decorated initial 'E' mily Brontë was the daughter of a strict Evangelical minister, but the symbolism in her poetry frequently reflects the processes of doubt permeating Victorian society (Gilmour, p. 72). The alter ego she constructed in her poetry was a princess called A.G. Almeda (A.G.A.) who was brave and powerful, but who also possessed a degree of tyranny and selfishness (Chitham, p. 97) and who later became the Queen of Gondal, the Brontë sisters' fantastical and imaginary land. Gilbert and Gubar claim that A.G.A brought 'all men to her feet' and tragedy 'to all who loved her' hinting at darker aspects and deep desires within Brontë's psyche (Gilbert and Gubar, p. 256). Emily Brontë became a 'reclusive and anti-social character' who 'lived inside herself' and whose imagination was fed by her beloved Yorkshire moors (Chitham, p. 142). One of her early formative experiences involved a narrow escape from death on the moors which shaped her view of the moors as beautiful and compelling. The moors appeared to combine death and desire, and Emily incorporated this into the unusual religious and spiritual symbolism which is integral to her work.

Other Victorian female poets entered into a unique discourse with one another, but Emily Brontë clung to her distinctly male identity. Brontë's alter ego may have been a wealthy and commanding female, but her muse was a masculine one and Homans suggests Brontë had 'masculine visitants' creating a 'visionary experience' which was comparable to a 'masculine poet's muse' (Victorian Women Poets, p. 84). The personal tone in 'My Comforter' describes the thoughts she has 'concealed' within her soul in the 'light that lies hid from men' and its 'gentle ray' cannot be controlled by a patriarchal system or by a male God (Victorian Woman Poets, p. 209). She sees Christians as 'wretches', 'howling' empty praise in a 'Brotherhood of misery' and their 'madness daily maddening' her. Brontë claims she stood in the glow of heaven and the 'glare' of hell and forged her own path between 'scraph's song and demon's groan'. Only 'thy soul alone' can know the truth, and her appeal to 'My thoughtful Comforter' is not an appeal to God, but to her enigmatic male muse which governs her spiritual belief. He is epitomised by the life-giving 'soft air' and 'thawwind melting quietly' and lovingly around her. She is grateful that her 'visitants' allow her 'savage heart' to grow 'meek' and allow her to conform to the role she is forced to play within an ordered Christian and patriarchal system. Her poetry focuses on the betrayals of mind and body, as she seeks to find answers to questions that her society does not permit her to ask. Brontë's religious symbolism and unique spirituality show a form of pantheistic atheism, although she continued to attend a church 'whilst sitting as motionless as a statue' and it seems that this careful passivity is juxtaposed with uncontained anger and frustrated passions (Chitham, p. 156).

Brontë's male muse is intrinsically linked to the moors and attached to the eastern wind blowing across them. The wind is tied to the spiritual essence of a god, and often involves a 'retelling of Milton's and Western culture's central tale of the fall of women' so integral to the Catholicism of Gerald Manley Hopkins and Coventry Patmore (Gilbert & Gubar, p. 255). Her sensual relationship with her muse appears to have been 'threatening as well as inspiring' and enveloped her poetry with deep longing and a desire for fulfilment (Victorian Women Poets, p. 89). Brontë's spiritual belief and secular spiritualism is symbolised by her love of nature and typified by 'shadows of the dead' which she sees around her. Gilbert and Gubar see Emily Brontë's poetry and beliefs as threatening the rigidly hierarchical state of heaven and hell, and Brontë believed that the dead remained on the earth and moved around her (Gilbert & Gubar, p. 255). She also saw dead friends and family watching her at night, and this dream-like sleepy other reality has some similarities with Christina Rossetti's 'soul-sleep' (Victorian Women Poets, p. 176). Brontë's religious symbolism shows no hope for everlasting life and her spirit languishes in 'dead despair'. Her poem 'I'll not weep' echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet 'No Worst' however, as she claims the 'summer's day' will end 'in gloom' and that life ends with the 'tomb' (Chitham, p. 141). Hopkins's and Brontë's diverse beliefs required different types of religious symbolism, but both experienced deep feelings of anguish and isolation. Brontë believes in the 'soul' which is 'sighing' but believes death releases to peaceful oblivion rather than everlasting life. She desires freedom and 'liberty' for an unconfined and 'chainless soul' (Chitham, p. 146).

The religious symbolism in 'The Philosopher' highlights the sounds of the soul as she chastises herself for 'dreaming/unlightened' (Chitham, p. 161). Outside the world is 'white' and there is room and light for 'space-sweeping soul'. The next stanza is italicised and articulates forbidden desires, while the italics simultaneously highlight and apologise for the defiance. She yearns to sleep 'without identity' with imagination and thought annulled as earthly woes disappear. Emily Brontë's derisive view of patriarchal heaven suggests that it cannot contain or even 'half-fulfil' the 'wild desires' she experiences. She does not fear 'threatened hell' or its 'quenchless fires' because her 'will' is stronger. The next stanza is written alliteratively in the first person and states her strength of purpose. She has 'three gods within' which are 'warring night and day', showing her frustration and secular spirituality, blended uniquely with Evangelist doctrine. The three gods symbolise the trinity, but form a unique triumvirate stronger than orthodox spirituality because they are all 'held' within her until death or re-birth. This unique form of individualised pantheistic ideology and spirituality is revealed through her religious symbolism in her work.

Brontë longs to 'rest' in oblivion rather than immortality. Her muse in the form of a male 'spirit' stands over her and channels her spiritual ideology. The 'golden stream' signifies the soul rather than wealth and the blood suggests flowing life (Chitham, p. 162). The 'sapphire' stream in the colour of the skies over the moors, suggesting virginal purity and innocence as well as cleansing water. The streams flow into the dark sea of eternity, offering an endless peaceful rest. The 'spirit' kindles 'all with sudden blaze' which is 'white as the sun', and signifies innocent and uncorrupted soul-fire. The poet states that she has searched and 'sought' her 'spirit' and 'seer' in 'Heaven, Hell, Earth and Air' but all prove inadequate. She yearns for a spiritual state which would prevent her seeking 'oblivion' or 'stretching eager hands to Death'. Her spirit muse embodies soul, spirituality and 'living breath' and she wishes to vanquish 'Power and Will and the 'cruel strife' on god's earth and be 'lost in one repose', and suggests that Christianity is a prime cause of her subjection.

The moors and nature are intrinsically tied to her spiritual beliefs, but her adoration of nature differs from that of Hopkins. Hopkins's sees nature as an essential part of God's glory, while Brontë focuses on the mystical aspect of nature and the moods produced, rather than on precision and detail. Her poetry reflects changes in faith and belief within her society, as Victorians increasingly saw a separation of the 'moral sense from the religious institutions that had once expressed it' (Gilmour, p. 93). The religious symbolism in her poetry shows that Brontë believed that a god or celestial being resided in nature, but orthodox religion and its hierarchical structure had no meaning for her. Emily Brontë considered the imagination to be more important than the word of God, while the romantic aspects of her nature generated a powerful male muse, and the 'favourite characters' incorporated into romantic situations were manifestations of aspects of Brontë herself (Gilbert & Gubar, p. 254). Brontë's individual spiritual mysticism highlights her deep longing to create new forms in thought and writing, while her masculine muse encapsulates her deep yearnings and desires. She remains aware of the presence of the soul, but cannot accept the patriarchal and ordered concept of Christianity, reflecting some of the processes of doubt in Victorian Britain.

References

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. London: Routledge, 1993.

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Scrutinies: Reviews of Poetry 1830-1870. London: The Athlone Press, 1972.

Bristow, Joseph, ed. Victorian Women Poets: Critical Contemporary Poets. London: MacMillan, 1995.

Chitham, Edward. A Life of Emily Brontë. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Cunningham, Valentine. ed. The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Gilbert, Sandra, M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic, 2nd edn. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. London: Longman, 1993.

Leighton, Angela and Margaret Reynolds. eds. Victorian Women Poets. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Maynard, John. Victorian Discourses on Sexuality and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Richards, Bernard. English Verse 1830-1890. London: Longman, 1980.

Shorter, Clement. The Brontë's and Their Circle. London: Dent & Sons, 1914.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980. London: Virago, 1987.


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Last modified 11 April 2007