Born May 7th 1812 Robert Browning, after a stumbling start went on to become probably the most celebrated of the Victorian poets within his own lifetime. Husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Robert was the master of the monologue in an age that favoured monologues. His poetry is lurid with obscure references from ancient Greece and Rome and from medieval amour courtois. It was his very obscurity that almost beached his early career.
Today most children encounter Browning without ever realising. If you know the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” you probably read his poem.
Over the sea our galleys went; by Robert Browning
Over the sea our galleys went,
with cleaving prows in order brave,
to a speeding wind and a bounding wave,
a gallant armament:
each bark built out of a forest-tree,
left leafy and rough as first it grew,
and nailed all over the gaping sides,
within and without, with black bull-hides,
seethed in fat and suppled in flame,
to bear the playful billows’ game:
so, each good ship was rude to see,
rude and bare to the outward view,
but each upbore a stately tent
where cedar-pales in scented row
kept out the flakes of the dancing brine,
and an awning drooped the mast below,
in fold on fold of the purple fine,
that neither noontide nor star-shine
nor moonlight cold which maketh mad,
might pierce the regal tenement.
When the sun dawned, oh, gay and glad
we set the sail and plied the oar;
but when the night-wind blew like breath,
for joy of one day’s voyage more,
we sang together on the wide sea,
like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
each helm made sure by the twilight star,
and in a sleep as calm as death,
we, the voyagers from afar,
lay stretched along, each weary crew
in a circle round its wondrous tent
whence gleamed soft light and curled rich scent,
and with light and perfume, music too:
so the stars wheeled round, and the darkness past,
and at morn we started beside the mast,
and still each ship was sailing fast!
Now, one morn, land appeared! – a speck
dim trembling betwixt sea and sky:
‘Avoid it,’ cried our pilot, ‘checkt
the shout, restrain the eager eye! ‘
But the heaving sea was black behind
for many a night and many a day,
and land, though but a rock, drew nigh;
so, we broke the cedar pales away,
let the purple awning flap in the wind,
and a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
and steered right into the harbour thus,
with pomp and paean glorious.
A hundred shapes of lucid stone!
All day we built its shrine for each,
a shrine of rock for every one,
nor paused we till in the westering sun
we sat together on the beach
to sing because our task was done.
When lo! what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
A loaded raft with happy throngs
of gentle islanders!
‘Our isles are just at hand,’ they cried,
‘Like cloudlets faint in even sleeping;
our temple-gates are opened wide,
our olive-groves thick shade are keeping
for these majestic forms’- they cried.
Oh, then we awoke with sudden start
from our deep dream, and knew, too late,
how bare the rock, how desolate,
which had received our precious freight:
Yet we called out- ‘Depart!
Our gifts, once given, must here abide.
Our work is done; we have no heart
to mar our work,’- we cried.