Last Updated on April 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732
Novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) wrote “On the Death of Anne Brontë” shortly after her younger sister’s death in 1849. Like Charlotte, Anne (1820–1849) was an accomplished novelist, best known for Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She died of tuberculosis at only twenty-nine years of age, before she could witness the great acclaim that her work would soon garner.
Charlotte Brontë’s poem both elegizes the beloved Anne and meditates on the troubling fact of the speaker’s own continued existence. Indeed, Charlotte’s speaker considers the possibility that death is preferable to life. As she remarks in the opening lines, “There’s little joy in life for me, / And little terror in the grave.” Thus, the poem is both a personal expression of grief and a broader philosophical evaluation of life versus death.
- The first stanza expresses the poem’s primary theme: the appeal of death in the face of life’s hardships. The speaker draws this comparison by weighing the “little joy in life” against the “little terror in the grave.” This stanza also establishes the narrative event that prompts the poem: the death of the speaker’s sister, Anne, whom the speaker refers to as “one I would have died to save.” The speaker’s longing to trade her own life for her sister’s sake contributes further to the lure of the grave.
- The second stanza describes the scene of Anne’s deathbed, noting Anne’s “failing breath.” The theme of death’s blessing is sustained and strengthened in this stanza. Rather than wishing for Anne to hold onto life, the speaker “longs to see the shade of death” grace Anne’s “beloved features.”
- The third stanza honors the moment of Anne’s passing. The stanza’s first two lines are perhaps the most dense and nuanced in the poem: “The cloud, the stillness that must part / That darling of my life from me.” The initial pair of nouns—“the cloud, the stillness”—activate the verb “part” to produce two different meanings. The “stillness” is a figure for Anne’s death, specifically the stillness that arises after her “failing breath ceases.” Thus it follows that the stillness of death parts the speaker from her sister. The “clouds” also part, creating a separate and more hopeful meaning. The clouds of dread and pain part once Anne’s illness is resolved by death. The speaker immediately recognizes the gift brought by death, thanking God “well and fervently.”
- The fourth stanza surveys the aftermath of Anne’s death. The speaker states that “we had lost / The hope and glory of our life.” The identity of “we” is unclear, but it most likely refers to Anne’s family or broader group of loved ones. The speaker marks the declension that follows the immense loss of Anne, figuring the aftermath as both night and tempest. Although the loss is collective, the speaker depicts the ensuing grief as a solitary weight: She “must bear alone the weary strife.”
The rhyme and meter of “On the Death of Anne Brontë” is conventional but carefully deployed. The poem follows a traditional ballad form, with quatrains of iambic tetrameter that align to an ABAB rhyme scheme. These formal choices give the poem a song-like quality, appropriately lending it the tone of a funeral dirge.
Brontë uses end rhyme to deepen the poem’s theme. In the first and final stanzas, she creates pairs of rhymed words that point to the theme of death as a blessing:
- Consider “grave” and “save”; the words’ shared sounds suggest the potential of death to bring salvation.
- Consider “life” and “strife”; in a converse fashion, the pair sonically suggests the great difficulty of remaining alive in the wake of Anne’s passing.
Brontë manipulates meter in careful ways as well. In particular, notice the trochaic substitutions Brontë makes in the second stanza. The first three lines of the stanza begin with a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) in the place of the expected iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). These substitutions give the stanza an agitated, anxious, and anticipatory tone that appropriately convey the speaker’s state of mind as she watches Anne’s diminishing condition. The metrical resolution in the stanza’s last line, which returns to the conventional iambic pattern, foreshadows the resolution of Anne’s belabored passing—the “stillness” to come.
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