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Featured Poem: The Best Thing in the World by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Written by Rachael Norris, 29th June 2020

This week in our special series of poems to help us through the testing times ahead, Natalie Kaas-Pontoppidan, The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, shares her thoughts on The Best Thing in the World by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

 

The Best Thing in the World
What's the best thing in the world?
June-rose, by May-dew impearled;
Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;
Truth, not cruel to a friend;
Pleasure, not in haste to end;
Beauty, not self-decked and curled
Till its pride is over-plain;
Light, that never makes you wink;
Memory, that gives no pain;
Love, when, so, you're loved again.
What's the best thing in the world ?
— Something out of it, I think.
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
 
The title of this poem immediately caught my eye! I like thinking and speaking about life's best things: best books, best lines in books, best moments, best friends, etc. 'What's the best thing in the world?' feels like a question you could ask anyone, and through their answers get to know them better. In this poem, we get some possible answers, such as 'June-rose, by May-dew impearled/Sweet south-wind, that means no rain'. I can clearly picture this June-rose, and I'm interested in it being 'impearled' by dew in May. I wonder what we make of that?
'Truth, not cruel to a friend' makes me think about how honesty can be so difficult to get right. We expect the truth from our friends and yet, if it is not told with care, it can just as quickly ruin a friendship completely. It's interesting how each line here has got a 'no', a 'never' or a 'not' in it. The best thing in the world is truth - as long as it is not cruel to a friend. Or it's pleasure, as long as it is not in haste to end. I'd be interested to hear what other readers think about this? To me, the not-sentences kind of suggest that the best things in the world are quite difficult to get hold of. It's almost as if you're reaching for a particular pure version, which, for a moment, doesn't have a flipside, perhaps.
I love the lines that say, 'Light, that never makes you wink/Memory, that gives no pain/Love, when, so, you're loved again.' It feels true to me that however lovely memories may be, they, at the same time, remind me of what no longer is. It feels rare to have a pure, wonderful memory which doesn't also come with a slight notion of loss. The heart of the poem for me is this line: 'Love, when, so, you're loved again.' It almost feel like the language is struggling here, as if it is impossible to put into words. It's very different from the previous sentences. There is no 'not', but a 'when' that changes to a 'so'. Perhaps it's trying to say that when you love, it comes back around and you are loved in return?
The final line, 'Something out of it, I think' feels connected to this idea of the best things in the world being particular versions of truth, pleasure, beauty, light, memory and love. The best thing is perhaps not one thing, but something, a certain part, out of all things?

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