Often a second-hand book would wave to me from a bookshop shelf without my meaning to look for it, like a dog in a kennel looking to be adopted. Which is why I frequently browse my favorite used-books store. This is what waved to me the other day: The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë, edited by Janet Gezari (Penguin Books, 1992). (Note that the illustration on the cover is a pencil drawing of a fir-tree by Emily Brontë.)
This collection contains 182 of Emily Brontë’s extant poems, 21 of which were published in the 1846 book of poems written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë—Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell—the names referring to their respective pseudonyms (this 1846 collection of poems is available from Project Gutenberg). The editor, Gezari, seems to have performed more than satisfactory and painstaking scholarship in putting together this collection. In the introduction, Gezari presents a brief historical survey of Emily Brontë’s poems, and details the choices and decisions which she made regarding the copy-text she used for the poems in this collection, the ordering, the amalgamation of fragments, titles, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The book also includes extensive notes at the back. Because relevant dates for most of the poems are included, it is possible to study how Brontë’s poetry changed with age.
Emily Brontë died in 1848 at a young age of 30; Anne died in 1849 at the age of 29. Charlotte was the last of the siblings to die, in 1855 at the age of 38. In the notes section, it is said that Charlotte only discovered Emily’s poems ‘one day, in the autumn of 1845,’ which implies that Emily kept her poems a secret, at least from Charlotte. It was also interesting to learn that Charlotte edited seventeen of Emily’s poems to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1850. Indeed, when I compared the version of ‘No coward soul is mine’ printed in my copy of the 1943 Oxford Book of English Verse (another book that waved to me) to that in this new collection, which includes both Emily’s and Charlotte’s versions, I found that Charlotte’s changes persisted.
Now, although I am not indifferent to poetry—I have actually tried to educate myself on the subject—I am hardly qualified to pass literary judgement on a poem. However, I do not demand much, and it is enough that a poem gets to me and makes me feel and makes me think and sings to me and stays. If I have to rely on professional literary criticism for this judgement, then I am hopeless. I therefore proclaim, after perusing this collection, that Emily Brontë is a genius.
Brontë’s poems were written in definite measures and rhyme schemes, as is to be expected of poems from that period. They are ‘melodious’ and I find that I thoroughly enjoy reading them. As a sample, I reproduce, verbatim, one of the poems in the collection, written by Brontë in November 1837, when she was 19 years of age. Note that ‘Gondal’ is the name of an imaginary island invented by Emily and Anne and which was to have figured in their ‘Gondal Chronicles.’
Now trust a heart that trusts in you And firmly say the word Adieu Be sure wherever I may roam My heart is with your heart at home Unless there be no truth on earth And vows meant true are nothing worth And mortal man have no control Over his own unhappy soul Unless I change in every thought And memory will restore me nought And all I have of virtue die Beneath far Gondal's Foreign sky The mountain peasant loves the heath Better than richest plains beneath He would not give one moorland wild For all the fields that ever smiled And whiter brows than yours may be And rosier cheeks my eyes may see And lightning looks from orbs divine About my pathway burn and shine But that pure light changeless and strong Cherished and watched and nursed so long That love that first its glory gave Shall be my pole star to the grave