Robert Browning Automatic

Lede of New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott’s review of Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris:”

The definitive poem in English on the subject of cultural nostalgia may be a short verse by Robert Browning called “Memorabilia.” It begins with a gasp of astonishment — “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” — and ends with a shrug: “Well I forget the rest.” Isn’t that always how it goes? The past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present, and then it evaporates with the cold touch of reality. The good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were.

Interesting and erudite, yes? But why no link to the full text of Browning’s “Memorabilia”? Isn’t that what the web is supposed to do, A.O.?

Whatever, that’s what the hardworking staff is supposed to do.

So (via The Poetry Foundation) . . .



   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.

Commentary, via SparkNotes:

The title of this poem suggests a kind of memory that is linked with physical objects. Browning’s encounter with the man who has met Shelley takes its importance from the fact that this man was oncephysically with Shelley and is now physically with Browning. This second-degree encounter with the great poet, now dead, corresponds metaphorically to the second-degree encounter with the eagle, now flown away having left only a feather; but the encounters also correspond physically, in that the physical object of the feather triggers the thought of the human encounter. This suggests a much more mundane and direct concept of natural reality and memory than that postulated by the Romantics (to whom Shelley belonged). Neither the encounter with the feather (nature) nor the memory of Shelley result in rapture or epiphany in Browning’s poem (as they do in Romantic lyrics); rather, they imply a sense of loss and distance, of separation.

Indeed, not only does memory fail to lead to rapture, it has very little evocative power at all: Browning does not remember the rest of his walk on the moor beyond the finding of the feather. Moreover, Browning places little faith here in the life of the mind, the ability of analysis: he finds himself unable to elaborate more on the relationship between the feather and the man who met Shelley. Yet somehow this world of mundane physical objects and faint mental suggestions can provide as much material for poetry as the wild spiritual inspirations of Shelley’s “West Wind” or Wordsworth’s daffodils.

A.O. Scott, take (Spark)note.

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3 Responses to Robert Browning Automatic

  1. arafat kazi says:

    Thanks for this awesome poem that I had not read before. Browning is the man.

    Keats had the best line on the subject when he said of Wordsworth: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

    On the subject of second-degree connections, there’s a really interesting book in Houghton Library: a book of Keats’s poems owned by Tennyson. I saw it, and it was, like, totes crazy to think about this book that played such a part in creating the world of language that I inhabit.

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