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Literature / Pippa Passes

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Pippa Passes is an 1841 verse drama by Robert Browning. The poem describes a single day in the life of Pippa, a young silk-winding girl who goes for a walk through the town of Asolo, Italy. Pippa is happy and innocent and cheerful, attributing goodness and decency to all the people she passes—but as the poem demonstrates, the people of Asolo are far darker and more complex than innocent Pippa might have guessed. She sings of "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones", namely Ottima, wife of Luca the silk-mill owner; Jules, a French art student who is getting married that day; Luigi, an Italian patriot who lives with his mother on the hill; and Monsignor, a cleric.

Pippa Passes was first published as part of the Browning collection Bells and Pomegranates, which also included "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and other memorable Browning works such as "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess". It marked his arrival on the British literary scene. Being a drama written in verse, it has been performed on the stage on multiple occasions. A 1909 short film adaptation, directed by D. W. Griffith, was the first film to ever get a review in the New York Times.

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Tropes:

  • Alliterative Title
  • Blithe Spirit: Cheerful, optomistic Pippa strolls through Asolo singing, causing everyone who hears her to have some kind of epiphany.
  • Carpe Diem: Sebald believes this, saying "One must be venturous and fortunate/What is one young for, else? In age we’ll sigh/O’er the wild, reckless, wicked days flown ever." Of course, he's justifying murdering his girlfriend's husband.
  • Cuckold: Sebald describes Luca as a "wittol", that is, a cuckold who is perfectly aware that he's being cuckolded and is OK with it.
  • Cue the Sun: The poem opens with Pippa waking up and rapturously describing the sunrise.
  • Disposing of a Body: "Come in and help to carry", says Ottima to Sebald about Luca.
  • Dramatic Irony: At the end Pippa wonders how she might approach the people she's passed and "move them" in some way, not knowing that she already has.
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  • Gossipy Hens: "The spitefullest of talkers in our town" are talking about Ottima's affair.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Oh! were every worm a maggot, Every fly a grig, Every bough a Christmas fagot, Every tune a jig!"
    • Take note that in England, a Fagot is a large meatball made out of Beef and Lamb mixed together with breadcrumbs.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sweet, gentle Pippa. See the page quote for her attitude towards life distilled into one line.
  • In Love with the Mark: Phene is a prostitute hired by Jules's classmates to pretend to be in love with him. She falls in love with him for real.
  • Innocent Swearing: A meta example, and one of the most famous in literature. Towards the end appear these rather unusual lines: "Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,/Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!". Many years later the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary asked Browning about this and he pointed them to his source material, a 1660 poem that included the lines "They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat." Browning took that to mean that a "twat" is part of a nun's habit, and so used it in the poem. In fact "twat" meant the same thing in 1660 as it did in 1842 and as it does in the 21st century, a vulgar Country Matters reference. Apparently no one told him, and Browning went to his grave not knowing about it. the moral of the story being you should always look up words you don't know the meaning of before using them.
  • La Résistance: Luigi is an Italian patriot plotting to assassinate the emperor of Austria (Asolo and the Venuto region belonged at that time to Austria).
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: "Best never speak of it", says Ottima, and since she's talking about how she and Sebald just murdered her husband Luca, she's probably got the right idea.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Ottima and Sebald elected to do this with her husband Luca.
  • New Year Has Come: New Year's Day is Pippa's only off day of the year, which is why she goes for a walk.
  • Posthumous Character: Luca has already assumed room temperature when Ottima and Sebald have their dialogue.
  • The Reveal: Pippa is the monsignor's niece, hidden away years ago by Maffeo, and thus the heir to the monsignor's family's estates.
  • Starving Artist: Sebald was a musician "starving when [he] used to call" on Ottima to give her music lessons.
  • Stealing from the Till: Embezzling from the Monsignor's recently deceased brother is the least of Maffeo's crimes. He has murdered on the brother's command, and he once killed the eldest brother's small child so the recently deceased brother would inherit.
  • Streetwalker: The hookers on the corner, who are in league with Bluphocks.
  • Title Drop: The stage direction (Pippa passes) as she passes by Ottima and Sebald.
  • Wedding Day: Jules and Phene are getting married.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Ottima is having an affair with a man named Sebald.

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