Robert Browning

Next month marks the bicentennial of Robert Browning, who was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England. My Samantha recently sent me his poem “Now” and it spoke to me, although it was not familiar to me.

Browning is a bit of an enigma: simultaneously overshadowed by his more famous wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and lionized as one of the great creators of the dramatic monologue.

Victorian readers found his work somewhat difficult, in part because of his sometimes arcane language and obscure references. He was home-schooled and self-taught – subsequently, many of his allusions were lost on his more conventionally educated audience.

Ultimately, Browning, as Wordsworth said of all great poets, had to “create the taste by which [he was] to be enjoyed.”

One of Browning’s enduring themes was “ideal love,” which for the poet meant the consummation and culmination of an intuitive course of action wherein a pair of lovers pierce the barrier separating them to become one in an all-consuming spiritual union — the “moment eternal” between two human beings.

To Browning, the passion and intensity of romantic love was often at odds with conventional social morality. Ideal love in Browning’s conception required giving up everything, what others have called “the world well-lost for love.”

Here is Robert Browning’s short lyric poem, “Now”:

 

Out of your whole life give but a moment!

All of your life that has gone before,

All to come after it, — so you ignore,

So you make perfect the present, condense,

In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,

Thought and feeling and soul and sense,

Merged in a moment which gives me at last

You around me for once, you beneath me, above me —

Me, sure that, despite of time future, time past,

This tick of life-time’s one moment you love me!

How long such suspension may linger? Ah, Sweet,

The moment eternal — just that and no more —

When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core,

While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!

 

–Robert Browning, 1812-1889