Click here to hear a reading of the poem.
(So why am I talking about love again? Because I’m tired of hearing people tell me I look tired or miserable. In short I’m tired of feeling tired. Logical? No? I don’t care.)
This poem has a sister poem called “Parting at Morning.” But I don’t want to talk about parting. Meetings are exciting. Partings can be beautifully sad or sadly beautiful, both of which are my usual preference, but I’m not in the mood to be sad. So, exciting things for now.
Now let’s imagine this man traveling on a boat, obviously all by himself, on a dark night and crossing quite a distance (“three fields”) to meet with his lover — a woman (this is Victorian poetry, and we know Browning wrote this for his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, so.) He braves the darkness and the distance to be with her. One can feel the excitement in the imagery in the third and fourth lines of the second stanza. In the darkness — a small light, and a soft familiar voice.
I’ve read some analyses of this poem, but not thoroughly because I do not like to be influenced heavily by what others say about this poem. I prefer to have my own understanding of any poem. We did read this in our poetry class some twenty years ago (ouch!), all I remember is the sound of my professor’s voice reading it. It was always relaxing.
This poem is often interpreted as having a male speaker because the poet is male. But read the poem again and imagine the speaker being a woman. Does that work for you? It certainly does for me.
Reading this poem in the 21st century, one may ask, why can’t the speaker be a woman? Surely, women can “gain the cove with pushing prow”? Women can cross “three fields” to get to the secret meeting place? I bet a lot of women have braved weather and distances to meet with a lover.
But whether the speaker is male or female is not my main point. My main point is actually quite simple: when you’re in love and you have to meet with the object of your affection, meeting in secret, especially at night, can have its excitement that for the moment you wish would never end.
But of course it ends. Duh.
I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.
I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!
But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.
And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”
So I jumped.
And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.
Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!
I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.
Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.
In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.
In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”
In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”
Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.
Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.
So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.
When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.
If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.
But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?
I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)
She decided not to ask him to meet up with her this time. No pressure. She knew he was busy. She would just wait for him to ask her out. And it happened on a Sunday morning. He invited her to have coffee with him. She was walking down the road going to the coffee shop when something told her to look behind, and sure enough, he was pulling up to let her inside the car.
She thought she had changed, that “it” was no longer there. Yet, as she sat next to him, and watched him drive, she realized, “it” was still there. That high-school-girl feeling of actually sitting next to the guy you really, really like. And she just sat there, not flirting, not trying to be cute, just enjoying the feeling of youth and excitement.
And that felt good. To know that even though she was now with somebody else, and he was with somebody else, and they could never be what they used to be, share what they used to share, that she could still feel like this when she’s with him .
She didn’t see him again after that Sunday coffee. Yet it was enough. She had her fill.