The poem's speaker, who does not place himself in first person until over halfway through the poem, begins by describing a pastoral landscape where sheep head home in the early evening. He then tells how a "city great and gay," the country's former capital, once stood on that very spot. Where a great population once filled the city, now the land is nearly deserted save for the sheep.
The city, which was great both in its imperialism and in peacetime, now only survives through a "single turret" on the landscape. The speaker is set to meet a woman who waits for him in that turret. He is passionate in his anticipation to see her, but returns again to contemplation of how the king once stood where she does now, and from that spot sent armies forth to expand the empire. In comparing the two possibilities, he decides that "Love is best."
In this poem, published in 1855 in Men and Women, a simple message is complicated by both a fascinating rhyme scheme and a dramatic irony that emerges from the speaker's fascination with the fallen empire.
The initial message is best understood in terms of the city vs. the pastoral, and by extension, complication vs. simplicity. The city, which is described in vibrant terms, with lots of exclamation points and descriptions of movement, was a place of great import. From its vantage it ran an empire and amassed much "gold," a word the poet mentions several times. And yet, save a mention of the king who is not given a personality, the poet does not speak of any individuals in the empire, but rather speaks of it in generalities, of how the population as a whole moved. This approach stands in stark contrast with the pastoral landscape described at the beginning, in which the language is more traditionally beautiful and the sense of solace and peace is quite apparent.
So the poet proposes an inherent question (which we know because he ends his poem with an answer): which is better? The pastoral is personalized through one individual, his beloved, who waits for him patiently and is characterized as one who will "speak not," again in contrast to the energy with which he characterizes the city that once stood on the landscape. With his quiet love, the speaker contemplates whether he would rather honor the excitable empire that once was, which thrived on the high stakes of empire-building and war, or the low-stakes simplicity of his love, which is fulfilled with one simple meeting.
The simple 'anti-imperialist' message that many attribute to the poem is counteracted by the speaker's inarguable fascination with the world he describes. Significantly more of the poem is dedicated to painting the life of this city than to describing his beloved, a technique that works against the usual expectation of a poem ostensibly meant to glorify the woman and the relationship. The amount of energy expended on these descriptions reveals to us through dramatic irony that the speaker has a fascination with the complications of human life.
This dramatic irony does not lead us to doubt his final declaration, but rather to view it as a conscious choice. The decision that "love is best" is not an inevitability in the poem, but rather something of which the speaker must remind himself. By acknowledging how much more easily the love of life, energy, and complication comes to the speaker, Browning makes the end more dramatic; with less will power, the speaker might have remained in his imaginings instead of focusing on the simplicity of the love in front of him.
This movement from complication to simplicity is reflected in several facets of the poem. The most obvious is through the theme of time: what once was lively and complicated has grown simple over the years, as the city destroyed itself and was replaced by a quiet, pastoral landscape. This movement is also the psychological movement of the poem, as described above: though perhaps he is not conscious of it, the poet is excited more by imaginings of the city than by the pastoral present of his love, but he calms himself back to the recognition that "Love is best."
Finally, this movement is reflected in the highly unconventional rhyme scheme, which pairs long lines with short, rhymed ones. In reading the poem aloud, one finds that this scheme leads to a quick succession of syllables that are necessarily stopped by the short line. Whether this evokes the contemplation that replaces the speaker's otherwise excitable disposition or serves as a reminder to stop and appreciate the simple things in life depends on the reader. But the scheme posits this essential conflict between excitable complication and contemplative serenity.