“Memorabilia” by Robert Browning
The poem’s speaker comes across a man who used to know Romantic poet P.B. Shelley. The speaker shows his passion right away by asking the man questions till he makes him laugh.
The speaker describes strolling across an evocative moor landscape till he came across a “moulted feather” that he preserved in his possession in the final two stanzas. He had forgotten all about the other sensations of the moor.
This poem, first published in 1855, was inspired by a chance meeting Browning had with a man who had known P.B. Shelley, one of Browning’s early influences. Shelley was a pivotal Romantic poet who advocated for the idea that a man might achieve profound transcendence and truth through moments or a series of events. Browning would subsequently move into the considerably murkier ground in his poetry, emphasising psychological intricacy and systems of thought, despite being one of his early inspirations.
This poem, one of the few where it is easy to consider Browning as the speaker, is about the obligation we owe to those who came before us. The verse’s simplicity — two four-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter – recalls Shelley or Wordsworth’s poetry, which is appropriate given that it was created in honour of these Romantic influences.
In the first two stanzas, even with this second-degree interaction with Shelley, the speaker is childishly delighted. When the man to whom he gushes laughs at him, the speaker responds, “But you were living before that, /And you are living after that,” recognising that his one occurrence (his meeting with Shelley) is only one of many in life.
Browning’s work is primarily concerned with diving into the complexities and ambiguities of life’s many moments. The speaker, however, ignores the moor’s evocative environment in exchange for one feather left by an eagle, a huge and dignified bird, in the final two stanzas.
Browning acknowledges in this poem that he retains the seeds of that impact, much as the Romantic poets may have been motivated to a full contemplation by one minor natural detail. A lifetime of inspiration can be contained in a single instant.
The poem can be taken as a short reflection on how we cling to small moments because they hold such significance, which is a classic Romantic thought. However, the poem has a deeper meaning about Browning’s career: he is reflecting on how, even though he evolved past these Romantic tendencies and explored his many interests in poetry, there is still a part of him that is awed by one “eagle-feather” amongst a landscape, or by a storey of a simple meeting that occurred decades before. In other words, Browning’s infantile Romantic part, as well as undoubtedly many others, still exist.