“The Present” (from poetryfoundation.org)
The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I’ve even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?
Love depends on a sense of mystery, but we are the age beyond faith. We want to know everything so as to exercise perfect control over circumstances or spouses. A cursory glance at the above might make this seem some sort of return to that “mystery.” But our narrator’s detachment is still very creepy.
“Costly secret” jumps out; there’s something about his situation he’d rather not know. And there are other virtues which would compel one to open a present, graciousness and thoughtfulness being but two. One would hope they stem from a love of the giver, but that’s exactly what feels missing here.
So let’s ask about “present.” “Blue” and “bright” seal. This, the present, is a moment that cannot be dispelled. It is the past lingering too long. We have no evidence the sunny moment was shared by both. The speaker has to tell his audience what has been beside “their” bed for months. The beloved moved on long ago. The unread card speaks volumes about our narrator’s concern for what anyone else has to say. A “ribbon knotted tight” sums up the situation nicely. It hints at control, possession and something far darker. To preserve a moment is to attempt to make something immortal, placed beyond the bounds of this life.
Does that mean our speaker is some morbid, murderous psychopath from one of Browning’s poems? After watching a number of couples nowadays interact, I can’t help but feel this is love for the most part today. It’s using someone to create nostalgia for something like one’s own childhood. There’s no concept of freedom or growth here. Just “contrivances” with the deadliest secret of them all: our materialism, our love of comfort, screams even from our so-called highest desires. We don’t realize how greedy we are.