Saturday, 11 March 2017

No coward soul is mine


Invading a sister’s privacy….

According to contemporary accounts it was the discovery of her sister Emily’s poems that first prompted Charlotte Brontë to push the girls into sending some of their writing for publication. Charlotte, apparently, “accidentally lighted on a (manuscript) volume of verse, in my sister Emily’s handwriting” and thought them “nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy and elevating.” Emily was furious and, at first, refused consent but relented after a few days when Anne supplied some of her own verses and a plot was hatched for the sisters to remain anonymous.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

In the biographical notice that Charlotte wrote for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey she explained:
“Averse to personal publicity we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine,” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice….”

Fine quaint spirit

In the first review of the Brontë’s poems, published in the July 4th Athenaeum, the reviewer thinks Ellis (Emily) is the best writer of the “three brothers” being “a fine, quaint spirit” and who possesses “an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.” The poems of Ellis “convey an impression of originality beyond what his contributions to these volumes embody.” Sadly, several magazines that received copies did not bother to review the volume and only two copies were sold. Less than 10 copies of the original 1846 print-run survive, but a reprinting in 1850 with additional poems curated by Charlotte fared better (cashing-in on the success of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.) Emily’s poetry has certainly stood the test of time.
Emily Dickinson apparently requested that No coward soul is mine be read at her funeral

The steadfast rock of immortality

Emily’s most famous poem is probably the following, published after her death and containing an elemental and mind-expanding account of “universes” (cheeky plural!) that exist inside and outside the imagination. Apparently Emily Dickinson asked for this poem to be read at her funeral. I can understand why – it is technically perfect with its formal patterns and rhymes but it is audacious, too, with its wild use of verbs (shine, arming, anchored, animates, pervades, broods, changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, rears, render) with a glut of verbs in stanza 5. What does it mean? The voice in the poem is courageous at facing the world with a grounded self-defining confidence in the face of life’s uncertainties and trivial concerns. The voice embraces doubt, embraces nature, embraces death, and embraces immortality. God in this poem seems to be inside Emily Brontë, inside in the form of her own self-worth, her mother, her dead sisters, her brother, the Yorkshire landscape. The key phrase in this poem for me is “creates and rears” – the creation and the rearing of life, the actions of a mother; the creation and rearing of works of art that will “never be destroyed.”
Though earth and man were gone / And suns and universes ceased to be....

If Charlotte is to be believed, this is Emily’s final piece of writing

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 has 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 idle froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine 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 man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
Art work by Chrissie Freeth, Tapestry Weaver