Exaggeration, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Summary & Analysis

"Exaggeration" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores the tendency of human beings to exaggerate the challenges and hardships of life, often overshadowing the positive aspects and blessings that are bestowed upon them. The poem delves into the human inclination to magnify sorrows and difficulties, thus disregarding the goodness and beauty that coexists alongside challenges.

Exaggeration by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

WE overstate the ills of life, and take
Imagination (given us to bring down
The choirs of singing angels overshone
By God's clear glory) down our earth to rake
The dismal snows instead, flake following flake,
To cover all the corn; we walk upon
The shadow of hills across a level thrown,
And pant like climbers: near the alder brake
We sigh so loud, the nightingale within
Refuses to sing loud, as else she would.
O brothers, let us leave the shame and sin
Of taking vainly, in a plaintive mood,
The holy name of GRIEF !--holy herein
That by the grief of ONE came all our good.


"Exaggeration" explores the human tendency to magnify the hardships and challenges of life, overshadowing the blessings and goodness that coexist with difficulties. The poem suggests that humans often indulge in self-pity and fail to appreciate the overall beauty and balance of life. It calls for a shift in perspective from exaggerated sorrow to a recognition of the goodness that arises from even the most challenging experiences.

Critical Analysis

The poem begins by asserting that humans "overstate the ills of life" and use their imagination to focus on sorrow rather than the divine beauty and blessings that surround them. The phrase "choirs of singing angels overshone" highlights the contrast between the heavenly harmony and the tendency of humans to focus on negativity. The imagery of "dismal snows" covering the corn serves as a metaphor for how humans often obscure the positive aspects of life with their exaggerated focus on difficulties. The speaker describes walking upon the "shadow of hills" and feeling like climbers, panting from exertion. This imagery captures the idea that the perception of hardship can lead to a sense of struggle and fatigue. The mention of the nightingale refusing to sing due to the loud sighs of humans near the alder brake symbolizes how human lamentations and exaggerated grief can drown out the natural beauty and music of the world. The poem concludes with a call to action, urging individuals to abandon the tendency to indulge in exaggerated sorrow and self-pity. Instead, the speaker advocates for embracing the name of "GRIEF" not in a lamenting manner, but as a recognition that through the grief of one (referring to Christ's suffering), all goodness and redemption came to humanity.

Themes of the Poem

  • Exaggeration of Hardship: The poem explores how humans tend to magnify the challenges and hardships in life, overshadowing the positive aspects.
  • Balance and Beauty: The poem highlights the importance of recognizing the beauty and goodness that coexist with difficulties and struggles.
  • Perspective Shift: The poem suggests that a shift in perspective from exaggerated sorrow to an appreciation of the overall balance of life is essential.

Stylistic Analysis

  • Imagery: The poem employs vivid imagery, such as the "dismal snows" and the "shadow of hills," to convey the contrast between exaggerated sorrow and the inherent beauty of life.
  • Rhetorical Devices: The poem uses rhetorical questions and contrasts to underscore the disparity between human complaints and the divine order of the world.


  • Exaggerated Sorrow: The poem captures the tendency of humans to indulge in exaggerated sorrow and self-pity, often overshadowing the positive aspects of life.
  • Call to Shift Perspective: The poem encourages a shift in perspective from excessive lamentation to a recognition of the balance and goodness inherent in the world.


  • Metaphor: The metaphor of "dismal snows" covering the corn serves as a powerful symbol of how human focus on sorrow can obscure the blessings and goodness of life.

Sound Devices

  • Imagery: The poem's rhythmic structure and vivid imagery contribute to its contemplative and reflective tone, emphasizing the contrast between exaggerated sorrow and the inherent beauty of life.

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