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This poem is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

On ‘Mansions in the Sky:
The Rise and Fall of Branwell Brontë’
Emma Butcher
Curated by Simon Armitage. The Brontë Parsonage Museum, 1 February 2017 – 1 January 2018

Patrick Branwell Brontë: dreamer, writer, artist, addict, failure – brother of the three famous Brontë sisters. This year marks the bicentenary of his birth and Simon Armitage, together with the Brontë Parsonage Museum, has been reflecting on this young romantic’s fantasies and dark, lonely demise. Armitage has produced ten new poems and presented them alongside Branwell’s belongings in the Parsonage’s new exhibition ‘Mansions in the Sky’. Each gives us the opportunity to connect with this reprobate of history who strove for stardom, yet died unrecognised and unfulfilled. Through each reading, we experience Branwell as a modern figure, a person who reminds us of someone we know, someone in our family, or whom we ourselves once were. At points, Armitage is deliberately anachronistic – he references Paul Pogba, The Smiths, Facebook – at other points, he plays with language and tone to bring Branwell into our hearts; to recognise his flaws, but celebrate his wild and charismatic presence within the family unit. But in order to truly understand why he resonates, we need to understand his life. Throughout this brief biography, I mark moments where Armitage’s poems have brought new, contemporary meaning to the ‘black sheep’ of the Brontë world.

Branwell Brontë: A Life
(Armitage: ‘Self Portrait’)

Branwell, was born in 1817 in the Yorkshire village of Haworth, the son of the learned curate, the Reverend Patrick Brontë and the brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, the famous Victorian authors. He grew up in the local parsonage, which backed on to the windswept, open moors. Growing up, the children were encouraged to embrace their creative impulses and inspirations, using the moors as a canvas to explore their growing love of adventure, the arts, and the natural world (Armitage: ‘Gos Hawk’). From 1826, the young Brontë siblings nurtured each other’s writing talents. Using toy characters, they created complex fantasy kingdoms, collaborating on an intricate network of characters, places and events (Armitage: ‘Little Henry’). In varying forms, these kingdoms would become individually known as the Glass Town, Angria and Gondal (Armitage: ‘Verdopolis’). A majority of the siblings’ inspiration would come from what they read. Using all manners of literary material, ranging from contemporary periodicals to classical texts, they would rework histories and current affairs into their worlds, creating a self-absorbed saga based on their own playful, imaginative responses (Armitage: ‘The Smallprint’). Branwell was central to these kingdoms, dictating the linear chronology of events; his enthusiasm and cheerful nature shines through his manuscripts. He was a well-informed, intelligent commentator of the world around him with an impressive grasp on language and varying genres, especially satirical sketches. This was only emphasised by his passion for masculine pursuits such as pugilism, club culture, and freemasonry (Armitage: ‘Initiation’). Over time, Branwell’s boldness and arrogance grew: he was chief of his literary sibling unit and he was well aware of his small microcosm of power.

His overconfidence, however, would be his downfall. He aspired to be a great poet, yet his boastful, somewhat erratic nature prevented him exercising the control and patience necessary to achieve such lofty heights. His passion for writing would often develop into an imitative, exuberant and obsessive mania and he struggled to find his own unique voice. Over the years, Branwell tried to communicate with a number of successful writers, sending them copies of his poems and transcriptions. In 1836, the hopeful nineteen-year-old sent one of his poems to William Wordsworth along with a letter expressing his hopes and dreams of building mansions in the sky, to ‘push out into the open world’. Wordsworth did not reply (Armitage: ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’). In the 1840s, a similar silence was followed by Thomas De Quincey and the editors of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. He did, however, receive encouragement from Hartley Coleridge, but even their correspondence eventually ground to a halt. Nevertheless, despite repeated rejections, which were often bitterly internalised, he was the first published out of his literary siblings. His poems, written under his Angrian pseudonym, Northangerland, were published in local and national newspapers. This was, however, as far as his ambitions would take him.

With his writing career stagnant and pressure mounting to provide for his family, Branwell took on various occupations that ranged from tutoring to being a railway clerk (Armitage: ‘Lost and Found’). At every turn, however, he would rebel against his responsibilities by going on excessive drinking sprees down the local pub, or conducting affairs with married women. There were even rumours that, in 1845, he was dismissed from his last place of employment, Thorp Green, after indulging in an illicit relationship with the lady of the house, Lydia Robinson, who was nearly fifteen years his senior. In a letter to his friends, Branwell, in his usual cocky manner, wrote ‘my mistress is DAMNBLY TOO FOND OF ME’. Indeed, he soon found out she was not. After his dismissal and his final journey back to the family home, she refused to continue relations with Branwell, sending him into a spiral of debt and depression with an intractable addition to drugs and alcohol. This would ultimately led to his death (Armitage: ‘Wallet’). In the last years of his life he was a source of anguish and embarrassment for his family. His father felt his demise keenly, especially when his son’s volatile behaviour forced him to keep watch over him every night to ensure he did not set his bed on fire. In his final months, Branwell was sending scraps of paper to friends asking for ‘five pence worth of Gin’. He drew a sketch of himself writhing around on his deathbed; a skeleton looms over him, its hand outstretched to snatch him away from the world (Armitage: ‘The End’). In 1848, Branwell died from the long-term effects of substance abuse. It is rumoured that he retained his inflated ego right until death took hold, insisting that he should die standing up to demonstrate the power of human will. He died crying out ‘In all my passed life I have done nothing either great or good’. After the ordeal, his sister Charlotte did not weep for him, but ‘for the wreck of talent’ and ‘the ruin of promise’. These words are all the more acute as we remember him as a footnote of his sisters’ celebrated legacy. Simon’s poems allow us to come to terms with and embrace Branwell’s lesser place alongside them, but equally, they etch a new, important place for Branwell in history that affirms his human qualities and appreciates his frenzied determination.

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