April 12, 2016

Friday, October 19, 2012

Poetry Friday with the Brontes

Happy book birthday to Catherine Reef! Catherine is a stellar YA non-fiction author, based here in Maryland.

Her latest biography, The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, comes out on October 23. Read about the early reviews here.
Buy the book!

Jane Eyre is my mother's favorite book. I read the novel as a middle schooler. It was a gorgeous spring day. How could Charlotte Brontë bring me so viscerally to a stormy night on the English moors when I was sitting on my bed in New Jersey?

I only knew a little bit about Charlotte and her siblings. All four were creative talents, but only Emily's novel Wuthering Heights achieved the success of Jane Eyre.

Enjoy this quick montage from the Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier version of Wuthering Heights.

Most intriguing, as children, Charlotte, Emily, Branwell and Anne created two imaginary kingdoms to entertain themselves. All four wrote poetry and each of the sisters wrote novels.

Catherine’s biography of the Brontë family opens with a lyrical description, settling readers into the bleak English moorland familiar from the sisters’ novels.

“The cobbled road clung to the steep hill as if holding on for dear life. Its paving stones had been set on end, forming a series of little ledges. The nervous horses felt for these rocky shelves to gain a footing… The sourced earth barely fed some stunted bushes that struggled to stay alive. Few trees grew in this bleak place, where a sad wind constantly blew.”

Here are 5 Questions for Catherine Reef:

1.      The Brontë sisters had a love-hate relationship with their home, the parsonage in Haworth, Northern England. The surrounding landscape fed their best-known novels, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. What is the literary appeal of the English moors? Why is it such a powerful romantic (and Romantic) backdrop?

The Romantic writers of the early nineteenth century valued feeling over reason. Nature, they believed, could evoke strong emotions such as awe and passion, and it could unleash the power of the imagination. This was especially true when nature was at its most sublime, when natural forces were at their wildest and most mysterious. The bleak, harsh, primordial English moorland, with its lonely hills, keen winds, and stunted growth, seems to be the ideal Romantic landscape.

It also makes a striking setting for literary romance. A novelist can isolate her characters on the moors and give free rein to her imagination as she lets their story play out apart from societal intrusion. Also, the potent natural setting is always a presence; it colors the mood of the story and mirrors the characters' passionate excesses in its violent storms and untamed terrain. Imagine the story of Heathcliff and Catherine set in London drawing rooms. It simply wouldn't work; it had to take place on the moors.
2.      Romantic ideals such as respect for the creative mind and a strong sense of freedom seemed to feed the Brontë siblings’ greatness. Each of them complained about the routine and constraints of standard schooling and how it limited their creativity. In addition, Charlotte argued that the rights of the common man, a popular Romantic theme, should extend to women. How important were the English Romantic poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron – in influencing the Brontë siblings?

The English Romantic poets were an extremely important influence on the Brontës. Keep in mind that Romanticism was a new artistic movement when the Brontë siblings were growing up and reading poems by Wordsworth, Byron, and others. This poetry is so familiar today that it may be hard for us to apprehend the impact it had on readers at the time. Such passion, such ecstasy, such dreams! Now imagine these poems being read by bright, impressionable youngsters who were deeply involved in imaginative games and had formed a close bond with the natural world. The influence had to be profound.

Romanticism is key to understanding the Brontës' novels. Not only do the ideals you mention surface as themes, but also the most memorable male characters are brooding, tortured Byronic figures, and nature plays such a prominent role. How different these novels are from those of Jane Austen, who died in 1817, when Charlotte Brontë was a baby and Emily and Anne were not yet born. Austen was raised on the thinking of the Enlightenment; if she read Romantic poetry, it had little effect on what she wrote. Once we recognize the spell Romanticism cast over the children who came of age in the Haworth parsonage, we can understand why Charlotte Brontë complained that Austen lacked passion.
3.      I loved the little biographical clues I found in your biography and connected with the sisters’ novels. For instance, you mention their father, Reverend Brontë’s fear of a house fire, which becomes a plot point in Jane Eyre. His desire for upward mobility in tightly-bound Victorian society reminded me of Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights. Clearly, Patrick Brontë influenced his children. How did Reverend Brontë, who also wrote poetry, affect his children’s writing?

Although he wrote and published verses on religious themes, the Reverend Brontë neither encouraged nor discouraged his daughters and son from writing. He did, however, inadvertently create an ideal environment for nurturing creative literary minds. For one thing, he allowed his children access to his library of classics and to the periodicals he received, which included three daily newspapers and Blackwood's Magazine, which printed reviews, criticism, and recent poems by the proponents of English Romanticism. For another, he left the children to their own devices, so they had abundant time to ramble outdoors and to develop strong feelings toward nature. Finally, because he followed his career to such a remote outpost of the Church of England, his children were far removed from "suitable" playmates from other families. Isolated, the young Brontës ventured further into the realms of the imagination, and stayed there longer, than most children do. The world of ideas, the world of nature, and time to imagine and create--a perfect formula.
Ann (left), Emily (center) and Charlotte.
4.      It is well known that the four surviving Brontë children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, entertained themselves by creating two imaginary kingdoms. They populated these with royalty, heroes and heroines, even writing epics about the lands of Gondal and Angria. However, their novels are realistic and rely – to varying degrees – on the Brontës' own lives. (One example is Charlotte drawing on her experience of watching older sister Maria suffer abuse and neglect at a girls’ boarding school, which we see in the early chapters of Jane Eyre.) Do you think, had they survived past their thirties and matured as novelists, that the Brontës’ work might have become more imaginative, even fantastical?
A recent film version of Jane Eyre.
When writers die so young, fans and students of their work almost can't help speculating about the books they would have written, or the direction they might have taken, if they had lived. I have done this, too. So do I think the Brontë sisters might have produced novels that were more imaginative or fantastical than those they did write, if they had lived? The answer is no, no, and maybe.

In 1839, the year she turned twenty-three, Charlotte Brontë wrote a "Farewell to Angria," in which she resolved to quit "that burning clime where we have sojourned too long." She understood that she had outgrown the fantasies of her childhood and youth, which were peopled with knights and nobility. To mature as a writer she needed to draw more deeply from ordinary life, as Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau--two Victorian novelists whose books she was reading--had done. If we follow the progression of her novels from Jane Eyre to Shirley to Villette, we see no evidence of a return to the fantastical, but we do see a greater emphasis on social issues and psychology. A return to the imaginary for Charlotte seems unlikely to me.

When I read Anne Brontë's novels (Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) in preparation for writing The Brontë Sisters, I said to myself, "This sister, at least, appreciated Jane Austen." Like Austen, Anne was unusually perceptive and sensitive to the subtleties of human emotions and interpersonal relationships. If she had lived, it is quite possible that Anne would have become the greatest novelist of the three, but I would expect her to probe further into the human heart and mind.

Now we come to Emily, whose sole existing novel, Wuthering Heights, defies categorization and embraces the supernatural. Ghostly fingers clasp Lockwood's hand; Heathcliff may be other than merely human. In December 1848, the publisher of Wuthering Heights, T. C. Newby, announced that he would be bringing out a second novel by Ellis Bell, but he never did. This has caused some scholars to speculate that Emily was at work on another novel when she died, and that Charlotte, who considered Wuthering Heights "an entire mistake," destroyed it because she found its contents too disturbing. Based on this evidence, I expect Emily might have ventured further into the fantastical.
Ad for the 1939 movie. Just for fun, do an internet search on 1939 movies.
5.      Your biography of the Brontës is filled with excerpts from their poetry. If poetry had been more marketable, might Charlotte, Emily and Anne have focused on verse, rather than writing novels? Tell us about your favorite Brontë poem.

All three sisters continued to write poetry after they became novelists, but they produced only a small number of poems. This shows us that they put their energy into the kind of writing that sold: novels. If there had been a market for their poetry, I suspect they would have written more of it.

I have a hard time choosing favorites, but Emily stands out to me as the most gifted poet of the three. Her finest verses soar, whereas her sisters' remain reluctantly earthbound. One poem by Emily Brontë that I like very much is "Stars," composed in 1845, in which she proclaims herself a daughter of the night. Emily, a mystic who shunned society and refused to conform in manners or dress, describes coming fully alive at night, when most of the world sleeps, and drawing inspiration from the stars that fill the sky: "Thought followed thought--star followed star...."

The returning sun, she writes, is deadening to the creative soul, a drainer of blood and drinker of tears. Emily therefore implores her muses:

O Stars and Dreams and Gentle Night;
O Night and Stars return!
And hide me from the hostile light
That does not warm, but burn--

Love it!

An established author of nonfiction for young readers, Catherine Reef has written award-winning biographies of Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, and Ernest Hemingway. Clarion will release her most recent book, The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, on October 23. Catherine Reef was born in New York City and grew up in Commack, Long Island, the oldest of five children. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Washington State University, graduating summa cum laude. Catherine was employed as a writer in the health field when Dillon Press published her first bookWashington, D.C., in 1990. Some forty books followed, most of them works of biography or American history. Catherine and her husband, photographer John Reef, live in College Park, Maryland. They have a grown son.

Thanks for visiting, Catherine. I loved learning about the Brontes! Here is the full poem, "Stars."

by Emily Bronte

Ah! why, because the dazzling sun
Restored our Earth to joy,
Have you departed, every one,
And left a desert sky?

All through the night, your glorious eyes
Were gazing down in mine,
And, with a full heart's thankful sighs,
I blessed that watch divine.

I was at peace, and drank your beams
As they were life to me;
And revelled in my changeful dreams,
Like petrel on the sea.

Thought followed thought, star followed star,
Through boundless regions, on;
While one sweet influence, near and far,
Thrilled through, and proved us one!

Why did the morning dawn to break
So great, so pure, a spell;
And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek,
Where your cool radiance fell?

Blood-red, he rose, and, arrow-straight,
His fierce beams struck my brow;
The soul of nature sprang, elate,
But mine sank sad and low!

My lids closed down, yet through their veil
I saw him, blazing, still,
And steep in gold the misty dale,
And flash upon the hill.

I turned me to the pillow, then,
To call back night, and see
Your worlds of solemn light, again,
Throb with my heart, and me!

It would not do--the pillow glowed,
And glowed both roof and floor;
And birds sang loudly in the wood,
And fresh winds shook the door;

The curtains waved, the wakened flies
Were murmuring round my room,
Imprisoned there, till I should rise,
And give them leave to roam.

Oh, stars, and dreams, and gentle night;
Oh, night and stars, return!
And hide me from the hostile light
That does not warm, but burn;

That drains the blood of suffering men;
Drinks tears, instead of dew;
Let me sleep through his blinding reign,
And only wake with you!

There's a meteor shower this weekend, folks. When you're out there enjoying the Orionids, think of Emily!

Meanwhile, there are poetry posts to savor. Today's Poetry Friday host is Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.


jama said...

Thanks so much, both of you. So enjoyed this post. Hadn't seen that particular Emily poem before -- so beautiful and passionate!

The Brontes have always fascinated me. Their isolation definitely facilitated their creativity. When visiting Haworth, I was struck by the bleakness of the moors, which gave me more insight into Emily's mind. We took my dad to Haworth on our 2nd trip to Yorkshire. I'd never seen him read a novel my entire life, but after seeing where the Brontes lived, he read Jane Eyre and loved it! Never thought I'd see the day (my dad will be 98 next month).

Michael Ratcliffe said...


Thanks for this post. I am going to take Wuthering Heights down from the bookshelf and read it again.

I love the bleak landscape of the moors of the north of England. The mountains of Wales have a similar bleakness. Maybe there's some residual genetic predisposition from ancestors long past that is hanging around within me. They are at their most beautiful (to me at least) on an overcast day, clouds hanging low, and just enough light to bring out the colors of the grass, bracken, and stunted trees. A perfect landscape for brooding poets and writers.

Something else to note is that the north of England also was home to a variety of radical social movements and political groups, or if not the point of origin, at least were strongholds-- Quakers and other similar, free-thinking religious groups in the 1600s, Jacobites in the early 1700s, and Chartists and other left-wing groups in the 1830s and 1840s. The moors were often sites for Chartist political rallies. While the Bronte sisters, living as they did in Yorkshire, would have been removed geographically from the core of English society, they would have been in proximity to the social and political movements pushing for rights for the common man.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Jama. Thank you for sharing your Haworth story. I have never been to Yorkshire, but the novels remind me of the rural parts of the English Midlands, where my mother grew up.

Author Amok said...

Mike, I reread Jane Eyre about two years ago (still great), and was thinking the same thing about Wuthering Heights -- time to reread.

If I remember correctly from Catherine's biography, one of the novels, Vilette, deals with the Luddite movement. The Bronte family was both free-thinking and socially constrained, which is part of what makes them so fascinating.

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

Thank you so much for this post! I couldn't stop reading. I remember reading Jane Eyre in 9th grade, and that was one of the many English lit. pieces that set me on my path to writing. It's intriguing to see how their lives shaped their craft.

Author Amok said...

Matt -- me too. Jane Eyre was a huge catalyst in my young writing life. Thanks for the comment.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Thank you both for the enlightenment. I was always one of those who preferred Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights, but hadn't realize Charlotte thought so badly of the book that she might even have destroyed her sister's later work. Where were the back up files? JK as we say nowadays. I'm disturbed by those nineteenth century ladies and their matches, but thank you!

Irene Latham said...

Oh I must have this book! I am fascinated by literary families (well, families in general!). It reminds me of my recent trip to the Alcott home. I love learning all the ways real life influenced fiction. Thanks for sharing, Laura.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Jeannine. Funny that you and I were talking about Lucille Clifton earlier. She has a poem about witnessing her mother burning her own poems -- 19th century censorship still in practice.

Author Amok said...

Irene -- I agree! My daughter and I were in Concord last summer and visited the Alcotts' home. My favorite part was the little fold-down writing desk in Louisa's room.

Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

Growing up in India, we did not have access to YA fiction (what little of it even existed back in the day), so Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the Brontes were what I relied on for reading pleasure. I've always been drawn to them, all the more so after visiting Haworth and walking those bleak moors. My heart was always with Emily - brave and strange soul.

Marjorie said...

Yes, who knows what riches have been lost because of surviving relatives' pudeur... It reminds me of Samuel Palmer's son destrying such a swathe of his father's work after his death... There's defintiely something to be said for places like Seven Stories in the UK where writers and illustrators can give their archives before they die and their work is out of their control... I'm lucky to live on the edge of the North York Moors, the other side of the Pennines from Haworth. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time last year (a definite gap in my education)and wished I had read it when I was more romantically disposed myself... Thank you for this fascinating interview. I look forward to getting hold of Charlotte's book.

Author Amok said...

Tara -- I think there is more quality YA fiction available today. So many of us went straight from what would now be called middle grade books into adult books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the time we were 12 and 13.

Author Amok said...

Marjorie, thanks for sharing that! You must have read Wuthering Heights with a great deal of personal insight. I'm sure you'll enjoy the biography.

Linda B said...

As I have had the pleasure of teaching some gifted readers in middle school, I've also had the pleasure of introducing to them these writers, including their books, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I still remember reading Jane Eyre all that long time ago, starry eyed in the back yard, dreaming, dreaming. Beautiful interview, Laura. I think the book will be a treasure to read, Catherine.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Excellent and informative post . . .

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Linda and Jet. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. I also have Catherine's excellent YA biography of Walt Whitman.