"A Minute's Success Pays The Failure Of Years"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This poem, the prologue to one of Browning's last volumes of verse, is an elaborate discussion of the meaning that can be found in human life. Apollo, god of music and harmony, flies to the cave of the Three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, in order to save the life of Admetus. The Fates, not wanting to release the mortal from their grasp, argue with their unwelcome visitor by saying that a man's life can have meaning only because he will die. Actually Browning puts much of his own philosophy into the mouths of the Fates, for he makes them defend his own "doctrine of imperfection": viewed objectively, a man's life is a series of failures, because he has never done really what he hoped to do, and in these failures there is the sign of his aspirations; since life is essentially a series of such aspirations and failures, the worth of a man lies in what he hopes, not in what he does. When Clotho reveals this outlook to Apollo, she has described the secret of human happiness–triumph in defeat.

Infancy? What if the rose-streak of morning
Pale and depart in a passion of tears?
Once to have hoped is no matter for scorning!
Love once–e'en love's disappointment endears!
A minute's success pays the failure of years.
Manhood–the actual? Nay, praise the potential!
(Bound upon bound, foot it around!)
What is? No, what may be–sing! that's Man's essential!
. . .