Robert Browning’s poem “A Woman’s Last Word” is not a work that is easy to comprehend on first reading. The phrasing seems simple, but the precise situation, attitudes, and tones are difficult to discern at first. It might be best, then, to begin with a stanza-by-stanza paraphrase of the work. The poem is apparently spoken throughout by the woman mentioned in the title, and here is what she seems to say in each stanza to a person she apparently loves:
- Stanza I: Let’s not argue any more. Let’s not weep. Let’s try to return to the way we were before our argument. Let’s sleep. [This last detail seems to suggest that they are a married couple.]
- Stanza II: During arguments, words can become uncontrolled. It is as if you and I are two birds in conflict with one another while a dangerous hawk [sometimes read by critics as a symbol of the potential death of their relationship] looks down upon us and threatens our connection to one another./
- Stanza III: Look up at the (metaphorical) hawk, which is stalking us while we argue. Let’s be quiet and place ourselves “cheek to cheek.”
- Stanza IV: If I spoke the truth, it (or I) might seem false to you. [Some critics believe that he has asked her to tell him about the details of a previous romantic relationship.] Therefore it’s better to avoid speaking about anything that might seem hurtful.
- Stanza V: We should not discuss anything unpleasant; otherwise I run the risk, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, of losing the paradise [her happy relationship with him?] that I now enjoy.
- Stanza VI: Behave [she implores the man] as a god might behave, and
With a charm!
Be a man a fold me
With thine arm!
- Stanza VII: If you teach me, I will speak as you wish and will think as you think.
- Stanza VIII: I am willing to meet both of your demands: I am willing to lay my spirit and my flesh in your hands.
- Stanza IX: However, I will do this tomorrow, not tonight. Tonight I must hide my sorrow.
- Stanza X: Tonight I must cry a little, even though I feel foolish for doing so. Tonight I hope to fall asleep while being loved by you.
This seems to be the basic “plot” and/or meaning of the poem. What, however, are its themes or its deeper implications? Some critics seem the poem as a work in which the woman truly submits to her husband, out of a spirit of genuine love. Some read the poem as a work in which she submits mainly because she is tired of arguing. Some see the end of the poem as an indication that the woman has been defeated. Others see the ending as an indication that she thinks it is pointless – and risky – to continue arguing and therefore as simply a way of silencing the man. Some find the title ominous (implying that she will never speak again about her true feelings); others see the title as ironic: it is the woman, not the man, who gets the last word.
In short, the poem is far more complex than it may first appear to be, and it can be read in various and even conflicting ways.
Robert Browning’s poem, “A Woman’s Last Word” portrays a narrator talking to her beloved. It is probably quasi-autobiographical, reflection the situation of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning who were both poets, with Robert imagining Elizabeth speaking to him. The main theme is that words, and the quest for true words, can lead to false emotions, an that the search for a mere verbal truth can ruin a relationship. Thus the spouses who are poets in trying for knowledge and understanding of love, may lose the thing they are trying to know, just as Adam and Eve, in consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge lose Eden.