Except for its brevity, Emily Brontë’s lyrical poem “Remembrance” contains all of the characteristics of an elegy. Its subject is the mourning of the death of a beloved; the poem is meditative; the poet attempts to come to terms with the death of her lover from the past; finally, there is some evidence that the poet accepts her loss and finds solace, at long last.
The persona of the poem may or may not be Emily Brontë herself. Biographers have tried unsuccessfully to identify a young man from her youth whose death could have later given occasion to the writing of the poem. Whatever the case, the first person narrator addresses her dead lover, mentally though not literally, at his graveside some fifteen years after his burial. She remembers and thus observes a “remembrance” as she comes to terms with his death, trying—still trying—to give him up.
The first two stanzas are each questions addressed to her only lover, many years dead. “Have I forgot to love thee?” she asks, after letting the reader know that he is “cold in the dreary grave.” Her first problem is to determine if enough time has passed to “sever” her loss. Whether she has forgotten to love him is an ironic question, since the act of remembering him is in itself an act of love. She then, in the second stanza, asks herself if her thoughts still “hover” to his grave far away.
In the third stanza, she asks her dead lover to forgive her if she now forgets him. She indicates that her loyalty to him is in question because of her intentions to bury him at last. “Other desires and other hopes” beset her, causing her to recognize functional displacement of his love although there is no operative displacement. She next records that “No later light has lightened up my heaven.” The poet, or at least the persona of the poem, has not in fifteen years genuinely reexperienced any aspect of her relationship with another person. The speaker of the poem does, however, indicate an acceptance of his death, and she tells how she has survived in a universe without his love. His death has caused her “golden dreams” to perish; she records that she proceeded in life “without the aid of joy.”
In the last two stanzas, she recognizes that her passion for him is identifiably “useless.” Accordingly, she has “weaned” her soul, not from him, but from “yearning” for him. The grave, then, belongs more to her than to him, because her own life has been buried in and with his body. Finally, she dares not think of him, an indulgence in “Memory’s rapturous pain.” The poem ends with a question: How could she “seek the empty world again,” having once experienced him but now absolutely unable to recapture his love? She cannot do so, and thus will languish eternally in a state of lingering.
Brontë wrote “Remembrance” in accord with conventions of poetry at the time in that the work itself is mechanically, though masterfully, balanced. The eight stanzas have a neatly observed rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, and so on. Odd-numbered lines usually contain twelve syllables, although some are clipped to eleven. Even-numbered lines consistently have a ten-count rhythm. The poet makes occasional use of alliteration (“forgive if I forget,” “No later light has lightened,” “while the world’s tide,”) and assonance (“existence could be cherished,” “wish to hasten”).
The effectiveness of the poem, however, does not depend upon use of convention. Rather, her evocation of a series of images not only...
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makes impressions but also conveys meanings. The poem starts with “Cold in the earth and the deep snow piled above thee,” manifesting at once the most powerful feeling of the work. Not only is the poet mentally and spiritually visiting the grave of her dead lover, but also both she and the reader realize the finality of death and the hopelessness of recovery.
The first two stanzas of the poem record questions, as does the final line. Has she forgotten him, and, having known him, can she now or at any time “seek the empty world again?” The first two questions are true questions; the final one is itself an answer: No, she cannot forget him nor can she “seek the empty world again.” Such an effort is pointless, for death is final and her love irreplaceable.
The middle stanzas contain an “if-but-then” structure, which forms the heart of these sentiments. In the fourth stanza, she considers what would happen “if” she succeeded in forgetting him. The seventh stanza expresses the “but,” or objection, to her assertion: The “Despair” which could set in was “powerless to destroy” her feelings. The “then” part of the equation shows that she has maintained control over herself and her passion, which she now recognizes to be useless.
The poet maintains balance both in terms of the meter of the lines and in the overall structure of the poem. Images of death pervade both elements and abound throughout: Time is an “all-severing wave”; thoughts can and do “hover”; “brown hills have melted”; the “World’s tide” bears her along. Brontë’s effort has been to embed her thoughts in a series of images in order to force herself to try once again to be at peace with her love’s death.