English poet Robert Browning in his poem "Paracelsus" has written:

"Nay, autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay"


Why is "its" preceded by "this"? If I parse it as if there is no "this" it makes total sense, but that just doesn't seem correct. However, the original sentence also doesn't seem grammatically correct to me. So why was "this" used in this context and what was it supposed to mean?

My best guess is that there should be a long dash after "this":

"Autumn wins you best by this — it's mute appeal...",

but no source I could find gives this line with dash. Besides, English punctuation differs significantly from punctuation in my native language (Ukrainian), so my grammar sense might be tricking me.

  • 1
    The rule for poetry is that even native speakers have to pause and figure it out pretty often. It doesn't always parse the way you might expect. And never, ever, second-guess a poet about punctuation. Sep 27 '20 at 15:00
  • Perhaps a more famous example occurs in Pierpoint's hymn 'For the beauty of the earth': Father, unto Thee we raise This our sacrifice of praise. If there were a comma (admittedly, the verse-formatting may eclipse one) an appositive would obviously be present: [This] = [Our sacrifice of praise], but I've always felt that there is at least a strong hint that it's the determiners 'this' and 'our' that are in apposition, [This] = [Our] sacrifice of praise. cf John's – my son's – car. Perhaps 'this' in the poem is a parenthetical emphasiser. Sep 27 '20 at 15:02
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    @Edwin: Also the construction is frequently seen in the Book of Common Prayer, e.g., "O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve this thy servant."
    – Robusto
    Sep 27 '20 at 15:18

The lines before the quote will help you understand:

Paracelsus: "More true to it: as Michal, some months hence, / Will say, "this autumn was a pleasant time," / For some few sunny days; and overlook / Its bleak wind, hankering after pining leaves. / Autumn would fain be sunny; I would look / Liker my nature's truth: and both are frail, / And both beloved, for all our frailty. / […] / Drop by drop! She [ = Autumn] is weeping like a child! / […] / Nay, autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay" /

You will note that “its” refers to “Autumn’s”

Grammatically, "its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay" is not in apposition to "this".

"Nay, autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay" is to be understood as

"Nay, autumn wins you best by {this that is its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay}"

“this that is” is not required but it is emphatic and can be understood as “this very thing that is”

Its construction differs slightly from "Nay, autumn wins you best by this - its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay" in which the clause is in apposition.


'Its mute appeal to sympathy' specifies what 'this' refers to. It's an obsolete usage. Another example that springs to mind is in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:24 in the King James Bible) - 'For this my son was dead, and is alive again.'

  • I knew there was a good example. Perhaps there are more in Shakespeare. Sep 27 '20 at 15:08
  • I understand that "this" refers to the second part of the sentence. My question is specifically "what is the purpose of 'this' in such a context?". What new meaning does it add? Or is it simply for the sake of rhythm?
    – Physmatik
    Sep 27 '20 at 15:24
  • @Physmatik Take 'This thy servant'. 'Me' / 'myself' sounds cheesy (and probably did back in the day). 'Your servant' sounds distancing ('her over there') (even though God knows what the writer means. Often, the reader won't know.) 'Your servant (ie/that would be/that's me)' perhaps hadn't been thought of. And perhaps for the better. Perhaps We, the undersigned? Sep 27 '20 at 15:44
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    I don't think it's "obsolete". Granted, Welcome to this my humble abode sounds a bit dated. But I can't really say that applies to, for example, Welcome to this, my first published book. And it's not really relevant whether and where there might be commas / pauses. Sep 27 '20 at 17:17

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