A reading of a classic poem about England
‘Oh, to be in England’: the opening line of Robert Browning’s poem praising England while abroad has become more famous than the poem’s actual title, ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’. Before we proceed to an analysis of the poem’s language and meaning, here’s a reminder of it.
Home-Thoughts, from Abroad
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Browning probably wrote ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’ in 1845, while he was staying in Italy – a country Browning often visited, both before and after his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett. Browning’s short lyric conveys the sense of homesickness he feels for England while he is out of the country, especially during springtime, specifically April, when the trees are coming into leaf and the chaffinch can be heard singing in the morning.
This picture of English springtime is evoked in the poem’s first stanza; the second stanza moves from April to May, and Browning’s thoughts turn to his pear-tree, which will now be in blossom, scattering blossoms and dewdrops on the clover in the nearby field. Browning also thinks of the song thrush, which ‘sings each song twice over, / Lest you should think he never could recapture / The first fine careless rapture!’ There’s a sense of wonder here, at how beautiful and awe-inspiring nature can be – specifically in the English countryside. The fields may look a little grey when covered with dew in the morning, but by the time the sun comes out and it’s midday, the buttercups will shine brightly in the sunshine – far more brightly, Browning notes, than the melon-flower that Italy has to offer, which is ‘gaudy’ or too showy by comparison.
The emphasis throughout the poem is on the unconscious aspect of nature – and our unconscious enjoyment of it, when we are surrounded by it every day and come to take it for granted. Although Browning thinks of ‘whoever wakes in England’ in the third line, he goes on to describe them as ‘unaware’ of the beauty of what they see ‘some morning’: they are literally conscious in that they are awake, but they are not truly conscious of the treasures which are springing up all around them. Similarly, the song of the thrush is described as ‘careless rapture’: ‘careless’ not because it is slapdash but because it is both carefree (denoting a sense of joyous liberation) and achieved without much work because it comes naturally to the bird.
If you found this analysis of ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’ interesting, you may also enjoy our short introduction to Browning’s interesting life and our analysis of Browning’s poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
In this highly Romantic, picturesque poem, the speaker yearns to be in England as springtime arrives. He imagines how those living there are lucky enough to see the trees begin to sprout as the birds begin to sing.
He grows more specific as he imagines April turning to May, and how the "wise thrush" will sing its gorgeous song twice so nobody can think the first time was an accident of beauty. He notes that though the fields seem overrun with dew, noontime will return them to their full beauty. In the last line, he laments that all of England is "far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower" that he apparently faces wherever he currently is.
This poem is unique in Browning's oeuvre, as one of the few where his concerns are primarily natural and descriptive. Certainly, much of Browning's poetry employs descriptive passages, but his primary concern is almost always men and their psychologies, with the natural passages working to compliment those themes; examples are "Love Among the Ruins" and "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."
It was written in 1845 and published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, during a long period in which Browning and his family lived abroad in Italy. On its surface, the poem's message is quite simple: he misses home and is melancholy as he imagines the beauty that is overtaking his native country as spring approaches. Spring, as an image of flowering, carries poetically the sense of the world awakening. In its celebration of this natural phenomenon, the poem owes a lot to the Romantic tradition of poetry, which sought to transcend human limitations through contemplation of natural beauty.
However, the poem does employ a few unique elements. First is the perspective that the poet employs. In the third line, he reveals that much of what guides his reflection is the thought of being somebody else there. In other words, he is not reveling in his own memories but rather imagining what "whoever wakes in England" might see. This gives the whole descriptive poem an idealized air, a sense that what he sees in his mind is an imagining rather than an objective fact.
The second stanza, which is longer than the first and uses longer lines, raises the intensity of his longing as this idealized portrait takes him over. The image of the thrush, who sings his song twice "lest you think he never could recapture" his initial beauty, reinforces the exaggerated beauty Browning imagines. His native England does not offer priceless, once-in-a-lifetime moments; on the contrary, it is overflowing with moments of beauty. When his mind moves to a less picturesque setting – "fields [that] look rough with hoary dew" – he is quick to force his imaginings so that they are redeemed by the "noontide." All in all, what we glimpse is that this reflection is not a mindless wandering through the past, but rather a willful attempt to escape the "gaudy melon-flower" that apparently fails to capture the same depth of feeling as he believes his England might.
So in the end, the poem does employ a psychological nature in that the speaker is deliberately calling to mind these images in order to distract himself from something. The placement of perspective in someone else's mind falls in line with Browning's usual poetic aesthetic (in which he speaks through characters) and thereby compromises the objective reality of what he imagines. Finally, one is led to wonder why, considering the poet is so mournfully desperate for the English springtime, he does not think of moving back. The fact that such a thought does not enter the poem suggests that it can be understood as a momentary idyll rather than as a deep, permanent expression of the speaker's soul. As the months of springtime pass, so will this daydream, but its transience does not mean it is insignificant.