It is so very tempting to read Charlotte Bronte's poem "The Missionary" ironically, thanks to its speaker's close proximity to Jane Eyre's St. John Rivers, both as a character (a missionary who has abandoned his beloved in order to seek martyrdom abroad) and in terms of composition (Bronte's editor Tom Winnifrith, who also notes the St. John parallel, suggests that Bronte may have penned it for Poems 1). But reading the ambivalent St. John back into "The Missionary" imports "our"--by which I mean non-Christian, non-evangelical, or at the very least secular--considerable unease with the poem's enthusiastic embrace of the Church Militant into a poem that shows no corresponding anxiety. (And it also requires us to forget that Jane Eyre's critique of St. John does not actually extend to his goal.) As Marianne Thormahlen points out, the model for both St. John and the unnamed missionary was probably Henry Martyn, of whom the Brontes were well aware (214-17). At the same time, this is not to say that the poem fails to query its speaker's motivations, although his internal divisions do not precisely mimic St. John's.
The very presence of "I" in the poem may well constitute part of its internal struggle. When I taught this poem a few weeks ago, my students and I noticed that despite the onslaught of imperative verbs (usually as trochaic substitutions) with which the poem opens, the speaker is object rather than subject until he reaches "I grasp the plough" (14). If the speaker's difficulties with thinking about himself as a subject suggest that something has gone awry with his will, his repeated turn to the "I" hints that the fallen human ego keeps intruding on God's vessel. Part of the paradox of missionary work, that is, is that, in Eli Smith's words, the missionary "must make himself felt" (17) even as he must also "acknowledge and feel his dependence upon God" (23). Christian independence truly emerges only in the wake of the greater felt dependence; the soul's virtue is, after all, not of its own making. For the speaker, his first step toward living in God was the "Jephtha vow" (43) that immolated his remaining desires for his beloved Helen; unlike Abraham, stopped from sacrificing Isaac, Jephtha went through with his oath to sacrifice his daughter, a decision that was still hotly debated at the time Bronte was writing. The ambiguity of this allusion (pious? impious?) is not helped by the "I"-ness of the stanza that follows, which justifies the righteousness of rejecting marital love in favor of the missionary's vocation. In a sentence that stretches from lines 75 to 90, subdivided into three sections each opening with "I," the speaker implicitly contrasts his innocent childhood experience of "Jesus' love" (80) to that self-regard he associates with sexual desire, concluding that "[d]ared I draw back or hesitate,/When called to heal the sickness sore/Of those far off and desolate?" (88-90) Erotic desire draws the speaker back to the prison of the "I"; Christ calls him outward to the community of sinners. His insistent return to "I" here, though, in the context of an extended self-justification (he is still, after all, trying to explain to the absent Helen why he had to abandon her), implies the ongoing pull of his past. The "I" and its longings aspires to the model of Christ, but the tug of "mere" human satisfactions remains.
To what extent does the speaker successfully negotiate the shoals of selfishness? "The Missionary" dwells on the garden of the soul, both the speaker's and that of those whom he has gone to save. The speaker's soul in the opening is choked with "weeds" (11), the "[m]ere human love, mere selfish yearning,/Which, cherished, would arrest me yet" (12-13). This clogged garden, the speaker implies, cannot be "[c]leared" (11) by the speaker's own agency, but only by his figurative transplantation from England to India--a somewhat egotistical interpretation of the missionary vocation. Our speaker's rather contorted understanding of both his own agency and of God's is again on view here: the soul's cultivation appears to be neither under his control nor under God's, but instead the altered routines of overseas existence. Closer to the end of the poem, when the garden image recurs in full force, the speaker momentarily steps outside himself to laud the missionary's vocation: "Yes, hard and terrible the toil/Of him who steps on foreign soil,/Resolved to plant the gospel vine,/Where tyrants rule and slaves repine" (107-110). No longer preoccupied with his interior garden, the missionary instead envisions himself as part of a larger army devoted to the organic spread of Christian faith, losing the individual in the group. "So I the culture may begin," the speaker prays, "Let others thrust the sickle in;/If but the seed will faster grow,/May my blood water what I sow!" (154-57) In this sense, the poem describes a spiritual as well as physical journey, as the missionary shifts focus from self-culturing to self-sacrifice as part of a larger, communal effort; the appearance of "may" reminds both the speaker and the reader that the missionary vocation is a godly calling that depends on God's gift of strength, not (as St. John Rivers would initially have it) the missionary's "mere" human will, marked as it is by sin.
1 The Poems of Charlotte Bronte, ed. Tom Winnifrith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 363.