For Anne Brontë, as with so many others in nineteenth-century England, faith was an instrumental aspect of everyday life. Religion was an enormous part of society, and many artists were eager to express their personal connection with God in as grand or impressive a way as might be possible. For someone with as relatively dark a perspective in her works as Anne Brontë, such declarations of faith as her poem, If This Be All, were penned in a relatively unique way, and stand out in many ways from her contemporaries.
If This Be All Analysis
O God! if this indeed be all
That Life can show to me;
If on my aching brow may fall
No freshening dew from Thee, —
If with no brighter light than this
The lamp of hope may glow,
And I may only dream of bliss,
And wake to weary woe;
If This Be All is written in a very simplistic and familiar style, designed to be easy to read and follow along to. Each verse is either a quatrain or, in this case, two merged quatrains, each following an ABAB rhyming pattern with an alternating syllable count of 8-6-8-6. The poem begins with the expression “O God,” a typical indication of exasperation, however the capitalization on the words “Life” and “Thee” suggest that the poem is in fact a kind of prayer addressed to the Christian deity. The verse uses varied metaphors, as is common with religious addresses, including the “freshening dew” and the “lamp of hope,” both of which represent ideas that feel good — cool water on a “aching brow” and light in a dark area respectively — but are phrased as being not enough for sustenance. The ending of the verse flows into the next one, wherein the speaker addresses that their dreams are more joyous than reality, and suggests that their life is one of “weary woe,” an alliterative expression that seems to be the guiding principle for the prayer.
By using alliteration, rather than an expression of a more unpleasant poetic device, such as cacophony, Brontë is attempting to bring the reader deeper into the poem, and let the atmosphere of the piece speak to its reader more strongly than the words themselves. Alliteration is a strong tool for an author to use when they want their readers to be submerged, so to speak, within their poem, because it sounds poetic. “Weary woe” was hardly the best expression Brontë could have used to express misery, but it successfully establishes that the atmosphere of the piece is supposed to be dark and dreary, while maintaining the flow of the piece enough that the atmosphere starts to weigh on the reader. The last four lines of the verse embody this by also using the metaphor of being in the dark with an insufficiently bright lamp — the reader can picture this scenario easily, and can understand how the speaker is feeling when they wake from their sleep.
If friendship’s solace must decay,
When other joys are gone,
And love must keep so far away,
While I go wandering on, —
Wandering and toiling without gain,
The slave of others’ will,
With constant care, and frequent pain,
Despised, forgotten still;
The second and third verses of If This Be All are similarly dreary, as Brontë uses words such as “decay,” “slave,” and “despised” to maintain the dreary atmosphere of her piece. The speaker in the poem is lamenting the idea that all joys in life eventually conclude, and that their own life in particular as kept them far away from hope of love, and has left them unable to do things for their own self, but rather to work for others as little more than an afterthought to them. The reference to “constant care,” “frequent pain,” and the idea of being despised and forgotten creates a very abstract, atmospheric environment around the speaker. Whether it is a poor family, a terrible job, or a deep depression that causes them this frequent pain is entirely unspecified, and Brontë instead focuses on the feeling of pain, ignoring the cause. This keeps the poem relatable for any reader, rather than isolating the poem for those who, for example, have excellent jobs that make them happy, or love and are loved by their families a great deal.
Grieving to look on vice and sin,
Yet powerless to quell
The silent current from within,
The outward torrent’s swell:
While all the good I would impart,
The feelings I would share,
Are driven backward to my heart,
And turned to wormwood, there;
The fifth verse of the poem uses the metaphor of a body of water to describe the emotional state of the speaker, who feels as though they are being pushed around by a torrent, or very forceful body of water, while they are merely a silent current. They are overrun and drown in a sea of “vice and sin,” and imagine the outside torrent as pushing back all of the good they feel they could bring into the world to the notably silent current. They think of their good intentions as being transformed into wormwood, a very bitter-tasting herb. These verses shed some light on why the speaker is praying to God — they feel that their capacity to perform morally good works, such as are held in high esteem by that faith, is strictly limited, and that there is no hope for change, going back to the idea that their lamp of hope is not bright enough to show them the way — and their God is the source of all hope.
If clouds must ever keep from sight
The glories of the Sun,
And I must suffer Winter’s blight,
Ere Summer is begun;
If life must be so full of care,
Then call me soon to Thee;
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.
In these last two verses, the speaker comes to the conclusion and purpose of their prayer. In yet another natural-world-based metaphor, their good works are thought of as the sun (again capitalized, suggesting a link between their faith and their capacity to do good), and specifically, a sun that is constantly covered in clouds, as in during winter months. Ultimately, as the last verse explains concisely, they are praying for one of two things: either an early death, so they may be united with their God and therefore their hope, or the strength to bear their cross, as it were, and to deal with their present situation, whatever it may be, in a much more productive and healthy manner than they presently are.
If This Be All explores the relationship between goodness and faith in a subtle way. The speaker of the poem seems to be likening their capacity to do good with their ability to express their faith. Another interpretation might suggest that the speaker needs their faith in order to perform good works, and that without it, they feel there is no hope to affect the change they seek. They also suggest that without the capacity to make this change, their life is meaningless and they are miserable living it. These kinds of themes are all markedly grim, and whatever the intent of the story, it is certainly worth noting that the address of the poem — “O God!” — is in itself an expression of hope, and this too ties in nicely with the other present themes. Whatever Brontë’s specific intent with If This Be All, she clearly has endeavoured to make her reader think along these lines, and wrote her poem in a very productive way for the purpose of achieving that goal.