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Pippa Passes is a verse drama by Robert Browning. It was published in 1841 as the first volume of his Bells and Pomegranates series, in a low-priced two-column edition for sixpence and next republished in Poems[clarification needed] in 1848, which received much more critical attention. It was dedicated to Thomas Noon Talfourd, who had recently attained fame as the author of the tragedy Ion.
The author described the work as "the first of a series of dramatic pieces". A young, blameless silk-winding girl is wandering innocently through the environs of Asolo, in her mind attributing kindness and virtue to the people she passes. She sings as she goes, her song influencing others to act for the good—or, at the least, reminding them of the existence of a moral order. Alexandra Leighton (Mrs Sutherland Orr) described the moment of inspiration:
Mr Browning was walking alone, in a wood near Dulwich, when the image flashed upon him of some one walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo, Felippa, or Pippa.
This theme followed with great naturalness from Sordello (1840), in which the role in life of poets was analysed.
The work caused some controversy when it was first published, due to the matter-of-fact portrayals of many of the area's more disreputable characters—notably the adulterous Ottima—and for its frankness on sexual matters. In 1849, a writer in The English Review complained:
We have already referred to the two drawbacks, of which we have to complain in particular: the one is the virtual encouragement of regicide, which we trust to see removed from the next edition, being as unnatural as it is immoral: the other is a careless audacity in treating of licentiousness, which in our eyes is highly reprehensible, though it may, no doubt, have been exhibited with a moral intention, and though Mr. Browning may plead the authority of Shakespeare, Goethe, and other great men, in his favour.
Despite this, the most famous passage in the poem is charming in its innocence:
The year’s at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his heaven—
All's right with the world!
although the timing of this song renders it deeply ironic.
- The silk-winding girl Pippa rises on New Year's Day, her only day off for the whole year. Her thoughts concern the people she dubs "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones":
- Ottima, the wife of the rich silk-mill owner Luca Gaddi (and the lover of Sebald, a German)
- Jules, a French art student, who is today marrying Phene, a beautiful woman he knows only through her fan letters
- Luigi, an Italian patriot who lives with his mother in the turret on the hill
- Monsignor, a cleric
- Pippa passes a shrubhouse on the hillside, where Sebald and Ottima are trying to justify to each other the murder of Ottima's elderly husband, Luca.
- A group of art students, led by Lutwyche, discuss a cruel practical joke they are hoping to play on Jules, of whom they are envious.
- Pippa enters Orcana valley, and passes the house of Jules and Phene, who have been tricked into marriage. (The song they overhear refers to Caterina Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus.)
- The English vagabond Bluphocks watches Luigi's turret in the company of Austrian policemen. The Austrians' suspicions hinge on whether Luigi stays for the night or leaves.
- Pippa passes the turret on the hill. Luigi and his mother discuss his plan to assassinate an Austrian official. (The song they overhear, A king lived long ago (1835), was originally a separate poem by Browning.)
- Four poor girls sit on the steps of the cathedral and chatter. At the behest of Bluphocks, they greet Pippa as she goes by.
- Pippa passes the cathedral and palace. Inside, Monsignor negotiates with the Intendant, an assassin named Uguccio. The conversation turns to Pippa, the niece of the cardinal and true owner of the ecclesiastic's property, and Ugo's offer to remove her from Asolo.
- Pippa returns to her room.
Pippa's song influences Luigi to leave that night for Vienna, preserving him from the police. But does he give up his plan to assassinate the Austrian official? In 1848, a reviewer for Sharpe's London Magazine chided Browning for failing to clarify:
We trust that he may be supposed to have abandoned his execrable design. Indeed, we cannot conceive it possible that an author, animated in general by such Christian feelings as Robert Browning, should recommend regicide, in cold blood, as a deed praiseworthy and heroic. But he has erred greatly in leaving the slightest doubt upon such a subject; unless, indeed, our lack of comprehension be alone responsible for the error. But we do not like playing with edged tools.
However, textual evidence points to a confirmation of his purpose, and Browning's republican sympathies may have leaned in that direction. Percy Bysshe Shelley had written verses in praise of Charlotte Corday (a figure who was also admired by other Early Romantics, even Jean Paul), and a few lines in the poem "De Gustibus——" (1855) are suggestive:
A girl bare-footed brings, and tumbles
Down on the pavement, green-flesh melons,
And says there's news to-day—the king
Was shot at, touched in the liver-wing,
Goes with his Bourbon arm in a sling:
—She hopes they have not caught the felons.
Italy, my Italy!
The play is a closet drama and many of its actions are told through the characters' speech rather than through stage directions. One consequence of this is the actions of Sebald and Ottima after they hear Pippa's song has been the subject of disagreement. Most critics have seen it simply as a parting on hostile terms, but others have given their last lines a more sinister interpretation.
Who will read Browning?
Charmed by the character of Pippa, Alfred Noyes pronounced Pippa Passes to be Browning's best, but even the sentimental passages of the work had not been able to win over all Victorian critics. In Chapter XVII of the novel With Harp and Crown (1875), Walter Besant mentioned the poem, singling out The hill-side's dew-pearled! ("Was there ever such a stuttering collocation of syllables to confound the reader and utterly destroy a sweet little lyric?") and took the opportunity to deny Browning's future appeal:
She had taken a scene from Browning's "Pippa passes," a poem which—if its author had only for once been able to wed melodious verse to the sweetest poetical thought; if he had only tried, just for once, to write lines which should not make the cheeks of those that read them to ache, the front teeth of those who declaim them to splinter and fly, the ears of those that hear them to crack—would have been a thing to rest himself upon for ever, and receive the applause of the world. To the gods it seemed otherwise. Browning, who might have led us like Hamelin the piper, has chosen the worse part. He will be so deeply wise that he cannot express his thought; he will be so full of profundities that he requires a million of lines to express them in; he will leave music and melody to Swinburne; he will leave grace and sweetness to Tennyson; and in fifty years' time, who will read Browning?
"A distressing blunder"
Besides the oft-quoted line "God's in his Heaven/All's right with the world!" above, the poem contains an error rooted in Robert Browning's unfamiliarity with vulgar slang. Right at the end of the poem, in her closing song, Pippa calls out the following:
But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
"Twat" both then and now is vulgar slang for a woman's external genitals. It has become a relatively mild epithet in parts of the UK, but vulgar elsewhere. When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary enquired decades later where Browning had picked up the word, he directed them to a rhyme from 1660 that went thus: "They talk't of his having a Cardinall's Hat/They'd send him as soon an Old Nun's Twat." Browning apparently missed the vulgar joke and took "twat" to mean part of a nun's habit, pairing it in his poem with a priest's cowl. The mistake was pointed out by H. W. Fay in 1888.
Adaptations and influences
Theatrical productions and films
An abridgment of Pippa Passes by Henry Miller was premiered at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway on 12 November 1906. It inspired a silent film adaptation starring Gertrude Robinson (and including Mary Pickford in a minor role) which was made in 1909. The film omitted the scenes involving Luigi and the Monsignor, and included a new episode involving a repentant drunkard. It was directed by D. W. Griffith (with cinematography by Arthur Marvin), whose experiments with naturalistic lighting were deemed a great success; he later named it as his greatest film. An adaptation of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon was to follow in 1912, and another Griffith film, The Wanderer (1913) reproduces the theme of Pippa Passes with a flutist instead of a singer.
In the 1945 British melodrama, They Were Sisters, starring James Mason, the last line in the film is, "God's in His heaven—All's right with the world!"
In the Israeli playwright Nissim Aloni play Napoleon – dead or alive! (1970) there is a character named Pippa, who acts as the secretary of the VIP department in the afterworld. Aloni refers to Browning also in his play The American Princess.
- Alfred Noyes. Pageant of Letters. Sheed and Ward, 1940. Page 206.
- Vanity of Vanities about Sir Henry Vane
- Language Log: More on Browning, Pippa and all
- Shipley, Joseph, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 50
- H. W. Fay. "A Distressing Blunder", The Academy, 16 June 1888, xxxiii, 415.
- Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James. Notable American women: a biographical dictionary. Harvard University Press, 1974. Page 83.
- Mikhail Iampolskiy. The memory of Tiresias: intertextuality and film. University of California Press, 1998. Pages 58–61.
- John P. Harrington. The life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street. Syracuse University Press, 2007. Page 103.
- Rundquist, Thomas J. (1 August 2000). Substitute Teacher Survival Activities Vol 1. Nova Media Inc. p. 46. ISBN 978-1-884239-51-9.
- Nisim Aloni; Gary Bertini (1993) Napolyôn - ḥay ô mēt! : maḥaze ʻim pizmônîm, Keter, Jerusalem ISBN 978-9-65070-376-9
- Works related to Pippa Passes at Wikisource