July 30, 2021

Another Emily's Poetry

The only undisputed portrait of Emily is in a group portrait by her brother Branwell

I never joined the Brontë cult. I had to read Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre for a class and they didn't capture me. I never read anything by Anne Brontë. But they have a cultish following and many screen versions of those books. The Brontë birthplace in Thornton is a place of pilgrimage and their later home, the parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum and gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Today is the birthday of Emily Brontë, born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, on this day in 1818. 

Her sisters were Anne and Charlotte and she had a brother, Branwell, who was an artist and poet. Emily's mother died when Emily was three, and the children were left mostly on their own. Somehow, they didn't get into trouble but were reading Shakespeare, Milton, and Virgil, playing the piano, and telling each other stories. 

All three Brontë sisters were writers and they published under male-sounding pseudonyms: Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. Emily only produced one novel. Though well known now, it was not well-reviewed at the time as critics found Wuthering Heights "brutal and dark."

As far as we know, she wasn't writing about her own life in the novel. There is very little else that she wrote that remains and what we know of her mostly comes from what others said and wrote about her.. 

I don't immediately think of her as a poet but Charlotte discovered some of Emily's notebooks in 1845 and they were filled with poetry. Charlotte convinced both her sisters to self-publish their secret poetry as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846. Reviews were only fair but one fan was another secret poet, Emily Dickinson, who requested that "No Coward Soul is Mine" be read at her funeral.

Like some characters in a 19th-century novel, Emily ended up caring for Branwell, who had become alcoholic and drug-addicted and had tuberculosis. She caught a cold at his funeral, refused all medical attention and died three months later.

Charlotte said that "No Coward Soul is Mine" was the last thing Emily ever wrote.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.


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July 11, 2021

Literary Road Trips

The Road, by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

Do you make road trips? They are something I associate with school breaks and summer. Last summer was different with almost everyone sheltering at home, businesses and attractions still closed or people still hesitant about being out in the world. 

There were some "virtual road trips" as with virtual museum tours, as a possibility, but this summer road trips on an actual road seem to have returned. 

Have you ever done a literary road trip? I have written about literary "pilgrimages" that I have made to a writer's home or grave. Last summer, I made a road trip that went to multiple literary stops. Being based in the Northeast, the trip I planned headed north from my New Jersey home into New England as we worked our way to friends who summer in Maine. We have done this before, visiting the homes of Poe, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Hemingway and others.

On our 2019 trip, our first stop on the way to Maine was to see Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at the pond is long gone but the 462-acre Walden Pond State Reservation can still give you a glimpse of how Thoreau’s cabin would have looked and the Thoreau Institute Library has Thoreau-related books, manuscripts, art, music, maps and correspondence.

Nearby, we visited the homes of Emerson, the Alcotts and the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. We visited all their graves, mostly in the same cemetery. My wife dubbed this the "dead authors trip."

We went to Salem and did some obligatory witchcraft things, but we also visited the House of the Seven Gables. 

One of my favorite authors is Herman Melville, and his Arrowhead home is in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Though he was a native New Yorker, Melville moved his family to the Berkshires in 1850 and stayed there for 13 years. It was here where he wrote Moby-Dick gazing from his writing desk window at a distant mountain that somewhat resembles a whale. We didn't follow the Melville Trail to places Melville loved in the Berkshires, including Pontoosuc Lake, Balance Rock and Mount Greylock.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne moved into Hawthorne Cottage in nearby Lenox in 1850, Melville was writing Moby-Dick and Hawthorne wrote and published The House of Seven Gables. The two writers became friends for a short time. When Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851, he dedicated the book to Hawthorne, and took Hawthorne to lunch at The Little Red Inn in the Curtis Hotel (now a retirement community!) to celebrate.

We didn't get Springfield's Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum which seemed a bit too commercialized with its interactive exhibits, a recreated studio and outside sculpture garden of the author’s most famous characters. 

We visited Washington Irving's Sunnyside estate some years ago and spent a wonderful autumn weekend in that part of New York state. I didn't visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York which is the resting place of the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving lived out his last 25 years a bit south in Tarrytown, but he is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (along with Elizabeth Arden, Andrew Carnegie and William Rockefeller).

Sunnyside is in nearby Irvington. I grew up in another Irvington in New Jersey. My Jersey hometown had been called Camptown, as in the song "Camptown Races. But they wanted to shake off the religious "camp meetings" image and decided to rename the town for the popular author Washington Irving. He was invited to the new name launch. But he was a no-show. Oh well.

Another stop I have made is the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. He moved there with his family and their new house was home until 1891. This is where he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While in town, we also visited Twain's neighbor at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Some people have asked me what I expect to find in these author homes. Ghosts? I don't have a good answer. I do like looking at their desks and books and papers. I liked imagining Melville gazing out his window at mountains that look a bit like a whale. I like looking out Hemingway's Key West window from his desk and wondering what story it might inspire. 

On my list is still Derry, New Hampshire to Robert Frost’s grandfather's farm which he purchased for his family who lived there for 11 years. The farm was often an inspiration for his poetry, especially in his first two books. Would I find any of his poetry inspiration there? Probably not. But I find inspiration everywhere, so I'm sure a visit would lead to poems, if only about visiting his farm.

Another stop on my list is one I have meant to visit for a long time. In Amherst, Massachusetts is the home of Emily Dickinson. The Emily Dickinson Museum includes the Homestead, Dickinson’s birthplace and home, and the Evergreens, home to Dickinson’s brother and his family. I imagine I might find a ghost and some poems floating here. I can't say why.

Emily Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts
Emily Dickinson home in Amherst, The Evergreens

Another kind of literary road trip is featured in an article on openculture.com that talks about an interactive map that plots out the travels of road trip-filled books, some non-fiction, others fictionalized reality. 

If your road trip is still virtual, then you can follow a dozen books about cross-country travel, from Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012). You can map the authors’ routes and even put one over the other and track a writer’s descriptions of the places seen. 

Maybe you want to do a Beat Generation On the Road trip like Jack Kerouac from NYC to San Francisco with stops along the way in Denver and Mexico City. You could also follow Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters through California, Canada and Mexico, or a Wild hike or Steinbeck Travels with Charley

July 1, 2021

Prompt: Ideal Day

My friend Laura Boss died this year. She was a poet who taught me many things. One thing that I love about her poetry is that there is often humor interspersed with seriousness. The first time I ever heard her read, I remember laughing. And now, though she has left us, I still hear her voice when I read her poems.

This prompt uses her poem, "Ideal Day,"(from her posthumous collection Family Promises 2021, NYQ Books)) which is a list of a number of possible ideal days for her. They are all-but-one impossibilities. (Had I known, I would have brought her a big box of Kit Kat candy bars and fulfilled that one ideal day.)

Her poem's ideals are serious. Her reality caveats for some of them are parenthetical, as her humor often was indicated, either by ( ) or by her voice.

Our prompt this month is a simple one - at least on the surface. What would be your ideal day? Is it a possibility or impossibility?