Charlotte Brontë: A Modernist Poet?

Imagism is a strand of Modernism, born from the poetry of T. E. Hulme and chiefly associated with literary figures such as Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. Pound’s poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, emphasises the Imagist’s belief that poetry should be expressed with clarity using precise visual imagery:


Pound’s blunt expression was a reaction against traditional Romantic and Victorian poetry, with its long-winded, embellished description and grand, flamboyant pomp. Pound, along with his twentieth century Anglo-American contemporaries, sought to greet the twentieth century with an innovative remodelling of poetic verse, giving it immediate impact through intensified wording.

Some 60 years previous, Charlotte Brontë and her siblings were at the height of their adolescent creativity. Although we are most familiar with the Brontë sisters’ poetry through their later volume Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), the siblings were writing verse since their pre-teens. We often associate their verse with the very style the Imagists were trying to work against, and this is mostly true, Charlotte Brontë’s poems such as ‘Pilate’s Wife’s Dream’, ‘Song’, ‘The Teacher’s Monalogue’ are all deeply passionate and ornamented. Even her unpublished work, found within her juvenile tales of Glass Town and Angria is highly decorated and lamenting. This is an example from her Young Men’s Magazine (October 1830):

LO! The light of the morning is flowing

Through radiant portals of gold

Which Aurora in crimson robes flowing

For the horse of fire doth unfold


A lot of Charlotte’s poetry draws from Romantic authors such as Scott and Byron: a majority of my research analyses how Charlotte and Branwell’s juvenile verse mimics Romantic war poetry, a subject and style that is, in itself, fraught with conflict. The verse above is written by Charlotte’s The Marquis of Douro, her fictitious, idealised soldier figure who is modelled partly on his father – both in real life and in the saga – the Duke of Wellington, and partly on Byron. Like this snippet demonstrates, much of his verse draws from the Romantic revival classical imagery and the powerful transcendence of nature.

This being typical of Charlotte (and the other siblings’) poetry, it was then a complete surprise when I stumbled upon this piece of verse written by Charlotte in 1837. It remains relatively unknown, only published in Victor Neudfeldt’s 1985 edition of The Poems of Charlotte Brontë. It is, most likely, referencing the last battle of the Angrian civil wars, ‘The Battle of Evesham’. Previously, Zamorna, the king of Angria, has been exiled on Ascension Isle (like Napoleon Bonaparte). In 1837, he returns to Angria, rallies his troops, and marches to Evesham where the revolutionary forces, headed by Zamorna’s love/hate father-in-law, Northangerland, have fortified the town. Here is the full transcription:

Victory leads

Capture their battery

He shall be conqueror

Fastest who speeds

Think not of danger now

Enter the breach

Dream not of cannon-ball

Mount by the shattered wall

Soon shall their banner-staff

Bend to your reach

War is an ecstasy

Risk is wild

What though their battlements

Stand like a rock.

After I had finished reading it, I was struck with its simplicity, and distinctly Imagist style. Charlotte’s usual embellishments have instead been replaced with exactness and observed detail, completely focussing on the core elements of combat and battlefield emotion. Not only does it reveal her unusual euphoria regarding warfare: ‘War is an ecstasy/Risk is wild‘, it also provides a modern poetic retelling of Napoleonic feeling, Charlotte and Branwell basing most of their Angrian campaigns on Napoleonic battles and their contemporary ’emotional’ aftermath. Although it cannot be labelled distinctly as ‘modernist’, it is certainly modernist-in-feeling, and acts as an unusual precursor to later modes of poetic form. It is especially unusual because, judging from my research, it is unlike all canonical and periodical-based poetry they were exposed to.

Hmm… I think a little more research is in order.




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