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  • Winking Through the Chinks:Eros and Ellipsis in Robert Browning's “Love Among the Ruins”
  • Peter Merchant (bio)

In 1798, and with a spooniness of which not many Victorians would ever consider him capable, Thomas Malthus celebrated love at its most pure as that culminating glory which "scarcely a man who has once experienced [it]" does not regard "as the sunny spot in his whole life, where his imagination loves to bask."1 Over the course of the nineteenth century, the quantity and popularity of lyric verse that seemed to hold out the hope of just such a basking in the sunshine of pure love increased as if in geometrical progression. Another type of poem, however, might cast a doubtful or disfiguring shadow over Malthus' sunny spot. Which type of poem we are reading may not be made plain until the poem's own point of culmination is reached. The end becomes the place from which the poem starts.

Almost a century before T. S. Eliot took up the theme, "The end is where we start from" became the poetic watchword of Edgar Allan Poe. In his essay of 1846 on "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe argued that "the end" was where "all works of art should begin."2 The back-to-front bias of Poe's argument was bound to create keen interest in the nature and function of the final lines of works. It especially encouraged that kind of concluding line which can be perceived as growing logically out of the title of the work —resuming, reaffirming, extending. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne would end The Scarlet Letter with just such a line: "'ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.'"3 Soon afterward, Robert Browning would end "Love Among the Ruins" (the poem that stood at the beginning of his 1855 collection Men and Women) with what looked like another: "Love is best."4

Whereas Hawthorne's final line rolls out a prepositional phrase through which to re-approach the primary subject of the work, Browning's final line discards one. In "Love is best," the "Love" rises proudly from the sable field to which the poem's title, "Love Among the Ruins," seemed originally to be consigning it. Browning, it may easily supposed, bent on blazoning "Love" [End Page 349] through the text as the poem's red-letter word. All else might merely be the dark background by which love is emphasized and enhanced—among the ruins, Love—or the nettles out of which love waits to be plucked, like the "bright casual flower" that H. G. Wells in his picture of "Love Among the Wreckage" imagines "starting up amidst the débris of a catastrophe."5 The conversion of catastrophe indeed appears complete, as the ruins are triumphantly topped off with something shown to be as good as gold. Elsewhere in Browning, "gold means love."6 Here, however, love is gold's antithesis and superseder. For "Love" the word visibly succeeds to "gold" on the printed page; a symmetry about the poem's concluding stanza (or stanzas)7 makes a pivot out of each word in turn. While the first six lines are pitched toward "Gold," the final six lines of the poem move powerfully toward "Love," because the "best" has to be saved till last:

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. Oh 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.

(ll. 73-84)

This declaration is reinforced scenically when, in the turret marking the spot where the ruined city's ruler stood to view the games, the rush to Love, the thing, is in corresponding succession to the historic rush for gold. Now, it is no monarch who stands there but "a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair" (l. 55). She is the only golden prize for which the poem's speaker has eyes. The expectation of meeting...