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THE MEANING AND STRUCTURE OF PIPPA PASSES MARGARET ELEANOR GLEN BROWNING'S Pippa Passes is in general remembered for two lines, God's in his heaven, All's right with the world; and these two lines are usually quoted out of context. For this there is, perhaps, some excuse, since Pippa Passes presents a problem that is at once a problem of meaning and of structure. The poem is systematically built. It opens with Pippa's monologue in which the delightful little silk-winder of Asolo revels in this, her one free day of the year, and exuberantly pictures herself in the role of each of the town's four "Happiest Ones" in turn. Four major scenes follow, showing us these "Happiest Ones" in actuality, each at a time of crisis. There is Ottima, who has just incited her lover Sebald to the murder of her wealthy old husband, Luca Gaddi. There is the art student Jules, in ectasy over his new bride Phene, as yet unaware that his marriage has been contrived as a spiteful "jest" by unscrupulous fellow-students. There is Luigi, the fiery young Italian patriot, too enthusiastic in his determination to assassinate the Austrian ruler, and his mother, anxious to dissuade him from his scheme, unaware that to stay in Asolo means death. Finally there is the aged bishop, scheming to recover his dead brother's fortune from a cheating Intendant, ignorant that an heiress already exists in Pippa. Linking the major scenes are three short "talks by the way" which present the background intrigue and show us the students plotting against Jules, the police against Luigi, and the Intendant's tools, Bluphocks and the poor girls, against Pippa herself. Throughout these scenes Pippa is never seen, but her passing song causes a radical change in each crisis. In the closing monologue she reviews her day, quite unconscious of her decisive influence. Superficially the pattern is simple enough, but the obvious problem is one of unity. Is there one basic theme, one thread of meaning connecting the different episodes? If so, what is it? Or can the four major scenes be divorced from the framework? In the latter event, the drama simply falls apart and, despite the merits of the individual scenes, the poem as a whole is a failure. Conventional interpretation has proved this to be more than a hypothetical problem. The Ottima-Sebald scene, for instance, is often singled out, without regard for the underlying theme of the whole poem, as the one in which Browning excelled. 410 Vol. XXIV, no. 4, July, 1955 PIPPA PASSES 411 The talks by the way are usually ignored or treated as necessary aids to the plot with little relation to the poem's meaning. The significance of the prologue and conclusion is forgotten and even the character of Pippa herself suffers. If this is a "framework" poem in which the frame only exists to set off the picture, it is a most unusual example. For one thing, the frame, including the prologue, conclusion, and talks by the way, is nearly as extensive as the picture in sheer bulk of lines alone. Moreover, Pippa is part of the frame and her character is developed more than any other, certainly far more than that of a traditional "deus ex machina." What is, then, the theme of Pippa Passes, the one thread of meaning which knits monologues, four episodes, and talks by the way into a meaningful unity? Obviously Pippa is the unifying factor, for the poem begins and ends with her, and she appears, or at least is heard, in every scene. Her lyrics effect a vital charge in each of Asolo's four "Happiest Ones" and her remarkable character is the foil for all the others. Pippa is a delightful creature, so delightful in fact that she bewitches many of her readers into forgetting that she is anything more. She is far too often treated more as a fairy than as a human being, because of an undue emphasis upon her lyric outbursts. But her real humanity, as well as her complexity, becomes apparent in her first speech and more especially in her last. Browning's suggestive depiction...


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pp. 410-426
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