One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”
I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.” may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.
Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.
Since it’s likely that many of you don’t know this poem more than I did, here’s a link to the full text as Browning wrote it.
So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.
There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.
Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”
Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.
*Given its English subject matter it may be somewhat more remembered by our British readers. Back in 1995 it placed in the middle of the pack of the best loved poems in a British survey. And in an even more Parlando moment, the poem’s title and its enduring worth were both sung in 1973 by an English singer-songwriter Clifford T. Ward, who had a minor hit in the British Isles with it.
**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.