The poem's speaker, who does not place himself in first person until over halfway through the poem, begins by describing a pastoral landscape where sheep head home in the early evening. He then tells how a "city great and gay," the country's former capital, once stood on that very spot. Where a great population once filled the city, now the land is nearly deserted save for the sheep.
The city, which was great both in its imperialism and in peacetime, now only survives through a "single turret" on the landscape. The speaker is set to meet a woman who waits for him in that turret. He is passionate in his anticipation to see her, but returns again to contemplation of how the king once stood where she does now, and from that spot sent armies forth to expand the empire. In comparing the two possibilities, he decides that "Love is best."
In this poem, published in 1855 in Men and Women, a simple message is complicated by both a fascinating rhyme scheme and a dramatic irony that emerges from the speaker's fascination with the fallen empire.
The initial message is best understood in terms of the city vs. the pastoral, and by extension, complication vs. simplicity. The city, which is described in vibrant terms, with lots of exclamation points and descriptions of movement, was a place of great import. From its vantage it ran an empire and amassed much "gold," a word the poet mentions several times. And yet, save a mention of the king who is not given a personality, the poet does not speak of any individuals in the empire, but rather speaks of it in generalities, of how the population as a whole moved. This approach stands in stark contrast with the pastoral landscape described at the beginning, in which the language is more traditionally beautiful and the sense of solace and peace is quite apparent.
So the poet proposes an inherent question (which we know because he ends his poem with an answer): which is better? The pastoral is personalized through one individual, his beloved, who waits for him patiently and is characterized as one who will "speak not," again in contrast to the energy with which he characterizes the city that once stood on the landscape. With his quiet love, the speaker contemplates whether he would rather honor the excitable empire that once was, which thrived on the high stakes of empire-building and war, or the low-stakes simplicity of his love, which is fulfilled with one simple meeting.
The simple 'anti-imperialist' message that many attribute to the poem is counteracted by the speaker's inarguable fascination with the world he describes. Significantly more of the poem is dedicated to painting the life of this city than to describing his beloved, a technique that works against the usual expectation of a poem ostensibly meant to glorify the woman and the relationship. The amount of energy expended on these descriptions reveals to us through dramatic irony that the speaker has a fascination with the complications of human life.
This dramatic irony does not lead us to doubt his final declaration, but rather to view it as a conscious choice. The decision that "love is best" is not an inevitability in the poem, but rather something of which the speaker must remind himself. By acknowledging how much more easily the love of life, energy, and complication comes to the speaker, Browning makes the end more dramatic; with less will power, the speaker might have remained in his imaginings instead of focusing on the simplicity of the love in front of him.
This movement from complication to simplicity is reflected in several facets of the poem. The most obvious is through the theme of time: what once was lively and complicated has grown simple over the years, as the city destroyed itself and was replaced by a quiet, pastoral landscape. This movement is also the psychological movement of the poem, as described above: though perhaps he is not conscious of it, the poet is excited more by imaginings of the city than by the pastoral present of his love, but he calms himself back to the recognition that "Love is best."
Finally, this movement is reflected in the highly unconventional rhyme scheme, which pairs long lines with short, rhymed ones. In reading the poem aloud, one finds that this scheme leads to a quick succession of syllables that are necessarily stopped by the short line. Whether this evokes the contemplation that replaces the speaker's otherwise excitable disposition or serves as a reminder to stop and appreciate the simple things in life depends on the reader. But the scheme posits this essential conflict between excitable complication and contemplative serenity.
Although Elizabeth Barrett Browning was more conservative in her expression of religious criticism, even her husband expresses some sense of loss over the grand days when faith and religion were apparent. In his poem, “Love Among the Ruins" he details a city that has fallen, but nonetheless it is romanticized and described as a place where “they built their gods a brazen pillar high / As the sky" (7.75). It is interesting to note how Robert Browning’s language changes when he speaks of these more traditional and lofty ideas about religion and spirituality and it is worth noting that Robert Browning is a master of using different voices and language to convey different meaning.The language of the Victorian period is most traditionally associated with that of Tennyson whose poetry used grand language that was not of the Victorian age, but rather conjured up a romantic image of days gone by and glorious places and events from history. In many ways then, instead of having Tennyson stand out as the quintessential Victorian (or even English) poet, it seems more fitting that Robert Browning should have the honor because he was capable of using the grandiose language of older more traditional poets, yet was also able to invoke slang and rhymes that are almost childish in their simplicity—both in terms of language and structure. For instance, his poem “Two in the Campagna" delicately conjures the Romantic era with a tinge of Tennyson thrown in—almost for effect. The second stanza is flowery and stands in stark contrast to the bold language of “Fra Lippo Lippi". “Help me to hold it! First it left / The yellow fennel, run to seed / There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft, / Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed / Took up the floating weft" (11-15). It seems he is unable to resist the traditional pastoral impulse and delights in using the tone and form of such poems but to look at such a poem provides a vastly incomplete picture of Browning as a poet. The fact that he was able to harness everyday language and combine it with his knowledge of classical and traditional language is symbolic of the sense of encroaching modernity of the Victorian period. The economy was growing, the nobility was becoming less important, and all of the class structures that once propagated such “flowery" Romantic poetry were disappearing. There is a visible (and even audible) search occurring with Victorian poets to find a voice that is uniquely of their time and place and although Tennyson was perhaps the most prosaic, he did not capture the essence, the almost post-modern (by our definition) self-conscious co-mingling of so many decades, forms, structures, and movements. Although Elizabeth Barrett Browning has notable skill, there is not such an edge that separates her from other poets of the time. While it is true that she represents one of the few distinctive women’s voices in Victorian poetry, her words do not slice; they soothe. Unlike other, later Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s assertions of love and “lost Saints" sounds a bit hollow when one understands that on the level of language alone, English poetry was undergoing a massive (and often, or so it seems) fruitless search for a distinct identity.