Somewhere in my research about Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), I read that Charlotte thought her younger sister, Emily (1818-1848), to be an exceptionally gifted poet, a much better poet than novelist. I was intrigued as I consider Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), to be the product of a hugely gifted writer.

There is an oft told story about how Charlotte snuck into Emily’s room and read her poems without Emily’s permission. Emily was furious. But soon after, Charlotte convinced Emily to publish some of them. Emily’s first published poems appeared in print under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell in 1846 together with the poetry of her sisters Charlotte and Ann under the pseudonyms Currer and Acton Bell.

But there were so many more written in private and held in private. Emily Jane Brontë, which is how she signed her work, was a prolific poet. Virginia Woolf also considered her poetry higher quality than her novel and Woolf very much admired Wuthering Heights. Both women writers, Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf saw something in Emily Brontë’s poetry that lifted her up even higher in their own literary canons.

It is also well known that Amherst, Massachusetts poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), loved the poems of Emily Brontë and even had “ No Coward Soul” read at her funeral.

And so it was time for me to read Emily Brontë’s poems. I acquired the Penguin Classics, Emily Brontë: The Complete Poems, edited by Janet Gezari and began my journey. I will include three poems here and they are all from that book. They were the three that stood out to me in my initial perusal.

Gezari also published, Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems in 2007, in which she elaborates on the poet, her contemporaries, the poet’s treatment through time and those she influenced while also taking a close look at specific poems. That book sells at a hefty sixty dollar mark so I have put it on my wish list. But, if you are interested, it is definitely worth it.

The first Poem by Emily Jane Brontë that I chose to include here is “The Visionary.” I especially love this one for who Emily Brontë was and how she experienced the world.

The Visionary

Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep;
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.
Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Not one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer’s guiding-star.
Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame!
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame, nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.
What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.
Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear—
Hush! A rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air;
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.

~Emily Jane Brontë

Emily Jane Brontë was a mystic and a visionary. She is someone we would now call a spitfire. She was passionate and spoke her mind freely. In her book, Last Things, Janet Gezari writes:

“As a writer, Emily Brontë didn’t suffer from either an anxiety of influence or an anxiety of authorship. In her poems, she succeeded in authorizing herself as the subject of her own experience, apparently without wondering whether the experience was eccentric or trivial or, contrarily, profoundly relevant to others”(2).

This lack of self-consciousness and self-doubt allows an authenticity to shine through in her writing. We meet the woman’s true nature and feel her passion.

Read Nasty Women Writers Posts on the Brontë Sisters:

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: A 19th Century Woman Writer Calling Out the White Supremacist Patriarchy

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre’s Righteous Anger, British Woman Writer (1816-1855)

Being Poor While Female in 19th Century Woman Writer Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853)

Woman Writer Anne Brontë: The Youngest, Most Shocking Brontë Sister (1820-1849)

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley: The Power of Female Friendship

Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor: Equality Achieved

I treasure Emily Brontë’s love of the dark: the darkness of the night sky, the shadow spaces and places, the underworld of gods and humans that rises up, exposing itself in unregulated emotion. She wasn’t afraid of looking, of seeing, of knowing, what lay in the shadows.

Stars

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 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!

~Emily Jane Brontë

Emily Brontë’s poems celebrate her intimate relationship with the countryside of Yorkshire and the Moors within which she is deeply embedded. The land speaks to her, the plants teach her, the weather informs her. She does not separate herself from it. In fact, that thought would not have occurred to her. She was a permeable creature whose listening skills far exceeded that of human voices.

Janet Gezari Ph.D (b. 1945),  taught Women’s Studies and English Literature at Connecticut College until 2016. She is a scholar of the Brontë’s, Victorian and contemporary fiction.

Gezari writes:

“Supreme enjoyment—an unqualified affirmation of the joy of being alive—is the core of Brontë’s poems and entirely compatible with her intimate knowledge of despair and her unflinching recognition of our human capacity for cruelty and ingratitude”(LT 3).

High Waving Heather

High waving heather ‘neath stormy blasts bending
Midnight and moonlight and bright  shining stars
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending
Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending
Man’s spirit away from its drear dungeon sending
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars
All down the mountain sides wild forests lending
One mighty voice to the life giving wind
River their banks in the jubilee rending
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending
Leaving a desolate desert behind
Shining and lowering and swelling and dying
Changing forever from midnight to noon
Roaring like thunder like soft music sighing
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying
Lightning bright flashes the deep gloom defying
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon

~Emily Jane Brontë

Of Emily Brontë’s writing, Virginia Woolf commented:

“There is no ‘I’ in Wuthering Heights, there are no governesses. There are no employers. There is love but it is not the love of men and women. Emily was inspired by some more general conceptions. The impulse which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel . . .But it was not enough for Emily Brontë to write a few lyrics, to utter a cry, to express a creed. In her poems she did this once and for all, and her poems will perhaps outlast her novel”(WW 131).

And yet it has so far been the opposite. Many know of Wuthering Heights but fewer about the poetry of Emily Jane Brontë. Perhaps the time is now.

Emily Jane Brontë is a Nasty Woman Writer.

©Theresa C. Dintino. 2023

Works Cited:

Gezari, Janet, ed. Emily Brontë: The Complete Poems. Penguin Classics. 1992.

Gezari, Janet. Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Barrett Michele, ed. Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1979