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Featured Poem: Brother and Sister by George Eliot

Written by The Reader, 2nd July 2012

Back to our regular scheduled Featured Poem this week - this selection is the choice of Reader-in-Residence at Liverpool Hope University, Charlotte Weber, who ponders sibling relationships through the charming words of George Eliot.

Like the speaker of Eliot’s poem, I have been thinking a lot recently about siblings, and why it is that the people who we are most closely related to, are often the ones that we find ourselves drifting furthest away from – both in terms of distance and communication. My own brothers (both older than me) live overseas now, and we all seem to be on very different paths: but in the modern world of email, Facebook, fast international mail and Skype, this really isn’t any excuse for a lack of contact.

Nevertheless, for one reason or another, this is where I now find myself. Although I speak to both them, and their wives, sporadically through messages and via parents – there’s a different type of ‘contact’ that has been lost here. It’s this other relationship that I think Eliot is describing at the start of her poem, and I can’t help but think when reading it, that it must have something to do with the ‘organic’ feeling of familial bonds and relationships when you are young. There is a reason that Eliot chooses that image of lives that ‘grew like two buds’, and the terminology of ‘growing-up together’ with someone is not just a cliché. Things happen during those early years – and happen between you and the people that you spend the most time with, share your moments of pleasure, pain, laughter and tears with. In my mind, it’s like a kind of fusion – with sparks and electric currents zinging between you, making permanent connections. Eliot’s description of the swinging, chiming buds ‘that kiss / At lightest thrill,’ is perhaps a more eloquent way of putting this!

A couple of Christmases ago, having realized I had no idea what my brothers might ‘need’ or ‘want’ and deciding to go down the DIY route, I wrote out the third stanza of this section of the poem on the back of a photograph of an old family holiday, framed it, and gave it to my eldest brother. In the picture, my brothers and I are in a field just across the road from the house where my grandparents used to live, in the Cotswolds. Every Summer holiday we visited, and would spend long afternoons running amongst the tall grass and hopping over brambles, excitedly trying to catch grasshoppers in our nets. The picture shows my eldest brother and I standing together, closest to the camera – with my other brother in the background, intent on his hunting. There is a palpable sense of concentration between myself and my brother in the picture – as he shows me his catch. We stand with our nets at our side, thrill of the chase forgotten as, with genuine intrigue, we examine the specimen in the plastic bucket. Something in my younger-self’s deep fascination in this picture seems to resemble Eliot’s speaker’s absolute faith in the brother’s wisdom, and the excitement of having that wisdom imparted – the privilege of sharing in a world that is, for you, still unfamiliar and filled with questions.

The section that I have selected here is just the first part of the eleven-part poem, in which Eliot talks about the bittersweet recollections of a happy childhood, which she now realizes is irrecoverable. Eliot’s personal experience of alienation from her family, and in particular her brother Isaac, is perhaps more extreme than some, but I don’t think it’s necessary to know the details of the poet’s biography to understand her anguish that she ‘never found again / That childish world where our two spirits mingled’.

Nevertheless, I have faith that those deep-fused connections are made for a reason, and will continue to have an impact on us throughout our lives – even if at some times they are more deeply buried by ‘life’ than at others. And anyway, as Eliot writes in the final stanza of her poem: ‘were another childhood-world my share, / I would be born a little sister there.’

Brother and Sister

I cannot choose but think upon the time
When our two lives grew like two buds that kiss
At lightest thrill from the bee's swinging chime,
Because the one so near the other is.

He was the elder and a little man
Of forty inches, bound to show no dread,
And I the girl that puppy-like now ran,
Now lagged behind my brother's larger tread.

I held him wise, and when he talked to me
Of snakes and birds, and which God loved the best,
I thought his knowledge marked the boundary
Where men grew blind, though angels knew the rest.

If he said Hush! I tried to hold my breath;
Wherever he said Come! I stepped in faith.

George Eliot

1 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Brother and Sister by George Eliot

Christa Mee says:

A lovely choice, Charlotte! And I am sure Eliot would like your description of grasshopper-hunting with your brothers. It brought back memories for me too, of my own children, and you, and my brothers…. Thank you!

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