On the Death of Anne Bronte

There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I 've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those belovèd features cast.

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;

Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.

Footnotes

  1. One might also read the poet as thanking God for having blessed her with a sister in life, whom she so clearly loved and adored, even though she is now gone.

    — Brad
  2. “Benighted” is a state of pitiful intellectual or moral ignorance. It generally comes from one’s lack of opportunity. It can also signify that something has been overtaken by darkness or ignorance.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. While the second stanza portrays death as something calm that one can anticipate, this final stanza shows life as “weary strife” and a “benighted tempest.” This last line signals the change that has taken over the speaker. After the death of her loved one, she sees life as a painful thing to endure and death as peaceful.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. In this final stanza, the speaker begins using the collective “we” pronoun to describe her loss. This shift in pronoun usage signifies that she identifies with the dead subject. She experiences both the literal death of her subject and her own symbolic death. In this way, the speaker makes the death of her subject a shared experience: her loss becomes death itself as part of her dies with the person she loves.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Notice that the speaker does not specifically identify for what she is thanking God. It’s possible that from context readers could deduce what the speaker is thankful for; however, the ambiguity of the subject of these two lines suggests that on one level the speaker is blindly thanking God: the death and the aftermath of the death are so out of her control that all she can do is turn to God.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Thanking God could also be read as a reaction to the speaker’s nihilistic claim that this death has parted her from “the darling of [her] life.” At first, she sees the death through her own loss and the sadness over that loss rather than the subject’s desire to die. This abrupt shift to thanking God then could be read as her quickly moving away from thinking about her own feelings in order to see the death in a more positive light.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The speaker thanks God for taking away her beloved subject presumably because the subject was in so much pain. Death is portrayed as a mercy, something to be celebrated, in this final stanza.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. On the surface, these lines are about the speaker watching her subject experience the last moments of her life. However, these lines can also be interpreted as the speaker imagining her own death in the future. This means “The darling of my life” could be this person she is sitting with or it could be her own darling life. In either reading, the speaker suggests that with the death of this person, she has lost a part of herself; her vision of the world has irrevocably changed.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. The “cloud, the stillness” is an artistic way of signalling that the speaker’s subject has died. This stanza explores the speaker’s feelings as soon as the death has occurred.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The words in these lines are in tension with the sentiment of this stanza. The speaker describes the incredible pain that her subject experiences in her dying hours using positive words like “calmly,” “wishing,” and “longing.” This tension suggests that the narrator sees death as a type of mercy or relief for her subject.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. We can read “Longing” for the shade of death and “wishing” for the end of her subject’s life on two levels. The speaker can be viewed as wanting the end of the subject’s life to come about faster so that her pain and suffering ends. However, the language of these lines could also reveal the speaker’s unnatural fascination or affinity for death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The nouns and noun phrases “Failing breath,” “sighs, “shade of death” all invoke a romanticized vision of death. The speaker emphasizes the beauty and drama of her subject’s dying hour in much the way Gothic romances found beauty in the grotesque and frightening. In this description, the speaker turns this moment of death into a moment of literary beauty that partially obscures the reality of the situation.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The noun “sigh” is an interesting word choice here because of its connotations. A “sigh” generally signals dejection, weariness, longing, pain, or relief. If this subject is on her deathbed, one might expect to hear groans, coughs, breaths, etc. In characterizing the sounds coming from her subject as a “sigh,” the speaker suggests that the subject is longing for death and weary of her situation.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. From the title of the poem, we know that the “one I would have died to save” is the poet’s sister. However, Bronte’s speaker does not directly state that the dying person in the poem is her sister, which allows for ambiguity in the poem. If the lines are not expressly about this specific death, then the audience can connect their own experiences or emotions to the poems.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. In English, the present-perfect verb construction “I have lived” describes attributes or experiences rather than completed actions. In using this form, the speaker suggests that this experience of her sister’s dying hour is a part of her. She has experienced death as if it were her own parting hour by being in the presence of her sister’s parting hour.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The “parting hour” means the last hour before one’s death. In this line the speaker describes “seeing” her sister’s final moments before death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. In repeating the word “little” in both lines, the speaker emphasizes the comparison between life and death. This first stanza serves to equalize these two life processes: for the speaker, life and death are similar.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. By “little terror in the grave,” the speaker means that she is no longer afraid of death. Now, life is the joyless, terrifying experience while death holds comfort for her. This sets up one of the main themes of this poem: after the loss of a loved one, death represents peace while life contains pain.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff