5

"The First Time" by Elizabeth Browning:

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.
Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man's love!—more like an out-of-tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth
To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed
A wrong on thee. For perfect strains may float
'Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,—
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.

I don't understand the meaning of "may do and doat".

What exactly may great souls do? I understand that doat is an old form of dote (to love, to admire), but the overall meaning of the last line evades me.

  • Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. It doesn't work for me either. I mean, I understand what Browning is saying, but I feel like that last line must have had some deeper significance when it was written 150 years ago, which escapes us today. – Andrew Nov 11 '17 at 18:11
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It's a line heavily fraught with ambiguity.

Doat/dote itself is ambiguous: yes, it means "love", but it also means "behave or feel foolishly", and the latter meaning is dominant.

And the entire sonnet wavers in the object of its criticism—is it Elizabeth or Robert who is blamed for overhasty entry into a romantic relationship? In the opening statement it seems at first to be Robert, whose oath provoked the declaration; but then both seem to included in "quick-loving hearts". The second statement justifies, under the figure of the singer and his inadequate accompanying instrument, the likelihood of "loathing" as a consequence of Elizabeth's unworthiness; but lurking behind that figure is the fact that Elizabeth is herself a master-singer. At the time of their courtship Elizabeth was far more widely known and highly regarded than Robert, and there is considerable reason to believe that she strenuously resisted being reduced to a mere 'instrument' in his hands.

So despite the apologetic surface of the final quatrain ("I placed a wrong on thee"), which seems to cast Robert as the "great soul" capable of producing music from an out-of-tune viol, do and doat calls that in question: is it Robert or Elizabeth who behaves foolishly and self-destructively in embracing this love in such haste?

  • I think this answer may express a deeper ambiguity in the overall meaning of the poem (though I am reluctant to call upon biographical speculations to override a text). And I am intrigued by this more complex reading of the poem even though I am not sure that the text warrants it. In no way however, do I see how the lack of clarity in what verb is intended by "do" relates to an ambiguity about which of the two lovers (if either) is being criticized. Indeed, if there is any ambiguity about a wrong, the plural "souls" eliminates the wrong on the part of both lovers. – Jeff Morrow Nov 11 '17 at 19:38
  • @JeffMorrow E explicitly identifies herself with the instrument defaced, which implies that it is only R (such a man) who is to be counted among the great souls. Do is pretty clearly the act of eliciting perfect strains; but doat imputes folly to the great souls, and the plurals hearts and souls shake the singular references. – StoneyB Nov 11 '17 at 21:02
  • Stoney I agree that the plurals shake the singular references, but that "do" substitutes for "elicit perfect strains" strikes me as very strained indeed. The verb "elicit" appears nowhere in the text: the "perfect strains" float. "Love" or inflections is specified in the text three times. "Both may love and dote" or "R may love and dote" is where the fundamental ambiguity lies. – Jeff Morrow Nov 11 '17 at 21:18
  • @JeffMorrow Quickly loathe is metaphorically equated with laying down the defective viol snatched in haste, and the lasting troth and perfect strains with which they are respectively contrasted are likewise metaphorically equated. As to 'elicit': the perfect strains emerge only 'neath master-hands. – StoneyB Nov 11 '17 at 21:40
3

It is a poem, and poems suggest meaning rather than define it. So this is my interpretation.

First, "dote" has two meanings: (1) to think feebly, like a senile person, and (2) to love without proportion or sense. It always has a sense of foolishness.

Second, the overall thrust of the poem is that the author mistrusted the initial outburst of love (falling in love is seldom a highly rational process) and worried that the love expressed was not serious and so would not be long-lasting.

Third, "do" can stand for an understood but unspecified verb. As I interpret the poem, "do" here means "love seriously." She is saying that the silly aspects of falling in love, the "doting," can, for at least some people, coexist with serious caring and affection, "loving seriously."

Why not say that? It's a poem. "Love seriously and dote" has neither the meter nor consonance of "do and dote." The problem here is that the "do" is so highly allusive that the meaning is obscure.

  • 1
    Thank you very much, Jeff! You explained it perfectly and it is now clear to me. "Do and doat" is a powerful find by Liz Browning. Now I love this poem. – CowperKettle Nov 11 '17 at 18:44
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Just trying to understand what do means there. I think I'm with StoneyB.

To doat is to love foolishly or unreasonably, either by loving too lavishly or by bestowing one's love upon one who is unworthy of that love.

The generic verb do need not refer anaphorically to a specific verb. It can refer to an idea expressed earlier; the anaphora can be semantic.

For perfect strains may float
'Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,
— And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.

Consider the parallels in the analogy, with the master's hands on the strings echoed by "at one stroke":

Master musicians may bring forth perfect strains when playing an instrument unworthy of their skill.

And great souls may do (bring forth "perfect strains") when they are doating—bestowing their love on one who is not worthy of it.

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