By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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
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.
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—
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.
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 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’.