I wonder how you feel to-day
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?
For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalized me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.
Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellow fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,
Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles,—blind and green they grope
Among the honey meal: and last,
Everywhere on the grassy slope
O traced it. Hold it fast!
The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air—
Rome’s ghost since her decease.
Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!
How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?
I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?
I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs,—your part my part
In life, for good and ill.
No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth,—I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak-
Then the good minute goes.
Already how am I so far
Our of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?
Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The Old trick! Only I discern—
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
This represents one of Browning’s more abstract poems. Returning to some of the themes developed in
“Two in the Campagna” divides into five-line stanzas, the first four lines in tetrameter and the final line in trimeter. The stanzas rhyme ABABA, although, because the lines are enjambed (sentence breaks do not necessarily coincide with line breaks), the rhyme undergoes a certain weakening. Sections of the poem come in fairly regular iambs, but this often breaks down: just as the poet can’t quite capture either his ideas or his lover, he can’t quite conquer language either.
The “Campagna” refers to the countryside around Rome. Until the middle of the twentieth century it grew fairly wild and unclaimed. Because its swampy areas nurtured mosquitoes carrying malaria, the conventional English tourist largely avoided the Campagna, leaving it to the Italian peasants, who farmed sections of it. However, in nineteenth-century literature the Campagna also symbolized a sort of alternative space, where rules of society did not apply and anything could happen; we see this notion expressed in such works as Henry James’s Italian-set novels and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. In this poem, the Campagna seems to suggest to the speaker that he can in fact transcend his human limitations to put his subtle ideas into poetry or see the world through his lover’s eyes. However, in suggesting this the wild space merely plays a cruel trick; teased and disappointed, the speaker is left more melancholy than ever.
The comparison between love and art comments on the difficulty of interpersonal communication. Just as the speaker can never really see through his lover’s eyes, so too can he never communicate the subtle shadings of his thoughts through his poetry. Experience lies beyond the grasp of language. Yet—as the existence of this poem itself attests—we can approximate experience, however inaccurately, and these approximations are not without their significance and value. Indeed, it is perhaps our awareness that poetry, like love, is necessarily imperfect that lends it its beauty. Irony, too—one of the most sophisticated forms of communication—results from our human failings, as the poem’s conclusion shows; “The old trick” both thwarts and enables poetry.