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The Food of Love? The Poetry of Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters

Hello again, JASP readers and devotees! Many people around the world recognize Jane Austen, at least by name, as one of the most famed English-language novelists ever to have lived. However, few realize that she was not only a novelist—but a poet as well. While she was not particularly prolific, penning only thirteen known poems during her lifetime, Austen dazzled with her characteristic playfulness and lightness of rhythm in the verses she did compose, writing of headaches, honeymoons, and everything in between! Her characters certainly had a few things to say about poetry, too. Consider these lines from Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, respectively:

[Anne] thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.


“I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”
“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.
“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

While Persuasion treats the emotional pain that so often accompanies poetic writing with reverence and respect, Pride and Prejudice seems to poke fun at those who write poetry in service of “wooing” a romantic partner. Jane’s own poetry served neither to express agony or win a man’s love, but rather to delight close friends and family with its lighthearted lyrics and humorous titles, such as “Oh! Mr Best You’re Very Bad” and “I’ve a Pain in my Head.”

In the final manuscript Austen drafted before her untimely death in July of 1817, there appears a poem entitled “When Winchester races” in which Jane writes, “When once we are buried you think we are gone / But behold me immortal!” Although those lines reference a specific character in the poem, many Janeites and scholars have likened the sentiment to Austen’s own long-lasting cultural impact. “Immortal” indeed through those who continue to read and reread her novels, Austen lives on in the twenty-first century.

The Brontë sisters' book of poetry

The Brontë sisters—namely Charlotte and Emily, although Anne did contribute a small selection to their jointly-published Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1946)—were also poets, together composing between four and five hundred known poems throughout their considerably short lifetimes. Of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte was the most prolific simply by virtue of time, penning over two hundred poems before she died in 1855. Emily followed hot on Charlotte’s heels, her total just falling short of two hundred by the time of her own earlier death in 1848.

Like her prose, Charlotte’s poetry contains themes such as sexual and romantic passion, betrayal, religion, and the complex interiorities of the human psyche. However, following the success of Jane Eyre, as well as readers’ general shift in preference from poetry to prose in the 1830s and 40s, Charlotte abandoned poetry in favor of full-time novel-writing, excluding three unfinished poems upon her sisters’ deaths. Some of her most famous poems include “Apostasy,” “The Wife’s Will,” “Speak of the North! A Lonely Moor,” and “On the Death of Anne Brontë,” the last of which calls to mind Cassandra Austen’s poetically heartbreaking letter to Fanny Knight following her Jane’s death.

A Brontë poem with a familiar title...

Emily’s poetry, too, veered toward the Romantic style of the Victorian era. Reviewers noted her poetic prowess early in her career, asserting the “fine quaint spirit” of Ellis Bell’s work within the sisters’ collected Poems: “[she has] things to speak that men will be glad to hear,—and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.” The natural flora and fauna of Emily's beloved home in Haworth appear in many of her poems, as do characters from the fictional world of “Gondal,” a paracosm developed by the Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell. While critics have lauded many of Emily’s poems as works of significant genius, some of the most popular include “A Day Dream,” “To Imagination,” “A Prisoner,” “Death,” “No Coward Soul is Mine,” and “The Bluebell.”

So, dear readers—what do you think? Will you soon be banging on bookshop doors to find the nearest volume containing Jane Austen’s or one of the Brontë sisters’ collected poetry? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Of course, if this author maintains her own favorite Austen or Brontë poetess, her lips remain coyly sealed.

Browse Austen’s collection of poetry here, Charlotte Brontë’s collection of poetry here, and Emily Brontë’s collection of poetry here.


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