A False Step by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

‘A False Step’ written by Elizabeth Barret Browning explores how a woman regrets her heartless action taken during her youth.

‘A False Step’ is written by one of the most admired women poets of the Victorian era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was published in her posthumous collection entitled Last Poems (1862). This poem features the theme of the temporality of physical beauty and youth. With this theme, Browning introduces the main subject that is connected with the idea of true love. This piece is ironically addressed to a lady who, in her youth, unknowingly turned down the proposal of a true lover. The speaker describes how she would regret the “false step” she took in her youth.

A False Step
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart.Pass! there's a world full of men;And women as fair as thou artMust do such things now and then.

Thou only hast stepped unaware,—Malice, not one can impute;And why should a heart have been thereIn the way of a fair woman's foot?

It was not a stone that could trip,Nor was it a thorn that could rend:Put up thy proud underlip!'Twas merely the heart of a friend.

And yet peradventure one dayThou, sitting alone at the glass,Remarking the bloom gone away,Where the smile in its dimplement was,

And seeking around thee in vainFrom hundreds who flattered before,Such a word as,—“Oh, not in the mainDo I hold thee less precious,—but more!”

Thou'lt sigh, very like, on thy part:—“Of all I have known or can know,I wish I had only that HeartI trod upon ages ago!”
A False Step by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is about a woman who disregarded the genuine feelings of a person.

The poem begins with a direct address to a “Sweet” lady who had admirable qualities during her youth. She was so blind due to her beauty that she could not understand the feelings of a genuine lover. She hurt her and metaphorically trod upon his “heart.” The poet says it was rather the person’s fault who came in her way. At the end, when her physical beauty fades away, she is going to regret her decision. Then she would realize the importance of true love that is not time’s fool, a fleeting feeling.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart.

Pass! there’s a world full of men;

And women as fair as thou art

Must do such things now and then.

Browning’s lyrical poem ‘A False Step’ begins with an address to a woman as a fair and sweet person. By admiring the physical attributes of the woman, the speaker describes how she crushed the feelings of a person without even bothering about his true intentions. The speaker tells the woman to overlook her action and move on as there are lots of men to choose from and love. On top of that, she has admirable features that can enthrall any man she wants to be with. Therefore she has the authority to do such things every now and then. There is not much to worry about. This ironic way of supporting the woman’s action actually informs readers that the speaker does not like the fact that she caused pain to her true lover.

Stanza Two

Thou only hast stepped unaware,—

Malice, not one can impute;

And why should a heart have been there

In the way of a fair woman’s foot?

In stanza two of the poem, the speaker adds some more arguments in support of the lady’s cruel action. The speaker assures her that she was unaware while stepping on the person’s heart (true feelings). If she was aware of the person’s feelings, she would not do that. In reality, she did that. Besides, nobody can say that she had some ill intentions in doing so. So, why is she crying over spilled milk?

On the other hand, the speaker says that it was the man’s fault to come her way. She holds the person responsible for expressing his emotions to a woman who does not actually care much about others’ feelings for her. Metaphorically, the speaker describes how the person’s heart had been in the way of the “fair woman’s” foot. In the last line, the term “fair” can be regarded as a pun. It ironically hints at her fairness of judgment as well as her beauty.

Stanza Three

It was not a stone that could trip,

Nor was it a thorn that could rend:

Put up thy proud underlip!

‘Twas merely the heart of a friend.

While reading the third stanza, it may seem that the woman is somewhat sad about her action. This is why the speaker tries to console the lady’s heart by saying that what she did was not wrong. If she could have known, she would not have done that. According to the speaker, it was merely the heart of a person, not a stone or thorn. One can hold the woman responsible if she has stepped upon a stone or thorn. She should be more aware if that was the case.

However, in the present scenario, she has only tripped upon a heart that is, by far, less risky than a stone or thorn. Therefore, she should not think much about the person’s pain who has misplaced his heart in her way. She should move on with confidence by putting up her proud underlip. It was, by the way, the heart of a friend. It is safe to say that as he is her friend, he would not cause any trouble in her life.

Stanza Four

And yet peradventure one day

Thou, sitting alone at the glass,

Remarking the bloom gone away,

Where the smile in its dimplement was,

From the fourth stanza of ‘A False Step,’ the speaker refrains from supporting the woman. She anticipates the future when the woman will lose the youthful beauty she was once so proud of. One day, the speaker says, she will be sitting alone in front of her mirror looking at her reflection on the glass, thinking about her past self. She would think about how age has robbed her of her physical beauty. Moreover, she would think about how “fair” she looked when she smiled in her youth. In this way, the poet points out the themes of the fleeting nature of physical beauty and the misplaced pride in one’s bodily features.

Stanza Five

And seeking around thee in vain

From hundreds who flattered before,

Such a word as,—“Oh, not in the main

Do I hold thee less precious,—but more!”

The fifth stanza begins with the word “And,” conveying a sense of continuity. While she will be nostalgically looking back at her past self, loneliness will engulf her. She would seek out those who admired her before. There might be hundreds of men who flattered her. Therefore, she would long to hear praiseworthy remarks like she used to hear when she was young. She would yearn to find one heart that would beat only for her. Moreover, she would need someone when she becomes old. He would hold her hands and say that she was as precious as she was in her youth.

Stanza Six

Thou’lt sigh, very like, on thy part:—

“Of all I have known or can know,

I wish I had only that Heart

I trod upon ages ago!”

In the last stanza, the speaker expresses that the lady is definitely going to regret her action. She will sigh that she caused that person enormous pain when she disregarded his feelings. In order to highlight the importance of that person, the poet capitalizes the first letter of “Heart.” According to the speaker, the woman will regret that she failed to notice who genuinely cared for her among her countless admirers. In the end, when she would no longer be attractive, she would be thinking about that person to whom she caused so much pain.

Structure and Form

The text of Browning’s ‘A False Step’ comprises six quatrains with the ABAB rhyme scheme. In the first stanza, the word “heart” in line one rhymes with “art” in line three. Similarly, “men” in line two rhymes with “then” in line number four. This rhyming pattern is followed throughout the text. The poem is written from the second-person point of view, addressing the woman directly. It could be a direct address to the speaker’s former self. The overall poem is composed in iambic tetrameter with the unstressed-stressed foot pattern.

Literary Devices

In ‘A False Step,’ Browning employs the following literary techniques in order to enhance the meaning:

  • Irony: The primary literary device that heightens the meaning of the text is irony or understatement. The speaker understates the importance of the person who loved the woman genuinely in the following lines: “And why should a heart have been there/ In the way of a fair woman’s foot?”
  • Caesura: The poem begins with the use of caesura. Browning places a comma as it is used while addressing a person in a poetic text. It also occurs in the second line of stanza two: “Malice, not one can impute.”
  • Synecdoche: In the first line, “Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart,” the term “heart” stands for a person as a whole. It is also a symbol of genuine feelings and true love.
  • Anticipation: Browning uses this device in the fourth stanza in order to predict what would happen with the lady when she turns old. She describes how she would suffer emotionally for her former action.


What is the poem ‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning about?

Victoria-era poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A False Step’ is about a woman who, in her youth, caused hurt to a person who truly loved her. The speaker of the poem, at first, holds the person responsible for loving her. However, in the end, the poet admits that the lady is going to regret her haughty decision when she becomes older, thus losing her physical beauty.

What is the theme of ‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

In this poem, Browning makes use of a number of important themes that include the fleeting nature of youth, pride, physical beauty, true love, and regret. Overall, this poem could be regarded as an instructive text for the poet’s former self.

What type of poem is ‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

‘A False Step’ contains a total of four quatrains, stanzas having four lines each. In each quatrain, Browning uses the alternative ABAB rhyme scheme. The poem is composed in iambic tetrameter. Browning writes the second-person point of view by using the pronoun “you” to address the central figure.

When was the poem ‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning published?

This poem was published in the poetry collection entitled Last Poems (1862). It was collected and published after the poet’s death in 1861.

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in ‘A False Step’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You can also read more such Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems.

Explore these best-loved poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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