February 21, 2018

Emily Bronte: "Peculiar Music"

On this day in 1818 Emily Bronte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, the fifth of six children. When she was two years old, Emily's father became curate in nearby Haworth; when she was three, her mother died; and three years after that, her two oldest sisters died. These factors -- the isolated Pennine village, the burdened single parent, the three surviving girls and their brother (too shy Charlotte, shyer Anne, shyest Emily, and way too wild Branwell) left to go their own imaginative ways -- have anchored almost every account of this most famous of literary families. Juliet Barker's recent biography (The Brontes, 1994) disputes that Haworth was particularly isolated, or that Rev. Bronte was particularly withdrawn, although this would make the girls almost more remarkable, their distinctive talents and social eccentricities blooming in balanced rather than barren soil.

Most accounts portray Emily as the brightest, most intense, and most difficult of the three sisters. Already in 1896, just a generation after her death, critics thought of her as "the sphinx of our literature." Charlotte thought her a "nursling of the moors," and that "An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world," and that it could be dangerous for anyone who tried: "My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, without impunity, intrude unlicensed." As Emily's few attempts at engaging the world were aborted, few knew or at least wrote about knowing her, and few personal documents have been found. It is impossible not to think of her brief, odd life as her sister thought of her poetry: "peculiar music -- wild, melancholy, and elevating."

Many of the themes and tortured passions of Wuthering Heights are common to the poetry, especially the "Gondal" poems. These are inspired by the imaginative island world which Emily (and Anne) created when she was thirteen, and kept writing about and enacting all her life. Many of the poems were written before she was twenty, but given the mortality rate (41% by age six), and the average life-expectancy (twenty-five), and Emily's own poor health (she died at thirty), it does not seem accurate to say that they are teenage poems. The extracts below are from "The Prisoner," written in 1845, just three years before her death:
    He comes with western winds, with evening's wandering airs,
    With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;
    Winds take a pensive tone and stars a tender fire
    And visions rise and change which kill me with desire -

    Desire for nothing known in my maturer years
    When joy grew mad with awe, at counting future tears;
    When, if my spirit's sky was fall of flashes warm,
    I knew not whence they came from sun or thunder storm;

    . . . . . . . .

    0, 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 -

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