“Haworth Churchyard” is a poem by Matthew Arnold which first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in May 1855, less than two months after the death of the last living Brontë sibling, Charlotte. It is a piece that until very recently I was unfamiliar with despite my mania for all things Brontë, and is a worthy addition to my collection of Brontë inspired fiction. The poem is historically seen as a tribute to Charlotte Brontë after her untimely death aged just 38, however, there are also references to Anne, Branwell, Emily, and Patrick Brontë, in addition to Charlotte’s friend, the writer Harriet Martineau. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an influential English poet and critic who had visited Haworth a few years before Charlotte’s death (6th May 1852) to inspect the local Wesleyan Methodist church, but despite his visit he was obviously unfamiliar with the actual churchyard adjacent to the Brontë Parsonage. Although “Haworth Churchyard” is a beautiful and haunting poem, it is heavily romanticised and the most obvious error is the placing of the Brontës’ graves in the open air of the churchyard when in reality they are buried inside the church.
When informed of his error by Elizabeth Gaskell in a letter, Arnold replied, “I am almost sorry you told me about the place of their burial. It really seems to me to put the finishing touch to the strange cross-grained character of the fortunes of that ill-fated family that they should even be placed after death in the wrong, uncongenial spot” (qtd in The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, eds David Jasper and T. R. Wright). One can see why Arnold wanted to envisage these children of the moors resting outside, exposed to the elements they adored and featured in their literary works rather than boxed in and couped up in the dark and gloomy atmosphere of the church vault.
The only exception to this is the youngest sibling, Anne, who rests outside in the open air of St. Mary’s churchyard, Scarborough. Following Anne’s death on 28th May 1849, Charlotte Brontë made the decision to bury her sister where she had fallen in Scarborough in order to spare her ageing father from the agony of burying his third child in just a few months (Branwell and Emily both died in 1848). Anne’s actual resting place in the shadow of the castle, on a cliff overlooking the sea would have made a good subject for Arnold’s poetry as it has the romantic element that he portrayed in “Haworth Churchyard.” It also has the added bonus of being true. In my opinion, the site doesn’t need romanticising as it is a perfect spot to rest. Charlotte chose wisely for her sister, and I am sure Anne would have appreciated the gesture despite the pain of leaving Anne behind. However, Anne’s grave attracts visitors all year round, ensuring that the youngest Brontë will be neither lonely, nor forgotten.
Despite the inaccuracies and romanticism, Arnold’s poem is a fine tribute to the Brontës, and yet another piece of the Brontë mythology, a mythology that continues into the 21st century. Although every true Brontëite knows of the actual burial site of their literary heroines and hero (yes, I include Branwell; just read his Glass Town and Angrian narratives), it is still tempting to conjure up a more fitting burial site for a family we love, admire, and often pity due to their tragic fate. In 2017, Catherynne M. Valente’s excellent re-imagining of the Brontë juvenilia, The Glass Town Game, featured a poignant scene with the children gathered around the graves of their mother and sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, outside of the church in the open air. I do not put this down to laziness or lack of knowledge on Valente’s part (unlike Arnold), but rather the desire to place the Brontë family in a better place than the gloomy old church vault. When I was younger, I remember feeling sad that Anne had been abandoned in Scarborough, separated from her family, however, the older I get, the more I realise that Anne got the best deal of them all. At the risk of repeating myself, her body lies in one of the most beautiful and tranquil places on Earth, and although physically separated from her family, I am confident that the spirits of the Brontës are never far from one another.
Before concluding with Arnold’s poem, I would like to present another tribute to Charlotte Brontë, and in my opinion, the ultimate tribute to Charlotte. Penned by a father raw with grief from the loss of his last surviving child (and only grandchild), Patrick Brontë’s letter to George Smith (head of the publishing firm Smith, Elder, & Co.) is poignant, powerful, and dignified, and far more simple than Arnold’s romantic poem. Reading Patrick’s letter and Arnold’s poem side by side give one a curious mix of fact and fiction, romance and reality, and the respect of a fellow author alongside the love of a father for his remarkable daughter.
Patrick’s letter appears in Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters (Penguin Books, 1997) whereas Arnold’s poem can be found in selected anthologies of his work in print and online, and is now in the public domain. I will not critically analyse the piece here, but will leave you to come to your own conclusions and enjoy the piece for what it is.
Patrick Brontë to George Smith
My Dear Sir,
I thank you for your kind sympathy. Having heard my Dear Daughter speak so much about you and your family, your letter seem’d to be one from an Old Friend. Her Husband’s sorrow and mine, is indeed very great – We mourn the loss of one, whose like, we hope not, ever to see again – and as you justly state we do not mourn alone – That you may never experimentally know, sorrow such as ours, and that when trouble does come, you may receive, due aid from Heaven, is the sincere wish and ardent prayer, of
Yours, very respectfully & truly,
Where, under Loughrigg, the stream
Of Rotha sparkles through fields
Vested for ever with green,
Four years since, in the house
Of a gentle spirit, now dead—
Wordsworth’s son-in-law, friend—
I saw the meeting of two
Gifted women. The one,
Brilliant with recent renown,
Young, unpractised, had told
With a master’s accent her feign’d
Story of passionate life;
The other, maturer in fame,
Earning, she too, her praise
First in fiction, had since
Widen’d her sweep, and survey’d
History, politics, mind.
The two held converse; they wrote
In a book which of world-famous souls
Kept the memorial;—bard,
Warrior, statesman, had sign’d
Their names; chief glory of all,
Scott had bestow’d there his last
Breathings of song, with a pen
Tottering, a death-stricken hand.
Hope at that meeting smiled fair.
Years in number, it seem’d,
Lay before both, and a fame
Heighten’d, and multiplied power.—
Behold! The elder, to-day,
Lies expecting from death,
In mortal weakness, a last
Summons! the younger is dead!
First to the living we pay
Mournful homage;—the Muse
Gains not an earth-deafen’d ear.
Hail to the steadfast soul,
Which, unflinching and keen,
Wrought to erase from its depth
Mist and illusion and fear!
Hail to the spirit which dared
Trust its own thoughts, before yet
Echoed her back by the crowd!
Hail to the courage which gave
Voice to its creed, ere the creed
Won consecration from time!
Turn we next to the dead.
—How shall we honour the young,
The ardent, the gifted? how mourn?
Console we cannot, her ear
Is deaf. Far northward from here,
In a churchyard high ‘mid the moors
Of Yorkshire, a little earth
Stops it for ever to praise.
Where, behind Keighley, the road
Up to the heart of the moors
Between heath-clad showery hills
Runs, and colliers’ carts
Poach the deep ways coming down,
And a rough, grimed race have their homes—
There on its slope is built
The moorland town. But the church
Stands on the crest of the hill,
Lonely and bleak;—at its side
The parsonage-house and the graves.
Strew with laurel the grave
Of the early-dying! Alas,
Early she goes on the path
To the silent country, and leaves
Half her laurels unwon,
Dying too soon!—yet green
Laurels she had, and a course
Short, but redoubled by fame.
And not friendless, and not
Only with strangers to meet,
Faces ungreeting and cold,
Thou, O mourn’d one, to-day
Enterest the house of the grave!
Those of thy blood, whom thou lov’dst,
Have preceded thee—young,
Loving, a sisterly band;
Some in art, some in gift
Inferior—all in fame.
They, like friends, shall receive
This comer, greet her with joy;
Welcome the sister, the friend;
Hear with delight of thy fame!
Round thee they lie—the grass
Blows from their graves to thy own!
She, whose genius, though not
Puissant like thine, was yet
Sweet and graceful;—and she
(How shall I sing her?) whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died,
That world-famed son of fire—she, who sank
Baffled, unknown, self-consumed;
Whose too bold dying song
Stirr’d, like a clarion-blast, my soul.
Of one, too, I have heard,
A brother—sleeps he here?
Of all that gifted race
Not the least gifted; young,
Unhappy, eloquent—the child
Of many hopes, of many tears.
O boy, if here thou sleep’st, sleep well!
On thee too did the Muse
Bright in thy cradle smile;
But some dark shadow came
(I know not what) and interposed.
Sleep, O cluster of friends,
Sleep!—or only when May,
Brought by the west-wind, returns
Back to your native heaths,
And the plover is heard on the moors,
Yearly awake to behold
The opening summer, the sky,
The shining moorland—to hear
The drowsy bee, as of old,
Hum o’er the thyme, the grouse
Call from the heather in bloom!
Sleep, or only for this
Break your united repose!
By Nicola Friar a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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