‘Retirement’ By Anne Brontë

As Anne Brontë reveals in her often autobiographical novel ‘Agnes Grey‘, she frequently turned to poetry when in need of solace:

“When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry – and often find it, too.”

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell contained many of Anne’s best poems

Anne loved to read poetry, but thankfully for us she loved to write it too, and her verse often gives us clues about her life and feelings at the time she put quill to paper. She also often, although not always, dates her poems, giving us further clues to the inner meaning of her verse. On one occasion Anne even helpfully gave her poem the title of the date she composed it: ‘Monday Night May 11th 1846′, although Charlotte later changed its title to the rather more catchy ‘Domestic Peace‘.

The poem we are going to look at today is dated Sunday, 13th December 1840 and as this is the Sunday before that date in this year’s calendar rotation it seemed a fitting time to examine it. It is called simply ‘Retirement’, but it’s not referring to a permanent retirement at the end of a working life, but a rather shorter retirement at the end of a working day, week or term.

The date of its composition may indicate that this was Anne’s last day at Thorp Green before returning home to Haworth for the Christmas holidays with the family she loved. She had commenced her post as governess there in May of that year, and although her Robinson charges were much better behaved than her previous Ingham charges of Mirfield (as all who’ve read of the Bloomfield children in ‘Agnes Grey’ will appreciate) she still longed for peace and solitude once more.

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne was governess at the time she wrote ‘Retirement’

All of the Brontë siblings were shy, and Anne’s difficulties when in company led Charlotte to wonder whether her employers would believe that she stuttered, but with typical courage Anne fought and overcame her introverted nature when at work, allowing her to hold down a job for far longer than her sisters and brother. Elizabeth Gaskell, based solely upon what she had heard from Charlotte and other Haworth villagers, made a distinction between the natures of Anne and Emily:

“Emily was… extremely reserved in manner. I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.”

This may well have been unfair on Emily, for those who knew her best, like parsonage servant Martha Brown, often commented on how kind hearted she was. Nevertheless there is no doubt that all the sisters found it a strain to be in the company of people they didn’t know, and this is at the heart of Anne’s poem.

Martha Brown
Martha Brown became a close friend of the Brontes, as well as a servant.

At the end of her first year as governess to the Robinsons, Anne was in desperate need of some relaxation – a chance to rest her mind and spirit and simply let it stretch its wings and soar where it will. This is a feeling that all teachers will be familiar with, but whether you work or have reached a state of permanent retirement I hope that you find a time to rest and relax as the winter holidays approach. Let us end now with Anne’s poem itself, short, simple and yet it still resonates with us all today!:

“O, let me be alone a while,
No human form is nigh.
And may I sing and muse aloud,
No mortal ear is by.
Away! ye dreams of earthly bliss,
Ye earthly cares begone:
Depart! ye restless wandering thoughts,
And let me be alone!
One hour, my spirit, stretch thy wings,
And quit this joyless sod,
Bask in the sunshine of the sky,
And be alone with God!”

Winter And The Brontë Sisters

The water in my bird feeder was a solid block of ice this morning, Jack Frost had left patterns on my single glazed windows and there was a distant murmur of sleigh bells in the air; it can only mean one thing – winter has arrived! December 1st marks the beginning not only of Advent, but of meteorological winter, so today we will be looking at how winter has appeared in some very beautiful pieces of Brontë writing.

We are also now just one month away from the start of 2020, the 200th birthday year of our beloved Anne Brontë! Please allow me then to give a brief mention of my new book ‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200’ which will be released on 1st January, a month today! It will be a very special book indeed featuring many things never published in a book before, but more on that in the New Year. You can pre-order on Amazon at your bookshop or order now via the publisher, The Valley Press from Anne’s very own Scarborough! Here is its rather lovely front cover:

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland
‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200’ is out next month!

Now, let’s return to chilly winter! Haworth is a beautiful place in winter, with its exposed and elevated position amidst the Pennine moors meaning that it always receives a good covering of snow. It’s a magical place for tourists to visit, but watch out for ice – it’s as treacherous today as it was in December 1836 when loyal old servant Tabby Aykroyd slipped on some ice and broke her leg. She was never as mobile again, but the Brontë siblings loved Tabby and they refused to eat until it was confirmed that she would be allowed to continue living and working in the parsonage.

Wrap up warm, tread carefully, and you are sure to have an incredible time on a winter visit to Haworth. The moors can be especially charming under a wintry blanket, and it was this that tempted Charlotte Brontë to walk them with her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, as she recalled in a letter to Ellen Nussey:

Bronte waterfall

Charlotte could little have guessed that this very same waterfall would one day bear her own family name – a century and a half later they draw tourists to them, eager to see the Brontë Falls. Winter can be found, symbolically, in Charlotte’s novel ‘Villette’ as its heroine is called Lucy Snowe. The importance of this choice is shown by the fact that the protagonist’s name was changed to Snowe during the editing phase – until that point, Charlotte had called her Lucy Frost!

Anne Brontë loved nature, and especially its flowers, and they pop up time and time again in her work. The winter rose, or a Christmas Rose as we might call it, held a special symbolism for her, as we see in this touching scene as Helen and Gilbert prepare to pledge their futures to each other in ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’:

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

Winter snows also play a central role in ‘The Student’s Serenade’, a very moving poem by Anne, and one of her very best. Moving because we see Anne tired after a day’s study, or possibly a day’s work as a governess at the time she wrote this in 1844, when she is woken by snow falling and immediately thinks of snows falling on the moors she loved – and of one who loved to walk them in the snow with her but who has long been gone:

“I have slept upon my couch
But my spirit did not rest,
For the labours of the day
Yet my weary soul opprest.
And before my dreaming eyes
Still the learned volumes lay,
And I could not close their leaves
And I could not turn away.
While the grim preceptors laughed
And exulted in my woe:
Till I felt my tingling frame
With the fire of anger glow.
But I oped my eyes at last,
And I heard a muffled sound,
‘Twas the night breeze come to say
That the snow was on the ground.
Then I knew that there was rest
On the mountain’s bosom free;
So I left my fevered couch
And I flew to waken thee.
I have flown to waken thee –
For, if thou wilt not arise,
Then my soul can drink no peace
From these holy moonlight skies.
And this waste of virgin snow
To my sight will not be fair
Unless thou wilt smiling come,
Love, to wander with me there.
Then awake! Maria, wake!
For if thou couldst only know
How the quiet moonlight sleeps
On this wilderness of snow
And the groves of ancient trees
In their snowy garb arrayed,
Till they stretch into the gloom
Of the distant valley’s shade.
O, I know thou wouldst rejoice
To inhale this bracing air,
Thou wouldst break thy sweetest sleep
To behold a scene so fair.
O’er these wintry wilds, alone,
Thou wouldst joy to wander free;
And it will not please thee less,
Though that bliss be shared with me.”

Emily Brontë loved nature even more than Anne did, and the wilder it was, the more she loved it. It’s no surprise then that Emily opens her mighty novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ with a fierce snow storm that leads to narrator Lockwood making an early acquaintance with Heathcliff – and Catherine!

holly tree
My very own holly tree on this cold and frosty morning

The holly tree has long been synonymous with winter and with Christmas, as the beautiful carol ‘The Holly And The Ivy’ shows. This is an old hymn and its associations are older, for holly has been revered since pagan times. It is a symbol of rebirth, for in the depths of winter it is said that the Holly King reigns over the world, to be replaced by the Oak King when new roots and new life appear. Emily loved the Holly king’s reign, and winter was always a magical time for her. For Emily Brontë, holly also symbolised the importance of friendship, and its pre-eminence over everything else. We see this in her poem ‘Love And Friendship’, also dating from 1844, and obviously written with the love of her life in mind, her closest friends and confidante, Anne Brontë. It is a sweet poem for this sweetest of seasons – so I leave you with it now, and with Emily’s winter blessing – may your garlands always be green!

Love and friendship