Branwell was the second best poet in the Brontë family and some of his poems are worth studying in their own right.
(Tom Winnifrith in The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë)
The year 2017 was the bi-centenary of the birth of local lad, Branwell Brontë, born Thornton 26th June 1817. It was also the year that Routledge published the three-volume complete literary works of Branwell Brontë, which the Library purchased for Keighley’s Brontë Collection.
Like his sisters, Branwell Brontë wanted to be a published writer and thanks to the local newspapers, he succeeded. Indeed, Branwell was a published poet five years before his sisters published their book of poems in 1846 and their first novels a year later. In all, eighteen of Branwell’s poems are known to be published in his lifetime (1817-48), the last just six months before the publication of Jane Eyre in October 1847, and six published a second time in other newspapers. “Given that his sisters’ 1846 volume of poems sold only two copies in its first year, it is safe to say that Branwell’s poems enjoyed significantly wider readership.” (Neufeldt, v.3., p. xx)
All Branwell’s poems were published pseudonymously under the name ‘Northangerland’ except one, which was just signed ‘PBB’. Thus at no time did Branwell’s name appear in print. Why this is so remains a mystery. What is also a mystery is whether his sisters knew of his success. Getting poems published in local newspapers was no easy achievement at that time. There was great competition between newspapers and it is to Branwell’s credit that not only was his work accepted, but also reprinted in rival newspapers.
It has taken a long time for the full extent of Branwell’s poetic success to be realised. In Winnifrith’s edition of Branwell’s poems published in 1983, he wrote that the poem ‘The Afghan War’ was “the only composition of Branwell’s which is known to have been printed during his lifetime.” (p.140). Yet only fourteen years later, Professor Neufeldt, in the US edition of The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë 1837-1848 (the Routledge edition noted above is a UK reprint) noted twenty-six publications.* More remarkable was the re-discovery, reported in 1999 by Professor Neufeldt, in the Halifax Guardian for October 1847, of an outstanding piece of art criticism on the illustrator Thomas Bewick by … ‘Northangerland’! This, plus Branwell’s success as a published poet, not to mention the mass of his hitherto unpublished writings now made accessible, has caused scholars to modify the hitherto largely negative view many had of Branwell.
With the acquisition of his complete works by the Library, we can now read for ourselves Branwell’s writings, published and unpublished. Listed below are his published poems (together with the page numbers in Volume 3 of Neufeldt’s edition).
‘Heaven and Earth’ Halifax Guardian, 5 June 1841 (p. 335)
‘On the Melbourne Ministry’ Halifax Guardian, 14 August 1841 (p. 340)
Sonnet I: ‘On Landseer’s Painting’ Bradford Herald, 28 April 1842 (p. 365)
Sonnet II: ‘On the callousness produced by cares’ Bradford Herald, 5 May 1842
also Halifax Guardian 7 May 1842 (p. 366)
‘The Affghan War’ Leeds Intelligencer, 7 May 1843 (p. 367)
Sonnet III: ‘On Peaceful Death and Painful Life’ Bradford Herald, 12 May 1842
also Halifax Guardian 14 May 1842 (p. 369)
‘Caroline’s Prayer – On the change from childhood to womanhood’ Bradford Herald, 2 June 1842
also Halifax Guardian 4 June 1842 (p. 370)
Song: ‘Should Life’s first feeling be forgot’ Bradford Herald, 9 June 1842
also Halifax Guardian, 11 June 1842 (p. 371)
‘An Epicurean’s Song’ Bradford Herald, 7 July 1842
also Halifax Guardian, 9 July 1842 (p. 372)
‘On Caroline’ Bradford Herald, 12 July 1842
also Halifax Guardian, 14 July 1842 (p.374)
‘Noah’s Warning over Methuselah’s Grave’ Bradford Herald, 25 August 1842 (p. 375)
‘On Landseer’s Picture: The Shepherd’s Chief Mourner ‘ A Dog Watching alone by his master’s grave’ Yorkshire Gazette, 10 May 1845 (p. 407) Revision of Sonnet 1, above.
‘Black Comb’ Yorkshire Gazette, 10 May 1845 (p. 408)
‘The Emigrant – Two Sonnets’ Yorkshire Gazette, 7 June 1845 (p.406)
‘Real Rest’ Halifax Guardian, 8 November 1845 (p.471)
‘Penmaenmawr’ Halifax Guardian, 20 December 1845 (p. 473)
‘Letter from a Father on Earth to his Child in her grave, Halifax Guardian, 18 April 1846 (pp. 479-80)
‘Speak Kindly’ Halifax Guardian 19 September 1846 (p. 512) The authorship of this poem is disputed.
‘The End of All’ Halifax Guardian, 5 June 1847 (pp. 504-508)
Also: ‘Thomas Bewick’ [Prose review article] Halifax Guardian, I October 1842 (pp.397-400)
Branwell died in Haworth on 24th September, 1848, aged 31.
While no great claim can be made for the excellence of Branwell’s poems, they are no worse than many others that were published in the newspapers of the time, and some were considerably better. They range from comments on the political events of the day such as the introduction of the self-adhesive postage stamps and the First Afghan War, to the heartbreak of child deaths – a frequent occurrence in the Haworth of Branwell’s time.
Branwell’s habit of using a pseudonym once caused Library staff a problem when an Australian professor wanted photocopies from the newspapers themselves. She gave us precise references and we managed to find the poems in the Halifax Guardian, Yorkshire Gazette and Leeds Intelligencer, but annoyingly, not in the Bradford Herald, which the library did not have. A request to the British Library Newspaper Library was returned ‘No Trace’ despite being given the correct dates and page numbers. The reason? We gave the poet as ‘Patrick Branwell Brontë’, whereas the poet’s name in the paper was … ‘Northangerland’!
*Neufeldt states that there were 26 publications, though I can find only 24. BD