Love Among the Ruins

by Robert Browning

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

On the surface, “Love Among the Ruins” appears to have a very simple message. It is the same message that would be voiced a century later by antiwar activists during the late 1960’s, whose slogan was “Make love, not war.” When Browning wrote his poem, Great Britain under Queen Victoria was nearing its zenith as a military and mercantile power. In the words of the jingoistic English poet Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Recessional,” his nation had established “dominion over palm and pine.” The British Empire included huge portions of Asia, Africa, North America, and Australia. The British boasted that “Britannia rules the waves” and “The sun never sets on British soil.” In geographical area, it was by far the largest empire the world had ever seen.

There were Englishmen, however, who were questioning the wisdom of such extensive conquest and exploitation. Browning’s poem can be read as a warning that Great Britain could go the way of Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome and end up losing all her territorial possessions. This was what actually began to happen a hundred years later in the aftermath of World War II.

“Love Among the Ruins” can also be read as a self-revealing rationalization on the part of the poet. Browning’s love affair with Elizabeth Barrett, who became his wife in 1846, is perhaps the most famous love relationship that has ever existed between two such prominent literary personalities. The marriage seems to have had an inhibiting influence on Browning. Elizabeth was a more successful poet at the time of their marriage and continued to enjoy greater popularity than her husband for the rest of her life. During that period, Browning lived in her shadow.

Browning produced little poetry during the years of his marriage; he did not become lionized as a poet and as a public personality until after her death in 1861. “Love Among the Ruins” could be interpreted as a confession that Browning was willing to sacrifice fame and financial success for the love of his wife. One might conjecture that he may have felt that he would jeopardize their idyllic relationship if he were to compete with her too openly. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a frail and sickly woman, but she evidently had a domineering personality. Her influence over her husband had both positive and negative aspects. Without her love and inspiration, Browning might never have become the great poet that he was; during their years of marriage, however, he seems to have been content to play a passive role. The ruined tower in “Love Among the Ruins” may even symbolize his own disappointed ambitions.

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