Analysis of Charlotte Bronte’s Writings
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Of the sisters, Charlotte is most clearly a novelist before she is a poet: the formal requirements of poetry inhibit her. For Charlotte, the poem’s structure seems to represent a kind of pre-existing box into which one pack ideas, rather than the organic consequence of those ideas. Poeticism and archaism exert a magnetic pull on her, normal word order craves inversion (normally in response to the exigencies of rhyme), adjectives flower in every crevice of the verse and whole stanzas are choked with lists of ‘Personalized Abstractions’. She presides over her poetry with a certain solemnity and lack of humour.
The main burden of her best poetry, as of the novels, is the expression of what it is like to live in a world where every other creature seems to enjoy companionship except oneself. This can take the form of a yearning for lost childhood as in the first part of ‘The Teacher’s Monologue’, or a lament for the loneliness that is caused by physical plainness, which neither stoic rationality nor escape into fantasy can alleviate. While Emily Bronte’s poems celebrate the mutinies of the moral or spiritual exile and Anne's rehearse the predicament of the soul forsaken by God, Charlotte's turn upon the theme of the disqualification of the ugly in a world dominated by the beautiful
She is, in the poems, her own heroine, fulfilling a similar role to the heroines of Jane Eyre and Villette. Jane Eyre wistfully observes the beautiful and the rich at Thornfield Hall, an élite who appear to reside at the centre of the turning world, but ultimately it is she who receives the rewards of passion combined with moral beauty. Lucy Snowe in Charlotte’s later, more pessimistic novel, Villette, homeless and cut off from love by the plainness of her face and by the coldness which self-consciousness has bred in her, also looks on grimly from the edge of life, longing for a passion which ultimately eludes her. A poem of 1845 beginning ‘Unloved I love, unwept I weep’ renders in that first line alone an account of the crucial fact of Charlotte Bronte’s existence with which the poetry and novels are a sustained attempt to come to terms. There were two possible ways of doing this: the first might be called the Angrian solution. If a brighter and more magical reality could be substituted for the dreariness of everyday life, that fantasy might constitute a fulfilling alternative world. Angria was passion, warfare and all sorts of delectable emotions, and she continued to resort to it well into adult life. Its role can perhaps best be under stood through study of her 1835 poem, ‘Retrospection’. In essence it is a poem about symbolism, defining the relationship between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ worlds but casting doubt upon a common-sense interpretation of these concepts.
Charlotte Bronte, aged nineteen, looks back with a poignant sense of loss to the shared childhood visions upon which the commonplace reality of working for a living has impinged. This theme divides itself into four curious symbols web, water, seed and branch. There is a sense of a double perspective of time: firstly, early childhood, during which the dream the Bronte children created in terms of these symbols appeared the only reality and secondly, young adulthood, in which empirical reality in the form of ‘darkly shaded life’ appears to eclipse the validity of the dream. But, Charlotte Bronte asserts, in some strange corner of the mind the four images which correspond to their vision have been developing and expanding throughout the period when the Brontes were themselves growing up. It is probably no accident that there are four main symbols for the four children (including Branwell), nor that the symbolism itself with the passage of time has taken on an oddly surreal quality.
The web, for instance, is now light giving. It does not reflect light generated by a source in the empirical world outside the mind: rather, it emits from its own nature crimson light and simultaneously has expanded beyond itself. Each image in turn is now developed by the poet until it becomes extreme, almostabsurd. The tiny seed of fantasy planted in childhood has become a fruitful and sustaining myth. As a result, she found her desperate sense of loneliness and deprivation within society.
The failure to establish herself in either the real or the imaginary worlds may account for depression which broods over most of Charlotte Bronte’s adult poems. She expresses a sense of life’s continuum as going in very slow motion, and yet it passes relentlessly too before one can catch hold of it. The central statement is ‘Life will be gone ere I have lived’. Characteristic of the mood Anne as much as of Charlotte, this is a fretful admission not only of failure to discover the kind of role available to most members of society, but also inability to create a tenable alternative. Just as her heroines, Jane Eyre, Caroline Helstone and Lucy Snowe, are excluded from opportunity to marry or to find truly satisfying work, so Charlotte Brontefeels herself unfairly disqualified from the excitements due to the young.
The solution in this, and in most, cases, is not the Angrian remedy, but a philosophy of stoicism. Charlotte's typical reaction to her predicament is a confrontation of her own image in the mirror which is the poem, and then a bitter renunciation of happiness in favour of ‘Reason’. Reason dictates that what we cannot avoid we must accept, making no outrageous demands on the world: ‘she’ is the friend of ‘Patience’ and the way to God. But Charlotte Bronte is not particularly taken with her. In Villette, Lucy Snowe says,
This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope; she could not rest until I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken in, and broken down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond.
The relationship between Charlotte Bronte and Reason in the poems is never other than a coerced one. If circumstances were different, they would divorce and never communicate again. But as things are, she unwillingly embraces Reason and the affiliated virtues in poems such as ‘Tis not the air’ and the 1845 poem explicitly entitled ‘Reason’, written, along with the poem of 1847, ‘He saw my heart’s woe’, in anguished response to M.Heger’s embarrassed and silent rejection of her.
‘Reason’ acknowledges candidly her motive for resorting to the rational way of life: her lack of beauty induces aspirations, ‘Reason - Science - Learning – Thought’, which for her come second to the great aim of affection. Charlotte Bronte is faithful to ‘Reason’ only because most desolate’, never doubting that man falls back on rationality without loving it. And yet conversely she is aware that an insistence on facing the reasoned truth and subjugating oneself to it gives one a moral stature above that which is possible to the lucky and the beautiful. However, the feeling of ‘Reason’ becomes bitterer in the following poem, ‘He saw my heart’s woe’. There are two heroes in this poem, each the complement of the other. The first is her sexual idol, represented in terms of unconsciously phallic imagery as ‘stirless as a tower’, whose power is menacing in its indifference, and to whom her own reaction is a violent one. She is a fugitive from the first to the second hero, the Christian God who carries the other, opposite attribute of the male, fatherly tenderness. The urge to be protected and to worship what protects is a motif which runs through out Charlotte Bronte’s work.
The Bronte sisters: selected poems, 2002