One Word More is a tricky and difficult poem. I’m less confident in my interpretation than usual.
This is the last poem to appear in his collection, Men and Women. In the first stanza, he dedicates the collection to his wife. However, this is no average dedication; for as the rest of the poem reveals his poetic practice is intimately linked to his love for his wife.
Rafael the master painter wrote a collection of sonnets for his lover. The rest of the world sees a bunch of poems and admires his painting, but his lover to whom the sonnets are dedicated and inspired understands the deeper feeling and unity behind the whole volume. Browning tells us he and his wife would prefer to read Rafael’s sonnets than to view his esteemed paintings. Dante the poet tried to paint an angel under the inspiration of his love for Beatrice, but failed to complete the painting of because the idea of his much admired Inferno kept interrupting. The poet and his wife claim they would prefer to see that painting inspired by his love than spend their time reading Dante’s poetic masterpiece.
The poem makes an allusion to a biblical episode where Moses smites a stone to draw out water for the thirsty Hebrews who are unappreciative of the miracle, which is used to compare the way an artist never gets his proper due for his talents, but must suffer constant criticism and disrespect that cause him to devalue his talents.
Browning promises to stick to poetry to capture the love he bears for his wife. He declares that he wants to speak purely about his feeling and not in the voices of “Lippo, Roland, or Andrea” that have each featured as the speaker of a poem within the collection. All creatures have two sides, the one we face the world with and the one that we show the woman we love. The final stanza revisits the earlier imagery of Rafael writing a poem and Dante painting. Browning prefers their attempts at these other kinds of art to their normal domains and masterworks because it is based on love rather than the art that generally impresses the rest of the world.
Rafael who is normally praised for his painting is praised for his sonnets in this poem, while Dante who is normally praised for his poetry is celebrated for his painting. The poem suggests it is the motivations, the pure motivation of love, which transforms these artistic pursuits where these men have less skill into a superior art for sympathetic souls like Browning and his wife. The poem also warns about listening too much to the outside world’s thoughts. You can never please the critics, so why bother? Instead it is better to please someone who loves you and will appreciate your efforts. The true goal of art is to please one’s lover and enshrine those feelings forever. Likewise, this commentary on the nature of art creates a unity between the entire collection, which features many poems that explore the same theme.