Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Cold clear and blue

"Cold clear and blue", "Will the day be bright", "Tell me tell me smiling child" and "The inspiring music's thrilling sound",  from a manuscript in Brontë Parsonage Museum Library

[Image source: Janet Gezari's Last Things: Emily Brontë's Poems (OUP, 2007; browse it in Google Books)

Despite living in the the most literary of households we know extraordinarily little about Emily Brontë, except through her writings. She rivals Ann Radcliffe in the inscrutability of her biography, and you might well apply to Emily what Martin Mueller, talking about sources, says about Shakespeare:

The "person" Shakespeare, irretrievable for all practical purposes from either direct utterances or third-party accounts, exists only through a multiplicity of readerly or writerly choices that we can trace with varying degrees of confidence.

("Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing and the Play of their Repetitions", Modern Philology Vol 91 No 3 (Feb 1994), p. 293)

And yet, there's a feeling of incongruity, thinking of this in connection with Emily. When do we ever feel we're sharing her readerly choices? Her kind of writing doesn't sit very well with the idea of sources. It seems quite aloof from the literary world. If we ask, frivolously enough, who was Emily's favourite author, don't we feel a dissonance in the terms of the question? We know that Scott, Byron and Shelley were enthusiastically read in the Brontë household, but what did Emily think of them? Did she have favourites?


The question arises with what is thought to be Emily's earliest poem:

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven
Expands its arch on high
Cold clear and blue Lake Werna's water
Reflects that winter's sky
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star

(Taken from The Complete Poems, ed. Janet Gezari. The date is conjectured to be 12th July 1836 or earlier -- in the MS it precedes another poem with that date. The author was not yet 18. )

According to Lawrence Lipking, "The moon is set" is an allusion to Sappho, well-known in Emily's time as author of the line "The silver moon is set". That is a quotation from J.H. Merivale's (1779-1844) translation of Fragment 48 (in the best-known numbering), published in Collections from the Greek Anthology in 1833.

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent,-- and yet --
I lie alone.

Whether the Sappho allusion was intended I don't really know. But if it was, Emily's poem decisively turns away from sexual longing and towards a celestial ecstasy.  Also, Sappho's poem (her authorship has been disputed) is a midnight poem.

In Emily's poem Venus is hovering near the eastern horizon. The moon (evidently a waxing moon some way short of the full) has set in the west at some point during the night. So Emily's poem has a 360 degree view, it is turning its head both to east and west to see what night-time objects are still in the sky, and the answer is, just the one, the planet Venus. 

The form suggests an unfinished poem: the word "star" hangs there, expecting a rhyme that never arrives.  But as the MS shows, the poem is as finished as it's going to be. (Emily did this again in dated poem 26 in Gezari's edition; her poems often resist closure.) You could call it a conscious fragment.

The time of day described in Emily's poem is fairly precise. It must be one hour before sunrise. At that time the sky, especially towards the east, can be a uniform blue.  The growing light is enough to make the stars invisible. Fifteen minutes earlier, and you'd still see other stars. Fifteen minutes later, and Venus too would be little more than a pinprick; moreover, the colour of the eastern sky ceases to be blue as it becomes suffused with the approaching sunrise. (Observations based on a cloudless dawn in Somerset on Oct 27th 2017.)

The poem celebrates a thrill of the present. Dawn is a time of rapid change in appearance.  Lake Werna will cease to reflect, the sky's blue will change, Venus will soon disappear from view. And yet the poem fixes the moment.

The cloudless blue sky recurs in her next two poems, too. (Both on the MS page shown at the top of this post).



    Will the day be bright or cloudy?
    Sweetly has its dawn begun
    But the heaven may shake with thunder
    Ere the setting of the sun

    Lady watch Apollo's journey
    Thus they first born's course shall be --
    If his beams through summer vapours
    Warm the earth all placidly
Her days shall pass like a pleasant dream in sweet tranquillity

    If it darken if a shadow
    Quench his rays and summon rain
    Flowers may open buds may blossom
    Bud and flower alike are vain
Her days shall pass like a mournful story in care and tears and pain

    If the wind be fresh and free
    The wide skies clear and cloudless blue
    The woods and fields and golden flowers
    Sparkling in sunchine and in dew
Her days shall pass in Glory's light the world's drear desert through



Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
And Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully

Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away

And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity


Emily would write poems for the next ten years or so, slackening off when she came to write Wuthering Heights (Oct 1845-June 1846). (Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published at the end of May 1846.) Only ten poems are dated 1845,  then "No Coward Soul is Mine" on 2nd Jan 1846 and the rough draft "Why Ask to Know the Date" on 14th Sep 1846. This last was partially revisited in May 1848.

With that minor exception the final two years of Emily's active life are a complete blank, so far as any literary remains go.  Work may have been destroyed, by Emily herself or another. It's surprising that nobody in the family mentions anything that Emily was writing, but nor do they mention her conspicuous lack of writing... For more on this, see:

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