Featured Poem: Two in the Campagna, Robert Browning

This week’s featured poem, chosen because of its seasonal reference (I may not be in Italy but it is May) and the fact that it is the anniversary of Browning’s birthday this week (7th May, 1812), is a beautifully crafted work and a testimony of supreme power beyond human comprehension. Moving beyond the visual splendour of nature, realising that our “finite hearts” are unable to grasp the “everlasting wash” of the force beyond our experience, Browning executes the desire of humans to “catch at” moments of wonder but expresses that this is itself an impossiblity: we are forever “already so far out of that minute”. The idea of “letting Nature have her way” and experiencing the sensations of the moment, rather than trying to “hold it fast”, is conveyed through the sense of nature’s omnipotent and “unahsamed” presence that cannot be translated by the human mind. Similarly, the lover cannot know its lover’s soul, trying to “see with your eyes”; it can “catch the soul’s warmth” by standing away and allowing it to be for what it is but ultimately, “the good minute goes”. Just like the “everlasting wash of air” that encompasses the “Silence and passion, joy and peace” of nature, human love is to be understood in the same way, to move “Onward, whenever light winds blow”: to learn that the pained “finite hearts that yearn” hold within them “infinte passions”.

Two in the Campagna

I wonder do you feel to-day 
  As I have felt since, hand in hand, 
We sat down on the grass, to stray 
  In spirit better through the land, 
This morn of Rome and May? 

For me, I touched a thought, I know, 
   Has tantalized me many times, 
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw 
   Mocking across our path) for rhymes 
To catch at and let go.

Help me to hold it! First it left 
  The yellowing fennel, run to seed 
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft, 
   Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed 
Took up the floating weft, 

Where one small orange cup amassed 
   Five beetles,—blind and green they grope 
Among the honey-meal: and last, 
  Everywhere on the grassy slope 
I traced it. Hold it fast! 

The champaign with its endless fleece 
  Of feathery grasses everywhere! 
Silence and passion, joy and peace, 
  An everlasting wash of air— 
Rome’s ghost since her decease. 

Such life here, through such lengths of hours, 
   Such miracles performed in play, 
Such primal naked forms of flowers, 
    Such letting nature have her way 
While heaven looks from its towers! 

How say you? Let us, O my dove, 
   Let us be unashamed of soul, 
As earth lies bare to heaven above! 
   How is it under our control 
To love or not to love? 

I would that you were all to me, 
   You that are just so much, no more. 
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free! 
   Where does the fault lie? What the core 
O’ the wound, since wound must be? 

I would I could adopt your will, 
   See with your eyes, and set my heart 
Beating by yours, and drink my fill 
   At your soul’s springs,—your part my part 
In life, for good and ill.

No. I yearn upward, touch you close, 
   Then stand away. I kiss your cheek, 
Catch your soul’s warmth,—I pluck the rose 
    And love it more than tongue can speak— 
Then the good minute goes. 

Already how am I so far 
  Out of that minute? Must I go 
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar, 
   Onward, whenever light winds blow 
Fixed by no friendly star? 

Just when I seemed about to learn! 
   Where is the thread now? Off again! 
The old trick! Only I discern— 
    Infinite passion, and the pain 
Of finite hearts that yearn.

Robert Browning, 1854

Posted by Jen Tomkins

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