Robert Browning

A Face by Robert Browning

Written in response to fellow poet Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the House (1854), ‘A Face’ by Robert Browning explores the poet’s fascination with a lady’s portrait, particularly her facial features depicted in it.

A Face by Robert Browning

‘A Face’ was originally published in Victorian-era poet Robert Browning’s one of the best-known collections of poetry, Dramatis Personae (1864). It was written in order to record the beauty of a lady’s face as depicted in a painting, probably from the High Renaissance period in Italy. There are some allusions to Renaissance paintings and artists like Correggio in this poem. Overall, this poem is about the immortal beauty of a woman’s face that is, indeed, prone to mortality. The speaker of the poem seems to be a connoisseur of painting.

A Face
Robert Browning

If one could have that little head of hers
Painted upon a background of pale gold,
Such as the Tuscan’s early art prefers!
No shade encroaching on the matchless mould
Of those two lips, which should be opening soft
In the pure profile; not as when she laughs,
For that spoils all: but rather as if aloft
Yon hyacinth, she loves so, leaned its staff’s
Burthen of honey-coloured buds to kiss
And capture ’twixt the lips apart for this.
Then her lithe neck, three fingers might surround,
How it should waver on the pale gold ground,
Up to the fruit-shaped, perfect chin it lifts!
I know, Correggio loves to mass, in rifts
Of heaven, his angel faces, orb on orb
Breaking its outline, burning shades absorb:
But these are only massed there, I should think,
Waiting to see some wonder momently
Grow out, stand full, fade slow against the sky
(That’s the pale ground you’d see this sweet face by),
All heaven, meanwhile, condensed into one eye
Which fears to lose the wonder, should it wink.
A Face by Robert Browning


Summary

‘A Face’ by Robert Browning is a highly pictorial poem describing the features of a woman’s face from a particular Renaissance painting.

Browning begins the poem with a laudatory remark. His poetic persona tries to glorify the lady’s face that he is seeing. The face is painted upon a pale gold background, hinting at how old the painting is. No matter how old it is, one can still notice the beautiful lips, neck, and cheeks of the lady, complementing the overall appeal of that image. The speaker describes how her lips are shown in a manner that they are waiting to be kissed.

Furthermore, her neck is so sensitive that it appears to the speaker as if it could shiver upon laying his fingers upon it. Then he goes on to compare the image with famous Italian painter Correggio’s paintings. Finally, he ponders upon the mortality of youth and beauty with reference to the fading pale background of the portrait.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-3

If one could have that little head of hers

Painted upon a background of pale gold,

Such as the Tuscan’s early art prefers!

The title of Robert Browning’s poem, ‘A Face’ is a direct reference to the subject matter. It is a lady’s face the speaker is infatuated with. Browning’s first-person speaker expresses his awe in the first few lines. He describes the little head of the woman as depicted in the portrait. It is printed on a pale gold background. The color “pale” hints at the age of the image. It is old and the colors have already started to fade. Additionally, the reference to Florentine paintings from the Renaissance period helps readers to guess how old the portrait is. The use of a rhetorical exclamation in the third line reveals the speaker’s love for Renaissance art. Through the first lines, it can be assumed that he is quite fascinated with the portrait.

Lines 4-10

No shade encroaching on the matchless mould

Of those two lips, which should be opening soft

In the pure profile; not as when she laughs,

For that spoils all: but rather as if aloft

Yon hyacinth, she loves so, leaned its staff’s

Burthen of honey-coloured buds to kiss

And capture ’twixt the lips apart for this.

According to the speaker, the portrait could be old, yet the “shade” of time cannot encroach on the “matchless mould.” Hyperbolically, he says “no” shade can diminish the beauty or appeal of this image. The lips are still prominent in the painting.

The speaker likes to appreciate the portrait as it is. He prefers the lady’s lips in the way that they were actually painted. He thinks if the painter had captured her smiling face, it could have spoiled its entire appeal. The lips are aloft as if they are like honey-filled buds of hyacinth. Besides, the speaker thinks the lips are leaning on one another in a way that it seems she wants to kiss. She not only wants to kiss but also wants to capture the moment between her beautiful lips, apart from opening wide to laugh.

Lines 11-13

Then her lithe neck, three fingers might surround,

How it should waver on the pale gold ground,

Up to the fruit-shaped, perfect chin it lifts!

In these lines, the speaker focuses on the woman’s soft and sensitive neck. He thinks about what might happen when a person surrounds her neck with his three fingers. Again using a rhetorical exclamation, the speaker expresses his awe at the overall beauty of the image. He speculates how the neck would quiver if one touches that. The woman’s neck would start wavering against the pale gold background up to her “perfect chain.” Browning uses the image of ripe fruits in order to illustrate the woman’s chin. The term “perfect” alongside the rhetorical exclamation hints at the speaker’s fascination with perfection and beauty.

Lines 14-22

I know, Correggio loves to mass, in rifts

Of heaven, his angel faces, orb on orb

Breaking its outline, burning shades absorb:

But these are only massed there, I should think,

Waiting to see some wonder momently

Grow out, stand full, fade slow against the sky

(That’s the pale ground you’d see this sweet face by),

All heaven, meanwhile, condensed into one eye

Which fears to lose the wonder, should it wink.

In the last few lines of ‘A Face,’ Browning alludes to one of the famous 16th-century painters from Italy, Antonio da Correggio, and his works. According to the speaker, Correggio massed the faces of angels in the background of heaven. He placed each face upon another in a manner that even broke the outlines. In this way, the burning shades from heaven are absorbed by the faces. The speaker is of the view that those luminous angel faces are massed into the painting of the woman.

The speaker waits for the moment when some wonder grows out of the lady’s visage. This light will stand full and fade slowly against the sky as well as the pale gold background of the image. Further glorifying the image, the speaker says that all heaven is condensed into one eye of the woman. She fears to wink as then, she thinks, the wonder in her eyes would be lost.

Structure and Form

‘A Face’ is a 22-line poem without any stanza divisions. All the lines are packed into a single stanza with a number of internal movements. Browning uses a set rhyme scheme and meter in the poem. The rhyme scheme of the overall poem is ABABCDCDEEFFGGHHIJKKKI. As we can see, the first eight lines contain an alternative rhyming pattern. The subsequent lines rhyme in groups of two. Lines 19 through 21 end with the same rhyme. Regarding the meter, Browning’s poem is composed in iambic pentameter. It means each line contains five iambic feet or iambs having the unstressed-stressed sound pattern.

Literary Devices

In ‘A Face,’ Browning makes use of the following literary devices:

  • Allusion: In the third line, Browning alludes to “Tuscan’s early art,” which is a reference to Renaissance art. There is also a reference to a famous Italian painter Antonio da Correggio in the poem. After reading the poem, it seems the speaker is fascinated with one portrait from the High Italian Renaissance.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of the initial consonant sounds in closely placed words can be found in “head of hers,” “matchless mould,” “pure profile,” “she loves so,” “gold ground,” etc.
  • Metaphor: There is a metaphor in the expression, “matchless mould/ Of those two lips.” Through this phrase, Browning compares the lady’s lips to “mould.” Besides, he also compares the lips to the “honey-colored buds” of hyacinth.
  • Hyperbole: Throughout the poem, Browning uses a number of hyperbolic expressions in order to glorify the lady’s beauty. Some examples of hyperboles include “No shade encroaching on the matchless mould,” “But these are only massed here,” and “All heaven, meanwhile, condensed into one eye.”


Historical Context

Robert Browning wrote the poem ‘A Face’ in a poetic response to The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore. He composed the verse in the year 1852 for Emily Patmore, the wife of his fellow poet. Browning’s wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning copied the poem around the time Robert gave the piece to Emily. In 1864, he revised the poem to publish it in one of his best-known poetry collections entitled Dramatis Personae. Twelve years later, he gave the poem to his friend Ms. Fitzgerald. Through this poem, Browning celebrates Victorian beauty as defined by one woman’s facial features.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘A Face’ by Robert Browning about?

Robert Browning’s poem ‘A Face’ is about a Renaissance portrait of a woman whose facial features fascinate the speaker, a connoisseur of art. In hyperbolic terms, he describes the lady’s facial beauty, starting from her lips and ending with her wonderful eyes. This poem reveals the poet’s fascination with physical beauty that represents the beauty of one person’s soul.

When did Robert Browning write ‘A Face’?

Robert Browning first wrote the poem in 1852 for his fellow poet’s muse and wife, Emily Patmore. Later, Browning revised the poem in order to publish it in his collection, Dramatis Personae, in 1864.

What is the theme of ‘A Face’ by Robert Browning?

In ‘A Face,’ Browning taps on the theme of the immortality of beauty and art. Through this piece, how a woman’s facial expressions as depicted in a painting persists even if several years have passed. Still, the portrait does not fail to fascinate the speaker.

What type of poem is ‘A Face’ by Robert Browning?

‘A Face’ is a rhymed and regularly metered poem centered on the Victorian definition of beauty. There are a total of twenty-two lines in the poem that are packed into a single stanza. The poem follows a strict rhyme scheme and is composed in iambic pentameter.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that tap on the themes present in ‘A Face’ by Robert Browning or you can also consider exploring more Robert Browning poems.

You can also read these incredible poems about beauty.

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A Face by Robert Browning
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
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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