The Dramatic Idyls, a group of poems which indicated a return to Browning’s earlier manner, furnished the title for two successive volumes, the first series published in 1879, the second the year following. The poems in the first series were composed while Browning and his sister were sojourning in a mountain hotel near the summit of the Splügen Pass in the summer of 1878. So stimulated was Browning by the mountain air that he composed with extraordinary rapidity, even for him, bringing down upon himself his sister’s determined caution.
My grandfather says he remembers he saw, when a youngster long ago,
On a bright May day, a strange old man, with a beard as white as snow,
Stand on the hill outside our town like a monument of woe,
And, striking his bare bald head the while, sob out the reason — so!
If I last as long as Methuselah I shall never forgive myself:
But — God forgive me, that I pray, unhappy Martin Relph,
As coward, coward I call him — him, yes, him! Away from me!
Get you behind the man I am now, you man that I used to be!
What can have sewed my mouth up, set me a-stare, all eyes, no tongue?
People have urged, “You visit a scare too hard on a lad so young!
You were taken aback, poor boy,” they urge, “no time to regain your wits:
Besides it had maybe cost your life.” Ay, there is the cap which fits!
So, cap me, the coward, — thus! No fear! A cuff on the brow does good:
The feel of it hinders a worm inside which bores at the brain for food.
See now, there certainly seems excuse: for a moment, I trust, dear friends,
The fault was but folly, no fault of mine, or if mine, I have made amends!
For, every day that is first of May, on the hill-top, here stand I,
Martin Relph, and I strike my brow, and publish the reason why,
When there gathers a crowd to mock the fool. No fool, friends, since the bite
Of a worm inside is worse to bear: pray God I have balked him quite!
I’ll tell you. Certainly much excuse! It came of the way they cooped
Us peasantry up in a ring just here, close huddling because tight-hooped
By the red-coats round us villagers all: they meant we should see the sight
And take the example, — see, not speak, for speech was the Captain’s right.
“You clowns on the slope, beware!” cried he: “This woman about to die
Gives by her fate fair warning to such acquaintance as play the spy.
Henceforth who meddle with matters of state above them perhaps will learn
That peasants should stick to their ploughtail, leave to the King the King’s concern.
“Here’s a quarrel that sets the land on fire, between King George and his foes:
What call has a man of your kind — much less, a woman — to interpose?
Yet you needs must be meddling, folk like you, not foes — so much the worse!
The many and loyal should keep themselves unmixed with the few perverse.
“Is the counsel hard to follow? I gave it you plainly a month ago,
And where was the good? The rebels have learned just all that they need to know.
Not a month since in we quietly marched: a week, and they had the news,
From a list complete of our rank and file to a note of our caps and shoes.
“All about all we did and all we were doing and like to do!
Only, I catch a letter by luck, and capture who wrote it, too.
Some of you men look black enough, but the milk-white face demure
Betokens the finger foul with ink: ‘t is a woman who writes, be sure!
“Is it ‘Dearie, how much I miss your mouth!’ — good natural stuff, she pens?
Some sprinkle of that, for a blind, of course: with talk about cocks and hens,
How ‘robin has built on the apple-tree, and our creeper which came to grief
Through the frost, we feared, is twining afresh round casement in famous leaf.’
“But all for a blind! She soon glides frank into ‘Horrid the place is grown
With Officers here and Privates there, no nook we may call our own:
And Farmer Giles has a tribe to house, and lodging will be to seek
For the second Company sure to come (‘t is whispered) on Monday week.’