Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The Brontë sisters are best-known as novelists: Emily gave us Wuthering Heights, Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte offered Jane Eyre. But from a very young age, before they penned some of the greatest novels of the Victorian era, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell – the names they adopted as their pseudonyms – were poets. When they published a jointly authored collection of their poems in 1846, it sold a grand total of two copies. But posterity has been kinder, and now we can appreciate Emily’s poetic art and that of her siblings. Below, we share some of Charlotte Brontë’s finest poems.
‘On the Death of Anne Brontë’. Charlotte Brontë survived all of her siblings, with Emily dying in 1848 and Anne following her to the grave a year later. Charlotte penned this touching poem about Anne’s death from consumption, declaring how she ‘would have died to save’ her sister and that she longs to see an end to her sister’s suffering.
There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I’ve lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.
Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O’er those belovèd features cast.
The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;
Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.
‘Speak of the North! A Lonely Moor’. It was Charlotte’s sister Emily who really put the lonely moors of their own Yorkshire on the literary map, with Wuthering Heights. But although Emily is the best-known writer of this wild and rugged landscape, Charlotte also wrote poetry about the moors, as here:
Speak of the North! A lonely moor
Silent and dark and tractless swells,
The waves of some wild streamlet pour
Hurriedly through its ferny dells.
Profoundly still the twilight air,
Lifeless the landscape; so we deem
Till like a phantom gliding near
A stag bends down to drink the stream.
And far away a mountain zone,
A cold, white waste of snow-drifts lies,
And one star, large and soft and lone,
Silently lights the unclouded skies.
‘Regret’. When we’re young, we can’t wait to grow up and leave home; but when we have to set about Adulting for real, we miss home and those simpler years, and the land that bore us, and regret not making the most of it when we had it. This tender poem is about such regrets.
Long ago I wished to leave
‘The house where I was born;’
Long ago I used to grieve,
My home seemed so forlorn.
In other years, its silent rooms
Were filled with haunting fears;
Now, their very memory comes
O’ercharged with tender tears.
Life and marriage I have known,
Things once deemed so bright;
Now, how utterly is flown
Every ray of light!
’Mid the unknown sea of life
I no blest isle have found;
At last, through all its wild wave’s strife,
My bark is homeward bound.
Farewell, dark and rolling deep!
Farewell, foreign shore!
Open, in unclouded sweep,
Thou glorious realm before!
Yet, though I had safely pass’d
That weary, vexed main,
One loved voice, through surge and blast,
Could call me back again.
Though the soul’s bright morning rose
O’er Paradise for me,
William! even from Heaven’s repose
I’d turn, invoked by thee!
Storm nor surge should e’er arrest
My soul, exulting then:
All my heaven was once thy breast,
Would it were mine again!
‘The Teacher’s Monologue’. Charlotte Brontë gave up her own schooling in order to teach her younger sisters, Emily and Anne, at home, although a few years later she returned to the profession as a governess. Later, back at Haworth, the sisters opened a school, but failed to attract pupils. In this poem, Charlotte Brontë’s teacher-speaker laments the fact that she is getting older and is still stuck in a profession she has no real love for.
The room is quiet, thoughts alone
People its mute tranquillity;
The yoke put on, the long task done, –
I am, as it is bliss to be,
Still and untroubled. Now, I see,
For the first time, how soft the day
O’er waveless water, stirless tree,
Silent and sunny, wings its way.
Now, as I watch that distant hill,
So faint, so blue, so far removed,
Sweet dreams of home my heart may fill,
That home where I am known and loved:
It lies beyond; yon azure brow
Parts me from all Earth holds for me;
And, morn and eve, my yearnings flow
Thitherward tending, changelessly.
My happiest hours, aye! all the time,
I love to keep in memory,
Lapsed among moors, ere life’s first prime
Decayed to dark anxiety…
Click on the link above to read the longer, full poem.
‘Evening Solace’. Many of Charlotte Brontë’s poems, like those of her sister Emily, betray the influence of Romanticism, with its emphasis on the poet’s own personality and emotions; this poem, which we’ll use as the conclusion to this pick of Charlotte Brontë’s best poems, is a fine example of just how much Charlotte learned from her Romantic forebears and how much she could make it her own:
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.
But, there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart’s best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.
And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly backa faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others’ sufferings seem.
Oh ! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie!
And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven,
Seeking a life and world to come.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.