Song from Pippa Passes

We’ve been getting some intermittently lovely spring weather here recently, and with it half-remembered snatches of poetry coming into my mind. For example, bits of this short poem by Robert Browning. It’s short and simple enough that I really ought to remember it all! From the short play Pippa Passes by Browning, this short passage captures that optimism one feels at the beginning of spring:

 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!

Those last two lines are often quoted to signify naïve optimism and innocence, and often with bitter irony, but in the play they come as a timely reminder of purity and righteousness in a fallen world. The widow of the silk mill owner, Ottima is talking with her lover, Sebald, about their past, how they fell in love and conspired together to kill Ottimas’ husband the old mill owner. Racked with guilt at first, Sebald rues his action of a year past and wishes he could turn back time and bring back Lucca, the old mill owner. Ottima, however, talks him round and they justify their actions. Sebald hails the woman as his queen and starts to ruffle her flowing locks – but before things get kinky, they are interrupted by the sound of singing. The singer is Pippa, a worker at the mill enjoying her only day off of the year with a walk around the way, singing her heart out as she goes – and accidently stirring the consciences of those who hear her.

To Pippa, the song is an exhuberant celebration of the divine order in the universe, but to the wretched lovers, the line stirs their consciences to knowledge of their own wickedness. ‘God’s in His heaven! Do you hear that?’ Sebald exclaims, and reminded by the innocent Pippa of the existence of God above them, of good and evil and thus of the evil he has committed, he repudiates his lover suddenly and repents of his sins. Ottima follows suit, and they kill themselves praying for the dead mill owner.

And Pippa passes merrily on her way!



Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Song from Pippa Passes

  1. nice to know that belief in God can have such a life-affirming effect!

  2. Well, it does for Pippa! As for Sebald and Ottima, they deserve their fate, they are not only muderers, but really bad employers too. When Ottima hears Pippa singing, her first reaction is to rue giving the lower orders any days off at all.

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