A Comparison of ‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and “Lavandare’ by Giovanni Pascoli

Coincidentally, I was rereading the work of Paul Muldoon (see previous post) when I was introduced to the work of Giovanni Pascoli by Danielle Hope, who has just published a selection of his poems.[1] Of course, Muldoon and Pascoli are very different poets. Pascoli, 1855-1912, was a contemporary of d’Annunzio though less well-known outside Italy whilst Paul Muldoon, born 1951, is younger than me and one of the great post-modern poets. Nevertheless, both poets hailed originally from a rural background and I was struck by the similarity in imagery between these two poems.


IV Lavandare


Nel campo mezzo grigio e mezzo nero

resta un aratro senza buoi che pare

dimenticato, tra il vapor leggero.


E cadenzato dalla gora viene

lo sciabordare delle lavandare

con tonfi spessi e lunghe cantilene:


Il vento soffia e nevica la frasca,

e tu non torni ancora al tuo paese!

quando partisti, come son rimasta!

come l’aratro in mezzo alla maggese.

Giovanni Pascoli



IV Washerwomen


In the half-grey, half-black field

a plough without an ox waits

forgotten in the mists.


Beside the millstream women intone

to the rhythmic squish and pummel

of soapy clothes on washboard panels:


The wind blows and leaves fall

like snow. You do not come home.

Since you left I remained alone

like the plough, amidst fallow soil.

Translation by Danielle Hope




Why Brownlee left


Why Brownlee left, and where he went,

Is a mystery even now.

For if a man should have been content

It was him; two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks,

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

He was last seen going out to plough

On a March morning, bright and early.


By noon Brownlee was famous;

They had found all abandoned, with

The last rig unbroken, his pair of black

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Paul Muldoon



‘Why Brownlee Left’ by Paul Muldoon and ‘Lavandare’ by the Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) are both poems with rural, even agricultural settings which are presentations of absence. In both cases, the main character has gone and the poem goes on to describe what they have left behind. Both poems feature a deserted plough, although in ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the team are still hitched up whereas in ‘Lavandare’ the plough lies ‘senza buoi’ and seemingly forgotten. What the two poems share is a sense of mystery as in neither case is the absence explained. In Pascoli’s poem there is a suggestion of a failed love affair, but this is no more than implicit.


The positioning of the writer is different in each poem. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the speaker reports an event in which he is not directly involved using third person: ‘He was last seen’, ‘They had found all abandoned’. The event is described like a local legend. In ‘Lavandare’, however, the speaker is involved in the poem although this only becomes evident in the last stanza: ‘quando partisti, come son rimasta’. This line reveals the speaker to be female, (rimasta) suggesting that she has been deserted by a lover. Although the dramatic conflict between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is missing from Muldoon’s poem, the feeling of abandonment is equally strong.


Both poems are written from the perspective of the status quo and both present the experience of having been left behind. In ‘Why Brownlee Left’ the members of a small traditional society cannot understand why anyone should choose to leave a situation when, in their terms, he has all he could want:

two acres of barley,

One of potatoes, four bullocks

A milker, a slated farmhouse.

The detail has the effect of a primitive painting surrounded by a tight border that no-one is expected to transgress. The fact that Brownlee has left is met with complete bewilderment but as the poem closes the point of view of the community is replaced by the comment of the poet as he describes the

Horses, like man and wife,

Shifting their weight from foot to

Foot, and gazing into the future.

Brownlee leaves in March, early spring, an intimation that he has a future but that it has to be elsewhere.


Pascoli, like Muldoon, explores the transition from the known and traditional rural society of the past to the unknown future beyond the bounds of paese or parish. In ‘Lavandare’ traditional practices are shown through mention of oxen used to drive the plough and the age-old washing of laundry in the millstream. The tone is immediately melancholic, from the opening lines with their monochrome colours ‘mezzo grigio’ and ‘mezzo nero’ and ‘vapor leggero’ through the dirge-like ‘cantilene’ of the washerwomen to the lament of the deserted woman in the final stanza who feels herself as useless as the abandoned plough. However, the final word of the poem ‘maggese’ – fallow land or fallow soil – , while it suggests emptiness also points towards the future. Land is only left fallow temporarily in order to recover condition which will improve future cultivation. Thus, though, in contrast to the season in ‘Why Brownlee Left’, this is an autumnal or even wintry period -‘nevica la frasca’, especially for the woman speaker, the concept of the future is still implicit, whether or not she will be involved in it. The speaker herself, in the last line of the poem, identifies with the plough, although behind this image it is easy to equate the abandoned plough with the man’s abandonment of his responsibilities towards the woman and the woman herself with the unploughed fallow land.


Both poets have used scenarios or tableaux of leaving the native place in which the one who leaves is already absent but is nevertheless the protagonist, the one who has taken action. ‘Why Brownlee Left’ is a sonnet while ‘Lavandare’ exploits the tropes of pastoral. In both poems traditional forms and conventions are used to reflect the transition from a traditional way of life to modernity.

[1] The Last Walk of Giovanni Pascoli translated and with an introduction by Danielle Hope. It can be bought direct from the publisher


Or from their distributor Inpress..



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