Two in the Campagna by Robert Browning
Published a few years before The Origin of Species, Browning’s paradoxical love poem seems to anticipate the Darwinian outlook
The Italian countryside
Robert Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” is a study in paradox. It’s a love poem that deconstructs love, a pastoral that has seen not only death but bio-diversity. Conversational, daringly sexual, it remains a soliloquy. There may be two in this campagna but two are not one, and the poet has no hesitation in admitting it.
By 1854, Browning had been married long enough to admit it, of course. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, according to an early biographer, regarded the poem highly, and a sense of complicity is sustained. The speaker frequently turns to his companion for verification. If he is more interested in thought than sensation, he never gives up on the desire for transcendent union. The burning question with which the poem begins, and which will be re-examined thoroughly in its later stanzas, is about shared experience: “… do you feel today / as I have felt …?”
The first paradox is that the pair of lovers sits down in order “to stray / In spirit better through the land”. “This morn of Rome and May”, the spacious, sunlit fields with their “endless fleece / Of feathery grasses” are to be thought about, rather than luxuriantly enjoyed.
But the train of thought is immediately elusive, “like turns of thread the spiders throw”. It can only be temporarily pinned down by the poet’s mastery of rhyme, not permanently secured. The second stanza evokes the tentative initial process of composition. Rhymes can’t always be found, or can’t always be trusted with ideas, and the poem seems to fear that the ideas it wants to explore will somehow escape.
The speaker is something of a naturalist, intently observing not only his own thoughts but the wandering gossamer of an actual web. It leads his eye from the fennel to the ruined tomb to the minutiae of the flower whose “orange cup” contains five small beetles. The beetles provoke a new thought about perception: “blind and green, they grope” and, by implication, the poet in his world is blind and groping, too.
Although Darwin’s The Origin of Species was not published until 1859, four years after Men and Women, the collection in which “Two in the Campagna” appears, new biological findings were certainly in the mid-Victorian air. “Such life here, through such lengths of hours” expresses awe not only of time, but of diversity. The ensuing four lines seem to attempt a Darwinian reconciliation of the universe, apparently free to get on with its own evolutionary processes, and the designer who watches the plans unfold: “Such miracles perfumed in play, / Such primal naked forms of flowers, / Such letting nature have her way / While heaven looks from its towers!”
At this point, the speaker remembers his companion and again the questions of union and separation begin to tease. The desire for sensuous hedonism is expressed with a touch of defiance, but the poet knows that this is not the whole answer. “Unashamed of soul” though these unconventional English lovers may manage to be, a perfect union is impossible; they cannot fuse into one self.
The problem of space turns into a problem with time. There is the almost-captured “good minute” and, then, the question, “Already, how am I so far / out of that minute” – perfectly timed to occur, if not exactly a minute later, after the single beat of the stanza break. To be in the moment, purely present to experience, is only fleetingly possible. Its achievement would mean an existence outside time, and that, as the poem recognises, is beyond possibility.
“Two in the Campagna” is one of the most sombrely honest of love poems, but its doubts and questions are so scrupulously recorded and so beautifully, coherently woven together that it reassures us. For most of the scientists of Browning’s day, the designer of the universe was still “in his Heaven”, and the poet, by analogy, still at the centre of his twisting, turning, but reassuringly symmetrical web of a poem. Random, meaningless and incoherent modernity is still many decades in the future.
Two in the Campagna
I wonder do you feel today
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?
For me, I touched a thought, I know
Has tantalised me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.
Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellowing fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,
Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles, – blind and green they grope
Among the honey-meal: and last,
Everwhere on the grassy slope
I traced it. Hold it fast!
The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air –
Rome’s ghost since her decease.
Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!
How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love, or not to love?
I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more,
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?
I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs, – your part my part
In life, for good or ill.
No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak –
Then the good minute goes.
Already how am I so far
Out of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, wherever light winds blow
Fixed by no friendly star?
Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern –
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/26/robert-browning-two-in-the-campagna