Thursday, April 15, 2010

Home-Thoughts from Abroad by Robert Browning

Yesterday's post was "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins was a tribute to spotted, speckled things - among them, the finch. Today's poem mentions finches as well, at least in passing - and how could I pass up this lovely poem by Robert Browning, the first two lines of which are often quoted on their own. Browning wrote it while he was living in Italy with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Home-Thoughts From Abroad
by Robert Browning

O, 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
In England — now!

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!

Form: The first stanza is rhymed ABABCCDD; the second is rhymed AABCBCDDEEFF. The meters are all over the place, and if you are interested in a line-by-line breakdown (or any particular line), let me know and I'll be happy to break it down for you. Since I'm not certain anyone but me cares, I'll simply note that there are a number of lines in iambic pentameter in the second stanza, and I'll move on to my next point. Browning's second stanza is an expanded version of the first; that is to say, he wrote an eight-line first stanza and a twelve-line second stanza, something he accomplished by adding a rhymed couplet at each end of that second stanza (if I replace the couplets in question with XX, you can see it: ABABCCDD XXABABCCDDXX).

Discussion: The first stanza sets the emotional tone: "I'm a bit homesick for England" as well as talking in general terms about what people in England see in April. The second stanza becomes far more personal and detailed, as Browning described his images of precise lands within England - his own home, which he left behind when he eloped with his bride and moved to Italy. The phrase "Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge" gives it away.

The description of spring in England are based in his memories and include tremendous sensory detail, which lends to the sense of longing for home in the poem. The final line references a flower not found in England; instead, it's about an Italian flower in Browning's view in Italy, which pale by comparison to his memories of buttercups. It's a rather Romantic view of life in England - the capital R there indicates that the poem fits within the Romantic movement, which put the focus on rural life and on sentimentality.

Still, while Browning obviously misses some aspects of his homeland, the poem doesn't indicate that he wants to return to England. He's just drawing a comparison between his memories of spring in England and the reality of the months of April and May in Italy. Being further south and of a warmer climate, Italy's spring is past, and the melons are already in blossom; it feels more like summer.

(Of course, today one might prefer to be in Italy in April, what with volcanic ash from Iceland filling the skies above the U.K. I'm thinking of all of you in Iceland, the U.K., Scandinavia and any other countries being affected by the ongoing glacial eruption.)

Kiva - loans that change lives

1 comment:

John Cottiss said...

Hello Kelly,

Very grateful for your analysis as I am currently studying this poem. Still trying to grip the whole iambic pentameter and tetrameter concept and would be thankful if you could spare some time and give me a few examples within this poem to aid my understanding.
My email address is

Many thanks
John Cottiss