Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 5 of 12)
Updated: Apr 19
I would rather give my hand than undergo again the grovelling carelessness, the malignant yet cold debauchery, the determination to find how far mind could carry body without both being chucked into hell…
Branwell Brontë, letter to Francis Grundy, 22 May 1845, concerning his months at Luddenden Foot
Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon—he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.
Francis Grundy, Pictures of the Past
Chapter I—A Letter from Charlotte
March 25th, 1841 Sowerby Bridge
Nearly two months have passed since last I visited these pages. The dreary weather has been surpassed only by my depressed spirits, alas. We are now in the midst of that raw season when nature seems so stripped and bereaved that one feels that life might never return, though springtime be but a few weeks distant. Even the transient beauty of an occasional snowstorm is now denied us, for as March progresses we have but glacial wind and frigid rain whipping through the bare branches, and only icy mud where once were piled high drifts as delicate and lovely as the white icing of a cake.
Still I place one foot in front of the other, and still I present myself as cheerfully as possible at work, though the knowledge that I will soon be in charge of my own station at times makes me chafe under the command of Mr. Duncan, who could not be kinder or more just, in his clipped, business-like way.
Already the banns have been published for Maggie’s marriage to Mortimer, and I can afford to think no more about her. As is now my habit, I have done my best to crush that unpleasant memory and look forward to Luddenden Foot—not only the liberty the position will give me in my employments, but also the independence the increase in salary will procure me. Nor have I given up on writing, but quite to the contrary: I have begun once again to revise old poems, and even, on occasion, to write new ones. I have tried to cauterise the wound with forgetfulness, and then sterilise it with occasional doses of whisky taken with Leyland, who alternately plays the roles of tempter and saviour. He continues to exhort me to apply the healing balm of a woman’s embrace to the scar, as he so often does with his Halifax whores, but I have not yet descended to such desperation.
On the first of this month, a grand occasion presented itself to our little corner of the world: the great railway pioneer, George Stephenson himself, accompanied some of our shareholders from Manchester to Normanton to see the Summit Tunnel, and on the return trip the train made a point of stopping at each station. I stood with Mr. Duncan and our porter, Smythe, and shook the hand of the great man himself. He had an almost stately, aristocratic bearing, and yet condescended to greet us all as companions in this great enterprise, which he was largely responsible for moving from an idea to a reality now spreading with hitherto unimaginable speed throughout the kingdom. Before climbing back onto the train, he embraced one young man with particular affection, as if a long-lost son. My brow doubtless betrayed my curiosity, for another young man, who stood just between the lad and me leant over to whisper, “That’s Stephenson’s nephew; he happens to be none other than my roommate in Halifax, where we’ve both just arrived.”
“How do you do, Sir,” said I, introducing myself. “I’m the assistant-clerk-in-charge here, but am moving in just under a month’s time up the line to Luddenden Foot.”
“Grundy,” said he, “Francis Grundy. I am among the engineers engaged to begin work on the branch line from Sowerby Bridge into Halifax.”
Ah, yes: the damnable branch line, which Maggie’s intended and her father surely believed would be a river of gold washing into the center of Halifax in general, and into their new inn in particular, would forever be associated in my mind with Maggie, and the choice she had made. My heart continued to be enraged with her, but my mind could hardly blame her. Do our heads and hearts ever act in perfect accord? Happy must be those who have experienced such a blessed alignment of prudence and passion!
Much remained to be done that day, but I told Grundy that I would be delighted to receive him another time, either in Sowerby Bridge or at my new post in Luddenden Foot.
However, I must say with a broad smile as I write this, that the greatest diversion I have had of late consists of Charlotte’s letters, written from her new situation at Rawdon, for she did indeed accept the post at Upperwood House. She claims that while she may have the faculty to acquire knowledge, it is quite another matter to impart it, particularly while having to repel the rude familiarity of children. I do sympathize with her when she says that, when confronted with unruly children, she finds herself wishing herself a simple housemaid or kitchen-girl.
Could it be that we all, brother and sisters alike, share this singular inability to blend the work of the mind with that of the body, particularly where children are concerned? Anne alone seems capable of this, and perhaps only the age of her charges at Thorp Green makes it possible, for was she not sent packing from her earlier post?
Emily is the fullest embodiment of this phenomenon, for moving taciturnly through her domestic employments at the Parsonage, she is free to allow her heart and mind and soul ramble over the moors at complete liberty. I, too, on rare occasions, sometimes felt this way at Broughton, when the Postlethwaite boys would resist doing their lessons. I recall thinking: I would rather follow a plough through the fields or dig canals like a navvy than try to force the young lads to their lessons. One extreme or the other: poet or ploughman. Could we have absorbed, through our very flesh and blood, this quality from father, the Irish farmer purified by a Cambridge education? And yet does not the future belong to the Stephensons of the world, those who can at once employ both body and mind? So it would seem.
More enjoyable, because it touched not on one of my own weaknesses, but solely on hers, was a recent mention of her employers. “I like Mr. White extremely,” she writes, while “respecting Mrs. White I am for the present silent—I am trying hard to like her.” There is little doubt what is occurring here: if she is not positively in love with Mr. White, she has melted before what is quite likely mere civility and good nature, in the form of a tolerably attractive older man. Having watched her closely in the presence of men, I find that she fairly swoons before one who is authoritative, older (but not so old that she cannot imagine herself in his arms), handsome (but not so handsome that she cannot conceive of a possibility of love), and, above all attentive, kind, and respectful of her considerable intellect.
Were I to wager on the matter, I would say that the unwitting Mr. White has simply been friendly, and quick to recognize Charlotte’s best qualities, her mind and her eyes, sparkling with intelligence, and has possibly even made a joke or two at his own or his children’s expense, as such men often do. Even better, he is safely married, and so there is no harm in such a friendship. The only thing that could make him even more appealing would be if he were himself as learned as Charlotte. In such a case she would likely throw herself at his feet or abase herself in Heaven knows what other fashion!
As for Mrs. White, she possesses everything that my sister does not: a fortune, a grand house, a husband Charlotte likes extremely, and children. If, as I suspect, Mr. White is a jolly, good-natured fellow, then it has doubtless fallen to his wife to manage all of the household affairs, including the children’s nurse and governess. The distance required to conduct such a relationship properly is doubtless perceived as froideur by Charlotte, whose passionate soul will positively burn with a sense of (most likely imagined) injustice!
In a gentleman’s family highly genteel,
Where ‘tis hoped that the lady will try to conceal
Any fanciful feelings or flights she may feel.
For this gentleman’s family’s so very genteel, they’re so very genteel!
I wonder: does Charlotte remember Parry’s words, ruefully, or does she try, as I do, to blot out all of those things that bring her pain? And then, by Heavens, if Mrs. White is in the least a pretty woman it will positively seal the bargain, for Charlotte will surely despise her. Her most recent epistle contains a great many animadversions on the subject of the unsuspecting Mrs. White, from her low birth and vulgarity when in a passion to her hauteur in regard to “tradesfolk,” though she herself is a mere taxman’s daughter; even her bad grammar and worse spelling fail to escape Charlotte’s censorious gaze.
Am I being unfair to my eldest sister? I think not. For how conveniently she forgets that we are descended from Irish farmers and Cornish shopkeepers—and as for spelling, only father’s orthography has any rhyme or reason to it, thanks, no doubt, to his years at Cambridge. Ours is execrable, and I confess that I can hardly tell when “i” should precede “e” or vice-versa. Nor do I give a fig, a fillip, or a farthing, in the end.
Oh, dearest Charlotte! Well might Burns speak of man’s inhumanity to man—how much worse is woman’s inhumanity to woman! I should like to get a good look at Mrs. White, for I suspect her to be quite a strapping beauty to have elicited such venom; my sister, alas, has ruled out all such visits, even though the Whites themselves have invited father to Upperwood House. One wonders: is Charlotte ashamed of them, or us, or both?
As for me, I have found lodgings at Brearley Hall, just a half-mile’s walk from the Luddenden Foot station, where I shall remove just three days hence in preparation for my new post there. While doubts may sometimes cloud my brow as I prepare to take this next step up in the company, I will struggle to keep my post, whatever the cost! I cannot say the same for Charlotte, who appears determined to be miserable. No, no, I must not be like her, I must find what is good and fruitful in my post, I must gladly suffer what is less than agreeable—and with any luck the most onerous of tasks may be shifted to my inferiors—whilst not letting this work extinguish entirely the fires of poetic ambition.
I feel in the very marrow of my bones that Maggie was right, in the end: to me, nothing else matters.
Chapter II—Luddenden Foot
April 10th, 1841 Brearley Hall, Luddenden Foot
To some it may seem that I am now removed to the very ends of the earth, but Luddenden Foot is not so bad as all that, and not all that remote from Halifax. And, after all, as time permits I may journey wherever I please, and free of charge. My lodgings at Brearley Hall are more than sufficient, and my landlords, a Mr. James Clayton and his wife Rachel, are prosperous farmers whose two grown sons and their families also live on the premises. They have arranged my living quarters in such a way as I might come and go as I please without disturbing anyone, and indeed even the dogs are already used to me, so that I am greeted not with growls but with wagging tails when I approach, whatever hour of day or night. The Claytons say that the house was built some two hundred years since with riches earned in the wool trade, but that they are merely humble farmers. The fat rosy cheeks of the grandchildren, the quality of the family’s clothing, the abundance of good food and drink, and the pristine state of repair of their carriage and even their farming implements, however, suggest anything but hardship: industry, yes; hardship, no.
To my relief, the Claytons have achieved that delicate balance of amiability and diffidence, where a sincerely warm greeting and enquiry after my health does not lead them to further, less discrete, interrogations. Mr. Clayton is a stout, hearty gentleman farmer of some 55 or 60 years, and his wife Rachel is a small, birdlike creature who bustles relentlessly about the house and farm, seemingly employing each waking moment in profitable exercise of her faculties and person, for, as she often chirrups, “There is always work to be done, Mr. Brontë! It never stops, never stops!”
Knowing that I might come and go at my ease under such a roof as this is already a source of great comfort, for I may set any anxieties on this score aside as I seek further promotion with the railway and try, once again, to publish a poem or two, at the very least. My daily walk takes me downhill through open fields to the new station, which lies along the thickly-wooded valley bottom. The trees are at last beginning to bud, and Mrs. Clayton assures me that within just a few weeks even harebells will appear as far as the eye can see. The station itself is a humble outpost of the railway, but there is more than ample room for me, the clerk Mr. Spence, and the porter Mr. Killiner to do our work as the trains pass through each day. I still find it difficult to believe that I am the clerk in charge or “stationmaster” as now we are called; indeed, I cannot fathom that I am in charge of anything, for I can scarcely care for myself.
Yesterday as I left the station a delicate, warming breeze gave a foretaste of the weather to come, and not having anywhere I needed to be, I struck out in the direction of the nearest moors. Within minutes I had climbed the summit of the closest hill, and sat atop a large stone precipice, my knees pulled up under my chin. Though the day was fading, the southerly breeze continued to warm me, gently caressing my cheeks and tousling my hair, like a lover returned after a long absence. The air was so warm and sweet, and my heart was so inexplicably and unexpectedly full, that I know not how to describe it. In a single instant I felt at once as old and weary as Methuselah and yet somehow as young and hopeful as I had in those first days at Broughton. I wanted to sob with grief: the crushing of childhood hopes, the failure of prior schemes and, most of all, the loss of Agnes and then Maggie—though I had never really possessed the latter, so how can one lose what one never had? Is being stripped of one’s hopes and desires every whit as devastating as losing what one already possesses? Indeed, is it worse?
Still, my heart also fairly exploded with a love for life, and wild hopes for the future. Surely one who has not felt this intoxicating blend of grief and hope, of desire and despair, is no better than a beast of burden, trudging stupidly from one day to the next, like a cart-horse from field to field. I felt I had already led a thousand lives, died a thousand deaths, and yet had another thousand to live. I rose to my feet and turned on the great outcropping of rock, looking into the distance in every direction: east toward Halifax and Bradford beyond; west toward Hawksclough and Mytholmroyd; south toward Longroyd and Mill Bank, and last, northward across the vast moors toward Haworth: home. How can a single human breast hold equal parts of hope and despair?
And yet so it seemed to me, and I fairly wept with the nearly insufferable feeling of being fully alive and fully aware, of great potential yoked to powerlessness, of a yearning for immortality contained within a pitiful mortal shell, and such a state was at once so exalted and so unbearable that I thought for a moment of dashing my own skull against the massive rock on which I stood. Was this what Liszt had meant when he said that existence is so full that we cannot bear it, we are overcome? Was this seeing the face of God? My heart was brimming with a multitude of sensations, and my mind was swimming with a thousand simultaneous and yet contradictory thoughts, so that I felt my heart would positively give out from exhaustion or that my mind explode like an overheated steam engine.
I lay down on the massive rock and closed my eyes, breathing as deeply as I could, striving to calm my feverish mind, to think of nothing, to lose myself in the oblivion of the mass of white clouds billowing above me. Slowly, slowly, I emerged from this place—was it heaven or hell?—and looked about me. A rook circled in ever-smaller spirals, while cows lowed in a distant pasture. The sun was close to setting, but still the air was warm and pleasant, like a benediction. Hope and joy seemed to have carried the day against grief and sadness, for now I felt anything was possible. I cannot account for this change, but I was—if only for a brief moment—swept forward once again by the comforting waves of ambition and hope that had nourished me for so many years, and felt I could conquer all by dint of hard work and sheer force of will. Had I not doubled my income just now, by sheer application—even going so far as to keep Mr. Duncan’s ledgers in perfect order?
I imagined a meteoric rise in the company, perhaps managing a vast organization of lines and stations, of goods and passengers, with all of the employees required to operate it. I confess that for an instant, I imagined myself a wealthy man, flaunting my success before a weary, ageing Maggie at her husband’s new inn, but I obliterated that phantom as soon as it arose. Instead, I endeavoured to imagine how I might retire with my fortune and spend the rest of my days in study and reflection, in the writing of prose and verse, in correspondence with other men of letters. For an instant, standing on that stone gazing for miles in every direction, I felt that these twin goals were as logical and inseparable as the two rails of a rail line.
As the sun finally set, the last clouds marched north and the breeze abated somewhat, though every so often I would feel a warm caress intermingled, increasingly as night fell, with the fingers of a cooler wind. Who has not felt this rare, curious blending, as if, for the briefest of moments, the four winds, the Anemoi, were at war—or perhaps better, were dancing—with one another? I leant back upon the rock, my coat rolled up as a pillow, to watch the stars appear one by one. The winds had blown away the smoke of the railway and of the factories of the Calder Valley, and so I was treated to a spectacle like none other, watching star upon star stealing into view as night swept forward. I shuddered in awe at the grandeur of the scene, and felt my chest fill again with the joy of simply being alive. Just as these thousand worlds of light before me had been hidden by daylight, so my wish for the more exalted life as a poet had been eclipsed by my humble occupations at the station; but instead of filling me with despair, this understanding merely confirmed in me the belief that great things were not only still possible, but inevitable.
Oh God—if God there be—would that such feelings might last forever!
April 22nd, 1841 Luddenden Foot
The railway has given me a right-hand-man and a left-hand-man, and I will at last have some independence in my comings and goings, for it is expected that I should shift some of my duties to them, just as Duncan did to me at Sowerby Bridge. The first of these is a Mr. William Spence, my assistant, some twenty-five years of age. He lives hard by me at Brearley, with a wife and young son. He is an earnest, somewhat simple fellow, whose every action seems intended to ensure the good opinion of his employers. His hair is exceedingly fair, and his strong frame towers over me like some Scandinavian giant, but he is exceedingly kind and gentle in his manner, even if his speech sometimes bears the rough traces of his humble origins and limited education. As he has made quite plain, he feels it a great boon to have secured the position of clerk, and will do anything to retain it. So much for my right hand; now let us turn to the left.
My other employee is a one Henry Killiner, the porter. His rough manners make Mr. Spence seem as though he were a member of good Queen Victoria’s court. He claims that he is a man of some thirty years, but at first view he could easily pass for forty or more. A stout man of middling height, he has dark, somewhat stringy hair and a sallow complexion, small ferretlike eyes and a turned-up nose. The contrast between Spence and Killiner could not be starker. Though a mere five years separates them, the first is a young man with a spring in his step, a family to nourish, and—a narrow but driving ambition to move forward to the next station in his career; the second seems almost an old man, who is at his humble post not because he believes it can vouchsafe for him greater opportunity, but because it is a mindless occupation sufficient to earn his bread and the quantities of ale sufficient to shoulder the burden of existence.
What I have discerned in the few days we have laboured together as a trio is the importance of each of us working to his strengths. Though Spence is a humble, plainspoken fellow with no especial gift for grammar or spelling, he appears to be wondrously talented in the matter of arithmetic, and so, as Duncan did with me, I have shifted all matters of accounting to him, though I make a desultory show of daily reviewing, and giving my benediction to, the ledgers that he keeps. As for Killiner, his strength is, well, his strength, and even beyond his prescribed duties as porter it is understood that when hefting of any kind is required, he will take such matters in hand. He has made it plain that such an arrangement suits him perfectly, for to him “real work” does not exist apart from physical exertion. How like me in an odd way, though my wish is to flee any occupation that will require me to perspire, or to soil my hands!
As for me, my role is to supervise all things, from the arrival and departure of trains and their goods and passengers to the condition of the station and the accurate keeping of accounts, so that in an odd way I do not do anything but am responsible for everything. Is this what it is to be “in charge”? If so, what an odd thing it is, managing! For it reposes on power and responsibility, and thus breeds both confidence and terror, for if anything should go wrong it is I who shall be held to account.
For the present, all is well, and after just a few days we have begun to operate as smoothly as a well-oiled engine, each playing the part he likes and performs best, though each assisting the others as needed, to ensure that the flow of persons and cargo is unimpeded by anything we can prevent. Already I feel that Mr. Spence is more than equal to the task of overseeing the station in my absence; one hardly need a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin for that! Soon I hope to be able to devote a portion of my time to verse, which requires so much concentration that the slightest worry about more mundane occupations is sufficient to snuff out the flame of creativity.
Chapter III—The Leylands in the Wilderness
Just yesterday, for the first time, I absented myself during work hours, when Joe and Frank Leyland arrived unexpectedly on the train from Sowerby Bridge. I had been sitting at my desk, pretending to look over the previous day’s ledger, but in reality scribbling in a notebook just like this one, which I keep locked in a drawer, and which in odd moments receives my sketches, poems, and other miscellanea. This diary, on the other hand, never leaves my lodgings, and is even tucked safely under my mattress each time I leave my room.
Just as I do when any train pulls in, I flung my notebook in a drawer, closed the ledger, and walked officiously out to the platform to oversee Killiner’s activities. Spence joined me, as is his wont, in the event that two or even three of us were needed to assist passengers or oversee the unloading of goods. I was standing, as I often do, with my hands in my pockets, surveying the busy scene, when something knocked my hat entirely off my head from behind. I turned in agitation to take to task what I assumed was some young rascal, only to see Joe balancing my hat on the end of his walking stick, and Francis standing quietly, just a step or two behind him.
“Ho ho, Brontë, I thought I’d play a little trick on the station head. For there you stood with your hands thrust in your pockets and your feet planted so firmly—such a towering titan of railway navigation that I could already imagine a momental sculpture larger than my Head of Satan of you—that I could not help but bring you down a few notches!”
He held my hat out of my reach for a moment, then at last, again laughing, allowed me to snatch it and place it back on my head. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the brothers Leyland in the time it took for the train to depart for Hebden Bridge, I introduced them to Spence and Killiner. Winking at me, Joe said to the two men, “I am certain from the looks of you that you can easily keep things in hand for a bit in the absence of your stationmaster, for we have some important business to conduct with him. We won’t go far, and you may send a lad for him at a moment’s notice, I give my word.”
“Joe, I’m not sure this is wise. Perhaps we can conduct such business at my desk?”
Perhaps all subordinates are eager to see their superiors depart, for Spence and Killiner, despite their vast differences, were eagerly united in the opinion that I should benefit from my friends’ rare presence and conduct our business elsewhere. In a more fluid environment, I was quite certain.
“Be at your ease, Mr. Brontë,” said Spence, “We have matters entirely in hand, truly we do.” Killiner grunted in agreement.
“You see, my friend? Did I not tell you so?” Turning to Spence and Killiner, he said, “Should you need your exalted leader, you will find us at the nearest public house, wherever that is!”
At this Killiner spoke up, clearly from experience. “Ah, tha’ll be the Anchor and Shuttle just yonder,” and his nodded in the direction of the handful of houses and the public house that made up the whole of Luddenden Foot. I should have liked a walk to the village of Luddenden, which was another half-mile distant, but prudence won a rare victory over preference, for I wished to stay near the station. Within an instant, I was reasoning to myself that such an absence would have to happen eventually, and Spence and Killiner should get used to it—for what if I were to fall ill, or be called back to Haworth? My conscience thus soothed, I was soon seated with my friends at the Anchor, which I had succeeded in avoiding thus far; the amount of drink I had consumed at Leyland’s that fateful night, and my fervent desire to make the most of my promotion, has united to imbue me with uncharacteristic sobriety and seriousness of purpose of late. Indeed, I entered into the familiar old relationship with the Leylands with some trepidation, but at the same time I was truly happy to see Francis and Joe, and—truth to tell—thrilled with anticipation as I gripped a tumbler of whisky in my hand for the first time since the fête the latter had given in honour of Liszt.
“Why did you not tell me you were coming?”
“What! And strip away all the wonder from the event? No, no, lad, had I tried to plan such a visit in advance you would have found manifold excuses why it could not occur until next month, or next year! No, a surprise attack is always best, hey? Besides, the competent stationmaster should be prepared for anything, practiced at thinking on his feet, should he not?”
This was vintage Leyland: confounding, incorrigible, and supremely likeable. Francis, usually more observer than participant in such conversations, nevertheless said, “if the Manchester and Leeds had the electric telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone, as the Great Western does, we could have sent you a message electronically. Did you know it is being put along the new Blackwall Tunnel Railway as well, as we speak?”
“You seem to have missed my point entirely, dear brother,” said Joe. “Even a telegraph message an hour in advance of our arrival would have removed the element of surprise!”
Ignoring his brother, and quite earnest on the topic of this latest marvel, Frank continued, “As a railway man, do you think the telegraph will spread along all of the rail lines, from station to station?”
I honestly had not given the subject any thought, and had only just read about the telegraph myself, in the Guardian, and I said so.
“Really, Francis, you cannot expect our young bard to give a toss about such things. Isn’t it enough that he has managed to keep his situation with the railway, given that his heart lies elsewhere?”
At this I protested, albeit weakly. “Now Joe, I wouldn’t say that’s exactly true. I enjoy much of what I do, truly.”
“Why is it, then, that your eyes fail to meet mine as you say so? Ah ha! It is because you lie, my dear sir—I know your heart, and it is no more enamoured of the comings and goings of goods and passengers than mine is of the chiseling of headstones. The railway is for the Spences of the world, just as the gravestones belong to the John Browns.”
“Just a moment,” said I, “I very much like being a part of the railway: all the movement, the excitement, the progress as more and more lines are built—it is the future.”
“You just don’t wish to soil your hands with that future, correct?” said Joe, laughing. “You like the idea of the railway, preferably a fictional one, or better still, an allegorical one—that huffs and puffs through a poem or story, perhaps—but not the dirty, stinking, real thing. Heavens, no!”
I had to laugh at his characterization, which was not far off the mark. Though I was merely sipping it, the whisky had begun to work its old magic.
“Well, my dear sir, we do what we must, and I can think of worse occupations. And who are you to tease me, when you advertise yourself, in an almost groveling manner, as being willing to do just about anything in stone, do you not? What does your sign say again?”
Here Francis spoke up, reciting from memory:
Halifax Marble Works,
J.B. Leyland, Sculptor
Monuments, busts, tombs, tablets, chiffonier slabs and all kinds of marble work used in the upholstery business, made to order. A variety of marble chimney pieces on view, cleant, repaired, or set up.
Leyland clenched his teeth, his smile now more of a grimace.
“Surely, Brontë, you do not believe that such wording was my choice. No, it was my banker’s.”
He nodded in the director of his brother.
“I will say that when Frank insisted upon such a practical approach to the marble works—for he has the nasty habit of always wishing things to be profitable—I took the idea and ran even further with it, debasing myself entirely. It was either this, or ‘the Great Sculptor of Sinless Kilmeny and the Head of Satan’—I could envisage no intermediate step between the two. If you’re going to sell your soul, sell it entirely, eh young Faustus?”
Francis flashed his usual indulgent smile, and simply said, “To use one’s gifts to earn an honest living whilst pursuing more elevated but less remunerated activities is hardly what sets one on the road to perdition.”
“You know exactly what I mean, Francis, and so does Branwell.” He brought his fist thundering down upon the table. “Bugger me, it’s maddening. Even Liszt is worried by money—Frobisher told me just yesterday that Lavenu did, indeed, confirm to him that the entire tour of the kingdom was a financial catastrophe, and the virtuoso took no fees at all for his troubles, just so the lesser musicians could be paid—though I’m sure he learned a lesson in the bargain, if only to play by himself and never to return to this accursed island!”
He was silent for a moment and then added, with a sigh that seemed to come from the deepest recesses of his soul, “By God, I am so very weary of this topic.”
“Why, then,” I asked, “do you continue to indulge in it?”
“You’re right…of course you’re right, Brontë. I would like nothing more than never to think or speak about money again. But when one is worried unto death about how to make one’s living, to pay one’s debts, it becomes all-consuming, and can nearly drive one mad. When money worries me in this way I can think of nothing else—and could easily sink into a paralysis of despair.”
He paused again, then brightened at last. “Let us thank God—or Zeus—or Mother Earth—or our lucky stars—or Dionysus, also yclept Old Man Whisky—not my sweet old mastiff of that same name, of course—yes, only drink can blot out such cares,” and here he motioned for our glasses to be refilled.
I looked at Francis with sympathy and admiration. The long-suffering brother did not say what we all knew, that Joe pays no mind whatsoever to his expenditures, has prepared no budget for his living, but instead employs any additional earnings that might come his way to give grand soirées, pay his friends’ drinking debts—he has paid mine more than a dozen times, easily—or procure an evening with one of his whores, though the last of these arrangements might be conceived by both parties as something slightly less sordid. At what point, I wonder, will Francis have to walk away, to cut his losses as those fond of the gaming table might say, leaving Joe to his own ruin? It chilled me to think about it, but the second glass of whisky soon caused such cares to melt away.
“As you suggest, Stationmaster Brontë, it is high time we speak of something else. Are you writing? If so, would you be willing to share your work with your fellow poets and artists?”
I nodded affirmatively to both questions, and Leyland continued, “You see, your friends Dearden Heaton, Crossley, Nicholson—even Frobisher—are thinking of getting together regularly—a sort of informal literary society, if you will, for no one wishes to be bound by silly rules or tyrannized by an official schedule—to drink and talk and drink and read and drink and criticize. It will be a moveable feast, if you will—why, we shall even come up here to the wilds of Luddenden on occasion! What say you, little man?”
I laughed. “First, it is not even five miles here, so it can scarcely be called the wilds! And we have this clever little invention called the railway—I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it—that can carry you hither and thither at dizzying speeds, old friend. It’s the way of the future, even if it is a bit dirty. Second, I would be delighted, if time allows. For now that I am responsible for a station I must worry about it even when I am not present.”
“Tut tut,” replied Joe, “your good Mr. Spence seems quite eager to please, and—what’s his name, Killjoy?—why, he does the nasty, dirty business whether you are there or not, yes? What is the point of being in charge if you cannot quit the rails from time to time, eh?”
The logic of Joe’s comments was questionable: in just a few weeks as stationmaster I had indeed found that rather than providing freedom and peace of mind, my new role made it nearly impossible for me to stop thinking about my post, and if I allowed myself to consider all that might go wrong, I grew positively frozen with dread: what if there were a fire? What if a train truly derailed, or a passenger were hurt or killed? The one thing that did not worry me were the ledgers, for I had already determined that it would be best for all concerned for Spence to handle that repellent task.
“See here, Joe, it is not so easy as you might imagine. Whether I am at the station or not, I am ultimately responsible for all that transpires.” Yet as I said this, my heart fairly leapt at the thought of a regular gathering with my fellow poets, with the Leylands, and other sympathetic souls like Frobisher. Despite my initial misgivings, I found myself quickly bending toward Joe’s point of view, and saying, “But we shall see—perhaps I can tear myself away, and no man can work all the time. The distraction would be a welcome one.”
“Ah! You see, Francis, there sits a reasonable man,” said Joe, smiling broadly. “I will charge myself with organizing the first assembly, and we shall go from there. That’s sufficient trouble unto the day.”
We finished our glasses and walked back to the station, for another train was to arrive in ten minutes. Already two hours had passed, and as we arrived, Spence nodded—somewhat obsequiously, I thought—but Killiner was too occupied to notice. As Joe and Francis prepared to step up into their first-class carriage, I said, “How will I know when and where we are to meet?”
“What if Francis sends you an ethereal message along some celestial telegraph lines?” said Joe, laughing and thumping the side of the carriage with his cane as he ducked inside. As the train began rolling downhill toward Halifax, he leant out a window and shouted, over the din of the locomotive, “We’ll send word. Fear not, little man!”
It is my hope that my subordinates did not overhear him, for I could hardly be expected them to take me seriously with such an appellation!
Chapter IV—Who, Then, is My God?
May Day, 1841 Luddenden Foot
To think that a year has passed since I spent that day with Coleridge! It seems at once a lifetime and only a fleeting instant. On the one hand, I have been dismissed from my post, abandoned Agnes, refined my translations of Horace and—with no response—sent them to Coleridge. I have followed Mr. Postlethwaite’s advice and found work on the railway, and have been promoted at twice the salary. I have again yearned for a woman, but had all hopes dashed. Anne has continued steadily in her situation, Emily has taken the up the reins of daily management of the parsonage, and Charlotte has at last, after much resistance—how like me she is, in some ways, despite our vast differences!—found another situation as governess.
The great Liszt has come and gone, and we shall surely not see the likes of him again. I continue to write when I can—jottings here and there in my notebooks, revision of a poem or two, and on rare occasions something new. Indeed, just yesterday I mailed something off to the Guardian, taking my favourite character Northangerland as a nom de plume: what better name for a saturnine Yorkshire poet! Odd, though, is it not, that in my thirst for glory I still hide behind this character, the descendant of a wooden soldier of childhood? Oh, such diffidence mixed with a yearning for fame is strange, but no less true for that: it is as if I were to light a flame with my right hand and yet snuff it out with the left.
Ah, but in the essential has anything changed? Still I long for a situation that allows me to devote my time to writing; still I am harried by the eternal need for money; still I go through each day in quiet fury at the world’s hypocrisy, baseness and cupidity; still I feel, especially when in the company of Leyland, like blotting out all such cares until I feel nothing more. As for the softer sex, am I not far worse off than I was a year ago? For I have not only lost Agnes and failed to gain Maggie; I now have no prospects for such affection. Alas, it is far worse to have felt such bliss and have it brutally withdrawn than it is to be ignorant of its very existence, as I was before I arrived in Broughton last January, for now I have within me an aching, craving desire that often knows no bounds. The Halifax prostitutes are increasingly appealing, so desperate have I become to lose myself in the soft embrace of a woman.
How strange that the same man, when viewed solely through his conduct, can be seen to progress on an upward arc, as if calmly and steadily climbing a hill toward his ultimate goal, while in the depths of his heart, he spirals downward into a personal Hell, one mostly of his own making! Is concordance of the two ever possible? I am certain papa would have something to say about the matter, and he would counsel a number of things, all equally impossible for me to put into action: crush any last desires I have to make my living solely through writing; put my faith in the God, and follow his teachings. I can fairly hear him now: If we love God and wish to serve Him, let us try to be like Him, to do His work, to labour for His glory, etc., etc.
Most men of faith have moments of doubt, but I am the man of doubts who occasionally has moments of faith. What I mean to say is that, to me, God is something of a trickster: though nowhere do I see demonstrable evidence of his existence, everywhere is his name loudly proclaimed, either in impious oaths or, as at the parsonage and in father’s clerical circles, at times with great fervor and sincerity, and at others with simpering hypocrisy. A rather impressive feat, I must admit. Indeed, doubt of His existence is not openly permitted, except by those of such wealth or renown that they can be indifferent to the usual censure of society. As I reflect, it is not that I harbour such doubts either; rather, it is that I refuse to believe in that pale version of Zeus, as Leyland called Him.
Meanwhile, the Reverend Paley and his ilk claim that God is a simple watchmaker, who has wound up His elegant timepiece and walked away, refusing to occupy Himself with our day-to-day affairs. Others, on the contrary, believe He is like an over-protective mother keeping watch over her young children, and that all of the good that we do and suffer must be the direct result of His divine intervention. Of course, questions of the origin of evil, free will, and so forth, soon arise to muck up the works; and how silly, really, to believe that the Divine One spends his time shaping each cloud and snowflake, deciding which horse will fall and break its leg, or which child will have green eyes, and which blue! Stuff and nonsense!
And what of our friends, the utterly mad Calvinists, who believe that all is preordained? Does this mean that if the doctrine of predestination so worries me that I might simply lie down and wait to die, or chuck myself into a ravine, since, after all, this too must be preordained from the creation of the universe? Fools! And do we, as Father says, need to labour for His glory? Surely, in his omnipotence, He hardly needs our assistance on that score! If, truly, God is love, then he will let no one perish, for Hell is the invention of man—I feel that deeply in my bones, and there exists no more infernal world than the one we ourselves create and inhabit in this life.
Who, then, is my God? He is the one we cannot name and cannot grasp, and will only know when our life’s day fades. He is not stooping over and deciding our every act, but He is in everything that is bright, and beautiful, and good: the roaring fire in the hearth on a wintry eve, a warm breeze as it shimmers through the green leaves of an oak tree on a spring day, and the ever-shifting Dudden Sands as much as the eternal Black Combe that towers nearby. He is in the innocent frolicking of children, in the tender, healing kiss of a mother on her baby’s feverish cheek, in the hand of a young woman as she slowly brushes her ringlets back from her fair forehead, and in the fire that is kindled between two passionate souls as their bodies arc together as one, in ardent earthly rapture.
It is the face of God that shines out through human genius of all kinds, whether it is Leyland’s Head of Satan or Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. God is in Stephenson’s locomotive, in Brunel’s bridges and tunnels, and Cook and Wheatstone’s telegraph. Most of all, though, he is hidden, concealed until the end of time, or at least until the shadow of death descends, ineluctably, on each of us, one by one. To presume to know His exact shape is a piece of arrogant folly that should, itself, qualify the doctrinaire among us for the flames of Hell—if such place existed! Such creeds are worthless as withered weeds.
In this spirit I have just reworked and submitted an old poem to the venerable Halifax Guardian, calling it “Heaven and Earth,” carefully composing it in such a way that the devout will doubtless find in it a confirmation of all that they believe, and so both the hypocritical curate and sanctimonious old dame will nod approvingly at its pious sentiments. Yet it is far less about God than about Man—about me, truth to tell, and how my daily cares and pleasures threaten to obscure the greater purpose of my life, and the glories of the world to come, whatever they might be:
On Earth we see our own abode,
A smoky town, a dusty road,
A neighboring hill, or grove;
In Heaven a thousand worlds of light
Revolving through the gloom of night
O’er endless pathways rove.
While daylight shows this little Earth
It hides that mighty Heaven,
And, but by night, a visible birth
To all its stars is given…
And, may I smile, O God! To see
Their storms of sorrow beat on me,
When I so surely know
That Thou the while are shining on;
That I, at last, when they are gone,
Shall see the glories of thy throne
Beam brighter far than now.
And so I muddle through, just as I did a year since, hoping that something will bring me to the safe harbor where I can, at last, become whatever it is I am meant to be. Despite my ability to blot out what grieves me most, I do not have the strength of character that led papa to set aside his literary ambitions, though perhaps he did so only under the pressure of a wife and growing family, and so is no more to be congratulated for his virtue than an animal is for caring for its young. While I no longer cherish any hope of hearing from Coleridge, I will continue to write what and when I can.
In the meantime, Leyland has organized the first meeting of our “literary society” for three weeks hence, and to ensure that I will find no excuse for absenting myself, the devil has set the meeting place at the Lord Nelson Inn in Luddenden village, just a fifteen-minute walk from my station. If nothing else, this will prove a welcome distraction from the monotony of my work.
Chapter V—A Visit from Grundy
May 18th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
What is this wild, itching, feverish, incandescent urge to be something we are not? Why is it that we cannot, as Pascal has it (or so says Coleridge, for still I have not read the Frenchman), just sit quietly in a room? Is this simply healthy ambition, or is it a pernicious malady that invades our hearts and souls and, goading us like a demon, will never let us rest? If his life were not so miserable, one would be tempted to envy the simple labourer, for the notion that he might “rise” to anything beyond his given lot is fantasy, crushing any dreams of advancement to a more exalted station in life.
Did papa, in encouraging us to read widely and indiscriminately—surely believing that he was providing us with a most wholesome nourishment—instead poison us with dreams of fame and glory? For as unladylike as it may appear, each of my three sisters, and each in her own way, has an unslakable thirst for something beyond what she knows, the same insatiable hunger that makes the present unbearable. We yearn always for that next thing, believing that all will at last be solved, tidily sewn-up like the end of a novel; yet even when our dreams are realised, we are not contented, but posit a new utopia that will surely, finally, make us happy, and will at long last liberate us from this feverish ardour that keeps us from real rest.
The successful, it seems, are those who can bend such fervour to their own designs, breaking it like a wild stallion into a docile plough horse, or taming a raging fire into a smithy’s glowing embers: men who have as much—if not more—persistence and patience as they do genius and ambition. I, alas, have none of the former qualities, and doubt very much if there remains much of the latter. I envy such men the plodding nature of their progress in life, though surely they do not consider it as such. For them, it is the careful planning and execution of one goal after another, all linked together like railway stations in the undeviating path of their success. Surely they are in the right, as least insofar as society is concerned, but my ability to acknowledge this fact hardly means that I can, by sheer force of will, become one of them, any more than a horse can be transmogrified into a steam engine, or a doubter can become a believer.
These thoughts spring to mind in the wake of a recent conversation with the railway engineer Francis Grundy, for he at last kept his promise and stopped at Luddenden Foot for a visit. At the Anchor and Shuttle we came to know each other a bit over drinks, and a banal discussion of his rooming situation in Halifax with Stephenson’s nephew led to a discussion of the great man himself. I mentioned how imposing, even aristocratic, a figure he cut.
“Aristocratic indeed!” said Grundy, ordering us both a second brandy. “Do you know that Stephenson is the son of an illiterate collier, and that he himself did not knows his letters until he was eighteen years of age? So much for aristrocracy, my friend.”
“By God, he has a noble heart, then, to have overcome such impediments and attained such renown.”
“I doubt not that he has such an organ beating in his breast, but it is surely the union of intelligence and steady application that made his fame, and he is the very picture of today’s self-made, self-improving man. Surely, it is revealing that his first locomotives are called not just Locomotion but Active, Hope, and Diligence! Besides, a noble mind such as his has led him to a noble life, none of which has anything at all to do with his origins.”
From time to time we encounter persons to whom we almost immediately confide the whole of our character, our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties—often despite our better judgment. Perhaps it was his unassuming manner, or perhaps it is because he, too, is the son of minister, a yoke we are both seeking, each in his way, to cast off. In any event, I felt instantly at my ease with Grundy, though I am quite certain that the free-flowing brandy, for which he had insisted on paying, assisted in this operation. He is an unassuming, courteous, pleasant fellow, physically average in nearly all respects: in height (middling), colouring (neither swarthy nor fair) and features (pleasant but not truly handsome). An abundance of almost impossibly thick brown curls is his only distinguishing feature.
To the extent I can determine, however, he possesses a penetrating, practical mind—that of an engineer—which focuses on the concrete, and seeks solutions to problems, in nearly all situations. His precision of thought and calm temperament together seem to give him the ability to place his finger calmly and adroitly on the essentials of a topic of discussion, while others of a more nervous constitution—such as I—might spin wildly about in circles of fruitless speculation and abstraction.
He speaks like a gentleman of the middle orders, without the haughty air one sometimes hears from the upper classes or those who would pretend to them, or the roughness of the lower. He is connected, through his Unitarian ties, to the theologian James Martineau and his sister Harriet, the writer, and was even educated by the former for a time.
I told Grundy briefly about my family, from Papa’s transformation from humble Irishman to Cambridge gentleman, about the deaths of Mamma, Maria and Elizabeth, and, finally, about our nonetheless happy childhood of making plays and scribbling stories in the Parsonage. I confessed to him my fervent dream to be an artist or poet, and told him in the briefest terms about my failure as a painter in Bradford, my six months in Broughton (included: my early success as a tutor, my meeting with Coleridge, and the sanitized version of my “amicable” dismissal by Mr. Postlethwaite; excluded, at least for the present: Agnes Riley), my return to Haworth and my success at working on the railway.
Grundy listened carefully and, after a moment, asked, “Are you happy, Brontë?”
I had not anticipated such a question, which I felt bordered on impertinent, particularly from one I had just come to know. “What do you mean by that? In my position here at Luddenden Foot?”
“Yes, I suppose that is what I mean. Are you content with doing this work while your heart lies elsewhere?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “I don’t really see that I have much choice, Grundy. It is work that has finally secured my independence from my father, and allows for significant advancement, and increasingly—as today—I can comfortably leave the dreary minutiae to my subordinates, and devote my time to other pursuits. It may appear to you that the station is but a rude wooden hut in the wilds of Yorkshire, and that I have no prospects and wretched pay, and no society congenial to my better tastes, but the reality is more complicated. I have nearly doubled my salary in less than six months, and see no reason why I cannot advance further in the company if I so desire. I can be into Sowerby Bridge in a matter of minutes, then up the hill to Halifax by omnibus or, for that matter, to Leeds or Manchester in less than two hours. As for company, there are not only manufacturers and gentlemen farmers in the district with whom I converse quite readily; there is also a circle of artists and writers from Halifax and environs that will begin meeting regularly in just a few days’ time.”
Like the barrel of a hunter’s gun, sweeping along with its prey through an autumn sky, Grundy had focused on the key words in my long reply to his simple—and yet at the same time not at all simple—question about my happiness.
“You don’t have a choice you say? Well, it seems to me that you do, though perhaps you just don’t care for the choices on offer.”
How much better adapted to this world are such fellows as Francis Grundy! And how much clearer is the vision of those who do not yet know us, for they do not share the affection—or disdain—of our friends, which invariably distorts all attempts at candid assessment. I felt my back arch into a defensive posture, but I already liked Grundy too much for this to grow into a heated argument, so I simply said, “Explain what you mean, my Unitarian friend,” for friends we were surely becoming.
Grundy smiled, clearly pleased with this familiarity, and leant forward on his elbows.
“Here are the choices I see: one, you may remain as you are, not terribly happy with your work, continuing to dabble in poetry without the means to consecrate yourself fully at its altar, but at least independent of means; two, you seek another position, though it is likely that anything else, with the possible exception of tutor in the house of a wealthy family, would be far more repugnant to you than the post you currently hold as stationmaster; three, you may quit the railway and return to Haworth once again to become utterly dependent upon your father, which will make you miserable, I would think, and cause you to despise yourself and annoy others; four, and last, you may quit the railway and Yorkshire altogether, striking out for America or the Antipodes to try your fortune or, closer to home, travel to Edinburgh or London or Paris. But such adventures require great courage—or recklessness—and a willingness to cast one’s prior life, family and friends to the four winds, to turn one’s back on one’s entire world and begin entirely anew, just as your father did when he left Ireland. Unless, like him, you wish to become a clergyman. In fact,” he concluded, “that might be just the thing, Brontë.”
The brandy had put me in that odd yet warmly comfortable state where I was as much observer as participant in this scene, both within and without, but Grundy’s final addendum, about taking holy orders—which I see now had only been meant as a riposte to my Unitarian friend—caused me to laugh aloud.
“Alas, as for the Church, I have not one mental quality—except perhaps hypocrisy—which would make me cut a figure in its pulpits!”
We ordered a final drink and I grew more serious. “You speak of despising myself; well, one thing that causes me to have such feelings already is that I know I shall never have the courage or strength of character that inspired my father to strike out across the Irish Sea and to brave the inhospitable, and surely humiliating, climate at Cambridge. Such an action is positively heroic in my mind, and so intimidating as to cause me to think I could never equal such a feat.”
Despite his earlier candour, Grundy seemed unwilling to deliver any kind of judgment on my avowed timidity, or the inferiority I felt when confronted by father’s achievements, and so sat only in tactful silence. Wishing to lighten the mood, and spurred on by the golden spirit coursing through my veins, I said, “Did you not forget some additional paths my life might take?”
“Oh?” said he, sitting up with renewed seriousness. “What would those be?”
“Why, surely, I could pitch myself headlong off a railway bridge, or lie down on the tracks in the Summit Tunnel, or, more simply, throw a noose about my neck and hang myself from the tallest available tree!”
With his usual artlessness, Grundy replied, “Certainly, that is a choice each of us has at all times. I was supposing that you were not as unhappy as all that, Brontë,” and he seemed not to know whether to smile or remain in great earnest. I quickly assured him that I had spoken in jest, as he drew his watch out of his pocket to verify the hour, for his train would be along shortly.
“But wait now, what of this?” said I, as we finished our brandy, Leyland’s recurrent phantasm coming to mind: “what if I should marry a wealthy woman and live happily ever after, with no greater activity required of me than to write poetry?”
“That,” said the practical Grundy, “is only slightly less desperate than jumping off a railway bridge, old man, and could prove just as painful.”
Back at the station, we shook hands as he climbed aboard his railway carriage, and promised to see each other soon.
Chapter VI—Success on Two Fronts
June 6th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
So much has happened in the span of just a few days that I know not where to begin! I had just begun to despair utterly of ever seeing my poems in print, and was a hair’s breadth from abandoning any such literary attempts ever again, when the Halifax Guardian, on May 22—a date I shall never forget—announced that though it regretted the delay in publication of a new poem by Northangerland, it would, in fact, publish “Heaven and Earth”!
To me it mattered not that this was a “mere newspaper,” for its editors show considerable discrimination in their taste, and routinely make it clear that they would rather print no poetry at all than some of the doggerel that graces the pages of some of its competitors. In any event, the thought of seeing my work in print makes me giddy with anticipation. It matters little that the poem is a revision of something written years ago, for indeed, even the most varied works of our greatest poets so often seem to sprout from a single seed of inspiration.
Just a day later Leyland, with mock solemnity, opened the first meeting of our informal literary society, at the Lord Nelson in Luddenden. Among the dozen luminaries or so that had gathered that day were Dearden, Nicholson, Crossley and young Heaton, but also Francis Leyland, the perpetually excitable Frobisher, and even my old companion and confident from Haworth, John Brown himself. A long, monastic-looking table was flanked with benches, while at each end stood a large armchair. Leyland had placed himself at one extremity and me at the other.
“Before we formally inaugurate this most informal of societies, gentlemen, I wish to raise a glass to His Excellency, Sir Patrick Branwell Brontë, whose work is to be published soon in none other than the esteemed Halifax Guardian!” Joe’s congratulations were as genuine as his mockery: as he had long ago told me, and was oft fond of repeating: It is quite possible to be, in a single phrase, both in earnest and in jest; the two are hardly mutually exclusive, little man!
John Brown, whose wit—if not his learning—equals that of Leyland, added loudly, “Surely Branwell failed t’ mention ‘is connection to you, Joe, for ‘ad they known of it, your enemies at the Guardian would’ve banned any such publications til the Last Judgment!”
Joe laughed good-naturedly. “Damn you, Brown, you’re forever changing the subject. Now let us raise our glasses to Mr. Brontë, who has at last placed his booted foot on the golden path to poetic glory!”
Despite my habitual timidity, and yes, even despite Leyland’s teasing, I was happier than I had been for a very long time. As the applause subsided, Crossley said, “What is the poem, Brontë? Do you have it with you, by any chance?”
I was prepared to say, out of sheer diffidence, “No,” and such a reply would indeed have been the truth. Leyland, however, knows me too well: “Before Brontë replies modestly in the negative, I must reveal that not only has he committed the poets of old to memory, but also that he has learnt by heart the words of the present generation—including, quite naturally, himself, ha ha! So yes, Crossley, he has it with him,” tapping his forehead with his index finger, “he has it right there.”
There were now vociferous calls for me to recite the poem, and so recite it I did, for I remember lines of poetry the way Spence recalls the numbers in a ledger. Our table grew hushed and expectant, as I began to speak from memory:
Of Earth beneath, a little space
Our eyes at once descry;
But Heaven above us meets our gaze
Like an infinity…
When I had finished, Leyland exclaimed, “The Devil take you, lad, you are forever and ever, world without end, the son of the Reverend Brontë! Did you take this pious turn from sheer desperation to be published, or to please papa? Or did you steal it from those devout and upright sisters of yours?”
Once the general mirth had subsided somewhat, Leyland spoke again, for he was the self-appointed founder and chief of this learned tribe. “Now, from the Brontean sublime to the profoundly ridiculous: I would like to propose a competition to all of the would-be bards and poetasters among us today.”
“Capital idea, Leyland! How I do relish a contest!” said Dearden.
“Yes, yes, Dearden, we know, calm yourself,” replied Leyland with not-unkind raillery.
“Now where was I, before the Bard of Caldene so churlishly cut me off? Right then, the contest: like the sculptor wresting living beauty from lifeless clay, I propose that you take a most pedestrian, even maudlin image, and attempt to give it as much authentic poetic grandeur as possible.”
At this, Leyland produced an engraving, which he then circulated round the table. “I suspect that nearly all of you recognize this as an engraving of that modern masterpiece, the celebrated Landseer’s painting, Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner. The painter is an old friend of mine, you see”—here I believe Leyland applied a most liberal definition to the word friend, for he had met Landseer only once or twice, and was chiefly fascinated by the artist’s relationship with the Duchess of Bedford, which was rumoured to be more than one of patronage, so much so that her youngest daughter Rachel was said to be his—“yes, an old friend, and I mean the great man no disrespect. The painting is not only technically perfect; it is also brilliantly composed, created expressly to wring scalding tears from ageing widows, passionate weeping from pious spinsters, and wrenching sobs from hypocritical curates and annoying little children. Indeed, I think even rough mill workers and village whores would be inclined to shed a tear over this poignant scene of a grieving canine, his sweet head resting on his master’s humble casket!”
Joe’s train of thought was picking up steam, and there was no stopping him.
“You see, that devil Landseer knows where his bread is buttered”—here he shot a glance down the table at me, as if to say, as he had on more than one occasion, “the lucky bugger’s got the Duchess of Bedford, he forded her bed long ago,” or “is it his skill with the brush or with some other instrument?” or, after far too much to drink, quite simply, “he’s having it off with his patroness, by God: which do you suppose earns him more, that or his damnable animal paintings?”, etc., but even Leyland knows better than to spread such gossip about the powerful abroad—“it’s all about animals,” he continued in one of his familiar veins, “for this age is positively mad for the lesser creation. It is as if, since good Victoria took the throne—God save her!—all human feeling, all passion, all joy and grief, desire and despair, had been driven out of human creation as in poor taste—for the only wish of our betters and those striving to be better—and what a century of bedeviled strivers this is!—wait, now where was I…?”
I have found that two of the first effects of drink work in direct opposition to each other: on the one hand, in the speaker’s mind, the connections between and amongst the topics of conversation are multiplied—or perhaps are merely rendered freshly visible—as if he were floating skyward in a Montgolfier balloon, like the one we watched travel over the moors as little children, and thus he can comprehend in a single glance the vast network of ideas resembling the rivers and canals, the highways and railways, all linked together in an ever-increasing web of signification.
On the other hand, this exalted state is, most unfortunately, accompanied by a precipitous loss of memory and a tendency for the enthusiasm of the moment to overwhelm the specifics of the argument itself, like the surge of a hurricane over the orderly streets of an otherwise placid coastal village. Or to return to the image of our aeronaut, he ascends so high that the routes, rivers and rails form a beautiful but abstract image, more striations and variegations of nature than signs of effective human communication.
In short, Joe had lost the thread, with no Ariadne available to help him find his way back.
After a brief pause during which there was much laughter at his expense, Joe quickly enough retraced his rhetorical steps and found where he had left off. “Ah yes, human feelings are in very, very bad taste these days…what does Parry say in that jolly song about governesses?
Where ‘tis hoped that the lady will try to conceal
Any fanciful feelings or flights she may feel.
For this gentleman’s family’s so very genteel, they’re so very genteel!
“Yes, gentlemen, crush all genuine feelings; that’s the way of this century, by God! Apparently, only beasts are permitted to receive or display affections. Does this not appear to you as truly absurd, that we drive out what is most human in us and yet praise it when it appears on the face of mere animals, like Landseer’s dog? It calls to mind that passage of Holy Scripture about the demons and the swine, what is it Brontë?”
I, the parson’s son, sighed and obliged, suspecting that Leyland could full well recall the scripture in question, even in his current state, and was only using this occasion to have a bit of fun at my expense. “It’s in Matthew: ‘So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters’.”
“Are all passions, then, demonic, and fit only for swine? Remember, the Jews—and the Mohammedans for that matter—revile pork, my friends.” Turning to the innkeeper, Joe shouted, “Jem, any chance we might have a platter of cold pork? It would be just the thing to give us our passion back, by God!”
More laughter ensued as Jem duly brought forth our luncheon. Like many such a meeting that begins on Mount Olympus, it descended quickly into the River Lethe, for I can’t recall much of anything specific that was said thereafter: there was much jocularity, and wordplay, and a great deal of drinking, and clapping of backs, until at last we all began to take our leave, shaking hands, the poets among us promising to work on the poem about Landseer’s grieving dog, to be read at the next meeting. Sitting at the end of the table, against a wall, I was the last to rise. John Brown and Leyland met me at the door, each of my bearish friends seizing one of my arms to prevent me from leaving, my feet comically moving in the air.
“Not so fast, little man, we have a surprise for you.”
“I don’t know what mischief you have in mind, Joe, but I really must return to the station, for the afternoon is waning.”
Leyland and Brown merely laughed, dismissing my concerns out of hand. “Tut tut, Brontë,” said Joe, “the station runs itself by now, you have already seen to that. And are you not the stationmaster? Come come, let’s go upstairs for your treat.”
Either man was, on his own, capable of breaking me in half, so the union of the two made any idea of further resistance absurd. They marched me across the room and up the broad staircase, roughly pushing me into a room and closing the door behind me. “You are not to leave this room for at least one hour, though you may take two,” shouted Brown, laughing. “I certainly hope you rise to the occasion!”
As the door closed behind me I turned to find a woman sitting on the edge of a bed. She was surely older than I, but far from matronly, and piled on her head was flaming red hair, far redder even than my own, with girlish freckles on her face, arms, and bosom, the last of which was uncovered in the old fashion, before creeping modesty had turned most women into tightly wrapped sweets, whose delicious charms were mostly to be guessed at, but never glimpsed. She had catlike green eyes, very pretty in their way, and when she smiled her lips stretched to cover her teeth, by which I guessed she was none too proud of them. After a moment of confusion, I realised that my friends had purchased me a whore, and instinctively recoiled, bumping against the door.
“Now now,” came a voice from without, “I am keeping watch, Brontë, so do not even think of escape!”
At last the woman spoke. “Is t’is yer firs’ time, loov?”
“Heavens no,” said I indignantly. “What I mean to say is that I have been with women, but never…uh…never….”
“Never wit’ a whore?” said she matter-of-factly, in a pronounced Irish accent.
“Yes, I suppose that is what I meant, but I would never put it quite that way.”
She stood up and walked over to me, took my hand, and drew me to the edge of the bed, where we sat together. “Ye mightas wail put it t’at way, ‘cause I knows what I be and amn’t ashamed to spake trut’. Aye, t’ere’s plenty o’ ladies t’at sell ‘emseln and don’t see t’ey be every bit t’whore I be, so to me t’at’s worse still, being a whore and not knowin’ it, eh laddie?”
I simply nodded. I had always resisted my friends’ attempts to throw me together with prostitutes, of which even Haworth had a supply: it was not unusual to come upon them, either alone and waiting, or plying their trade against the squalid wall of a ginnel or in the high grasses growing between the stones of the churchyard. Once I had expressed great disgust after happening upon just such a scene occurring up against the walls of Haworth church itself, at which John Brown had said, “Ha ha, lad, at leas’ they were outside the church! In medieval times, the great cathedrals, York Minster itself I’m certain, harboured all manner of commerce. There were no boxes or pews, and the people wandered round doin’ their business, including that most essential of activities. Can you imagine, today, a dainty bishop deliverin’ his homily whilst people have it off in the back corner of the church, up against the wall? Nay, we’re so civilised today! How far we’ve come, eh? No wonder the poor folk were constantly threatened with eternal damnation, so that men like me and Leyland were made to carve the façades with Last Judgments designed to terrify them—they deserved frightenin’, the mucky animals!”
I also thought of the last time I had seen Maggie, in the Square Chapel in Halifax, and how, had she permitted, I too would have had it off with her, as Brown would say, would have possessed her right there in a place of worship. Such a reform church had no high altar, but if it had, and it was the only place to fornicate, I would not have hesitated to do so.
All of this and more swirled like a maelstrom through my mind, in the brief time it took to hear this woman’s words.
“I understand,” I responded. “But I have a rather different notion of love, I’m afraid, and so do not wish to waste your time, uh…Miss…Madame….”
“Just Maeve…it means ‘t’intoxicatin’ one’ in Oirish, in’t t’at foonny?”
“Yes, well, Maeve, I’m sure you understand what I mean.”
“Well, aye and nay. First off, t’em friends of your’n an’t goin’ta let ya leave t’is room fer a good bit o’ time. Second t’ing is, whilst y’ may t’ink t’a’ love is all about grand passions and pretty words and havin’ your heart shot t’rough with an arrow or suchlike, I’ve yet t’a meet a man who did not, at least in one of da wee corners of his heart, simply wish to feel a woman’s body against his, t’ drown himself in her flesh t’e way some men drown t’emselves in drink. Do you never feel like doing t’at, laddie?”
“I have always held such transactions to be degrading to both parties,” said I, though I felt the solid ground of my argument begin to crumble beneath me.
“Now hare me out, young mester; I was born in a poor quarter o’ Dooblin, and kin remember goin’ t’ bed hungry, an me Ma and Da’ wit’ nut’in’ a-tall in t’eir bellies, and as soon as I could get ‘way from t’ere I did, crossin’ t’e sea to Liverpool, using me young body to pay me very passage. Liverpool’s a big, brutish, mucky place wit’ sailors from round t’world, and after a few years o’ t’at special bit of Hell, I bolted, I did—hoofed it all t’way t’ Halifax! You may t’ink folks is rough and tumble round here, but t’ey’s as gentle as wee lambs when stacked up agin’ t’em Liverpudlians, by Jaysus! And some of t’em sailors, ‘specially when t’ey be flamin’ drunk, would as soon knock ya o’er t’e head or break yer neck, as t’ey would see ya in t’e nip, or grab yer knobs an’ fanny!”
“Still, nut’in’,” said Maeve. “Would I wish for ot’er choices for such a one as me? By Sweet Jaysus and the Vayrgin Mary I would, but t’is is all I’ve go’,” and she stood up and waved her hand from head to foot.
She paused for a moment, and her enigmatic, tight-lipped smile and feline eyes—they were, indeed, intoxicating in their way—were enough to dispel the last of my equivocations.
“But never mind all t’a’,” she continued, “t’e trut’ is, as I say, t’at t’em friends of yers won’t le’ eit’er off us leave t’is room, or me have me wages, for a’ leas’ an hour or so.” Taking my spectacles off and setting them on a night table, she turned and bent to kiss me, rather sweetly in fact. Why I found this surprising, I don’t know. Had I expected a tigress?
“An’ I like you wail enough—you seem a gentleman an’ a gentle man—so I’d rat’er airn me keep the usu’l way t’an keep blatherin’ an’ rabbitin’ on,” adding with laugh, “if they’d a-wanted a lecture or a homily they’d o’ hired a perfessor or a priest, dancha think?”
“But,” said I weakly, protesting once last time.
“But nuttin’…..hush, laddie,” said she. “Joos’ lie back and breathe deep…shhhh……aye, t’as it,” and she set expertly about her work. I abandoned all scruples, all resistance, perhaps because I was so desperate for a woman’s touch, perhaps because the drink had just reached its maximal effect, or perhaps because I felt that nothing was to be lost and everything to be gained. At last my mind was swept free of its old obstructions and I breathed more easily; at last, then, did my body respond fully to her caresses, as we fucked not once but twice, and when Joe at long last knocked on the door two hours later, I was already stiffening again, wanting to fuck a third time. I use the word intentionally and without shame, because this is what it is was—this and no more.
“Well, love, I reckon i’s time fer me to frame off, but I’m sairtain we’ll meet again, eh?” said Maeve, running her hand expertly from the underside of my chin to the tip of my now fully erect cock, which she squeezed: Jaysus, as she would say, did I want her again! But soon we were dressed and out the door, Joe handing her a few coins—I did not ask him how much, as if not knowing how much she had cost could somehow nullify the transactional nature of our encounter—and slapping me on the back, shouting, in high glee, “Now that warmed me nicely—this calls for a drink, by God!” Of course, with Joe Leyland, everything calls for a drink: boredom or excitement, grief or joy, anticipation or celebration, victory or defeat. Maeve smiled knowingly at us both as she left the inn, and the two of us settled into our chairs at a smaller corner table, for John Brown’s duties—or fear of his Mary—had already called him back to Haworth.
“I can tell by your ruddy complexion that such a romp was just what you wanted. Let me tell you, there is nothing wrong with a gentleman seeking such companionship from time to time. It will put you in a much, much better temper, and keep starvation from the door of such creatures as Maeve. We are winners all round, eh? Just think: if we were all as holy as the Reverend Brontë—sorry, little man, but he is always the first to spring to mind when it comes to paragons of virtue—Maeve and her sisterhood would be reduced to begging in the streets.”
“It is certainly true that I felt,” said I in earnest, “as if a great weight had been lifted, and I hardly know how to explain it.”
“That,” said Joe, folding his hands and assuming a pious air, “was no doubt your conscience sliding off into the sea, like the swine perishing in the waters of today’s Gospel reading.”
Leyland’s response was not what I was seeking, for already his mention of Papa had made my brow perspire, in a far less pleasurable sensation than it had upstairs. I bit my lip and looked out the window, wondering: had the Reverend Patrick Brontë ever resorted to this? There was no doubt that he was a man of passion, for he had fathered six children in seven years! Poor Mamma! For those last years of her brief life she was either pregnant or recovering from it. Father must have been waiting like a hungry animal for her to be just well enough to receive his advances.
And yet, she! Surely she had equal his passion, if not more. And here duty was passion, and passion duty. Perhaps it was she who could not get enough—I blushed at such a thought directed at my long-dead mother—and I remembered her words in my dream: my heart has always been more ready to attach itself to earth than to heaven. If only a fraction of such a passion for the pleasures of this earth was passed down to her children, is it any wonder that—in this age in which, as Leyland said, strong feelings are held to be in very bad taste—Charlotte, myself, Emily and even little Anne could, if we did not take care to conceal ours, appear to be positively mad? Can there be any doubt that, finding little encouragement without, our precocious little band of mourners twisted its feelings inward, creating veritable empires of passion through our wild, boundless scribbling?
Chapter VII—The Depths of the Human Heart
July 2nd, 1841 Luddenden Foot
I have said little about my daily life, and so for the sake of my future self—a doddering old fool who will, most likely, have learned absolutely nothing in the elapsed years—reading this some thirty or forty or fifty years hence, I will devote a few lines to my quotidian occupations.
The station has thus far taken the better part of my time and attention, but Spence continues to be invaluable, and positively encourages me to take time away when I please. The problem, of course, is that I am always pleased to leave. It is not that I detest my work, or that it is particularly difficult, beyond the constant worry that something might go wrong and I be held responsible. How easy it was to be promoted when I applied myself as I did at Sowerby Bridge! Indeed, I do now see that a man of some breeding, who can read and write—and yes, work out figures—and who is willing to perform this drudgery cheerfully, whatever it may be, day in and day out, will almost surely succeed in the world. Indeed, in some respects, such success is almost laughably easy.
But what of those qualities required for steady advancement? Does the man of intellect have those in just as ample supply? Doubt is permitted here, for it is possible that much more important than the power of his mind is his ability to follow orders (i.e., to be led), and to be content or at least willing to tread the same ground day after day, like a mill horse eternally grinding grain. Despite Joe’s half-serious insistence that I am the master of my station, I, too, must follow the strict orders of the railway or jeopardize my very position. Last, but surely not the least of needed qualities, is the ability to maintain a calm temperament and untroubled brow in the face of anger or dismay, rather than answering it with similar wrath or exasperation or, as I am especially wont to do, fleeing the scene entirely to avoid such conflict.
In short, I neither love nor despise my employment, but in some ways feel that I am singularly unfit, by my very temperament, for such work. It occurs to me that I have succeeded thus far by pretending to be someone I am not. How many make their way through life in just this way? Or, to flip the coin, how many have found a vocation that corresponds point by point with their inner nature, so that the trials of their post are not aggravated by even more, and often much costlier, internal battles? For these last struggles sap my strength in far greater measure than anything that might occur at the station itself. Charlotte, I am quite sure, is currently at war with herself as well, as she seeks at once to maintain dominion over her charges and remain sufficiently compliant to her employers. I suspect she would willingly trade places with me.
Beyond the predictable rhythms of the station, I have come, on these warm summer days, to explore the surrounding hills and valleys, which have a diverse kind of beauty far preferable to the monotony of the moors surrounding Haworth. Accompanying me on many of my rambles is one of Papa’s fellow clergyman, the young, freshly-ordained Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden, who is an avid walker and something of an amateur geologist. Happy are the hours we have spent exploring, up hill and down dale, in this warm season, and few words pass between us: when we speak, it is of the glorious, varied landscapes, of our families, or, at times, of matters specific to religion. It is curious, is it not, how we can have such a diversity of friends, all of whom play a part in the warp and woof of the fabric of our lives? Sowden could not be more different from Leyland, and yet I esteem them both, each in his own manner.
I have also, through railway business, my rambles, and my occasional halt at the local public houses, come to know a number of the local merchants and manufacturers, good solid men of business, who nevertheless enjoy a puff and a stiffener, and who most of all love to laugh: James and John Titterington, manufacturers of worsted wool; George Thompson, a maltster and corn dealer; John Murgatroyd, a cloth manufacturer; and one George Richardson, who appears to dabble in just about everything.
Some, but not much, time remains for pursuits of the mind, and I frequently borrow books from Francis Leyland’s shop in Cornmarket, or at the nearby Old Cock Inn, where there is a library of nearly 2,000 volumes and more than a dozen periodicals. I even mean to take the train to Manchester to buy some second-hand books, when time permits. There is little leisure for poetry, but I make the effort when I can. Joe’s challenge to us all has, of course, prompted an effort that I would surely not otherwise have made. My poem, of course, is not really about Landseer’s dog, but about my own yearnings and strivings, and about my own dead mother and sisters, and begins thus:
All that man chases through his whirl of years
All that his hope seeks, all his caution fears
Dazzle or drown those holy thoughts that cling
Round where the forms he loved lie slumbering…
Unlike Landseer’s canine, I have sought to annihilate and bury my sorrows; have I not been right to do so? What is the alternative: to stretch myself over their grave in Haworth church all my life, like a faithful dog?
On my trips to Halifax I have been tempted, on more than one occasion, to seek out Maeve, but have each time resisted, for there subsists in me a remnant of shame over our encounter, nourished by a youthful pride that chides, “What, man, can you not possess a woman’s affections without paying for them?” And yet, far more powerful than the craving for drink is my desire to be with a woman, and I know not how long I can persevere: I need only call to mind the release I felt in her arms, as I thrilled in the wickedness of the moment, as if I were one of the damned who writhe with full as much ecstasy as pain as the flames of passion consume them.
So I argue with myself each day. Indeed, just writing about the topic causes my heart to beat a bit faster, my brow to flush, and my body to stiffen with desire. I readily confess to these pages that my desire is not for Maeve herself, but for what she does; any woman of similar—or superior—attractions who could as expertly perform what she does would be a perfectly suitable substitute. Perhaps there lies the true sinfulness of my desire? I can hardly say.
August 8th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
My life increasingly assumes the dreary contours of routine, and my free moments are given more to earthly pleasures than poetic composition, or contemplation of the divine. At our recent meeting in Halifax I did present, as did we all, the requested poem on Landseer’s dog, and by secret vote I was the winner. Perhaps I might even try to publish it someday—who knows? Even these assemblies—with their predictable, if enjoyable, conversations descending quickly into foolish, drunken banter—are not a fixed part of my routine, which alternates from the station to the public house or inn, an occasional visit to one of the local manufacturers’ houses for drinks or dinner, or rambles with Sowden.
On the day of my “triumph” with the canine poem in Halifax, I at last surrendered to my desires and went to see Maeve, whom I paid to spend an entire evening with me. In addition to what one would expect me to do with such a woman, I found myself opening my heart to her, as a papist would to his confessor. Was it because she, herself, was a Catholic? I surely doubt that. No, there was something comforting in her presence, though whether she even listened is hard to say; she might well have been as indifferent a recipient of my spiritual outpourings as she was of my bodily passions, though she nodded charitably and smiled or knitted her brows at the appropriate moments. Late in the evening, as we lay, my head on her breast and our red hair nearly intertwined as one, I told her about the death of Mamma, and of Maria and Elizabeth. Maeve then told me that she was, nearly to the day, the same age as Maria.
How can I describe what I felt next? Unexpectedly a great surge of grief broke over me, and I felt both that my heart was in my throat, suffocating me, and that my lungs and stomach were collapsing together into a searing ball of flames. I sobbed like an infant—great, wracking sobs I thought would never end, as hot tears spilt out onto her pale, freckled breasts, which earlier I had watched sway above me as she brought me to the relief of a sweet instant of paradise.
Now, like a little child, I buried my head in her neck until, at length, as she calmly stroked my hair and whispered, “Whist now,” my weeping subsided. Within just a few moments, she worked what seems to me now a miracle of sorts, for soon the blubbering baby was transmuted back into the hungry man, and I was devouring her lips and breasts and thighs with my mouth, and before long was sliding into and moving within her until I was cleansed, for the tide of grief that had surged over me moments earlier now flowed back out, as I arched my back and felt every last artery throb, each individual nerve tingle and explode with pleasure.
What did Maeve feel at this time? I confess that I know not; if, in her heart of hearts, she was dreadfully bored and weary from her work, she was far better at masking her true sentiments than I am in my own occupation at the station, for she, too, arched her back and tightened her legs around me with apparent enthusiasm. Is my indifference to her feelings, my carelessness and cold debauchery the true sin—if sin there be—rather than this act itself? At any rate, I have now determined that such a sin is so insignificant that I will make regular visits to her another part of my routine, for having tasted such relief I already thirst for it anew. Society tells us this is wrong, but I cannot fathom why, and do not wish to try. How can such pleasure, which has no victim, be a crime? How can such pleasure displease God, if loving and forgiving he truly be, and if he himself created it?
Fools believe that we are simple creatures, that we cannot hold two warring notions in our minds, or conflicting feelings in our breast, but is this not the very nature of Man? Are we merely wild beasts led only by instinct? Or automata possessing no feelings, simply carrying out our daily tasks as part of one colossal industrial machine? Are we angels whose every action is in accord with the will of our Creator and His commandments? Of course not. And how simply do we view one another, even our own friends and family, as if they were mere sketches in pen and ink! Truly, the depths of the human heart are unfathomable. Deep within Joe Leyland’s comical, irascible, lascivious, debauched and inebriated heart lies also goodness and generosity, and a longing for all that is beautiful, while surely buried within my own chaste and demure sisters are three passionate beings who—blindly and unwittingly, perhaps—are yearning not just to esteem, but to love, to possess and be possessed, to worship and be worshiped, to become one flesh with another being, as I had just done with Maeve.
Is it any wonder, then, that I alternate between states that are blithe and gay and those that are downcast and sad, sometimes within the same few moments? That I can long for worldly success one day and yet also feel that such yearning is nothing but vain folly the next? That I continue to believe, on occasion—usually where drink has exhilarated me momentarily, it is true—that my great gifts will cause the name of Brontë to be remembered down through the ages, while the next I am certain that it will sink into oblivion as soon as the earth rains down on my coffin?
Is it a contradiction that I pursue the pleasures of the present hour with a fanatical zeal despite—or because of—the knowledge that in the blink of an eye my life will draw to a close, and yet I also seek the peace of that final, real rest of the tomb, praying that God—whatever shape he might take—will forgive me for my trespasses? That I have at once the blasphemous desire to supplant God Himself, and yet the annihilating impulse to blot myself out of existence?
And yet, life—our life, my life, all of human life—takes place in that twilight region, those crossroads of contradictory passions and impulses, that swirling maelstrom of words, intentions and deeds, which men—the hypocrites!—sit in judgment upon, tallying as “good” here and “evil” there, but which only the Divine One can fully comprehend.
It was in this agitated and contradictory state of mind that I wrote a poem today, which ended thus:
When I look back on former life
I scarcely know what I have been
So swift the change from strife to strife
That passes o’er the wildering scene
I only feel that every power—
And thou hadst given much to me
Was spent upon the present hour
Was never turned My God to thee
That what I did to make me blest
Sooner or later changed to pain
That still I laughed at peace and rest
So neither must behold again
I do find some solace in my recent poetical victory, however. Though the entire “contest” was something of a bad jest from first to last, it is encouraging that I can still sit and write, when I force myself, and quickly produce verse that is superior to that of published poets, some of whom are nearly twice my age. Surely I should not give up, for if I possess any gift in this world, that is it.
To be continued on 25 April 2020