Excerpt from the Commentary:
Understanding & Our Biggest Self-Doubt
by Ellen Reiss
about Robert Browning
Browning and Proud Dissatisfaction
Another way of putting the biggest self-doubt we have is: I haven't been fair enough! I haven't yet been just to this thing, this person! I need to keep trying! The more we welcome this doubt — in fact, the more we love it — the better and prouder a person we are.
A writer who stands for this "I haven't yet been fair!" as equivalent to one's greatest triumph, is Robert Browning. Again and again in the work of Browning there is a saying: I haven't been just to something — and my dissatisfaction with myself for this makes me happy; because what I'm going after is big and beautiful, not petty and cheap. There is his statement in "Rabbi Ben Ezra," "What I aspired to be, / And was not, comforts me" (ll.40-41). The way of Browning is so different from the love-yourself-as-you-are approach of current counselors; and it is Browning, with his hate of narrowness and complacency, who is correct.
A poem of his brings together the subjects of this TRO: domesticity, understanding, and self-dissatisfaction. Though it hasn't been seen this way, Browning's "Love in a Life" has terrifically practical, urgent meaning for couples now. Mr. Siegel is the critic who saw that it is about the desire to understand a person one is close to.
Mainly, in love and marriage, man and woman have not been interested in knowing the depths of each other. That is because their purpose has not been to go after truth, but to be made by one another more important than humanity, reality, truth. Yet we can never love a person who does not want to know us. The Browning poem begins:
|Room after room, |
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her —
Next time, herself! — not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
This is a saying: There is such a thing as who a person truly is that I want to find. "Herself" is different from the way she may please me or "the trouble" she may cause me. I want to find what she is; get to it; know it! Browning expresses this unusual, necessary, loving desire to know another with the jutting and deep poetic music that is his.
Then he says, This person makes things seem pleasing to me, and taking: "As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew;/Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather." And yet, he says in the next lines, I shouldn't stop at that — stop at what she shows and how she can affect me. The search to comprehend the depths of a person is described as the going through a house, looking for her:
|Yet the day wears, |
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune —
Range the wide house from the wing to the center.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
"She goes out as I enter" because it is exceedingly hard to know a person — the full knowing of her eludes one. Also, a woman, or anyone, can want not to be known, can feel she is more important hiding and fooling people. But Browning says — and here dissatisfaction and satisfaction, doubt and confidence, become grandly the same — the trying to understand a person, even as one fails, is the greatest pleasure!:
|Spend my whole day in the quest — who cares? |
But 'tis twilight, you see — with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!