Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If it but herald death, the vision is divine! - Emily Brontë's fantasy world

Gérard de Nerval, from Aurélia, part 2, chapter 1 (1855): "if only we can identify the missing letter or the obliterated sign, if we can resolve the dissonance of the scale, we shall learn a great deal about the spirit world."

Emily Brontë's works, her poems and Wuthering Heights, present the same temptation that poor, mad Nerval saw in the Kabbalah and other esoteric pursuits, the possibility that there is a key to the lock that allow us entry to the inner core of Brontë's world.

Gondal, that's the key for some people, the Byronesque fantasy world created by Emily and Anne, not to be confused with Charlotte and Branwell's Angria. The Angria stories survived and can still be read. All that's left of Gondal are Emily's poems.

This is why a substantial number of the poems have titles like "A.G.A. to A.S." or "The Death of A.G.A." or, my favorite, "Written in the Gaaldine Prison Caves to A.G.A." No, sorry, my favorite title is "From a Dungeon Wall in the Southern College." That's a good, rigorous college!

I could not care less about the Gondal business as such. I'm looking at an article by Rosalind Miles ("The Creative Dynamism of Emily Brontë's Poetry") in which she comes this close to saying that she would rather have the Gondal material than "the novels of Jane Austen's middle age" or "the poems of Keat's full maturity" - nutty, just nutty.*

What amazes me about all this is that, aside from a few names, most of the Gondal poems look just like Brontë's other poems. They're set in a fantasy world, spoken by or to unknown characters, but they're not simply about that world. She, and her sister, created this entire, complicated world, and one way Emily used it was as a frame or inspiration for her original poems.

I think many poets do something like this, although rarely so explicitly. William Blake and Friedrich Hölderlin are extreme cases, sometimes seeming to live in their own mythical world, and meine Frau reminds me that some of the best poems of many German poets - Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Goethe - were first found surrounded by prose. "Mignon," from Wilhem Meister's Apprenticeship, is a perfect example - "Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees?" But Brontë's efforts are in their own category.

Emily Brontë returned to the same themes again and again. There are a cluster of parting poems ("O wander not so far away! \ O love, forgive this selfish tear.") Half a dozen prison poems - good examples of what I'm trying to say. In the Gondal world, the poem is about a person in an actual prison; in our world, with no Gondal, the prison is metaphorical. The poem is no worse off.

I'll end with some stanzas from one of them, "The Prisoner. A Fragment," from the 1846 Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. I'm skipping to the end; the prisoner, a young woman, is speaking:

"Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free--its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulph, it stoops and dares the final bound,

"Oh, dreadful is the check--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.

"Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine!"

She ceased to speak, and we, unanswering, turned to go--
We had no further power to work the captive woe:
Her cheek, her gleaming eye, declared that man had given
A sentence, unapproved, and overruled by Heaven.

I can't really say that I like this much. But it's intense, passionate, a little crazed: Emily Brontë. No, revise that - the third stanza, "And robed in fires of hell," etc. I like that just fine.

* Rosalind Miles, "The Creative Dynamism of Emily Brontë's Poetry" in The Brontës, ed. Harold Bloom, 1987, p. 72. Really helpful article, actually. I seem to have picked out the one silly thing in it.


  1. Aside from the poems, how do we know about Gondal?

  2. Great question. Answer: "six surviving diary pages," "a barely legible list of Gondal characters and their attributes," and "a list of place names inscribed by Anne in the family's copy of A Grammar of General Geography for the Use of Schools and Young Persons." Quotes from The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, pp. xxix-xxx.

    That last one is hilarious, typical Brontë humor.

    So the answer is, besides the poems, not much! One other thing, actually: diligent scholarship. The starting place for further investigation is Fannie Ratchford, Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse, 1955.

  3. The General Geography is great! : )