Weekend Poem: The Letter by Charlotte Brontë

If you’ve been following along this week, readers, you know that letter-writing has been much on our collective Storyacious mind, particularly due to the new and fine literary journal, The Letters Page, trying to gently remind us of the lost art of long-hand letter-writing.

I have been musing all week about the many little rituals of letter-writing. From the selection of stationery and writing instruments to the actual act of writing, then mailing, then the delivery, the receiving, the reading, inevitable re-readings and the storing as keepsakes. A more complex set of rituals than digital communication, as wonderfully easy and efficient as it is, can ever give us. And, rituals are important in our lives. They allow us to pay more attention to what we’re doing and give us space to be more creative.

The ritualization of letter-writing, in particular, is even more interesting because it illustrates so perfectly the 4 dimensions that sociologist, Mervin Verbit, defined: content, frequency, intensity, centrality. While Verbit defined these in terms of religious ritualism, I find that they apply to the art and practice of letter-writing as well. A letter consists of substantial content, regardless of its length – at least for the ones who write and receive it. The frequency of the act of letter-writing may vary, depending on the relationship between writer and reader, but, that, in itself, tells us much about that relationship. The intensity with which all the mini-rituals outlined above are carried out impact both the content and the relationship. And, finally, the centrality of the letter-writing ritual overall in a person’s life tells us about the commitment that both writer and reader have to their relationship.

Take this lovely poem by Charlotte Brontë, where she described, in such vivid detail, the  writing of a letter. The poem is structured in 3 main parts. The first 3 stanzas paint a detailed scene of a young woman writing a letter at her desk on a summer evening. The 4th stanza in the middle is the transition, where Brontë gives us, as the readers of her poem, specific instructions as to where we next need to focus our attention. The third part – the last 3 stanzas – takes our gaze up and away from the desk so that we can take in clues regarding the intended recipient of the letter – first, through a shadowy picture in a gold frame and then, through a description of the geography that separates the two.

The opening scene, with the young woman in the act of writing, gives us wonderful sense of her anxiety, eagerness and total absorption. She is quite unaware of anything except the words flowing from her and onto the pages. And, that the labor is sweet for this letter-writer tells us that she must be writing to someone she cares for. We get a detailed view of the immediate world around her. It is a glorious summer evening, as she sits indoors, dressed in fineries and in rather comfortable surroundings. She has put aside her regular outdoor walk, not paying any heed to all the charms of the gardens just beyond the glass door of her parlor. She is absorbed in her writing, her pen moving so fast – what must she have to say that was of such urgency and importance, we wonder? What news or thoughts could they be that they’re just pouring out of her – in words and in tears?

I particularly love how Brontë then has us follow, almost cinematically, how the letter-writer’s eyes travel up, above the furniture in front of her and rest on a framed picture, likely on a wall in front of her, just beyond the couch. And, how, we, the passive viewers, cannot really see the image in that picture frame because of the shadows. Brontë urges us to look again and points out the outlines of a strong, manly figure and face of a man who, it seems, is almost God-like to the letter-writer.

And, the final stanza, the climactic one, emphasizes the distance between the letter-writer and its intended recipient – three seas, and many lands beyond, in some colonial outpost of the British Empire (I am guessing this is either the Caribbean or Australia). We get confirmation that he is her husband and that her tears are for his longed-for return.

A simple, beautiful poem that elaborates on one of the many rituals of letter-writing. And, while I don’t mean to suggest that a person sending just such a communication digitally would feel the emotions any less than this letter-writer of nearly 200 years ago, I just don’t think that rapid, frantic typing on a keyboard communicates those emotions in quite the same way as a pen flying over paper. Also, given that emails are almost instantaneous, the immense distance across both geography and time intensifies the anxiety, haste, eagerness and anticipation – what a delicious, heady mix of emotions.

And, here’s something interesting. When I searched on Poemhunter for letter-related poems, about 837 turned up, going as far back as medieval times. Clearly, letters have held such a special place in human existence, particularly when they were the only way of staying connected to faraway friends, family, lovers. In that selection, there are some highly-charged poems where letters are described as the very manifestation of the people writing or reading them. And as Virginia Woolf said about letter-writing, it is a “humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”. Somehow, I don’t think we’ll be feeling the same way about the all-purpose and ubiquitous email or text message in a hundred years, do you?

[Oh, I also loved the one by Emily Dickinson on how she likes to read a letter. Classic Emily – you can just picture her doing exactly what she describes in the poem. And, this rather uplifting, joyous one, where she instructs the letter to convey all that she feels for the recipient.]

The Letter

What is she writing? Watch her now,
How fast her fingers move!
How eagerly her youthful brow
Is bent in thought above!
Her long curls, drooping, shade the light,
She puts them quick aside,
Nor knows, that band of crystals bright,
Her hasty touch untied.
It slips adown her silken dress,
Falls glittering at her feet;
Unmarked it falls, for she no less
Pursues her labour sweet.

The very loveliest hour that shines,
Is in that deep blue sky;
The golden sun of June declines,
It has not caught her eye.
The cheerful lawn, and unclosed gate,
The white road, far away,
In vain for her light footsteps wait,
She comes not forth to-day.
There is an open door of glass
Close by that lady’s chair,
From thence, to slopes of mossy grass,
Descends a marble stair.

Tall plants of bright and spicy bloom
Around the threshold grow;
Their leaves and blossoms shade the room,
From that sun’s deepening glow.
Why does she not a moment glance
Between the clustering flowers,
And mark in heaven the radiant dance
Of evening’s rosy hours?
O look again! Still fixed her eye,
Unsmiling, earnest, still,
And fast her pen and fingers fly,
Urged by her eager will.

Her soul is in th’ absorbing task;
To whom, then, doth she write?
Nay, watch her still more closely, ask
Her own eyes’ serious light;
Where do they turn, as now her pen
Hangs o’er th’ unfinished line?
Whence fell the tearful gleam that then
Did in their dark spheres shine?
The summer-parlour looks so dark,
When from that sky you turn,
And from th’ expanse of that green park,
You scarce may aught discern.

Yet o’er the piles of porcelain rare,
O’er flower-stand, couch, and vase,
Sloped, as if leaning on the air,
One picture meets the gaze.
‘Tis there she turns; you may not see
Distinct, what form defines
The clouded mass of mystery
Yon broad gold frame confines.
But look again; inured to shade
Your eyes now faintly trace
A stalwart form, a massive head,
A firm, determined face.

Black Spanish locks, a sunburnt cheek,
A brow high, broad, and white,
Where every furrow seems to speak
Of mind and moral might.
Is that her god? I cannot tell;
Her eye a moment met
Th’ impending picture, then it fell
Darkened and dimmed and wet.
A moment more, her task is done,
And sealed the letter lies;
And now, towards the setting sun
She turns her tearful eyes.

Those tears flow over, wonder not,
For by the inscription, see
In what a strange and distant spot
Her heart of hearts must be!
Three seas and many a league of land
That letter must pass o’er,
E’er read by him to whose loved hand
‘Tis sent from England’s shore.
Remote colonial wilds detain
Her husband, loved though stern;
She, ‘mid that smiling English scene,
Weeps for his wished return.

Charlotte Brontë, The Poetry of Charlotte Brontë

~ Charlotte Brontë ~