The Last Ride Together – Robert Browning

painter's honeymoon

The above painting has been a favorite since I first laid eyes on it as a kid – an incredibly tender portrait of a young married couple on their honeymoon, done by Sir Frederick Lord Leighton, an English pre-Raphaelite painter in the 19th century. The details are more vivid in a larger version, but I’m always struck but how delicately he holds her hand, and the attitude of complete trust with which she leans on him, every flow and line of her body and dress falling in to that movement.

I also always associated it with a favorite romantic poem – “The Last Ride Together” by Robert Browning. The old Victorian poets are still the masters of romance – this epic, delicate poem charged with love and longing is a childhood favorite – and it wasn’t until recently that I realized how appropriate it was that I’d always associated the intense tenderness of these two works (the painting and the poem) together, because there is in fact a connection – Leighton was commissioned by Robert Browning to design Elizabeth Browning’s gravestone.

In “The Last Ride Together,”  two lovers ride together before being parted.

I said–Then, dearest, since ’tis so,
Since now at length my fate I know,
Since nothing all my love avails,
Since all, my life seem’d meant for, fails,
Since this was written and needs must be–
My whole heart rises up to bless
Your name in pride and thankfulness!
Take back the hope you gave,–I claim
Only a memory of the same,
–And this beside, if you will not blame;
Your leave for one more last ride with me.

My mistress bent that brow of hers,
Those deep dark eyes where pride demurs
When pity would be softening through,
Fix’d me a breathing-while or two
With life or death in the balance: right!
The blood replenish’d me again;
My last thought was at least not vain:
I and my mistress, side by side
Shall be together, breathe and ride,
So, one day more am I deified.
Who knows but the world may end to-night?

Hush! if you saw some western cloud

All billowy-bosom’d, over-bow’d
By many benedictions–sun’s
And moon’s and evening-star’s at once–
And so, you, looking and loving best,
Conscious grew, your passion drew
Cloud, sunset, moonrise, star-shine too,
Down on you, near and yet more near,
Till flesh must fade for heaven was here!–
Thus leant she and linger’d–joy and fear!
Thus lay she a moment on my breast.

Then we began to ride. My soul
Smooth’d itself out, a long-cramp’d scroll
Freshening and fluttering in the wind.
Past hopes already lay behind.
What need to strive with a life awry?
Had I said that, had I done this,
So might I gain, so might I miss.
Might she have loved me? just as well
She might have hated, who can tell!
Where had I been now if the worst befell?
And here we are riding, she and I.

Fail I alone, in words and deeds?
Why, all men strive and who succeeds?
We rode; it seem’d my spirit flew,
Saw other regions, cities new,
As the world rush’d by on either side.
I thought,–All labour, yet no less
Bear up beneath their unsuccess.
Look at the end of work, contrast
The petty done, the undone vast,
This present of theirs with the hopeful past!
I hoped she would love me; here we ride.

What hand and brain went ever pair’d?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thought had been?
What will but felt the fleshly screen?
We ride and I see her bosom heave.
There’s many a crown for who can reach.
Ten lines, a statesman’s life in each!
The flag stuck on a heap of bones,
A soldier’s doing! what atones?
They scratch his name on the Abbey-stones.
My riding is better, by their leave.

What does it all mean, poet? Well,
Your brains beat into rhythm, you tell
What we felt only; you express’d
You hold things beautiful the best,
And pace them in rhyme so, side by side.
‘Tis something, nay ’tis much: but then,
Have you yourself what’s best for men?
Are you–poor, sick, old ere your time–
Nearer one whit your own sublime
Than we who never have turn’d a rhyme?
Sing, riding’s a joy! For me, I ride.

And you, great sculptor–so, you gave
A score of years to Art, her slave,
And that’s your Venus, whence we turn
To yonder girl that fords the burn!
You acquiesce, and shall I repine?
What, man of music, you grown gray
With notes and nothing else to say,
Is this your sole praise from a friend?–
‘Greatly his opera’s strains intend,
But in music we know how fashions end!’
I gave my youth: but we ride, in fine.

Who knows what’s fit for us? Had fate
Proposed bliss here should sublimate
My being–had I sign’d the bond–
Still one must lead some life beyond,
Have a bliss to die with, dim-descried.
This foot once planted on the goal,
This glory-garland round my soul,
Could I descry such? Try and test!
I sink back shuddering from the quest.
Earth being so good, would heaven seem best?
Now, heaven and she are beyond this ride.

And yet–she has not spoke so long!
What if heaven be that, fair and strong
At life’s best, with our eyes upturn’d
Whither life’s flower is first discern’d,
We, fix’d so, ever should so abide?
What if we still ride on, we two
With life for ever old yet new,
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity,–
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, for ever ride?

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