Celebrating the bicentenary of Robert Browning’s birth
The English poet and playwright Robert Browning was born in London in 1812 and died in 1889 in Venice. The bicentenary of his birth has been largely overlooked in his native Britain, but was celebrated with a festival in the town of Asolo, in the Venice region of Italy, on 8 September 2012. Asolo was a key location in the Venetian Republic and the town was ruled by Venetian Caterina, formerly Queen of Cyprus, for 20 years until 1509.
Browning visited Asolo on three occasions during his life. As Michael Meredith, of Eton College (UK), lucidly explained in the opening speech of the festival, Asolo had a profound influence on Browning’s poetry. Meredith told about 120 people in Asolo’s Museo Civico how Browning’s writing block was overcome by his first visit to the town. Subsequently, Browning went from being a largely unrecognised writer to one of England’s most celebrated Victorian writers. His narrative poem Pippa Passes (1841) provoked controversy for its portrayal of a young peasant girl’s movements through the streets of Asolo. Yet Browning’s boldest writing about Asolo came in his prologue from Asolando, published on the day he died (12 December 1889):
How many a year, my Asolo,
Since – one step just from sea to land –
I found you, loved yet feared you so –
For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No –
No mastery of mine o’er these!
Terror with beauty, like the Bush
Burning but unconsumed. Bend knees,
Drop eyes to earthward! Language? Tush!
Silence ’tis awe decrees.
Browning made his first journey to Asolo after travelling by boat to Venice and the two places are connected in the second line above. These two locations are also connected through Browning’s natural themes, which frequently featured in the work of Victorian Romantics. In the above lines, Browning acknowledges that nature includes terror as well as beauty. He was enchanted by Asolo’s natural beauty as a town surrounded by tall conifer trees with Mount Grappa behind it and the Veneto countryside stretching towards Venice. Of course, Venice also has a special relationship with nature through its watery existence. And Browning spoke out against “mastery” over nature, industrialisation and modernisation. Indeed, as noted in my book Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality (2012), he opposed the construction of a factory to produce railway carriages on the Venetian island of Sant’Elena. Browning supported William Morris’ conservationist campaigns in Venice and elsewhere through the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
After Browning’s death, the principal street in Asolo was named Via Roberto Browning. His legacy was explored through poetry readings and presentations during the festival on 8 September. I am lucky to have been involved in these events on behalf of CIMBA(Asolo)/Univeristy of Iowa(USA) and thank Vittorio Zaglia and the organising committee for inviting me to give an opening speech at the Welcome Dinner. Moreover, I am also lucky to continue to enjoy the town of Asolo and its beautiful surrounding countryside, where I live.