Charlotte Brontë’s satirical short play The Poetaster is one of her earliest contributions to the Glass Town/Angrian saga, and one of the most enjoyable. Although the play features Brontë juvenilia regulars such as Lord Charles Wellesley and his older brother, Arthur, the Marquis of Douro, The Poetaster can be read and enjoyed in isolation by those unfamiliar with the events of the Glass Town saga. The play is one of the famous Brontë tiny books which were produced mainly between the years 1829 and 1830, and which were the results of creative collaborations between Charlotte and her younger brother, Branwell. Like most of the Brontës’ earliest writings, this booklet was intended to imitate published works and they were designed with title pages, publishing details and even the names of booksellers (sometimes prominent Glass Town characters, other times simply “Nobody”).
Written in 1830 when Charlotte was just fourteen, and attributed to her preferred persona/pseudonym, Lord Charles, The Poetaster is based on Ben Jonson’s play of the same name. The term “poetaster” is a derogatory term which is used to refer to somebody who writes inferior poetry and has pretensions to the artistic value of their work. First performed in 1601, Jonson’s satirical play formed part of the exchange between the playwright and his rivals John Marston and Thomas Dekker in the War of the Theatres (1599-1601). The plot of Jonson’s play concerns the conspiracy of the poetaster Crispinus and his friend Demetrius (who represent Jonson’s contemporaries and rivals Marston and Dekker) and Pantilius Tucca, to defame Horace (Jonson). The matter is tried before Augustus, with Virgil as a judge. When Horace is acquitted, the ‘dresser of plays’ Demetrius must wear a fool’s coat and cap, whilst Crispinus is given hellebore and made to vomit up his overblown rhetoric. Marston and Dekker later replied to Jonson’s attack in Satiromastix, where the main characters of The Poetaster reappear. Although readers do not need prior knowledge of Jonson’s play to enjoy Charlotte’s, it does make you appreciate just how clever she is being with her own play, and how well read she is at this point despite her youth.
Brontë’s play is set in Glass Town and features the celebrated Glass Town writers, Lord Charles Wellesley and Captain Tree who look down on and ridicule the play’s own poetaster, aspiring poet, Henry Rhymer, who spends the narrative trying to make a name for himself and join the ranks of Glass Town’s elite. Despite having a fitting name for a poet, the snippets of verse that Brontë attributes to Rhymer in the text are mediocre at best, and this coupled with his delusions of grandeur prove that he is indeed a poetaster. The character of Rhymer may be based on Young Soult, a character created by Branwell in his own juvenilia, and a character arguably based on Branwell himself. If this is the case, then Charlotte is using her own work to mock her brother and his aspirations through Rhymer.
The text features several powerful author figures, however, the play’s protagonist is aspiring poet, Henry Rhymer, a marginalized figure who suffers ridicule and mockery at the hands of the other characters. The main plot is Rhymer’s struggle for recognition by Lord Charles and Tree, and he begins the play composing bad poetry which he believes to be excellent and intends to take to Lord Charles to gain recognition, and possibly patronage. Brontë uses the text to set up a dichotomy between good writers and poetasters, but also to stress the hard work and time that is the foundation of celebrated literature, foundations she was already putting in place at the tender age of fourteen.
The second act rather strays from the overall point of the narrative as before Rhymer’s arrival at Waterloo Palace, Lord Charles fabricates a dream which he conveys to his brother, Arthur, and father, The Duke of Wellington, concerning the object of Arthur’s affections and eventual second wife, Marian Hume. This could however, be another reference to Jonson’s play where the character of Ovid is criticised for devoting himself to a woman and writing erotic poems rather than putting his talent to better use. It could be that Brontë is making the same criticism of Arthur through Lord Charles as Arthur is a writer and sometime pseudonym of Brontë throughout the Glass Town/Angria saga, however, he chooses not to pursue the same career as his younger brother who becomes the official mouthpiece of Glass Town.
In the third and fourth acts, Lord Charles and Arthur ridicule Rhymer and his poetry, with the latter informing him that “you, sir, had better sit quickly down to some honest employment and think no more of writing poetry.” This rejection and mockery infuriates Rhymer who proceeds to present his work to Captain Tree, another esteemed writer and rival to Lord Charles. Tree sits alone in his study soliloquising about “How much people in general are deceived in their ideas of great authors” and “the trouble it often costs me for once to bring some exquisite passage nearly to a close, to avoid too frequent repetition of the same word, to polish and round the period”, reinforcing Brontë’s ideas about celebrated literature and foundations; there is no such thing as spontaneous genius in Brontë’s early writings, but rather hard work, evaluations, and revisions. The struggles of the evolved figure of Lord Charles Wellesley, Charles Townshend, in the later Angrian writings testify to this.
Tree at first accepts Rhymer’s flattery (great writers are not immune to inflated egos in Glass Town), however, after reading Rhymer’s work he laments that his “noble profession is dishonoured!” and throws him out asking, “What could induce you, a linen-draper’s apprentice, to think of writing?” Tree then continues to soliloquise and lament that fact that “Some years hence, perhaps these eyes will see, through the mists of age, every child that walks along the streets, bearing its manuscripts in its hand, going to the printers for publication.” Brontë rather brilliantly extends the satire to herself as a child author here and opens up another possibility within the narrative; it may not be solely Rhymer’s bad verse which leads to his rejection, but also his age, and maybe even his social class, as is indicated by Tree’s comment about the linen-draper. Although Lord Charles is a child author, his father is the Duke of Wellington and he has belonged to society’s upper echelons since birth; Rhymer, and Brontë, have not, and suffer for it.
The poetaster is ridiculed and rejected by those whose ranks he seeks to join. In a fit of fury, Rhymer then murders Tree and is arrested and imprisoned. He continues to compose poetry in prison, portraying himself as a martyr, and announces that he will leave his writings to the watching crowd as his legacy, but they also mock him and jeer that “They’ll do to light our pipes.” Despite his rage, Rhymer is terrified at the thought of his impending death and begs for mercy. It is Brontë’s adoption of a deus ex machina when Lord Charles arrives and brings the news that, “Tree has at length been brought to life again, and Rhymer’s pardoned” which saves Rhymer. However, in return for his life, Rhymer must promise never to write again and accepts Lord Charles’ offer of employment as an under secretary.
By the end of The Poetaster, the threats of bad poetry and Rhymer’s penetration of the upper levels of society he desires to join have been eradicated. The poetaster/child author/member of the lower classes has been silenced and put to work in a position that better suits his status. There are many layers to this play, and many more interpretations of such a short text. Despite Brontë’s youth, she demonstrates her gift for writing and satire, which is not a feature that readers of her adult works will be familiar with, in addition to her knowledge of classic texts in this witty and enjoyable play. Unfortunately it is rather hard to track down and has only appeared in print once in the extremely hard to find An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, Volume I: The Glass Town Saga 1826-1832 (ed. Christine Alexander. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987). The most accessible version is Charlotte Brontë’s Charlotte Brontë’s “The Poetaster”: Text and Notes which features in Studies in Romanticism, volume 20, number 4 (1981): 475-496, and can be found on JSTOR. This version is edited by Melodie Monahan and is the version I have quoted from throughout this piece.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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