‘Preference’ was published under Charlotte Brontë’s nom de plume ‘Currer Bell’ in 1846. In the text the poet crafts an engaging one-sided conversation. Through the speaker’s reactions to a stubborn suitor, the reader has to interpret the missing side of the discussion. The speaker’s reactions range from passionate and irritated to outraged and determined. The poem itself deals most prominently with themes of love and dedication. It is at times humorous, frustrating, and uplifting as the speaker continually engages with the listener in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing her.
In the first lines of ‘Preference’, the speaker begins by attempting to clearly define her boundaries with the male listener. She speaks directly to him but the reader only receives one side of the conversation. The speaker tells the listener that he is distasteful to her. She knows he’s deceitful and untrustworthy. All it took was a single look at his face. Since, she’s been cold and detached, unwilling to even pretend they’re friends.
As the poem goes on, the speaker gets more and more irritated as the listener suggests that she actually loves him. He goes on to imply that she’s unable to love at all. In the concluding lines of ‘Preference’, the speaker points out the listener’s rival. He’s a man out in a glade, studying papers thoughtful and is the exact opposite of the listener. He’s honest, trustworthy, and steadfast. The speaker expresses her intent to remain with this person as long as God’s the ruler of Heaven and earth.
‘Preference’ by Charlotte Brontë is a single stanza poem made up of sixty-five lines. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of alternating lines, with some of the end sounds, such as the long “e” and “-er” reoccurring. Brontë also makes use of a number of other poetic techniques. These include alliteration, metaphor, enjambment, anaphora, and epistrophe.
The last two on this list, anaphora, and epistrophe, are similar. The former refers to the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For instance, “Not” in the first two lines, as well as “Thou,” “Therefore” and “Canst” throughout the rest of the text.
The latter, epistrophe, is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, “thee” and “me,” both of which are used frequently throughout ‘Preference.’ Alliteration is another prominent technique. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There are examples throughout the text, including “These,” “then,” and “thine” in line five or “Which” and “whirls” in line thirty-three.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines fifty-four and fifty-five.
Brontë’s Syntax in Preference
The primary challenge when attempting to understanding this work, as well as other works by all three Brontë sisters (the other two being Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë) is the syntax. Meaning, the arrangement of the words in a sentence or line. Charlotte Brontë often does not always make use of the traditional subject, verb, object arrangement common to English sentences. The words shift their positions in order to place emphasis in the right places. For example, lines eleven and twelve “Therefore, dared I not deceive thee, / Even with friendship’s gentle show.”
Analysis of Preference
Not in scorn do I reprove thee,
Not in pride thy vows I waive,
But, believe, I could not love thee,
Wert thou prince, and I a slave.
These, then, are thine oaths of passion?
This, thy tenderness for me?
Judged, even, by thine own confession,
Thou art steeped in perfidy.
In the first stanza of ‘Preference’, the speaker begins by reproaching the listener. As the lines progress it becomes clear that she is addressing someone who would like to be her lover. She tells them she’s not “reprov[ing],” or reprimanding him in “scorn.” Brontë’s speaker adds onto this, saying that she’s not “waiv[ing]” his “vows” because her pride tells her to.
Despite these reassurances, she tells the listener that she could not love him even if she were forced to. If he were a prince and she a “slave,” there’s no way she’d accept him. Two questions follow. Brontë utilizes alliteration as she throws his “oaths” back in his face. His promises offended her in some way and by asking “These, then are thine oaths of passion?” expresses her discontent with his actions. The same pattern of rhetorical questioning is used in the next line as she contests his “tenderness” for her. She doesn’t believe he’s acting as he should.
In lines seven and eight she harkens back to a time before the poem began in which he confessed his wrongdoings to her. If she were to judge him off of only these confessions, rather than her actual experience, then he’d still be “steeped in perfidy” or deceitfulness.
Having vanquished, thou wouldst leave me!
Thus I read thee long ago;
Therefore, dared I not deceive thee,
Even with friendship’s gentle show.
Therefore, with impassive coldness
Have I ever met thy gaze;
Though, full oft, with daring boldness,
Thou thine eyes to mine didst raise.
She knows, despite what he told her, that he would “leave” her. She “read” him, or knew it from his countenance and his actions. Once she knew who he really was, she decided she didn’t want to follow his same deceitful patterns. She chose not to put on a show of friendship, much less romantic love.
Through these lines, she provides him with an explanation for why she has met him with an “impassive coldness.” Despite her best efforts to ignore and scorn him, his eyes have “oft, with daring boldness” risen to meet her own.
Why that smile? Thou now art deeming
This my coldness all untrue,–
But a mask of frozen seeming,
Hiding secret fires from view.
Touch my hand, thou self-deceiver;
Nay-be calm, for I am so:
Does it burn? Does my lip quiver?
Has mine eye a troubled glow?
There is an interesting moment in the seventeenth line of ‘Preference’ when it appears that the speaker is talking directly to her listener as the lines play out. She asks him why he’s smiling. In answer to her own questions, she says that he thinks her “coldness” is “all untrue.” Brontë makes effective use of metaphor in lines nineteen and twenty when she compares her looks of coldness, in the listener’s eyes, to “a mask of frozen” that’s actually hiding “secret fires from view”. He thinks that she secretly cares about him.
In another instant of interaction, the speaker tells the listener to take her hand. She narrates the moment. Through the phrase “Nay-be calm” she tells him not to get excited as this is only an experiment and she’s calm. With three more questions, she quizzes him about his perceptions of her. Her hand, she emphasizes is not burning. Her lip isn’t quivering nor do her eyes have a “troubled glow.” These things should prove to him that she isn’t moved by their contact.
Canst thou call a moment’s colour
To my forehead–to my cheek?
Canst thou tinge their tranquil pallor
With one flattering, feverish streak?
Am I marble? What! no woman
Could so calm before thee stand?
Nothing living, sentient, human,
Could so coldly take thy hand?
A few more questions make up the next eight lines. She presses him to tell her if he sees a “moment’s colour,” meaning, a flush, in her cheeks or on her forehead. Or, phrasing it differently, if there is a “one, flattering, feverish streak” in her “pallor” or paleness. She is assuming the answer to all these questions as no. It’s hard to read this barrage of questions without interpreting a desperateness of the speaker’s part that he believes her.
As if to provoke her, he seems to ask if she’s made of marble. She is outraged by this assertion, saying “What!” Then adding, that if she did feel for him, he’d know it through her bodily reactions. This poem has interactive elements as a reader has to consider his reactions to her questions and how they led her to the next parts of her speech.
She concludes this section of lines by expressing her displeasure that he thinks he should have an impact on any woman he meets.
Yes–a sister might, a mother:
My good-will is sisterly:
Dream not, then, I strive to smother
Fires that inly burn for thee.
Rave not, rage not, wrath is fruitless,
Fury cannot change my mind;
I but deem the feeling rootless
Which so whirls in passion’s wind.
They consider that a mother or sister could hold his hadn’t without turning red. Then she goes on, through another metaphor, to reemphasize the fact that she is not smothering fires within her that seek to escape.
In the next lines of ‘Preference’ she alludes to his rage at her continued coldness. She tells him not to “Rave” or “rage” at her. There’s no way that “fury” is going to change her mind. It is “fruitless,” meaning they will bear no fruit/results.
Can I love? Oh, deeply–truly–
Warmly–fondly–but not thee;
And my love is answered duly,
With an equal energy.
Wouldst thou see thy rival? Hasten,
Draw that curtain soft aside,
Look where yon thick branches chasten
Noon, with shades of eventide.
It’s clear in the thirty-fourth line of ‘Preference’ that the listener asked the speaker if she’s capable of loving. Her answer is yes, and “deeply—truly.” Her love is possible to gain, but not for this person. One of her requirements for a partner is that they match her love with “equal energy.”
The speaker is still clearly not convincing the listener that she’s being honest. So, she asks him if he’d like to see his “rival.” She tells him to go ahead and “Draw that curtain soft aside.” He has to look at where the distant branches “chasten / Noon.”
In that glade, where foliage blending
Forms a green arch overhead,
Sits thy rival, thoughtful bending
O’er a stand with papers spread–
Motionless, his fingers plying
That untired, unresting pen;
Time and tide unnoticed flying,
There he sits–the first of men!
The speaker goes into detail, describing for the listener what they’re seeing and therefore relaying to the speaker the person to whom their heart might belong. She draws the listener’s attention to a glade or open space in a forest. There, sits the listener’s “rival.” He is all the things the listener isn’t. The speaker makes sure to point out his thoughtfulness and his dedication to the papers in front of him.
Using personification, Brontë describes the pen as “untired, unresting”. The speaker’s preference when it comes to men does not notice time flying by. He’s completely absorbed in what he’s doing. She calls him the “first of men!” This is a comparison to Adam, the first man created by God in the Christian tradition, but is more generally a way of elevating him beyond all other men.
Man of conscience–man of reason;
Stern, perchance, but ever just;
Foe to falsehood, wrong, and treason,
Honour’s shield, and virtue’s trust!
Worker, thinker, firm defender
Of Heaven’s truth–man’s liberty;
Soul of iron–proof to slander,
Rock where founders tyranny.
The next lines of ‘Preference’ are filled with adjectives that set this man apart from the speaker. He has a strong conscience and cares deeply for reason. He is “Stern” but also “just”. This speaks to his balance and steadiness. Utilizing alliteration again, Brontë’s speaker utilizes the phrase “Foe to falsehood”. It’s clear from the first lines that the listener is the exact opposite of these statements. His falsehoods were on full display.
The things that matter to the speaker’s preferred match are truth, liberty, proof, and a strong soul. These qualities are admirable in her eyes, as are those that make up the last eight lines.
Fame he seeks not–but full surely
She will seek him, in his home;
This I know, and wait securely
For the atoning hour to come.
To that man my faith is given,
Therefore, soldier, cease to sue;
While God reigns in earth and heaven,
I to him will still be true!
‘Preference’ concludes with the speaker adding a few more details to the character of her preferred lover. He does not look for fame, as the listener does. But, the speaker adds, “She,” meaning fame, will seek him out. The personified force will be drawn to him.
She tells the listener that as long as “God reigns in earth and heaven” that she’s going to be true to the unnamed, studious, and thoughtful man out in the glade. Her “faith” has been given to him. Through these words, she hopes to convince the listener to leave her alone and stop interpreting her silence and coldness for secret passion. The conclusion of ‘Preference’ does not make clear whether or not the depictions of her “preference” made any difference.