When she died in 1848, aged just 30, Emily Brontë had written just one novel, Wuthering Heights. Of course, that novel was a classic and remains one of the most popular and widely read Victorian novels. But Emily Brontë also wrote many poems. ‘Love and Friendship’ sees Emily Brontë reflecting on the differences between these two pillars of our emotional lives.
Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree—
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He still may leave thy garland green.
Many poems see love and friendship as a natural partnership, but in this poem, Emily Brontë sees them as related (she likens them both to flowering plants) but substantially different. Love is like the rose briar (reminding us of the old poets’ adage, ‘every rose has its thorn’: love has a dangerous as well as thrilling side) whereas friendship is like the holly tree. In the first stanza of ‘Love and Friendship’, Brontë reminds us that when we fall in love, in that first flush of excitement when we first meet someone and fall for them, we neglect our friends, but friendship, unlike love, will not desert us.
Brontë develops this analogy in the poem’s middle stanza. Love, like roses, is sweet in the spring and summer when it’s fresh; but when it fades, in the autumn and winter months, friendship, like holly (which, as we know from its use at Christmas, does not wilt and wither in the winter), continues to bloom. The poem’s final stanza entreats us to view friendship as more valuable to us than love, and to look after our friends and cherish them, so that when ‘winter’ comes (i.e. when our loves fail us or when our beauty fades and we grow old) we still have our friends.
Emily Brontë uses this simple parallel of the rose and the holly to illuminate and analyse the central distinction between love and friendship. Although this poem is a minor piece, it arguably helps to enrich our understanding of Brontë’s other work, namely her novel, Wuthering Heights. There, too, love will prove to be wild and tempestuous, but ultimately (self-)destructive.