Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Emily Brontë's "Remembrance" (1845)

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time's all severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring;
Faithful indeed, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world's tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

This poem of loss and grief is, like Wuthering Heights which was published a few years later, entirely imaginary. Both are works of fiction, and that's all they have in common. The novel, like the poem is about loss and grief, but with what a difference! The poem is about moral and emotional discipline—"Then did I learn how existence could be cherished, /Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy"— about having your grief and holding on to it without letting it consume you. The novel is about a woman who has no moral or emotional discipline—Catherine Earnshaw (and has been endlessly romanticized on that account); and a man, Heathcliff, who loves her and no one else and digs up her coffin after she dies for another look—the novel coming very close at this point to necrophilia. He knocks the side of her coffin loose planning to have the corresponding side of his own coffin removed when he is eventually buried next to her. What could he be thinking of? Does he really think that they will literally be reunited there in that churchyard? As if that weren't enough, EB adds a bit of spookery. When Heathcliff doesn't die fast enough, Catherine's spirit comes after him and tells him to hurry up, which he does: a man in perfect health wills his own death.

You wouldn't think the same person could have written this poem and this novel. The poem is all about discipline and delicacy, as well as intensity, of feeling; the novel is about intensity—of love or hatred or contempt—and self-indulgence, and not much else. Both poem and novel are romantic: both, for instance, take it for granted that love is the highest good, but it is only in the poem that we are shown with dramatic (occasionally melodramatic) clarity the choices that the romantic lover faces, whether knowingly or not, when the loved one has been lost: you can make your grief the center of your life, or you can, stoically, figure out how existence can be cherished, strengthened, and fed, in an "empty world", without the aid of joy. Or, as one of Samuel Beckett's characters says, "I can't go on. I must go on." One has promises to keep.


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