Happy Birthday, Emily Brontë: “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove”


“My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; — out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was – liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it she perished.” — Charlotte Brontë

Of all the eccentric Brontë siblings, we know the least about Emily because she almost never left home, and therefore she left behind almost no personal correspondence. Charlotte worked away from home, and was a devoted letter-writer. Not Emily.

I must mention the movie Emily, which came out earlier this year. Lots of speculation, of course, but the speculation is an act of imaginative empathy. I loved it: I reviewed for Ebert.

The stories about Emily that have made it down through the centuries are mysterious and slightly scary: she’s there but to some degree she remains un-knowable. A wild solitary woman striding across the moors, preferring nature to people, but also beating her dog viciously, devoted to her dissipated brother Branwell who was running the family ragged, Emily was anti-social, forbidding but … we don’t really know why. Spectrum? Perhaps! Who knows. And then … well, you know, there’s writing Wuthering Heights, a crazy book where civilized society does not even exist as a stable reference point. WHERE did this come from? (I’m not looking for an answer. I am just faced with the incomprehensibility of Wuthering Heights and its inception every time I read it.)

More after the jump.


Emily was, in the words of Charlotte, “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove.” Also from Charlotte: Emily was “stronger than a man, simpler than a child.”

But Emily had ambition in her and dreamt of doing something big. You can feel it in her wonderful poems. There’s a giganticism there. Giganticism of subject and ego. This sensibility, her awareness of scope and size, her sheer confidence, led her to write Wuthering Heights. Emily died at the age of 30. What we have of her is what we have of her.

Theories abound about Emily (as they do about Emily Dickinson: she was epileptic! no, she was a lesbian! no, she had ADHD! etc.). Emily did not play by the recognizable rules set down by society for women, and therefore critics and historians search desperately for an explanation, because the MYSTERY of why someone would OPT OUT of the glorious (??) norms MUST be solved!! Staunch individuality is suspect to mediocre conventional people. There must be a REASON someone is not LIKE other people. But stop it. Now. All of us are made differently. Women are not a monolith. Some are outlaws, not in a criminal sense but in the sense that they live outside societal norms, and wouldn’t/couldn’t have it any other way. (I’m one of those people although I am not famous for it.) Some of the theories about these mysterious outlaw women may very well be true. But all of it – all of it – is speculation.

If you’re 14, 15, Wuthering Heights is romantic. Just read the Twilight series to see the effect it can have on teenagers! But it’s a totally different book once you get some miles on you. When I re-read the book long after high school, I really got how “out there” it was. I found it more terrifying than romantic. I saw just how egocentric and dangerously obsessive and … self-involved, really … Heathcliff and Catherine really were! (They are doppelgangers, tied together by anti-sociality – maybe generating – if even unconsciously – from her ties with Branwell.)

Heathcliff and Catherine’s love affair is determined and pathological. It’s worthy of the Angry Young Men and Roger Corman’s “Fuck the world” biker movies more than a century later. Jane Eyre is a crazy book too (every time I re-read it, I realize, yet again, how unlike anything else it is. When the Brontës are lumped in with Jane Austen it makes me wonder if these people have even READ these women’s books. They’re all women! They wrote books at the same time! They’re the same! NO. Austen’s books occur in a recognizable world with societal norms. Austen’s characters deal with societal norms, even as they struggle against them. Nature is benign, the gardens cultivated, the lanes clearly marked. But the Brontë books are more like Herman Melville’s vision of the world: crashing storms and heaving waves (the last chapter of Villette, oh Villette!), loneliness so loud it shrieks in the night.

The Brontës were a writing family. They had some formal education but as Ian Ousby notes in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English: “The girls’ real education, however, was at the Haworth parsonage, where they had the run of their father’s books, and were thus nurtured on the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Sir Walter Scott and many others. They enthusiastically read articles on current affairs, lengthy reviews and intellectual disputes in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and The Edinburgh Review. They also ranged freely in Aesop and in the colourfully bizarre world of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” Charlotte and Anne were ambitious poets, reading their work aloud to the family. Emily listened to her siblings, but did not share her own work. In 1845, Charlotte came across a notebook belonging to Emily, filled with poems written in secret. Charlotte thought they were superb. (And they are.) Charlotte described this moment of revelation in a letter to a friend:

Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, — a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music — wild, melancholy, and elevating.

Emily was enraged at the invasion of her privacy. Finally, she caved. The sisters (using male pseudonyms) published a book of their poetry (paying the fees for printing and binding), and sent it around to the giant literary figures of the day, asking for a reaction.


It took a while for Emily’s poems to be acknowledged (since the accomplishment of Wuthering Heights is so blinding). She was ahead of her time. More accurately, her work is outside of time. Similar to Emily Dickinson, her personality – her voice – her “I” – SURGES off the page. She predicts the Beat poets and the Confessional poets over a century later. She was writing 50 years before Freud and Jung and Proust and Joyce. I love Wordsworth, I love Tennyson, I love Keats and Donne, Shelley and Byron. Emily’s work is different. Her poems are interior monologues and declarations of self, similar to what Whitman did half a century later. Emily Brontë is proof that one does not need to travel widely, live in a city, be involved in politics or social causes, have love affairs, marry, have kids, die of old age, in order to live a deep and meaningful life. Paul Lieder observes, “In her poetry, Emily Brontë achieves a remarkable effect by the energy and sincerity, and often by the music, with which she portrays her stoicism, independence, and compassion in stanzas which in many instances are the commonplace vehicles used by mere rimers. It is as though she were brought up to feel that certain forms of verse were the patterns, and had, with dogged acceptance, poured into them her emotions with an honesty that made the outward form seem negligible.”

Here is my favorite of her poems:

Often Rebuked
by Emily Brontë

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

Today, I will not seek the shadowy region:
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide;
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain-side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

A line from “Oft Rebuked,” which I first encountered in high school, has borne me up in times of trouble when I wondered why my life didn’t look like other people’s, when I felt outside the human family, when I suffered hugely, when I knew I would always be alone:

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide.

Rumor has it that Emily Dickinson loved Emily Brontë’s work, and one poem in particular.

No Coward Soul Is Mine
Emily Brontë

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 Thine 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:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

I wonder sometimes if people are disturbed by women who “opt out” of convention because it calls into questions THEIR “submission” to those same conventions. The “tsk tsk how sad she never had children” dominates so much of the rhetoric, as though procreating is the only way life has value, ESPECIALLY for women. (And the “Tsk Tsk”-ing for the most part is done by women, to other women. Again: women who “opt out” of the conventions other women embrace are seen as suspect.) Maybe the “Tsk Tsk”-ers chose the conventional road without questioning it, maybe they wish for the kind of freedom and solitude represented by outlaws, and wonder: “Wow. You can do that?? Could I have done that? Why did ‘opting out’ never even occur to me?”

To hell with Leaning In. Leaning in to WHAT? A life bound to conventional goals, to overwork, to achievement in some capitalist grind? I say OPT OUT.

I like the mystery of Emily Brontë. I like the fact that the way we know her is by her Art. Art is all that matters when we talk about artists. She said what she needed to say in her work. Her life is there. NOTHING is missing.

Emily Brontë wrote:

If I could I would work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results.

And they are.


Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë:

“When at home, she took the principal part of the cooking upon herself, and did all the household ironing; and after Tabby grew old and infirm, it was Emily who made all the bread for the family; and any one passing by the kitchen-door, might have seen her studying German out of an open book, propped up before her, as she kneaded the dough; but no study, however interesting, interfered with the goodness of the bread, which was always light and excellent. Books were, indeed, a very common sight in that kitchen; the girls were taught by their father theoretically, and by their aunt practically, that to take an acctive part in all household work was, in their position, woman’s simple duty; but, in their careful employment of time, they found many an odd five minutes for reading while watching the cakes, and managed the union of two kinds of employment better than King Alfred.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

In 1846, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell appeared, Currer being Charlotte; Ellis Emily; and Acton, Anne. There is a rough vigor to Charlotte’s poems, and a lyric sensibility is at work in Anne’s, but Emily’s are the thing itself, strong poetry, of a wholly original kind.

Charlotte Brontë:

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed: it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

There is intense life in the verse of Emily Bronte, the kind of life that strains the forms and breaks them into new configurations. As in her fiction, so to a lesser extent in her verse, form is a means and not an end. Her technical versatility is in no way exemplary. Another poet could learn only one valuable lesson from what she does, and that is the way in which form lives when it is driven urgently by powerful impulses, and how when that urgency ends a poem should stop.

Camille Paglia:

Like Christina Rossetti’s strange dream-poem Goblin Market, with its embowered sister-sensuality and lush, fruity dangers, Bronte’s poetry may reflect a premodern sexual state, inflamed byt celibate. Visionary nuns have lived in this exalted condition for a thousand years. Emily Bronte seeks clairvoyance, not oraasm, a burning vapor of ghostly cathexis.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

There is a rough vigor to Charlotte’s poems, and a lyric sensibility is at work in Anne’s, but Emily’s are the thing itself, strong poetry, of a wholly original kind.

Charlotte Brontë, on Emily’s stint away from home as a teacher in 1835:

“The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The first novels of Emily and Charlotte Bronte, published the same year, revived out-of-fashion Gothic style. They share rugged, brooding heroes and a wild atmosphere of mystery and gloom. But the books belong to different genres. Despite sex-reversing moments, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre is a social novel governed by public principles of intelligibility. It records the worldly progress of an ingenue from childhood to maturity, culminating in marriage. Emily’s Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is High Romantic, its sources of energy outside society and its sex and emotion incestuous and solipsistic. The two Bronte novels differ dramatically in their crossing lines of identification. Charlotte palpably projects herself into her underprivileged but finally triumphant heroine, while Emily leaps across the borderline of gener into her savage hero.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti on Wuthering Heights, 1854:

The action is laid in Hell–only it seems places and people have English names there.

L.M. Montgomery in her journal about Mrs. Gaskell’s famous biography of Charlotte Bronte:

“Emily Brontë is a mysterious figure. The impression left of her from reading The Life is not a pleasant one. She seemed to have no friends. Yet Charlotte loved her devotedly. The picture drawn of her stubborn gallant senseless heroic fight against death is a wonderful one. Nothing in literature is more poignant and pathetic than her sudden useless capitulation at the last moment — ‘If you call a doctor, I will see him now.’ Too late — too late … Her genius was really greater than Charlotte’s — and even narrower. But the world did not know it when she died. Strange Emily Bronte.”

Q.D.Leavis on Wuthering Heighs:

…a Lear-world … due not to sadism or perversion in the novelist … but to the Shakespearean intention.

Michael Schmidt:

Emily, like her characters, loved liberty and the open spaces of the moors. She insisted on her own patterns of life. Having nursed Branwell through his last illness, she caught cold at the funeral service and began her own two-month decline to death. Yet even on the day she died she insisted on rising in the morning, getting dressed and beginning her daily duties, as if the will could force its dying vehicle to live on. The will is the force her poems celebrate.”

Virginia Woolf on Wuthering Heights:

There is love, but it is not the love of men and women.

Charlotte Bronte, letter to a friend:

Nov. 23rd, 1848
I told you Emily was ill in my last letter. She has not rallied yet. She is very ill. I believe, if you were to see her, your impression would be that there is no hope. A more hollow, wasted, pallid aspect I have not beheld. The deep tight cough continues; the breathing after the least exertion is a rapid pant; nd these symptoms are accompanied by pains in the chest and side. Her pulse, the only time she allowed it to be felt, was found to beat 115 per minute. In this state she resolutely refuses to see a doctor; she will give no explanation of her feelings, she will scarcely allow her feelings to be alluded to. Our position is, and has been for some weeks, exquisitely painful. God only know how all this is to terminate. More than once, I have been forced boldly to regard the terrible event of her loss as possible, and even probable. But nature shrinks from such thoughts. I think Emily seems the nearest thing to my heart in this world.”

Camille Paglia, on Wuthering Heights:

We are confronted here, as in the case of Emily Dickinson, with the paradox of a woman of Romantic genius. We saw that the Romantic poet, finding the western male persona too limited, hermaphroditizes himself to seize the Delphic powers of feminine receptivity. But a female artist, sexually advantaged by birth, must extend her imperial reach in the other direction, toward the masculine. I noted that gigantism in a female artist is self-masculinizing…Gigantism is the self-electrifying strategy of a woman defying the insulting dictatorship of gender.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, May 26, 1879:

Wuthering is a Northcountry word for the noise and rush of wind: hence Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Stevie Davies:

Sealed in her art-world, the moor strategically placed for escape above the house, no domesticating and limiting mother to weaken her capacity for identification with whatever sex she chose to impersonate at a particular moment, polite society at a safe distance, and a father who seems to have selected her as an honorary boy to be trusted with fire-arms in defence of the weak, Emily Brontë’s life exemplifies a rough joy in itself, its war-games, its word games and its power to extend its own structuring vision out upon the given world.”

Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë:

“Emily was the prettiest.”

Camille Paglia, on Wuthering Heights:

One of Wuthering Heights‘ most powerful achievements is its surging matrix of genetically homologous identities. Only the heart of the book is in psychosexual flux. The guardians of the narrative frame, pragmatic Nelly Dean and fatuous Lockwood, are sharply delineated characters… Heathcliff and Catherine seek sadomasochistic annihilation of their separate identities. Their desire to collapse into one another produces a gigantic spirit-body in the text, preventing other family members from attaining normal size. A social novel progresses systematically toward character differentiation…As a Romantic work, Wuthering Heights blurs even generational differences at its core, toward which personae and events sink back to centripetal compulsion.

Emily Dickinson:

Gigantic Emily Bronte.

Virginia Woolf on Wuthering Heights:

[Her] gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel.

John Berryman on Wuthering Heights:

What you remember as the book is only the first half of the book.

Camille Paglia, on Wuthering Heights:

Coalescing with her Romantic double, Emily Bronte died the year after Wuthering Heights was published and poorly received. Art was not enough. Like her Romantic precursors, Bronte is not a social historian but the writer of one great poem, that is, one body of self-referential work. It is possible, therefore, that Wuthering Heights, because of its fully realized hermaphroditic inner action, would have had no sequel. Its extremism may have been career-ending. The novel’s internal decline is Bronte’s own. In the second half, the monumentality of Heathcliff/Catherine dwindles to a thin pale light in which voices are heard as if from a distance. Romanticism is yielding to Victorianism, the pleasant, ordered present in which Emily Bronte refused to dwell. Extending and reviving High Romanticism, she follows Byron, Shelley, and Keats in electing to die young, at the height of imagination.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

“Last Lines” exalts the “God within my breast,” the spark that is the oldest and best element of the self. A natural Gnostic (I am aware that is an oxymoron), she denies all creeds as diseases of the intellect, and avoids prayer, knowing it to be a disease of the will. Emily Brontë did not derive her Gnosticism from ancient texts and traditions, as Herman Melville did. She did not require anything that was not already her own.

Michael Schmidt:

After the rueful passivity of her sisters’ poems, Emily’s have an emotional vigor of quite another order.

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry on “Wuthering Heights”:

“There is not one agreeable character in the book — no one who seems really sane. Yet it has a wild, indescribable, inescapable charm.”

Camille Paglia, on Wuthering Heights:

Winter at Wuthering Heights invades and surmounts summer Here is Bronte’s most significant departure from High Romanticism, where nature even at its most tumultuous is usually an inexhaustible well of fertility. For her, nature is primarily force, not nurturance. She creates, in other words, a nature without a mother.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

A natural Gnostic (I am aware that is an oxymoron), she denies all creeds as diseases of the intellect, and avoids prayer, knowing it to be a disease of the will. Emily Bronte did not derive her Gnosticism from ancient texts and traditions, as Herman Melville did. She did not require anything that was not already her own.

Jeanette Winterson:

Who should the poet serve? Society or the Muse? This was a brand new question and not a happy one. If the woman poet could avoid it, the male poet and the prose writers of either sex could not. Of the great writers, Emily Brontë chose well. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot continually equivocate and the equivocation helps to explain the uneven power of their work.

Charlotte Brontë:

She was never happy till she carried her hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage-house, and desolate Yorkshire hills.”

Poet Charlotte Mew, on Emily’s poems:

They are melodies, rather than harmonies, many of a haunting and piercing sweetness, instinct with a sweeping and mournful music peculiarly her own … Everywhere, too, the note of pure passion is predominant, a passion untouched by mortality and unappropriated by sex.

Camille Paglia, on Wuthering Heights:

Bronte’s sharpest correction is of Wordsworth. Wuthering Heights, written at the zenith of Victorian nature-worship, envisions a cosmos of Coleridgean cruelty. Bronte barbarizes Wordsworth, transforming his serene, majestic testimony of moral cooperation between man and nature into a harsh prose ode heaving with subterranean disturbances. The novel is a sadomasochistic swirl of primitive noise and motion, the rending and tearing of Dionysian sparagmos, which is only made tolerable or even intelligible by the brilliant distancing device of the nesting narrative frames.

Charlotte Brontë:

Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny – more powerful than sportive – found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catharine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable – of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell [Emily’s pseudonym] would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree – loftier, straighter, wider-spreading – and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects she was not amenable.”

Michael Schmidt:

Another poet could learn only one valuable lesson from what she does, and that is the ways in which form lives when it is driven urgently by powerful impulses, and how when that urgency ends a poem should stop.”

It’s Kate Bush’s birthday today too! Which is perfect considering ….

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8 Responses to Happy Birthday, Emily Brontë: “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove”

  1. mutecypher says:

    /Had she but lived/

    O that she lived!

    • sheila says:

      She’s one of those historical figures I really would like to meet. More so than her sisters even. I just wonder what she was really like, in person.

      • mutecypher says:

        When I read Thackery’s daughter’s description of meeting Charlotte – and then consider that Emily was the more withdrawn one – I’d be completely daunted to attempt to get Emily to speak or open up. But yes, it would be wonderful to be able to try. How delightful it would be if she would let you know her! Or just let you slip her some bottled water and antibiotics so she could live to a ripe old age.

      • mutecypher says:

        And don’t you love Branwell’s portrait of her? There’s something terrible and gothic about all of them dying so close to each other, with no offspring. Not the sort of story you would wish on such fascinating people.

        • sheila says:

          Yes, it’s just harrowing to picture all of that death. GRIM.

          Emily doesn’t seem like a particularly warm person – and I love the detail that she liked animals better. Crazy writer. That book is INSANE. a lot of passion there.

          It seems she really only let her family in. and then, only so far. fascinating.

          • sheila says:

            and yes, I love that we have at least these portraits of them so we can get a little sense of what they might have looked like.

  2. Regina Bartkoff says:


    Great post for Emily Bronte. I love all your writings on the great, strange and wonderful Brontes. I want to re-read Wuthering Heights, again! I think I re-read Jane Eyre more times and favored it, but by just a little, and I could change my mind! And also how fascinating those insane, genius games they made up were!

  3. Kate F says:

    Loved this post. I was just thinking about how Emily Dickinson was affected by her (and her sister) and then bam, you brought it up.

    And you are right re: “opt out”! It IS a perfectly valid choice! And more radical the more hyper-connected we all get.


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