Past Days by Anne Brontë

Nostalgia is a rather unique human expression. The idea of reflecting on events that took place within the past as though they can be influenced in any way seems rather silly on paper, but it seems to be an expression of almost universal comfort when experienced. For Anne Brontë, looking back would not have been a difficult thing to do — the tragedies that she experienced throughout life would have made looking back a rather pleasant kind of escapism. In her poem, Past Days, she explores this escapist concept, and juxtaposes past with present in her own unique style. Past Days was written by Anne Brontë, but was published under her common pen name, the decidedly non-gendered Acton.


Past Days Analysis

‘Tis strange to think, there was a time

When mirth was not an empty name,

When laughter really cheered the heart,

And frequent smiles unbidden came,

And tears of grief would only flow

In sympathy for others’ woe;

When speech expressed the inward thought,

And heart to kindred heart was bare,

And Summer days were far too short

For all the pleasures crowded there,

And silence, solitude, and rest,

Now welcome to the weary breast —

Although Past Days is divided into four verses consisting of alternating rhyming lines, the first verse is notably longer than the other three (twice as long, really). In many ways, this is a logical choice for Brontë to have made, because the first verse, as always, is the poem’s introduction, and so the information the reader receives while reading it informs their view on the rest of the poem. Lengthy opening verses appear commonly in Anne Brontë’s works, likely for this reason. It certainly works here, and for much of the first verse, Brontë works to establish her poem’s structure, which takes place largely in the past.

The narrator of the poem finds an idle moment for reflection, and looks towards the past, surprised at how unfamiliar those memories are when juxtaposed with the present day. The poem includes only very sparing literal juxtaposition — the implication is enough to create an impression. When the speaker says, for instance, “When mirth was not an empty name / When laughter really cheered the heart,” they do not need to say that this is no longer the case, because it is the natural explanation for why the past is such a strange time. The only aspect of the first verse that takes place in the present is the closing two lines, which transition into the next verse. In them, the speaker reflects on how their weary heart welcomes “silence, solitude, and rest,” the only literal juxtaposition for lines that make such references as the crowded days of summer, which implies crowds, laughter, and the like.

The language used throughout the verse heavily implies a period of deep personal tragedy that has changed their worldview significantly. They reference only ever weeping in sympathy for others, and having a completely different understanding for the concept of mirth as they do presently. The simple rhyme and repetitive pattern of the verse is its greatest strength in poetic devices for telling this story.

Were all unprized, uncourted then —

And all the joy one spirit showed,

The other deeply felt again;

And friendship like a river flowed,

Constant and strong its silent course,

For nought withstood its gentle force:

The second verse is so much shorter than the previous one that it feels as though the poem has slowed down in pace, and become more introspective on the part of the speaker. They finish their thought from the previous stanza, that they once cared not for silence or solitude. This verse uses a notable metaphor with oxymoron to emphasize its meaning — the idea of a gentle river that cannot be withstood for its light force. This description of friendship, used in past tense, stands out from the rest of Past Days so far; it is the first metaphor used throughout, and is also the lightest description, using words such as “strong” and “gentle,” where previously the dominant forces of the story were words such as “grief” and “kindred.” This verse brings us deeper into the speaker’s mind by slowing down the pace of the overall piece.

When night, the holy time of peace,

Was dreaded as the parting hour;

When speech and mirth at once must cease,

And Silence must resume her power;

Though ever free from pains and woes,

She only brought us calm repose;

The third verse focuses on the speaking’s feelings during nighttime; previously, night was a holy, peaceful time, and was something to dislike only because it meant going home and leaving your friends. This suggests that the speaker now feels all alone in the world, as their reasons for dreading the nighttime have evidently changed, again referring back to the first line of the poem. Silent and solemn, the nighttime did not bring “pains and woes,” but rather “calm repose,” a period of quiet reflection. The phrase “calm repose” is one with positive connotations, indicating an intentional word choice that is juxtaposed with the rest of the poem to indicate that the speaker once liked that time of quiet solitude.

And when the blessed dawn again

Brought daylight to the blushing skies,

We woke, and not reluctant then,

To joyless labour did we rise;

But full of hope, and glad and gay,

We welcomed the returning day.

The last verse of the poem concludes the thoughts began in the previous one, and uses a great many positive and cheerful imageries to create one significant block of oxymoron at the end of the poem. For such cheerful language to appear in what has been such a solemn poem — “blessed,” “dawn,” “daylight,” “blushing,” and that’s only the first third of the verse — is a little confusing initially, but the primary purpose of this verse is to highlight the despairing nature of the present day. It seems odd that Brontë could highlight sadness by discussing hope, dawn, and day, but she does so here by making those words stand out so far from the rest of the work. The final line of the poem speaks about welcoming the returning day, and with the juxtaposition created from the very first line of the poem, the speaker is really saying that they no longer welcome daytime, but would be content to keep to the nighttime solitude and peace forever. It’s surprisingly dark for such a lighthearted verse, but the entirety of Past Days relies heavily on juxtaposing the past and the present to create a sense of grim nostalgia, to marvel at how quickly life can change, and to move in a direction that was clearly extremely unpredictable, and very, very unfortunate.

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Related poetry:   Farewell by Anne Brontë

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