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The Brontës’ Poetry

The Brontës’ Poetry

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March 26, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Part of my attraction to the Brontës is the excruciating and raw emotions. It is as if they speak truth when others would rather avoid the issues. It is a form of witness to their own reality, to the harshness and beauty of their time. Obviously, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights revolve around ideas of love, friendship, family, nature, and religion. It will not come as a surprise, then, that their poetry includes these same themes. Though published under pseudonyms, their poems represent the female experience.

Emily Brontë’s poem “Stanzas” causes some confusion for me. And though I have looked into it, superficially, I am still unclear. My small slip of The Brontës Selected Poems, edited by Pamela Norris and published by Barnes & Noble in 2003, contains a poem titled “Stanzas” that begins “I’ll not weep that thou art going to leave me.” This is identical to the Poetry Foundation’s version of “Stanzas” by Emily Brontë.

However, there is another poem sometimes titled “Often rebuked, yet always back returning” (taken from the first line of the poem). Unfortunately, it is also sometimes titled “Stanzas.” Poets.org lists this poem as “Stanzas” with no reference to a date or any other poem of the same name.

I simply love this second poem which begins “Often rebuked, yet always back returning,” particularly for the self-awareness of the speaker. The narrator is powerful, bold, and open to the world. For example, it reads, “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:/ It vexes me to choose another guide:/ Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;/ Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.” So, after its profound impact upon me, I decided to find the original. I have been unsuccessful. I have yet to discover which of these poems was actually published under the title of “Stanzas.” Furthermore, there is little evidence as to who titled the poems in the first place.

CUNY claims that the version of “Stanzas” which begins “Often rebuked, yet always back returning,” was named Emily’s finest poem by Harold Bloom. “However,” CUNY continues, “C.W. Hatfield, who edited her poems, speculates that Charlotte wrote or revised this poem. It first appeared in the 1850 edition of Emily’s novel and poems; no manuscript version of this poem is known.”

Meanwhile, USF’s website dedicated to Emily Brontë’s poetry asserts that this same poem, titled “Stanzas,” was published in 1846. This seems unlikely, since the Penn library, which contains a digitized version of the original 1846 publication, does not include it. Rather, a version of “Stanzas,” attributed to the pseudonym Ellis, is in the volume, but begins “I’ll not weep….” In other words, the original publication does not contain the poem that I seek.

Long story short, it appears that the 1846 publication did not include a poem with the line “Often rebuked, yet always back returning,” though it did include three poems titled “Stanzas” – one by Anne, one by Charlotte, and one by Emily. In that first edition, Emily’s “Stanzas” begins “I’ll not weep” and focuses on the author’s perseverance through hardship and loss.

There are a few possible explanations for these discrepancies. First, the 1846 volume only sold two copies, according to Charlotte, so a complete copy may no longer exist. Also, Charlotte later compiled these poems with additional ones into an 1850 poetry edition. Unfortunately, both of her sisters had died before this volume was published (Emily in December of 1848 and Anne in May of 1849), so Charlotte organized all of the content. Perhaps in organizing the volume after her sisters’ deaths, some titles overlap.

Whatever the reasons, Emily Brontë’s poetry demonstrates her ardent nature. Even Charlotte believed that Emily’s poems were among the best. She writes in the “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell:” “One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprised me, – a deep conviction that these were not common affusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.”

Charlotte then explains that they chose to publish their poetry under pseudonyms because “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.” Charlotte wrote this introduction in order to dispel myths about Emily’s (Ellis’s) identity. She continues, “The immature but very real powers revealed in Wuthering Heights were scarcely recognized [by critics]; its import and nature were misunderstood; the identity of its author was misrepresented; it was said that this earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced Jane Eyre. Unjust and grievous error! We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament that now.” Charlotte gives credit to Emily’s profound gift and describes Emily thus: “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. … Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had not thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass.”

It is this mind, then, that feels the world’s power working from within. The poem ends: “What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?/ More glory and more grief than I can tell:/ The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling/ Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.”

So, while I genuinely love this poem, I should add that all of the Brontës’ poetry is powerful and raw and worth more than a few moments.

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