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Anne Bronte's poem "The Penitent", originally published under the name Acton Bell in the book Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846) published jointly with her two sisters, reads as follows:

I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinner's woe.

Though friends and kindred turn away,
And laugh thy grief to scorn;
I hear the great Redeemer say,
"Blessed are ye that mourn."

Hold on thy course, nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven:
Man may lament the wondrous change,
But "there is joy in heaven!"

How should this be interpreted? Reading only the first stanza, I thought at first this reads like a piece of schadenfreude, the speaker rejoicing at the sorrow of a sinner. The second stanza seems kinder, the speaker not identifying with those who laugh and scorn, but instead suggesting that even sinners who mourn may be blessed. In the third stanza it seems that the sinner is dying and going to heaven. However, I may be missing some religious context here.

Who is the second-person character, why do they mourn, what is their "course" and "wondrous change", and are they dying? Who is the first-person character, and why do they "rejoice"?

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The key to this poem is the title, ‘The Penitent’, that is, someone who ‘repents’ their sins:

repent, v. To review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do; (esp. in religious contexts) to acknowledge the sinfulness of one’s past action or conduct by showing sincere remorse and undertaking to reform in the future

Oxford English Dictionary

In Christianity, sincere repentance is a precondition for forgiveness of sins and admission or reconciliation to the Church, and forgiveness of sins is a precondition for being saved (admitted to heaven). It should be remembered that Anne Brontë’s father Patrick (1777–1861) was a priest in the Church of England, so that the Anglican religion must have been omnipresent in Anne’s childhood at the parsonage in Haworth. In this Christian context we can interpret the poem as follows.

The penitent regrets their former wrongdoing (‘thou shouldst sorrow so’), and the speaker feels the same way (‘I mourn with thee’). But in a neat paradox, the speaker also ‘rejoices’ because the penitent sincerely repents, and so they can be forgiven and saved. The ‘angel choirs’ are a reference to Luke 15:10:

Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

In line 4, ‘to bless the sinner’s woe’ is another paradox. This is metonymy: it is not the woe itself that is blessed, but the consequences of that woe, namely contrition, repentance, and salvation.

The second stanza describes the obstacles facing the penitent, namely the mockery of the non-religious (or insincerely religious) friends and family who would rather the penitent continue sinning. The ‘Redeemer’ is Christ, whose words from Luke 6:21–22 are referenced here:

Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you

In the third stanza, ‘thy course’ means the course of repentance and salvation. ‘Earthly cords’ are the ties that bind the penitent to ‘Earthly’ (secular) concerns, and these are ‘riven’ (cut) by religious conversion. ‘Wondrous change’ is a common phrase in evangelical contexts meaning ‘conversion or awakening to Christianity’. In the poem this is lamented by ‘Man’, meaning the penitents’ acquaintances from the second stanza. The last line is a reference to Luke 15:7:

I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.

  • I see, that makes more sense. The "earthly cords are riven" line had seemed to me like it must mean death, which would have been a sudden morbid turn for the poem away from earlier stanzas. – Rand al'Thor Feb 15 '20 at 14:17
  • Small correction: your link to Matthew 5:11 is broken (goes to Metonymy). Also, Luke 6:21 seems perhaps even more relevant: "Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh" (I found this by searching Google for "blessed are ye that mourn"; even if the exact word "mourn" wasn't used in any English edition of the bible, it's a reasonable use of poetic licence to rhyme with scorn). – Rand al'Thor Feb 15 '20 at 14:19
  • Also, this website says "some people believe that the sinner referred to is Anne's brother Branwell". That'd be interesting to learn more about; do you think it fits in this Q&A, or shall I post a separate question about the personal angle? – Rand al'Thor Feb 15 '20 at 14:21
  • I agree that Luke 6:21 is closer to the poem — I wanted Matthew 5:11 because "they revile and persecute you" corresponds to Brontë's "turn away / And laugh thy grief to scorn". But I see that there is a corresponding passage in Luke 6:22, so I will adopt your suggestion. As for the Branwell question, I think it would be fine to discuss it here. – Gareth Rees Feb 15 '20 at 14:38

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