‘The Deserted Garden’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a long, image-rich poem in which the poet thinks back on what is likely her own youth. She taps into a child’s perceptive while at the same time adding in the thoughtful details an adult would notice about a scene or experience. It’s clear from the start of the poem that she longs to return to this time of enhanced joy and freedom but knows that, of course, this is impossible.
Explore The Deserted Garden
The majority of this poem is spent meditating on the times the speaker spent as a young girl within a deserted garden. There, she contemplated what happened before it fell into disrepair, read books, listened to the thrush sing, and enjoyed her own childhood. Now, she looks back on that time with longing, wishing that she could feel the pleasures of youthful freedom again and regretting that her womanhood did not turn out as happily as she thought it would when she was resting in the mossy grove surrounded by white roses.
Now, she’s closer to death than she is to the child she used to be. But, she takes comfort from the fact that she’ll be headed to Heaven, the place from which nature gets its greenest colors.
Browning engages with themes of childhood and memory in ‘The Deserted Garden.’ From the start, the speaker informs the reader that she’s thinking about her childhood. She spends most of the poem thinking over what her life was like as a young girl, without the burdens of adulthood, free to roam the deserted garden. There, she was free to do as she pleased without the eyes of anyone on her. She could read, drink from the spring, and enjoy the flowers growing on all sides of her grove. The young speaker often thought about the past but did not mourn it. Now, as an adult, she does. She expresses a desire to return to this place and the person she used to be. There, she was happy, closer to God than she realized, and truly happy.
Structure and Form
‘The Deserted Garden’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a thirty-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABBA CDDC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Although the poet does not use a consistent metrical pattern throughout the poem, the majority of the lines are around eight syllables in length, although they do dip down to six in some lines, such as line four of the second stanza.
Browning makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Deserted Garden.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, imagery, enjambment, and personification. The first of these, alliteration, is a type of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “days departed” in line one of the first stanza and “struck” and “spade” in line two of the second stanza. There are many more examples of the technique throughout the thirty stanzas of ‘The Deserted Garden.’
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of stanza four as well as lines three and four of stanza eight. Sometimes this device helps to create a feeling of suspense, while at other times, it’s used to control the speed at which a reader moves through the text.
Imagery is one of the most important literary devices a poet can use in their work. It occurs when they use particularly evocative descriptions and interesting adjectives. Readers should find these lines interesting and engaging. The best imagery is that which encourages the reader to use multiple senses to imagine it. For example, these lines from stanza twenty-seven, “The cypress high among the trees, / And I behold white sepulchres / As well as the white rose.”
Personification can be seen at the beginning of the poem when the speaker describes “Nature” as something with agency. It is a force that grows how and where it chooses, as directed by God.
Stanzas One and Two
I mind me in the days departed,
How often underneath the sun
With childish bounds I used to run
To a garden long deserted.
The beds and walks were vanish’d quite;
And wheresoe’er had struck the spade,
The greenest grasses Nature laid,
To sanctify her right.
In the first stanzas of ‘The Deserted Garden,’ the speaker begins by describing how she often thinks back to the days she spent alone, as a child, in a garden. She has “childish bounds” at that time, suggesting that she was confined by childhood but also emboldened by the joys of it. She took pleasure in this place, one that grownups did not find as magical and interesting as she did. When she was there, she looked around her and took in the green “Nature laid,” feeling the power of nature’s force in her world. In these lines, Browning personifies nature, describing it as a force with agency as if it’s more human than it is an idea. This is quite a common feature of poetry, especially when it comes to forces like love, death, and more.
Stanzas Three and Four
I call’d the place my wilderness,
For no one enter’d there but I.
The sheep look’d in, the grass to espy,
And pass’d it ne’ertheless.
The trees were interwoven wild,
And spread their boughs enough about
To keep both sheep and shepherd out,
But not a happy child.
She was the only one to “enter” into her “wilderness.” It felt, in those moments, as though it belonged to her entirely. The only other creature she mentions in this stanza that even takes note of the garden is the sheep that “pass” it by after looking to see if there’s any grass in it that they’d like to eat. This made her feel all the more special in this place.
The garden was only accessible. She goes on to say, for a “happy child.” No one could fit in between the interwoven trees and leaves except for her. The place fit her perfectly and allowed her space all her own away from her home and family.
Stanzas Five and Six
Adventurous joy it was for me!
I crept beneath the boughs, and found
A circle smooth of mossy ground
Beneath a poplar-tree.
Old garden rose-trees hedged it in,
Bedropt with roses waxen-white,
Well satisfied with dew and light,
And careless to be seen.
It’s clear that the speaker felt freer in the garden than she did in other parts of her life. While there, it was like she was living an incredible adventure. She could creep around the bushes, exploring every nook and cranny she came upon. She found a smooth circle of the mossy ground underneath a poplar tree at one point. A spot where the density of the trees and leaves receded somewhat. It was circled by old rose bushes with white roses still growing on them. They were facing in, away from the sight of any onlooker, happy to grow unnoticed by all. This suggests that perhaps the speaker felt the same. She escaped to this place to experience life unobserved and unbothered by everyone else.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Long years ago, it might befall,
When all the garden flowers were trim,
The grave old gardener prided him
On these the most of all.
Some Lady, stately overmuch,
Here moving with a silken noise,
Has blush’d beside them at the voice
That liken’d her to such.
The speaker uses the next stanzas to think even further into the past to a time before the garden became overgrown and was deserted. Then, she thinks, the white roses she’s looking at might’ve been the gardener’s pride. This allows the reader an interesting moment to consider what happened to this place to allow it to fall into what some would consider being disrepair.
The speaker also recalls how, as a young girl, she used to spend time in the garden imagining what it was like as a beautiful stately woman made her way through it. She imagines the “silken noise” a woman’s dress would make as it brushed the ground. This is a great example of sensory imagery that engages multiple senses.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Or these, to make a diadem,
She often may have pluck’d and twined;
Half-smiling as it came to mind,
That few would look at them.
O, little thought that Lady proud,
A child would watch her fair white rose,
When buried lay her whiter brows,
And silk was changed for shroud!—
She thinks that this woman would’ve picked flowers to make herself a crown or a diadem. It’s possible, the speaker continues, but now that time has passed. The garden has moved on in time just as this woman would’ve. Now, rather than wearing her beautiful silk dress, she’s in her gave, wearing a funeral shroud. Although this seems like a dark turn, it makes sense considering that ‘The Deserted Garden’ is about nature and, therefore, life and death as well.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Nor thought that gardener (full of scorns
For men unlearn’d and simple phrase)
A child would bring it all its praise,
By creeping through the thorns!
To me upon my low moss seat,
Though never a dream the roses sent
Of science or love’s compliment,
I ween they smelt as sweet.
It’s unlikely, she adds, that the gardener, while working on his garden, would’ve considered the possibility that it would soon be overgrown with a child creeping through the thorns. The garden meant something else entirely to her. It wasn’t a place to fall in love or work on making better, stronger, and more beautiful plants. It was just a place to adventure and spend time. She could smell the history of the land in the roses, fully aware of what they likely meant to other people.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
It did not move my grief to see
The trace of human step departed:
Because the garden was deserted,
The blither place for me!
Friends, blame me not! a narrow ken
Hath childhood ‘twixt the sun and sward:
We draw the moral afterward—
We feel the gladness then.
Unlike it might’ve in the past, she didn’t sorrow over the fact that people left the garden as she was the only person ever there. It was “blither” for her in this way, meaning that she took more pleasure from it empty than if it had been perfectly clean and filled with ladies and gentlemen.
In the fourteenth stanza, the speaker starts to get to the heart of the poem, emphasizing the brevity of childhood and how, after it’s over is when one feels its loss most keenly.
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
And gladdest hours for me did glide
In silence at the rose-tree wall:
A thrush made gladness musical
Upon the other side.
Nor he nor I did e’er incline
To peck or pluck the blossoms white:—
How should I know but that they might
Lead lives as glad as mine?
She moves back into the poem in the fifteenth stanza, describing how the hours easily glided past when she was in the garden. There was music in the air, sung by a thrush, and neither of them thought to pick the “blossoms white,” a reference back to the white roses. Readers should also note the use of alliteration in line two of the sixteenth stanza with “peck” and “pluck.” In an interesting turn, the speaker poses a question, suggesting that the roses live as “glad” a life like her own.
Stanzas Eighteen and Nineteen
To make my hermit-home complete,
I brought clear water from the spring
Praised in its own low murmuring,
And cresses glossy wet.
And so, I thought, my likeness grew
(Without the melancholy tale)
To ‘gentle hermit of the dale,’
And Angelina too.
The speaker notes in these stanzas how when she was in the grove, she’d bring water from the spring and make herself a home as though she was a hermit. There are good examples of imagery in the eighteenth stanza, as well as the poet describes the murmuring of the water. The nineteenth stanza references ‘The Hermit’ by Oliver Goldsmith and the story of Angelina and Edwin. It’s a romantic ballad, published in 1765. Angelina spurns lovers and wooers and, despite feeling something for the hero, Edwin, does not show it. He disappears and becomes a hermit. Finally, she finds him, and the two reconcile and never part again. The poem appeared in The Vicar of Wakefield.
The speaker compares herself in these lines to the hermit and Angelina, but without the sorrow that starts the story.
Stanzas Twenty and Twenty-One
For oft I read within my nook
Such minstrel stories; till the breeze
Made sounds poetic in the trees,
And then I shut the book.
If I shut this wherein I write,
I hear no more the wind athwart
Those trees, nor feel that childish heart
Delighting in delight.
This story and others were read while the speaker was in her “nook.” The wind would blow through the trees, making what she describes as poetic noises. It’s at this point that the speaker skillful transitions into the present. She closed the book in her nook and has closed the book on her childhood.
She no longer hears the wind as she did then or feel the delight she used to in “Those trees.”
Stanzas Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three
My childhood from my life is parted,
My footstep from the moss which drew
Its fairy circle round: anew
The garden is deserted.
Another thrush may there rehearse
The madrigals which sweetest are;
No more for me!—myself afar
Do sing a sadder verse.
Her childhood feels like an entirely separate time from the rest of her life. It parted now, leaving her as an adult with nothing but these memories. The garden is newly deserted.
She doesn’t know what’s happening there now but assumes that a “thrush may there rehearse” but no longer for her. She’s “afar” and singing “a sadder verse” than the thrush.
Stanzas Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five
Ah me! ah me! when erst I lay
In that child’s-nest so greenly wrought,
I laugh’d unto myself and thought,
‘The time will pass away.’
And still I laugh’d, and did not fear
But that, whene’er was pass’d away
The childish time, some happier play
My womanhood would cheer.
She mourns for her youth in these lines, feeling as though she’s lost something integral to herself. She describes how, in the past, when she was a child lying in the grove, she knew that this childish time would pass. But, she didn’t think she’d be as sad as she is now. She thought that some new happier “womanhood” appear, and she’d move on to an even better time in her life. It’s clear that this has not occurred.
Stanzas Twenty-Six and Twenty-Seven
I knew the time would pass away;
And yet, beside the rose-tree wall,
Dear God, how seldom, if at all,
Did I look up to pray!
The time is past: and now that grows
The cypress high among the trees,
And I behold white sepulchres
As well as the white rose,—
Although she knew as a child that her time in the deserted garden would come to an end, she didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. She so rarely looked up to pray. There’s nothing she can do now but accept that times “past.” She’s much older than she used to be and now the visions of white roses are accompanied by “white sepulchres,” or a monument in which a dead person is buried.
Stanzas Twenty-Nine and Thirty
When wiser, meeker thoughts are given,
And I have learnt to lift my face,
Reminded how earth’s greenest place
The colour draws from heaven,—
It something saith for earthly pain,
But more for heavenly promise free,
That I who was, would shrink to be
That happy child again.
In the final two stanzas of ‘The Deserted Garden,’ the speaker suggests that she may return to the happy state she used to be in when she makes her way to heaven. there, she might be “That happy child again.” The green earth says a lot for its own beauty, but it also speaks to heaven. It is from God that it draws its color and its true beauty. She regrets not recognizing this adequately when she was a child.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Deserted Garden’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning should also consider reading some of her other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Patience Taught by Nature’ – speaks about heaven, a different kind of world where God resides, and human problems don’t exist. It is quite similar to the concluding thoughts of ‘The Deserted Garden.’
- ‘Sonnet 14: If thou must love me’ – presents the speaker’s ideas on how she wants to be loved and remembered. She wants a love that’s going to last through eternity rather than one that’s based on her appearance.
- ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese 24’ – is a sonnet in which the speaker compares the world’s problems to the closing of a knife. It is also known as ‘Let the World’s Sharpness.’
- ‘Died’ – was published after Browning’s death and also explores the impact of a man’s death and the immorality of passing judgments on someone who passed away.