the closing of the coffin lid, and the lowering of it into its narrow bed are yet before his eyes; and painfully he remembers his feeling at the grave-side:
'And wild my sob, when hollow rung The first cold clod above her flung.'
Later, though he was occupied with different subjects, Branwell could not entirely free himself from a morbid and painful a.n.a.lysis of the physical effects of the disease he dreaded so much; and very beautifully does he suggest the picture of consumptive decline and early decay.
This tone of thought, and the many misfortunes and gloomy forebodings that attended Branwell's later years, had a natural effect in giving a mournful cast to almost every emanation of his muse; and we find, in effect, throughout the poems here collected, that, save in one instance--'The Epicurean's Song'--which we feel to be the production of a moment of elation, there is scarcely a line that does not breathe a consciousness of sad regret, or of cruel and bitter sorrow.
He was filled with the sense of the futility of human joy, and the abiding presence of woe:
'No! joy _itself_ is but a shade, So well may its remembrance die, But cares, Life's conquerors, never fade, So strong is their reality.'
These sorrows, as years went by, grew so terrible in their crushing weight, that the mind could barely withstand them, and Branwell felt, in that period when his cry was for peace in death, that, when the light of life is gone,
'There come no sorrows crowding on, And powerless lies Despair.'
With Branwell, indeed, as with Mary in his poem of 'Percy Hall,'
'thought felt irksome to the heated brain.'
It was then that oblivion became to him a coveted relief from immediate woe, and that he envied the dreamless head of the wandering, water-borne corpse, whose rolling bed seemed calmer than the turmoil of the world.
This figure of the body rocked by the waves of ocean, brings me to a consideration of the way in which Branwell regarded Nature, which had something very noteworthy in it. It was always remarked by his friends that the young poet was a great observer, and took an especial pleasure in the works of Nature. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising, at first sight, that, in his poems, he does not dwell upon them descriptively or in a marked manner, and that we have to infer, from certain suggestive touches and pictures--which do, indeed, speak more plainly than words could--that he observed them at all. But we learn that the works of Nature had for Branwell a deeper significance than for most people, that he conceived they had some mysterious sympathy or unspeakable connection with human affections, and were, in a manner, the expression or immediate reflection of the Deity. Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge had already looked upon Nature somewhat in this wise; but it would be a mistake to suppose that Branwell imitated them: his thoughts flow too swiftly and impetuously to admit of such a conclusion. It is possible that, if his life had pa.s.sed calmly, he might have dwelt upon the simple beauties of Nature, and found in them a homely harmony with familiar ideas; Charlotte and Anne in their poetry scarcely get beyond this; but it was different with Emily and Branwell. Emily, with her reserved, pa.s.sionate nature, had a sympathetic spell in the solitary moorland; and Branwell, labouring with his sorrows, found, in the wildest storms, a being with whom he must battle, or saw, in the mighty mountains, an image of unbroken strength and everlasting fort.i.tude, such a power as he must strive after and make his own. But, in Branwell's earlier poems, this influence is not so marked, and his muse is simply attuned to the saddened thoughts in which Nature partic.i.p.ates. Thus Wordsworth had sung:
'Fancy, who leads the pastimes of the glad, Full oft is pleased a wayward dart to throw; Sending sad shadows after things not sad, Peopling the harmless fields with signs of woe: Beneath her sway, a simple forest cry Becomes an echo of man's misery.'
And thus we see, in Branwell's 'Caroline,' how, even in its calmness, the beautifully suggested picture of eve--when the sunlight slants, and the waters cease their motion, and the calm and hush tell of rest from labour--is made to harmonize with the plaintive thoughts of Harriet.
But then comes the more significant question:
'Why is such a silence given To this summer day's decay, Does our earth feel aught of Heaven, Can the voice of Nature pray?'
What, in short, is the harmonious and sympathetic spell that breathes through Nature?
The wild places of the earth, mountains and moorlands, where the storms raged, and the great winds blew, were nearest akin to the t.i.tanic genius of Branwell and Emily. Thus, in the sonnet, the everlasting majesty of Black Comb was held up by Branwell as an example to man, and as a contrast to human feebleness; and later, when his woe was most acute, he was drawn into a 'communion of vague unity' with Penmaenmawr, comparing the living, beating heart of man with the stony hill, and begging,
'Let me, like it, arise o'er mortal care, All woes sustain, yet never know despair, Unshrinking face the griefs I now deplore, And stand through storm and shine like moveless Penmaenmawr.'
And, lastly, in the 'Epistle from a Father to a Child in her Grave,' we find him comparing himself with one in the midst of wild mountains:
'I, thy life's source, was like a wanderer breasting Keen mountain winds, and on a summit resting, Whose rough rocks rise above the gra.s.sy mead, With sleet and north winds howling overhead.'
It will be seen from this short inquiry that the poetry of Branwell Bronte was entirely introspective, having, almost to the last line, some direct reference to his own thoughts or feelings; and that it may thus be read as an actual part of the story of his life. The disposition it reveals, though often hidden, as the readers of this book know, through the effects of folly and indulgence, was one of a singularly gentle, affectionate, and sympathetic character; pa.s.sionate and unstable, it is true, but a disposition, nevertheless, that has been frequently misunderstood, and not seldom wronged. One of the aims of this book has been to set Patrick Branwell Bronte right with the public; an attempt, not to clear him from follies and weaknesses that really were his--which the public, but for the mistakes of biographers, would never have known--but to show that, at any rate, his nature was one rather to be admired than condemned. It has aimed also, by the publication of his poetical writings, to demonstrate that his genius is not unworthy to be ranked with that which made his sisters famous. Yet it may, perhaps, be held that the poems here published contain more of rich promise than of real fulfilment, rather the earnest of literary success than the actual accomplishment of it. But, in reading the poetry of Branwell Bronte, which is so uniformly sad, it may be well to remember what Mr. Swinburne has said, in speaking of Mr. Browning, that 'to do justice to any book which deserves any other sort of justice than that of the fire or waste-paper basket, it is necessary to read it in a fit frame of mind.'
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