Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008 11:16 am by M. in , ,    1 comment
It's not often that we find an analysis of Emily Brontë's poetry in a daily newspaper. Therefore, when we first looked at this article in The Epoch Times we could hardly believe our eyes. It's a detailed analysis of Stanzas (Often rebuked, yet always back returning) by Emily Brontë... or maybe Charlotte Brontë.

The poem was published for the first time in the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey edited by Charlotte Brontë. And it's the only poem in the 1850 edition for which there's no manuscript and the only one in the edition not taken from Emily's two transcript notebooks. Her attribution to Emily is still doubtful. On Emily's side we find Edward Chitham or Victor Neufeldt (who argues that Charlotte probably edited the poem). On Charlotte's side Hatfield, who printed it in 1941 in an appendix because 'it sounded more like Charlotte than Emily' and Janet Gezari that in her own edition of the poems (1992) and in her recent book about Emily's poetry Last Things (2007) clearly attributes it to Charlotte Brontë.

So whether it is a genuine poem by Emily Brontë or Charlotte Brontë's filtered idea of her sister's work, it's a great piece of poetry. This is the analysis by the poet Christopher Nield:
In this magnificent poem, Emily Brontë meditates on the competing claims of early instinct, imaginative aspiration, material success, and spiritual rapture. We are immediately swept up into its intense drama by one of the most stirring lines in literature: "Often rebuked, yet always back returning." As with "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" or "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree," it enters the mind and there it takes up home, never to leave.
This opening line may echo one of the Biblical proverbs of Solomon: "He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." This is a warning against pride; yet with almost shocking bluntness, Brontë shrugs off this advice, asserting her fierce independence, impatient with any guide save her own implacable will.
As an adult, her journey in life has come full circle. She returns to those "first feelings" that entered into the world with her, and so she passes from experience to a kind of incandescent innocence. When she describes her rejection of "wealth" and book learning for "idle dreams of things which cannot be," is she mimicking those who have sneered at her lack of worldliness? In this phrase, we seem to hear the teacher yelling at her for staring out the window; the priest demanding that she goes back to her Bible lesson; the father fed up with her storytelling.
If Brontë is mocking those authority figures that laughed at her in the past, the "unreal world" must refer back to the dizzy merry-go-round of civilized existence. She's turning the tables on those who have criticized her dreaminess, showing that the so-called real world is the most shadowy of all. Alternatively, she may be resisting the call of the "unreal" imagination, as if she's decided to put down her novel, put on her bonnet, and go outside for a breath of fresh air. Perhaps she is afraid that art, as much as commercial society, could take her away from her first and only love: The brute and restorative force of nature.
In the second and third stanzas, "not" is repeated four times in only eight lines, carrying with it a ritualistic sense of casting away everything that is deemed insubstantial, alien, distracting. She scorns the "traces" of past glory and the "paths of high morality" that may have once tempted her. The faces "distinguished" in the world's eyes from the mob are themselves lapsing into oblivion. In the fourth stanza she moves from negation to affirmation. The repetition of "walk," along with the insistent iambic pentameter of the lines, really evokes her lone, determined trek upwards. This scene is, for me, indelibly linked with the conclusion to Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey," in which he describes his sister's "solitary walk" as the "misty mountain-winds" blow against her. Her figure silhouetted against the moon, with nothing but her "cheerful faith" to lead her on, remains as moving now as it was two centuries ago. It is an icon of human freedom.
Brontë's landscape, with its sheep and "wild wind," is one of humility and violence. Subliminally, we absorb this vision through the poem's rhyme scheme, which alternates between what are traditionally known as feminine and masculine rhymes. The first melt away, the second finish resoundingly: "reTURNing," "ME" "LEARNing" "BE" and so on. Beginning with a feminine rhyme and ending with a masculine one, the poem traces an arc of yin and yang, grace and power.
Turning her back on society, Brontë appears to have chosen obscurity and nothingness. Yet this impression is exploded in the final stanza, where her exile turns out to be nothing less than a transfiguration. On the heights of the moorland, at the point where rock and sky meet, she comes to know herself as the center of creation. It is the outpouring of "feeling" in the hardened human heart, as it beholds the beauty and majesty of nature, which unifies "heaven and hell." Without such ecstasy, Brontë suggests, the universe would collapse into chaos.
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1 comment:

  1. I'm guessing that although Emily wrote it (the first line is very catchy), Charlotte later edited it. It does not have Emily's typical flowing quality. "Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear" sounds like Charlotte's editing. Pity, because Emily was so much more lyrical than her sister.

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