Monday 7 May 2012

Happy Birthday To Me - and Browning!

Robert Browning as a young man.
Today is my birthday, an anniversary I share with poet Robert Browning, who is 200 today, but seems to have been forgotten in all the brouhaha surrounding Charles Dickens (by the way, Edward Lear, famed for his limericks and nonsense poems, is also 200 in another few days – on May 12 – and he too has been overlooked).  Now I may not have had a poem read to me, although I live in hopes of this happening, and I didn’t get tea and breakfast in bed, which is my idea of luxury, but The Man of The House, who plays in a local folk band, did serenade me with a tuneful rendition of Happy Birthday, which I think is pretty romantic. And he bought me a fruit cake and a pair of binoculars! Before that Younger Daughter rang and sang, and before that Elder Daughter, en route to a very early shift at the hospital, sent a text message.

Anyway, back to Browning, who seems to have fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. I don’t like everything he wrote, but I am fond of much his poetry, and can never resist the fairy-tale love story of his elopement and with Elizabeth Barrett, whose work is better known. I must admit I know very little about him, apart from the fact that he married her, they lived in Italy, and had a son, so I was surprised to find he was 33 when they met in 1845 – somehow I imagined him much younger than that, and although I knew she was older I didn’t realise she was 39 at the time.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The couple had corresponded for some months before that first meeting - Browning wrote to Elizabeth after reading and admiring her work. They fell in love and defied her father (who didn’t want any of his children to get married) and were wed when they ran away together in 1846, setting up home in Pisa, and then in Florence, at the Casa Guidi, which is now owned by  Eton College and used as a study centre for the boys. But it is open to the public at certain times, and is also leased to the Landmark Trust and rented out as a holiday home for a few weeks each year, which sounds as if it would be absolutely fabulous, but is probably well outside my price range. Just think though, what an enchanting holiday you could have, visiting art galleries thinking about Browning sitting under a hot Florentine sun, yearning for an English spring, with a pale sun and rain-washed skies. I love Home Thoughts From Abroad, with its emphasis on the fact that April is ‘there’ in England, but is not present in Italy: the use of that word ‘there’ rather than ‘here’ conveys so much, so simply.
Casa Giuidi
 Browning, born at Camberwell in 1812, was the son of a Bank of England clerk who was something of a bibliophile, with a collection of more than 6,000 books. His mother was a gifted musician, and he was considered to be something of a child prodigy, writing his first book of poetry (which was never published) before the age of 12.  He admired Shelley and the Romantic poets, and as a young man he travelled to Russia and Italy with a diplomatic mission. However, he decided to dedicate his life to poetry rather than seeking formal work. I gather his parents tried to persuade him to earn a living in a more conventional way, but they must have been happy to support him, because his father sponsored publication of his poems, and he lived at home until his marriage.

Browning when he was older
After some early work sank without trace, his poems were applauded by people like Carlyle and Wordsworth, and his circle of friends included Dickens and actor manager William Charles Macready, but he failed to achieve widespread popularity.  It was only when he returned to England after his wife’s death that he began to win acclaim. During that period he travelled widely, although he never returned to the apartment where he lived with Elizabeth. In April 1889 he was recorded on an Edison cylinder phonograph, reciting part of How They Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent, and he died in December that year, at his son’s home in Venice. His grave can be seen next to that of Tennyson, in Poets Corner, in Westminster Abbey.

Browning's grave
The style of his poems varies tremendously, from seemingly simple verses with structured rhyme and metre, to complex dramatic monologues where the traditional tools of poetic language are absent or altered, enabling him to focus on story and personality and to reveal a character in a very subtle fashion. In My Last Duchess, for example, the sense and meaning of the poem is carried across the lines so you hardly realise it’s written in rhyming couplets – and you’re a good way through before you understand that this clever, urbane, sophisticated narrator, who loves beauty in all its forms, has actually killed the woman in the painting.

An Arthur Rackham illustration for Browning's
poem showing the Pied Piper leading the
 children of Hamelin away
Then there’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which may be much simpler, but demands to be read aloud, captivating us with is strong rhythms and rhymes in an almost dizzying fashion. This is the bit I like the best:

They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook's own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

But my favourite is Meeting at Night, which I’m sure grew out of the difficult courtship he had with Elizabeth. It makes me imagine two lovers, parted by circumstances, having a secret meeting despite trials and tribulations – but others people may read something  different into it.

The grey sea and the long black land; 
And the yellow half-moon large and low; 
And the startled little waves that leap 
In fiery ringlets from their sleep, 
As I gain the cove with pushing prow, 
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand. 

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach; 
Three fields to cross till a farm appears; 
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch 
And blue spurt of a lighted match, 
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears, 
Than the two hearts beating each to each! 


  1. Happy Birthday.

    Good post, very interesting.

  2. Happy birthday Chris -- and Browning. I love him too and it's nice to be reminded of these poems. The Pied Piper was a huge favourite when I was a child and I know the beginning by heart even now. You must have seen the old film (was it called The Barretts of Wimpole Street?) with Virginia McKenna and the gorgeous Bill Travers, who looked just as browning certainly should have looked though I'm not sure if he did.

    1. Thank you Harriet - I have seen the film, but so long ago I can't remember it!

  3. That's a lovely post - I like My Last Duchess a great deal. It is another poem that really benefits from reading aloud. And Happy Birthday!