Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!
But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.
According to historical anecdote, this poem stems from an encounter Browning had with a person who had once met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Shelley died quite young, when Browning himself was only ten). Browning reacted with awe when the man described his meeting with the famed poet, and the man is said to have laughed at him for this reaction. This short lyric relates Browning’s feelings about this encounter to his feelings at walking across a moor and finding an eagle’s feather.
“Memorabilia” consists of four four-line stanzas, written in iambic tetrameter. The stanzas rhyme ABAB. The form appears frequently in William Wordsworth’s lyrics, and this poem does have an almost Wordsworthian outlook: it is contemplative and spiritual, and parallels the natural world to the human one.
The title of this poem suggests a kind of memory that is linked with physical objects. Browning’s encounter with the man who has met Shelley takes its importance from the fact that this man was once physically with Shelley and is now physically with Browning. This second-degree encounter with the great poet, now dead, corresponds metaphorically to the second-degree encounter with the eagle, now flown away having left only a feather; but the encounters also correspond physically, in that the physical object of the feather triggers the thought of the human encounter. This suggests a much more mundane and direct concept of natural reality and memory than that postulated by the Romantics (to whom Shelley belonged). Neither the encounter with the feather (nature) nor the memory of Shelley result in rapture or epiphany in Browning’s poem (as they do in Romantic lyrics); rather, they imply a sense of loss and distance, of separation.
Indeed, not only does memory fail to lead to rapture, it has very little evocative power at all: Browning does not remember the rest of his walk on the moor beyond the finding of the feather. Moreover, Browning places little faith here in the life of the mind, the ability of analysis: he finds himself unable to elaborate more on the relationship between the feather and the man who met Shelley. Yet somehow this world of mundane physical objects and faint mental suggestions can provide as much material for poetry as the wild spiritual inspirations of Shelley’s “West Wind” or Wordsworth’s daffodils.