In the sixth stanza of the poem "The Patriot" by Robert Browning, what do the last three lines mean?

“Paid by the world, what dost thou owe
“Me?”—God might question; now instead,
‘Tis God shall repay: I am safer so.

Source: The British Library.

The narrator, a former apparent war hero has been misunderstood by the public and is being taken to the gallows for being hanged; this is a dramatic monologue uttered by him on the way to the gallows. He has lost his faith in humanity and is embracing death as he knows that God will judge him justly.

What does the poet mean by

Paid by the World, what dost thou owe

Is it the patriot who is asking God what does He owe him? Why will the patriot say that to God? Can someone explain this line?

  • You have a spurious quotation mark in front of "Me", which might be in your original; it is a single sentence, and you truncated it. Oct 16 at 18:35
  • 2
    @chrylis The quotation mark is not spurious—some publishers have (or had) a convention that a new quotation mark is used at the start of each line in poetry, just as in prose a new quotation mark is used at the start of each paragraph within a single speech. See for example the 1894 Macmillan edition which has the extra quotation mark. Oct 16 at 19:13
  • 1
    @chrylis See "The Flight of the Duchess" in the Macmilan edition for how this quotation convention works in a longer speech. Oct 16 at 19:16

These lines need to be interpreted in the context of the complete stanza:

Thus I entered, and thus I go!
      In triumphs, people have dropped down dead.
"Paid by the world, what dost thou owe
      Me?"—God might question; now instead,
'Tis God shall repay: I am safer so.

There is an enjambment between the third and fourth lines of the stanza: that is, the clause runs over from one line to the next. You need to read it like this:

“Paid by the world, what dost thou owe me?”—God might question [them thus]

So this is not a question that the speaker is asking God, but rather a question that the speaker imagines that God might ask of the “people who have dropped down dead in triumphs” from the second line. These (hypothetical) people have died at the height of their successes, “paid by the world” with banners, bells, and cheering, as in the first two stanzas of the poem; and earthly rewards, as in the third stanza. God, the speaker implies, would judge these people for their sins of pride and avarice. The enjambment strikingly places the word “me” (that is, God) at the start of the next line, emphasizing the awfulness of God’s judgement.

However, the speaker did not “drop down dead in triumphs”, but survived to be repaid in ironic fashion, humiliated and dragged to the scaffold to be publicly executed. The speaker has repented of their sins, and so they will be rewarded in heaven: that’s the meaning of “’Tis God shall repay [me]” in the last line. A martyr’s death, the speaker says, is “safer” than a hero’s death, because it guarantees Christian salvation.

  • Ah, so can we say that the Patriot believes that he has compensated for his sins of pride and avarice by paying in blood and humiliation?
    – Mehmer
    Oct 16 at 14:56
  • 1
    @JavaMonke: Perhaps, though I think the way an orthodox Christian would put it is that the speaker has repented of their sins (because of the prospect of execution) and been forgiven. Oct 16 at 15:09

There are many discussions and analyses of "The Patriot" online. The tenor of these is that a patriot or a political leader who was acclaimed for great deeds talks about his downfall and how the common people misunderstand him; eventually, God will repay him. The patriot is seen as unequivocally positive and the common people as fickle and therefore negative. What these comments don't see is that the text contains elements that undercut this black-and-white view.

For example, the first line talks of roses on the patriot's way. In context of the elated language of the first stanza, this first suggests rose petals, but roses also have thorns. (For another text that expresses this ambiguity, see the excerpt from the Biographical Memoirs of St. John Bosco, incidentally a contemporary of Browning.). Myrtle has long been known for its medicinal properties but its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste. The third line may be read as describing "rooftops that seem to heave and sway under the weight of the crowds" (Litbug.com) but it may just as well describe the patriot's dizziness after the people's acclamation has gone to his head.

The words "it was I who leaped at the sun" (third stanza) are often interpreted as a reference to Icarus, even though Daedalus's son did not fly closse to the sun to get something to give to the people. In the context of "give me your sun from yonder skies" (second stanza), they seem to suggest a loss of reality and overreaching. (The narrator's overreaching is somewhat reminiscent of Prometheus, whose downfall came after he gave humanity fire. Admittedly, Prometheus stole the fire from Zeus, not from the sun, except in one Renaissance version of the story.)

With this in mind, the reversal of fortune described in stanzas 4 and 5 is not simply due to the fickleness of the people but possibly also to the narrator's overestimation of himself and his own achievements. This also has consequences for the interpretation of the last three lines. The narrator evidently hopes that God, in contrast with the people, will repay him for his deeds. However, the question "Paid by the World, what doest thou owe Me?" sounds like a Biblical allusion. The Christian answer to that question is that we owe God everything, whereas God owes us nothing (John W. Ritenbaugh). From this point of view, even the narrator's hope that God will repay him may be in vain. The narrator's question also seems to play out the world against God, but this may also be misguided since the New Testament contains many statements reminding people to obey worldly rulers and authorities. The poem's first three stanzas don't describe the patriot as being disobedient, but he does enjoy kingly triumphs and attempts heroic deeds that go beyond what a king would be capable of ("it was I who leaped at the sun, To give it my loving friends to keep!"). Counting on being rewarded by God may be just another delusion.

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