Holding Emily Bronte Prisoner

22 Jun

Many of us know Emily Bronte only from her novel Wuthering Heights.

And many of us know Wuthering Heights only from Kate Bush’s pop song.

“Heathcliff, It’s me, It’s Cathy, I’ve come home,” sang Bush, capturing either Heathcliff’s half crazed grief for his deceased lover, or the eternal moan of that lover’s spirit in the wailing winds of the moors.

Death – and the attendant possibility of existence beyond death – was more immediate to Bronte than to us.

Before she was ten years old, she had lost her mother and two elder sisters. Before she herself died, at only thirty, she had also lost her brother. Her younger sister was to follow her to the grave soon after.

(I once set a play in Elizabethan England – over two centuries before Bronte’s time – and several audience members, including a reviewer, expressed incredulity that my protagonist had lost several children in their infancy. In the pain of enduring my play, perhaps they forgot how fortunate we moderns are.)

Wuthering Heights is considered a literary classic, but Bronte did not live to see fame. I doubt she would have wanted it.

Bronte

In addition to her novel, she wrote hundreds of poems, but only published twenty-one.

One of these is “The Prisoner”.

The young female protagonist whose detention is presented in the poem is not a criminal, but is most likely a victim of changing power relations between competing families. Her relatives and friends have been killed. She soon will die. Such machinations were not the stuff of Victorian England, but it was not a human experience the poet needed to invent.

In just over sixty lines of verse, Bronte presents convincing dramatic portraits of three human souls: the young master, whose privilege leads him to the self-justifying assumption that those who suffer must be bad; the gaoler, whose heart has been hardened by daily witness to cruelty; and the prisoner, who gently laughs at her captors and shares her vision “divine”.

The critic Spurgeon called it “one of the most perfect mystic poems in the English language”.

Dare we write such stuff in theatre?

A good dramatist would make easy work of the young master and the gaoler.

But the prisoner….?

“ …first, a hush of peace—a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast—unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels”

Do we simply not believe that human life has such dimensions?

Dare we look?

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