Self Communion
Written: November 1847 - April 17th. 1848.  First Published: 1900.

Edward Chitham writes:

'This long poem was not published in Anne's life-time, nor by Charlotte in 1850. It stirred too many difficult issues. In it she made a bold attempt to discuss the main trends of her thought and feeling during her life's course. It has no parallel in the work of Charlotte, Branwell or Emily. Though she conceals events and names, she reviews the main developments and conflicts of her life with a clear eye, writing within a tradition that she had always upheld, that poetry was a personal record. . . . As a biographical source, the poem has great value, not least in its revelation of Anne's relations with Emily.'

Obviously produced in stages over a five month period, this is Anne's greatest and most sustained 'pillar of witness'. It seems she wrote it concurrent with writing the concluding stages of her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


This account (below) of the poem, is largely based on the analyses by Dr. Edward Chitham, Elizabeth Langland and Winifred Gerin. 130

(N.B: The coloured text refers to the specific lines, presented in the same colour, in the poem below: the tiny arrows at the end of each coloured section will take you directly to the appropriate section of the poem, and the tiny arrows in the poem will return you to these notes.)

The first section of the poem is almost like an introduction to its contents: she laments the rapid and relentless passing of time, something most people can relate to: reminiscent is the chorus line in the Clifford T Ward song, 'Time, the magician, played a few old tricks on us'.   She observes that though time keeps adding to her years - stealing her 'past years' and 'childhood', her 'early youth' - her 'prime', it cannot steal the memories, and in those memories can be found knowledge or information that can help with 'that which lies before - to guide their course aright'.   She then goes on to examine her memories, and recalls her childhood - seeing herself as a 'helpless child - feeble and full of causeless fears': possibly referring to the religious fears of eternal damnation - with which she often struggled during her youth - such as on the occasion at Roe Head School when she requested the visitation of the Rev. James La Trobe during her life threatening illness and religious crisis. Her memories remind her that she had 'a tender heart too prone to weep'.   She remembers 'bitter tear-floods from the eye' after witnessing the death of a sparrow (we know she had a great fondness for animals),   and then goes on to recall her religious pursuit, and how this was so important to her. It was a pursuit she made alone; her beliefs, fears and hopes were known only to God and no one else - once again highlighting her 'capacity for emotional concealment' - just as her heroine, Agnes Grey, had referred to herself as a 'resolute dissembler'. Elizabeth Langland writes: 'And may it not have been because Anne was so successful at concealing deep emotion beneath a placid exterior, that Charlotte, who was Anne's first critic, was so inept a reader of her sister's work.'   By this time Anne was reading the bible - 'guided by his holy word' - and declares that the child 'wiser than its teacher grows'. It is clear she had discovered something that her aunt, and father had not. This was almost certainly the doctrine of Universal Salvation which she strongly characterised in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and for which she was praised, in a letter, by the clergyman from Liverpool, the Reverend (Dr.) David Thom: Anne replied to Thom, informing him of the doctrine: 'I have cherished it from my very childhood - with a trembling hope at first, and afterwards with a firm and glad conviction of its truth. I drew it secretly from my own heart and from the word of God before I knew that any other held it.'

She moves on to recalling her early intimacy with Emily, how she looked up to, loved, and was prepared to follow her elder sister: Emily was 'my sun by day, my moon by night' - this was also noted by Ellen Nussey who said the pair were 'like twins - inseparable companions, and in the closest sympathy, which never had any interruption'. Anne remembers how 'bitter' she found it when any 'jarring discord rose between' them, or when they were apart.   With the passing of time, the 'jarring discords' that did rise between them gradually intensified, and there developed a deep division of interests and beliefs. Anne notes that she felt grief when she sometimes found that her fondness for Emily 'was but half returned'. However, this grief was nothing compared to the hurt she felt as she gradually realised Emily's greatly differing views on life and religion, and what her 'soul worshipped, sought, and prized/Were slighted, questioned, or despised'. Edward Chitham writes: 'We catch here the echo of conversations between the two sisters in Anne's amazingly accurate 'slighted' (Emily takes no notice of her young sister), 'questioned' (Emily thrusts rhetorical objections at Anne), 'despised' (Emily laughs scornfully);   Anne makes it clear that she loved Emily deeply, and this made the rift that was developing between them hurt all the more. Their differing interests and views on life are depicted as a 'dark stream' flowing between them, with herself and Emily 'bending o'er its brink.' until she eventually accepts she has 'to bear a colder heart within my breast', and she shared only the thoughts that she could share with Emily - but calmly kept the rest (to herself!).   She concludes this section by revealing that, in adult years, their closeness had drastically faded - and they were now like two trees, 'that at the root were one', but whose 'stems must stand alone'.

Later in the poem, she acknowledges that, as time passes, her chances of finding real love with a partner are diminishing, and she has experienced such love 'only in my dreams' (this is also expressed in her earlier poems: 'Dreams' and 'If This Be All'). And can we not detect a reference to William Weightman here? - 'Of simplest word or softest sigh/Or from the glancing of an eye' - so reminiscent of Charlotte's reference to Weightman: 'He sits opposite Anne at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention . . . '.

In this poem we see Anne introduce the theme of how 'time, and toil, and truth, can 'freeze the generous blood of youth/And steel full fast the tender heart.' - a theme she develops further in Agnes Grey, and even more so in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Elizabeth Langland writes on this point:

'This becomes Helen's cruel lesson in The Tenant, as Anne Brontë demonstrates a compelling depth of psychological insight that makes the novel truly powerful and underscores the greatness therein.

We have noted that Helen launches her marriage full of hopes for the redemption she will enact in Huntingdon. But he remains impervious to her influence while subtly and sickeningly she falls prey to the coarse personalities surrounding her, gradually discovering a growing corruption in her own nature. She laments:

' . . . since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him, that I feel his degradation, his failing, and transgressions as my own . . . I am familiarised with vice and almost a partaker in his sins. Things that formerly shocked and disgusted me, now seem only natural. I know them to be wrong, because reason and God's word declare them to be so; but I am gradually losing that instinctive horror and repulsion which was given me by nature, or instilled into me by the precepts and example of my aunt.'

She rails, 'how shall I get through the months or years of my future life, in company with that man - my greatest enemy - for none could injure me as he has done . . . I hate him tenfold more than ever, for having brought me to this - God pardon me for it - and all my sinful thoughts! Instead of being humbled and purified by my afflictions, I feel that they are turning my nature to gall'.

On a different note, Winifred Gerin remarks on how Anne seems to have prophesised, in this poem, her final hours at Scarborough - when she sat in her easy-chair by her room window - looking "so serene, so reliant" - observing the sea that was as calm as glass on that gloriously sunny day; and when the doctor who tended her 'wondered at her fixed tranquillity of spirit and settled longing to be gone': in all his experience, he later told Charlotte and Ellen, 'he had never seen such a deathbed and it gave evidence of no common mind'.

Anne concludes the poem by declaring her intention to continue to love, toil and endure whatever suffering she must, without complaint; in the hope that God will acknowledge her labours in adhering to her 'narrow way' - her path to heaven.


Self-Communion  

'The mist is resting on the hill;
The smoke is hanging in the air;
The very clouds are standing still:
A breathless calm broods everywhere.
Thou pilgrim through this vale of tears,
Thou, too, a little moment cease
Thy anxious toil and fluttering fears,
And rest thee, for a while, in peace.'

'I would, but Time keeps working still
And moving on for good or ill:
            He will not rest or stay.
In pain or ease, in smiles or tears,
            He still keeps adding to my years
            And stealing life away.
His footsteps in the ceaseless sound
            Of yonder clock I seem to hear,
That through this stillness so profound
            Distinctly strikes the vacant ear.
            For ever striding on and on,
He pauses not by night or day;
And all my life will soon be gone
As these past years have slipped away.
He took my childhood long ago,
And then my early youth; and lo,
            He steals away my prime!
I cannot see how fast it goes,
But well my inward spirit knows
            The wasting power of time.'

'Time steals thy moments, drinks thy breath,
Changes and wastes thy mortal frame;
But though he gives the clay to death,
He cannot touch the inward flame.
Nay, though he steals thy years away,
Their memory is left thee still,
And every month and every day
Leaves some effect of good or ill.
The wise will find in Memory's store
A help for that which lies before
            To guide their course aright;
Then, hush thy plaints and calm thy fears;
Look back on these departed years,
            And, say, what meets thy sight?'

'I see, far back, a helpless child,
Feeble and full of causeless fears,
Simple and easily beguiled
            To credit all it hears.
More timid than the wild wood-dove,
Yet trusting to another's care,
And finding in protecting love
Its only refuge from despair, -­
Its only balm for every woe,
The only bliss its soul can know; -­
            Still hiding in its breast.
A tender heart too prone to weep,
A love so earnest, strong, and deep
            It could not be expressed.

Poor helpless thing! what can it do
Life's stormy cares and toils among; -­
How tread this weary desert through
That awes the brave and tires the strong?
Where shall it centre so much trust
Where truth maintains so little sway,
Where seeming fruit is bitter dust,
And kisses oft to death betray?
How oft must sin and falsehood grieve
A heart so ready to believe,
            And willing to admire!
With strength so feeble, fears so strong,
Amid this selfish bustling throng,
            How will it faint and tire!

That tender love so warm and deep,
            How can it flourish here below?
What bitter floods of tears must steep
The stony soil where it would grow!
O earth! a rocky breast is thine ­
A hard soil and a cruel clime,
Where tender plants must droop and pine,
Or alter with transforming time.
That soul, that clings to sympathy,
As ivy clasps the forest tree,
            How can it stand alone?
That heart so prone to overflow
E'en at the thought of others' woe,
            How will it bear its own?

How, if a sparrow's death can wring
Such bitter tear-floods from the eye,
Will it behold the suffering
Of struggling, lost humanity?
The torturing pain, the pining grief,
The sin-degraded misery,
The anguish that defies relief?'

'Look back again ­- What dost thou see?'

'I see one kneeling on the sod,
With infant hands upraised to Heaven,
A young heart feeling after God,
Oft baffled, never backward driven.
Mistaken oft, and oft astray,
It strives to find the narrow way,
            But gropes and toils alone:
That inner life of strife and tears,
Of kindling hopes and lowering fears
            To none but God is known.
'Tis better thus; for man would scorn
Those childish prayers, those artless cries,
That darkling spirit tossed and torn,
            But God will not despise!
We may regret such waste of tears
Such darkly toiling misery,
Such 'wildering doubts and harrowing fears,
Where joy and thankfulness should be;
But wait, and Heaven will send relief.
Let patience have her perfect work:
Lo, strength and wisdom spring from grief,
And joys behind afflictions lurk!

It asked for light, and it is heard;
God grants that struggling soul repose
And, guided by His holy word,
It wiser than its teachers grows.
It gains the upward path at length,
And passes on from strength to strength,
            Leaning on Heaven the while:
Night's shades departing one by one,
It sees at last the rising sun,
And feels his cheering smile.
In all its darkness and distress
For light it sought, to God it cried;
And through the pathless wilderness,
He was its comfort and its guide.'

'So was it, and so will it be:
Thy God will guide and strengthen thee;
            His goodness cannot fail.
The sun that on thy morning rose
Will light thee to the evening's close,
            Whatever storms assail.'

'God alters not; but Time on me
A wide and wondrous change has wrought:
And in these parted years I see
Cause for grave care and saddening thought.
I see that time, and toil, and truth,
An inward hardness can impart, -­
Can freeze the generous blood of youth,
And steel full fast the tender heart.'

'Bless God for that divine decree! -­
That hardness comes with misery,
And suffering deadens pain;
That at the frequent sight of woe
E'en Pity's tears forget to flow,
If reason still remain!
Reason, with conscience by her side,
But gathers strength from toil and truth;
And she will prove a surer guide
Than those sweet instincts of our youth.
Thou that hast known such anguish sore
In weeping where thou couldst not bless,
Canst thou that softness so deplore -­
That suffering, shrinking tenderness?
Thou that hast felt what cankering care
A loving heart is doomed to bear,
            Say, how canst thou regret
That fires unfed must fall away,
Long droughts can dry the softest clay,
            And cold will cold beget?'

'Nay, but 'tis hard to feel that chill
Come creeping o'er the shuddering heart.
Love may be full of pain, but still,
'Tis sad to see it so depart, -­
To watch that fire whose genial glow
Was formed to comfort and to cheer,
For want of fuel, fading so,
Sinking to embers dull and drear, -­
To see the soft soil turned to stone
            For lack of kindly showers, -­
To see those yearnings of the breast,
Pining to bless and to be blessed,
Drop withered, frozen one by one,
Till, centred in itself alone,
            It wastes its blighted powers.

Oh, I have known a wondrous joy
In early friendship's pure delight, -­
A genial bliss that could not cloy -­
My sun by day, my moon by night.
Absence, indeed, was sore distress,
And thought of death was anguish keen,
And there was cruel bitterness
When jarring discords rose between;
And sometimes it was grief to know
My fondness was but half returned.
But this was nothing to the woe
With which another truth was learned: -­
That I must check, or nurse apart,
Full many an impulse of the heart
            And many a darling thought:
What my soul worshipped, sought, and prized,
Were slighted, questioned, or despised; -­
            This pained me more than aught.
And as my love the warmer glowed
The deeper would that anguish sink,
That this dark stream between us flowed,
Though both stood bending o'er its brink;
Until, as last, I learned to bear
A colder heart within my breast;
To share such thoughts as I could share,
            And calmly keep the rest.
I saw that they were sundered now,
The trees that at the root were one:
They yet might mingle leaf and bough,
But still the stems must stand alone.

O love is sweet of every kind!
'Tis sweet the helpless to befriend,
To watch the young unfolding mind,
To guide, to shelter, and defend:
To lavish tender toil and care,
And ask for nothing back again,
But that our smiles a blessing bear
And all our toil be not in vain.
And sweeter far than words can tell
Their love whose ardent bosoms swell
            With thoughts they need not hide;
Where fortune frowns not on their joy,
And Prudence seeks not to destroy,
            Nor Reason to deride.

Whose love may freely gush and flow,
Unchecked, unchilled by doubt or fear,
For in their inmost hearts they know
It is not vainly nourished there.
They know that in a kindred breast
Their long desires have found a home,
Where heart and soul may kindly rest,
Weary and lorn no more to roam.
Their dreams of bliss were not in vain,
As they love they are loved again,
And they can bless as they are blessed.

O vainly might I seek to show
The joys from happy love that flow!
The warmest words are all too cold
The secret transports to unfold
Of simplest word or softest sigh,
Or from the glancing of an eye
            To say what rapture beams;
One look that bids our fears depart,
And well assures the trusting heart.
It beats not in the world alone -­
Such speechless rapture I have known,
            But only in my dreams.

My life has been a morning sky
Where Hope her rainbow glories cast
O'er kindling vapours far and nigh:
And, if the colours faded fast,
Ere one bright hue had died away
Another o'er its ashes gleamed;
And if the lower clouds were grey,
The mists above more brightly beamed.
But not for long; ­- at length behold,
Those tints less warm, less radiant grew;
Till but one streak of paly gold
Glimmered through clouds of saddening hue.
And I am calmly waiting, now,
To see that also pass away,
And leave, above the dark hill's brow,
A rayless arch of sombre grey.'

'So must it fare with all thy race
Who seek in earthly things their joy:
So fading hopes lost hopes shall chase
            Till Disappointment all destroy.
But they that fix their hopes on high
Shall, in the blue-refulgent sky,
            The sun's transcendent light,
Behold a purer, deeper glow
Than these uncertain gleams can show,
            However fair or bright.
O weak of heart! why thus deplore
That Truth will Fancy's dreams destroy?
Did I not tell thee, years before,
Life was for labour, not for joy?
Cease, selfish spirit, to repine;
O'er thine own ills no longer grieve;
Lo, there are sufferings worse than thine,
Which thou mayst labour to relieve.
If Time indeed too swiftly flies,
Gird on thine armour, haste, arise,
            For thou hast much to do; ­-
To lighten woe, to trample sin,
And foes without and foes within
            To combat and subdue.
Earth hath too much of sin and pain:
The bitter cup -­ the binding chain
            Dost thou indeed lament?
Let not thy weary spirit sink;
But strive -­ not by one drop or link
            The evil to augment.
Strive rather thou, by peace and joy,
The bitter poison to destroy,
            The cruel chain to break.
O strive! and if thy strength be small,
Strive yet the more, and spend it all
            For Love and Wisdom's sake!'

'O I have striven both hard and long
But many are my foes and strong.
My gains are light -­ my progress slow;
For hard's the way I have to go,
And my worst enemies, I know,
            Are these within my breast;
And it is hard to toil for aye, -­
Through sultry noon and twilight grey
            To toil and never rest.'

'There is a rest beyond the grave,
A lasting rest from pain and sin,
Where dwell the faithful and the brave;
But they must strive who seek to win.'
"Show me that rest -­ I ask no more.
Oh, drive these misty doubts away;
And let me see that sunny shore,
            However far away!
However wide this rolling sea,
However wild my passage be,
Howe'er my bark be tempest tossed,
May it but reach that haven fair,
May I but land and wander there,
With those that I have loved and lost:
With such a glorious hope in view,
I'll gladly toil and suffer too.
Rest without toil I would not ask;
I would not shun the hardest task:
Toil is my glory -­ Grief my gain,
If God's approval they obtain.
Could I but hear my Saviour say, -­
"I know thy patience and thy love;
How thou hast held the narrow way,
For my sake laboured night and day,
And watched, and striven with them that strove;
And still hast borne, and didst not faint," -­
Oh, this would be reward indeed!'

'Press forward, then, without complaint;
Labour and love -­ and such shall be thy meed.'


Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage

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