"Of All Sad Words Of Tongue Or Pen, The Saddest Are These: "It Might Have Been!""

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This poem, like "The Barefoot Boy," extols the virtues of simple rural life, and it also reveals certain aspects of human psychology. "Maud Muller, on a summer's day,/ Raked the meadow sweet with hay." She enjoys "simple beauty and rustic health," but she is full of "a nameless longing" for the "far-off town," for "something better than she had known." A Judge rides up on his horse, and Maud shyly gives him a drink of water from the spring. They talk of the weather, the countryside, the haying. The Judge leaves regretfully, and the generous Maud thinks of how she could help her family and the poor if she were the Judge's wife. The Judge would like to marry Maud and be, "Like her, a harvester of hay." But his family is rich and proud, and so he "closes his heart" to Maud and marries a rich wife who lives "for fashion, as he for power." And yet all his life he longs for Maud and the "meadows and clover-blooms." Maud marries "a man unlearned and poor" and ages quickly from childbirth and hard work. She dreams of the manly Judge and the comfortable life he represents, not realizing that the Judge idealizes rural life. But she takes up "her burden of life again,/ Saying only, 'It might have been.'" All humans share the same psychological fate:

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall,
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!