‘Living Beloveds’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

All are not taken; there are left behind
Living Belovèds, tender looks to bring
And make the daylight still a happy thing,
And tender voices, to make soft the wind:
But if it were not so – if I could find
No love in all this world for comforting,
Nor any path but hollowly did ring
Where ‘dust to dust’ the love from life disjoin’d;
And if, before those sepulchres unmoving
I stood alone (as some forsaken lamb
Goes bleating up the moors in weary dearth)
Crying ‘Where are ye, O my loved and loving?’ –
I know a voice would sound, ‘Daughter, I AM.
Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?’

I love the title of this poem. The use of the word “beloved” reminds me of Rumi’s use of it when referring to God. And so Barrett Browning’s phrase “Living Beloveds” for me invokes the notion that, though we may lose loved ones, the face of God is in everybody. There is certainly a sense of something divine at work in of the transformative power of these “Living Beloveds”, who are able to “make the daylight still a happy thing” and “to make soft the wind” with their tender looks and voices. I find it incredibly beautiful how the poet has made friendship divine here, and presents it to us as an infinite comfort when we lose a loved one.

But even “if it were not so”; even if one could find “no love in all this world for comforting”; even if one felt so depressed and alone that “‘dust to dust’ the love from life disjoin’d”, there would be a voice. I love this line that I just quoted — it is such a beautifully phrased expression of grief, describing how love can seem to have died, to have dissolved to dust, to have been removed from life along with the person who has died. Even if one stood alone before those “sepulchres unmoving” — those frighteningly solid, unmovable tombs; even if one felt like a “forsaken lamb” and went crying for “my loved and loving” through a hollow, emptily echoing world… there would be a voice.

“A voice would sound ‘Daughter, I AM./ Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?” This is the voice of God, and the divine answer to the question “‘Where are ye, O my loved and loving’”. To me, the speaker seems to be asking two questions here: where has their dead loved one gone, but also, I think, where has God gone. And the answer to both questions is “I AM” (which, of course, reminds us of “I am that I am” from Moses and the burning bush). God — and the dead — are not to be found in any specific location, he simply exists — he is existence — eternal and all-pervading.

And the final line, “Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?” is one that I am not sure I understand completely, but I find it quite fascinating. On a first reading, it felt to me like it means that the dead are in Heaven, with God, and that God is all that they need — like they have ‘become one’ with God. God can suffice for Heaven, and ought to suffice for us on earth, too. However, when I thought about it a little more, I starting thinking that of course God does not suffice for earth. In Heaven, God suffices because we are fit to go there. On earth, we are are still full of doubt and fear and capacity for evil and free will etc. On earth, God cannot suffice; godliness is a constant struggle on earth because of human nature. So now I think maybe this question should be read rather as a challenge, encouraging us to embrace the struggle to be better and make God suffice.

But I don’t think any of these last thoughts detract from the over-all comforting nature of this poem. Comfort was what I got from my first reading of it, and I still think that is its most powerful message.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh