Two in the Campagnia.
For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalized me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.
Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles, -blind and green they grope
Among the honey meal: and last,
Everywhere on the grassy slope
O traced it. Hold it fast!
Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!
I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?
No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak-
Then the good minute goes.
Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The Old trick! Only I discern-
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
Robert Browning 1854
Two excellent cut-and-paste links with notes on this poem:
My very first brush with Robert Browning was in First Form English Literature class in 1966 at Methodist College, Colombo, Ceylon. The upstairs classroom, adjoining the principal’s apartments, was hot in the blinding afternoon light which streamed in from the row of windows to our left. If any breeze at all entered our room, it was tinged with the slightly acrid odour of coal smoke from trains which came and went from the Kolpetty railway station to the west, which was just beyond the tennis court wall, and was sticky with saltiness carried in from the sea which was right next to the railway platform and tracks.
There we sat on our hard wooden chairs, at our wooden desks, rows of little school-girls in our white cotton school-uniforms and green ties, our attention transfixed on our twig-thin teacher in her pencil skirts and hair tied tightly back in a bun. Her nicotine-stained fingers – she was the only teacher in the whole school who smoked – held up the book in front of her, and her pale blue eyes when they looked up from her reading would take in the whole class at a single glance. She didn’t walk – she strode – she was thrilling different from all the other teachers, and quite unforgettable. When we listened to her we were no longer in our hot little white-washed classroom, but transported to whichever far-away place we had allowed her animated voice to willingly carry us.
My wonderfully unique English teacher was Mrs. Rene Perera nee Caldera. The class erupted into gleeful giggles at Mrs. Perera’s spirited reading of Robert Browning’s poem ‘How They brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, and the thrilling triple galloping dactyls which excitingly echoed the sound of rapid hoof-beats. Mrs. Perera, now in her late eighties, God bless her, lives in Melbourne Australia, and I had the tremendous good fortune to see her again when I visited there a few years ago.
In 1889, Browning with Mr. Thomas Alva Edison, made a wax-cylinder recording of some lines from this poem, but even if Browning had not been too old to have remembered all the lines, I am sure he could not read it with nearly as well, and with as much infectious verve as Mrs. Perera.
When I was in my teens I came across another poem by Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’, which I hated with a passion for its cruelty and apparent misogynism. It escaped me then – as it no longer does – that far from being misogynistic, the poem was brilliantly ironic – something I had been too ignorant to recognise and appreciate at the time. Now ‘My Last Duchess’ is one of my favourite poems, and one I admire for its deeply insightful portrait of of misunderstanding and jealousy.
‘Two in the Campagnia’ is another of Browning’s masterpieces. In its twelve verses he simply and lucidly examines
the question we ask ourselves even today – what can – or can not – one know, about the person one loves. It is blessedly free of the cloying taint of sentimentality which infected the work of many of Browning’s fellow Victorians, including his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Though Robert’s far more intelligent work still remains regrettably obscure, Elizabeth is beloved by many even to day for her famous “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” poem from Sonnets from the Portuguese.
The Brownings spent almost all their married life in Italy, and it was there that this particular poem was written. The Campagnia is the area, wild and marshy in Browning’s day, which surrounds Rome. When a friend and I drove around it a few years ago, it still appeared amazingly rural, and except for the occasional small flock of sheep, quite empty.
Browning was, like many good writers of poetry, an accomplished linguist, who was fluent in French, Italian, Latin and Greek. Like so many other eminent intellects, (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Giacomo Leopardi and others) he was privately and self-educated, benefiting from the huge library of 6000 books amassed by his father who worked for the Bank of England.
If Browning is known at all today, it is for the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and the film of the same name, about his romance with Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father did not approve of marriage, and forbade all his children to marry. This of course was the reason that Robert and Elizabeth eloped in 1846 when he was 34 years old and she was 40. Virginia Woolf wrote a novel about the Brownings told from the point of view of Elizabeth’s cocker spaniel Flush, aptly called Flush: A Biography.
During his lifetime, Browning’s work remained almost unknown, and very much unappreciated until he returned to England after Elizabeth’s death in 1861. Browning survived his wife by 28 years. He died in 1889, and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Letter of Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett.
January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, –whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me — for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration — perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter! — but nothing comes of it
all — so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew … oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away … and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought — but in this addressing myself to you, your
own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogher. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart — and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?” — then he went to announce me, — then he returned … you were too unwell — and now it is years ago — and I feel as at some untorward passage in my travels — as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel
on crypt, … only a screen to push and I might have entered — but there was some slight … so it now seems … slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!
Well, these Poems were to be — and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.
Yours ever faithfully Robert Browning.