Titles that are exactly one word long, such as Emily Brontë’s ‘Hope’, tend to be among the best at grabbing a potential reader’s attention. Sometimes, when one word is all it takes to perfectly embody the essence of the poem, it’s hard to resist opening up the work and exploring a new perspective on the idea. In this case, the idea is “hope,” and Emily Brontë’s expressive piece on the topic uses a strong sense of metaphor and imagery to bring alive the idea that so many tend to have different opinions on. When everyone has their own idea of what hope is or means, an art form like poetry is an excellent way for one to stand out from the crowd, and Brontë’s work embodies this perfectly.
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
Brontë’s approach for sharing her view of hope is to use a metaphor to personify hope into a character in this story (you can listen to the poem here). The personification is described here as being a timid kind of friend, who sits in the background of the speaker’s life and watches them. The explanation that Hope is “timid” gives the impression that Hope is the kind of character who could intervene in the speaker’s life, such as in the instance of “selfish-hearted men” and other acts of fate, but is afraid to stand up. That Hope sits without a “grated den” further suggests that there is no physical boundary between the two characters, and that Hope simply chooses to be away.
She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars, one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!
For the narrator of the poem, however, Hope’s now-confirmed fear of intervention is more an act of cruelty than it is simple shyness. Describing “bars” as if through a prison cell, the speaker describes a time when they looked at Hope, who immediately averts her gaze, rather than making eye contact with her friend. Given that the personification is presumably the personification of the same idea, it is easy to imagine how this hurts the speaker. It is inferable that they are a person who is hurt either easily or often, and does not feel hope as a regular aspect of looking to the future; whenever they try, they find hope to be a distant phenomenon who offers no help… even when help would be desperately appreciated.
Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping;
If I listened, she would cease.
Ambition, desire, and aspiration for good, as a concept, is something that is meant to keep a person safe. It is a kind of “last defence” before the feeling of despair. When nothing in the physical world can keep an individual serene, the best they can do is to hope for a better future. With this in mind, it is understandable that the narrator refers to Hope as a “false guard.” The use of simile, rather than metaphor, suggests that they know Hope is their friend, and not a literal guardian, but this does not help their perception, which lashes out at the “false watch” Hope is keeping. Despite this analogy, however, the speaker cannot fail to note that in times of hardship, Hope does communicate; she whispers peace, and she sings to the troubled sleeper. The implication given is that after a certain point passes, the hardship becomes enough that the shy friend overcomes her timidness and intervenes. Still, the personification of aspiration is a timid friend, and if the narrator wakes from their sleep to listen to the singing, it immediately stops. The analogy to an embarrassed singer is a strong one, helping to make Hope a relatable character, even as she only exists to embody the universal concept she is named for.
False she was, and unrelenting;
When my last joys strewed the ground,
Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
Those sad relics scattered round;
The speaker continues to regard Hope as a false friend, a strong metaphor for the idea of “false hope.” The analogy for Hope as a cruel character is played out in a dramatic fashion. All of the speaker’s joys are relics that fall to the ground when they are lost. Even Sorrow, also personified in this metaphor, is implied to be considering leaving the narrator alone, but the personification of aspiration continues to be cruelly shy and is not seen as caring at all that her friend is losing her joys and her triumphs rapidly and without return. While Sorrow is repenting for pushing the speaker too far, Hope is barely mentioned in this verse at all, implying that she continues to do nothing to help.
Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!
In the final verse, the speaker indicates that they know the power possessed by the personification of aspiration, and her incredible ability to soothe all pains. The implication of this is that the speaker used to have a much closer relationship with Hope than they currently have, and are realizing it especially now, as they watch her extend her wings and disappear forever. In the end, Hope leaves, with the speaker’s joys still scattered as relics across the ground.
In the literal sense, the poem appears to be about the process of losing hope. The personification of aspiration is fickle and abstract, and the more things go wrong, the harder hope is to find. Importantly, Emily Brontë touches on a crucial aspect of hope — that it isn’t something that can be searched for or appealed to. Hope is instinctive. As soon as the character narrating the poem begins to listen to Hope’s song, she stops singing. Likewise, when a person tries to feel hope, it comes up as empty and meaningless. What Brontë seems to be suggesting through this work is that hope is not something that is felt intentionally. It is something that everyone wants to feel, but that few truly do, and the more often a person is let down by false or failed hopes, the less they believe they can feel hope again. At that point, it deserts them entirely.
The poem ends on a rather bleak note, in that sense, as though the reader is following the character’s journey towards losing faith in the idea of hope forever. They are becoming cynical through the course of the poem, which is the nature of hope; no matter how many times it is of comfort in the past, a person can only feel let down so many times before they embrace pessimistic perspectives to avoid being disappointed.
In offering a perspective on the concept of aspiration, ambition, and desire for good, Brontë’s poem is remarkable in its clever use of metaphors and personification to bring to life their relationship with such an abstract idea. By making Hope a character, the reader can almost relate to it, while at the same time identifying points in their own life when joy was a relic fallen to the ground, and Hope was simply nowhere to be found.