Stefan Hawlin and Michael Meredith (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 15: Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day and Asolando
'Summum Bonum' ('The Supreme Good') excited more interest among the reviewers of Asolando than any other poem in the volume. It was quoted or reprinted in fifteen newspapers and magazines, accompanied by effusive praise; only one critic disliked it. It has maintained its popularity. In 1917 William Lyon Phelps considered it 'the most audacious poem of Browning's old age … a great and daring lyric.'1
It differs from most of Browning's lyrical poems in lacking a dramatic context. Instead, the speaker asserts in a single sentence that life's supreme good, in which the beauty, truth, and trust of the universe are concentrated, lies in a girl's kiss. The strength of expression, with its carefully modulated anapaests and trochees, helps the reader to accept the speaker's conviction. In earlier poems Browning had used a kiss as the climax of the perfect moment, but always in a carefully delineated setting and situation; in 'Meeting at Night' and 'Love among the Ruins' the kiss is the culmination of a journey towards the loved one, while in 'In a Gondola' the experienced lover experiments with different types of kiss during the mesmeric gondola ride which ends in his murder.
In a lighter vein the elderly Browning, when questioned by F. J. Furnivall in 1888 about his female admirers, replied, 'And as to the girls, God bless them, one would like to throw one's arms round them and kiss them [all], if one dared.'2 This playfulness characterizes some of his behaviour towards Margaret Keep about the same time— 'he just put his arms round me and kissed me as Father might and made me sit by him and held my hand.'3 'Summum Bonum', written around this date, expresses, therefore, strength of feeling which would pg 329be inappropriate or impossible for Browning to display in his daily life. Instead, he conjures up a single real moment from the past which he leads us to re-experience in the poem. This supports Phelps's remarks about the poem's audacity and daring.