I have been spending a little time of late again with Robert Browning… reading Chesterton’s biography of Browning and re-reading for the first time in a couple of decades his poetry in a serious and more formal way.
I have never been far from Browning (who incidentally, shares my birthday) because certain Browning poems and lines are always with me. That is the nature of poetry, it stays with you… sometimes forever if it is good. And Browning is, of course, very good.
“Memorabilia” is a poem I have always liked: the reference to Shelley, the physical-ness of memory, the image of wide open spaces, the talisman-like eagle’s wing. With a simple rhyme scheme and a simple form, Browning accomplishes much.
Once, years ago, my car broke down in Eastern Montana, a simple flat tire but I had no spare. I caught a ride into a nearby town and back with a rancher. When the flat was changed, it was late afternoon and I was too tired to keep driving and so I pitched my tent a few miles off the highway in a grove of trees the rancher directed me to. In the evening, I walked across the big open country and ate my dinner on a bare hilltop. As I walked, the words of stanza 3 kept coming to my mind. Now when I read this poem that perfect afternoon returns again to my mind. Again, the power of poetry.
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-breath 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 moulded feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.