And she turned from the picture at night to scheme of tearing it out for herself next sun.

From Robert Browning’s The Statue and The Bust (142-153), online in full here.

Meantime, worse fates than a lover’s fate,
Who daily may ride and pass and look
Where his lady watches behind the grate!

And she — she watched the square like a book
Holding one picture and only one,
Which daily to find she undertook:

When the picture was reached the book was done,
And she turned from the picture at night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream;

I give four stanzas for more stable context but it’s really only the image in the second and third that I’m especially struck by. Browning was always tinkering with his work and this one had a couple of small but possibly significant tweaks along the way. The 1855 proofs of Men and Women read:

When the picture came the book was done,
And she turned from it all night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

And an 1863 Selections alters the second line above to:

And she turned from the picture all night

I somewhat like the 1855 proof version more than the final. The picture is of course the Duke Ferdinand and his actively riding by is what puts an end to the unnamed lady’s ‘reading’ each day (since the picture can’t ‘be reached’ without his ‘coming’). Then ‘all night’ over ‘at night’ seems better to hit the lady’s subjective sense of their separation’s painful duration .

But if the final reading loses something inside the image, it seems better to blend with the poem overall. The grammatical passivity of ‘was reached’ can be aligned with the moral failing of characters who continue waiting for a resolution to ‘be presented’ to them. ‘Was reached’ then contributes to what feels a meaningful splitting of verbs throughout the stanza – two passives (was reached, was done) and one active with a negative value (turn from). Given the nature of the characters, it is appropriate both that passivity would dominate and that the single action actively taken would move not towards resolution but a resetting and perpetuation of the situation. That line of reasoning pushes further if you include the negative values of the nonfinite verbals ‘to scheme’ and ‘tearing it out.’ Finally, ‘at night’ over ‘all night’ I take as emphasizing the iterative element – that by the time of narration the action is a routine one that has somewhere lost the pain and become so sadly – because simply accepted – neutral.

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