Prospice by Robert Browning
performed by Robert Hardy
Fear death? - to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained.
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so - one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers,
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!
Interpretation by Martin Garrett
Robert Browning certainly saw himself as ‘a fighter’. He was daunted neither by critical neglect nor by Elizabeth Barrett’s initial reluctance to marry. And after her death in 1861 he worked on determinedly. The title 'Prospice' can be translated as ‘look forward’, and in this poem, published in 1864, Browning is looking forward to death, when he expects ‘I will clasp thee again’. Such optimism seems to contrast markedly with the religious doubt or searching of many Victorian writers. But the poet does not claim that there is anything easy about facing death. Instead he shows one way of coping. He gives the ‘Arch Fear’ a ‘visible form’ so that he can imagine taking him on in one last fight. ('Barriers’ and ‘guerdon’ suggest a tournament.) He continues to deploy the poet’s weapons of metaphor, rhyme and rhetoric. If that will carry him through to the beloved, never mind the details of theology: ‘And with God be the rest!’
Martin Garrett is a scholar and writer and the author of volumes on Byron, Mary Shelley and both Elizabeth and Robert Browning. He has taught on a number of undergraduate courses for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.