Out of your whole life give but one moment!
All of your life that has gone before,
All to come after it, – so you ignore,
So you make perfect the present, – condense,
In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,
Thought and feeling and soul and sense –
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 our life-time’s one moment you love me!
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!
Okay, so what is the first thing you notice when you see this poem for the first time? Your answer should be simple; the amount of lines there are, which of course, is fourteen. What does that tell you? It should make you think about a poem with fourteen lines, with a roughly equal amount of stresses on each line and make you think Sonnet straight away without even looking. Count them, as you say out loud each word on the first line and you see [or hear] or even count ten, just like those famous Shakespearean sonnets like number 18 which asks”Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” It is like seeing an old friend once again for anyone who has read sonnets, or even written them before now [I used to teach Sonnet 18 by the Bard and get Y8 to write a love sonnet to each other – and then a hate filled one as well, just for a chuckle].
So, we are in the world of sonnets, fourteen lines and possibly, in places, some iambic pentameter. But what is the poem all about? That is the question, as the Bard would ask. Well, in essence, it is in the LOVE section of the anthology, so we have to assume there is some link to passion, emotion, love, etc. So, we begin with the first line, as we have before now and see the words “Out of your whole life give but one moment!” To whom is the poet speaking? Is he speaking to a person, as if this is written for someone special, as all good sonnets should be? I hope so, for the next line clarifies why the first was written because it says that if out of your life, you are in a position to offer one golden moment to someone or something, then all “of your life that has gone before” will not matter for the love you feel in that special moment will be so heavenly that everything that came before it will simply not matter. Indeed, the poet goes on to stress that all that is “to come after it” will be ignored as you make this one special moment in the present so special that you will never forget it.
There is a saying that your wedding day is the best day of your life. It could be that you disagree, having been divorced, but there will have been a day you can relate to when time itself seemed to stop. For me, that was when I was in my teens and I met the first love of my life. That love, in that moment, was and remains special to me. I made “perfect the present.” I still remember to that day how things that normally meant something to me did not matter any more. Just being with that girl was the essence of my life and now, as I look back on that time [and how I was unceremoniously dumped] I can see how the next bit of the poem makes such perfect sense.
When it is going good, we “condense” time. It seems like it is all happening on slow motion replay film. But then, when it is gone, there is the “rapture of rage” which seems an oxymoron of a statement to make, but this can happen when in love and when out of it too. It is a state of perfection when love takes over your life to that extent, so here is Browning, if indeed he is meaning it from him, expressing his undying devotion to that woman in his life. Considering who he was married to [Google her] I am not surprised at his comments here.
The phrase “for perfection’s endowment” may seem a strange one, but if you look it up, it is not that hard to understand. An endowment can be a policy you take out to protect your home or assets. Is he saying here that this love is protected by the sense that he feels it is a perfect love, that the love of his life is nothing short of perfection in his eyes and that because of that, his soul is protected from the potential harm that can befall a man when he loses that special love? It certainly is possible. After all, he sees that in that time when “thought and feeling and soul and sense” are bound in love and “merged in a moment” so special, then that is perfection. That is what they mean by the term “true love.”
Consider the next words carefully because they are important because this state of grace he feels he is in gives him a sense of something lasting in his life, because the woman he loves is being engulfed by his mind, his soul, his thoughts, his body, his whole self. Now some may feel threatened by that from a man [or woman] when one is loving another. That can happen and it can feel threatening, but this sensation of love he is feeling is bound in love as he sees and feels her presence all around him. I know that when I am separated from my wife, who I have been married to for thirty years now, I feel a sense of loss. It is almost like grief because I cannot be with her to share her life. When she is at work, it is torture for me. But I still manage to feel her presence even though she is not there physically. I can feel her “around me” and “above me” in the sense that she is such a huge part of my life. Such is the power of love one person can have for another.
It is a rather special moment when you can feel and know that someone else loves you and here, in this poem, Browning is sharing that thought so well. He tells his love that in this “tick of our life-time’s one moment you love me!” What more in life can be better than that? It is, for him, and for those who love, a “sweet” and “eternal” moment “just that and no more.” That moment is in itself a form of bliss, a time when the heart and the mind and the body seem to be in harmony with each other. We can wax lyrical about love. We can even be blase about it, but in the end, love is not a feeling, it is an act of the will. We need to remember that. He chooses to love this person in this manner and hopefully, she reciprocates that love with ardour and affection.
For this man, there is one special moment when the two of them meet together in embrace, or as he says, “when ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core, while cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut and lips meet!” For those who love, for those who choose to share love, and for those who have felt the pang of love on their heart, this is one beautiful sonnet.