Robert Browning’s ‘Now’ is a short lyric poem. Despite consisting of fourteen lines of roughly equal length, it conforms to neither the Petrarchan nor the Shakespearean sonnet style. The rhyming scheme is rather irregular, and although it contains some iambic pentameter, the syllable stresses are not completely consistent. Therefore, it can be considered an improvisation on the traditional sonnet and it deals with the theme of love.
The theme of ideal love was one that greatly preoccupied Browning, and can be found in ‘Now’. This lyrical sonnet provides the perfect frame in which to explore all the pleasure of life and love contained within one pure and perfect moment.
In 1846 Browning was married to the older poet Elizabeth Barrett whose work was, at the time, much more well-known than his own. They then began one of the most famous literary romances in history and we may therefore regard this poet as a dedication to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The concept of ideal love can be best described as two people perfectly complementing each other in such a way as to achieve harmony; a perfect union of love without flaw or difficulty. Therefore, by this very nature, it is ideal. Love of this type cannot realistically exist in everyday life, as a love of such purity could only survive isolated from the external factors of reality. Thus it finds its perfect home at the moment: an entity that is fleeting enough to be able to contain such perfection.
The poem is meta in that what it expresses in content, it mirrors in form. That is to say that the poem, in its improvisation on the norms of the standard sonnet, does not have much progression and seems to end more or less where it began. In this way, it reflects the very thing it describes: one ephemeral moment of loving union which, like ‘Now’, contains so much in such a small and brief entity. This poem is perfect in its condensation of the purest and most joyful aspects of love into a concise sequence of flowing verses. In fact, the way in which the lines smoothly run into each other, best appreciated when the poem is read aloud, render it one magnificently formed, isolated representation of ideal love.
Out of your whole life give but a moment!
All of your life that has gone before,
All to come after it, — so you ignore,
In these first three lines, Browning allows us to understand the poem’s title. He asks his lover to give him just one moment; one instance of complete ideal love which will render all the rest of their lives utterly insignificant. The poet shows here his awareness that ideal love can only exist for a fleeting moment and thus simply asks his lover to totally commit to the ephemeral now, in order to give sincerity and strength to the rest of their lives together.
So you make perfect the present, condense,
In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,
Thought and feeling and soul and sense,
In an interesting play on words, we may understand the idea of “make perfect the present” to be rendering the current moment flawless, however, we may equally regard it in a grammatical sense. In grammatical terms, the perfect tense indicates a completed action in the past, while the present tense refers to what is happening at the time. In this way, this moment of ideal love will, in a powerful swell of emotions – a “rapture of rage” – seal the past and protect it with an endowment of perfection. All of the details and attributes that make up the love between them is contained within the now, concentrated into one climactic and beautiful moment of ecstasy.
Merged in a moment which gives me at last
You around me for once, you beneath me, above me —
Me, sure that, despite of time future, time past,
This tick of life-time’s one moment you love me!
These lines, particularly the phrase “at last” draw attention to just how powerful is the brief achievement of ideal love. Although short-lived, this ecstatic union of the two has effects that touch not only the present moment, but also reach all that came before and all that is yet to come. Browning uses more physical language when he describes how his lover will totally surround him, showing how he will be utterly lost in her, in them, and in their love. This is the all-consuming desired effect; to be so completely positive of the love of the other that all past, present, and future doubts are eradicated. Their entire lives will be thus endowed with the protection and perfection of the moment.
How long such suspension may linger? Ah, Sweet,
The moment eternal — just that and no more —
When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core,
While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!
Here, Browning wonders how long he can feasibly prolong this utter immersion in the other, which takes them outside of their normal lives. He expresses his desire to live in the moment forever, a contradiction in terms since this would evidently undermine the point and purpose of such an instance. The phrase “just that and no more” can be seen as slightly ironic and highlights the impossibility of the aforementioned wish. Finally, he describes how when the two lovers reach this moment of ideal love they grasp at its very essence – “ecstasy’s utmost” – and he complements this with a final physical description of the two bodies meeting in a glorious corporeal expression of their union and harmony.
In ‘Now’, Robert Browning beautifully expresses his desire for a perfect union with his wife through the wonderfully poetic theme of ideal love. This short, lyric poem encapsulates the very best parts of the love between two people and attempts to irrevocably isolate these aspects in one isolated moment. Despite the apparent impossibility of this endeavour, Browning presents a nonetheless infinitely noble idea: the importance of focusing on the special moments in life and love; those which overpower all the impure and mundane attributes of everyday existence. Through the expression of this theme in poetry, Browning in some way rendered the love in his life eternal and untouchable.
About Robert Browning
Robert Browning (7 May 1812 – 12 December 1889) was an English poet and playwright. He was an exceptionally intelligent child, learning Greek, Latin, and French by the age of fourteen and penning a volume of Byronic verse at twelve years old. His first two published works, Pauline in 1833 and Sordello in 1840 were not well received and his plays were largely unsuccessful. Nevertheless, his uses of diction, rhyme, and symbols are widely considered to be significant and influential contributions to poetry. After reading her works and corresponding with her for a while, Browning married Elizabeth Barrett and the couple moved to Italy where they wrote and had their first and only child. Browning only received renown and critical acclaim after the death of his wife towards the end of his life and was rewarded honorary degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford.