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Two Love Poems Compared

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A Comparison of "Love Among the Ruins" and "Dover Beach"

by Sean Lowe

Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold, two poets of the mid-19th century, both express pessimism about human nature in their respective works, “Love Among the Ruins” and “ Dover Beach .”  The poems examine the value of love among the turmoil of humanity.  Although the two poets’ conclusions about love are slightly different, the poems share many similarities in theme and style.

            Dover Beach ”’s theme is that society is losing religious faith, but solace and moral support can still be found in love.  Arnold uses imagery and metaphor to build the mood of calm melancholy, echoing the poem’s sad theme.  Tranquility is expressed by imagery, as Arnold writes, “The sea is calm tonight / The tide is full, the moon lies fair” (1, 2) and that “the Cliffs of England [are]  / Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay” (4, 5).  The speaker’s melancholy mood is expressed through an implied metaphor.  “Listen! You hear the grating roar…With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in” (10, 13-14).  The sound of the ocean’s waves are likened to a sad song, serving as a prelude for Arnold ’s sad conclusions about humanity.  Arnold uses metaphors to express the speaker’s dismay with society.  He compares faith to a sea, stating that “now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating to the breath” (25, 26).  He feels that the sea of faith is descending, and society is losing its faith in God or religion.  He uses anaphora to emphasize this unfaithfulness, writing, “the world...Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (30, 34-35).  Finally, Arnold uses dramatic monologue to expresses love’s role in these dark times.  “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” (29), the speaker says.  The speaker wishes to be faithful to his lover so they may strengthen each other.   Therefore, to Arnold , companionship serves as a strengthening moral bond “on [the] darkling plain” (35) of society.

Browning expresses a similar theme in “Love Among the Ruins.”  Browning’s poem displays how the value of temporal human accomplishment pales in comparison to that of transcendent love.  Browning uses an ancient Roman city as symbolic of human accomplishment and values.  The Roman buildings, for example, represent human accomplishments.  Arnold juxtaposes images of these buildings and their inhabitants with the pastoral scene that marks their former site.  “Where the domed and daring place shot its spires / Up like fires” (19, 20) the speaker says, “Now…does not even boast a tree” (13).  Browning continues, writing that “Such a carpet [of grass]as, this summertime, o’erspreads / And embeds / Every vestige of the city” (27-30).  Browning juxtaposes the images of Rome and the pastoral scene in order to display how the grand valor of Rome has faded to an unmarked grassy area.  Thus, the juxtaposition reveals the fleeting nature of seemingly grand and mighty human accomplishment.  Browning ends the poem with further criticism of the Romans, writing,

O heart! O blood that freezes, blood that burns!

Earth’s returns.

For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!

Shut them in,

With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!

Love is best (79-84).

The speaker realizes that while the temporal achievements of the Romans are impressive, “Lust of glory pricked their heats up, dread of shame / struck them tame; / And that glory and that shame alike, the gold bought and sold” (31-36), he seems to have achieved transcendent happiness with the woman he loves.  Even though he is apparently poor, living in a “single little turret that remains / On the plains” (37, 38), he is sublimely fulfilled by love.  Compared to the “centuries of folly, noise and sin” (81) that mark “earthly” (80) efforts, “love is best” (84). The structure of the poem also reinforces Browning’s theme.  In the first five stanzas, Browning being each line by describing the current day pastoral scene, and then flashes back to the ancient Roman city.  But in the last two stanzas, he switches the structure, first describing the Roman city, then moving to the present day.  This new structure facilitates the speaker’s dismissal of the Roman scene.  The Roman city is replaced by a love scene, one that depicts a passionate kiss between the speaker and his lover.  This structure parallels Browning’s theme that ultimately love is what prevails as love is what has the closing note in the last two stanzas. 

Similarities between both poems are plentiful, but there are key differences as well.  Both authors use imagery in their creation of calm scenes, Arnold painting a gentle ocean and Browning painting a pastoral countryside.  Thematically, the poems are also linked by their criticism of humanity.  Arnold , however, specifically criticizes a loss of faith while Browning finds fault with human nature in general.  The authors’ speakers also appreciate love for different reasons.  Arnold need for love is almost desperate, as he needs a companion in the face of the unfaithful world, while Browning’s love is calm and eternal.

Ultimately, both have more in common than they do in conflict.  Both poets criticize the world and its evil nature.  Each poem also sets love against tumultuous images of the world.  And, both poems feel love is a positive force in the face of a pestilent world.

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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