Discontent, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Summary & Analysis

"Discontent" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores the fleeting and often irrational nature of human discontent, contrasting it with the eventual calm and acceptance that can be achieved through deeper understanding and spiritual insight. The poem examines the transitory nature of complaints and the transformative power of divine intervention in shaping human perspectives.

Discontent by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

LIGHT human nature is too lightly tost
And ruffled without cause, complaining on--
Restless with rest, until, being overthrown,
It learneth to lie quiet. Let a frost
Or a small wasp have crept to the inner-most
Of our ripe peach, or let the wilful sun
Shine westward of our window,--straight we run
A furlong's sigh as if the world were lost.
But what time through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,--we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Ay, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear submissive o'er the stormy main
God's chartered judgments walk for evermore.


"Discontent" delves into the fleeting and often unfounded nature of human complaints and dissatisfaction. The poem compares the ease with which humans become agitated and complain over trivial matters to the eventual tranquility and acceptance that arises when confronted with significant challenges. The poem suggests that divine intervention and understanding can lead to a deeper calm and acceptance of life's hardships.

Critical Analysis

"Discontent" offers a meditation on the inherent tendency of human nature to become easily agitated and discontented, often over minor inconveniences or discomforts. The poem highlights how individuals can be quick to complain and express dissatisfaction without genuine cause.

The opening lines assert that "LIGHT human nature is too lightly tost" and "ruffled without cause," emphasizing the capricious and unstable nature of discontent. The poem uses vivid imagery of a frost or a wasp affecting a peach to illustrate how even minor disturbances can provoke a significant and disproportionate reaction.

The poem then transitions to a contrasting perspective, suggesting that when "God hath transfixed us" through profound experiences that affect the heart and mind, a sense of calm and acceptance is attained. The imagery of "shouldering weights of pain" and "anchoring in deep waters" evokes the idea of finding stability and resilience in the face of adversity.

The final lines introduce the concept of "God's chartered judgments" walking over the stormy sea, implying a divine purpose and order underlying the challenges and trials faced by humans. The poem ultimately conveys the idea that deeper spiritual insight and understanding lead to a state of submission and acceptance, replacing the earlier restlessness and discontent.

Themes of the Poem

  • Human Discontent: The poem explores the tendency of human nature to become easily agitated and discontented, often over trivial matters.
  • Transience of Complaints: The poem underscores the transitory and irrational nature of complaints and grievances, contrasting them with more significant challenges.
  • Divine Intervention and Acceptance: The poem suggests that divine influence and understanding can lead to a deeper sense of calm and acceptance in the face of life's hardships.

Stylistic Analysis

  • Imagery: The poem employs vivid and metaphorical imagery, such as the frost on a peach and the wilful sun, to convey the fleeting and often irrational nature of human discontent.
  • Rhetorical Devices: The poem uses rhetorical questions and contrasts to highlight the stark difference between the initial restlessness and the eventual calm and acceptance.


  • Restlessness and Discontent: The poem captures the sense of restlessness and discontent that can arise from minor disturbances and inconveniences.
  • Submission and Acceptance: The poem suggests a shift from restlessness to submission and acceptance, particularly in the face of deeper challenges and divine influence.


  • Metaphor: The metaphor of "anchoring in deep waters" symbolizes finding stability and resilience in the midst of life's storms and challenges.

Sound Devices

  • Rhythm: The poem's rhythmic structure contributes to its contemplative and reflective tone, conveying the gradual shift from restlessness to acceptance.

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