Monday, February 27, 2012

Youth and truth With loves and doves - reading and misreading Robert Browning

When I started this Robert Browning poem, as usual a monologue, I got everything wrong.

Dîs Aliter Visum; Or, Le Byron de Nos Jours

Wait, I had better unpack the title first.  The Latin is from the Aeneid, and means “the gods see things differently”; the French is “the Byron of our time.”  What gods?  Why in French?  Etc.  Typical Robert Browning.  The poem begins:


Stop, let me have the truth of that!
        Is that all true?  I say, the day
Ten years ago when both of us
        Met on a morning, friends – as thus
We meet this evening, friends or what? –


Did you – because I took your arm
        And sillily smiled, “A mass of brass
That sea looks, blazing underneath!”
        While up the cliff-road edged with heath,
We took the turns nor came to harm –

A pause again: that “mass of brass” is hard to ignore.  Moving back to the first stanza, and leafing ahead, I see that line 2 always features this close internal rhyme.  “Walked and talked,” “youth and mouth,” verse and worse.”  I do not know the name of the form: ABCCA, but with B hiccupping.

The narrator is a well-to-do English woman, the “you” a famous French poet.  He is the Byron of our time, and also perhaps the god who sees things differently.  Ten years ago, the woman wanted to marry him.  The poet was tempted  but for egotistical reasons never pressed the point.  They both subsequently married others, and married worse.  The woman spends the poem recreating the meeting when, with some sort of nudge, both of their lives could have been different.  And should have been, she argues, whether to herself or to the poet’s face I can only guess.

All of this has been pieced together from the rest of the poem.  On my first pass I became confused about who was speaking and even more confused about the identity of the French poet’s “you,” in effect inventing a third character.  My imaginary poem was not bad, but awfully confusing, and in the last stanza it crumbled in my hands.  Oh, oops.  Start again.  Robert Browning poems.

The odd rhyme scheme now looks integral to the poem.  Taking “mass of brass” as genuine speech, we hear the young narrator trying to impress the famous poet (in his words, or, really, her imagined version of his words “she tries to sing… Reads verse and thinks she understands”).  The repetition of the repetition in each stanza becomes a parody of the poet, climaxing in his description of her (her imagined etc.) in stanza XIII, when the internal rhymes explode:

“And this young beauty, round and sound
           As a mountain-apple. Youth and truth
With loves and doves, at all events
            With money in the Three per Cents;
Whose choice of me would seem profound: –

The narrator, over the last ten years seems to have learned something about poetry, or has at least revised her valuation of the French Byron’s verse, if not his person.  They should have married – “you had saved two souls: nay, four.”  Kind of a sad poem, whatever the struggle to pull out the sadness.

The poem is from the 1864 Dramatis Personae.  I wonder if I have the fortitude for a week of Browning.  I will find out.


  1. I must thank you for posting the first excerpt because now I know just how to prove that "sillily" is a word! Lovely. And of course marked as a misspelling in Chrome.

  2. Microsoft Word did not like it much either.