Brontë, Emily: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Francis, Emma. "Is Emily Brontë a Woman?: Femininity, Feminism, and the Paranoid Critical Subject." In Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day, edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, pp. 28-40. London: Pinter, 1991.

In the following essay, Francis looks at the avant-garde aspects of Brontë's work to consider how her poetry confounds a conventional feminist reading.

The critical history of Emily Brontë's poetry is a history of evasion. The vast body of work which advertises its subject as 'Emily Brontë' is, in fact, almost wholly engaged with Wuthering Heights (1847) (Brontë 1965). Where her poetry is read, the cacophony of other poetic voices almost invariably invoked when speaking of her work—ranging through the canon of male romanticism and its antecedents such as Milton—is at its loudest. That these comparisons function not to elucidate her poetics, but to avoid encountering them, became abundantly clear in 1986 when Robert K. Wallace published Emily Brontë and Beethoven. Wallace manages to go one better than the usual account of Brontë as an honorary male romantic a decade or more after the event. His variation of the theme—that Brontë was crucially influenced by her knowledge of the 'Byronic' life and works of Beethoven—is argued out within a structure which alternates discussion of Brontë's work with analysis of three of Beethoven's piano sonatas. This effectively drowns out Brontë for at least half the book, in a grotesque reification of the dynamic more generally at work in readings of her relation to romanticism.

I do not believe that the problem is that critics are incapable of understanding the issues Brontë is exploring in her poetry. For example, J. Hillis Miller's essay on Wuthering Heights in Fiction and Repetition (1982) is a sophisticated discussion of the way the novel frenetically generates more and more signs out of its sparse archetypes which, paradoxically, drives the possibility of establishing a central referent for them all, further and further away. The reader becomes as confused and disoriented in her search for a coherent interpretation of the narrative as Lockwood, when he is tormented by the 'swarms of Catherines' he sees after examining the first Cathy's alternative signatures graffitied on the windowsill at Wuthering Heights, and by the ever multiplying sermons of the Reverend Jabes Branderham he dreams of when he tries to sleep after reading her diary (Brontë 1965: 61-73). As I will argue later, this seems to me to be one of the main dynamics the poetry is engaged with. In a book concerned with narrative, it would not, of course, be necessary for Miller to make reference to the poetry at all. But he does invoke it, not to draw this parallel but to deny it. He claims that

Brontë's problem, once she had agreed with her sisters to try her hand at a novel was to bend the vision she had been more directly and privately expressing in the Gondal poems to the conventions of nineteenth century fiction …

(Miller 1982: 46)

That 'vision' cannot be expressed directly or privately and in the attempt to do so becomes distorted and refracted by the conventions of the medium it unsuccessfully attempts to represent itself in; is a form of stress which is extremely urgent in the poetry. It seems extraordinary that Miller makes his argument for the stress attached to the process of representation in Wuthering Heights by a comparison which (fallaciously) denies this stress in the poetry, when an affirmation of it would have substantiated his thesis even more effectively.

Similarly, an essay by Lawrence Starzyk, 'The Faith of Emily Brontë's Mortality Creed' (Starzyk 1973: 295-305),1 which makes a virtue of the contradictions in Brontë's vision and analyses them in terms of her radical theology, chooses to do this by discussion of one of the few poems where identity, representation and argument are comparatively unified—"No Coward Soul is Mine" (Brontë 1985). Starzyk's point is much more clearly made in two other poems about religious experience, "The Prisoner" and "The Philosopher" (Brontë 1985) which I will consider below. Like Miller, he refuses to encounter his own view of Brontë at the point in her texts where the justification for it is being generated.

I have considered these two writers in the same space as the more outrageous instances of critical bad faith in order to give some idea of the force of the readerly paranoia Brontë's poetry seems to generate. I want to investigate why this might be the case in two ways. First, as a test case, I will give an account of the problems I encountered in my own reading of her poetry; my work on Brontë forms part of a project on nineteenth-century women's poetry. In previous work I had managed to identify a poetics of power and transgression in the poetry of women like Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), Letitia Landon (1802-1838) and Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). They were recuperable for a constructive political reading despite having been encumbered by two very unhelpful critical conventions. They have been read by traditional criticism as most charmingly willing to accept a subordinate poetic role, writing conventional and innocuous lyrics about flowers and piety, leaving the struggle with the collapse of teleology and the philosophical quandary of the relation between subject and object to the Big Boys.2 Latterly, the reading of them produced by certain feminist critics, under the influence of Lacanian theories of women's problematic entry into and hold upon language, surprises itself with the fact that they managed to write at all.3 In the face of the hugely prolific output of, in particular, Hemans and Landon who managed to support themselves and their families from their poetry, such accounts, for me, became incomprehensible. I also realized that their assiduous accession to aesthetic restraint—in relation to the forms of poetic language it was permissible for nineteenth-century women to use (which I will discuss below) and, thus, the positions it was possible for them to take up in the political and philosophical debates happening within nineteenth-century aesthetics—results in a repetition of the contradictions upon which those limits were based, which throws them into crisis.

This form of poetic (and political) triumph emerges from a writing and a reading which begins and ends firmly inside the gendered constraints of nineteenth-century poetics. But as I turned to Brontë, here at last, I thought, was a woman whose poetry deals with transgression in such an explicit way that I could not help but produce a rousing hymn of celebration to a woman's achievement, taking control of poetic language to articulate a programme of liberation. But it was precisely in terms of Brontë as a woman that I encountered problems in my analysis. The readings of her outlined above function around a refusal of Brontë as being what she is. In the readings of her in relation to the male romantics, there is a refusal that she is a Victorian. In the disproportionate emphasis on Wuthering Heights and the avoidance of her poetics at the point where they are most apparent, there is a refusal that she is a poet. As I began to investigate her poetics I experienced the temptation of a similar refusal—of Emily Brontë as a woman. This was not only because of her differences from the poetics of other nineteenth-century women. The terms of the debate about transgression her work led me into, seemed to contain no room for any account of femininity.4 I will refer to the terms of Georges Bataille's (1973) discussion of Emily Brontë in Literature and Evil as representative of the tradition of theorizing transgression Brontë seems to relate to most, but which excludes some of the most crucial aspects of her poetry. Bataille's account brings to light the problems of Brontë's position as the 'avant-gardist' amongst nineteenth-century women poets and the price attached to the radical respectability she has retained among feminist and non-feminist critics.

Second, I will look in detail at "The Prisoner" and "The Philosopher." It is from a stanza of "The Prisoner" that Bataille demonstrates his maxim 'Eroticism is the approval of life up until death'. (Bataille 1973: 4):

Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more the anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine! (stanza 18)

This account of desire, as the desire for the ultimate expenditure of identity in death certainly has some purchase on the poem. But the way in which this view of ecstasy as a kind of collapse is framed, by the context of political oppression it is situated in within the poem, reproduces the strategy present in many of the poems: the identities and moral categories which have been collapsed are redistinguished and redeployed. "The Prisoner" ends with the assertion that the disempowerment of the prisoner's oppressors is the result of (their perception of) an 'overruling' by heaven. This resurrects the recuperative dialectic Bataille celebrates Brontë for refusing. The point of excess, where 'life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable' (Bataille 1973: 15 quoting Breton 1972: 123) and all other oppositional categories spill over into and erase each other, is alongside the reassertion of the power of these oppositions.

When we appreciate the way in which these two accounts of power interact with, and actually depend upon, each other in Brontë's poetics, we are getting close to understanding the issues at stake in the refusal she generates in us.

Is Emily Brontë a Woman?

Contrary to the view unproblematically assumed by traditional twentieth-century criticism and theorized by feminist critics such as Margaret Homans (1980),5 nineteenth-century women were not under psychic or cultural prohibition against the use of poetic language per se. What was demanded of them was that they use a particular form of it—the language of the Beautiful. The aesthetic split between the Sublime and the Beautiful was formally theorized by Edmund Burke (1958) in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, and had a huge purchase on English poetry throughout the nineteenth century. The prohibition nineteenth-century women poets were under was against the use of the language of the Sublime, which the male romantics used. The vast amount of poetry written by women in the nineteenth century exploring this aesthetic of the Beautiful was not just suffered, it was enormously popular and received a good deal of contemporary critical acclaim. For the most part, the only objections raised against the poetry are at the points when it transgresses the boundaries of the Beautiful. An explicitly gendered account of power is inscribed across this aesthetic demarcation. Power is produced in the Sublime (gendered male) and becomes dispersed in the Beautiful (gendered female). It is produced by the Sublime experience of threatened privation or death. The Beautiful cannot comprehend power because it is a structure of plenitude which does not have this threat of lack inscribed within it (Burke 1958: 54-71). Thus Brontë, who consistently refuses to write within the aesthetics of the Beautiful, places herself in a unique, and apparently attractively decisive, relation to the power up for grabs in nineteenth-century poetics.

It is largely on the basis of this ostensible lack of relation to the aesthetic of the Beautiful and her engagement with the Sublime structure of empowerment that Emily Brontë has retained her reputation as one woman who is unfettered by the 'masculinist' poetics which many feminist critics have seen as a force of symbolic prohibition on the production of other nineteenth-century women poets. Paradoxically, this has lead to a discussion of Brontë's transgressiveness in terms of parallels which have been drawn between her work and the male romantics. It is at this intersection that Bataille situates her triumph:

Reproduction and death condition the immortal renewal of life; they condition the instant which is always new. That is why we can only have a tragic view of the enchantment of life, but that is also why tragedy is the symbol of enchantment. The entire romantic movement may have heralded this, but that late masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, heralds it most humanely.

(Bataille 1973: 11)

Bataille also reminds us that she 'certainly read Byron' (Bataille 1973: 17). To situate my discussion of Brontë's radicalism within the terms of these poetics of transgression is to enter territory where my specifically feminist engagement with the poems, which attempts to speak about Brontë's radicalism in the same space as that of the other nineteenth-century women I am reading, becomes very difficult. Brontë's 'triumph' identified from this perspective is precisely the strategy refused by the other women who interrogate and redefine the limits of their aesthetic permission from within the confines of the Beautiful. I thus forego the possibility of establishing any kind of relation between Brontë's 'feminist' or even 'feminine' poetics and those of almost all other nineteenth-century women poets who refuse strategies of overt transgression, and who will, in this logic, be rendered negligible. Brontë's radicalism will be seen as a function of her lack of or difference from 'femininity'.

The dangers of this are highlighted by the striking similarity between Bataille's portrait of Brontë and that always drawn by traditional criticism of her, which has a large stake in disguising her radicalism. Bataille focuses on her 'courage', 'reserve' and 'devotion' (Bataille 1973: 1):

She lived in a sort of silence which, it seemed, only literature could disrupt. The morning she died, after a brief lung illness, she got up at the usual time, joining her family without uttering a word and expired before midday, without even going back to bed. She had not wanted to see a doctor.

(Bataille 1973: 1)

This discussion of lack of Victorian womanly vulnerability is accompanied in Bataille, as in traditional criticism, by an emphasis on the extremely sublimated nature of her 'passion':

For though Emily Brontë, despite her beauty, appears to have had no experience of love she had an anguished knowledge of passion … keeping her moral purity intact, she had a profound experience of the abyss of evil.

(Bataille 1973: 3)

It hardly needs to be pointed out that this is in complete contrast with the other writers discussed in Bataille's volume, whose implication in the most violent and transgressive forms of sexual practice is located by Bataille at the same point as the emanation of their transgressive philosophy and textual strategy. It is through an analysis of Brontë that Bataille concludes that 'Evil … is not only the dream of the wicked: it is to some extent the dream of the good' (Bataille 1973: 18). This involves him in the alignment of Brontë with Catherine (as against Heathcliff) who he defines as

absolutely moral. She is so moral that she dies of not being able to detach herself from the man she loved when she was a child. But although she knows that Evil is deep within him, she loves him to the point of saying 'I am Heathcliff'.

(Bataille 1973: 8)

This form of goodness, so overdetermined that it can comprehend evil, Bataille terms 'hypermorality' (Bataille 1973: 10). But it is Heath-cliff who craves death in order to repair his attachment to Catherine. In chapter 29 he makes it his business to mutilate Cathy's coffin so that when he is buried next to her their two bodies will mingle in decomposition.

What is at stake in this most uncharacteristic demarcation of identities on Bataille's part is a refusal of femininity and feminine sexuality as nontransgressive. The patriarchal psychic formations implicated in this refusal are too obvious to merit discussion. The point is that she is placed by Bataille in the same isolation from the mass of nineteenth-century women poets as traditional criticism has always placed her, even if he does it for the opposite reason; the wish to recuperate, rather than deny her transgressiveness. It is significant that in this essay Bataille repairs his link with surrealism, which he had broken away from several decades before, in the invocation of Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto (1972). His quarrel with Breton had been that some surrealist accounts imply that transgression comes about for the individual on a psychic level, detached from social reality, rather than, as Bataille was anxious to emphasize, at the point where 'individual' psychic forces break down into the corporate movement of the 'Popular Front in the streets' (Bataille 1985: 161-168). The following passage comes from the same essay Bataille quotes to elucidate Brontë's conceptualization of the 'point … where life and death, the real and the imaginary' etc collapse into each other:

What could those people who are still concerned about the position they occupy in the world expect from the Surrealist experiment? (It is) in this mental site, from which one can no longer set forth except for oneself on a dangerous but, we think, a supreme feat of reconnaissance.

(Breton 1972: 124)

I cannot help feeling that by re-establishing the proximity of this text to his own work Bataille is gesturing towards a source of justification for his isolationist strategy. To make Brontë's transgressiveness a function of her uniqueness in this way, is to make it a function of her a-sexualism in both senses. Bataille's approach refuses her transgressiveness at the same point as traditional criticism does: her femininity. The transgressive moments which draw me to Brontë's texts, on closer examination repel me, as seemingly incompatible with identifying her in any meaningful way as a woman.


"The Prisoner" (Brontë 1985) is curiously conscious of this dilemma. The woman who experiences what, I would agree with Bataille, is the most intense instance of this ecstasy within the poetry, is a 'marble' (if not plaster) saint, akin to the de-sexualized Emily Brontë thought capable of conceiving her:

The captive raised her head; it was as soft and mild
As sculptured marble saint or slumbering unweaned child.
It was so soft and mild, it was so sweet and fair
Pain could not trace a line nor grief a shadow there. (stanza 7)

The contradiction implicit in this description, that she is both 'soft' and 'hard', is multiplied by the fact that this celebration of her inviolacy comes precisely at the point at which she has been violated:

The captive raised her hand and pressed it to her brow:
'I have been struck', she said, 'and I am suffering now'. (stanza 8)

Readers of "The Prisoner," from Charlotte Brontë (who separated the first three stanzas from the rest of the poem in its 1850 edition) onwards, have been unable to comprehend the apparent disjuncture between different parts of the poem. I want to consider this phenomenon not as a manifestation of some kind of 'failure' but as central to its strategy. The initial encounter between the speaker and the prisoner establishes the dynamic of his relation to her as one of mis-recognition. This lack of encounter occurs throughout the poem. The first three stanzas stand in problematic relation to the rest of the poem. They occur chronologically after, not before the narrative of the prisoner, making it impossible to read the beginning of the poem until we have read the end. The experience it describes seems to bear some relation to the prisoner's ecstasy. It looks to the coming of a 'Wanderer' who is invisible and invulnerable to hostile gazes, as the prisoner's 'messenger of hope' is. But this is not stated explicitly. Disparities in the language used to describe the two experiences throw into doubt whether they are the same. Within stanzas 13-18, the most frequently anthologized because the most seemingly unified section of the poem, are the most acute instances of lack of encounter, this time between experience and its representation. The transition between stanzas 13 and 14 signals that a representation of the ecstatic experience is about to be given: 'visions rise and fall that kill me with desire—/Desire for …'. But in stanza 14 the language of the collapse of identity we expect is employed, but to describe what the ecstatic experience is not. The desire invoked by the 'visions' is 'for nothing known in [the prisoner's] maturer years'. The remaining three lines of the stanza are given over to describing the condition of these 'maturer years', where the prisoner has insisted the experience cannot be situated. But it is at this moment when it is denied that all the elements of ecstasy occur. Time is disrupted and collapsed. Although the 'maturer years' are in the future, what will happen in them is spoken of in terms of history not prophecy: 'when joy grew mad with awe'. This reversal is then reversed again as the future, which is expressing itself as the past, doubles itself by looking towards a further future: 'at counting future tears'. The stanza then throws itself back to the (future) past: 'When, if my spirit's sky was full of flashes warm, / I knew not whence they came, from sun or thunder storm'. The breakdown of the boundary between interiority and exteriority of 'spirit's sky', and of demarcations in the natural world in the confusion of 'sun' and 'thunder storm' is made even more significant by the fact that the experience they are thrown into conflict by, the 'flashes warm', is expressed in a form which inverts the conventional order of noun and adjective.

Having (not quite) avoided representing ecstatic experience in this curious way, the prisoner's narrative picks up the description of the prelude to the experience and continues with it for the next two stanzas. The next point of disjuncture comes on the (second) point where the description tries to move into a representation of ecstasy, at the end of stanza 16:

My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free—its home, its harbour found;
Measuring the gulf it stoops and dares the final bound.

The battle between the imagery of liberation—'Its wings are almost free', 'it dares'—and that of restriction—'Its harbour found', 'it stoops'—culminates at the end of the stanza, where language is 'bound' inside the stanza, denied entry into the territory of the ecstatic experience which occurs, completely unrepresented, between stanzas 16 and 17. Representation comes back into operation at the point where the recession of ecstasy induces pain.

I do not believe that this avoidance of representing ecstatic experience should be seen as either aesthetic or ethical failure on Brontë's part. "The Prisoner" does not avoid encountering ecstasy. What it does is to deploy the experience and its representation separately. This interrogates, in an extraordinary anticipation of the avant-gardist dilemma, the political purchase of ecstatic experience.

Although this moment of ecstasy is situated at the point of the collapse of identity, encountering it in its represented form means that identity and agency are re-activated as we read the experience. The poem throws the act of reading into sharp relief; in both the emphasis on the lack of full encounter between the prisoner and the speaker persona, and in the problematic mis-reading we are forced to employ in order to reconstruct the ecstatic experience. Bataille's reading of Brontë's transgressiveness is achieved at the cost of desexualizing her in a way which, I have argued, is indistinguishable from the strategy of the most reactionary accounts of her. This is not the inevitable consequence of reading her accounts of the collapse of identity, but some politically charged consequence is inevitable. We can now begin to understand the relation of the first three stanzas to the rest of the poem. They explore, from within the text, what happens when the ecstatic experience is read. Affected by the prisoner's account of her liberation, the speaker of the poem attempts to enter into it himself. That he has misread it becomes apparent in his failure to reproduce the terms the prisoner represented it in. The prisoner's 'messenger' 'comes with western winds', 'evening's wandering airs' and 'that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars' (stanza 13). It is unclear whether it is the determining movement of these elements which brings the 'messenger', or whether his coming is coincidentally simultaneous with their coming. In the first speaker's perception there is none of this indeterminacy: 'The little lamp burns straight; its rays shoot strong and far / I trim it well to be the Wanderer's guiding star' (stanza 2). There is no doubt here that the material will determine the immaterial. The natural has also become transformed into the artificial. The substantiality of the 'thickest stars' has become transformed into 'lamp', the singular mimic of a star. Whereas the prisoner's stars thicken and burn of their own volition—they 'take a tender fire'—this severely edited version of them in the first speaker's narrative is mutilated further as he 'trims' the lamp. The first speaker situates the coming of his 'Wanderer' at the point when 'all (except himself) are laid asleep' despite the fact that the prisoner is identified with sleep by his admission—he calls her a 'slumbering unweaned child' and her own 'mute music soothes my breast, unuttered harmony / That I could never dream till earth is lost to me'. The 'Wanderer' is identified in more personified terms than the 'messenger' as the presence of the capital letter in his name implies. The prisoner's 'messenger' is mentioned once and then disappears in favour of the depersonalized 'visions'. The 'Wanderer' is retained in the first speaker's account and by the third stanza he has become an 'angel'. The transformation of the prisoner's experience, from the desire for the 'visions' of stanzas 13-16, to the desire for the 'Death' they will 'herald' in stanza 18, also fails to happen in the first speaker's account. He identifies his encounter with the 'Wanderer' or 'angel' wholly with the 'Cheerful', 'soft', pleasurable, interior he looks to draw him into. Violence and pain are identified with the outside, the 'wildering drifts' and 'groaning trees' tormented by the 'breeze'. The prisoner's account not only destroys the demarcation between inside and outside, but the 'visions' bring with them enough pain to 'kill', seemingly by means of the violence they have taken possession of from the 'winds' and 'stars', which are rendered 'pensive' and 'tender', more passive, by the visions' passage through them.

The political effect this (mis-) reading of the prisoner's ecstatic experience has is to activate an explicit master/slave dialectic. The ending of the poem, which propels us back to its opening, asserts the breakdown of the speaker's power over the prisoner. In the first three stanzas we find the speaker conscious of specific social oppression, paradoxically from those his language identifies as his social inferiors:

Frown my haughty sire, chide, my angry dame;
Set yourselves to spy, threaten me with shame;
But neither sire nor dame, nor prying serf shall know
What angel nightly tracks that waste of winter snow. (stanza 3)

The triumph of the prisoner is to construct liberation out of her oppression, to exchange 'short life' for 'eternal liberty'. The experience of her observer demonstrates that the attempt to reproduce the latter half of the equation involves invoking the former: the attempt to transgress involves simultaneously a deeper entry into the economy which resists transgression. At this point where the (inevitable) interaction of identity and its collapse produces paranoia, I will begin my discussion of "The Philosopher" (Brontë 1985), which deals with this structure even more explicitly.


There is indeed, etymologically, a close relationship between paranoia and ecstasy. If ecstasy is to be outside of oneself, then paranoia is to be literally beside oneself: para (alongside, beyond) + noos, nous (mind). In a sense paranoia can be understood as ecstasy experienced from 'within', ecstasy which still fears the loss of self, which has to be 'beside itself' but also has a desperate need to maintain the boundaries of it self's territories.

(Williams 1989: 14)

If 'ecstasy' signifies the process of going beyond the self and the economy which sustains it, then paranoia is the process of (mis-) recognizing, with distress, that transgression. It is the inability to fully relinquish an identity which is collapsing. It is the disruption brought about within the economy ecstatic experience transcends, generated by the attempt to read that experience from a point of view still within that economy. It is the highly-stressed political articulation of ecstatic experience:

O for the time when I shall sleep
Without identity—

And never care how rain may steep
Or snow may cover me.
(stanza 2)

Before he utters it, the poem has interpreted the philosopher's expression of desire for the ecstatic collapse of identity as the function of his paranoia. Whilst the philosopher is contemplating the physical suffering he could escape by death, the physical reality he separates himself from is wholly benign and pleasurable:

Enough of Thought, Philosopher;
Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened in this chamber drear
While summer's sun is beaming—… (stanza 1)

This mis-recognition signals that the philosopher is in the same problematic 'paranoid' relation to ecstatic experience as the speaker in "The Prisoner." His 'sad refrain' sets up insurmountable barriers to reaching ecstasy. If

No promised Heaven these wild Desires
Could all or half fulfil—

No threatened Hell with quenchless fires,
Subdue this quenchless will!
(stanza 3)

it is impossible to imagine how identity is to be extinguished. The philosopher's appeal to a language of transcendence, to express the urgency of his plea, back-fires on him. The categories of Heaven and Hell have failed, but he can find no new language to replace them which could conceptualize a greater power to erase the need for 'fulfilment' and 'subdual'. Neither does he erase their authority. This is not a demonstrable atheism; the 'promise' and 'threat' of Heaven and Hell are not rendered negligible within the logic of the stanza. The literal meaning of these lines is that, due to the lack of any representative proof of the possibility of an economy beyond Heaven and Hell, the subsistence of identity, which is the inevitable consequence of it, will continue. Any other reading which would see this stanza as looking towards (the possibility of) an alternative economy, depends upon a preconception of that economy's existence and constitution. This mismatch between what we and the philosopher feel the stanza should say and what it actually does say is registered by the overdeterminedly or doubly poetic nature of the two stanzas. In "The Prisoner," the problem of how to represent ecstatic experience is dealt with by deploying the experience and its representation in different places. In these two stanzas of "The Philosopher" the problem is much more urgent. Not only is there a complete failure to represent ecstasy, but the enormous stress generated by trying to represent it creates the need for language to signal itself as present and pre-eminent, by italicizing itself. Similarly, the first speaker's appeal to the philosopher in stanza 1 'what sad refrain / concludes thy musings once again?' invites and expects the repetition of a pre-existent linguistic pattern. These poems seem to allow no escape from the argument that the attempt to represent the collapse of identity is militated against by the process of representation itself.

But as the poem continues, the possibility of encountering, through representation, even the economy of fixed identities disappears. The philosopher recalls his encounter with 'A Spirit' who seems to suggest some way out of this bleak situation. He appeared in a very specific spatial and temporal position, 'I saw a Spirit standing, man / Where thou dost stand an hour ago', (stanza 7). Yet when the philosopher attempts to search for him within this economy of identifiable time and space he finds that the spirit is no longer there:

—And even for that Spirit, Seer,
I've watched and sought my lifetime long;
Sought Him in Heaven, Hell, Earth and Air,
An endless search and always wrong! (stanza 10)

This desperate searching around definable space and time activates the limitless—'endless' and 'always'. The philosopher appeals to the spirit as an alternative to the need for the erasure of identity:

Had I but seen his glorious eye
Once light the clouds that 'wilder me,
I ne'er had raised this coward cry
To cease to think and cease to be. (stanza 11)

But the very condition and motivation of the philosopher's appeal is that the spirit is part of the economy where identity collapses, he is both present and absent, reachable and unreachable in the structure of the poem. The philosopher's search within the economy of identity activates the categories of its dissolution. As was the case in "The Prisoner," the (partial) representation the poem makes of the possibility of this collapse is thus dependent on the activity of the economy which refuses it. The philosopher attributes to the spirit the power of a transformatory gaze. In fact the poem argues that in spite of himself, the philosopher's gaze is transformative. Under pressure of it, the spirit shifts from one economy to another. But this power is dependent upon the philosopher at each stage mis-recognizing the economy he is within. He is perpetually 'beside himself', failing to comprehend and encounter where he is.

This 'paranoia' is fundamental to the strategy of the poem as a whole. Unlike "The Prisoner" which was split between two voices, "The Philosopher" has a triple articulation. We have extremely sparse information about the first speaker. He is identified directly twice by the philosopher, in stanzas 7 and 10, on both occasions immediately after an identification of the spirit. The syntax of the first identification allows for the designation 'Man' to be a qualification of the ontology of the spirit: 'I saw a Spirit standing, Man,' (stanza 7). The fact that he has the closest spatial and temporal contact with the elusive spirit adds to the suggestion that they are identical. The second address identifies him as 'Seer'. Because of the semantic similarity of this category with that of philosopher, a similar collapse occurs between the philosopher and the one to whom he expresses his alienation. So, in a sense, the collapse of identity the philosopher longs for is already happening, and is a symptom of the strength of his despair of it.

Poetics, Politics and Paranoia

The study of transgression happening in these two poems is more complex than Bataille suggests. Alongside an expression of the desire for the collapse of identity, Brontë places an account of the paranoia—the distress registered at this collapse—which is the inevitable consequence of encountering it. In a sense, Brontë is giving us an account of what happens when we try to read her, inside her poems.

In the light of this analysis it becomes possible to see why all readers of Brontë, including me, have experienced such a strong temptation to refuse her poetry. My readerly paranoia, my temptation to make Brontë into a 'special case' because she challenged a category I was determined to invoke in relation to her, arose through trying to place her as a woman in the face of her repudiation of the poetics other nineteenth-century women poets unanimously embrace, and (consequently) the undesirably misogynist conceptualizations of transgression I was forced into. These problems seemed to be unique to the particular context of my reading. But uncovering this dynamic of the production of paranoia which is so central to the poems, indicates the link of my specific problems with those of the other readers of Brontë I cited at the beginning of this paper. It seems that the stronger the temptation Brontë produces to try and identify a particular formation her poetry offers us, and the stronger the critical good faith we are prepared to employ in this attempt, the more the poetry confounds us. But looking closely at, in particular, "The Philosopher" has made me realize how vital it is that I do not abandon her, that I do not deny that she is a woman. In this poem it is at the point where the process of mis-reading is at its most acute that what is being searched for emerges. The desired collapse of identity is articulated by the philosopher's cry of despair of it ever being possible. Translated back onto my reading of Brontë, this means that I do not need to be haunted by her image as a male Romantic, developing a poetics which repudiates femininity.

From a methodological point of view, I also find this concept of reading as a form of paranoia extremely attractive. It seems to me to be a very productive way to conceive the strategy I, as a feminist critic, want to bring to the texts I am working on. A central problem in feminist readings of texts from previous historical periods is that they either place twentieth-century political problems and structures of thought onto texts to which in various ways they are not appropriate, or, alternatively, they attempt to let the text determine its own terms of discussion, which is impossible; but even if it were not, it removes the focus of the reading from the political urgency which originally stimulated it. If, as a feminist critic, I admit myself as terminally paranoid—that is, in distress at the way in which the political questions and demands I carry are being undermined and reformulated by the texts as I am reading them—I will be simultaneously encountering both my own motivation for entering these texts and the way the uniqueness of each text can sustain and enrich this motivation.

This paranoia, this point of crisis in reading which I believe is potential in all texts, but which is inescapable in Brontë's poetry, is an agony which is wholly productive. If Miller, Starzyk, all the other critics of Brontë and my own reading of her would enter into it fully, we would experience fully the power of the political vision we must never be ashamed to own in our relation to the text. But we must also not be afraid to see collapse, in order to have it returned to us in forms we could never imagine without this violence.



Curious enough it is to read Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and remember that the writers were two retiring, solitary, consumptive girls! Books, coarse even for men, coarse in language and coarse in conception, the coarseness apparently of violent and uncultivated men—turn out to be the productions of two girls living almost alone, filling their loneliness with quiet studies, and writing these books from a sense of duty, hating the pictures they drew, yet drawing them with austere conscientiousness! There is matter here for the moralist or critic to speculate on.

That it was no caprice of a poor imagination wandering in search of an 'exciting' subject we are most thoroughly convinced. The three sisters have been haunted by the same experience. Currer Bell throws more humanity into her picture; but Rochester belongs to the Earnshaw and Heathcliff family.…The power, indeed, is wonderful. Heathcliff, devil though he be, is drawn with a sort of dusky splendour which fascinates, and we feel the truth of his burning and impassioned love for Catherine, and of her inextinguishable love for him. It was a happy thought to make her love the kind, weak, elegant Edgar, and yet without lessening her passion for Heathcliff. Edgar appeals to her love of refinement, and goodness, and culture; Heathcliff clutches her soul in his passionate embrace … although she is ashamed of her early playmate she loves him with a passionate abandonment which sets culture, education, the world, at defiance. It is in the treatment of this subject that Ellis Bell shows real mastery, and it shows more genius, in the highest sense of the word, than you will find in a thousand novels.…

Lewes, G. H. Excerpt from a review of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in the Leader, December 28, 1850. In Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights : A Casebook, edited by Miriam Allott, pp. 68-9. London: Macmillan, 1970.


  1. This is the only extended discussion of Emily Brontë, in the periodical Victorian Poetry, which indicates the strength of the refusal to engage with her as a Victorian, generated by her association with romanticism.
  2. See, for example, Elizabeth Jennings' 'Introduction' to A Choice of Christina Rossetti's Verse, Faber (1970): 'Christina was the least intellectual of the family of two girls and two boys … Her subjects were limited, it is true, but she never made the mistake of writing beyond the limits of her experience' (pp. 11-12).
  3. This assumption has been axiomatic since the onset of feminist work on nineteenth-century women's texts. Both Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Mad-woman in the Attic, Yale University Press (1979), and Margaret Homans' Women Writers and Poetic Identity, Princeton University Press (1980), take it as read that women are psychically and culturally prohibited from using poetic language. This assumption has remained so inviolate that in 1987 Jan Montefiore could devote her chapter on Christina Rossetti, in Feminism and Poetry, to a Lacanian reading of the sonnet sequence Monna Innominata, arguing that the text expresses the poet's inability to overcome symbolic prohibition in the structure of poetic language.
  4. In Gender and Genius, The Women's Press (1989), Christine Battersby has pointed out the problems clustered around the use of the term 'femininity' in nineteenth-century aesthetics. Standing in for a particular condition of consciousness and language the romantics sought to achieve in their poetry, it in fact excludes women (as biological and historical subjects) from itself. I am attempting to reclaim this term, using it to signify not just the biological category of 'woman', but at the point in my argument where I attempt to align this category with an account of language which will represent and transgress it.
  5. See note 3. above.


Bataille, G. (1973), 'Emily Brontë', Literature and Evil, 3-17, (tr. Hamilton, A.), London, Calder and Boyars.

Bataille, G. (1985), 'The Popular Front in the Streets', Visions of Excess, 161-168, (tr. Stoekl, A.), Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Battersby, C. (1989), Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetic, London, The Women's Press.

Breton, A. (1972), 'Second Surrealist Manifesto' (1930), Manifestos of Surrealism, (tr. Seaver, R. and Lane, H. R.), Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Brontë, E. J. (1846a), 'No Coward Soul Is Mine', in Brontë (1985): 172-3.

Brontë, E. J. (1846b), 'The Prisoner', in Brontë (1985): 170-2.

Brontë, E. J. (1846c), 'The Philosopher', in Brontë (1985): 161-2.

Brontë, E. J. (1965), Wuthering Heights (1847), (ed. Daiches, D.) Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Brontë, E. J. (1985), Selected Brontë Poems, (ed. Chitham, E. and Winnifrith, T.), Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Burke, E. (1958), A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), (ed. Boulton, J. T.), Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. (1979), The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven, University of Yale Press.

Homans, M. (1980), Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, Princeton (N. J.), Princeton University Press.

Jennings, E. (1970), 'Introduction' to A Choice of Christina Rossetti's Verse, London, Faber and Faber.

Miller, J. H. (1982), Fiction and Repetition, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Montefiore, J. (1987), Feminism and Poetry, London, Pandora Press.

Starzyk, L. (1973), 'The Faith of Emily Brontë's Mortality Creed', Victorian Poetry, 11, 295-305.

Wallace, K. (1986), Emily Brontë and Beethoven, Athens, Georgia University Press.

Williams, L. R. (1989), 'Submission and Reading: Feminine Masochism and Feminist Criticism', New Formations 7: Modernism and Masochism, 11-17.

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Brontë, Emily: General Commentary

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