God, Man and themes of Mortality In Emily Bronte’s Poetry

Written by: Iana Boutchkova, Full-time PhD Student
Department of English Philology, The Paissij Hilendarski University of Plovdiv

I’m happiest when most away

I can bear my soul from its home of clay

On a windy night when the moon is bright

And the eye can wander through worlds of light –

When I am not and none beside –

Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky –

But only spirit wandering wide

Through infinite immensity.

Inside the theme of Nature in Emily Bronte’s poetry, another smaller, but not less crucial, discourse could be discerned: the relationship between man and God tinted with lyric variations on the theme of mortality. The topic in hand is something which nineteenth-century critics (urged by Victorian piety and common sense, with the particular contribution of Charlotte Bronte’s moralistically strewn Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights) deliberately shunned to analyse; but a topic that modern introspective criticism takes a particular interest in. Doubtless, Emily Bronte’s poetic heritage provides a wide enough field for the treatment of both the dramatic texture of her verse and its existential boundaries: the latter is what the present paper tries to trace. It would be appropriate, therefore, to briefly discuss the following issues:

  • the Spirit if Nature and the Spirit of man
  • the chthonian dimensions of Emily Bronte’s idea of time and space
  • the poet’s vision of the mutually dependant terms of sin, repentance and solitude
  • the borderline between the terms Universe and Self

The present analysis does not strictly limit itself within Emily Bronte’s much-discussed imaginary world of Gondal present in her poetry. It does, nonetheless, follow Hatfield’s edition of her poems – a classic source for all Bronte scholars (‘Gondalians’ and ‘non-Gondalians’, the ultimate goal being to perceive the specificities of the poet’s mystically orientated philosophy of life.

* * *

The Spirit of Nature and the Spirit of Man

As Richard Benvenuto puts it, a major problem of Emily’s poetry arises from a crucial principle of life. Namely, “nature releases the soul from its confinement to itself, (…) but as the physical world it presents to the soul only what is material and visible, while the soul yearns for the invisible and the spiritual” (Benvenuto, p. 61). God is one source for the spiritual, and although Emily seeks the traditional help of the soul-purging and alleviating Christian faith, she reaches further on for something strictly personal: a God/ Gods of her own – both tangible like Nature and original and extra-mundane like man’s consciousness. A deeper analysis shows that the poet is incessantly ‘torn apart’ hesitating between interpreting the self either as the only objective reality known to the individual consciousness and between that of the mind being the subjectively transforming principle in the independently existing world of Nature outside the self.

If the former be true then the critic is stunned at reading the following lines Cf H140 – In Summer’s mellow midnight, Sept. 1840):

(…)

I sat in silent musing,

The soft wind waved my hair:

It told me Heaven was glorious,

And sleeping Earth was fair.

In which case the Natural element is a an inlet into the world of the transcendentally accepted mind beyond, the mind above all and before all, which, being ‘unprovisional’ and unchallenged, could adequately be referred to only as God (Cf Bolnoff, pp. 45-54).

If, on the other hand, the latter be true, then one would be more than puzzled to read the following verse (H44):

I’m happiest when most away

I can bear my soul from its home of clay

On a windy night when the moon is bright

And the eye can wander through worlds of light

When I am not and none beside –

Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky –

But only spirit wandering wide

Through infinite immensity.

Paradoxically, the whole universe here is devoid of its primary constituents. Moreover, the spirit in hand could not be specifically and uncompromisingly defined as one belonging to the speaker, the poet, God, or even the wind. Rather, the reader is carried into the extra-temporal and non-chronological realm of Kant’s duratio noumenon – an eternity incompatible with the term time, but compatible with the sense a particular man’s life carries in its existential dimensions.

Still, in Emily Bronte’s poetry there is enough evidence of the poet being well acquainted with, and obviously bred by, Christian piety that makes man revere all living creatures, no matter how superior or inferior man might be to them. And, as nothing dies off in Nature, but leaves a trace behind, the wind is often an embodiment of God:

And thou art now a spirit pouring

Thy presence into all –

The essence of the Tempest’s roaring

And of the Tempest’s fall –

A universal influence

From thine own influence free;

A principle of life, intense,

Lost to mortality.

H148, July 6 1848

The everpresent universal influence could be connected with the poet’s idealistic vision of the Almighty. What the second stanza emphasizes is not a mere split of the self, but an allusion to Jesus’ Crucifixion and God’s benevolence ever after (as well as before), the Son ascended to Heaven (compare the lines italicized). The magnanimity of the Holy Spirit is in Nature that never expires but esoterically reproduces itself in various forms – man being a metamorphosed particle of it (his intellectual advantage only endowing him with a graver burden to carry – that of the Earth’s fate).

An evangelical idea of man’s redemptive death is elucidated in H183 (Death, that struck when I was most confiding), where Death is called forth to strike “Time’s withered branch” so that “its mouldering corpse” may “nourish that from which it sprung – Eternity”. And that is a “relationship between vine to branch” that “obtains both between God and creature, and between parent and child” (Tayler, p. 56).

Chthonian Dimensions of Time and Space and the Poet’s Perception of Immortality

In Emily Bronte’s viewpoint, Man possesses one feature that undeniably gives him the chance to remain what one was in one’s lifetime: and that is that, at some point, one’s life comes to an end. Ironically, all the characters of the Gondal saga are given the chance of a reunion with their native land (and true self) at death. For example (Cf H102):

(…)

In English fields my limbs were laid

With English turf beneath my head:

(…)

My mortal flesh you might debar,

But not the eternal fire within.

Or, to recall Cathy’s deathbed soliloquy spoken to Linton: “What you touch at present you may have; but my soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again.” (Cf, Wuthering Heights, ch. 12, p. 93).

There are many examples of poems where the grave, in the physical perception of this word, is but the threshold into the world that exceeds the traditional system of mans senses as well as man’s imagination. It is a way out into a world of its own, where the soul unites with its true spirit. Deviating from both the traditional Christian reverence for the passed-away (and therefore innocent) individual, the poet glorifies the grave as the shelter from all socially grounded strains and glorification of only one Deity. In H147 the lyrical speaker craves for “a Heaven more like this Earth”. As in H126 man is treading over the dead, preparing oneself for one’s future home; so, the hero from H182 considers the ‘tomb already more than his’ – a tomb that provides one with the ‘divine anguish’ one is deprived of in the ‘empty world without’. The division of the self in life, therefore, proves to be the one thing that subverts man’s comfortably relaxed daily routine but is the foreground to each one’s authenticity in the afterlife.

Within the bounds of the Romantic ideology, the limits civilized society imposes on man could be seen to whet the poet’s thirst for a reunion with Nature that, ironically, could only be accomplished in death when the body gradually and literally merges with the soil whence it came. In the light of the latter, two thirds of Emily Bronte’s poetry appear to be an attempt to reformulate eschatology into ontology, i.e. the study of existence beyond ousts the study of the purpose of one’s existence here and now (which, eventually, only becomes possible through the study of death, so that, what might seem futile in the present, is given importance to through its interpretation after death) (Cf Stoyanov, p. 61).

* * *

Sin, Repentance, Solitude

When in H149 Emily treads the earth beneath the turf of the graveyard, wishing to remember the woe she has seen on the earth she is actually arguing that no pre-conditioned passing into the world beyond could efface the existentially burdened sense a person’s life has come to make here and now. What is more, the blissfully accepted regularity of the paradise proves so meager against the sin-laden fleetingness of man’s real life. Cf:

I see around me piteous tombstones grey

Stretching their shadows far away.

Beneath the turf my footsteps tread

Lie low and lone the silent dead;

(…)

Let me remember half the woe

I’ve seen and heard and felt below,

And heaven itself, so pure and blest,

Could never give my spirit rest.

The process of self-deprivation of the rewarding idea of a Heaven in the afterlife Emily further on develops in her Belgian essay Le Papillon (i.e. The Butterfly – written as a homework during her stay at Pensionnat Heger in Brussels – 1842). It reads:

Nature is an inexplicable problem, it exists on a principle of destruction. Every being must be the tireless instrument of death to others, or itself must cease to live, yet nonetheless we celebrate the day of our birth, and we praise God for having entered such a world.

(…)

It is true that there is a heaven for the saint, but the saint leaves enough misery here below to sadden him even before the throne of God.

Although Nature does seem to imprison the soul within the body, yet it affirms the poet’s belief that to man the act of existence alone remains more relevant than the notion of salvation after one expires. In other words, the traditional Christian conceptions of purgatory and hell are replaced by the idea of a lasting rest or a union with nature. The idea of suffering after death is unacceptable, because life with its many ills and anguish is penance enough. (…) if there is no heaven to hope for, there neither can be a hell to fear” (Ghnassia, pp. 97 – 103). “ If God exists, then if we don’t behave properly we shall be damned, if he doesn’t it doesn’t matter anyway. (…) the devil does not punish you for behaving well, but God punishes you for behaving badly” (ibid., p. 155).

The destructiveness of Nature is actually something that makes one reconsider one’s centeredness on the self and embrace a wider view of reality – one based, in its essence, on experience rather than on pure analysis. For that matter, St Augustin says, the somewhat egotistic expectation of Christ’s sacrifice being made for the benefit of all humanity, one ought to realize that Christ’s life was but a single life exemplary for its irreversible love of mankind…

The Self of the Universe and the Universe of the Self

In Bronte’s works the traditional monotheistic Christian model of the Universe is ousted by a polytheistic system of symbols, all equally elusive and reproducible within one another. In such a system, where death is a mechanism and condition for existence, man’s existence proves still more unique within every single person, regardless of man’s proclivity to transgress.

The fiddliest poem of Emily Bronte’s to analyse ever is one of her last – H191 (Jan 2, 1846). On the one hand, it refutes scholars’ arguments that she must have been an anti-theist, on the other, it still does not do away with certain doubts about her sticking to atheism.

No coward soul is mine

No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere

I see Heaven’s glories shine

And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast

Almighty ever-present Deity

Life, that in me hast rest

As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,

Worthless as withered weeds

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one

Holding so fast by thy infinity

So surely anchored on

The steadfast rock of Immortality

With wide-embracing love

Thy spirit animates eternal years

Pervades and broods above,

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone

And suns and universes ceased to be

And thou wert left alone

Every Existence would exist in thee

There is no room for Death

Nor atom that his might could render void

Since thou art Being and Breath

And what thou art may never be destroyed.

While the first two stanzas affirm the poet’s faith in God, the third stanza stresses the worthlessness of all men’s creeds. Notwithstanding, stanza V confirms the magnanimous creativity of God’s essence. Yet, stanza II and VI suggest that, although a superior force is described, Emily Bronte obviously denies a purely “instinctive belief in a supernatural power, albeit a pantheistic one” (Chitham, p.65). In stanza II it says that the personal existence of a single human being makes it possible for God to be, but God is a God “within my breast”, unlike any other traditional vision about an omnipotent power and intellect. In addition, the equivocal stanza VI claims that if all else perished, he/ she would remain turning into a multitude of various forms of existence, which virtually means that all forms of life would be preserved in an abstract unified whole. Quite clearly, the eternal Spirit is viewed through Nature: “ ‘Atom’ and ‘Breath’ (stanza VII) are physiological terms being made into absolutes. The mind is felt to be capable of apprehending what is outside the mind” (Cf ll. 3-4) (Hardy in: Anne Smith, p. 115). The Deity is an eternal self, whose continuity depends on the assurance on the constancy of the primary other, of the world that is (Wion in: Linda Peterson, pp. 323-324).

Although strewn with Deistic hints, the poem gives one strong reasons for believing that Emily Bronte’s mature works contain plausible evidence for a tendency for her to cling to German-bred subjective idealism. In many poems one is seduced to believe that the speaker is only certain about the existence of his own mind and through it – of the existence of the external reality. Logically, with one’s death one’s own world is destroyed, for there is no more a consciousness to construct it, yet No coward soul is mine suggests a higher – ominously tangible super-ratio that would preserve the specificity of the speaker’s world. Another variation of the authenticity of this two-individual universe is discerned in poem H137, which reads:

I’d ask for all eternity

To make a paradise for me,

My love – and nothing more!

The beloved here substitutes the ever-present deity from No coward soul is mine. In other words, as Catherine’s confesses about her love for Heathcliff in chapter 9 of Wuthering Heights:

“(…) there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you… my great thought in living is himself. If al else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it… Nelly, I am Heathcliff!

It is remarkable, indeed, how the poet manages to affirm the existence of a hyper-rational being who is at once a part of, and a container for, man’s authenticity. To make the picture more complete and complex, one would remember poem H168 where Emily describes the vastness and esoteric profundity and abstractness of her soul:

(…)

What my soul bore

My soul alone within its self may tell.

(…)

* * *

Emily Bronte builds up an undeniably intricate modus vivendi, which – thanks to its complexity and interdiscoursivity – speaks of a Nature that possesses purposiveness (which is what modern twentieth-century poetry lacks most [Beach, p. 8])… Latent in that interdiscoursivity of being is the counter-Calvinistic idea that the sense of one’s life could only be arrived at by one’s own will and by the person himself. If so, if one life was lived out in a wholesome and complete manner (albeit contrary to common epistemological perceptions) there would be no reason why death should be shunned… To go precipitously further, within Emily’s philosophy, the soul that contains the whole universe is the only one to grant one the revitalizing prayer, i.e. the ability to transcend oneself by looking within, and create hell of heaven and heaven of hell (Ghnassia, pp. 158, 168)…

Emily Bronte’s ontological ‘proposal’ then does not imply a denial of the virtue represented through Christian piety, but rejects despair and humility of thought which could be viewed as the greatest sin in a universe where man should always be able to see through the superior creative power (also called natura naturans) the actively non-finite variety of the created (also called natura naturata) and vice versa. It is the latter ability that secures man a position so unique in Nature.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Text Editions

  • Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1992
  • (ed.) Hatfield, C. W., The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte, New Work: Columbia University Press, 1941
  • (ed. & transl.) Lonoff, Sue, The Belgian Essays. Charlotte and Emily Bronte. A Critical Edition, Yale University Press, 1996

Critical Reference

  • (ed.) Allott, Miriam, Emily Jane Bronte. Wuthering Heights. A Selection of Critical essays, Macmillan
  • Homans, Margaret, Transcending the Problems of Sexual Identity, 1980, source: Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, New York: Princeton, 1980
  • Van Ghent, Dorothy, Dark “Otherness” in Wuthering Heights, 1953, source: The English Novel. Form and Function, 1953
  • Visick, Mary, The Genesis of Wuthering Heights, 1958, source: The Genesis of Wuthering Heights, 1958
  • Beach, Joseph Warren, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936
  • Benvenuto, Richard, Emily Bronte (chapter 3: Poetry), Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982
  • (transl. in Russian.) Bolnoff, Otto, Filosofia ekzistentzializma. Filosofia sustchestvovania, Sankt-Peterburg: Lan’, 1999
  • Chitham, Edward, The Birth of Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte at Work, St. Martin’s Press, 1998
  • Daleski, H. M., The Divided Heroine. A Recurrent Pattern in Six English Novels (chapter 2: Wuthering Heights. The World of Contraries), New York London: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1984
  • Frank, Katherine, Emily Bronte. A Chainless Soul, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990
  • Ghnassia, Jill Dix, Metaphysical Rebellion in the Works of Emily Bronte. A Reinterpretation, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994
  • Harrison, G. Elsie, Haworth Parsonage, A Study of Wesley and the Brontes, London: The Epworth Press, 1937
  • (in Bulg.) Kaltchev, Ivan, Metafizika na smartta, Sofia: Biblioteka ‘Nov Den’ – 3, 1993
  • Patterson Charles (Jr.), Empathy and the Daemonic in Wuthering Heights in: (ed.) Goodin, George, The English Novel in the 19th Century. Essays on Literary Mediation of Human Values, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1974
  • Sherry, Norman, PhD, Charlotte and Emily Bronte (chapter 2: Background and Influences, chapter 7: The Poetry of Emily Bronte), ARCO, New York, 1970
  • (ed.), Smith, Anne, The Art of Emily Bronte, Vision and Barns & Noble, 1976
  • Hardy, Barbara, The Lyricism of Emily Bronte
  • (in Bulg.) Stoyanov, Tzvetan, Niskite, koito se prekasvat. Problemat za alienatziata v literaturata I obstestvenata psihologia na Zapad, ‘Narodna mladez’, 1967
  • Tayler, Irene, Holy Ghosts. The Male Muses of Emily and Charlotte Bronte (chapter 1: Emily Bronte’s Poetry), New York: Columbia University Press, 1990
  • Wang, Lisa, PhD, The Use of Theological Discourse in the Works of the Bronte Sisters, Birkbeck College, University of London, Submitted for the Degree of PhD 1998
  • Wion, Philip K., The Absent Mother in Wuthering Heights, in: (ed.) Peterson, Linda, Wuthering Heights (with biographical and historical contexts, critical history and essays from five contemporary critical perspectives), Boston New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1992

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