Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 3: Bells and Pomegranates I–VI: including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics

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Mrs Sutherland Orr's account of the origin of Pippa Passes, which no doubt derives from Browning himself, tells how he 'was walking alone, in a wood near Dulwich, when the image flashed upon him of some one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo, Felippa or Pippa'.1

Browning visited Asolo, the scene of the work, in the summer of 1838, on his first visit to Italy. On his return he told Fanny Haworth that he 'did not write six lines while absent (except a scene in a play, jotted down as we sailed thro' the Straits of Gibraltar)' and 'some four' lines intended for Sordello. It is tempting to conjecture that the 'scene in a play' may have become one of the Parts of Pippa Passes; but in a late letter about Asolo in which he told his correspondent that he had 'carried away a lively recollection of the general beauty' of the place, Browning added: 'but I did not write a word of "Pippa Passes"—the idea struck me when walking in an English wood,—and I made use of the Italian memories'.2

Unless his memory had temporarily failed him, we must conclude that Part I, at least, was written in the latter part of 1838 or before June 1839, since B. W. Procter referred to 'Sebald, led astray / By the fierce, loose, magnificent Ottima' in 'A Familiar Epistle to Robert Browning', which is headed 'St. John's Wood, June, 1839'.3 When Sordello was published, on 7 March 1840, Pippa Passes was one of the three 'Dramas' advertised at the end as 'Nearly Ready'. It seems probable that Eliza Flower had seen it by 9 March, when Browning wrote, in a postscript to a letter to her: 'By the way, you speak of Pippa. Could we not make some arrangement about it? The Lyrics want your music—five or six in all—how say you? When these three plays are out I hope to "build" a huge Ode—but, "all goeth by God's will!"'4 What happened to Pippa during the following year we do not know. In 1864 Browning told Julia Wedgwood that he remembered suffering from 'a slight touch of something unpleasant in the head which pg 12came on, one Good Saturday, as I sat reading the revise of "Pippa Passes"',1 which points to 10 April 1841: Pippa was probably published during the last week of the month. On the 28 th Browning sent a copy of 'the trifle' to Dr John Anster in Dublin: the following day he despatched a copy to Ripert-Monclar, describing it as 'un effort pour contenter presque tout le monde,' adding, 'et vous savez comme cela réussit ordinairement'.2

Two earlier projects may possibly have some bearing on Pippa. In at least two of the notes which he added to copies of Pauline Browning mentioned his ambition of writing an 'opera'3—and more than one critic has noticed the affinity of Pippa to opera, particularly in its opening. Secondly, in August 1845 he told Elizabeth Barrett that he had been looking through his portfolio and had found in it '"Only a Player-Girl" . . . and the sayings and doings of her, and the others—such others! . . . what makes me recall it . . . is, that it was Russian, and about a fair on the Neva, and booths and droshkies and fish-pies and so forth, with the Palaces in the background.'4

To imagine Pippa Passes without its (very different) 'background' would be impossible. Asolo is a small ancient town some nineteen miles from Treviso and ten miles from Bassano. Having read of it in Verci's Storia degli Ecelini, as he worked on the source-material for Sordello, Browning visited it on his first journey to Italy in 1838, after his initial stay in Venice—so that he could later describe it as 'properly speaking . . . the first spot of Italian soil' he had set foot on.5 In that poem he refers to 'our delicious Asolo' (iii. 683), and at the end we hear how

  •     .. on a heathy brown and nameless hill
  • By sparkling Asolo, in mist and chill,
  • Morning just up, higher and higher runs
  • A child barefoot and rosy.

This singing child, near 'the castle's inner-court's low wall' at Asolo, contrasts with the scene of horror eighty lines earlier as Pippa, in her innocence, contrasts with the evil described in Pippa Passes.

For the rest of his life Asolo remained potent in Browning's imagination. He had a recurrent dream that he found himself in sight of it, but was unable to reach it.6 It was appropriate that it should have provided him with the title for his last volume of all, Asolando.

pg 13It was vividly present in his memory as he wrote about Pippa, who works in one of the silk-mills. Soon we hear of Possagno church and of the turret which is important in Part III, as also of a house which 'looks over Orcana valley'. On a clear morning Ottima

  •     .. can see St. Mark's;
  • That black streak is the belfry. Stop: Vicenza
  • Should lie . . . there's Padua, plain enough, that blue!
  • Look o'er my shoulder, follow my finger!1

Part I ends with 'Foreign Students of painting and sculpture', who were in the habit of visiting the home of Canova at Possagno. In Part II we hear of Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian who had been forced to abdicate the crown of Cyprus in 1489, and who had spent the remainder of her life as the centre of a brilliant court in Asolo. The Austrian police, who formed a sort of army of occupation, also make their appearance. Part III is set in the ruined turret which so impressed Browning that he returned to test its echo almost forty years later: we also hear of 'The Titian at Treviso'.2 Part IV takes us into the palace by the Duomo, and we hear of 'the Brenta', where Zanze comes from.

The conception of the silk-winder of Asolo enabled Browning to link together four Dramatic Scenes, to use the name of a minor genre of the period later exemplified in 'In a Gondola' and 'In a Balcony'. 'Barry Cornwall' (B. W. Procter), to whom Colombe's Birthday was to be dedicated, had published Dramatic Scenes, and Other Poems in 1819 and Marcian Colonna . . . with Three Dramatic Scenes the following year; while Mary Russell Mitford, who discussed Pippa Passes with Elizabeth Barrett soon after its publication, had published Dramatic Scenes of her own in 1827.3 What was more important to Browning was the fact that Landor had included two Dramatic Scenes—'Ines de Castro' and 'Ippolito di Este'—in his volume, Gebir, Count Julian and Other Poems, in 1831: in the dedication of five of his Dramatic Scenes in 1837, he stated that he never wrote 'more than a scene or two of the same drama, giving too short a hold for the rabble to seize and pull at'.4 As we note below, Elizabeth Barrett was reminded of Landor when she read Pippa Passes.5

pg 14Editor’s NoteWhereas Dramatic Scenes are usually isolated fragments, in Browning's work four of them are drawn together and unified by the presence and influence of Pippa. The four Parts are set at different times in the same day, each of them exemplifying a different kind of love. The work begins and ends with Pippa alone, while three quasi-choric passages, two of them in prose, link the Parts.

The only Part for which a source has been seriously suggested is the second. Following a hint by Allardyce Nicoll, F. E. Faverty1 showed that Browning saw The Lady of Lyons; or, Love and Pride, by Bulwer Lytton, on 1 February 1839 (see The Diaries of . . . Macready, i. 494), and supported the view that the Jules-Phene episode had been influenced by the main plot of this drama of sentimental republicanism, which is dedicated to Talfourd, 'whose Genius and Example have alike contributed towards the Regeneration of The National Drama'. The proud young heroine scorns the son of a Marquis and another wealthy suitor only to be tricked into marriage with the son of a gardener. An intelligent and generous young man, he is prepared to allow her a divorce, if she wants one; but in the event he goes off to make his fortune, and returns to claim her from her parents and participate in the most conventional of happy endings. Faverty also suggests that Browning may have known Bulwer's acknowledged source, The History of Perourou; or the Bellows-Mender, translated from the French by Helen Maria Williams (Dublin, 1801), a play dealing with artists and their concerns in which six engravers witness the humiliation of the proud Aurora. There is no proof that Browning knew the latter, however, and a careful reading of The Lady of Lyons leads one to agree with the theme of Terry Otten's article, 'What Browning Never Learned from Bulwer-Lytton'.2 The claim that the Jules-Phene episode is indebted to Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, in which a Marquis is tricked into marrying the daughter of a Parisian courtesan, is hardly more convincing.3 Jules and the Marquis have little in common, while the Parisian girl, unlike Phene, is an accomplice in the scheme.

Whether or not he had any identifiable source, Browning took a familiar comedy plot—in which a man is tricked into falling in love with a woman who is less innocent than she seems—and gave it an idealistic and pg 15romantic turn. What matters in Part II is the character and aspiration of the young artist, and the Shelleyan love which provides the episode with its conclusion.

Those who read Pippa Passes as it originally appeared will understand why its first readers found it obscure. 'I have read the Bells & Pomegranates!' Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Miss Mitford on 15 July 1841:

—'Pippa passes' .. comprehension, I was going to say!—Think of me living in my glass house & throwing pebbles out of the windows!! But really 'Pippa passes', I must say, Mr ̣ Brownings ordinary measure of mystery . . . There are fine things in it—& the presence of genius, never to be denied!—At the same time it is hard .. to understand — is'nt it?—Too hard?—I think so!1

We have given a brief account of the preparation of the two-volume Poems . . . A New Edition, 1849, on pp. 6–8. It began soon after the publication of the last of the Bells and Pomegranates. On 4 February 1847 EBB wrote to Mrs Jameson: 'Robert is very busy with his new edition, and has been throwing so much golden light into "Pippa", that everybody shall see her "pass" properly .. yes, and surpass.'2 The revisions in the Introduction were so extensive that Browning wrote it out afresh. The manuscript, now in the library of the University of Texas, consists of three leaves of white paper, without a watermark. Using black ink, Browning wrote two 'pages' on the recto of each leaf, leaving the verso blank. Hardly a line of the original Introduction remains unrevised: eighty-two new lines are added, six lines (203a–f in the present edition) are omitted, and many of the short lines are expanded.

No other part of Pippa Passes was so extensively revised. Browning wrote out the first seven lines of Part I, with slight revisions: below these he stuck a column of printed text from p. 4 of 1841 (ll. 8–36), with autograph emendations to the punctuation and 'Hinds' for 'Herds' in l. 19. A few later passages of Pippa were recast, as will be evident from the textual notes. Two annotated copies are known, Browning's own (now at Brigham Young University), and Domett's (now at Texas). Both copies pg 16have 'Charon's ferry' corrected to 'Charon's wherry' at ii. 356, and both indicate, at iii. 291, that the second and third speakers should be switched. There are ten markings in the Brigham Young copy which were not adopted, usually because Browning went on to revise more comprehensively.

In general the first edition had been accurately printed, however. 1849 corrected 'Rose-reddened' to 'Rose, reddened' in l. 11 of the Introduction, but more errors are to be found in this edition than in 1841. A few misprints were introduced in 1865 and 1868, but few survived in 1888. Very occasionally we have preferred an earlier reading, as in the matter of Monsignor's 'brother's' or 'brothers'' (Introduction, 64, and iv. 87). The three alterations which Browning made to Pippa in the Dykes Campbell copy are incorporated here.

As well as including Pippa in all his collected editions, Browning included four of the seven songs in various selections from his work. The Moxon Selection of 1865 contains 'You'll love me yet', 'The year's at the spring', and 'Give her but a least excuse to love me': the two latter were retained in the 1872 Selections. The fourth song, 'A king lived long ago', which had originally appeared in the Monthly Repository for November 1835 as 'The King', and which was later reworked for Pippa Passes (see our Vol. I, pp. 530–1), is included in the Selection of 1865 (as 'Romance from "Pippa Passes"') in a text almost identical with that of 1868.


1 Handbook, p. 55, followed by Correspondence, iv. 67.

2 Meredith, p. 94.

3 The 'Epistle' was published in the first part of English Songs, and Other Small Poems (1851), the Preface stating that the poems in the first part are additions to the contents of previous editions.

4 Letters, p. 4.

1 Wedgwood, p. 102.

2 Checklist, 41:20.

4 Kintner, i. 149.

5 Life, p. 394. Browning described Asolo as 'my very own of all Italian towns' (Meredith, p. 97), and 'my spot of predilection in the whole world, I think' ('Letters . . . To the Rev. J. D. Williams', ed. T. J. Collins, BIS 4 (1976), p. 56.

6 Meredith, pp. 127–8.

1 i. 28 ff.

2 See note to iii. 4, below, and iii. 163.

3 In 1842, encouraging R. H. Horne to publish 'a volume of miscellanies', Miss Mitford commented that 'A few dramatic scenes, wd ̣ tell nobly among them'.

4 The Complete Works of Walter Savage Landor, ed. T. Earle Welby and Stephen Wheeler (16 vols., 1927–36, repr. 1969), xiii. 260.

5 See below, i. 7 n.

1 'The Source of the Jules-Phene Episode in Pippa Passes': SP xxxviii (1941), 97–105.

2 Research Studies (Washington State University), 37 (1969), 338–42.

3 C. Wade Jennings, 'Diderot: A Suggested Source of the Jules-Phene Episode in Pippa Passes': English Language Notes (Boulder, Colo.), ii (1964–5), 32–6. Swinburne had made the suggestion in 1876: see The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (6 vols., Yale 1959–62), iii (1960), 139.

1 Raymond and Sullivan, i. 235–6. Two days later Elizabeth Barrett reported that she, who was 'used to mysteries, caught the light at my second reading—but the full glory, not until the third': ibid., 238–9. Cf. ii. 52–3. 'Those who esteem him, are of a small circle', she wrote on 22 January 1845, 'but generally esteemed themselves for their insight into imaginative poetry .. a fit audience of few': iii. 62. Domett's indignation at 'A Certain Critique of "Pippa Passes"' led him to send satirical 'Lines' to Browning on the critic: see his Flotsam and Jetsam (1871), and the quotation in Life, pp. 103–4. Later Elizabeth Barrett told Browning that she 'could find in [her] heart to covet the authorship of Pippa Passes more than that of any other of his works: Kintner, i. 22.

2 Checklist, 47:7. Quotation by permission of Wellesley College.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
p. 11, third paragraph: delete first sentence (and n. 3)
Editor’s Note
p. 14, add note on l. 6: In 'A Note on the Flowers in Pippa Passes' (VP 14, 1976, 60–1) William R. Campbell argues that the flower images are used 'to characterize people and to point an important . . . theme of the work'.
Editor’s Note
p. 14, add note on l. 8: See, however, 'A New Source for the Form of Pippa Passes', by John Woolford and Daniel Karlin, NQ June 1989, 184–5.
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