Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

The Italian in England

That second time they hunted me

From hill to plain, from shore to sea,

And Austria, hounding far and wide

Her blood-hounds thro’ the country-side,

Breathed hot and instant on my trace —

I made six days a hiding-place

Of that dry green old aqueduct

Where I and Charles, when boys, have plucked

The fire-flies from the roof above,

10

Bright creeping thro’ the moss they love:

— How long it seems since Charles was lost!

Six days the soldiers crossed and crossed

The country in my very sight;

And when that peril ceased at night,

The sky broke out in red dismay

With signal fires; well, there I lay

Close covered o’er in my recess,

Up to the neck in ferns and cress,

Thinking on Metternich our friend,

20

And Charles’s miserable end,

And much beside, two days; the third,

Hunger overcame me when I heard

The peasants from the village go

To work among the maize; you know,

With us in Lombardy, they bring

Provisions packed on mules, a string

With little bells that cheer their task,

And casks, and boughs on every cask

To keep the sun’s heat from the wine;

30

These I let pass in jingling line,

And, close on them, dear noisy crew,

The peasants from the village, too;

For at the very rear would troop

Their wives and sisters in a group

To help, I knew. When these had passed,

I threw my glove to strike the last,

Taking the chance: she did not start,

Much less cry out, but stooped apart,

One instant rapidly glanced round,

40

And saw me beckon from the ground.

A wild bush grows and hides my crypt;

She picked my glove up while she stripped

A branch off, then rejoined the rest

With that; my glove lay in her breast.

Then I drew breath; they disappeared:

It was for Italy I feared.

An hour, and she returned alone

Exactly where my glove was thrown.

Meanwhile came many thoughts: on me

50

Rested the hopes of Italy.

I had devised a certain tale

Which, when ’twas told her, could not fail

Persuade a peasant of its truth;

I meant to call a freak of youth

This hiding, and give hopes of pay,

And no temptation to betray.

But when I saw that woman’s face,

Its calm simplicity of grace,

Our Italy’s own attitude

60

In which she walked thus far, and stood,

Planting each naked foot so firm,

To crush the snake and spare the worm —

At first sight of her eyes, I said,

“I am that man upon whose head

They fix the price, because I hate

The Austrians over us: the State

Will give you gold — oh, gold so much!

If you betray me to their clutch,

And be your death, for aught I know,

70

If once they find you saved their foe.

Now, you must bring me food and drink,

And also paper, pen and ink,

And carry safe what I shall write

To Padua, which you’ll reach at night

Before the duomo shuts; go in,

And wait till Tenebrae begin;

Walk to the third confessional,

Between the pillar and the wall,

And kneeling whisper, Whence comes peace?

80

Say it a second time, then cease;

And if the voice inside returns,

From Christ and Freedom; what concerns

The cause of Peace? — for answer, slip

My letter where you placed your lip;

Then come back happy we have done

Our mother service — I, the son,

As you the daughter of our land!”

Three mornings more, she took her stand

In the same place, with the same eyes:

90

I was no surer of sun-rise

Than of her coming. We conferred

Of her own prospects, and I heard

She had a lover — stout and tall,

She said — then let her eyelids fall,

“He could do much”— as if some doubt

Entered her heart — then, passing out

“She could not speak for others, who

Had other thoughts; herself she knew,”

And so she brought me drink and food.

100

After four days, the scouts pursued

Another path; at last arrived

The help my Paduan friends contrived

To furnish me: she brought the news.

For the first time I could not choose

But kiss her hand, and lay my own

Upon her head —“This faith was shown

To Italy, our mother; she

Uses my hand and blesses thee.”

She followed down to the sea-shore;

110

I left and never saw her more.

How very long since I have thought

Concerning — much less wished for — aught

Beside the good of Italy,

For which I live and mean to die!

I never was in love; and since

Charles proved false, what shall now convince

My inmost heart I have a friend?

However, if I pleased to spend

Real wishes on myself — say, three —

120

I know at least what one should be.

I would grasp Metternich until

I felt his red wet throat distil

In blood thro’ these two hands. And next,

— Nor much for that am I perplexed —

Charles, perjured traitor, for his part,

Should die slow of a broken heart

Under his new employers. Last

— Ah, there, what should I wish? For fast

Do I grow old and out of strength.

130

If I resolved to seek at length

My father’s house again, how scared

They all would look, and unprepared!

My brothers live in Austria’s pay

— Disowned me long ago, men say;

And all my early mates who used

To praise me so-perhaps induced

More than one early step of mine —

Are turning wise: while some opine

“Freedom grows license,” some suspect

140

“Haste breeds delay,” and recollect

They always said, such premature

Beginnings never could endure!

So, with a sullen “All’s for best,”

The land seems settling to its rest.

I think then, I should wish to stand

This evening in that dear, lost land,

Over the sea the thousand miles,

And know if yet that woman smiles

With the calm smile; some little farm

150

She lives in there, no doubt: what harm

If I sat on the door-side bench,

And, while her spindle made a trench

Fantastically in the dust,

Inquired of all her fortunes — just

Her children’s ages and their names,

And what may be the husband’s aims

For each of them. I’d talk this out,

And sit there, for an hour about,

Then kiss her hand once more, and lay

160

Mine on her head, and go my way.

So much for idle wishing — how

It steals the time! To business now.

“The Italian in England.” An Italian patriot who has taken part in an unsuccessful revolt against Austrian dominance, reflects upon the incidents of his escape and flight from Italy to the end that if he ever should have a thought beyond the welfare of Italy, he would wish first for the discomfiture of his enemies and then to go and see once more the noble woman who at the risk of her own life helped him to escape. Though there is no exact historical incident upon which this poem is founded, it has a historical background. The Charles referred to (lines 8, 11, 20, 116, 125) is Charles Albert, Prince of Carignano, of the younger branch of the house of Savoy. His having played with the patriot in his youth, as the poem says, is quite possible, for Charles was brought up as a simple citizen in a public school, and one of his chief friends was Alberta Nota, a writer of liberal principles, whom he made his secretary. As indicated in the poem, Charles at first declared himself in sympathy, though in a somewhat lukewarm manner, with the rising led by Santa Rosa against Austrian domination in 1823, and upon the abdication of Victor Emanuel he became regent of Turin. But when the king Charles Felix issued a denunciation against the new government, Charles Albert succumbed to the king’s threats and left his friends in the lurch. Later the Austrians marched into the country, Santa Rosa was forced to retreat from Turin, and, with his friends, he who might well have been the very patriot of the poem was obliged to fly from Italy.

19. Metternich: the distinguished Austrian diplomatist and determined enemy of Italian independence.

76. Tenebrae: darkness. “The office of matins and lauds, for the three last days in Holy Week. Fifteen lighted candles are placed on a triangular stand, and at the conclusion of each psalm one is put out till a single candle is left at the top of the triangle. The extinction of the other candles is said to figure the growing darkness of the world at the time of the Crucifixion. The last candle (which is not extinguished, but hidden behind the altar for a few moments) represents Christ, over whom Death could not prevail.” (Dr. Berdoe)

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/dramatic/poem10.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32