THE POEMS OF ROBERT BROWNING
Wordsworth Poetry Library Wordsworth Editions
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I was listening to music on my iPod recently, having set the little machine to “shuffle”, a kind of random lottery approach to music selection. I struck a seam of rather noisy rock songs when what I really wanted was something gentler and calming. Suddenly, it was there. Clifford T. Ward, late, lamented English singer-songwriter, performing “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, his composition that references the poem of the same name written by Robert Browning. Ward’s song is not Browning’s poem set to music, but it is one of the saddest and most emotional records ever made, in my soppy opinion.
It prompted me to revisit Robert Browning’s work and I started, as nudged, with “Home Thoughts” – “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s here…..” – a wonderful, sincere, relatively simple but wholly effective poem about homesickness and a craving for normal, ordinary things. But, good though it is, this poem does not really define Browning who was a complex individual with a passion for drama and character creation. He explored moods and was moody. He revelled in detailed descriptions and in experimentation with words and phrases. He wrote as an intellectual but also as a romantic.
This Wordsworth Edition – well over 1,000 pages at £3.99 – captures all of his major works and browsing through it, I was struck by the power of his heavyweight poetry and, occasionally, surprised by his lighter touch. As a published poet, he had a rollercoaster career, enjoying successes and enduring failures along the way.
I enjoyed “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the musings of a grumpy monk.
I was more than a little disturbed by “Porphyria’s Lover”, a poem of passion that ends in tragedy: “All her hair/in one long yellow string I wound/three times her little throat around/and strangled her. No pain felt she/I am quite sure she felt no pain.”
“Fra Lippo Lippi” introduced another monk, this time one occupied with analysing the whys and wherefores of art: ”If you get simple beauty and naught else/you get about the best thing God invents.”
I shivered at the sinister nature of the Duke, in “My Last Duchess”, who more than a little irked by his flirting wife: “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.”
There are many poems to thrill, to surprise, to shock, to amuse and to challenge the reader here.
But, I found joy in the poems that Browning wrote for and about his wife Elizabeth Barrett. From the sequence “Men and Women”, the poem “One Word More” is the poet’s dedication of the volume to his wife:
“God be thanked, the meanest of his creatures/boasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with/one to show a woman when he loves her!”
Robert Browning – intellectual, provocative, passionate, playful, romantic – one of poetry’s giants.