‘I now had only to retrace’ by Charlotte Brontë is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains is structured with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of abab, alternating as Brontë saw fit from stanza to stanza.
There are moments though where the rhymes are not quite perfect. The endings of lines one and three of stanza two, as well as lines one and three of stanza three should be considered as half or slant rhymes.
The meter is also generally very well structured. The first and third lines of the stanzas conform to a pattern of iambic pentameter while lines two and four contain fewer syllables, making them iambic trimeter. This means that rather than five sets of two beats per line there are three. The first of these is usually unstressed and the second stressed.
As with the rhyme scheme, there are some exceptions to these rules. One of the most prominent is at the beginning of line one of stanza four. The first two beats in this line are stressed in an effort to emphasize the speaker’s perilous situation.
Summary of I now had only to retrace
The poem begins with the speaker stating her simple mission, to retrace her steps. She seeks to return to her place of safety, somewhere that inspired past optimism. Immediately the reader is thrust into a dark world with an impending storm.
The speaker is consumed by this storm and in her desperation climbs a hill to see out over the landscape. There are no lights to guide her and the sky is so dark it seems as though there will never be lights again. In amongst a number of allusions to death, the poem concludes with the speaker still trapped, perhaps on the doorstep of the afterlife.
Analysis of I now had only to retrace
I now had only to retrace
The long and lonely road
So lately in the rainbow chase
With fearless ardour trod
In the first stanza of ‘I now had only to retrace’ the speaker begins by utilizing the line that would later come to be used as the title, “I now had only to retrace.” When the short phrase is separated without context it is impossible to know what it is the speaker is “retracing.” The common assumption would be her steps, but the situation is darker and more complicated than that. As is seen in line two.
The speaker describes how she has been traveling down a “long and lonely road.” It was not always as she regards it now though. At one point she traveled down it enthusiastically. She was filled with “fearless ardour” and sped down the path trying to chase a rainbow. Although it is unclear what this rainbow represents, it likely stands in for a dream, hope, or most likely, an optimistic state of mind. With this interpretation in mind, the path she travels on symbolizes life itself.
These lines also inherently imply that the speaker no longer feels like, or is able to, pursue rainbows. Her sense of the road/life, or herself, has changed dramatically.
Behind I left the sunshine now
The evening setting sun
Before, a storm rolled dark & low
Some gloomy hills upon
Any hope of an optimistic turn to the text fades away with the opening lines of the second stanza. She states explicitly that she is “now” leaving the “sunshine” behind. It is the evening and it’s “setting.”
The speaker recalls how at this point in her life a storm rolled in around her. This oppressive turn sets the speaker into an even darker state of mind. She feels a desperation to get back to whatever safe place she started from and away from the “gloomy hills.”
A reader should take note of Brontë’s consistent use of images meant to further a reader’s fear on behalf of the narrator and paint an even more desolate picture of the landscape. The storm is “dark and low” and the hills are “gloomy.” Any light from the sun is gone since it “set.”
It came with rain — it came with wind
With swollen stream it howled
And night advancing black and blind
In ebon horror scowled
In the next set of four lines of ‘I now had only to retrace’, the speaker describes the power of the storm. Her situation is worsening and more than likely making her all the more desperate to escape. Brontë also makes use of new adjectives to describe the fear her speaker is experiencing. The rain comes, and with it “came…wind.”
Brontë chose to use personification in order to enhance a reader’s perception of the scene. The wind is said to “howl” and the night to “advance.” These two elements combine to create a “scowl[ing]” horror that overcomes the narrator. She is blind to the direction she is supposed to be traveling in and surrounded by rapidly worsening conditions.
Now is a good time to refer back to the title and first line of the poem. The speaker sets out her task very simply. All she has to do is “retrace” the path she traveled, but it is clearly not that easy.
It is also important to reconsider this piece as an extended metaphor for the speaker’s life. She began with the highest of hopes and somewhere along the way things went poorly. In an effort to regain the past, or just return to a place she knows better, she chose to retrace her previous route. This has led to where she is at the beginning of the fourth stanza: “Lost in the hills.”
Lost in the hills — all painfully
I climbed a heathy peak
I sought I longed afar to see
My life’s light’s parting streak
The fact that the environment is described as containing “hills” rather than a simple, likely flat, forested floor, makes her situation all the more harrowing. As she stumbles through the dark her sense of direction worsens and her prospects of recovering the path lessen.
In an effort to recover some idea of where she is, the speaker tells of her climb up a “healthy peak.” This is an interesting way to describe a natural formation in the landscape. It lends itself to the story of the speaker’s life. It makes sense to her to seek out some light above the trees.
When she climbs, she looks out and longs to see something, anything that could tell her where she is supposed to go next. Especially she is looking for her “life’s light’s parting streak.” This hints at the speaker’s life coming to an end. She has wandered so far from the path she set out on that she expects to see her remaining light in the distance. It is not clear at this point whether or not she thinks she can recover it.
The West was black as if no day
Had ever lingered there
As if no red, expiring ray
Had tinged the enkindled air
In the fifth stanza, the speaker’s physical and mental state is expanded on. When she looks out around her she does not see the light she was hoping for. Instead, the “West” appears as dark as if day had never existed there. The black is so total it is as if the sun never touched the sky at all.
And morning’s portals could not lie
Where yon dark orient spread
The funeral North — the black dark sky
Alike mourned for the dead
In the final four lines, the speaker’s journey through the hills is concluded without an ending. The reader is left with an image of the “funeral North.” Here again is a reference to death, leading one to give further credence to the idea that this journey is taking the speaker to her own death. The sky appears to “mourn…for the dead.”
The speaker’s hope is extinguished. She believes wholeheartedly that “morning’s portals,” or the rays of light that signify the rising sun, “could not lie” out beyond the hills. The only assumption a reader can make at the end of ‘I now had only to retrace’ is that the speaker succumbed to the elements and is relaying her story at the doorstep of, or from, the next world