THE GREY SEA VS. THE LINDEN TREE

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Robert Browning joins his wife in this tournament—Elizabeth Barrett advanced in her Round One contest—as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism: one foot in each, and Barrett, a well-known poet before her husband, serves as that, too; she wrote verse drama (and corresponded with Poe) well before she wrote those famous sonnets to Browning, and in dramatic verse both she and her husband found speech in poetry, of which the honor often goes to Robert Frost.

The claim is made often: speech rhythms in poetry, etc.  But we suspect speech and poetry will always be oil and water, and the speaker will always own speaking more than the speech, and this is precisely why William Shakespeare, writing for actors, made poetry that is speech before Wordsworth, or Browning, or Frost.

“Meeting at Night” is a Browning lyric that boils with romanticism:

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The landscape that moves, the adventure, the chiarascuro, it’s all lovely; though it feels to us that “and” begins too many lines—could we just strike some?—and “through its joys and fears” feels a little awkward.  In our experience, Browning’s verse always seems a little rough.

Browning matches up today against a 13th century (!) piece of Romanticism by a German gentleman, Walther von der Vogelweide.

This poem, like Browning’s, recalls a tryst—this time from the woman’s point of view, and the poem has the charm of speaking to exactly nobody, (where the Browning poem doesn’t really speak, it paints).  “Under the Lindentree” almost seems like an Ur-text of Bashful Romanticism. It is full of beautiful detail, even in its shame.

UNDER THE LINDENTREE (trans Michael Benedikt)

Under the lindentree
on the heather
there a bed for two was
and there too
you may find blossoms grasses
picked together
in a clearing of a wood
tandaradei!
the nightingale sang sweetly.

I came walking
over the field:
my love was already there.
Then I was received
with the words “Noble lady!”
It will always make me happy.
Did he kiss me?  He gave me thousands!
tandaradei!
O look at my red mouth.

He had made
very beautifully
a soft bed out of the flowers.
Anybody who comes by there
knowingly
may smile to himself.
For by the upset roses he may see
tandaradei!
where my head lay.

If anyone were to know
how he lay with me
(may God forbid it!), I’d feel such shame.
What we did together
may no one ever know
except us two
one small  bird excepted
tandaradei!
and it can keep a secret.

Vogelweide defeats Browning, 78-75!

And that closes out Round One in the West, as now we move onto the East…

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