A man’s reach should exceed his grasp: Browning

Andrea del Sarto
Andrea del Sarto

Poor Andrea del Sarto. A successful Italian painter who was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. We admire the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael while Andrea del Sarto is almost forgotten.  Yet that is what makes him more like most of us.

We may not be remembered outside our own circle of family and friends, but that does not take the edge off the desire and zeal with which you pursue your dreams and aspirations. We may not always get what we want, and we may want more if we do, but that is life. A constant yearning.

You may be asked to be practical and realistic, but can you give up all your desires? Can you imagine what life would be like if you abandoned all your dreams and aspirations?

It is all right to have high hopes even if they end in disappointment because one can’t live without hope.

That is what Robert Browning seems to be saying in his poem, Andrea del Sarto, a dramatic monologue where the painter in his old age is speaking to his beautiful, young, faithless wife. He says:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

He tells his wife, Lucrezia, who also serves as his model, “We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!”  It’s a clear admission of defeat, but he adds:

I am grown peaceful as old age to-night.
I regret little, I would change still less.
Since there my past life lies, why alter it?

He consoles himself with what he has.

Unlike him, Raphael and Michelangelo don’t have a beautiful wife, he says, even though he knows she has a lover. The poem ends with him asking his wife to go and see her lover, who is waiting for her  outside their house:

Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my Love.

It is a poem about an old man trying to come to terms with life, but for all his disappointments and his acceptance of his wife’s infidelity, he has not entirely given up hope.  For just before telling his wife to go and see her lover, he talks of heaven.

In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance–
Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,
Meted on each side by the angel’s reed,
For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me
To cover…

In heaven, perhaps, he will get a second chance, he says, and work alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

It is a tender, wistful poem about an old man who is knowing but still hoping against hope.

I love this poem , especially because of those two lines:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

That striving, that desire, is so human.

Browning’s poems may not be as widely read as they used to be.  But, at his best, he speaks for us memorably, eloquently. I love The Last Ride Together. It is one of the most romantic poems in the English language.

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?

Life is a constant yearning. Browning described that emotion with such passion and romance.

Born 200 years ago, Robert Browning (May 7, 1812 – December 12, 1889) at his best is unforgettable.

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