A copy of the rare first edition of the three sisters' book of poems, 'Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell'.
Published by the London firm of Aylott and Jones in 1846, it sold for the grand sum of 4 shillings (which, in today's currency is 20 pence), and proved a dismal failure selling only two copies during the first year.
Emily has generally been regarded as the most highly talented poet of the Brontë family; however, following the failure of their first publication - a book of their combined poems (shown above), it was Anne who 'began enjoying a quiet success with her poems': in December 1848, both the Leeds Intelligencer, and Fraser's Magazine, published her poem 'The Narrow Way' under her pseudonym, Acton Bell. Four months earlier, Fraser's Magazine had also published her long poem 'The Three Guides'.
On a visit to the Parsonage in December 1848, Ellen Nussey 'observed a slow smile stealing over Anne's face' as she sat reading before the fire one evening. When she asked her why, Anne replied, "Only because I see they have inserted one of my poems".98
Anne's poems are generally divided into two categories: the 'Gondal', and the 'non-Gondal'. The former are the ones that she wrote as part of the fantasy world - Gondal - which she created and developed throughout her childhood and youth with Emily: most of these where written while Anne was in close proximity with her sister. When the two sisters were parted, Anne rarely ever wrote Gondal verses: what she did write form the second category. In these, Anne recorded various prominent occasions and incidents that she encountered at various stages in her life, or expressed her 'anxieties' and 'feelings' related to such occasions and events: typical are the many despondent verses that express the home-sickness, loneliness, and depression which she experienced while working as a governess at Thorp Green. Also included are a variety of religious and love poems, and it is only through these verses that we are aware of Anne's strong feelings for her father's curate, William Weightman.
Through her heroine, Agnes Grey, Anne reveals her own need to record such occasions and feelings in poetic form, and how she views these writings as 'pillars of witness':
'When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry . . .'
'Before this time, at Wellwood House and here, when suffering from home-sick melancholy, I had sought relief twice or thrice at this secret source of consolation; and now I flew to it again with greater avidity than ever, because I seemed to need it more. I still preserve those relics of past sufferings and experience, like pillars of witness set up in travelling through the vale of life, to mark particular occurrences.'
'The footsteps are obliterated now; the face of the country may be changed; but the pillar is still there, to remind me how all things were when it was reared.' 99
Despite the distinction between the two categories, even Anne's 'Gondal' poems often reflect her own moods and feelings - though more in a fantasy setting.
Anne has left us with a total of fifty-nine poems; twenty-three of these are the 'Gondal' variety; the remainder, well over thirty, are her 'pillars of witness', forming a collection that could otherwise be regarded as her 'emotional auto-biography'.
In addition to the poems, Anne wrote a number of Hymns, and Edward Chitham notes that 'three of her hymns are in modern editions of the Methodist Hymn Book and also make their appearance in Baptist and Anglican collections'.100 Her poem 'The Three Guides' 'is used as a hymn by several denominations and is in the current Moravian hymn book.' 101 In recent years, a number of the three sisters' poems, though mostly Anne's, have been set to music and are sung regularly in St. Michael and All Angel's church in Haworth.
Commenting on Anne's poetry, Elizabeth Langland writes: 'She continues to find a readership today - some one hundred and fifty years after their origin, placing her among a very small minority of notable women poets of the nineteenth century.' 102
Brontë biographer Winifred Gerin remarks:
'Though technically she may seldom have reached perfection, there is music in every line she wrote. Some of her openings are hauntingly memorable:
|Oh, weep not, love! each tear that springs
In those dear eyes of thine . . .
I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
Yes, thou art gone! and never more
O God! if this indeed be all
Dr. Edward Chitham writes: 'She is often disarmingly traditional, but the traditional in her work is infused with personality, so that in all her best poems there is abundant warmth and immediacy of feeling in every line.' 104 Commenting on one of her last poems, Chitham concludes: 'The impression is given of a writer still young, whose art is maturing, and who might have been able to contribute material of high value if she had lived.' 105
The complete set of Anne's poems is presented here. Twenty-one were included in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and varying degrees of alterations were made to them for this publication; though often, these were only slight. Where there is any significant difference between the manuscript and 'Poems' copy, I have presented both.
For anyone who is interested in delving deeper into Anne's poetry, I can highly recommend the definitive collection - The Poems of Anne Brontë by Edward Chitham: this includes a more detailed analysis of the poems than I have presented on this site. It also opens with a wonderful, concise biography of Anne.
Poems Index (Poems presented in order of composition)
by Lady Geralda (December 1836)
Alexander and Zenobia (1 July 1837)
A Voice From The Dungeon (October 1837)
The Captive's Dream (24 January 1838)
The North Wind (26 January 1838)
The Parting (9 July 1838)
Untitled ('The Parting 2') (10 July 1838)
Verses To A Child (21 August 1838)
A Fragment / Self Congratulation (1 January 1840) (Weightman related)
The Bluebell (22 August 1840)
Lines Written at Thorp Green / Appeal (28 August 1840) (Weightman related)
Untitled ('Farewell') (Undated - Possibly early 1840s) (Possibly Weightman related)
Retirement (13 December 1840)
An Orphan's Lament (1 January 1841)
Lines Written at Thorp Green (19 August 1841)
Despondency (20 December 1841)
In Memory of a Happy Day in February (February - November 1842)
To Cowper (10 November 1842)
To ------------ (with pictures) (December 1842) (Weightman related)
Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day (December 1842)
A Word To The Calvinists / A Word To The 'Elect' (28 May 1843)
A Hymn / The Doubter's Prayer (10 September 1843)
The Captive Dove (31 October 1843)
The Consolation (7 November 1843)
'Tis Strange To Think / Past Days (21 November 1843)
Music on Christmas Morning (Undated - Christmas 1841 - 45. Possibly 1843)
Fragment (26 January 1844)
The Student's Serenade (February 1844)
Home (Undated - possibly early 1844)
Yes Thou Art Gone / A Reminiscence (April 1844) (Weightman related)
Memory (29 May 1844)
Fluctuations (2 August 1844) (Written at Scarborough)
A Prayer ('My God! O let me call Thee mine!') (with picture) (13 October 1844)
Lines Inscribed on The Wall of a Dungeon in The Southern P of I (16 December 1844)
Call Me Away (24 January 1845)
Night (Early 1845) (Weightman related)
The Arbour (Undated - 1840 to early 1845)
Dreams (Spring 1845)
If This Be All (20 May 1845)
Confidence (1 June 1845)
Views of Life (June 1845)
Song (3 September 1945)
Song (2) (4 September 1945)
Vanitas Vanitatis Etc / Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas (4 September 1845)
Fragment / The Penitent (1845)
Parting Addresss From Z.Z. To A.E. / Stanzas (1 October 1845)
Untitled ('A prisoner in a dungeon deep') (Undated - Pre-1839 - 1842, or 1845-46)
Untitled ('Oh, they have robbed me of the hope') (Not dated - appeared in Agnes Grey) (Weightman related)
Monday Night May 11th 1846 / Domestic Peace (11 May 1846)
Mirth And Mourning (15 July 1846)
Untitled ('Weep not too much') (28 July 1846)
Power Of Love (13 August 1846)
Z---------'s Dream (14 September 1846)
Untitled ('Gloomily the clouds') (October 1846) (Anne's last Gondal poem)
Untitled ('Severed and gone') (April 1847) (Weightman related)
The Three Guides (11 August 1847)
Self Communion (November 1847 - 17 April 1848)
The Narrow Way (24 April 1848) (Anne's best known hymn)
Last Lines (7th. - 28th. January 1849)