By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Remembrance’ is one of Emily Brontë’s best-known poems. F. R. Leavis, not a critic who was ever easy to please, described it as ‘the finest poem in the nineteenth-century part of The Oxford Book of English Verse’, although he also believed it lacked the felt experience found, for instance, in Thomas Hardy’s poetry and referred to it as an ‘imaginative exercise’.
The origins of ‘Remembrance’ (sometimes known by its opening line, ‘Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee’) are worth outlining, but before we come to our analysis, here’s the poem.
Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?
Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!
Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!
No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.
And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?
‘Remembrance’ (or ‘Cold in the earth’) was published in 1846 in the Brontë sisters’ poetry collection, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, which famously sold just two copies. However, the background to the poem had its roots some years earlier in the Brontës’ childhood, and their creation of fantasy worlds based on the brother Branwell Brontë’s tin soldiers.
Each sibling was given a toy soldier and created a life for him. A split opened up between the siblings, with Emily and Anne pairing up to create Gondal, a fairy-tale land inspired by the rugged, brooding landscape of Yorkshire they knew so well. Brontë (Emily, that is) wrote ‘Remembrance’ in 1845, three years before her untimely death.
In summary, ‘Remembrance’ is an elegy addressed to someone the speaker of the poem loved dearly, who died some fifteen years ago. (We say ‘the speaker’ rather than ‘the poet’ because we know Brontë isn’t writing directly from personal experience, but instead speaking in the persona of the Gondal heroine.)
The speaker is meant to be Rosina Alcona, mourning her husband Julius Brenzaida, who has been killed in war. Rosina asks whether she still remembers her beloved husband, so long after his death. Yes, is the answer: her ‘spirit’ still remembers him well.
But if she appears to forget him while she’s caught up in the business of living and surviving, she asks that he forgive her from beyond the grave. She remains faithful to his memory. There will never be another lover for Rosina: her ‘bliss’ and happiness lie buried in the grave with him. However, she has learned to live and be content without knowing romantic joy again.
She tells us that she adopted a stoic position: it was excessive to long to die and join her husband in the grave, when she has her own life to live. So she pulls herself back from the brink of despair and grief, lest she find it difficult to return to the world and find it empty of comfort.
The metre of ‘Remembrance’ is largely iambic pentameter, although Brontë ends the first and third lines of each of her stanzas on a weak or ‘feminine’ stress (e.g. ‘languish’ and ‘anguish’ in that final stanza), while the even lines end on a strong or ‘masculine’ stress (‘pain’ and ‘again’). The use of the hypermetrical stresses in the odd lines of each quatrain creates a feeling of withering, a dying fall that echoes the brooding, sorrowful tone of the poem. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is abab.
In short, ‘Remembrance’ is a well-crafted elegy which shows just how precocious Emily Brontë was. The depth of passion and feeling, the profound sorrow the speaker of the poem expresses, can be seen to foreshadow her later, greater work, chiefly the tortured relationship built on deep passions between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights.
These words could have been spoken by Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights; he never fully recovers from the grief caused by the loss of Catherine, but he is able to carry on because of his daughter. No doubt this poem was a precursor for the depiction of Edgar’s grief. Bronte’s poems and her novel are in many ways cut from the same cloth.
The contrast between felt experience and an imaginative exercise is a fascinating one, as is the question of how to distinguish between them.
This poem, however, is a think-piece. It seems to be a rumination on the way to deal with a loss, rather than being an expression of that loss. It is about deciding to “check the tears of useless passion”. No wonder it has a different feel from, for example, Hardy’s Beeny Cliff, or The Voice. There is a definite objectivity about it, certainly, but one could say, I think, that feeling and thought are unified. Not in the metaphysical manner, but from within the Victorian sensibility.