Categories
Criticism Novels Writing

Visiting the Brontës

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On this table Wuthering Heights and Jayne Eyre were written.

The importance of the author’s intentions in reading a novel or poem has been a hotly-argued subject. What became known as ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (after a essay by Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt) suggested that the author’s thinking about their own work was irrelevant. Instead a novel, for example, should stand on its own two feet and be judged without reference to what the author thought the work was all about. Pro-Intentionalists argue that we should include everything we know about the author’s intentions for their novel as well as try to understand the historical context in which the work arose.

I always thought they were both right. That, naturally, a work should be able to stand on its own and it is interesting to interpret a work free from prescriptive ideas about that the book is ‘about’. While cocking a snook at information about the writer’s intentions, and the context they wrote in, seems plain silly.

Visiting the Brontë parsonage at Hawarth on a sunny February afternoon, dredged up these old debates in my head, and I found my feeling for the sisters’ work transformed. I am the first to admit that I am not a Brontë scholar, having only read Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but was impressed by both but now I want to read them again, and more.

The parsonage is at the top of a hill and surrounded by a graveyard and (as you’d expect) looks across at the Church. The gravestones are oddly table-like plinths. A fact which the 1850 report into public health suggested prevented plants from growing on the gravestones, which was thought to slow the decomposition of the corpses. This same report found that the average lifespan in Haworth was 25.8 years – the health there was wretched, with problems caused by sewage problems. The Brontë family’s comparative longevity has been ascribed to the fact that they lived at the top of the hill, while the sewage, and whatever ghastly stuff seeps into the water table from diseased corpses drained downwards.

Behind the Parsonage is wild and open moorland. Walking around the museum and locality it was easy to picture three fiercely intelligent young women and their brother, brought up as devout Christians, living on the edge of empty wildness in a small place where early death was commonplace. This is the practical context of the sisters’ imagination, and understanding just a little bit more about it has inspired me to return to their books.

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Graves at Haworth.
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Behind the Parsonage.
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On the moors.
Categories
Criticism Poetry

Coleridge and Dejection

Re-reading T.S.Eliot’s the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, specifically his essay about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Here Eliot makes a memorable assessment of Coleridge.

…for a few years he (Coleridge) had been visited by the Muse (I know of no poet to whom this hackneyed metaphor is better applicable) and thenceforth was a haunted man; for anyone who has ever been visited by the Muse is thenceforth haunted.

Although Eliot distances himself from the idea of a Muse, by calling it a hackneyed metaphor, it’s easy to understand intuitively what he means. Having a more pedestrian approach, I think it more likely that he was not abandoned by a Muse, but instead possessed by exhaustion and the burnout caused by drug addiction, persistent poverty and illness.

Eliot says Dejection: an Ode is “one piece of his formal verse which in its passionate self-revelation rises almost to the level of great poetry.” This is slightly damning it with faint praise. But as I’d not read for many years, I discovered it to be heartbreakingly lovely in parts.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

It is the ‘not my own’ which is the pin in the balloon here. I am also drawn to a passage about the wind, which shows another glimpse of Coleridge’s trademark opiatically Gothic imagination. This is a hellish vision that would not be out of place in Dante. The poem is dated 4th April 1802 but this is a nightmare Spring in which hope is absent.

Hence Viper thoughts, that could around my mind
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Make’st Devil’s yule, with worse than wintry song…

‘Tis of the rushing of a host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men with smarting wounds-
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! There is a pause of deepest silence!
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans and tremulous shudderings–all is over–

The poem ends with him picturing the woman he loves, and wishing gentle sleep on her, after a vision of a lost girl “Upon a lonesome wild”. All rather traumatic stuff, written long after the Muse was supposed to have packed its bags.