Love Among the Ruins

by Robert Browning

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

The design of this poem is similar to that of Robert Browning’s powerful dramatic romance, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855). In each poem a solitary youth, absorbed in his own reflections, is walking through a desolate landscape late in the day and eventually comes to a tower. In “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” however, a sense of ominous foreboding is relentlessly intensified until the very last line, whereas in “Love Among the Ruins” the scene is one of pastoral serenity with no sound but the tinkling of bells as drowsy sheep browse on lush green hills. As the title of the poem suggests, there are some traces of the ruins of a former civilization to be seen; nature is gradually reclaiming and healing the desecrated land.

According to the speaker, there had once been an awe-inspiring city on this site, dominated by an imposing palace, which was the residence of a king who could command an army of a million soldiers. No specific locale is named, but the repeated references to charioteers suggest that this was the site of an ancient civilization such as Troy, Babylon, or Persia. All of this was so long ago that the whole enormous complex with its palace and its hundred-gated marble wall is only a legend among the pastoral people who now inhabit the region.

The shepherd finally comes in sight of a little turret which is gradually being undermined and covered over by wild vegetation. This is all that is left of the great tower from which the monarch and his retainers used to view the chariot races and other war games. Here the shepherd has a rendevous with a girl with “eager eyes and yellow hair.” His description of her youthful beauty and animation is in striking contrast to the futility of human aspirations suggested by the solitary turret and buried ruins surrounding it. As he begins to think about his beloved, the mental picture of the glorious city he had been reconstructing in his imagination seems to flicker and fade. Visualizing the woman he loves, who is awaiting him so eagerly, he reflects that her love and devotion are far more valuable to him than all the material possessions that might be obtained by men motivated by lust for gold and glory. The shepherd concludes with the three simple words that contain the moral of the entire poem: “Love is best.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

The most striking thing about this work is the unusual juxtaposition of long and short lines. Browning wrote many of his most famous poems, such as the frequently anthologized “My Last Duchess,” in blank verse; however, he was also a tireless experimenter with rhymes and meters. He seemed anxious to demonstrate his technical versatility and perhaps to compete in this respect with his famous contemporary Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was better educated than the autodidactic Browning and was a master of all aspects of poetic composition.

The combination of one long line, which could be construed as trochaic pentameter with an extra syllable, or feminine ending, with a line of only three syllables, has several functions. The short line, which always rhymes with the preceding long line, is intended to suggest the sound of the sheep’s bells as they “tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight.” The alternation of the long and short lines suggests the rolling hills that are an essential feature of the landscape. Since the long line is deliberately made to seem too long, the short line by contrast also suggests the remnant of a structure that has toppled because it became too lofty, like the Tower of Babel. The mismatched couplets suggest a contrast between the proud and overbearing ruler of the vanished empire and the rustic simplicity of the present inhabitants.

Some critics have complained that the ongoing contrast between such long and short lines is ungainly and that the continuous suggestion of tinkling sheep bells begins to seem annoying after a few stanzas. This is a matter of individual taste. Nevertheless, the radical innovation of contrasting such dissimilar lines in a couplet does help to evoke the scene and mood the author intended.

Browning was an ardent admirer of the great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It can readily be seen that “Love Among the Ruins” is written in the same spirit as was Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” In that famous sonnet, Shelley depicts a ruined civilization, which the vainglorious ruler Ozymandias had thought he was establishing to last a thousand years. In both “Love Among the Ruins” and “Ozymandias,” the moral is conveyed by using the verbal picture of a ruined civilization as a metaphor for the vanity of human aspirations.

Both Shelley and Browning frequently visited Greek, Roman, and other ruins, and the poets could not help but absorb the lesson those silent ruins convey. Centuries ago, ambitious, bustling populations had believed that their civilizations would last forever; eventually there was nothing but broken columns, crumbling walls, and silence. Shelley described a barren desert, while Browning’s picture of a ruined civilization is softened with glimpses of fluffy sheep on rolling green hills and a beautiful young woman passionately in love with a young man. Just so, the poem of the pious and sentimental Browning poem reflects a more optimistic mood and suggests a more positive philosophy than that of the atheistic and suicidal Shelley.

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