National Poetry Month Post Commemorating the 200th Birthday – April 21, 1816 – of Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë, the beloved author of Jane Eyre, also wrote poetry, but it wasn’t very good. This was probably a blessing, since the lack of success with her poems (published under the pseudonym of Currer Bell) led her to turn her talents to writing books instead.

Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was a volume of poetry published jointly by the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne in 1846, and their first work to ever go in print. Because of contemporary prejudice against female writers, the Brontë sisters adopted masculine first names, retaining the first letter of their first names: Charlotte became Currer Bell, Anne became Acton Bell, and Emily became Ellis Bell. The book was printed by Aylott and Jones, from London. The first edition failed to attract interest, with only two copies being sold.

Branwell Brontë, painting of his three sisters,  left to right Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë.

Branwell Brontë, painting of his three sisters, left to right Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë.

In the small volume, one can find some passionate poems by Charlotte on the subject of love. Some of these may have been inspired by the crush she developed, in 1843 at age 26, for the headmaster at the school in Brussels where she was studying French and German. Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French, was married with children, but Charlotte was apparently besotted. She began writing him as frequently as twice a week about her feelings. For example, she confessed to Héger:

“I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature master – to the only master I have ever had – to you Monsieur.”

“If my master withdraws his friendship entirely from me I will be completely without hope … I cling on to preserving that little interest – I cling on to it as I cling on to life.”

Héger, who barely responded, asked his wife to deal with the situation, and Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she could only write once every six months at most. Fortunately, the purple prose of Brontë’s letters and poems did not make it into Jane Eyre. (Jane Eyre was Brontë’s second novel; her first was The Professor, a book based somewhat on her experiences in Brussels. It was rejected by publishing houses, but was eventually published posthumously.)

Author Daphne Merkin, reviewing a new biography of Brontë, discusses the influence of Héger’s rejection of Brontë, writing:

“The main thrust of Harman’s biography endeavors to show how this most self-doubting yet obdurate of young women turned her emotional vulnerability and anxieties about her place in society as a fiercely passionate but plain Jane into a new kind of literature, one that forged a candid and poignant female voice of unaccountable power, telling of childhood loneliness and adult longing.”

Charlotte Brontë, chalk, 1850, by George Richmond

Charlotte Brontë, chalk, 1850, by George Richmond

Still, Brontë considered herself a poet at heart, and in an 1848 letter to literary critic George Henry Lewes derided Jane Austin for her perceived lack of the same sensibility: “Miss Austen is not a poetess. Can there ever be a great artist without poetry?”

You can read Brontë’s poems online here, if you still desire to do so after sampling this excerpt from one of her poems about love:

“Stanzas.” by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)
First Publication: Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell London: Aylott and Jones, 8, Paternoster Row, 1846. pp. 126-127.

My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
‘Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death’s congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.

And well my dying hour were blest,
If life’s expiring breath
Should pass, as thy lips gently prest
My forehead, cold in death;
And sound my sleep would be, and sweet,
Beneath the churchyard tree,
If sometimes in thy heart should beat
One pulse, still true to me.”

 John Hunter Thompson, Charlotte Brontë, ca. 1855, oil on canvas. © The Brontë Society


John Hunter Thompson, Charlotte Brontë, ca. 1855, oil on canvas. © The Brontë Society

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5 Responses to National Poetry Month Post Commemorating the 200th Birthday – April 21, 1816 – of Charlotte Brontë

  1. jama says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve been fascinated with the Brontes a long time. That early crush on M. Heger gave her lots of fodder for her work. I love that she was an early feminist too. 🙂

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    Only two copies of Poems was sold?! Wow!

  3. Beth F says:

    Great post indeed. I haven’t really paid much attention to the Brontes’ poems. After reading Madwoman in the Attic, I’ve become more curious about their private lives.

  4. sagustocox says:

    Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed this post. I really loved the collection of Bronte poems I read a while ago: http://savvyverseandwit.com/2010/12/the-brontes-by-pamela-norris.html I think I gave that one 5 stars. But maybe I’m a sucker for that kind of poetry.

  5. litandlife says:

    Oh goodness, that really is very bad!

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