A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A Question of Attribution
Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:
To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.
I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.
I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.
What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.
When, in 1846, the Brontë sisters self-published a selection of their poetry under the title Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the poem usually referred to simply as Stanzas was not amongst them. It was not until 1850 – nearly two years after Emily’s death – that it appeared, along with sixteen other previously unpublished poems, in a new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey edited by Charlotte.
While Charlotte claimed categorically that Stanzas was written by Emily, there are reasons to question that attribution, not least the fact it is the only ‘new’ poem in the 1850 collection for which there is no known manuscript. The authorship of Stanzas has been the subject of debate for many years – from C W Hatfield, editor of The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë in the 1940s, to Janet Gezari in 2008 (Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems, OUP) but any examination of the debate first requires a little back story.
Charlotte took it upon herself to reshape her sisters’ public image shortly after they died – Emily in 1848 and Anne six months later in 1849. Sensitive to all criticism of her family, and especially to accusation of coarseness, she wrote the now famous Editor’s Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, portraying Emily as a ‘homebred country girl’ who was ‘stronger than a man, simpler than a child’. It was an attempt to explain to a shocked public how a single woman, the daughter of a country vicar, raised in a remote moorland parsonage could have written anything as powerful, perverse and disturbing as the story of Catherine and Heathcliff and their mutually destructive passions. She was trying to dispel suggestions that Emily was in any way odd or different, and she largely succeeded, but she was seriously hampered by the fact that Emily was slightly odd – as were they all to a greater or lesser extent, for how could they not be?
They spent their childhoods immersed in their make-believe worlds, exhaustively chronicled in minute writing in the tiny books they made themselves. For years, they almost literally lived in their fantasy lands of Angria and Gondal and Emily, in particular, seemed unwilling to leave ‘the shadowy region’ even as an adult. As she went about her everyday life at the Parsonage, part of her brain was in Gondal, as evidenced by the brief ‘diary pages’ she and Anne wrote every four years, where the mundane workaday world is mentioned alongside the latest developments in Gondal, as if both were equally real.
We know that Charlotte was not above rewriting Emily’s poems, either; a comparison of the original manuscript versions and the ‘final’ versions as published in 1850 is clear evidence of that – but in fairness, many of the alterations were necessary to avoid confusion, because roughly half of Emily’s poems were written as part of the Gondal epic and contain references to characters, places and plotlines that would have been puzzling to anyone other than the siblings themselves.
So, we have a powerful poem in which Emily appears to be attempting to rejoin the real, natural world and abandon ‘idle dreams of things that cannot be’. It’s written in iambic pentameter. One of the keystones of the ‘Charlotte wrote it’ hypothesis is that Emily didn’t write many poems using the classic ‘di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum,di-dum’ rhythm – whereas Charlotte did. This is true, but in itself proves nothing, and rather ignores the fact one of Emily’s most famous poems – R Alcona to J Brenzaida: ‘Cold in the Earth’ – is also written in iambic pentameter, howbeit a creatively modified one.
Slightly more telling is the fact that it makes extensive use of ‘feminine’ line endings – ie: lines that finish with an unstressed syllable – which is typical of Charlotte, but largely absent from Emily’s poems.
The absence of an ‘original’ is also, of course, quite suggestive – especially as the other 16 poems in the 1850 edition were taken from the same manuscript book, but for people familiar with the poems of both of the sisters, the most tantalizing ‘clue’ is that the first three stanzas in particular don’t actually SOUND like Emily. The sentiment expressed in it is not a new one – she covered similar ground in Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee, but the first three verses of Stanzas read much more like Charlotte.
To me, immersed as I am in the Brontës’ poems, the change of ‘voice’ seems quite distinct, leading me to think that two hands were substantially involved in the writing of the poem. My suspicion is that Charlotte found the last two verses amongst the assorted fragments in Emily’s belongings, saw the potential, and worked with them. After all, the woman who added eight lines of her own to The Visionary would scarcely baulk at adding twelve to an unknown fragment.
The major argument against Charlotte having written it either completely, substantially or in part is that it’s a fine poem. And Charlotte, although by no means a bad poet, never reached the lyrical heights of either Emily or Anne.
I’ll leave the last word with Stevie Davies, from my much loved, battered and coffee-stained 1976 Carcanet Press edition of The Bronte Sisters – Selected Poems:
Some doubt has existed as to the authorship of this poem. Hatfield attributes it to Charlotte Brontë, attempting to restructure her dead sister’s image along more conventionally acceptable lines. If so, it is Charlotte Brontë’s finest poem.
You decide …