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“The little more, and how much it is; the little less,and what worlds away.”

This is a part of "By the Fire-side" by Robert Browning. I heard this phrase is often used as a quote as well.

But what does this phrase really mean? I really don't know.

  • While I cannot say with certainly without the full context, when I read that line I get the impression of there being a very precise quantity or setting needed, where any small amount off in either direction makes the result far off from what it ought to be. – Michael Dec 17 '15 at 7:25
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Let's see if I can tease out the meaning. In the poem "By the Fire-side," Robert Browning is contemplating his life with his wife Elizabeth, and gives this description:

My own, see where the years conduct!
At first, 'twas something our two souls
Should mix as mists do; each is sucked
In each now: on, the new stream rolls,
Whatever rocks obstruct.

See where the years have brought us, he says. At first we were close, like mists that mix, but now each of us in entwined in the other (each is sucked in each), no matter what our lives together bring (new stream rolls) or what obstacles we face (rocks obstruct)

But this outcome was far from a sure thing:

If two lives join, there is oft a scar,
They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
One near one is too far.

Closeness brings its perils; when two people join their lives each gives up some independence, and there's a risk that the shadow of what might have been (the shadowy third) will stand between them so that their closeness can never be close enough (one near one is too far).

So now (finally) the verse in question:

Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!

So to successfully take that last step to love (the little more) is to find out how much more is gained. Fail to take that step or try and fail (ending up with that "shadowy third") is to find yourself far (worlds away) from satisfaction.

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