A Retrospect


William Dearden

Around 1842, Dearden challenged Branwell Brontë to a poetry-writing contest which was to be judged by his associate, J. B. Leyland

Dearden recorded the event in this poem which contains the substance of the conversation that occurred at the Cross Roads, on the fragment of Branwell's prose production, and proves that Heathcliff at least, if not all the other characters in Wuthering Heights, existed in Branwell's manuscript before they appeared in the novel ascribed to his sister Emily.

The moon again was on the wane when I
Met at Cross Roads my Brontë challenger,
To speed to Shinar on our hippogriffs,
And break a lance in a poetic tilt,
In armour such as sons of Tubal-cain
Wrought for the "mighty men which were of old,
Men of renown," before the Deluge came.
Our censor, Leyland, with his meerschaum lit,
And goblet crowned, assumed the judgment-thrown,
And bade each combatant, with arms in rest,
Display the legend on his shield impressed,
For which he would "do battel" as true knight.
Brontë's read "Azrael or Destruction's Eve";
And mine the "Demon Queen." "The challenger,
Sir Patrick of the Thunder-bruit, begin
The onslaught!" cried the umpire. Brontë drew
(To sink the metaphor) from out his hat
A manuscript, which, when his eyes beheld,
He stood aghast; and turning rapidly
The quivering leaves, he said; "O friends, I've made
A strange mistake! This is a novel on which,
Some time ago, I tried my 'prentice hand,
And which, in my hot haste, I must have snatched
Instead of 'Azrael' from my private drawer."
"A ruse! A ruse! Pat!" Leyland thundered through
A cloud of smoke, as from a cannon's mouth;
"Thy spider-muse, if but the truth were known,
Has not from his own meagre bowels spun
A single line of his poetic web."

"I swear," cried Brontë, "by the sacred Nine, The first fytte of my poem lives in lines Legibly written by this very hand; And if you'll grant me forty minutes' space To seek the parsonage, and thence return, Your eyes shall vouch the truth of what I say."

"The Nine forbid!" burst from the cloudy throne, "We'll keep him, Oakendale, a prisoner here, And see how he can wield his fancy's flail In threshing prose-oats on Dame Fiction's floor. Whence chaff, sans grain, is all we need expect." I bowed in acquiescence. Brontë read, For one full hour, long chapters of a tale, To which that monstrous figment, "Wuthering Heights," (The credulous world receives as Ellis Bell's), Bears, in its characters and incidents, Too strong resemblance ever to be deemed Entirely accidental. Let us hope In charity, it never entered brain Of woman to conceive and to produce A character without a single trait Of nature to redeem it, and without A prototype in man or demon – such Such as the foul Caliban of "Wuthering Heights." In Branwell's brain, kept ever in a state Of feverous excitement by the fumes Of alcohol or opium, this weird thing, All evil, might have had its hateful birth. But whether Brontë, or his sister, first The unnatural hero of that tale produced, And gave him odious action in its scenes Of wild, barbaric life, 'tis certain, long Before the world had Heathcliff loathed in print He shocked our hearts in Branwell's manuscript.

But to resume – No sooner in his hat Had the young novelist deposited The last leaf of his fragmentary tale, Than Leyland muttered, "Brontë, rinse thy mouth From slime of converse with that monstrous thing, That, like the liberated genie, burst, In unexampled hideousness, from out The casket of thy brain, when it was tossed And dashed against the rock Damnation, midst The howling surges of wild Phrensy's sea. E'en hell's archfiend puts forth a specious plea For his pursuit of ill and hate of good; But that black devil, offspring of thy bile, In horrible originality, Stands forth preeminent for doing ill Without a motive, save the love of ill. Him, and the records of his deeds, commit At once into the flames, a holocaust, For the fierce Moloch of thy madness meet. Never – save in delirium – could'st thou dream Of sending forth into the world a book, The likeness of whose primal personage The world ne'er saw, nor e'er will wish to see." "Beshrew, stern Minos, thy harsh censorship! I have but followed in great Shakespeare's wake, In making Heathcliff, like his Richard, stand 'Without a brother, 'mong the race of men – Be like no brother – be himself alone.' If I have sinned," Brontë elate pursued, "By the creation of a Frankenstein After the likeness of nought woman-born, You'll grant I've sinned with highest warranty."

"A pitifull delusion," Leyland cried, "The prototype of Shakespeare's Richard lived And played his part on earth; and history Attributes to him the mishappen form, The qualities of mind and heart, with which Our bard endows him in his wondrous play. Deformity his heritage from birth, He envies all whose shapes win woman's love, And fully hates them for the selfsame cause. He's cruel, 'subtle, false and treacherous,' Because ambition prompts him to obtain The 'golden vigol' and the pomp of king; And when obtained, to hold them to the last, With an heroic bravery that wins Our admiration – but 'with bated breath.' Now these, though bad, are human motives still, And their unhallowed home have often made In mortal breasts, and yielded bitter fruit. But thy creation – save the form of man – Has not a single touch of that which makes Humanity human. Thine the unenvied boast To have crowned as king of all monstrousity A mythical Avatar with a heart Compacted of the vipers of All-hate, Stinging in wantonness of wicked will All other hearts he subtly crawls anear; While, with his basilisk eyes of fiery flame, He blackens them, as the suns fervid rays Blacken the dwellers of the torrid clime. Who wields the pen in Fictions magic realm, Should, 'please, instruct and elevate the mind By pictures drawn from prototypes within The grand range of the Possible; and not, By monsters 'gendered in a maniacs sleep, Arouse disgust and shock the moral sense. Thy brain, Brontëan Zeus, has given birth To such a prodigy; but let us hope He'll 'know no brother' – 'he himself alone.' Again I do implore thee to consign Him and his chronicled actions to the flames, Lest he, let loose, should terrify the world With his unearthly mien, and dog thy steps Through life with pleadings for a female mate By whom to propogate a monster race."

"Enough," said Brontë, "of damnation's oil On my brain's bantling has this night been poured, But he shall live a little longer yet, Though lubricated thus for penal flames, He is not likely soon, I fear, to stretch His lithe limbs out in typographic garb, And scare the world from its propriety – I would he were for my exchequer's sake, Whose emptiness gives me acuter pangs Than would the hoots of all the moral owls In Christendom behind my hero's back, Then should his suit, if humbly pleaded, gain From his creator a fit 'female mate,' By whom to propogate – (the richer By such increase) - 'a monster race' – so called By our wise moral Mentor – that may quell The heroes and the heroines effete That strut in tinsel through the fictive world. But let my slandered Romeo, for the nonce, Sleep in the tomb of my Capulets. [Pointing to his hat.] And let us track – what I have yearned to track – Our silent Oakendale's poetic flight Into the regions of the primal world." WILLIAM OAKENDALE. Warley Grammar School, June 12, 1867

© Malcolm Bull 2021
Revised 13:03 / 24th May 2021 / 9871

Page Ref: WD_5

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