Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Number 186: Robert Browning "Prospice"
Fear death? -- to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall.
Tho' a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the friend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest.
-- Robert Browning
Hap Notes: Well, this is Browning's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," written in 1861, fifty years before the birth of Dylan Thomas. Except he is directing himself to meet death/old age as the last great struggle. He charges himself to fight death but he also knows that nobody gets out of that fight alive. The important part, to Browning, is to "Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears/Of pain, darkness and cold."
So he's telling us that the price for life's joys is the struggle one must face, one last time, with the arch forces of death and aging. "Guerdon," if you are unfamiliar with the word (I was) means reward. So he's sort of saying "Chin up, face to the wind, go forward into the battle of life and death." Prospice is Latin for "forward," by the by.
Browning wrote this poem after the death of his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and theirs is one of the truly great love stories of their day. Some say that Robert's influence was not always a good one on her work but this sort of posthumous sifting is frustrating since Elizabeth, in spite of her physical frailty, was pretty much able to hold her own. She wrote possibly the most famous love poem of all time "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" to Browning. She was 38 when he met her (he was a fan of her work). He was 32. After they married she was disinherited by her father (her dad did this to all his children who married- he was more than a bit of a fascist as a dad). She was 43 when she had her first child. She opposed slavery and encouraged the rights of women. Browning was quite drowned in love for her and her poetry. Today's poem's last lines express his fervent hope to be reunited with her, the "soul of his soul," in death.
I'm a great fan of both of the Brownings, although I lean somewhat towards Robert. After struggling through all ten poems of his book-length "The Ring and The Book" one either loves him and admires him or never wants to read another word of him and admires him. Of those two I am the former. But that's not why I chose this poem at this time.
Okay, you'll have to sit through a bit more about Amitabh Bachchan here – just warnin' you. Because he quoted both Browning and Tennyson on his blog a couple of days ago (yes, even my movie stars have to like poetry.) He comes by it naturally since his dad, Harivansh Rai "Bachchan" Shrivastav, is a very famous Hindi poet. So, he's going through one of his father's books and he sees, written in his father's hand, a quote from Browning, "I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more." It moved him (as it would anyone, I suppose) and reminded me, once more, of my love for this very heartfelt poem. (The Tennyson his dad quoted is in my top ten poems of all time- we'll get to it someday.....) It amuses me that even my love for a Bollywood icon is another thread in the tapestry of the poetry that creates the universe.
Harivansh Bachchan, by the way, wrote a wonderful poem "Madhushala" (The Tavern) which is a deeply drawn metaphor on poetry, life and love that I am not qualified to talk about. This does not stop me from singing it (yes, it's been set to music, poetry's easier to understand cousin) and if you hear Amit-ji singing it you will too– warning you ahead of time that it's infectious: www.youtube.com/watch?v=19sMzT5Iln0&feature=related
Here's an English translation of the poem- I don't know how good it is, my Hindi is limited to "no," "potato," "come here," "darling," "everything," "tea" and "wrong format," so I'm incapable of knowing it is a good one although the poem's metaphor comes through loud and clear: allpoetry.com/poem/8586937-Madhushala__The_Tavern__-by-Harivansh_Rai_Bachchan
Back to Browning. Here's where we have talked about him before:
The masthead contains Thomas B. Read's portraits of the Brownings.