ALL overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”,
In quiet Haworth laid.
This bird, observing others,
When frosts too sharp became,
Retire to other latitudes,
Quietly did the same.
But differed in returning;
Since Yorkshire hills are green,
Yet not in all the nests I meet
Can nightingale be seen.
Gathered from any wanderings,
Gethsemane can tell
Through what transporting anguish
She reached the asphodel!
Soft falls the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear;
Oh, what an afternoon for heaven,
When Brontë entered there!
Today is the anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s death, so this poem seems fitting. It’s rife with tantalizing details. Why is the moss “cunning”? Why does Dickinson describe the grave as a “cage”–it works with the bird imagery later in the poem, but also suggests entrapment. Dickinson also uses Bronte’s male pen name, Currer Bell.
In the second stanza, the psuedo-male author is suddenly a bird. The reference to Bronte “observing others” seems to allude to the fact that, of all the Bronte siblings, Charlotte was last to die. It’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to lose all your sisters and brothers well before even middle age, to be the last one left.
The metaphor gets tangled here–first Bronte is a bird who sees other birds flying south, meaning that she is watching those around her die. But in the third stanza, she “differed in returning,” meaning that, unlike migratory birds, she didn’t come back. But the people represented poetically by those birds didn’t come back, either–within the space of a very few words, Dickinson complicates her own metaphor. The people around Bronte are birds, but then they are suddenly actual migratory birds and not people, and the difference between them and Bronte is that Bronte is dead, not just gone for a while. This metaphorical tricksiness makes me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its tales of humans who are simultaneously human and not-human. There’s something weirdly mythical about the Charlotte Bronte Dickinson is describing, something elusive and slippery. She’ll never come back–but she has left traces.
In the fourth stanza Dickinson, who was certainly no stranger to surviving the deaths of others, imagines Bronte’s “transporting anguish,” offering a tiny glimpse into the reality of Bronte’s life and death. This expression of empathy for the moment of death echoes that in Dickinson’s poem that begins “To know just how he suffered would be dear.”
It’s the final stanza, though, that, for me, makes the entire poem. “Oh, what an afternoon for heaven/When Bronte entered there!” With the inclusion of the last name in the last stanza, Dickinson transforms Bronte back from a bird to a human–and this transformation is new and different because this time Bronte is identified by her real name, not her male nom de plume. The reclusive female poet reaches back through time and space to a literary foremother, one of the women who paved the way for every single one of us today who has the audacity to pick up a pen or open a file.
I wonder what Dickinson thought of Bronte’s decision to publish under a male name, of her decision to publish at all. Did she admire the courage it took, identify with the reclusiveness inherent in the use of a pseudonym? Did she look up to Bronte? Envy her? See her as a sister in arms?
What I love most about the last stanza is the unabashed admiration of the last two lines. Dickinson imagines Bronte’s arrival in heaven as a windfall for paradise. “Oh, what an afternoon for heaven.”
I wonder if Emily and Charlotte are together right now, discussing life and writing over a celestial cup of tea.