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In 1850, after Emily Bronte’s death, Charlotte wrote of her that ‘Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone’. Charlotte meant that nothing on earth could stand comparison with her sister’s character, and equally that the power and simplicity which constituted the beauty of that character made her not simply unique, but consciously unique.

Emily Bronte would have nothing to do with society, loathed strangers and withdrew into silence and surliness if unfamiliar people invaded her territory. She wrote poems about solitude, and published the most violent, amoral novel of the nineteenth century, which gave the majority of its reviewers palpitations and would no doubt have made her a social outcast had she ever been within society long enough to be cast out of it. Loving the moors and her home, she was incapable of spiritual survival away from Yorkshire; perhaps it is this tendency, at once a childish refusal to abandon security and a powerful, independent rejection of worldly values that reveals most clearly the qualities Charlotte Bronte notices in her.

Such a rejection involved less a withdrawal from reality than a dedication of herself to another, inner kind of experience. For this reason, an understanding of Emily Bronte as a poet depends far more on a grasp of the fantasy world she shared with Anne than on details of autobiography, for many of her finest poems were written as part of the Gondal saga, whose narrative framework has now been lost but whose main themes can be inferred from the poems and diary papers she and Anne left. To give an indication of the main outlines of this turbulent imaginary world is also to define the nature and preoccupations of Emily Bronte’s mind.

In the land of Gondal, all qualities are absolute and immortal, all beings finite and mortal. It is a universe of polarities, in which both the gentle and the violent are heroes, carrying their emotions to extremes which to the protagonists themselves appear to represent the very proof of their existence. If they ceased to love absolutely or hate absolutely, they would cease to be. There is constant warfare between armies or individuals, and there is incessant mutiny within the individual himself against the conditions of his existence. Will is the dominating force in the Gondal drama: it is exerted by one soul against another and issues in the subjection of the victim, either in imprisonment, in eternal isolation from a loved object or in his death.

But another kind of will also stalks Gondal’s people and seems to prey upon them: strange destinies loiter just out of sight and sardonically direct operations. The material world lies around like a corrosive element ready to pollute the creature who is willing to abandon the integrity of his solitude or passion to touch it. It appears as a kind of blight imposed by an inhumane God whose attributes include the capacity to inflict lifelong punishment for error as in This summer wind, with thee and me, and the eviction of man from grace, even after death:

Compassion reigns a little while,

Revenge eternally.

While there is also the possibility of unlimited divine mercy, many of Gondal’s sinners like the protagonist of ‘Shed no tears o’er that tomb’ seem to be the property of an intransigent God. Because of this, lost spirits in plenty wander the universe of Gondal, and in poem after poem one comes upon the figure of the moral reject, at once perpetrator and victim of his own exile. Neither the nature of his transgression nor the attitude to be adopted towards it is precisely defined.

This moral ambiguity is central to Emily Bronte’s work, both in her poetry and in Wuthering Heights. It is as glamorous to be ‘hell-like in heart and misery’, to be fallen and lost in the spiritually melodramatic world of Gondal, as to be an innocent. The intrusive stranger in ‘And now the house-dog’, prefiguring Heathcliff, cuts a sinister path into the homely dwelling of the shepherd and his family. The domestic world is menaced and disturbed by a visitation from an unknown dimension beyond its imagination, as the stranger, dark and chillingly free of the decencies of family life, exerts an extraordinary allure on the very people who resist that alien experience. There is both Byronism and satanism in the Gondal hero, but he is more of a symbolic figure, representing an intrusion from the unconscious region of experience into the common sense light of day. Dark in complexion and inexplicable in motivation, he carries a mixture of the attraction and terror commonly attached to those elements of the human psyche which are too amoral, instinctual and unintelligible to reason to be accepted happily by the individual secure in orthodox social patterns. Heathcliff is an archetype of the subconscious mind, just as the Gondal hero of ‘And now the house dog’, in the ‘nameless’ quality in his face which fascinated by being indefinable; in the ambiguity of his presence; in the way Emily Bronte has to define him by negatives, by what he is not, derives from and embodies repressed human nature.

The Gondal hero, then, is an unregenerate spirit, representing a world in which reason has little validity. And nobody addicted to the logic of common sense will find much to interest him in Emily Bronte’s poetry. Gondal had no border separating it from the fabric of her real self, and although she kept two notebooks, one for Gondal, one for other poems, this does not mean that the creator of the Gondal myth lived a spiritual life different in kind to the myth itself. For what her imaginary characters are and assert corresponds closely with Emily’s apparently more personal emotions in poems like Riches I hold in light esteem or No coward soul is mine. The Gondals are split off fragments of her own larger personality. In most authors, one or two central characters are patronized by their creator in a particular way: they are favourites, cherished by his subjectivity. In Emily Bronte’s poetry, the fact that she does not appear to identify herself specifically with any character stems from her identification with all, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is an inclusive vision, in which the sum of persons and emotions equals the author’s self. Consequently, her Gondal characters are perhaps less personalities than abstractions from personality, ‘spirits’, whose struggles may be seen as corresponding to those disparate elements in herself of which she speaks in The Philosopher’s Conclusion as at war within her spirit, and all of which, significantly, ‘Heaven could not hold’. The timeless elegy beginning ‘Cold in the earth’, addressed by Rosina Alcona to Julius Brenzaida, is uttered by a woman who has been un faithful to a succession of lovers and husbands, to a dead husband whose past was a web of tyrannies, conquests and treachery. This ability of Emily Bronte’s to sympathize with the more apparently deplorable aspects of human nature should warn one against the sentimentalizing attitude to her which sometimes prevails.

Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Emily Bronte is one of the great egoists of our literature. Her theme is liberty, and a liberty conceived less as the overflow of love than as a function of solitude. Her stance is constantly one of withdrawal from her kind, as though freedom were only tenable when you had fended off the claims that encroached on the spirit from fellow creatures. At the summit of life was visionary experience: at its lowest point correspondence with the human herd engrossed in inane, unworthy concerns. Always she is at pains to distinguish herself from the orthodoxies practised by the human rubbish which she assumes populates the world outside. In ‘There was a time’, she speaks of her disgust with man’s truthlessness and of her own proud superiority to this; in No coward soul is mine, she remarks casually that all the faiths and ideologies that have preoccupied the human mind are without exception spurious by comparison with her own belief, whose source is herself:

Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men's hearts, unutterably vain...

This is the most invincible conceit. It betrays a bubris shocking in its inhumanity, and yet in the terms in which it expresses itself in her poetry, this pride rather excites than disgusts, and seems to develop into a kind of self-transcending egoism because, like Wordsworth’s, it produces a vision which is truly philosophical. For rejection of a material world with all its implications is the essential preliminary to mystical experience, and this will also involve obliteration of her own personality, so as to become, as she explains in I’m happiest when most away,

only spirit wandering wide

Through infinite immensity.

She wrote this poem at the age of nineteen, when already she was trying to find language capable of suggesting the nature of the soul’s adventure in escaping time and space and the sentient, self-conscious human framework. A flood of poetry written approximately between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-six celebrates the same pursuit of liberty, understood as an entire rejection of corporeality in poems like Aye, there it is! ; as union with the natural world in Shall Earth no more inspire thee ; as rejection of reason in favour of the imagination in To Imagination and o thy bright eyes must an swer now, and as a kind of annunciation in the Gondal poem known as The Prisoner.

Associated with the idea of the spirit’s frustration at its immersion in the body is often the imagery of imprisonment, and connected with its leap into liberty through visionary experience one encounters recurrent and haunting imagery of stars. In How Clear She Shines, Emily Bronte imagines herself lying at night looking out of the sublunary world into the quiet of the universe beyond, where she hopes that the clustered stars are innocent of the squalor that characterizes earth. Juxtaposed with scathing condemnation of our condition in the world, the stars indicate a possible state of being, accessible to man’s contemplation but not germane to the world in which he finds himself. Perhaps the most luminous account of visionary experience is embedded in the Gondal poem written in 1845 when she was twenty-seven and had only two years left to live and a handful of poems still to write. This is The Prisoner. The convention of the imprisoned girl, victimized and defiant, deepens that she is a metaphor for the idea that the liberty which eludes humanity at its apparently most free is available paradoxically to one who is, to all intents and purposes, deprived of it. The process of liberation, beginning as a kind of visitation, is personalized (as in many of Emily Bronte’s accounts of the experience) as a conjunction of two spirits, in an effort to give an impression of the rapture of the experience.

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.

Peace through the conspiracy of all these kinds of beauty preludes the soaring of the spirit off the earth and into the immensity of sky and stars. Yet at the crucial moment of liberation consciousness returns and there is the anticlimactic fall to earth in the inevitable failure of the living person to shed individual identity and sense perceptions. For the paradox reposing at the centre of her wish to be free was that only death could fulfil it, but that, once dead, you are beyond fulfilment. Possibly this explains why Emily met her own death in such a way that Charlotte could speak of her ‘turning her dying eyes reluctantly from the pleasant sun’.


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