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PIPPA PASSES: by Robert Browning, 1841

‘Half maiden of earthly mould, half spirit.’
The Morning Herald, London, July 10th 1841

Of the origin of Pippa Passes, Browning's friend and biographer Mrs Orr (in her Life and Letters of Robert Browning [1871], 55) records: 'Mr Browning was walking alone, in a wood near Dulwich when the image flashed upon him of someone walking thus alone through life; one apparently too obscure to leave a trace of his or her passage, yet exercising a lasting though unconscious influence at every step of it; and the image shaped itself into the little silk-winder of Asolo, Felippa or Pippa.'

Pippa Passes was published in 1841. The present text uses the 1888 edition.

At over 1700 lines, Pippa Passes is a substantial work. It is a dramatic poem, titled ‘A Drama’, generally but by no means all in verse and complete with stage directions.  It was not however intended to be performed, though there was a staged performance in New York in 1906 which famously lasted some four hours - and that with cuts!

Pippa is a young girl working in the silk mills of Asolo, and New Year’s Day is her one day holiday in the year. She decides to spend it walking past four of Asolo’s happiest households, in which unknown to her, despite appearances, things are taking a very unattractive turn.

In the first, Luca, the rich old mill owner, has been murdered by his young wife Ottima and her lover Sebald. In the second, envious fellow students trick Jules, a young sculptor, into marrying a young model, Phene, by the use of fake love-letters. The four episodes were chosen by Browning to represent different aspects of love, and the third concerns Luigi, a young anarchist and his mother, as he dreams of glorious death - "the dying is best part of it". The love of God, or at least the Church, is encapsulated in the account of Asolo’s bishop and his dealings with the agent who has had control of the family estates, and whose malevolent influence is casting long shadows.

In each case, as Pippa passes, singing, what she sings is heard within and changes the course of events there, unknown of course to Pippa.

There then follows the Epilogue, with Pippa back in her room, reflecting on her day, and at the very close, as she falls asleep, remembering the New Year’s Day hymn she had earlier recited as she rose: All service ranks the same with God.

These five settings use just two of Pippa’s songs, the first heard by Ottima and Sebald, and the last sung outside the Cathedral. The other three settings are taken from the opening and closing lines of the Epilogue.

1: Pippa - undercurrents of Asolo - Pippa Passes, singing

2: outside the Palace by the Duomo, Pippa Passes, singing

3 - 5: the Epilogue, back home reflecting.

Mabel Taliaferro

Mabel Taliaferro

- who was Pippa in the New York performance of 1906

A 19th century depiction of Pippa

Pippa - 19th century -

artist still to locate

A street in Asolo

Street view in Asolo

still to be credited

Asolo Cathedral

The Cathedral in Asolo

still to be credited