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Feather's Miscellany: Religiosity In The Poetry Of The Brontë Sisters

John Waddington-Feather considers the religious thoughts expressed by the Bronte sisters in their poetry.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne varied in their religiosity, as one would expect from freethinking women raised in an Anglican household by a liberal Evangelical father. Anne was the most theological of the three; but she was no Anglican conformist. She thought through her faith which she retained to the end.

Charlotte perhaps was the most conventional and much, though not all, of her verse is pleasant homely poetry designed to cheer folk up. Emily, as ever, was the most fiercely independent. Although she clearly read her Bible regularly — and what nineteenth-century clergyman’s daughter would not? — she came near to being a pantheist in her belief, seeking truths about life and death in the world of nature about her. If she came to an understanding of God, she found it in the wild hills and moorland where she was raised.

Anne was perhaps more deep-thinking than her sisters in her approach to religion, but like her sisters she was no fundamentalist and read her Bible sensibly, according with the more forward-looking thinking of her time. She had no time for narrow minded sects who believed in eternal damnation for the sinner and for anyone who did not think like them. Calvinism especially came under her rod. She believed in the universal redemption of mankind; that ultimately all people, whatever their faith or actions in this life, would be redeemed by Christ. This redemptive belief is voiced in her final words on her death-bed:

Ere long the restlessness of approaching death appeared, and she was borne to the sofa; on being asked if she were easier [. . .] she said, ‘It is not you who can give me ease, but
soon all will be well, through the merits of our Redeemer’.

Shortly after this, seeing that her sister could hardly restrain her grief, she said, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage’.

Her faith never failed, and her eye never dimmed till about two o’clock, when she calmly and without a sigh passed from the temporal to the eternal.

Both Anne’s poetry and prose often express her deep religiosity. I believe that had she lived in our present age, she would have become ordained into the Anglican Church as a woman priest; and she would certainly have made a good preacher.

Anne’s is no sentimental faith, no fundamentalist dream, but an intellectually thought-through belief, which stood her in good stead at the end of her life and also coloured her life — including her writing. Her search for God and truth is very
evident in her poem ‘The Doubter’s Prayer’:

Eternal Power, of earth and air!
Unseen, yet seen in all around,
Remote, but dwelling everywhere,
Though silent, heard in every sound.
If e’er thine ear in mercy bent,
When wretched mortals cried to Thee,
And if, indeed, Thy Son was sent,
To save lost sinners such as me:
Then hear me now, while, kneeling here,
I lift to Thee my heart and eye,
And all my soul ascends in prayer,
Oh, give me — give me Faith! I cry.

Anne was a universalist, that is, she believed in the redemption of all who confessed their sins through Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. She rejected exclusiveness, that
narrow belief of those who believed their religion was right and only those who followed it would be saved but everybody else would burn in hell! Her poem, ‘A Word to the Elect’, is a homily in verse, in which she attacks such sects. In the following couple of verses especially her indignation spills over:

Say, does your heart expand to all mankind?
And, would you ever to your neighbour do —
The weak, the strong, the enlightened, and the blind —
As you would have your neighbour do to you?

And, when you, looking on your fellow-men,
Behold them doomed to endless misery,
How can you talk of joy and rapture then?

May God withhold such cruel joy from me!

So much for those who thought they only were ‘saved’. Anne recognized that there had not been much intellectual movement in them since the time of the Pharisees two
thousand years before. As a clergyman’s daughter, she was meeting prejudice and bias in religion all the time in people like the Reverend Carus Wilson, head of the school her sisters attended at Cowan Bridge or, nearer home, in some of her father’s curates and in Aunt Branwell, a strict Wesleyan Methodist; sometimes in the everyday people she met at Haworth. (Her sister Emily catches exactly one such religious bigot in the character of old Joseph in Wuthering Heights.)

Finally, among her poems, Anne wrote a number of hymns set to music, which appeared in The Methodist Hymn-Book as well as in the Anglican Church Hymnal, Baptist and Moravian collections.

In contrast to Anne’s poetry, Emily’s is more secular; indeed, some critics say it is ‘pagan’ at times, for Emily is more concerned with the natural world about her, especially the wild moorland surrounding Haworth. She seems more attracted to
creation than the Creator, more in tune with her contemporary Romantics who wrote about nature in their poetry: Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth. She was a visionary, not a theologian like Anne.

Having said that, perhaps Emily’s most famous poem is her most religious, certainly her most Deist, and indicates her belief in a life after death, though there is no mention of Christ in it as there is in Anne’s and Charlotte’s verse. Its opening line
sets the tone for the rest of the poem:

No coward soul is mine.
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere.
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear
O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest
As I Undying Life, have power in thee
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears
Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee
There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed

In much of her poetry she suggests that the soul finds its true self in the natural world we live in, using what it discovers as an escape from the body into a spiritual world.

In ‘Aye there it is!’ she imagines the wind waking the soul to life:

Yes I could swear that glorious wind
Has swept the world aside
Has dashed its memory from thy mind
Like foam-bells from the tide —
And thou are now a spirit pouring
Thy presence into all —
The essence of the Tempest’s roaring
And of the Tempest’s fall —
A universal influence
From Thine own influence free —
A principle of life intense
Lost to mortality
Thus truly when that breast is cold
Thy prisoned soul shall rise
The dungeon mingle with the mould —
The captive with the skies —

Poem after poem has this rich imagery aligning nature with the human soul, occasionally using nature imagery as the vehicle to capture the depths of despair of the soul. Her short poem which follows illustrates this:

It was night on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
Down the darkness stole away.
Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left his sheep all buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care
Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.

This is a bleak poem about the helplessness of humanity in the face of a hostile environment, when, perhaps, even God cannot help his own.

‘The Old Stoic’ I believe sums up Emily’s attitude to this life and the next:

Riches I hold in light esteem;
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn:
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, ‘Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!’
Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
’Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Ever optimistic, Charlotte’s poetry contrasts strongly with both Emily’s and Anne’s. It is somewhat sentimental and lacks the intellectual vigour of her sisters’ verse, but it is uplifting and written to cheer up the reader. The homely verses I quote here from ‘Parting’ illustrate this:

There’s no use weeping,
Though we are condemned to part:
There’s such a thing as keeping
A remembrance in one’s heart:
There’s such a thing as dwelling
On the thought ourselves have nursed,
And with scorn and courage telling
The world to do its worst.
We’ll not let follies grieve us,
We’ll just take them as they come;
And then every day will leave us
A merry laugh for home.

Her poem: ‘Life’ runs along similar lines — a homely verse or two to read at the fireside when feeling low!

Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes, there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O, why lament its fall?

A much more sophisticated poem is her dramatic monologue: ‘Pilate’s Wife’s Dream’, which captures vividly the episode in St Matthew’s Gospel just before Christ’s crucifixion, when Pilate’s wife has a foreboding dream. Turning to Christ, she has rejected both her cold, shallow husband and her pagan gods.

I do not weep for Pilate — who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move;
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a following, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.

Then came her rejection of the Roman gods and her acceptance of Christ:

What is this Hebrew Christ? To me unknown,
His lineage — doctrine — mission — yet how clear,
Is God-like goodness, in his actions shewn!
How strange and stainless is his life’s career!
The ray of Deity that rests on him,
In my eyes makes Olympian glory dim.

Then she ends:

Our faith is rotten — all our rites defiled,
Our temples sullied, and methinks, this man,
With his new ordinance, so wise and mild,
Is come, even as he says, the chaff to fan
And sever from the wheat; but will his faith
Survive the terrors of tomorrow’s death?
And the monologue ends climactically:
I wait in hope — I wait in solemn fear,
The oracle of God — the sole — true God — to hear.

This is very different poetry from her sisters’ yet all three contribute in a very remarkable way to the range of English religious verse. Their novels may have eclipsed their
poetry, but I hope in this very brief commentary to have added something to their status as poets.

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