In amongst the big guns of Dickens and Shakespeare... and then the forthcoming JubiGlee and the Olympics, there is a double centenary waiting to be forgotten, so I thought I would make an effort to mark Robert Browning today on the 200th anniversary of his birth, because I suspect he is solely and oddly responsible for turning me onto the Victorians at a time when others might have failed.
A Level English Literature 1970-1972 and Robert Browning the set poet.
Now this being me (and I must watch the programme on horders on BBC on Tuesday) I still have, well-preserved but for a few mouse incursions, my entire course notes and essays. I have been marvelling at the hours this must all have taken given it is all handwritten, a complete translation of every stanza of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde for example, and having looked back through I can see that it is probably a good thing that I waited another twenty years before attempting an English degree. But no amount of Bs could dampen my enthusiasm for the course reading, and nothing but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for Robert Browning.
I am trying to fathom it now, because I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins too, and suspect this was about a rather over-earnest me suddenly realising, at eighteen, that life was about to take a very grown-up turn with paediatric nurse training on the horizon.
This week I have finally sunk gratefully into Babel Tower, A.S.Byatt's third book of the Frederica quartet, and I can't tell you how good it feels to dive into such deep and challenging literary waters, and of course this line was bound to resonate...
'...No one tells children's nurses when they go into training, you know, that this is the worst kind of nursing - the worst - you might be glad when the old - slip away - but these little ones - and those who stay here a long time - are even worse than those who die. You can't talk about it of course...'
So which poem to choose for today.
I really wanted to choose By the Fireside for its opening lines...
How well I know what I mean to do
When the long dark autumn-evenings come:
And where, my soul, is thy pleasant hue?
With the music of all thy voices, dumb
In life's November too!
I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
O'er a great wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!
or Andrea Del Sarto for those immortal lines...
Ah, But a man's reach should exceed his grasp
Or what's a heaven for ?
Then I thought about Prospice, written after the death of Elizabeth Barret Browning according to my eighteen year-old self, the self who could have no idea what lay ahead, but the poem seemed to impress the coming of age me no end...
But eventually there emerged a clear winner because, reading the poems again now, there was one that I can only imagine, given our prediliction for all things Monty Python-esque, we would have shown no mercy. Though Monty Python and the Holy Grail was still three years hence I suspect we knew it was only a matter of time...
We must have had great fun reading this in class, and even today I am smiling at the thought of the unholy mirth unleashed as Miss Maud read out that final verse...
How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to AixI SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
At Aerschot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
So we were left galloping, Joris and I,
‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
And all I remember is, friends flocking round