Human Life's Mystery

Table of contents

1. Human Life's Mystery

We sow the glebe,1.1 we reap the corn,1.2
We build the house where we may rest,
And then, at moments, suddenly,
We look up to the great wide sky,
Enquiring wherefore we were born…
For earnest, or for jest?
The senses folding thick and dark
About the stifled soul within
We guess diviner things beyond,
And yearn to them with yearning fond;10
We strike out blindly to a mark
Believed in, but not seen.
We vibrate to the pant and thrill
Wherewith Eternity has curled
In serpent-twine about God's seat;
While, freshening upward to His feet,
In gradual growth His full-leaved will
Expands from world to world.18
And, in the tumult and excess
Of act and passion under sun
We sometimes hear—oh, soft and far
As silver star did touch with star,
The kiss of Peace and Righteousness
Through all things that are done
God keeps his holy mysteries
Just on the outside of man's dream.
In diapason27 slow, we think
To hear their pinions rise and sink,
While they float pure beneath His eyes,
Like swans adown a stream.
Abstractions, are they, from the forms
Of His great beauty?—exaltations
From His great glory?—strong previsions
Of what we shall be?—intuitions
Of what we are—in calms and storms,
Beyond our peace and passions?
Things nameless! Which, in passing so,
Do stroke us with a subtle grace.
We say, "Who passes?"—they are dumb.
We cannot see them go or come.
Their touches fall soft—cold—as snow
Upon a blind man's face.42
Yet, touching so, they draw above
Our common thoughts to Heaven's unknown;
Our daily joy and pain, advance
To a divine significance, —
Our human love—O mortal love,
That light is not its own!
And, sometimes, horror chills our blood
To be so near such mystic Things,
And we wrap round us, for defence,
Our purple manners, moods of sense—
As angels, from the face of God,
Stand hidden in their wings.
And, sometimes, through life's heavy swound55
We grope them!—with strangled breath
We stretch our hands abroad and try
To reach them in our agony,—58
And widen, so, the broad life-wound
Which soon is large enough for death.

2. Note on the text

This work, first published in Poems (1850), the same year as Tennyson’s In Memoriam, speaks as his sequence does to the inner struggles associated with religious faith for many Victorians. Like the sonnet “The Soul’s Expression” (1844), it also reflects the strain of “mysticism” and the interest in “things out of sight” in her work that EBB’s friend Mary Mitford objected to (BC 6:219, 9:293-94). Nevertheless, EBB continued to champion the “mystical effluence of poetry” in writers such as “Tennyson, Wordsworth, [and] Keats” (BC 8:92). The evocation in this poem of “[t]hings “nameless” (l. 37), sensed only through ineffable “intuitions” (l. 34), is especially reminiscent of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807)—a work praised by EBB as a “grand ode” (BC 6:75)—with its testimony to “obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things / Fallings from us, vanishings” (ll. 141-43). Although Mermin (1989) suggests that EBB’s “religious poems do not doubt and rarely struggle” (p. 69), “Human Life’s Mystery” registers intervals of spiritual darkness, indeed of “agony” (l. 58). The “life-wound” of the poem’s conclusion may allude to the depths of wordless sorrow EBB experienced after the death by drowning of her dearest brother Edward or “Bro”.a.1 For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

glebe: earth or land.

corn: corn in English contexts is wheat or grain.

fond: foolish.

With its imagery of serpent and tree this stanza calls to mind humanity’s the loss of Eden (Genesis 2.15-3.24).

diapason: the interval of an octave or the consonance produced by the highest and lowest musical notes in the musical scale; more figuratively, as here, a complete concord or harmony made up of all tones or notes. EBB used the term to refer to heavenly harmonies; see “A Vision of Poets,” above, l. 445..

a blind man’s face: describing her secluded life, EBB described herself to RB as a “blind poet” attentive to “the inner life” but lacking in knowledge of the outer world (BC 10:133).

swound: swoon or loss of consciousness.

"We strech our hands . . . agony": Cf. the parallel metaphor of religious doubt, “I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope” in Section 55 of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850).

See the sonnet “Grief” (1844) and “Introduction” to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Selected Annotated Critical Edition, ed. Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor (Broadview Press, 2009).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 26-February-2009
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