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Love among the Ruins -- Robert Browning

(Poem #1273) Love among the Ruins
 Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
       Miles and miles
 On the solitary pastures where our sheep
 Tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop
       As they crop--
 Was the site once of a city great and gay,
       (So they say)
 Of our country's very capital, its prince
       Ages since
 Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
       Peace or war.

 Now the country does not even boast a tree,
       As you see,
 To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
       From the hills
 Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
       Into one)
 Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
       Up like fires
 O'er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
       Bounding all
 Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest
       Twelve abreast.

 And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
       Never was!
 Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o'er-spreads
       And embeds
 Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
       Stock or stone--
 Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
       Long ago;
 Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
       Struck them tame;
 And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
       Bought and sold.

 Now--the single little turret that remains
       On the plains,
 By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
 While the patching houseleek's head of blossom winks
       Through the chinks--
 Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
       Sprang sublime,
 And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
       As they raced,
 And the monarch and his minions and his dames
       Viewed the games.

 And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
       Smiles to leave
 To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
       In such peace,
 And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
       Melt away--
 That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
       Waits me there
 In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
       For the goal,
 When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
       Till I come.

 But he looked upon the city, every side,
       Far and wide,
 All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades'
 All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,--and then
       All the men!
 When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
       Either hand
 On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
       Of my face,
 Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
       Each on each.

 In one year they sent a million fighters forth
       South and North,
 And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
       As the sky
 Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force--
       Gold, of course.
 O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
       Earth's returns
 For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
       Shut them in,
 With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
       Love is best.
-- Robert Browning
Note: First published in volume I of Men and Women, 1855, in fourteen
 six-line stanzas; changed to present seven twelve-line stanzas in 1863.
 Written in January 1852. There has been much learned and irrelevant
 argument [nicely put - martin] about the supposed location of the ruins
 Browning is describing.
    -- RPO (

A charming and somewhat quirky poem, though the quirkiness lies more in the
form than in the content. The tripping metre, with its interspersed long and
short lines, is a bold but successful experiment; it is in a sense a little
too obtrusive, in that it draws attention away from what the poem is
actually saying, but once the initial novelty wears off, it fits the tone of
the poem nicely, and adds greatly to the reader's pleasure in the pure sound
of the words.

Apart from the poem's beautiful imagery, I love the way in which Browning
weaves the narrator's twin reveries together. In particular, I love the

   When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
       Till I come.

   But he looked upon the city, every side...

with its altogether unexpected segue from love back to history. Indeed,
although the narrator wraps up the poem with a very final "love is best", he
spends far more time musing about the ruins than about his waiting love, so
that when he says "love is best" he is making a passionate choice, not just
mouthing an idle platitude.

The other thing I love about the poem is its extravagaince - Browning could
be a beautifully controlled poet, but he was seldom a restrained one. Of
course, extravagance by itself is more likely to produce a bad poem than a
good one; it is the mixture of extravagance and perfect control that makes
Browning one of the greats.


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