Posts Tagged ‘Robert Browning’

















That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!









If you cut and paste this link, it will take you to a recording of Richard Howard’s reading of Browning’s poem.



Robert Browning (7th May 1812 - 12th December 1889)

This is another of Robert Browning’s psychological masterpieces. Browning was famous for his employment of the ‘interior monologue’  in his poetry, something that was later to evolve,  in its next incarnation into that centrepiece of modernist writing  –  the style we now know as ‘Stream of Consciousness’.  Browning, as a disciplined Victorian, stayed on topic, and did not exactly ‘stream’, but, nevertheless, this poem clearly consists of an uninterrupted stream of thought.

Though the Duke’s comments are ostensibly addressed to an  emissary of some noble house with which he is hoping to make yet another matrimonial alliance with a young girl, he may just as well be talking to himself, as his erstwhile listener – who I daresay may be increasingly overcome by horror –  deigns not  to interrupt.

Virginia Woolf gets the predominant credit for elevating the Stream of Consciousness technique to its polished perfection, but it was Dorothy Richardson – whose name has now fallen into a literary oubliette – who first came up with the concept, and she called it ‘Interior Monologue’, rather than the rather more inflated title claimed for it today.  The lives of  Browning and Katherine Mansfield (the first really literary exponent of the Stream of Consciousness style) did overlap, in the sense that Mansfield was an infant of fourteen months when Browning died in 1889.

Woolf was sufficiently acquainted with Browning’s wife Elizabeth Barrett, to have observed in her a trait she adopted and made her own, that of standing up for her literary convictions. In yet another distant twist, Woolf”s grand-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a renowned early pioneer of photography, took Robert Brownings photograph.

The Brownings were among the many literary eminences who visited Little Holland House, the London home of Cameron’s aunt and uncle the Princeps. – so

Robert Browning, in a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron.

there are several threads – frayed and old thought they may be – connecting Woolf to the Brownings.

Despite his being a distant ancestral link to the Modernists, Browning was much  closer to Shakespeare in his mood and perspective. We cannot avoid being rather queasily reminded of Othello when we listen to the Duke’s arrogant peroration  –  but this is less a pure Othello, than a composite of Othello and the villainous Iago, with the balance tipping decisively in the direction of the latter.

The Duke is curiously bloodless – his character is chillingly infused with malice, and with the ice-water that ran through Iago’s veins.  Othello loved Desdemona, and his jealousy was rooted in his twisted wish to be the sole possessor of her love. The Duke, however, only wishes to be the sole possessor of his Duchess’ attention, which is something that much more pertains to pomposity and presumption.

I remember how I felt when I first read this poem as a young girl: How angry and how offended, and my ire was turned on Browning for what I thought was his endorsement of the Duke.  How wrong I was, and how completely ignorant of Browning’s clever and subtle devising.  When I look back, I see my then indignation  as proof of Browning’s assured mastery at delineating character.

The Duke is so perfectly revealed as a man given over completely to venality and vileness – a Machiavellian schemer – and the Duchess an innocent and lovely young girl, that they leave no room for any reaction in us but the polarised one that no doubt Browning himself intended.

I am not unaware of the irony that emerges in my choice of the portrait of Marie de Medici to illustrate Browning’s Duchess. Marie’s familial antecedents were indeed strongly linked to Niccolò Machiavelli, whose teachings the Duke might well have studied. However,  Marie, who married a man 20 years her senior, King Henry IV of France, unlike the Duchess, outlived her husband by 32 years, and died at the age of 69. It is also a largely unrecognised fact that she was the patron of Nostradamus, a personage who far eclipsed her in fame.

Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie told her ‘girls’  that Marmalade was a confiture devised by the the royal chef from the orangeries of Marie de Medici, when Marie fell ill as a young bride, the word marmalade being derived from the words Marie-malade – but that little bit of inspired  – and quite spurious – myth-making – was Spark’s delicate nod to the fatuously ridiculous character of Miss Jean Brodie.

But to return from all these distracting tangents, Richard Howard’s reading of this poem, despite the detriment of his American accent, does justice to the poem’s frequent use of enjambment, and thoroughly emphasises  the character of the splenetically prideful and grasping old Duke, as foolish as Lear but with none of Lear’s ability to recognise his own deeply embedded defects.

We are left with the  maddening feeling that it is precisely the Duke’s irremediably evil nature which will forever shield him from the kind of devastation and remorse which would doubtless overtake him were his conscience to ever awaken. At the end of the poem we leave knowing that he will never realise  that it was  his diabolical egotism and twisted mind, which led him to  commit a terrible wrong, and foolishly destroy the life of the innocent young girl who had loved him.

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Robert Browning















Ladies in the Campagnia















Two in the Campagnia.

I wonder how you feel to-day
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?

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.

Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellow fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,

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!

The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air-
Rome’s ghost since her decease.

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!

How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?

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?

I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs, – your part my part
In life, for good and ill.

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.

Already how am I so far
Our of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?

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:






Robert Browning (May 7th 1812 - December 12th 1889)

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

Robert and Elizabeth

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.

Excerpt from a love-letter of Robert to Elizabeth

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.

My Darling First Form English teacher Mrs. Rene Perera, in my cousin Hans' garden in Melbourne Australia Nov. 2008.

Mrs. Rene Perera. Goodnight, goodnight. R.I.P. November 22nd 2011

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