Pippa’s Song

The year’s at the spring
       And day’s at the morn;
       Morning’s at seven;
       The hillside’s dew-pearled;
       The lark’s on the wing;
       The snail’s on the thorn:
       God’s in His heaven—
       All’s right with the world!
—Robert Browning, “Pippa’s Song” from his verse play “Pippa Passes”

Robert Browning‘s long poem, “Pippa Passes,” published in 1841, is a verse drama, which means it was not written with the intention of any person staging a performance of it, and life ever since has fulfilled that lack of intention. The poem-as-play has not been performed by any notable theater company in more than a century. “Pippa Passes” is remembered for two things. Well, three things.

For one, it is remembered for not being remembered, for not living on in culture’s memory at all, even though at the time critics were quick to count it among Browning’s masterworks. Also, it is remembered because Browning accidentally used a vulgarity in it because he thought the slang word he used referred to a part of a nun’s habit. This was pointed out to him in his lifetime, and even though he made emendations in 1849 and 1863, he chose not to correct the one glaring one, and insisted that if he did not know it was a vulgarity, how was it a vulgarity?

Last, one line from it, a single line, lives on to this day as an expression we might hear more than once every day: “God’s in His heaven/All’s right with the world.” Young Pippa sings it.

(Shall I discuss the vulgarity below the fold?)

Pippa, a young silk-winder in Asolo, in the Veneto region of Italy (where Browning lived part of the year), is wandering through her one day of the year away from work: New Year’s Day.

“… Pippa just one such mischance would spoil
Her day that lightens the next twelvemonth’s toil
At wearisome silk-winding, coil on coil!”

Browning loved the vowel-heavy Italian language he found in Venice, and the poem betrays it at every possible turn. It is sing-song rather than honestly musical. Look at the line from the stanza at top: “The hillside’s dew-pearled.” The backwards, awkward phrasing is an attempt to sound exotic, “foreign-ish.” It evokes a sound, but not a sense; one finds that one needs to almost translate what Browning is having Pippa sing. Early morning dew. It transforms a reader of poetry (well, me) into the person who complains that poetry only offers a blank, opaque, reading experience. This is not my usual experience with Browning.

Pippa wanders through the town, and she devotes her thoughts to the others she sees, little knowing that each one is locked in his or her own melodrama. From her perspective, each one is among the town’s “happiest.” The poem brings us into the other characters’ complicated lives as they hear Pippa walk past, singing her love of nature. Singing of how all is right with the world. Singing. Always singing.

At night, she passes the cathedral, inside which the monsignor is negotiating with an assassin for Pippa’s removal, as she is due to be the inheritor of the monsignor’s property. She retires to her room. Drama! Cliffhanger! Dah-dah-dah-daaaaah! The monsignor and his co-conspirator hear her singing. Her song convinces the monsignor to attempt to spare her.

And at the end, Pippa retires to bed, and all we “hear” is her expressing her desire to someday reach out and touch and somehow express her love for those she saw this day:

Now, one thing I should like to really know:
How near I ever might approach all these
I only fancied being, this long day!
Approach, I mean, so as to touch them, so
As to … in some way … move them if you please

She has the same ambitions with her silk as Browning with his poetry. And there the poem ends. We do not learn her fate, or anyone’s fate. We have passed through Pippa’s world as she has passed, unseen, through the others’ worlds.

While reading “Pippa Passes,” I was struck by how cinematic, how melodramatic, how like a silent movie (“The Perils of Pauline”) the poem is, but only in the describing of it, in boiling down its thin plot. Not in the writing.

Years later, Browning was asked about one odd rhyme in the poem. In one of Pippa’s last songs, she rhymes a vulgar word for a woman’s beautiful body part with “bats,” which probably says more about his Surrey accent (I do not know) than anything else. The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary wanted to know, for part of their etymology of the vulgarity, where he might have come upon a non-vulgar version of the word, if he really thought it was non-vulgar. Pippa sings:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and tw*ts,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

(Boldface mine; bowlderizing mine.)

Certainly, he told the OED editors, I would be happy to tell you where I heard that the offensive word means part of a nun’s habit, and why I would thus pair it with “cowls.” And Browning offered a rhyme from the 17th Century: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Tw*t.” Browning either thought the vulgarity was a late development and he was reasserting its older meaning, or he did not understand the vulgarity to begin with. Either way, in Pippa’s voice of innocence and inexperience, the word struck every reader at the time as, frankly, weird and off-putting.

Browning never emended the word. In 1888, a year before Browning’s death, a writer named H.W. Fay wrote an academic note about the word in “Pippa Passes,” and in the best Victorian era phrasing, titled his essay, “A Distressing Blunder.”

All is write with the world.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 14 asks, “Write a post about the topic of your choice, in whatever style you want, but make sure to end it with ‘“…and all was well with the world.'”

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  1. lifelessons · September 14, 2015

    Ha. It appears Browning is as innocent as Pippa! I had read the poem labeled “Pippa Passes” both in high school and college but had never heard that it was part of a longer play! An Interesting piece, Mark. http://judydykstrabrown.com/2015/09/14/its-not-all-about-us/

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Anton Wills-Eve · September 14, 2015

    Mark, amongst the best things you’ve written on literature.Why oh why should our language have to raise such stupid double entendres? I knew what part of a nun’s habit that was when I was 9 years old. All my life it has meant nothing else to me! But the entire work was never included in our Englsh lessons until my last year at school,and even then no reference was ever made to the double meaning. I was 48 years old before I ever heard the other meaning and understood it! But in my mind they have no association.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mark Aldrich · September 14, 2015

      Thank you so much, Anton! That’s a great story; I love that it’s a part of this page.


  3. Pingback: Today in History: Dec. 12 | The Gad About Town
  4. ifothergills · November 20, 2018

    A really interesting piece, thank you.
    I found it whilst investigating a line in Nabokov’s Pale Fire where the words, “This is where Pappa Pisses.”, led commentator Brian Boyd to point out the Browning link. I would never have got there by myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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