At the 18th stanza the figure is changed, and Mr. Browning speaks of his work (by implication) as a stretch of country which is moor above and mine below; and in which men will find—what they dig for.
“HOUSE” is written in much the same spirit as “At the Mermaid.” It reminds us that the whole front of a dwelling must come down before the life within it can be gauged by the vulgar eye; however we may fancy that this or that poetic utterance has unlocked the door—that it opens to a “sonnet-key."
“SHOP” is a criticism on those writers, poets or otherwise, who are so disproportionately absorbed by the material cares of existence as to place the good of literature in its money-making power; and depicts such in the character of the shopman who makes the shop his home, instead of leaving it for some mansion or villa as soon as business hours are past. “The flesh must live, but why should not the spirit have its dues also?”
“RESPECTABILITY” is a comment on the price paid for social position. A pair of lovers have been enjoying a harmless escapade; and one remarks to the other that, if their relation had been recognized by the world, they might have wasted their youth in the midst of proprieties which they would never have learned the danger and the pleasure of infringing. The situation is barely sketched in; but the sentiment of the poem is well marked, and connects it with the foregoing group.
“A LIGHT WOMAN,” “DIS ALITER VISUM,” and “BIFURCATION” raise questions of conduct.
A man desires to extricate his friend from the toils of “A LIGHT WOMAN;” and to this end he courts her himself. He is older and more renowned than her present victim, and trusts to her vanity to ensure his success.
But his attentions arouse in her something more. He discovers too late that he has won her heart. He can only cast it away, and a question therefore arises: he knows how he appears to his friend; he knows how he will appear to the woman whom his friend loved; “how does he appear to himself?” In other words, did the end for which he has acted justify the means employed? He doubts it.
“DIS ALITER VISUM” records the verdict of later days on a decision which recommended itself at the time: that is, to the person who formed it. A man and woman are attracted towards each other, though she is young and unformed; he, old in years and in experience; and he is, or seems to be, on the point of offering her his hand. But caution checks the impulse. They drift asunder. He forms a connection with an opera-dancer. She makes a loveless marriage. Ten years later they meet again; and she reminds him of what passed between them, and taxes him with the ruin of four souls. He has thought only of the drawbacks to present enjoyment, which the unequal union would have involved; he never thought or cared how its bitter-sweetness might quicken the striving for eternity.