Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

“One Way of Love,” by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), consists of three six-line stanzas. In them, a would-be lover describes his frustrated efforts to court a woman named Pauline. First he tries to attract her with roses but does not succeed; then he tries to attract her by playing a lute but does not succeed; and then, finally, he tries speaking to her and does not succeed. In each case, however, his ultimate attitude is surprisingly good-natured and stoic. Rather than vigorously lamenting his fate or angrily blaming the woman for her indifference (as many previous lovers in many previous love poems had done), he simply accepts her verdict. Perhaps it is this fairly unusual reaction that is implied by the poem’s title.

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Like many of Browning’s poems, this one presents a speaker speaking for himself, with no interruption or interpretation by the poet. The poem is thus a monologue, and readers are left to decide for themselves what to make of the speaker’s motives, behavior, and words. He begins by relating that for the entire month of June (a month often associated with love), he carefully tended to a rose bush, hoping to use its beauty to attract the affection of Pauline. Line 1 describes his past care for the plant; then line 2 balances line 1 by describing how he presently “strip[s] the leaves” from it so that he may “strew them where Pauline may pass” (3). Some readers may hear in this phrasing an echo of Biblical descriptions of the way Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday,” when palm leaves were scattered before him. In any case, it is clear that the speaker venerates Pauline, treating her as if she is a kind of goddess. He is willing to accept from her whatever kind of reaction she chooses to offer him.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the first stanza, as well of the stanzas that follow it, is the speaker’s use of questions, as in “She will not turn aside?” (4) and “Suppose they die?” (5). To whom are these questions addressed? Apparently they are addressed by the speaker to the speaker, as if he is engaged in a kind of one-sided conversation with himself. This technique only highlights the reader's sense of his isolation. Pauline ignores him, and he doesn’t even have a friend (except possibly the reader) with whom he can share his thoughts. Rather than turning bitter, however, he remains remarkably magnanimous and good-natured.

Why does Pauline ignore him? The poem does not make her reasons clear. Perhaps his methods are at first too subtle, too unobtrusive, to win her notice. Eventually, though, in the third stanza, he does, it seems, openly speak to her, but still she doesn’t grant him the affection he desires. She resembles the unresponsive ladies described in so many poems written or influenced by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), but Pauline’s motives and the nature of her personality are unusually mysterious and intriguing. It is partly this mystery that gives the poem its appeal.

All the speaker’s efforts to win Pauline’s affection prove futile. In every way—in phrasing, structure, meter, rhyme scheme, syntax, grammar, and tone—the poem is clear, yet (paradoxically) Pauline’s reactions remain fundamentally inscrutable, both to the speaker and to the reader. If the speaker knows why she rejects him, he never explicitly says so. Perhaps she has good reasons; perhaps she would be indifferent to anyone; perhaps she is conceited; perhaps . . . almost anything. The poem takes the reader briefly into this speaker’s world and consciousness, lets the reader see life as he experiences it, and then abruptly ends. One is left to draw one's own conclusions, if any can in fact be drawn.

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