Robert Browning

Confessions by Robert Browning

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Confessions,’ as the title says, is written in the confessional mode and is about a speaker’s secretive meetings with a girl.

The poem ‘Confessions’ by Robert Browning is a dramatic monologue that captures a lover’s confession regarding his secretive meetings with a girl. It was originally published in Browning’s 1864 collection of poetry entitled Dramatis Personae. Through this poem, Browning shows how the very act of love appears to be an essential need of humans. No matter how religion forbids such stealthy episodes of sweet lovemaking, the speaker finds those memories quite cherishing even though he is in front of a church reverend, confessing his sins.

Confessions
Robert Browning

What is he buzzing in my ears?
"Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?"
Ah, reverend sir, not I!

What I viewed there once, what I view again
Where the physic bottles stand
On the table's edge,—is a suburb lane,
With a wall to my bedside hand.

That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
From a house you could descry
O'er the garden-wall; is the curtain blue
Or green to a healthy eye?

To mine, it serves for the old June weather
Blue above lane and wall;
And that farthest bottle labelled "Ether"
Is the house o'ertopping all.

At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl: I know, sir, it's improper,
My poor mind's out of tune.

Only, there was a way... you crept
Close by the side, to dodge
Eyes in the house, two eyes except:
They styled their house "The Lodge."

What right had a lounger up their lane?
But, by creeping very close,
With the good wall's help,—their eyes might strain
And stretch themselves to Oes,

Yet never catch her and me together,
As she left the attic, there,
By the rim of the bottle labelled "Ether,"
And stole from stair to stair,

And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas,
We loved, sir—used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was—
But then, how it was sweet!
Confessions by Robert Browning


Summary

In ‘Confessions,’ Browning presents a religious speaker who confesses how he regularly met a girl secretly and spent time with her in her attic.

The poem begins with a speaker confessing in front of a silent church reverend who remains present throughout in the form of the audience. From the way the speaker narrates his tale, it seems he is quite fond of the memories. By referring to some bottles kept in his room in a specific way, he draws a comparison between how he stored the memories in his mind’s library. There was a house by the suburb lane. From his room’s window, he could see the house. A girl lived there with whom he fell in love. They regularly met and maintained secrecy as others would not allow it. Their meetings went on in a smooth fashion. As an adult, when he thinks about those days, it makes the speaker feel bad and sad at the same time.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-8

What is he buzzing in my ears?

“Now that I come to die,

Do I view the world as a vale of tears?”

Ah, reverend sir, not I!

What I viewed there once, what I view again

Where the physic bottles stand

On the table’s edge,—is a suburb lane,

With a wall to my bedside hand.

In the first quatrain of ‘Confessions,’ Browning introduces the speaker of the poem. Through his remarks, the audience can guess where he is or what he is doing. He is at a church and probably confesses his early sins to a clergyman. In a rhetorical way, he gives a hint at what the clergyman has asked.

He has been asked whether he views his life’s tribulations as a “vale of tears,” a biblical allusion. Besides, the person is old, and he is about to die. By negating such a view, he declares that on the verge of his life, he still does not believe his life in this world to be a futile sojourn. This valley is not merely filled with pain and suffering.

What he viewed throughout his life and what he could visualize again pretty clearly are the sweet memories of his youth. He compares those memories to the “physic bottles” kept with due care on the table in his room. He can clearly remember a suburb lane that went from his house. The lane could be seen from his bedside window.

Lines 9-16

That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,

From a house you could descry

O’er the garden-wall; is the curtain blue

Or green to a healthy eye?

To mine, it serves for the old June weather

Blue above lane and wall;

And that farthest bottle labelled “Ether”

Is the house o’ertopping all.

By comparing the lane to the bottles’ curvature, the first-person speaker describes how it sloped from a house. He could clearly visualize this house over the garden wall. In these lines, the speaker addresses the reverend by using the pronoun “you.” This highlights that there is another person (the reverend) present throughout the confession.

As the speaker is old, it is a bit hard for him to remember the color of the curtain. He asks what the color of the curtain was or how it appeared to him when was youthful and healthy. The reference to the colors “blue” and “green” symbolizes the pacifying and youthful memories of the speaker.

To the speaker’s eyes, the curtain resembles the color of the June weather. Back then when he was young, the curtain appeared to be more brightly tinted with blue. Again the speaker draws the readers’ attention to another “physic bottle” kept in his room. The bottle is labeled “Ether.” He compares this bottle to the house that overtopped all in the locality. Metaphorically, the bottle represents the house or the room that he is referring to. The ether represents the memories associated with the room or the person who lived there.

Lines 17-24

At a terrace, somewhere near the stopper,

There watched for me, one June,

A girl: I know, sir, it’s improper,

My poor mind’s out of tune.

Only, there was a way… you crept

Close by the side, to dodge

Eyes in the house, two eyes except:

They styled their house “The Lodge.”

The speaker of ‘Confessions’ describes how at the terrace of the house near the stopper, a girl watched for him one June. From the repetition of the month’s name (June), it seems the speaker is specifically drawing attention to the incidents that happened in that particular month of the year. It might not have lasted long.

Now, he digresses a bit from the main topic and confesses to the church reverend that he is aware of the fact that such a thing is improper. His ailing mind could be out of tune or not in a good state. This is why he thinks this memory of the girl never leaves him. From the way, he confesses about that incident, it does not seem he adheres to the moral codes, but there is guilt in his heart.

In the following stanza, he again dives into the memory. He can still remember how there was a way that he used to stealthily climb up the room. He made sure that nobody watched him creeping into the room in that fashion. Besides, the house was named “The Lodge.” From the name, it could be assumed that it was a small country house.

Lines 25-36

What right had a lounger up their lane?

But, by creeping very close,

With the good wall’s help,—their eyes might strain

And stretch themselves to Oes,

Yet never catch her and me together,

As she left the attic, there,

By the rim of the bottle labelled “Ether,”

And stole from stair to stair,

And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas,

We loved, sir—used to meet:

How sad and bad and mad it was—

But then, how it was sweet!

In a confessional fashion, the speaker asks what right he had as a lounger up their lane. Besides, at that time, it was not morally correct to have an affair with a girl in that way. However, he climbed the room with the help of the wall. In a humorous way, he describes how others would have reacted if they had ever found out what he was doing there. He says how they might strain their eyes in “Oes” in anger and disbelief.

They never caught the speaker and the girl together. After their secret meeting was over, she would leave the attic and quickly come down the stairs. Then she used to stand by the rose-covered gate to see him go. Again, the speaker highlights how the room was like the “Ether” kept in the bottle. It was sweet and intoxicating to spend time with the girl.

In the final stanza, the speaker confesses that they loved each other. They used to meet in that secretive fashion. He admits it was bad. Now, he feels sad to think about those “mad” days. At that time, it felt sweet, just like the intoxicating and pleasant-smelling “Ether.”

Structure and Form

Browning’s ‘Confessions’ comprises nine quatrains or four-line stanzas. There is a precise rhyme scheme in the poem that is the alternative ABAB scheme. Browning also uses a set meter throughout. The first and third lines are in iambic pentameter, and the rest of the lines of each stanza are composed in iambic trimeter. There are a few variations as well. Regarding the form, this poem is an example of a dramatic monologue. It could also be regarded as a lover’s nostalgic soliloquy. In the poem, there is a silent listener (the reverend), and the lover is the only speaker. The whole poem is composed from his perspective.

Literary Devices

In ‘Confessions,’ Browning uses the following literary devices:

  • Enjambment: There are a number of run-on lines that add variations to the poem’s flow. For instance, enjambment is used in the first three lines of the second stanza: “What I viewed there once, what I view again/ Where the physic bottles stand/ On the table’s edge.” This makes readers go through the lines quickly.
  • Caesura: The use of metrical pauses or caesuras add life to the narrator’s speech. For example, the use of commas in “That lane sloped, much as bottles do,” makes the line sound more natural.
  • Rhetorical Question: The speaker asks a number of rhetorical questions to the silent churchman. In the beginning, Browning uses two such questions in order to give context to the audience.
  • Metaphor: In the poem, Browning specifically uses the term “Ether” or the bottle containing the substance as a metaphor for the youthful memories of the speaker. It is used to specifically refer to the affair he had with the girl.


Theme

In ‘Confessions,’ Browning presents a speaker who nostalgically remembers his affair with a girl. They loved each other and met in secret. As an old man, who is on the verge of death, it feels good to recollect those memories. Yet there is a sense of guilt in his heart as, at that time, it was not morally correct to meet the girl in the way he chose. With this story of the speaker, Browning tries to explore the themes of love, youth, nostalgia, and morality. The main theme of the poem is that love is the basic need of human beings. When one is in love, they do not care about others’ approval. The “mad” things one does in love could be morally incorrect, but for the doer, everything feels right.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Confessions’ by Robert Browning about?

Robert Browning’s poem ‘Confessions’ is about an old speaker who is confessing his sins in front of a church reverend. He is asked whether the time he had in this world until that point in his life is futile. In answer, he shares a sweet memory of his youth in order to highlight life’s vitality and love’s power.

What does the phrase “vale of tears” mean in ‘Confessions’ by Robert Browning?

The phrase “vale of tears” occurs in the third line of the poem ‘Confessions.’ It is a Christian phrase that is used to refer to the world as a scene of trouble and sorrow. In the poem, the speaker reiterates what he has been asked during the confession. He rejects the notion that his life in this world is not entirely filled with grief, suffering, and pain.

What type of poem is ‘Confessions’ by Robert Browning?

Browning’s ‘Confessions’ is a dramatic monologue. In this poem, there is a first-person speaker, an elderly Christian, who confesses his sins in front of a church reverend. The reverend is present throughout the poem as a mute listener. This makes the poem an example of a dramatic monologue. Besides, Browning uses the alternative ABAB rhyme scheme and composed the poem in iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter.

When was ‘Confessions’ by Robert Browning published?

The poem was first published in one of the best-known poetry collections by Robert Browning, Dramatis Personae (1864). He wrote the poem in the 1860s when he was living in London with his son after his wife’s death.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of some interesting love poems that revolve around the themes present in Browning’s poem ‘Confessions.’ You can also consider exploring some more poems by Robert Browning.

You can also read these memorable poems about unrequited love.

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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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