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Thinking of Robert Browning

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 18, 2018

When I was young, and first read Robert Browning’s lines, “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be,” I assumed it was a love poem to his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Spoiler alert: the poem is more complicated than that.)

Since Browning and Barrett were known to have a true love – they married secretly in 1844 against her father’s wishes, she was disinherited, and they left England to live in Florence – I took his supposed thesis on good authority.

As Cynthia and I were together into our 60s and me into my 70s, I interpreted the prescience of these lines clearly and personally.

What that couplet doesn’t convey, however, about graying, loving couples, is that for one of the parties, the worst is yet to be also.

At some point, one will die before the other, and the remaining lover will be left alone to grieve over the loss of a love that was growing deeper and richer with the years. It follows that the greater the love, the greater the grief.

It turns out that Browning wrote the poem on a more metaphysical theme and about the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167). It was published in 1864, not to Elizabeth, but three years after her death in 1861.

Robert and Elizabeth did not really grow old together. They were married 17 years when she died at 55, a little less time than Cynthia and I were together permanently. Browning lived another 28 years without her, until his death in 1889.

Still, I think that, though Browning’s poem may have dealt ostensibly with theistic paradox, his heart and mind were wistfully on Elizabeth when he wrote that first couplet.  His last 28 years had, I suspect, a mournful undercurrent.

 

 

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