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Poem of the Month April
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Robert Browning, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad”

1 Oh, to be in England
2 Now that April’s there,
3 And whoever wakes in England
4 Sees, some morning, unaware,
5 That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
6 Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
7 While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
8 In England–now!

9 And after April, when May follows,
10 And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
11 Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
12 Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
13 Blossoms and dewdrops–at the bent spray’s edge–
14 That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
15 Lest you should think he never could recapture
16 The first fine careless rapture!
17 And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
18 All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
19 The buttercups, the little children’s dower
20 –Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
(text from RPO)

This wonderful poem might be the inevitable choice for April, but I don’t think it’s an inevitable lyric, unless you forget who the author is.

“Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” is usually read as a patriotic poem. For example, see the You-Tube clip which has the famous English character actor Geoffrey Palmer reading the poem to the strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. This reading is part of the BBC project Words for You, offering a sample of the best of British poetry and, together with the background music, the reading on the one hand gives the poem as a tribute to nationhood. (A colleague of mine thinks the same music was used in the Hovis Bread advert, but you’d have to be a Brit from a certain era to understand the clichèd national references here).

But what happens if this poem is read as a dramatic monologue? It’s hard not to do this when the poem’s original context is revealed, as the first of three drinking songs in Dramatic Lyrics and Romances (1845). And the irony comes even more into focus when that brilliant last line — spat out in Palmer’s clever reading, which surely underlines the doubleness of the poem — about the “gaudy melon-flower” is seen as an echo of the well-known phrase from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, where he decries the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers”. For Browning, is the gaudiness the very poem itself, with its pastiche of Wordsworthian pastorality? This is something I explored in a conference paper at PAMLA 2010 and I’m still thinking about for a new book on Victorian European spaces and places. Although the poem doesn’t specifically mention the speaker’s location, it still has interesting things to say about homesickness, proximity and distance. Isn’t this far from a simple patriotic lyric?

2 Responses to Poem of the Month April

  1. kyuen says:

    I agree – much more is happening here than patriotism. Here are some ideas, which I hope will be helpful. (NB: I’m not a Browning scholar, so if I’m reinventing the wheel, just let it roll off into the sunset.)

    The last line certainly holds the key to the poem. The poem can be read, via the “gaudy melon-flower”, as a conscious, ironic enactment of (the nineteenth-century understanding of) the gaudy. I think this concept can be taken a step further until it hits another concept: the return. If we take the last line in its entirety (“Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower”) with the knowledge that the melon-flower is the poem, then the following question arises: what is “far brighter” than the poem? The answer is the poem (one can say the “buttercups” if exactness is required, though the buttercups themselves are part of the poem from which they emerge). Echoing this return is the return of the bird – chaffinch, whitethroat, swallow, and thrush – the last singing twice, mirroring how the speaker speaks twice or the reader reads twice thanks to the last line (though the second time is a decaying trace, the light one sees after flash photography). There is also the constant flip-flop from the present to the future and back again: lines 1-8 are in the present (“now” line 8), lines 9-10 in the future, lines 11-17 in the present, and lines 18-19 in the future (“will” line 18). The “this” in line 20 is the return of the now, and resets the poem.

    I would say that the poem enacts, rather than says, things about homesickness. It is symptom-filled: the speaker suffers from time confusion (instability?), and pines for home yet, at the same time, considers pining – exemplified by the gaudy poem – unworthy. What ties the poem together nicely is the interplay of symbol and function – the ornitho-logic of the bird returning to its place of residence, flying along with the interpretive loop as prompted by the last line.

  2. I fully agree with Alison’s reading of ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’ as a dramatic monologue, not just because I think we should read any poem that seems to be in Browning’s own voice as a dramatic performance by a thoroughly dramatic poet (as I explore in my forthcoming book Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy, if I’m allowed the cheeky plug). That’s why I prefer the performance of the poem by John Hurt on the web page of the BBC Poetry Season . Hurt here plays a rather weary modern-day English teacher in Italy who recites the poem in his classroom after his pupils have gone home.

    Browning in his Italian ‘exile’ may have incorporated into the poem some of his own nostalgic feelings about England, but I prefer to read it as a dramatic scrutiny of British attitudes towards Britain contrasted with those towards Italy. It is one of a number of poems that look at this issue. A very similar text is ‘De Gustibus-’ (1855). This poem contrasts nostalgic feelings about rural England in its first verse paragraph with praise of Italy in quite stereotypical terms in the second paragraph. The poem’s elderly speaker (probably one of two speakers), who addresses a silent listener, is quite clearly not Browning. Reference is again made to the melon, which is carried by a picturesque Italian girl who brings new of an assassination attempt on Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies. This reference implies the speaker’s sympathy for the Risorgimento. The poem’s turn from national landscapes to politics creates a link with another poem, ‘The Englishman in Italy’ (1845), which also shares with ‘De Gustibus-’ the enigmatic reference to a scorpion. Most of this poem is devoted to the description of the dramatic speaker’s experience in the Bay of Naples, but the poem ends with a sudden reference to the debates about the abolition of the Corn Laws in the British parliament. This ending may look incongruous, but we have to ask why Elizabeth Barrett in the Brownings’ courtship correspondence praises it, declaring that it ‘gives unity to the whole.. just what the poem wanted’. Is this because the whole poem needs to be read as a juxtaposition of the speaker’s views on England and Italy? If you add other poems about Italy, including those spoken by Italian characters, you get a whole web of contrasting and conflicting perspectives on national identity. So there is much more here than mere patriotism.

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