“The man who will not know another,
Whose heart can never sympathise,
Who loves not comrade, friend, or Brother,
Unhonoured lives – unnoticed dies!”
Although there are hundreds of poets that I could choose to specifically honour this World Poetry Day, with some of my favourites being the Williams Shakespeare and Blake, Emily Brontë, and Sylvia Plath, the honour instead falls to the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, (thanks, Caroline Lamb), Branwell Brontë. Yes, I’m choosing to honour the work of the “disgraced” Brontë over that of his sisters. This is not to say that I am championing Branwell’s poems as being better than the poetry of his siblings, but time and Brontë biographers have not been kind to Branwell, and his work is the most neglected part of the Brontë canon despite it outnumbering Anne and Emily’s extant writings combined. Instead I am championing Branwell as a remarkable, powerful, and underrated poet we need to take a closer look at it in order to see his true place in the Brontës’ literary legacy, and to finally understand the misunderstood but brilliant Brontë brother.
It is part of the Brontë myth that Branwell, the only son of the family, was a disappointment to all in adulthood, that he failed to live up the expectations of others and fulfil his potential. Although every Brontëite knows of the trouble and heartache that Branwell brought to his family, and his own failed attempts to establish himself as an author, most remain unaware of the trouble and heartache suffered by Branwell (in fairness, largely brought on by himself), in addition to his literary success in life. This trouble and heartache can be found reflected in his poetry, demonstrating that for all the grief he caused his sisters and ageing father, Branwell was equally tormented. It is undeniable that Branwell was addicted to both drink and drugs, a source of much family conflict, but crippled with the expectations placed upon him as the only male offspring of the family and lacking help or treatment for his addictions in nineteenth century Britain, Branwell sought company and friendships in alehouses, places he could shake the cares from his shoulders. Ultimately, Branwell had too many problems, and the more he tried to shake them off with drink and drugs, the more demons he created for himself. His failed love affair with Mrs. Lydia Robinson of Thorp Green may well have been the final nail in the coffin for Branwell, and just a few years later, on 24th September 1848, death finally relieved him of his problems, and prematurely robbed the world of a literary giant they had never known, and still do not appreciate.
It is common knowledge that Branwell was the first Brontë to see his work in print when his poem “Heaven and Earth” was published under the pseudonym Northangerland in The Halifax Guardian on 5th June 1841. Northangerland was Branwell’s favourite pseudonym and a character from the Glass Town/Angrian saga he created and developed from childhood with his older sister, Charlotte. However, this was not the height of Branwell’s literary success; over the course of the next six years, he published eighteen different poems and one prose piece in newspapers such as The Halifax Guardian, The Yorkshire Gazette, The Bradford Herald, and The Leeds Intelligencer. There is also a possibility that Branwell was responsible for a nineteenth poem; the eminent Brontë scholar, Juilet Barker argues that Branwell is the author of Speak Kindly which appeared in The Halifax Guardian on 19th September 1846, however, the poem is unsigned (for further details see The Brontës by Juliet Barker; Abacus, 2010).
“On Earth we see our own abode,
A smoky town, a dusty road,
A neighbouring hill, or grove;
In Heaven a thousand worlds of light
Revolving through the gloom of night
O’er endless pathways rove”
from “Heaven and Earth”
It is important to note that Branwell’s works were printed five years before the publication of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and also that by being published in these local newspapers, Branwell’s poems had a far larger initial readership than those of his sisters which famously sold just two copies in a year. These newspapers were extremely proud of the poetry they published, and they would never dream of accepting poems for publication just to fill up space; the poems selected for publication, including Branwell’s had to be a cut above the rest. Contrary to popular belief, Branwell did have ambition and direction regarding his own literary career, and he was also initially fairly successful. He was also confident enough in his ability as a poet to submit his work for publication, something his sisters wouldn’t do until years later despite their extensive juvenile literary apprenticeships in Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal.
Whilst not all of his poems are full-blown masterpieces, Branwell’s poetry has a depth which may surprise the twenty first century reader, and they are remarkably accessible pieces. I admit that although there are some poets whose work I can read over and over again, there are often works even within their respective canons which baffle me (yes, William Blake, I’m looking at you), but that does not mean that one cannot find pleasure in reading such works. Even some of the works of Branwell’s sister, Emily Brontë are lost on me, however, Branwell’s speak to me in a way most other poetry does not. One of my favourite pieces which demonstrates the power and beauty of Branwell’s poetry can be found below:
Lines/We leave our bodies in the tomb
We leave our bodies in the Tomb
Like dust to moulder and decay
But while they waste in coffined gloom
Our parted spirits where are they?
In endless night or endless day?
Buried as our bodies are
Beyond all earthly hope or fear
like them no more to reappear
But festering fast away
For future’s but the shadow thrown
From present and the substance gone
Its shadow cannot stay!
This short poem is a revised version of a piece which originated in Branwell’s The Life of Alexander Percy, Volume 1 a few years earlier in 1834. It is both beautiful and haunting despite Branwell’s youth at the time of composition. In his youth and early adulthood Branwell had hopes, dreams, ambitions, and more importantly, literary success, however, this all took a backseat to his demons in the latter part of his life. The Brontë mythology has painted and unfairly tarnished Branwell as a failure in every respect, when in fact he was an accomplished and published poet whose work can rival that of his sisters. Heck, I’ll say it, Branwell’s poetry is a million miles better than Charlotte’s, who is definitely the weakest Brontë poet (for the record I am actually Team Charlotte). For me, Brontë scholar Victor Neufeldt summed it up perfectly when he wrote that “he [Branwell] came much closer to realising his dream than tradition would have us believe” (The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: Volume 3, 1837-1848, p xxvii).
However, the most breathtaking, poignant and haunting piece is undoubtedly Branwell’s “Letter From a Father on Earth to his Child in Her Grave” which was printed in The Halifax Guardian on 18th April 1846, just two years before his death. There are two slightly different versions of this poem, the one referenced above and a slightly earlier version dated 3rd April 1846. Although Branwell was a talented poet and author who for years had imagined all kinds of adventures, scandals, and battles in his Glass Town and Angrian saga, it is difficult to believe that a poem such as his “Letter” could ever have been written without some kind of personal experience of the tragedy featured in the poem; the death of a child. There is of course the possibility that Branwell somehow channelled the grief of his father, Patrick, into the poem, having witnessed first hand what the death of a child can do to a father. However, for years there has been speculation of a secret love child fathered by Branwell. Juliet Barker goes into great detail on the subject in The Brontës, even speculating on the child’s mother, if indeed the child ever existed. Barker states her belief that the child may have been the product of a union between Branwell and a lover during his time at Broughton-in-Furness whilst in the employment of Mr. Postlethwaite. The main evidence for the existence of a child is Branwell’s sudden and obscure dismissal from Postlethwaite’s employment and a letter written by Branwell to William Brown, the brother of his good friend John, with a postscript underneath stating that he had “left Mr Postlethwaites with a natural child by one of the daughters or servants – which died” (qtd. in Barker, The Brontë’s, p. 390). The evidence is slim and I am undecided on the matter. The mystery of Branwell’s child will probably never be solved one way or the other, however, his poem and Barker’s evidence offer a convincing argument that Branwell, just like his father, had loved and lost a child, a child he may never have had the opportunity of owning or knowing. Read the poem and come to your own conclusion.
To conclude, on World Poetry Day 2018, Branwell Brontë, I salute you for your words, your imagery, your imagination, and your truth. I will continue to work to bring your writings out of the shadows for others to enjoy and appreciate. I hope you’ve found the peace in death that you never could in life. Thanks for the poetry, Chief Genius Brannii.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
The following version of “Letter From a Father on Earth to his Child in Her Grave” appears in Victor Neufeldt’s The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë: Volume 3, 1837-1848 (Routledge, 2015).
Letter From a Father on Earth to his Child in Her Grave
From Earth, -whose life-reviving April showers
Hide winter’s withered grass ‘neath springtide flowers,
And give, in each soft wind that drives the rain,
Promise of fields and forests green again –
I write to thee, the aspect of whose face
Can never change with change of time or place;
Whose eyes could look on India’s wildest wars
More calmly than the hardiest son of Mars;
Whose lips, more firm than Stoic’s long ago,
Would neither smile with joy nor blanch with woe;
Whose limbs could sufferings far more firmly bear
Than could heroic sinews strung for war;
Whose frame desires no good, nor shrinks from ill,
Nor feels distraction’s throb nor pleasure’s thrill.
I write words to thee which thou wilt not read,
For thou wilt slumber on howe’er may bleed
The heart, which many think a worthless stone,
But which oft aches for its beloved one;
Nor, if God’s life mysterious, from on high
Gave, once gain, expression to thine eye,
Would’st thou thy father know, or feel that he
Gave life, and lineaments, and thoughts to thee,
For, when thou diest, thy day was in its dawn,
And night still struggled with life’s opening morn;
The twilight star of childhood, thy young days
Alone illumined, with its twinkling rays,
So sweet, yet feeble; given from those dusky skies,
Whose kindling, future noontide prophesies,
But tells us not that brightest noon may shroud
Our sunshine with a sudden veil of cloud.
If, when thou gavest back the life which ne’er
To thee had given either hope or fear,
But peacefully had passed, nor asked if joy
Should cheer thy future path, or grief annoy –
If, then, thoud’st seen, upon a summer sea
One, once in features, as in blood like thee
On skies of azure blue and waters green
Commingled in the mist of summer’s sheen,
Hopelessly gazing – ever hesitating
‘Twixt miseries, every hour fresh fears creating
And joys – whate’er they cost – still doubly dear –
Those “troubled pleasures soon chastised by fear”
If thou hadst seen him thou wouldst ne’er believe
That thou hadst yet known what it was to live.
Thy eyes could only see thy mother’s breast,
Thy feeling only wish on that to rest;
If was thy world; – Thy food and sleep it gave,
And slight the change ‘twixt it and childhood’s grave.
Thou view’dst this world like one who, prone, reposes
Upon a plain and in a bed of roses
With nought to see save marbled skies above,
Nor hear, except the breezes in the grove:
I – thy life’s source – was a wandering breasting
Keen mountain winds, and on a summit resting,
Whose rough rocks rose above the grassy mead
With sleet and north winds howling over head,
And nature, like a map, beneath him spread:
Far winding river, tree, and tower, and town,
Shadow and sunlight, ‘neath his gaze mark’d down
By that mysterious hand which graves the plan
Of that drear country called the life of man.
If seen, men’s eyes would, loathing, shrink from thee,
And turn, perchance, with no disgust from me;
Yet thou had’st beauty, innocence, and smiles,
And now hast rest from this world’s woes and wiles,
While I have restlessness and worrying care,
So, sure thy lot is brighter – happier – far!
So may it prove – and, though thy ears may never
Hear these words sound beyond Death’s darksome river
Not vainly, from the confines of despair
May rise a voice of joy that THOU art freed from care!
Northangerland (Branwell Brontë)