity and passion; it's the whole project. That's why Les Hauts de Hurlevant is suddenly so popular with vampires and the teenage French girls who love them. Let's look at a poem Brontë wrote when she was 27, published a year later with her sisters' verse in the Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell volume. I'll interrupt it here and there, since the main point of Wuthering Expectations is to mangle the work of geniuses:


Cold in the earth--and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave?

Now here, note all of the repetitions of entire words, rather than vowel and consonant sounds, although there's also plenty of that (above, remove, grave, have, love, sever, wave). Also note, that the speaker's tone is hysterical and the sense on a far edge of recognizable human emotion.

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart for ever, ever more?

Those internal "v"s, they're everywhere. And look at all of those "o"s. The answer to the question is "No," as we will see below. Her thoughts, in fact, do not still hover over the mountains containing her lover's grave, and do not rest on the grave. I guess they used to hover until they were tired, and then rest. I'll skip two stanzas.

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy;
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion--
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Ah ha, a twist. She has Moved On. The poem is an argument against teenage angst, expressed in the rhetoric of teenage angst! She checks the tears of useless passion, shes dares not indulge in her memories. Their power is acknowledged, but also their danger.

"Remembrance" has attracted a lot of attention from heavy-hitting critics. I'm looking at the note to the poem in the Penguin Classics edition, p. 228, where I see that Barbara Hardy called it Brontë's "best love poem," and F. R. Leavis wrote that it was "the finest poem in the nineteenth-century part of The Oxford Book of English Verse," and (or but?) it "does unmistakably demand to be read in a plangent declamation." Try that at home. I'm pretty sure it will emphasize the more ridiculous side of the poem, rather than the affecting side. Maybe my declamations have not been sufficiently plangent. I'll keep practicing.


  1. Interesting stuff. I'm not well versed in the Bronte's poetry but I think I'd like to argue against this being full of teenage angst.

    From a modern perspective this obsession with lost love and death seems like teenage angst, but it is was a very common theme in the 19th century, yes? I'd had several professors insist that Tennyson's "In Memorium" is the great poetic work of the age and it's all about a friend who died young. The two eldest Bronte sisters never reached adulthood. Death at a young age was a very common experience.

    This poem strikes me as very much within the norm of Victorian poetry. But I can see why the vampire kids love it.

  2. geneigte LeserinMay 21, 2009 at 9:12 PM

    I think this poem falls into a different category. It isn't about death. It's about a certain sentimental response. The speaker knows that her "anguish" was also a kind of aesthetic self-indulgence. There are a number of post-Romantic works that confront this problem: what is the difference between an authentic, "natural" response and a sort of self-mystification?

    Look at how much time the speaker spends on her soul taking wing and hovering over the grave. Look at the repetition of those possessives: "my heaven", "shone for me", "all my life's bliss" (twice!). Where's the mention of (captial H) Heaven, the place where the dead are now? Even the deceased's grave is "already more than mine". That's a voice that has recognized what this sort of melancholy is really about.

  3. It's not that death is the subject of the poem that makes me describe it as adolescent. It's the approach, the rhetoric, and the style.

    In Memoriam provides a good example of a mature treatment of death. Section XI, for example, where the word "calm" is used 11 times in 20 lines:

    Calm is the morn without a sound,
    . Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
    . And only through the faded leaf
    The chestnut pattering to the ground

    The poems of Emily Brontë are not the place to look for a calmer grief! As the previous commenter suggests, there may not be much real grief in this Brontë poem at all, as much as an aestheticized Romantic simulation of grief.

    Another good mature example is the Christina Rossetti poem that begins "When I am dead, my dearest \ Sing no sad songs for me," an ironic imaginary act with little room for real self-pity.

    This has given me a lot to think about, and suggested some ideas that I should look out for in other poems. I think In Memoriam is in order.

  4. As far as I'm concerned the following is the center of this poem:

    "But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
    And even Despair was powerless to destroy;
    Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
    Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy."

    I haven't conducted any polls or anything, but I'd say this is totally true to life, and in fact is the conclusion that most people regretfully reach at some point in their lives. Thoreau's famous "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation" seems to me to express much the same thing in a more general way. I also think of the modern American novels "Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge."

    I don't think the Victorians as a group are likely to have confronted this specter full-on very often, given their widespread religiosity (whose approach is to grant at the outset that this world sucks, and then to rush to console you by immediately urging, "But hey, just wait 'til you get to the next one!").

    Apparently Miss Emily did see dem bones, and in light of that fact I think her romanticizing her grief over the loss of her lover is an understandable way of fleeing from it.

  5. That's right, that's the stanza that contains the realization, the wisdom. But then the poem actually ends with a description of her state before her new wisdom. Very curious.

    You're also right that Emily Brontë's spiritual or religious ideas were not conventional, and led her to some unusual places.