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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

BY THE FIRESIDE is a retrospect


"LOVE AMONG THE RUINS" depicts a pastoral solitude in which are buried the remains of an ancient city, fabulous in magnificence and in strength. A ruined turret marks the site of a mighty tower, from which the king of that city overlooked his domains, or, with his court, watched the racing chariots as they encircled it in their course. In that turret, in the evening grey, amidst the tinkling of the sheep, a yellow-haired maiden is waiting for him she loves; and as they bury sight and speech in each other's arms, he bids the human heart shut in the centuries, with their triumphs and their follies, their glories and their sins, for "Love is best."

"A LOVER'S QUARREL" describes, not the quarrel itself, but the impression it leaves on him who has unwittingly provoked it: one of amazement as well as sorrow, that such a thing could have occurred. The speaker, apostrophizing his absent love, reminds her how happy they have been together, with no society but their own; no pleasures but those of sympathy; no amusements but those which their common fancy supplied; and he asks her if it be possible that so perfect a union can be destroyed by a hasty word with which his deeper self has had nothing to do. He believes this so little that he is sure she will, in some way, come back to him; and then they will part no more.

A vein of playfulness runs through this monologue, which represents the lovers before their quarrel as

more like children enjoying a long holiday, than a man and a woman sharing the responsibilities of life. It conveys, nevertheless, a truth deeply rooted in the author's mind: that the foundation of a real love can never be shaken.

"BY THE FIRESIDE" is a retrospect, in which the speaker is carried from middle-age to youth, and from his, probably English, fireside to the little Alpine gorge in which he confessed his love; and he summons the wife who received and sanctioned the avowal to share with him the joy of its remembrance. He describes the scene of his declaration, the conflict of feeling which its risks involved, the generous frankness with which she cut the conflict short. He dwells on the blessings which their union has brought to him, and which make his youth seem barren by the richness of his maturer years; and he asks her if there exist another woman, with whom he could thus have retraced the descending path of life, and found nothing to regret in what he had left behind. He declares that their mutual love has been for him that crisis in the life of the soul to which all experience tends--the predestined test of its quality. It is his title to honour as well as his guarantee of everlasting joy.

The subtler realities of life and love are reflected throughout the poem in picturesque impressions often no less subtle, and the whole is dramatic, i.e., imaginary, as far as conception goes; but the obvious genuineness of the sentiment is confirmed by the allusion to the "perfect wife" who,

"Reading by firelight, that great brow And the spirit-small hand propping it," (vol. vi. p. 132.)

is known to all of us.

"ANY WIFE TO ANY HUSBAND" might be the lament of any woman about to die, who believes that her husband will remain true to her in heart, but will lack courage to be so in his life. She anticipates the excuses he will offer for seeking temporary solace in the society of other women; but these all, to her mind, resolve themselves into a confession of weakness; and it grieves her that such a confession should proceed from one, in all other respects, so much stronger than she. "Were she the survivor, it would be so easy to her to be faithful to the end!" Her grief is unselfish. The wrong she apprehends will be done to his spiritual dignity far more than to his love for her, though with a touch of feminine inconsistency she identifies the two; and she cannot resign herself to the idea that he whose earthly trial is "three parts" overcome will break down under this final test. She accepts it, however, as the inevitable.


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