I first read some of Robert Browning’s poems in a little book that belonged to my father. It’s a very little book, but it was enough to interest me. Later at school I studied some of his poems and was given The Poems of Robert Browning as a prize:
Browning was born in Camberwell in 1812, the son of a Bank of England clerk. His poems were influenced by Shelley and his first published poem Pauline eventually attracted Wordsworth’s attention. In 1846 he married Elizabeth Barrett and they spent most of their lives together in Italy, until Eabeth’s death in 1861. He died in Venice in 1889 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
I suppose his most famous poem is Home Thoughts from Abroad:
Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops’”at the bent spray’s edge’”
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
‘”Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
But the poem that I first aroused my interest in my father’s little book is Porphyria’s Lover, which begins:
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And call’d me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me’”she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
Her lover, however, though happy and proud knowing she loved him, took her hair and wound it round her throat and strangled her. He then sat with her, her head upon his shoulder all night long:
‘And yet God has not said a word.’
This may have been the first dramatic murder scene I read. This article in Wikipedia analyses the poem.
It contrasts with this poem, which is another favourite of mine, Pippa’s Song (from the poem Pippa Passes: A Drama):
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven’”
All’s right with the world!
I haven’t read a biography of Robert Browning, but Margaret Forster has written an excellent one about Elizabeth Barrett Browning which tells of how the two met and eloped and their subsequent lives together. She has also written a novel, Lady’s Maid a fictionalised account of Elizabeth’s maid and her involvement in the couple’s lives. Another novel of interest is Flush, by Virginia Woolf, the story of Elizabeth’s spaniel.
See more B’s at ABC Wednesday.