Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!
But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.
1) Read the poem given above. Who is speaking, and who is being addressed?
From the evidence of the poem, we know that the speaker once walked across a moor, found an eagle’s feather, and has high regard for the poet Shelley (1792–1822). The person being addressed is not named, but we discover that he (or she) once met Shelley, and this alone confers status by association. The word ‘you’ (‘your’ in one instance) is repeated in 6 out of the first 8 lines. ‘You’ becomes a rhyming word at the end of the second line, so when we reach the word ‘new’ in line four—one of the two lines in the first stanzas that doesn’t contain ‘you’—the echo supplies the deficiency. ‘You’ clearly represents an important focus in the first half of the poem, but who exactly is ‘you’?
Thinking about this apparently straightforward question of who is being addressed takes us into an important area of critical debate: for each one of us who has just read the poem has, in one sense, become a person who not only knows who Shelley is (which may not necessarily be the case) but lived when he did, met him, listened to him, and indeed exchanged at least a couple of words with him. Each of us reads the poem as an individual, but the poem itself constructs a reader who is not identical to any of us. We are so used to adopting ‘reading’ roles dictated by texts like this that, often, we don’t even notice the way in which the text has manipulated us.
2) Now read the poem again, this time asking yourself if the speaking voice changes in the last two stanzas, and if the person who is being addressed remains the same.
If the first half of the poem is characterized by the repetition of ‘you’ and the sense of an audience that pronoun creates, then the second half seems quite different in content and tone. The speaker is trying to find a parallel in his experience to make sense of and explain his feeling of awe; the change of tone is subtle. Whereas someone is undoubtedly being addressed directly in the first stanza, in the third and fourth, readers overhear—as if the speaker is talking to himself.
At first, the connection between the man who met Shelley and the memory of finding an eagle’s feather may not be obvious, but there is a point of comparison. As stanza 2 explains, part of the speaker’s sense of wonder stems from the fact that time did not stand still: ‘you were living before that, / And also you are living after.’ The moor in stanza 3, like the listener, is anonymous—it has ‘a name of its own… no doubt’—but where it is or what it is called is unimportant: only one ‘hand’s-breadth’ is memorable, the spot that ‘shines alone’ where the feather was found. The poem is about moments that stand out in our memories while the ordinary daily stuff of life fades. It also acknowledges that we don’t all value the same things.
3) Taking another look at the poem, how would you describe its form, and what does this say about the poem's meaning?
The structure of the poem is perfectly balanced: of the four quatrains, two deal with each memory, so, although the nature of each seems quite different, implicitly, the form invites us to compare them. Think about the way in which Browning introduces the eagle feather. How does he convince us that this is a rare find?
To begin with, the third and fourth stanzas make up one complete sentence, with a colon at the end of the third announcing the fourth; this helps achieve a sense of building up towards something important. Then, we move from the visual image of a large spacious moor to the very circumscribed or restricted place where the feather is found, but the reason why this ‘hand’s-breadth’ shines out is delayed for the next two lines. ‘For there I picked up on the heather’—Okay, what did you pick up?—‘And there I put inside my breast’—still don't know what you picked up—‘A moulted feather’—ah, I see! Notice the internal rhyme of ‘feather’ with ‘heather,’ which draws attention to, and emphasizes the harmony of, the moment. Also, the word ‘feather’ is repeated and expanded: ‘an eagle-feather.’ Clearly, the feather of no other bird would do, for, ultimately, the comparison is of the eagle to the poet; Browning knows Shelley through his poetry as he knows the eagle through its feather, and that feather presents a striking visual image.
There is an immediacy to the conversational opening of the poem, which, I have suggested, deliberately moves into a more contemplative tone, possibly in the second stanza (What do you think?), but certainly by the third. We have considered some of the poetic techniques that Browning employs to convince us of the rarity of his find in the third and fourth stanzas. You might like to think more analytically about the word sounds, not just the rhyme but, for example, the repeated ‘ae’ sound in ‘breadth,’ ‘heather,’ ‘breast,’ and ‘feather,’ What, however, do you make of the tone of the last line? Try saying the last lines of each stanza out loud. Whether you can identify the meter with technical language or not is beside the point. The important thing is that ‘Well, I forget the rest,’ sounds deliberately lame. After the intensity of two extraordinary memories, everything else pales into insignificance, and, to reiterate this, the rhythm tails off. While the tone throughout is informal, the last remark is deliberately casual.