“Retrospect” by Rupert Brooke is a forty line poem that follows a consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD… etc. While this poem may once have been read as a sentimental love story, in the modern age it can be interpreted as a confining depiction of what love can be for a woman who wants more.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how his lover is a light in the darkest “chambers” and a dark cloud on the clearest nights. She is all things to him, good and bad. Their love, he states, is to her “Penetrative, remote and rare,” and it does not seem to impact her permanently.
The speaker continues on to say that their love was like the rising of the sun on a new day. He could look out upon the future confident and excited at its new prospects. While the speaker has spent the majority of this piece praising his lover, he then turns to speak on what he sees as a darker side of her personality.
Often times she turns into her own mind and contemplates the world in which she lives. This interior place to which she goes the speaker does not trust. He depicts a scenario in which he enters her mind, finds her, lays his head in her hands, and she is made to care for him. She watches over him as he sleeps and is no longer subject to her own thoughts.
Analysis of Retrospect
In your arms was still delight,
Quiet as a street at night;
And thoughts of you, I do remember,
Were green leaves in a darkened chamber,
Were dark clouds in a moonless sky.
Love, in you, went passing by,
Penetrative, remote, and rare,
Like a bird in the wide air,
And, as the bird, it left no trace
In the heaven of your face.
The beginning of this poem starts with a reference to the previous state of being that the speaker now remembers with “delight.” He was held in the arms of his lover and together they were “quiet” like ”a street at night.” The speaker continues to reminisce about the past. He remembers how when he thought of “you” in moments of darkness, as the darkness of a “chamber,” his thoughts were like “green leaves.” They were a spark of light in amongst all of the dark.
Additionally, expanding on the starkness of this previous image, the speaker compares his thoughts of the listener to “dark clouds in a moonless sky.” Not only is she able to lighten up a dark room but also bring darkness to a clear night. She stands out in whatever she does.
The second half of this section of lines is used by the poet to describes how this unnamed lover experienced their love, at least from his perspective. She is said to have experienced love differently. It went “passing by” her briefly and rarely penetrating and then “leav[ing] no trace” on her face. The speaker believes that his lover felt their love strongly but briefly and it did not seem to permanently impact her.
In your stupidity I found
The sweet hush after a sweet sound.
All about you was the light
That dims the greying end of night;
Desire was the unrisen sun,
Joy the day not yet begun,
With tree whispering to tree,
Without wind, quietly.
The next section of lines describes how the speaker felt about the tender moments of their relationship. His lover was to him “the light” that just begins brightening the grey night sky. He is continually held on edge by her and he describes his desire as the “unrisen sun,” barely visible at a moment and then powerful when it surfaces.
The “joy” that they experienced together was like looking out over a day that has not started yet, in which anything can happen.
Wisdom slept within your hair,
And Long-Suffering was there,
And, in the flowing of your dress,
And when you thought, it seemed to me,
Infinitely, and like a sea,
About the slight world you had known
Your vast unconsciousness was thrown . . .
O haven without wave or tide!
Continuing on, the speaker further brags about his lover. He describes different parts of her, her hair and dress, and how within in these simple parts of her being he found “Wisdom” and “Long-suffering,” as if she frequently was tested in her patience or was subject to ills of one kind of another.
Additionally, there was “Undiscerning Tenderness” to be found. His lover was kind without reservation. There was no one whom she would mistreat.
The speaker concludes this section of his monologue by describing the way his lover’s mind worked. He describes her as often thinking about her entire “slight” world she has known. Her mind reached far out into all she knew and like the sea it was beautiful and dangerous.
Her “unconsciousness” is said to have been “thrown” out into her sea of thoughts in which there was no wave or tide, just the far-reaching sea in which to get lost. It seems as if the narrator, although complementary of her “wisdom” is also unsure of her mental strength. He seems to doubt her ability to comprehend the world at large as she has been thus far confined to her small portion of it.
Lines 28- 40
Silence, in which all songs have died!
Holy book, where hearts are still!
And home at length under the hill!
O mother quiet, breasts of peace,
Where love itself would faint and cease!
O infinite deep I never knew,
I would come back, come back to you,
Find you, as a pool unstirred,
Kneel down by you, and never a word,
Lay my head, and nothing said,
In your hands, ungarlanded;
And a long watch you would keep;
And I should sleep, and I should sleep!
The speaker continues describing his lover’s thought process and how in the silence of her thoughts she is flung out to sea. It is a place in which “all songs have died.” He is attempting to depict her deeper thought processes as a dangerous place without joy or music.
It becomes clear at this point that the speaker in this piece loves his companion, whomever she may be, but wants her to be his ideal version of herself. When she has deeper thoughts, does not adequately return his love, or for her own reasons does not display the joy he believes she should, he is saddened by it and feels as if he needs to rescue her.
The poem continues as the speaker describes this place of danger to which his lover goes. There, love is unable to exist. It would “faint and cease” to be at all.
It is here he would “come back to [her]” and find her. After discovering her there he would “kneel” beside her and “Lay” his “head…in [her] hands.” While to the speaker, and perhaps to the readership of the age in which this was written, this sentiment is seen as a romantic one—by today’s standards, many would see this as a kind of unhealthy idolatry in which the woman is made to be exactly what the man desires and is responsible for his care.
In this scenario in which he comes to her in the deeper recesses of her mind, his head is in her “ungarlanded hands.” Her hands are simple, without adornment or burden, except for that in which he imbues them. The poem concludes with the speaker being watched over by his lover as he sleeps. He has made himself into an object in need of care and affection in the hopes that she will return from this place in her mind and care for him like he wants her to.
About Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke was born in August of 1887 in Rugby, Warwickshire, England. As a young man enrolled in the same school in which his father was a master, Brookes excelled at sports as well as academics. He eventually would go on to attend King’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1906.
Throughout the next years of his life, Brookes traveled throughout England and Europe and in 1911 he published his volume Poems. His most acclaimed work, 1914, published in 1915, brought him fame and is the source of his most well-known poems today.
At the beginning of World War I, he received a commission with the Royal Navy. He would not survive the war, contracting septicemia in Skyros, Greece, and dying soon after in 1915.