A famous Shakespeare quote — bordering on cliché, really — describes parting as being “such sweet sorrow,” because of the happiness associated with knowing a person who is worth missing so bitterly. Such a strong, specific emotion is what makes for exceptional writing, as it’s something specific and meaningful that can make a lasting impression on a reader.
Many years later, Anne Brontë’s Farewell follows a similar theme, exploring the concept of a deep and powerful sadness that combines grief and joy in a confusing and deeply affecting way. Whether it is expressed in a few short lines, as Shakespeare chose to, or in the entirety of Brontë’s Farewell, it is expressed as a beautiful and heartfelt sentiment that can stay with the reader long after it is read.
Farewell follows a theme seen across several of Anne Brontë’s poems that includes a theme of romantic attachment and secret bliss. These poems coincide with the arrival of a man named William Weightman in Brontë’s like; Weightman worked with her father and while there is no evidence to suggest that he and Anne ever shared romantic feelings towards one another, his death seems to have been a significant tragedy for the family, and it is likely that Farewell reflects this reality.
Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.
O, beautiful, and full of grace!
If thou hadst never met mine eye,
I had not dreamed a living face
Could fancied charms so far outvie.
The first verse of Farewell by Anne Brontë is the longest verse, doubling the typical length for this poem. It is comprised of eight lines, forming two rhyming quatrains, each written in an ABAB rhyming pattern. The extended length of the first verse allows the speaker to establish the backstory that informs the farewell. The speaker laments at the departure of someone important to them but is able to be consoled by the knowledge that their memories of the individual will remain forever, impossible to taint or lose. The second half of the verse serves to suggest some kind of romantic relationship between the two, as the speaker takes particular care to mention that they would not have believed it possible for a face so beautiful as their companion’s to exist had they not seen it themselves. The especially rosy language — “O, beautiful, and full of grace!” — is especially telling of the fondness felt by the speaker for the subject of the verse. It is unclear at this point whether or not the person has passed away, or simply moved away from the speaker’s life.
If I may ne’er behold again
That form and face so dear to me,
Nor hear thy voice, still would I fain
Preserve, for aye, their memory.
That voice, the magic of whose tone
Can wake an echo in my breast,
Creating feelings that, alone,
Can make my tranced spirit blest.
The atmosphere of the work is well-established; declarations like the one that begins the second verse add an overtone of hopelessness and sorrow to the piece as the speaker contemplates never seeing or hearing the voice of their friend again. They resolve to commit it all to memory and never forget, the language that speaks strongly of passing away. Following this verse, the third one places a great deal of focus on the sound of the companion’s voice. Focusing on sensory detail like this is an intelligent choice by the author, who wishes to convey the feeling of being around the individual described, even if they are described in a fashion that most readers would not relate to (with romantic affections).
In this instance, the voice is described, and what it was like to hear the person speak. Their tone described here as being magical, and capable of actually making feelings. This wording speaks to the powerful connection that must have existed between the two, that feelings are created simply by listening to one voice, to make the speaker feel blest as one might after visiting a house of worship. These feelings are not described beyond these simple words, but the tone and voice of each previous line make it easy for the reader to imagine that feeling as a wonderful and happy one, indescribable in mere words.
That laughing eye, whose sunny beam
My memory would not cherish less; —
And oh, that smile! whose joyous gleam
Nor mortal language can express.
The next verse continues the element of sensory output, this time focusing on the sight of the individual, their “laughing eye,” and “sunny beam,” two metaphoric descriptions of a vibrant and generally happy individual. This verse also furthers the idea of “making feeling,” of expressing emotions that can’t quite be captured with words. This time, it is the memory of a smile that affects the speaker deeply, making them mourn what they have lost and gladdened to posses the memory.
Adieu, but let me cherish, still,
The hope with which I cannot part.
Contempt may wound, and coldness chill,
But still it lingers in my heart.
And who can tell but Heaven, at last,
May answer all my thousand prayers,
And bid the future pay the past
With joy for anguish, smiles for tears?
The “adieu” that begins the second-last verse reads as a final farewell, as the narrator expresses a deep desire to hold onto the positive and happy memories, to remain hopeful, and, most importantly, the wish that joy will be found in the future as well as the past. The idea of wondering whether the future will pay the past back is an interesting one, and the reference to Heaven makes the conclusion of the poem read almost like a prayer. It is as though the narrator is praying that there will be some kind of reward, some kind of turnaround in their future to make up for the loss they are feeling. The entire poem has been about the memory of happiness as sustenance, but the final verse indicates that memories make for poor sustainability. It is surely fair to think that for each moment of anguish, there should be a moment of joy, and for each teardrop, there should be a smile — but, as another cliché’d saying reminds, life is not necessarily fair. The complex nature of this bittersweet poem ends on a note of hope, something that is subtly present throughout, and necessary for the idea of moving on, to receive those joys and smiles prayed for, even at a time when all feels lost.