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Analysis of Charlotte Bronte's "On the Death of Anne Bronte"

An 1873 portrait of Charlotte Bronte by Duyckinick.

An 1873 portrait of Charlotte Bronte by Duyckinick.

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

— Charlotte Bronte

Coping With Loss

Quite evidently, the above poem On The Death Of Anne Bronte by English novelist and poet Charlotte Bronte is about loss. Bronte has lost someone she loves deeply i.e. her youngest sister, Anne, and doesn’t know where to go from here. Like many of us who have had to mourn the passing of someone we love, the poet now must find a way to effectively rid her system of the feelings of emptiness and despair that overwhelm her. It is a daunting task and one that she beautifully undertakes in four brief stanzas.

In the first stanza, we learn that the poet has “lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save” or, in other words, that someone she cares for deeply has died. Though we know from the title that that person is the poet’s sister, we are never directly told this. Instead, Bronte makes a wise decision to leave the specifics (name of the deceased, gender of the deceased and her relationship to the deceased) out of the poem thus allowing for it to be embraced by a larger audience and giving it more of a chance to be read at funerals. Regardless of the identity of the deceased, it is clear that the poet is taking this loss hard. While we may assume that she enjoyed life prior to this passing, we know for certain that this is no longer the case, “There's little joy in life for me.” In fact, we could be so bold as to say that she now looks forward to death (“And little terror in the grave”) so that she can be reunited with the deceased. This is a sentiment felt all too commonly when someone leaves us too soon.

The poet uses the second stanza to describe her loved one’s last moments (“the failing breath“, “sigh might be the last”, “see the shade of death”). Though Bronte may want to chase away death and keep the soon-to-be deceased a live forever she knows she can’t. I also get the sense that, in these last moments, she realizes how much pain her loved one is in and that forcing them to live another day would be selfish and an unjustified punishment.

Stanza three discusses the actual moment when the individual in question passes from one world into the next. Referring to death as “The cloud, the stillness,” Bronte touches upon the subtlety of this life changing (for the survivors) occurrence. While we may believe that the end to a life so special should be signaled by cannons being fired and horns being blasted, in truth, one’s passing is silent, instantaneous and, most frustrating of all, common. When it happens, especially after a long, painful illness, we are to be thankful. Though this moment of gratitude isn’t always as quickly reached as Bronte’s poem would suggest, it must be reached in order for the death to be fully dealt with.

If Bronte had ended the poem with the third stanza, we would’ve assumed that though she missed her loved one, she had come to terms with the loss and realized that their death was a necessity and a blessing. However, there is a final stanza and that leads you to assume something darker. In the final stanza, Bronte basically states that while all of the above (The deceased died peacefully. I praise God for the deceased’s new-found peace. Etc.) may be true, she is still in a lot of pain and may not bounce back from this loss, “And now, benighted, tempest-tossed, Must bear alone the weary strife.” She has lost “The hope and glory of our life;” and these things are not easy to come by. Though she may one day overcome this loss, it is evident that that time is not now.

In May of 1849 at the young age of twenty-nine, the aforementioned Anne died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Though she had been the third of six children, with Anne’s passing Charlotte was made an only child. Since her mother had died of uterine cancer when the children were very young, Charlotte was left to care for her aged father who, surprisingly enough ended up outliving all of his children. As you would assume from reading the poem, Charlotte and Anne had a strong bond. While all of the Bronte siblings were close, due to the deaths of the other Bronte children, the sisters were made inseparable especially towards the end of Anne’s life. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Charlotte wrote this poem for her precious sister.

How the Poem Speaks to Me

This poem speaks to everyone who has lost someone they loved especially the people who were there when it happened. Sitting by your loved one, struggling to keep your emotions in check, watching the life start to fade from their eyes, you contemplate all that they were to you and the emptiness you’ll feel when they are gone.

Though I realize people are quick to make a distinction between an animal and a human, I am not one of those people. A lost life is a lost life regardless of how many legs they stride upon. That having been said, while I had lost many people prior to the day that I lost my Eliza, it wasn’t until I laid on the floor stroking my twelve year old dog’s face that I finally saw what death looked like. I had raised this little girl from her first month on. I had taught her how to climb stairs. I had patiently wiped up her puppy pee each time she’d “have an accident” in her housebreaking days. I learned how to love another being unconditionally through her unconditional love for me.

The day that the doctors told me that this invincible angel with the brown and white fur was dying of a liver disease, I felt the way that Bronte describes in this poem. I began to barter my life for hers knowing full well that God wasn’t about to allow that exchange to go through. Up until the moment when she started to breathe laboredly, I kept pushing for her to be spared. It wasn’t until I saw this once energetic canine be unable to push herself up off of the floor did it finally dawn on me that her death was an inevitability that I had to accept and asking for more time or exchange was a selfish, unreasonable request. The moment I realized she had died, I was thankful. Yes, I was thankful for a week until it hit me she wasn’t coming back and then I began to live out the feelings expressed in the final stanza. It is hard to be stoic when the chair your loved one used to sit in has been empty for an extended period of time.

Bronte has written a poem that transcends time because, sadly, death and grief do too. Whether we want to admit to it or not, we will all experience loss at one or more points in our lives and be faced with everything that goes along with it. Well-meaning people will tell us to be strong for our families and friends and to remember the good times when our loved one was well and getting on our nerves. Holy men and funeral directors will advise us to move past our pain because death is a natural part of life that teaches us to be grateful for our own lives. While all of this may be true, it doesn’t comfort us when we're overwhelmed with thoughts of how much we’ll miss the deceased and how many things he/she will miss out on. I believe Bronte’s poem says that death is an unfair blessing that leaves us with too many questions. It takes a second to occur and a lifetime for survivors to fully overcome. In short, it stinks.


Kathleen Moore on September 14, 2018:

Uniwits09 is commenting on a different poem. The one a' quotes from is not "On The Death of Anne Bronte" (definitely by Charlotte Bronte, 1848) but "A Death-Scene", attributed to 'Ellis Bell', the pen-name of EMILY Bronte, in "Poems by Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell" (1846)

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Perhaps someone gave Uniwits09 a Bronte anthology with some pages glued together?

Uniwits09 on January 09, 2017:

How you can say that this is a poem about the death of her sister as the poem starts with the line "O day! he cannot die

When thou so fair art shining!.... it shows the narrator is addressing to a man using the word "He" so i think it is a death scene from their imaginary world "Gondal"

claudia on May 30, 2016:

wow you saved my presentation thank you for the inspiration!!

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 14, 2014:

Thank you. The loss of a loved one is hard to take. Poetry has the power to heal no doubt and you've chosen a beautifully rendered poem written by a great talent.

Nivedita Negi on May 04, 2013:

This is so helpful. Thank you

L.A. Walsh (author) from Lowell, MA on July 18, 2010:

Thank you, Dolores!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on July 05, 2010:

A wonderful analysis of a truly sad poem. I can't imagine the depth of Charlotte's loss. Shortly before Anne died, her sister Emily died (December, 1848), and her brother Branwell in September. I read of how the 3 of them worked so well together in that dining room of the old Parsonage, walking around the table discussing their writing. The poem so perfectly reflects her devastation.

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