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Appreciating 'Bianca Among The Nightingales' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by Sara Louise Russell

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Victorian era poet. She began writing poetry from the tender age of 11. In her adult life she fell in love with Florence, Italy, and had many happy times there. Her poem "Bianca Among the Nightingales" is a beautiful sad poem about lost love. The woman Bianca, an Italian woman, loses not only her fiancee (or newly-wed husband?), Giulio, but her beloved home town Florence. Through the poem's later stanzas, she reveals that she has followed Giulio to "gloomy England" because that is where her love rival lives, and he has gone to live with her there.

It is typical of Elizabeth's genius, when she describes Florence, because you get such a picture of the gondolas in the evening sunlight at Carnival time, on the river Arno. The boats, the reflections, the lamps, revellers wearing masks, the fireworks - all spring to life in this stanza:

"My native Florence! dear, forgone!
I see across the Alpine ridge
How the last feast-day of Saint John
Shot rockets from Carraia bridge.
The luminous city, tall with fire,
Trod deep down in that river of ours,
While many a boat with lamp and choir
Skimmed birdlike over glittering towers.
I will not hear these nightingales.”

A real stand-out line is "While many a boat with lamp and choir
Skimmed birdlike over glittering towers."

The towers, with lamplight at the windows, would be glittering reflections in the water, as the boats skimmed, "birdlike" over them. What a visionary poet she is, to evoke this stunning image in our mind's eye! She is no less descriptive about her passionate tryst with Gulio:

"We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, `Sweet, above
God's Ever guarantees this Now.'
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales."

At the end of each stanza, Elizabeth keeps returning to the theme of the nightingales, because as she recalls her lost love, they are constantly singing, taunting her with equisite memories. In this stanza, their "long, clear call" is driven through the cries of love from Giulio, "Like arrows through heroic mails" - which is a pretty passionate, almost shocking piece of symbolism from a young lady of the Victorian era. And it is this connection of the nightingale's song to her love's most passionate moment of surrender, which is no doubt driving Bianca mad with grief as the poem continues.

We also get a picture of Bianca as a devout Catholic lady. This is implied in the way she describes her love rival’s affair with Giulio always as a sacrelige.

A worthless woman! mere cold clay
As all false things are! but so fair,
She takes the breath of men away
Who gaze upon her unaware.
I would not play her larcenous tricks
To have her looks! She lied and stole,
And spat into my love's pure pyx
The rank saliva of her soul.

And still they sing, the nightingales.

I highlighted in bold, the most telling lines here. A pyx is a small silver or brass jar with a lid, used by Catholic priests to carry the consecrated Host to the sick, who cannot attend Sunday Mass. To spit into such a vessel would be sacrilege indeed. You can almost see Bianca before you, at this point in the tale, perhaps she crosses herself as she continues:

"I would not for her white and pink,
Though such he likes -her grace of limb,
Though such he has praised -nor yet, I think,
For life itself, though spent with him,
Commit such sacrilege, affront
God's nature which is love, intrude
'Twixt two affianced souls, and hunt
Like spiders, in the altar's wood.
I cannot bear these nightingales."

The poem carries on in a similar way, full of sadness, anger, passion and dazzling descriptions. See below for the poem in full. I challenge anyone of a theatrical persuasion to recite this aloud, in an Italian accent, and not be in tears by the end of the final stanza. To me, "Bianca Among the Nightingales" is one of the best lost love poems ever written. See below for the whole poem.

Bianca Among the Nightingales
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The cypress stood up like a church
That night we felt our love would hold,
And saintly moonlight seemed to search
And wash the whole world clean as gold;
The olives crystallized the vales'
Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:
The fireflies and the nightingales
Throbbed each to either, flame and song.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

Upon the angle of its shade
The cypress stood, self-balanced high;
Half up, half down, as double-made,
Along the ground, against the sky.
And we, too! from such soul-height went
Such leaps of blood, so blindly driven,
We scarce knew if our nature meant
Most passionate earth or intense heaven.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, `Sweet, above
God's Ever guarantees this Now.'
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

O cold white moonlight of the north,
Refresh these pulses, quench this hell!
O coverture of death drawn forth
Across this garden-chamber... well!
But what have nightingales to do
In gloomy England, called the free.
(Yes, free to die in!...) when we two
Are sundered, singing still to me?
And still they sing, the nightingales.

I think I hear him, how he cried
`My own soul's life' between their notes.
Each man has but one soul supplied,
And that's immortal. Though his throat's
On fire with passion now, to her
He can't say what to me he said!
And yet he moves her, they aver.
The nightingales sing through my head.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

He says to her what moves her most.
He would not name his soul within
Her hearing, -rather pays her cost
With praises to her lips and chin.
Man has but one soul, 'tis ordained,
And each soul but one love, I add;
Yet souls are damned and love's profaned.
These nightingales will sing me mad!
The nightingales, the nightingales.

I marvel how the birds can sing.
There's little difference, in their view,
Betwixt our Tuscan trees that spring
As vital flames into the blue,
And dull round blots of foliage meant
Like saturated sponges here
To suck the fogs up. As content
Is he too in this land, 'tis clear.
And still they sing, the nightingales.

My native Florence! dear, forgone!
I see across the Alpine ridge
How the last feast-day of Saint John
Shot rockets from Carraia bridge.
The luminous city, tall with fire,
Trod deep down in that river of ours,
While many a boat with lamp and choir
Skimmed birdlike over glittering towers.
I will not hear these nightingales.

I seem to float, we seem to float
Down Arno's stream in festive guise;
A boat strikes flame into our boat,
And up that lady seems to rise
As then she rose. The shock had flashed
A vision on us! What a head,
What leaping eyeballs! -beauty dashed
To splendour by a sudden dread.
And still they sing, the nightingales.

Too bold to sin, too weak to die;
Such women are so. As for me,
I would we had drowned there, he and I,
That moment, loving perfectly.
He had not caught her with her loosed
Gold ringlets... rarer in the south...
Nor heard the `Grazie tanto' bruised
To sweetness by her English mouth.
And still they sing, the nightingales.

She had not reached him at my heart
With her fine tongue, as snakes indeed
Kill flies; nor had I, for my part,
Yearned after, in my desperate need,
And followed him as he did her
To coasts left bitter by the tide,
Whose very nightingales, elsewhere
Delighting, torture and deride!
For still they sing, the nightingales.

A worthless woman! mere cold clay
As all false things are! but so fair,
She takes the breath of men away
Who gaze upon her unaware.
I would not play her larcenous tricks
To have her looks! She lied and stole,
And spat into my love's pure pyx
The rank saliva of her soul.
And still they sing, the nightingales.

I would not for her white and pink,
Though such he likes -her grace of limb,
Though such he has praised -nor yet, I think,
For life itself, though spent with him,
Commit such sacrilege, affront
God's nature which is love, intrude
'Twixt two affianced souls, and hunt
Like spiders, in the altar's wood.
I cannot bear these nightingales.

If she chose sin, some gentler guise
She might have sinned in, so it seems:
She might have pricked out both my eyes,
And I still seen him in my dreams!
- Or drugged me in my soup or wine,
Nor left me angry afterward:
To die here with his hand in mine
His breath upon me, were not hard.
(Our Lady hush these nightingales!)

But set a springe for him, `mio ben',
My only good, my first last love! -
Though Christ knows well what sin is, when
He sees some things done they must move
Himself to wonder. Let her pass.
I think of her by night and day.
Must I too join her... out, alas!...
With Giulio, in each word I say!
And evermore the nightingales!

Giulio, my Giulio! -sing they so,
And you be silent? Do I speak,
And you not hear? An arm you throw
Round some one, and I feel so weak?
- Oh, owl-like birds! They sing for spite,
They sing for hate, they sing for doom!
They'll sing through death who sing through night,
They'll sing and stun me in the tomb -
The nightingales, the nightingales!