The Last Ride Together and The Lost Mistress
These poems by Robert Browning are both written in the Victorian period, within a decade of each other: The Last Ride was published in 1855; The Lost Mistress ten years earlier in 1845. Whilst both poems show a very similar situation, the characters that Browning’s poetry creates are markedly different.
Both poems open in the middle of a conversation between two lovers as the woman calls an end to the relationship and both men appear to react similarly: “all my life seemed meant for fails” laments the speaker of The Last Ride; whereas The Lost Mistress opens with the wonderfully simple “All’s over, then”. Both men are seen here equating the love of their mistress as being “all”: it is all-encompassing and all-important and for it to be denied seems, in these lines, to doom more than just the relationship and the romance between the two but everything in the world. Indeed, in the second stanza of The Last Ride Together, Browning’s speaker comments and perhaps even wishes, almost off-handedly, that “the world may end to-night” as his mistress has consented to spend the evening with him on one last ride. However this lover does modify this sense of nihilism: his love was not what his life was meant for; it only “seemed” that it was meant for. Both men are also addressing this apparent despair to the mistress and, therefore, the objective reader may infer that this increased sense of loss could be little more than courteous flattery or an attempt to emotionally coerce the Mistress into taking the lover back.
The speaker in The Last Ride Together is much more serious in his view of love in a way which is disconcerting to a modern audience. He describes his mistress’ decision to end the relationship as his “fate” which is a word that has connotations of death and, further, he claims that her decision whether to acquiesce to the ride held “life or death in the balance” and that he so hoped for the ride that his heart stopped beating and it was only when she agreed that “The blood replenished me again”. In his language, therefore, the speaker seems to equate love with life and the denial of love with a form of death. Even the possession of love seems to be in some ways destructive of the man. His final ride allows him to be “one day more deified” and the presence of his mistress means that “flesh must fade for heaven is here” and bliss in love would “sublimate / My being”. All these phrases imply that the man will be changed, altered and remade into a more spiritual or more angelic form through the possession of love. The corollary of this, however, is the implication of the loss of or death of the physical or more bestial form.
In contrast, the lover in The Lost Mistress is much more reasonable: he imagines a life after the end of the love affair in which he and the woman are “mere friends”, albeit with a painful sense of loss. In the very simple language of that poem, he is able to imagine a “To-morrow” whereas the speaker in The Last Ride Together denies the prospect of a tomorrow in the anticipation that the world “may end” and wishes for the “instant made eternity”. He wishes to leave the past behind and yet never achieve a future but to remain in the present forever.
There is something that echoes Platonic and Christian in The Last Ride Together in the speaker’s sense of a division between the flesh and the spirit, the body and the soul. Indeed the opening four lines of stanza VI explicitly compare the high ambition of “brain”, “thought” and “will” to the weakness and failures of the “hand”, “act” and “fleshly screen”. Love is seen as being transformative and capable of changing the lover from mere impure flesh to pure spirit. In this sense, the speaker compares himself with the final achievements of the soldier, the statesman, the poet and sculptor and musician in order to exalt the power of both love and of his final ride with his Mistress. The soldier achieves only a “flag stuck on a heap of bones”; the poet’s “brains beat” out rhymes but leave him only “poor, sick, old ere your time” and no nearer the sublime; the musician’s achievements become stale and fall out of the “fashions” of the day. The speaker sees his own riding as a superior memorial and closer to the sublimation offered by love.
The speaker, additionally, derives comfort from this division of body and soul: being but frail and weak flesh, it is not his fault that he was unable to achieve the love that he had hoped for. In fact, he claims further relief from this: as “all men” are limited by their physical weaknesses, he sees himself as being one in community of men, all of whom “strive” but not one “succeeds”.
The lover in The Lost Mistress also attempts to derive comfort for the ending of the relationship. Very realistically, on hearing his mistress’ bad news, he initially distracts himself in his own surroundings, the “cottage” of his mistress. He hears the sparrows’ “good-night twitter” and notices the woolly “leafbuds” on the verge of bursting into leaf. In very economical language, Browning here identifies a very specific setting redolent with subtle meaning: it is rural cottage at evening in the springtime. The evening time seems wholly apt for the ending of the relationship as the day ends; whereas the vitality of springtime and potential vigour of the leafbuds being about to “burst” into new life could ironically imply that the relationship which is ending could have been a strong and powerful one which has been cut short. The lover also tells his mistress that her voice “when you wish the snowdrops back” will “stay in my soul for ever”. This subtle image may carry a number of meanings: as snowdrops flower much earlier in spring time, the reader may equate them with the relationship itself and infer that the mistress will come to regret her decision as much as the speaker, or to wish that the relationship was at its inception and full of potential rather than having proved itself to have failed.
The entirety of The Lost Mistress is a dramatic monologue addressed to the silent mistress. After the opening stanza of The Last Ride Together, however, Browning switches into a soliloquy: the speaker addresses the reader directly rather than the mistress, even switching to the second person in stanza III which opens with the direct address “Hush!” This difference in form is reflected in the language and form:
The Lost Mistress conjures a realistically imagined setting and relationship described in natural and conversational tones; The Last Ride Together is altogether more rhetorical and literary in its language and word choices as well as philosophical in its tone. The choice of words such as “deified” and “sublimated” belong more to a philosophical tract than a genuine conversation. Browning also uses the rhythm of his verse in The Last Ride Together to imitate the beating heart of the lover and the thumping hoofbeats of the horse, exploiting the shorter tetrametric lines, rhyming couplets and generally iambic rhythm to create the pace and pattern of the character. In stanza III the rhythm increases in pace, using internal rhymes and caesurae in order to create the sense of panic and fear as the mistress makes him wait for her answer. In contrast, the rhythms of The Lost Mistress uses the greater length between its rhymes on alternate pentametric lines in order to resemble more the rhythms of natural speech. This makes the final stanza’s statement that the speaker will resign himself to saying “what mere friends say / Or only a thought stronger” and holding his mistress hand “but as long as all may / Or so very little longer” such a tender and moving moment.
There is some debate about the nature of the ride in this poem: traditional interpretations read it simply as a horse ride, suggesting perhaps a rather higher class relationship than in The Lost Mistress. Another interpretation suggests that the ride in question is in fact a sexual ‘ride’ and refers the reader to the sensuousness of the Mistress’ actions as she “leant… and lingered” and lay for a moment “on my breast” and the depiction of the moment as the speaker sees her “bosom heave”. Indeed, the generally iambic rhythms could imitate the rhythm of the sexual act as much as the rhythm of a horseride. However, such an interpretation does neglect the courtesy that both men display towards their lost mistresses. Neither men harangues or berates the woman but both accept her wishes, the lover in The Last Ride Together even going so far as to “bless / Your name in pride and thankfulness”. Both men explicitly seek their lady’s permission to ride with her or to “take your hand in mine” making no assumptions based on their previous relationship. This courtesy would have been expected in the Victorian times in which Browning was writing, an era of strong social and moral expectations. It is only through inference that the reader recognises the bitterness with which the lover in The Last Ride Together repeats the word “Since” in the opening lines on that poem, or the pain behind the lover’s lament that “friends the merest / Keep much that I resign”. Courtesy of the time would also have almost precluded any sexual relations between men and women, making the sexual interpretation of The Last Ride Together unlikely. Indeed, the speaker’s attempts in stanza IX to imagine life with his mistress, had “fate” proposed that he should attain “bliss here”, lead him to “sink back shuddering from the quest”. The use of the word shuddering suggests a horror and fear of that final consummation, as does the rather strange distance between the speaker and the mistress in the poem: the reader is given only the barest description of her brow and “deep dark eyes” and even when he refers to her on the ride she is a distance away as he describes “yonder girl that fords the burn”. In contrast the presence of the mistress in The Lost Mistress is continually reinforced by the repetition of the second person pronoun as the speaker addresses her directly and the tenderness of his taking her hand.
In conclusion, these poems are two very different presentations and two reactions to the same situation. The Last Ride Together is perhaps less accessible to a modern audience in its philosophical and rhetorical tone which can alienate the reader from the sense of hurt and loss throughout it. The Lost Mistress is a beautifully controlled and realistic depiction of the lover’s reaction to being rejected.