Context: Emily Brontë (1818-1848) was a writer and poet and known for her novel Wuthering Heights which has been regarded as one of the finest novels in British literature. She wrote under the pseudonym Ellis Bell – the very first letter of Ellis corresponded to the first letter in her own name. All Brontë-sisters used male pseudonyms as their works went published. Emily is one of the more mysterious sisters and we don’t know much about her life. She was the second child born to clergyman Patrick and Maria Brontë in Western Yorkshire.
The deaths of their mother (cancer), and then of their two older sisters marked the siblings profoundly and influenced their writing, as did the relative isolation in which they were raised. After the death of the mother the oldest children including Emily was sent to Clergy Daughters’ School and they became abused in the English Schoolssytem there and exposed to unsanitary conditions which destroyed their health. When a typhoid epidemic swept the school, Maria and Elizabeth caught it. Maria, who may actually have had tuberculosis, was sent home, where she died.
Most of the siblings likely caught TB from each other. Charlotte Brontë would incorporate most of the siblings experiences at Clergy Daughters School in her novel Jane Eyre. The father eventually took the children out of the school. The three remaining sisters and their brother Patrick Branwell were thereafter educated at home by their father and aunt. Despite the lack of formal education, Emily and her sisters had access to a wide range of published material; favourites included Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Blackwood’s Magazine. Together with her sister Anne Brontë she developed a shared fantasy life and wrote stories about a place called Gondal; a fictionalized island. Wuthering Heights (1847)1 was her only novel and she died a year after its publication. She was 30.
As an adult Emily Brontë was shy and not very social. She perfered the company of animals instead of people. She didn’t travel much and as the rest of her family she was plagued by ill health. Her poetry was likely composed to fit in her novellistic saga Gondal which she developed together with one of the other sisters. “Last Lines” is mentioned by literary-critic Harold Bloom as one of the best poems ever written in the English language.2 It was written in 1837 and consists of four stanzas. Death is the major theme in this poem.
Themes:Death, sorrow, departure, nature, time, love
I die but when the grave shall press
The heart so long endeared to thee
When earthly cares no more distress
And earthly joys are nought to me
Weep not, but think that I have past
Before thee o’er a sea of gloom
Have anchored safe and rest at last
Where tears and mourning cannot come
‘Tis I should weep to leave thee here
On the dark Ocean sailing drear
With storms around and fears before
And no kind light to point the shore
But long or short though life may be
‘Tis nothing to eternity
We part below to meet on high
Where blissful ages never die
- Wuthering Heights’s violence and passion led the Victorian public and many early reviewers to think that it had been written by a man. Although a letter from her publisher indicates that Emily had begun to write a second novel, the manuscript has never been found. Perhaps Emily, or a member of her family, eventually destroyed the manuscript, if it existed, when she was prevented by illness from completing it. (wikipedia.org) ↩
- I credit the blog “The Floating Library” for providing a comprehensive list of poetry which has been analyzed by Harold Bloom. ↩