Poem of the Month April
Posted by Alison Chapman
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?
The Poem of the Month April by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.