At the beginning of April, I am always reminded of a poem I had to learn by heart at school by the poet Robert Browning, ‘Home thoughts from Abroad’, or as it is often remembered by its first line, ‘O, to be in England now that April’s here’.
I must admit that the poem had little meaning for me when I was 10 years old and I remember struggling to understand phrases like, ‘the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf’. I later found some of his other works even more baffling and confusing, but always loved his ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ as well as ‘Home thoughts’.
Robert Browning was born in London in 1812, the only son of a clerk at the Bank of England and a Scots-German mother. His parents and his sister, Sarianna, were devoted to Robert and supported him endlessly in his quest to become a poet. In time, he did become one of the best-known poets in the Victorian era, as well as being famous for marrying the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
His wife, Elizabeth Barrett, with whom he exchanged over 500 letters before eloping with her against her father’s wishes in 1846, was also a famous poet in her lifetime, penning the much-loved sonnet quoted at many weddings; ‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways’. They settled in Italy, hence the poem, ‘Home thoughts from abroad’ and her father never spoke to her again. Their story is immortalised in the play, ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’, in which I confess I once had a small part in a provincial production in the 70’s. I remember the director cried every night as Elizabeth begged her father on her knees to allow her to leave to marry Browning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on June 29, 1861 and Robert died in 1889.
As the years went by, Browning’s words grew to have much more meaning for me, especially when for many years I myself lived abroad. I always yearned for the English spring; the bird-song, cherry blossom, fresh green hedgerows and the glorious daffodils. Now that I live in England again, I am not so romantic and complain like every other Brit about the cold wind and rain that inevitably accompanies this most wonderful month of the year. I don’t think I could recite ‘Home thoughts from abroad’ word for word anymore, but I still love to read it.
Home thoughts from abroad by Robert Browning
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 In England – now!
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!