‘Patience Taught by Nature’ was published in 1845 in Browning’s collection of poems, A Drama of Exile: and other poems. This poem is written in a single stanza made up of 14 lines. The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBACDECDE and is in the form of a Miltonic Sonnet.
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She begins that piece with her speaker addressing the listener and describing how humans experience life as being dreary. She immediately proceeds to counter this and minimize its worth by referencing birds that through generations of human life continue to sing unimpeded by human suffering. The world of animals goes on living even if the human race is generally unsatisfied with the life they are living.
She also speaks on the desire to live up to the God and the pain through which one struggles to find meaning in life. As this struggle is going on the ocean still encircles land, grasses still blow on the savannah, hills still sit and watch, and stars still shine. The leaves will fall from the trees as they always have and through this break in the foliage the speaker can gaze upon those eternal stars.
The poem concludes with a plea to God. The speaker asks that she be given grace, even if it is less than birds, hills, and oceans receive, that she may learn to have the patience of a blade of grass, and live contented with simple pleasure like heat and cold.
Patience Taught by Nature Analysis
‘O DREARY life,’ we cry, ‘ O dreary life ! ‘
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife
With Heaven’s true purpose in us, as a knife
Against which we may struggle ! Ocean girds
This poem begins with an expression of anguish over life. The speaker is bemoaning the dreary nature of the world in which she is living. This judgement on life could also be larger, more encompassing, and include life as a whole for all humans, not just the speaker.
Even though life appears to be dreary, this speaker immediately begins to remedy that complaint in the next line. Throughout all of the days of boredom and pointlessness, there have been “generations of the birds.” These birds have been here as long as humans have, and certainly as long as the speaker has, and still they “sing through our sighing.” While the human race complains of their lot in life, of all the things that have gone wrong, or their future prospects, the birds are untouched. They continue to sing through the sighing of the human race.
This idea is continued and expanded. The flocks of birds and the herds of animals all “Serenely live” while humans “are keeping strife.” Humans experience suffering through their everyday existence, either real or of their own creation, but the non-human animals of the earth continue uninfluenced.
The next line gives a clue about what exactly humans, or at least the speaker, is suffering. She struggles against the knife in her stomach, representing her desire to know heaven’s true purpose. She does not know what she is meant to do, what is desired of her in heaven, and struggles painfully with her ignorance.
Unslackened the dry land, savannah-swards
Unweary sweep, hills watch unworn, and rife
Meek leaves drop year]y from the forest-trees
To show, above, the unwasted stars that pass
In their old glory: O thou God of old,
Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these !–
But so much patience as a blade of grass
Grows by, contented through the heat and cold.
The next lines of ‘Patience Taught by Nature’ go through a number of natural environments that also are not influenced by the changing of human fortunes. The first reference is to, “Oceans gird / Unslackened the dry land.” This strange phrasing simply means that the oceans are not impeded from encircling dry land, as they always do. The second reference is to “savannah-swards / Unweary sweep.” The grasses on the savannah sway with out interference.
Continuing on, the hills are said to watch the proceedings of life, “unworn,” they do not change as humans do. The last reference is to the leaves of trees, and how as they always do, they drop gently and quietly “from the forest-trees.” The falling of these leaves leads into something else. They have fallen from the branches to clear a space in the overhead foliage and now the speaker of the poem is shown “above, the unwasted stars that pass / In their old glory.” The stars are described as “unwasted,” they have not decayed although they are “in their old glory.” They have been there for what seems like an eternity, and like everything else, they are unchanged by humans suffering and perceived dreariness of life.
The poem concludes with three lines through which the speaker is addressing God. She asks that she be granted grace, even if it is smaller than that which is given to birds, hills, and oceans. Above all else she is seeking the patience of “a blade of grass.” She seeks to grow and live her life without racing to the end, she wants to stop feeling the desire for things she does not need or cannot have and just be contented by “heat and cold.”
About Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in 1806 in Durham, England. She was the firstborn out of twelve children, and was educated at home through the works of Milton and Shakespeare. She also began writing poetry at a young age, finishing her first epic poem at the age of twelve. Browning suffered from a number of maladies from a young age, particularly a lung ailment for which she took morphine for the rest of her life. As a teenager, Browning taught herself Hebrew and studied Greek classics.
It was in 1826 that Browning anonymously published her first collection, An Essay on Mind and Other Poems. During this time period, Browning’s family suffered financial troubles and ended up settling in London. In the 1830’s Browning first started getting attention for her work. She wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838 through which she expressed traditional Christian beliefs, which were very dear to her, through Greek tragedies.
The following years of Browning’s life were filled with illness and loss. She spent a year living with her brother Edward at the sea of Torquay. Edward died while sailing there and Browning returned home, living as a recluse for the next five years. in 1844 she published Poems and met the writer Robert Browning. The two began a romance that was opposed by Elizabeth’s father, but they eloped in 1846. The collection generally considered her best work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was published in 1850. After publishing a number of other works about social injustice, Elizabeth died in Florence in 1861.