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Love in a Life by Robert Browning

“Love in a Life” is a poem by one of the greatest Victorian poets, Robert Browning. Published in 1855 in his collection, Men and Women, the poem can be seen side by side to the next poem in the collection, “Life in a Love.” The poem is a dramatic monologue, a form over which Browning achieved unparalleled mastery, and he incorporates this form into several of his poetry. It is a highly emotional poem, which deals with the turmoil of a broken-hearted, desperate lover trying to look for his beloved all over their house. The poem is divided into two parts, and both of them deal with the same emotional conflict that the speaker encounters. He tries to retain semblances of her memories in things she owned and touched around the house while desperately searching for her elusive presence.

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Love in a Life
by Robert Browning

Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her—
Next time, herself!—not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.

Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune—
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest,—who cares?
But 'tis twilight, you see,—with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!
Analysis of Love in a Life by Robert Browning


Summary

“Love in a Life” delves into the pain of a desperate, lonely speaker; as he tries to catch a glimpse of his lover who seems to have left him. Browning’s persona seems to be going around the house over and over again, looking for her, but to no avail. He encounters deep sorrow and angst as he attempts this seemingly never-ending task almost all day long.

The speaker also tries to soothe his aching heart while reasoning and explaining that he will definitely succeed in finding his lover. He goes around the house, looking at things that she touched and that contain her scent and memories, such as the “couch’s perfume,” “the curtain,” her “looking-glass,” and “feather,” with the hope of finding her in the process.

In the second part, the same conflict continues. The speaker describes the process of trying to look for her as if it is a cat-and-mouse game. When he gets close to finding her, she runs away again: “Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.” However, the speaker is determined to find her; he says that he will keep trying the same way till he succeeds, looking for her in the different rooms and small corners of the house.

Meaning

Through “Love in a Life,” Browning explores the pangs that a lover feels in the absence of his lover. He captures the pain and anguish of a lonely speaker who resorts to delusional tasks and goes to impossible lengths in the hopes of being reunited with his lover. The woman seems to have left him a long time ago since he appears to be looking for her for quite some time, going through the same motions every day. This also becomes clear through the ending of the poem. He declares that there are more rooms and spots left to search in the house. However, this seems to be something he tells himself every time, just to find an excuse not to give up hope and continue the search.

It is also important to note that this is not the separation where both lovers are miserable due to the other’s absence; instead, the woman seems to have left the speaker deliberately. This is hinted at throughout the poem, and it appears as if a deliberate attempt is being made on her part to escape him. This can be seen through the following line: “Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.”

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Browning’s “Love in a Life” is a dramatic monologue, as it occurs at a critical point in the speaker’s life and reveals a great deal of psychological insight into his character. The speaker himself utters the entirety of the poem in a dramatic fashion, and so it is written in the first-person point of view. Browning is especially renowned for his genius in the form and the depth of characterization, as well as the psychological insight he brings to his personas. Usually, his dramatic monologues are pretty lengthy, but he deviates from that feature in this poem. However, when this poem is read in correspondence to “Life in a Love,” the latter continues as an extension of this one and gives even more insight into the speaker’s mental state.

Rhyme Scheme

Browning uses a unique rhyme scheme in this poem. It has a very rhythmic and musical ring to it as it follows a consistent sound pattern. The rhyme scheme for stanza one is ABCCCABC. Whereas, in the second stanza, it skips a beat and moves to DCEFFDCE. This rounds up and organizes the poem into a melodic, rhythmic arrangement. The rhythm and musicality get enhanced due to the fact that Browning uses an intricate metrical pattern in the poem.

Meter

The two octaves of the poem are similar in terms of metrical structure. This may also emphasize that the speaker’s actions and thoughts don’t change much across the two parts; they are more or less the same, repetitive. However, within each part, the metrical structure is quite complex. Browning has organized each part with lines of varying lengths. While the first two lines of both sections follow a two-syllable meter, the metrical length increases in the subsequent lines.

The scansion for the poem is as follows:

Room af/-ter room,

I hunt/ the house/ through

We in/-ha-bit/ to-geth(e)r.

Heart,/ fear no-thing,/ for, heart,/ thou shalt/ find her

Next time,/ her-self!/—not the/ trouble be/-hind her

Left in/ the cur-tain,/ the couch’s/ per-fume!

As she/ brushed it,/ the cor/-nice-wreath/ blossomed a-new:

Yon look/-ing-glass gleamed/ at the wave/ of her/ fea-ther.

Yet the/ day wears,

And door/ suc-ceeds door;

I try/ the fresh/ for-tune

Range the/ wide house/ from the wing/ to the centr(e).

Still the/ same chance!/ she goes out/ as I ent(e)r.

Spend my/ whole day/ in the quest,/—who cares?

But ’tis/ twi-light,/ you see,/—with such suites/ to ex-plore,

Such clo/-sets to search,/ such al-coves/ to im/-por-tune!

As we can see, the lines are primarily iambic (unstressed-stressed) with a number of foot variations (trochaic, anapestic, spondee, and pyrrhic). They don’t follow the same meter. It changes according to the number of syllables per line. For instance:

  • Stanza One: The first two lines are in iambic dimeter, the third line is in iambic trimeter, the fourth and fifth lines are in iambic pentameter, the sixth line is in iambic tetrameter, and the seventh and eighth lines are again in iambic pentameter.
  • Stanza Two: The first two lines are in iambic dimeter, the third line in iambic trimeter, the fourth, fifth, and sixth lines in iambic tetrameter, and the last two lines in iambic pentameter.

Variations

  • For instance, the last two lines of each section are in iambic pentameter with a few anapests: “Yon look/-ing-glass gleamed/ at the wave/ of her/ fea-ther.”
  • Lines 12-14 begin with trochaic feet (stressed-unstressed).
  • Line 2 has an incomplete foot at the end, which is hypermetrical; for example, “I hunt/ the house/ through.”
  • It is also important to note that line 5 contains a pyrrhic (foot 3) followed by a spondee (foot 4) to enhance the sound scheme; for example, “Next time,/ her-self!/—not the/ trouble be/-hind her.”


Poetic Devices & Figures of Speech

Browning makes use of the following poetic devices in his poem “Love in a Life.”

  • Repetition: This is a recurring poetic device in the poem used in order to emphasize the repetitive nature of the speaker’s actions; for instance, to get a glimpse of his lover, he goes “Room after room.” The “door succeeds door,” but the speaker can’t find her. The repetition of the same word for the sake of emphasis is called palilogy.
  • Personification: This can be seen in the line “Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her—” where the heart is endowed with the human quality of being afraid and being able to find something.
  • Consonance: The use of this poetic device occurs in lines such as – “Buttis twilight, you see,—with such suites to explore”.
  • Alliteration: This can be seen in the following instances, “Room after room,” “hunt the house,” “fear nothing, for,” “curtain, the couch’s,” “Yon looking-glass gleamed,” etc.
  • Imagery: Browning uses a combination of sensory images in the poem to evoke the presence of the elusive lover through the objects in the house. This can be seen through the following lines, “Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather” (visual imagery), “Left in the curtain, the couch’s perfume!” (olfactory imagery), “As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:” (tactile imagery), “Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her—” (organic imagery), etc.
  • Hyperbole: Browning uses this device in the last two lines of the first stanza in order to glorify his lady love: “As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:/ Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.”
  • Rhetorical Exclamation: The usage of this device hints at the mental state of the speaker as he aimlessly wanders about the house. For instance, it can be found in “Next time, herself!”, “Left in the curtain, the couch’s perfume!”, “Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!” etc.


Line-by-Line Analysis and Explanation

Lines 1-8

Room after room,

I hunt the house through

We inhabit together.

Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her—

Next time, herself!—not the trouble behind her

Left in the curtain, the couch’s perfume!

As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:

Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.

In the first stanza of the poem “Love in a Life,” the speaker establishes his desperation and communicates his desire to find his beloved everywhere in the house. The opening lines depict his anguish and sorrow at being separated from his lover. His remark, “We inhabit together,” suggests that he was married to the woman whom he is so desperately looking for.

He seems to find everything touched by her to be pure and heavenly. It also seems as though everywhere he looks, the objects remind him of her. He finds her presence and memories in the most mundane objects around the house, “the curtain,” “the couch,” the pane or “cornice-wreath” on the ceiling, and even her hand mirror.

The speaker tries to find her in everything and anything and is reminded of her at each instance. He feels the pangs of desolation because she has left him. It gets captured through the idea that he cannot separate himself from her when he lives in the same house they shared.

Furthermore, he also constantly soothes his heart by assuring himself that he will succeed in finding his lover. Also, the speaker’s sorrow is not an inactive one. His life is filled with deep restlessness and desperation. It seems as though his mind literally does not allow him to stay still for a minute. So, he keeps looking for his lover within the house over and over, pointlessly.

Lines 9-16

Yet the day wears,

And door succeeds door;

I try the fresh fortune—

Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.

Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.

Spend my whole day in the quest,—who cares?

But ’tis twilight, you see,—with such suites to explore,

Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

In the second stanza of “Love in a Life,” the speaker’s tone becomes even more dejected as he continues his tiresome efforts to find his lover. The stanza begins with “Yet,” which reflects that the speaker believed his “search” would definitely translate into successful results, but contrary to his expectations, that has not happened until now.

The poem moves in a cyclical manner, and this gets reflected not just through the similarity between the two parts, but also the mentions of the passing of the day, which is also cyclical: “Range the wide house from the wing to the centre./ Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.” These lines also enhance the circular nature of his mundane actions. However, he never gives up hope throughout the poem and declares that the new dawn will only bring him a renewed vigor to keep his search going.

In the last line, “alcoves” mean the corners or passageways in the house. This line enhances the idea of the lover deliberately “hiding” from the speaker. The fact that he says he goes to look for her in particularly inaccessible spots suggests that he knows she does not want to be “found.” She does not want to be with him anymore. All his efforts may be in vain because she keeps evading him. Yet, he wants to persist in his attempts at finding her.

An Alternate Interpretation

In this poem, Browning taps on the idea of the “New Woman.” The Victorian era saw the rise of feminist movements because the age was highly oppressive to women; they barely had any socio-political rights. Women were considered objects with no freedom to live independently or have opinions. A growing number of women’s suffrage movements gave rise to strong, independent women who were now autonomous and not dependent on men for their happiness and well-being.

This awareness and women’s fight for freedom was not viewed positively during the Victorian Age. It was a highly “moral” and rigid time with sanctimonious views of marriage and family values. Thus the rigid customs and enforced morality gave rise to the idea of the “New Woman,” whom the Victorians considered “harmful” and the cause of the destruction of family values and propriety.

In “Love in a Life,” the woman has left her husband/lover; it may be interpreted that Browning is criticizing this idea. The lover appears to be “cold and uncaring” towards the speaker’s feelings by constantly eluding him. This may be the rigid views of the time looking at a woman who wants to live her own life. She wants to fight for her rights by rejecting the one-sided vows of marriage and breaking herself away from the Victorian ideals of morality enforced upon women.

Themes

Desperation and Delusion

This emerges as one of the strongest themes in “Love in a Life,” with the speaker’s undeterred belief that he will find his beloved if he just searches hard enough in the house that they both lived in. The speaker’s desperation and delusion mirror and strengthen each other as he continues the obvious illogical task of looking through the house to find his “hidden” lover, despite multiple failed attempts. His unconditional love keeps him determined and enhances his desperation to look for his lover.

However, it appears as if the lady has left him of her own accord. His inability to accept the end of his relationship and clinging on to his idea of love keeps his delusion alive. It makes him hope that his lover will return. Deep down, his heart has given up hope of her return. Yet he continues the “search” in vain, as his desperation does not allow him to give up.

Illusion vs. Reality: Lover’s “Absence” and Apparent “Presence”

Throughout “Love in a Life,” the speaker is the only one present. Even though he believes with all his heart that his lover is present in the house somewhere, the readers are aware that this is not the case. His lover is only present in the remnants of his memories that linger in the house and in the speaker’s mind. Even though the speaker says that her perfume lingers nearby, this may easily be another instance of his denial to accept reality. The fact that he believes the lover is “hiding” from him and his need to find her becomes crucial.

She wants to move as far away from the speaker as possible, which may suggest that the relationship was an unhappy one. As the dramatic monologue only presents perception through one speaker, his biases reflect in whatever he depicts. The speaker presents himself as lovelorn and distressed at the loss of the relationship, but it is unclear if he was a good partner and if the relationship was as pure as his feelings of loss are.

Readers will never know of the reason, as even the woman’s presence and absence depend on what the speaker communicates. It is also pertinent to note that there is no insight into the nature of the relationship or the lover herself. This also enhances the notion of the lover being an absent figure throughout the poem.

Tone

A dramatic monologue gives excellent insight into the speaker’s mental state and is narrated in the first-person point of view. It reveals the emotional states and conflicts that the speaker is undergoing. In “Love in a Life,” the speaker is lovelorn and miserable due to the absence of his lover. The tone is one of reckless desperation and delusion. He seems to be drowning in her memories retained in household corners and objects. This piece depicts his unshakeable will to find her. However, his inflated confidence and hope of being able to find her are actually his effort to calm the waves of sorrow in his heart.

The tone also reflects denial – to accept his reality and also to move on. Even though the speaker may sometimes sound resilient and confident, the poem does not take a hopeful turn as the speaker goes through the same motions every day but is never able to “find” his lover: “… she goes out as I enter.”

Historical Context

“Love in a Life” was published in Browning’s collection Men and Women, in 1855, at the peak of the Victorian age with its rigid notions of decency and morality. However, this era was also a time of rapid growth and change in all spheres, with the development of the Darwinian theory of evolution and the impetus to scientific thinking. This brought in a lot of paradoxes and anxieties in the Victorian ways of thinking and perceiving the world. The religious and moral society weakened its stronghold on public life as science was gaining prominence. This duality of wanting to hold on to a rigid past while dealing with a changing world gets reflected in a lot of the literary works of the Victorian age.

In “Love in a Life,” too, the collapse of Victorian “morality” can be seen through the idea of skepticism in responding to changing social times. The idea of the “New Woman” gets questioned and critiqued in the poem. The “disappearance” or “absence” of the lover/wife may be a metaphor for the disappearance of Victorian morality, which paved the way for new ways of thinking. This orthodoxy in worldview, while England was simultaneously the most “advanced” country in the world, reflects the famous “Victorian Paradox.” This era was called “The Age of Paradoxes” because of the dichotomy that existed in all spheres.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Love in a Life” about?

Robert Browning’s poem “Love in a Life” deals with the turmoil of a broken-hearted, desperate lover trying to “hunt” his beloved all over their house. The poem is divided into two parts, and both of them deal with the same emotional conflict that the speaker encounters and his futile, delusional attempts to find his beloved.

What kind of poem is “Love in a Life”?

“Love in a Life” is a dramatic monologue as it occurs at a crucial point in the speaker’s life and gives great insight into his psyche and character. The entire poem is narrated by the speaker, and the presence or absence of other characters (in this poem, the lover) is made known only through the speaker’s words. Robert Browning was most well-known for his mastery over the dramatic monologue form, and the depth of characterization he brings to his monologues is unparalleled.

How is love presented in “Love in a Life”?

In this poem, Browning describes the unconditional love of a persona for his beloved. Her absence makes him so desperate that he undertakes the task of finding her every day in their house. Each day his search goes in vain, sparking the desperation in his heart.

What is the theme of “Love in a Life” by Robert Browning?

Some of the critical themes of the poem include desperation, delusion, longing, separation, “New Woman,” etc.

What are some literary devices used in “Love in a Life”?

The major literary devices used in the poem are personification, alliteration, consonance, repetition, imagery, etc.


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