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Courtesy “Elise” on flickr

But were I loved as I desire to be!

What is there in the great sphere of the earth,

Or range of evil between death and birth,

That I should fear, – if I were loved by thee!

All the inner, all the outer world of pain,

Clear love would pierce and cleave, if thou wert mine;

As I have heard that somewhere in the main

Fresh-water springs come up through bitter brine.

‘I were joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee,

To wait for death – mute – careless of all ills,

Apart upon a mountain, though the surge

Of some new deluge from a thousand hills

Flung leagues of roaring foam into the gorge

Below us, as far on as eye could see.

The Rhyme Scheme:

The first thing which strikes me is the complex rhyme scheme. He has written a sonnet, but I don’t know the name for this rhyme scheme:

A-B-B-A

C-D-C-D

E-F-G-F-G-E

What is interesting is how he uses the rhyme scheme to underscore the sense.

Here is the first stanza:

But were I loved as I desire to be!

What is there in the great sphere of the earth,

Or range of evil between death and birth,

That I should fear, – if I were loved by thee!

The first and last lines rhyme and specifically reference the love. The middle lines rhyme and mention what would not be feared.

The second stanza has alternating rhymes. This stanza breaks down into parallel propositions:

All the inner, all the outer world of pain,

Clear love would pierce and cleave, if thou wert mine;

As I have heard that somewhere in the main

Fresh-water springs come up through bitter brine.

The final sestet

‘I were joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee,

To wait for death – mute – careless of all ills,

Apart upon a mountain, though the surge

Of some new deluge from a thousand hills

Flung leagues of roaring foam into the gorge

Below us, as far on as eye could see.

The first and last lines rhyme and both refer to the physical participation with the beloved. The middle lines draw together what they jointly see. (Although this does not perfectly work with lines 10-11a.)

And so the rhyme scheme helps provide instruction on how to read the poem.

The First Stanza

But were I loved as I desire to be!

What is there in the great sphere of the earth,

Or range of evil between death and birth,

That I should fear, – if I were loved by thee!

The initial stanza sets out the basic proposition of the whole: If I were so loved, I would not fear.

The love is defined twice, “as I desire to be”. This is ambiguous and standing alone sounds merely self-centered. But the further definition moves this from something self-centered, “If I were loved by thee.

This is the “If.”

The “then” is fear. Fear is defined first by location

What is there in the great sphere of the earth,

Then by time (the duration of his life)

Or range of evil between death and birth,

That I should fear, –

What is not answered here is why he would not fear. That comes next.

The Second Stanza

All the inner, all the outer world of pain,

Clear love would pierce and cleave, if thou wert mine;

As I have heard that somewhere in the main

Fresh-water springs come up through bitter brine.

Love has the capacity to “pierce and cleave” pain wherever it might be found:

All the inner, all the outer world of pain,

Clear love would pierce and cleave,

Notice the subtle shift here from fear to pain. I would fear something because it would bring about pain. He has moved from the cause to the result. But since love can obviate pain, he has no need to fear some circumstance. He will not feel the pain because he feels the love.

Again, the condition: if thou wert mine;

He now provides the prove and illustration of the proposition that love drives out fear:

As I have heard that somewhere in the main

Fresh-water springs come up through bitter brine.

I have heard of this circumstance in which a fresh-water spring pushed out the salt water. The idea here is that one cannot experience the depth of love and feel fear in the same moment. If I am filled with love, then I will not fear.

This concept comes from 1 John 4:18, which in the KJV (which Tennyson would have known) reads

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love

And so Tennyson is appropriating a concept which the Apostle John used of God’s love and applies the same psychology to human love. If I am filled with love to you and love from you, I will not fear anything in this life. Tennyson also stops short of misappropriating John’s logic, because John is referencing the fear of judgment to come. Tennyson does not say that love of a woman will stave off future judgment. He carefully limited this power to his life and this world.

The Sestet

‘I were joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee,

To wait for death – mute – careless of all ills,

Apart upon a mountain, though the surge

Of some new deluge from a thousand hills

Flung leagues of roaring foam into the gorge

Below us, as far on as eye could see.

I could wait for death with joy and not be afraid if I were with you “clasped hand in hand with thee”.

He then specifies what could befall them as they wait:

Apart upon a mountain, though the surge

Of some new deluge from a thousand hills

Flung leagues of roaring foam into the gorge

Below us,

And this would spread out “as far eye could see.”

If you were to love me, I could be ennobled, heroic. To love you, to be loved by you would make me a morally better man. We could face the world together.

That last move in the sestet is interesting, because he says that the love would make her brave, too.

‘I were joy, not fear, clasped hand in hand with thee,

To wait for death – mute – careless of all ills,

Apart upon a mountain,

They together would be brave. Their love would be mutually strengthening. This is appropriate, because it would not be love if it were simply centered upon him alone.