‘The Penitent’ by Anne Brontë is a Christian poem about repentance and salvation. Its subject and speaker are two different people, the former being the reason for the poem’s title. In the poem, the speaker observes and describes the bittersweet condition of their subject as they seek God’s forgiveness.
The Penitent Anne BrontëI mourn with thee, and yet rejoiceThat thou shouldst sorrow so;With angel choirs I join my voiceTo bless the sinner's woe.Though friends and kindred turn away,And laugh thy grief to scorn;I hear the great Redeemer say,"Blessed are ye that mourn."Hold on thy course, nor deem it strangeThat earthly cords are riven:Man may lament the wondrous change,But "there is joy in heaven!"
Explore The Penitent
‘The Penitent’ by Anne Brontë is a poem about the beauty and challenges of salvation.
‘The Penitent’ by Anne Brontë begins by capturing an unnamed person mourning before God. The speaker describes this person’s disposition as not only necessary, but joyful. They imply that their subject’s mourning means a genuine repentance of sins, which leads to salvation. With the mention of angels watching as well, this moment looks almost rapturous, thereby serving as a strong beginning for the poem.
Soon after, the persona describes the mockery to come. They tell their subject that this rapturous moment will cost them, friends, and family. However, the persona offers comfort from God and encouraging advice. They urge these repentant souls to hold fast to their newfound faith because the God to whom they’ve come rejoices over their salvation.
‘The Penitent’ by Anne Brontë comprises three quatrains, featuring the alternate rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF. Also, each stanza alternates its number of syllables per line, forming an 8-7-8-6, 8-6-8-6, and 8-7-8-7 syllabic structure respectively. This means that, in a stanza, the first line comprises eight syllables, the second comprises six or seven syllables, the next line features eight, and the one after features six or seven.
Furthermore, ‘The Penitent’ combines the trochaic and iambic meter, even though most lines are composed of more iambs than trochees. Typical of all Brontë poems, ‘The Penitent’ uses punctuations throughout to indicate pauses, stops, and emotional outbursts.
Brontë makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Penitent.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: This is the dominant device in ‘The Penitent.’ Allusion features in every stanza, starting with the mention of angels singing over a sinner’s salvation. It alludes to the scripture, Luke 15:7-10, which speaks of angels rejoicing over the same event. Stanza 2 line 4 is a quoted scripture from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). “Earthly cords” in stanza 3 line 2 bears a similar meaning to “cords” used in the King James Version of the scripture Proverbs 5:22. Lastly, the quote in stanza 3 line 4 traces back to Luke 15:7.
- Enjambment: This literary device is as dominant as an allusion. In fact, no line is a complete sentence due to it. Throughout ‘The Penitent,’ Brontë expresses each individual thought in two lines.
- Apostrophe: The speaker addresses a listener who is not “obviously” present in the poem. Though direct references like “thou” and “thy” make the listener seem present, addressing their listener as “the sinner” in stanza one implies an imaginary or faraway subject.
I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinner’s woe.
‘The Penitent’ opens on a rapturous note, highlighting the theme of salvation. The words “angel” and “sinner” let readers know that the persona portrays salvation as it pertains to the Christian faith. They describe it as a bittersweet moment for the subject of the poem, whom they call “the sinner.”
From the outset, readers note that our speaker empathizes with their subject’s situation because they themselves have experienced salvation. In line 2, the word “so” as used in the context suggests that the speaker is familiar with the procedure they describe. Line 3 hinges on the scripture Luke 15:10, which mentions angels rejoicing over the sinner’s “woe.” “Woe” is associated with repentance, an act that must be done to be saved. In fact, the scripture 2 Corinthians 7:10 summarizes the entire stanza: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation…”
Stanza one explains the title, ‘The Penitent,’ which Oxford Languages defines as “a person who repents their sins and (in the Christian Church) seeks forgiveness from God.”
Though friends and kindred turn away,
And laugh thy grief to scorn;
I hear the great Redeemer say,
“Blessed are ye that mourn.”
In the second stanza, the speaker warns their subject of trials to come as a result of their salvation. They tell them of losses and mockery they’d have to endure. This prediction makes the speaker’s experience with the theme even more evident.
Also, their warnings mirror the plight of today’s Christians who tend to lose friends or face opposition from their families as a result of their beliefs. One cannot exclude people who aren’t religious; they too relate to facing similar opposition whenever they make huge decisions that don’t herd decisions. Nonetheless, this speaker offers comfort to the subject, and by extension, Christians in the subject’s shoes. The source of comfort is a quote from the Beatitudes, the blessings Jesus professed in the scripture Matthew 5. The complete saying is found in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” The great Redeemer in line 3 is God Himself, from whom the sinner received salvation.
Hold on thy course, nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven:
Man may lament the wondrous change,
But “there is joy in heaven!”
The last stanza of ‘The Penitent’ focuses on the transformation within the repentant soul as a result of salvation. Line two especially tells readers of this, using the meaning of “cords” from Proverbs 5:22. “Earthly cords,” from the aforementioned scripture, means one’s attachment to sin. By saying those “cords are riven,” the speaker tells their subject that they will no longer feel the need to sin. The removal of cords suggests freedom, the result of salvation.
The fact that the speaker has to tell the subject not to “deem it strange” implies that it (their transformation) comes with a strange feeling. It’s like telling a companion not to be afraid; one expects there is something to be scared of. However, the speaker also calls this change “wondrous,” showing it is strange, but in a good way. In the last line, they buttress the poem—and encourage their subject—with another quote: “There is joy in heaven!” It traces back to Luke 15:7, which says heaven rejoices over the salvation of one soul. This gives ‘The Penitent’—which started out bittersweet—a light-hearted ending.
The Brontë sisters (Emily, Charlotte, and Anne) published ‘The Penitent’ in the 1846 edition of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They published the poem, alongside 60 others, under the pseudonyms: Currer for Charlotte, Ellis for Emily, and Acton for Anne.
The poem hinges on the theme of salvation, which is in itself spiritual. Other themes include grief, joy, empathy, loss, and transformation.
Firstly, the sinner mourns their sins before God because they genuinely feel sorry for them. It’s the same guilt one feels when they offend someone they cherish. The speaker relates to the sinner’s brokenness but rejoices at the same time because they know that sinner will soon be free of both sin and guilt. With their empathic nature, one can also say the persona feels the joy of heaven. After all, they speak of joining the angels to sing.
If you enjoyed reading ‘The Penitent’ by Anne Brontë, you should check out similar poems:
- ‘Spellbound‘ by Emily Brontë: an autobiographical poem detailing the speaker’s struggle between disbelief and belief in God.
- ‘No Coward Soul is Mine‘ by Emily Brontë: an autobiographical poem about a speaker’s passion for God.
- ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father‘ by James K. Baxter: a bittersweet isometric poem about death.