Edward Chitham writes:
'This long poem was not published in Anne's life-time, nor by Charlotte in 1850. It stirred too many difficult issues. In it she made a bold attempt to discuss the main trends of her thought and feeling during her life's course. It has no parallel in the work of Charlotte, Branwell or Emily. Though she conceals events and names, she reviews the main developments and conflicts of her life with a clear eye, writing within a tradition that she had always upheld, that poetry was a personal record. . . . As a biographical source, the poem has great value, not least in its revelation of Anne's relations with Emily.'
Obviously produced in stages over a five month period, this is Anne's greatest and most sustained 'pillar of witness'. It seems she wrote it concurrent with writing the concluding stages of her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
This account (below) of the poem, is largely based on the analyses by Dr. Edward Chitham, Elizabeth Langland and Winifred Gerin. 130
(N.B: The coloured text refers to the specific lines, presented in the same colour, in the poem below: the tiny arrows at the end of each coloured section will take you directly to the appropriate section of the poem, and the tiny arrows in the poem will return you to these notes.)
|The first section of the poem is almost like an
introduction to its contents: she laments the rapid
and relentless passing of time, something most people can relate to: reminiscent
is the chorus line in the Clifford T Ward song, 'Time, the magician, played
a few old tricks on us'.
She observes that though time keeps adding to
her years - stealing her 'past years' and 'childhood', her 'early youth'
- her 'prime', it cannot steal the memories, and in those memories can
be found knowledge or information that can help with 'that which lies before
- to guide their course aright'.
She then goes on to examine her memories, and
recalls her childhood - seeing herself as a 'helpless child - feeble and
full of causeless fears': possibly referring to the religious fears of
eternal damnation - with which she often struggled during her youth - such
as on the occasion at Roe Head School when she requested the visitation
of the Rev. James La Trobe during her life threatening illness and religious
crisis. Her memories remind her that she had 'a tender heart too prone
She remembers 'bitter
tear-floods from the eye' after witnessing the death of a sparrow (we know
she had a great fondness for animals),
and then goes on to recall her religious pursuit,
and how this was so important to her. It was a pursuit she made alone;
her beliefs, fears and hopes were known only to God and no one else - once
again highlighting her 'capacity for emotional concealment' - just as her
heroine, Agnes Grey, had referred to herself as a 'resolute dissembler'.
Elizabeth Langland writes: 'And may it not have been because Anne was so
successful at concealing deep emotion beneath a placid exterior, that Charlotte,
who was Anne's first critic, was so inept a reader of her sister's work.'
By this time Anne
was reading the bible - 'guided by his holy word' - and declares that the
child 'wiser than its teacher grows'. It is clear she had discovered something
that her aunt, and father had not. This was almost certainly the doctrine
of Universal Salvation which she strongly characterised in The Tenant
of Wildfell Hall, and for which she was praised, in a letter, by the
clergyman from Liverpool, the Reverend (Dr.) David Thom: Anne replied to
Thom, informing him of the doctrine: 'I have cherished it from my very
childhood - with a trembling hope at first, and afterwards with a firm
and glad conviction of its truth. I drew it secretly from my own heart
and from the word of God before I knew that any other held it.'
She moves on to recalling her early intimacy with Emily, how she looked up to, loved, and was prepared to follow her elder sister: Emily was 'my sun by day, my moon by night' - this was also noted by Ellen Nussey who said the pair were 'like twins - inseparable companions, and in the closest sympathy, which never had any interruption'. Anne remembers how 'bitter' she found it when any 'jarring discord rose between' them, or when they were apart. With the passing of time, the 'jarring discords' that did rise between them gradually intensified, and there developed a deep division of interests and beliefs. Anne notes that she felt grief when she sometimes found that her fondness for Emily 'was but half returned'. However, this grief was nothing compared to the hurt she felt as she gradually realised Emily's greatly differing views on life and religion, and what her 'soul worshipped, sought, and prized/Were slighted, questioned, or despised'. Edward Chitham writes: 'We catch here the echo of conversations between the two sisters in Anne's amazingly accurate 'slighted' (Emily takes no notice of her young sister), 'questioned' (Emily thrusts rhetorical objections at Anne), 'despised' (Emily laughs scornfully); Anne makes it clear that she loved Emily deeply, and this made the rift that was developing between them hurt all the more. Their differing interests and views on life are depicted as a 'dark stream' flowing between them, with herself and Emily 'bending o'er its brink.' until she eventually accepts she has 'to bear a colder heart within my breast', and she shared only the thoughts that she could share with Emily - but calmly kept the rest (to herself!). She concludes this section by revealing that, in adult years, their closeness had drastically faded - and they were now like two trees, 'that at the root were one', but whose 'stems must stand alone'.
Later in the poem, she acknowledges that, as time passes, her chances of finding real love with a partner are diminishing, and she has experienced such love 'only in my dreams' (this is also expressed in her earlier poems: 'Dreams' and 'If This Be All'). And can we not detect a reference to William Weightman here? - 'Of simplest word or softest sigh/Or from the glancing of an eye' - so reminiscent of Charlotte's reference to Weightman: 'He sits opposite Anne at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention . . . '.
In this poem we see Anne introduce the theme of how 'time, and toil, and truth, can 'freeze the generous blood of youth/And steel full fast the tender heart.' - a theme she develops further in Agnes Grey, and even more so in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Elizabeth Langland writes on this point:
On a different note, Winifred Gerin remarks on how Anne seems to have prophesised, in this poem, her final hours at Scarborough - when she sat in her easy-chair by her room window - looking "so serene, so reliant" - observing the sea that was as calm as glass on that gloriously sunny day; and when the doctor who tended her 'wondered at her fixed tranquillity of spirit and settled longing to be gone': in all his experience, he later told Charlotte and Ellen, 'he had never seen such a deathbed and it gave evidence of no common mind'.
Anne concludes the poem by declaring her intention to continue to love, toil and endure whatever suffering she must, without complaint; in the hope that God will acknowledge her labours in adhering to her 'narrow way' - her path to heaven.
'The mist is resting on the hill;
'I would, but
Time keeps working still
'Time steals thy
moments, drinks thy breath,
'I see, far
back, a helpless child,
Poor helpless thing! what can it do
That tender love so warm and deep,
How, if a
sparrow's death can wring
'Look back again - What dost thou see?'
'I see one kneeling
on the sod,
It asked for
light, and it is heard;
'So was it, and so will it be:
'God alters not; but Time on me
'Bless God for that divine decree! -
'Nay, but 'tis hard to feel that chill
Oh, I have
known a wondrous joy
O love is sweet of every kind!
Whose love may freely gush and flow,
O vainly might
I seek to show
My life has been a morning sky
'So must it fare with all thy race
'O I have striven both hard and long
'There is a rest
beyond the grave,
|'The Three Guides'||'Self Communion'||'The Narrow Way'|
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