Of the origin of Pippa Passes, Browning's friend and biographer
Mrs Orr (in her Life and Letters of Robert Browning , 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.'
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
Pippa is a young girl working in the silk mills of Asolo, and New Years Day is
her one day holiday in the year. She decides to spend it walking past four of Asolos
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 Asolos 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 Years Day hymn she
had earlier recited as she rose: All service ranks the same with God.
These five settings use just two of Pippas 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.