The main unanswered question about Bronte¨’s ‘‘The Old Stoic’’ is how it is to be understood in relationship to Gondal, the fantasy realm created by Emily and her sister Anne. The problem concerns all of her poetry, the bulk of which comes from two manuscript notebooks in which she made fair copies in 1844 of older poems that she wished to preserve. One she headed ‘‘Gondal Poems’’ and the other simply with her initials, E. J. B. ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ however, comes from neither source, but from a single sheet datedMarch 1, 1841, now in the Honresfeld collection kept in private hands by the Law family.
The first critic to seriously consider the Gondal background of Emily’s writing was Fannie Ratchford in two studies published in the 1940s and 1950s, especially in Gondal’s Queen. Since it was acknowledged that even Wuthering Heights grew out of Gondal material, she naturally took all of Emily’s poetry as related to the cycle of material about the mythical realm. The fact that Emily did not write the name Gondal in the E. J. B. Notebook or on other manuscripts is not a serious objection since it is not known what their original organization might have been, except that Emily’s surviving sister Charlotte later destroyed most of the Gondal material, and that many of the surviving scraps of poetry were torn out of larger notebooks at some point in the past, most likely by collectors. Ratchford found that Emily’s poetry as a whole could be fit together like broken pieces of a statue, to suggest the original outline of the Gondal Saga without leaving any part of it unaccounted for. The fact that Emily continued to write new Gondal poetry, even after Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, would seem to argue strongly for Ratchford’s interpretation. Yet, this view has not found favor with many later critics.
The more recent trend in relating Emily’s verse to Gondal, as presented in the article on her poetry in The Oxford Companion to the Bronte¨s, for instance, has been to separate her verse from Gondal as far as possible. The ‘‘purely Gondal reading of Emily Bronte¨’s poems appeared to reduce their significance for many readers, confining them within a self-indulgent childhood fantasy world.’’ Poetry that cannot be detached from Gondal is routinely dismissed as rubbish and melodrama. So critics have ‘‘felt the need to clearly divide Emily’s poetry into Gondal and non-Gondal categories, and so rescue some of the poems as personal romantic statements.’’ The criteria for division would seem to be between good and meaningful poetry, and poetry that is related to the juvenile (in the more pejorative sense) world of Gondal. The problem with this division is that many of Emily’s poems acknowledged as her best work are clearly set in Gondal. For instance, Emily’s published poem ‘‘The Prisoner’’ is a fragment from the long poem ‘‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’’ in the Gondal notebook. Critics who try to downplay the importance of Gondal explain this phenomenon with the claim that removing lyric poetry from its specific context in Gondal to an unbounded universal context magically transforms the same lines into more deeply meaningful poetry. It must be noted that the one responsible for this transformation was not Emily herself, but Charlotte, who acted as her editor.
At least part of what explains such seemingly paradoxical criticism is a long-standing academic prejudice against fantasy as a literary theme. This is the same prejudice that prevented the Bronte¨s from ever considering publication of Angria or Gondal material. The same consideration hampered J. R. R. Tolkien in his initial attempts to publish works set in his fantasy realm of Middle Earth.Most critics still wish to dismiss Tolkien, just as they dismiss Gondal, despite the overwhelming popularity of fantasy literature once it became available in commercially published literature. Tom Shippey, in his J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, has made the case that fantasy has become the dominant genre of English literature over the course of the twentieth century, with academic critics fighting against it vigorously. Fantasy suffers from the prejudice that it is unreal and devoted to infantile wish fulfillment, despite the evident fact that even the most realistic novels of Marcel Proust or Ernest Hemingway are set in a carefully constructed artificial world just as much as Middle Earth or Gondal.
A more persuasive solution to the problem of Gondal is to see Bronte¨ as a forward-looking author whose instinct was to anticipate the rise of fantasy. Emily and her siblings can be seen as the first great world builders, anticipating the modern explosion of the exploration of fantasy worlds as a new popular genre. The exploration of the human condition through such a manipulation of authorial reality hardly reduces the meaning of the Bronte¨s’ poetry, since its meaning remains the same whatever its context. The creation of a fantastic world as the setting of a work of literature is hardly new with the Bronte¨s. Rather, they found inspiration in the ancient epic poets Homer and Virgil, and in English epics such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost. What they added to tradition, through their imitation of contemporary popular magazines that gave form to their efforts, was the modern and even postmodern characteristics of play with genre and ironic distancing of the author and reader from the text. Their awareness of the interplay between artistic creation and commercial publication marks their fantasy world as a place of sophisticated literature, possessed of all the serious literary characteristics critics declare lacking in fantasy.
To turn more directly to ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ it is not hard to see how it must have functioned within the Gondal Saga in general, and to make some educated guesses about the specifics. There seems to be little doubt that Emily was acquainted with the writings of the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus and that her presentation of Stoicism within the poem is closely based on his works. Epictetus is by far the most accessible surviving source for Stoic philosophy, and all the more so in the nineteenth century for a reader unacquainted with the ancient Greek original since his works were widely translated. In particular, the translation by Elizabeth Carter in All the Works of Epictetus, which are now Extant; Consisting of His Discourses, Preserved by Arrian, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments was most likely well known to Emily since she was unusually highly educated for a woman of her time, and she also trained and worked as a professional teacher, however briefly. The closest that one can come to confirmation of this is a saying from the Handbook of Epictetus that deals in a unified way with precisely the same subject matter as Bronte¨’s poem: the rejection of wealth, love, and fame in a context of Stoic conceptions about salvation. Epictetus imagines a banquet in which all the apparently goods things of life are offered. The proper way to act, he says, is to take each plate as it is passed to you, and not to reach out for it before it comes to you, and not to keep it when it is to be passed on to someone else:
“In the same way toward your children, in the same way toward your wife, in the same way toward public office, in the same way toward wealth, and you will be fit to share a banquet with the gods.”
But if you can reject even what is offered to you and partake of nothing, then you will have passed from the companionship of the banquet to join the company of the gods, acting as they themselves do and surpassing the merely human. This is the ultimate goal of Stoic philosophy. In both Bronte¨ and Epictetus, by not only not desiring but by actively rejecting the value of worldly goods, the Stoic proves himself worthy of divine status, though Bronte¨seems to push this off to an afterlife in the conflation of Stoic and Christian ideas fashionable in the nineteenth century.
Many modern readers take the old Stoic of the title to be Epictetus, as though the ancient philosopher were the speaker of the poem. This is a universalist reading of the poem, meant to make it accessible to readers with no special knowledge of the Bronte¨s’ created world, that moves it away from Gondal where Epictetus would not be a possible character. However, the title ‘‘The Old Stoic’’ was given to the poem by Charlotte, not Emily, and can, therefore, hardly be used as evidence for a reading of Emily’s intended meaning. The poem is more likely meant to be a sketch of an unidentified character within the Gondal Saga. There is ample precedent for the development of such a character. For instance in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the character of Brutus has little relation to Caesar’s historical friend and assassin Brutus, but rather is a fictionalized character who consistently acts and speaks as a Stoic philosopher would in the situations presented by the plot of the play. Bronte¨very likely intended something of the same kind.
Thinking along these lines, there is no warrant to accept Charlotte’s characterization of the Stoic as old. It is true he speaks of death as swiftly approaching, but this is not most naturally taken as a reference to old age but as a Stoic commonplace. The Stoic viewed death as the only certainty in life and lived ever mindful of it. Even if Emily’s Stoic has some definite reason to think he might die soon, there is no reason to think this death would come from old age. Ancient Stoic philosophers were famous for speaking out against political tyranny and oppression, even at the cost of their own lives when the tyrant silenced them through execution. A scene along those lines would offer far more dramatic potential within the Gondal Saga than a mere death from old age. Here is an instance when the original context of Gondal, even if it must be recreated, gives more depth of meaning to the poem, in contrast to the shallowness implicit in the Universalist reading, which would make the poem merely a restatement of Epictetus’s own philosophy in old age.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Emily Bronte, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.