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13 December 2011

All overgrown by cunning moss

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 –

                                                         - F146 (1860)  148

Charlotte Bronte
Wikipedia Commons
This poem, written in honor of Charlotte Bronte on the fourth anniversary of her death, uses the central metaphor of Bronte (Currer Bell was her pen name) as a bird. First she is buried in a “little cage” in the Haworth churchyard. It seems sadly neglected, weedy and overgrown; but Bronte became more revered and famous as the years passed – much like Dickinson herself.
In the second and third stanzas Bronte is free like a bird. She migrated when the weather got cold. Alas, though, this bird did not return. In the last line, the poet identifies the Bronte bird as a nightingale – whose song is considered by many to be the most lovely of any bird.
When the poet writes that she has never found this nightingale “in all the nests I meet” I suspect she means she has been hoping to find another writer’s “voice” as compelling and beautiful as she found Bronte.
Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847 when Dickinson was 17. It became one of her most favored books. While Jane Eyre was immediately successful, reviews turned harsher when it became known that Currer Bell was really a woman. Like Dickinson, Bronte and her sisters led quiet village lives.  I’d love to think the Brontes and Dickinson might have met, but an ocean separated them.
Johnson provides an alternate second and third stanza to that published by Franklin (above). In this version Bronte has survived a difficult life to reach Heaven (alluded to as “the Asphodel”). Accustomed as she was to the harsh Christianity of her father, its sounds would fall “soft … Upon her puzzled ear”. These are the alternate two stanzas:

Gathered from many wanderings—
Gethsemane can tell
Thro' what transporting anguish
She reached the Asphodel!

Soft falls the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear—
Oh what an afternoon for Heaven,
When "Bronte" entered there!



  1. This is lovely. I love both of these women's works.

  2. I prefer the RWF version of Bronte as the nightingale. The tone of the second and third stanzas seem to fit better with the first. The bird imagery is also very appealing and speaks to the immortality of the poet/writer which is able to return when other birds leave. In this case, return would refer to returning from Heaven/winter.

    When the poet comments in the last line "Yet not in all the nests I meet –
    Can Nightingale be seen –" I think the reference is to the fact that Bronte's music/poetry/writing can still be heard even though the physical person is gone. Although we hear the music, the nightingale is rarely seen. The spirit of Bronte is with us still, though unseen.

    Dickinson seems to be traditional in using the nightingale as the metaphor of the poet. Her uniqueness is in the use of the homely metaphor of the bird leaving its little cage "overgrown by moss" and "interspersed weed" and returning in winter in a sort of resurrection of the spirit on earth through her writing. I found this quote from Shelley that seems to fit well:

    Shelley wrote in his “A Defense of Poetry":

    "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

    1. Thank you for that Shelley quote. Perhaps Dickinson's phrase about how the bird 'differed in returning' means not that she died, but that her song remains. And now I must go read Shelley's ode...

  3. Replies
    1. The info on Charlotte Bronte is general information. The poetry interpretation is my own. I'm not sure if I read somewhere about the poem being the 4th anniversary of her death or if I noticed that on my own.

  4. Your comments are always so illuminating. Thank you!

  5. Historically, elegies ended with a sense of closure, whether consolation, resurrection, finality, or purpose (Socarides 2008). ED’s elegy for Charlotte Bronte gives two endings. The first, Franklin’s preference, “Yet not in all the nests I meet – / Can Nightingale be seen”, omits satisfying closure, at least to my ear. The second, Johnson’s preference, gives purpose to Bronte’s life: “Oh what an afternoon for Heaven, When "Bronte" entered there!” Giving a choice of two endings, ED stands with one foot in modern/post-modern poetic practice, the other in traditions of yesterday. We must decide which we prefer.

    Socarides, Alexandra. 2008. The Poetics of Interruption: Dickinson, Death, and the Fascicles. pp. 309-333 in Companion to Emily Dickinson, eds, Smith, MN, and M. Loeffelolz, Blackwell Publ.

  6. Currer Bell is a briefly used nom-de-plume of Charlotte Bronte, who married in June 1854 at age 39, conceived quickly, and died nine months later, probably of dehydration caused by constant vomiting during pregnancy ( ).

    In 1847 Charlotte had published her first novel, ‘Jane Erye’, a favorite of teenage Emily Dickinson. Perhaps ED’s love of ‘Jane Eyre’ prompted her father, Edward Dickinson, to purchase the Bronte sisters’ 1846 collection, ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’, which included a 261-line elegy, ‘Mementos’, by “Currer Bell”. Perhaps we can also infer that Line 1 of ED’s elegy, “All overgrown by cunning moss”, alludes to Line 21 of Bronte’s elegy, “”All in this house is mossing over” (Socarides 2008).

    The narrator of ‘Mementos’ is a woman mulling over trinkets and letters left in a ‘mouldering’ house by a dear friend who had died 10 years earlier. Like ED, the narrator’s friend had loved to watch “the glorious sky” or “a cloudless moon, on summer night”. Her friend married a “false and guileful” man, “impure and wild”, who fathered a daughter before abandoning his wife and child. You get the picture, gloomy and sentimental for 256 lines. Abruptly, the final 5-line stanza turns cheery and bright; after all, aren’t elegies supposed to end with some closing sense of consolation, resurrection, or purpose?

    But, lo ! night, closing o'er the earth,
    Infects our thoughts with gloom;
    Come, let us strive to rally mirth,
    Where glows a clear and tranquil hearth
    In some more cheerful room.”

    My guess ED intends the two endings of ‘All overgrown by cunning moss’ to offer the reader a choice: accept the harsh finality of death or sweeten that dark curtain with traditional reassurements that we will meet again in the Great Hereafter.

  7. Or, Johnson’s choice was not Dickinson’s—that is, if she had complete control over publlicationl, she would not have chosen the one Johnson chose?