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  • Fathoming “Remembrance”: Emily Bronte in Context
  • Janet Gezari

Remembrance has a Rear and Front— ‘Tis something like a House— It has a Garret also For Refuse and the Mouse. Besides the deepest Cellar That ever Mason laid— Look to it by its Fathoms Ourselves be not pursued—

—Emily Dickinson

A poem titled “Remembrance” would have raised certain expectations in 1846. Other titles Emily Brontë assigned her poems in the volume the three sisters published at their own expense—“Sympathy,” “Hope,” “The Prisoner (A Fragment),” and the inevitable “Stanzas” and “Song”—would also have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers, but “Remembrance” is remarkable for its ubiquity in the period and for the particular associations it would have evoked. In 1846, “Remembrance” was already the title of published poems by many poets, including Shelley, Byron, L. E. L., and Southey, whose “Remembrance” Brontë almost certainly read. It includes a phrase—“harass’d heart”—which she echoed in two poems, including one on sleep, beginning, “Sleep brings no joy to me / Remembrance never dies.” 1 Brontë’s conviction that remembrance never dies, even in sleep, anticipates Freud. Recognizing that there is no cure for memory, psychoanalysis presents itself as a cure for forgetting or pretending to forget by turning symptoms, which are like monuments in the patient’s psyche, into conscious memories, available for processing. 2 Brontë’s protest against death requires the survival of remembrance, and like Freud, she is alert to how memory threatens that survival. Her poem “Remembrance” turns on the axis of this dense psychological contradiction.

Freud formulates the threat memory poses most clearly in his “Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis”:

I then made some short observations upon the psychological differences between the conscious and the unconscious, and upon the fact that [End Page 965] everything conscious was subject to a process of wearing-away, while what was unconscious was relatively unchangeable; and I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antiques standing about in my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation: the destruction of Pompeii was only beginning now that it had been dug up. 3

Freud’s distinction between conscious and unconscious memory has a mid-nineteenth-century analogue in the distinction between recollection and remembrance. In Brontë’s time, remembrance differed from recollection precisely by being involuntary. According to the OED, “recollect, when distinguished from remember, implies a conscious or express effort of memory to recall something which does not spontaneously rise to mind.” 4 In Sleep and Dreams (1851), John Addington Symonds identifies “two kinds of memory,—the one passive, the other active”:

The simplest form of memory is the mere reproduction of a sensation or the return of a thought, or of a former emotion to the mind. When the recurrence of certain feelings and ideas is brought about by an effort of the will, such an act of the mind is denominated recollection. But when the past images come unbidden, we say that they are the products of mere remembrance. 5

While the word “recollection” figures repeatedly in affirmations of memory’s consoling powers in the Victorian period, the word “remembrance” is prominent in accounts of chronic and protracted grief, challenging Symonds’s reference to remembrance as “mere.” “Precious recollections” are “so pleasant yet so mournful,” but the “love that survives the tomb” lives “on long remembrance.” 6 One of the most potent divisions between the two families of Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw family (including Heathcliff) and the Linton family, is their different relation to memory. Lintons recollect; Earnshaws remember. Thus Isabella Linton, in her last interview with Nelly, says she can “recollect how happy we were—how happy Catherine was before [Heathcliff] came.” 7 The same sense of recollection as a voluntary effort of memory, usually comforting, is active in Nelly’s description of Edgar’s “resignation” to Catherine’s death: “He recalled her memory with ardent, tender love, and hopeful aspiring to the better world, where, he doubted not, she was gone” (W, 2.3.226). Earlier, Nelly has warned Heathcliff against “thrusting [himself] into [Catherine’s] remembrance, now, when she has nearly forgotten...