- Robert Browning’s Homesickness
Robert Browning’s “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” is conventionally known as one of the most patriotic poems in the English language. Although the poem in its original print context is the first of three dramatic monologues, it is invariably seen in popular British culture, as well as in the history of its print circulation in the nineteenth century, as a stand-alone lyric poem celebrating the best of English nationhood. The poem has attracted surprisingly little attention from critics, perhaps because of difficulty with placing its apparent expression of English nationalism within the context of Browning’s more uneasy investigations of the construction of nationhood and of cosmopolitanism. This essay argues that “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” is a deceptively simple poem that in fact interrogates the very patriotism it has been taken to celebrate. Furthermore, the poem is an important part of Browning’s experimentation with the dramatic lyric form, and particularly the concept of voice in relation to proximity and distance. “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” reveals the importance of reading Browning’s poems as expressive and interrogative at the very same time. In addition, the complex hybrid genre adopted in the poem participates in nineteenth-century discussions about the relation between England and Europe, in a way that recalls Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones,” over-determined social spaces where cultures encounter one another, and jostle for position, often within asymmetrical and complex power structures. The poem’s fundamental dynamic between home and the foreign suggests the importance of border crossing, a movement within and between contact zones, across frontiers and boundaries that are geographical, cultural, political and textual: a movement that, I argue, structures the very concept of the lyric poet itself, always a vital concern for Browning.
In a recent and hugely popular endeavor by the British Broadcasting Corporation to record major poems by famous actors, the actor Geoffrey Palmer reads “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” with music playing softly in the background.1 The choice of the Largo section (second movement) of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony is important, especially to British ears, because it cites a previous and famous use of this section as the soundtrack (arranged for brass band) to a series of well-known television advertisements [End Page 469] for Hovis bread, directed by Ridley Scott, and much replayed. The Hovis advertisement was voted in 2006 the most-loved advertisement in Britain, for the nostalgic portrayal of a northern town with a small boy pushing a bike up cobbled streets and carrying loaves of Hovis, associating the packaged bread with what is quintessentially English.2 In fact, the popular commercial Classic FM station in Britain reported that it was inundated with requests for the “Hovis music,” originally composed to commemorate the discovery of the Americas (see Byrne). It might seem peculiar to associate Robert Browning with a loaf of brown bread. But the BBC recitation of “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” chose a canny patriotic soundtrack. Subtitled “The greatest poems, the finest voices, glorious music,” the “Words for You” series of recited poems can be purchased as a CD and seen on YouTube (where it has its own TV channel).3 Palmer is perhaps at first glance an unlikely choice, known for his deadpan humor and stuffy, middle-class buffoonery, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, in portrayals of such popular British sit-com characters as Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law in The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin and the phlegmatic husband in Butterflies.4 But Browning’s poem suits such an actor perfectly, for like all Browning’s dramatic lyrics, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” is in fact supremely ironic.
In the nineteenth century, the poem was seen as a quintessential expression of English patriotism. It was reprinted, for example, in Mary Isabella Lovejoy’s Poetry of the Seasons anthology of 1898 as exemplary of spring.5 In the 1846 essay “Past and Present Condition of British Poetry,” Browning’s poem provided an example of “the mere twaddle of a cockney at Calais or Cologne,” thus registering its patriotism as empty verbosity but not as irony.6Patriotic Song: A Book of English...