poem no. 5 – Browning

Memorabilia by Robert Browning

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at–
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather–
Well, I forget the rest.

This poem manages to be about fame, and memory, and reactions to nature, and the way our preoccupations affect the way we receive the world; all in 16 lines and without feeling overstuffed.

I like its light touch – the way Browning pokes fun at himself, and the rather bathetic ending. But that lightness doesn’t come attached to any irony or insincerity. Browning recognises the hunour in his own reaction, but doesn’t try to disown it.

The poem is just a couple of insubstantial anecdotes – moments, really – yoked together to make a point. But it’s done brilliantly. I particularly like the way that the two halves of the poem are separate. The first two stanzas could stand alone, and so could the last two. The connection between the two halves is never made explicit, but it doesn’t need to be, because the parallel is so apt.