Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the political poem ‘First News from Villafranca’ in reaction to the Treaty of Villafranca that put an end to the Second Italian War of Independence, also known as the Franco-Austrian War on July 11, 1859. It was published in Browning’s collection of political poems entitled Poems before Congress (1860). This piece gives an outlet to the popular sentiment over the momentary peace promised to Italians with the armistice. The speaker is of the view that there is no peace without proper settlement of the Italian claim for independence.
First News from Villafranca Elizabeth Barrett Browning I. Peace, peace, peace, do you say? What! — with the enemy's guns in our ears? With the country's wrong not rendered back? What! — while Austria stands at bay In Mantua, and our Venice bears The cursed flag of the yellow and black? II. Peace, peace, peace, do you say? And this the Mincio? Where's the fleet, And where's the sea? Are we all blind Or mad with the blood shed yesterday, Ignoring Italy under our feet, And seeing things before, behind? III. Peace, peace, peace, do you say? What! — uncontested, undenied? Because we triumph, we succumb? A pair of Emperors stand in the way (One of whom is a man, beside), To sign and seal our cannons dumb? IV. No, not Napoleon! — he who mused At Paris, and at Milan spake, And at Solferino led the fight: Not he we trusted, honored, used Our hopes and hearts for . . . till they break Even so, you tell us . . . in his sight. V. Peace, peace, is still your word? We say you lie then! — that is plain, There is no peace, and shall be none. Our very Dead would cry " Absurd!" And clamor that they died in vain, And whine to come back to the sun. VI. Hush! more reverence for the Dead! They've done the most for Italy Evermore since the earth was fair. Now would that we had died instead, Still dreaming peace meant liberty, And did not, could not, mean despair. VII. Peace, you say? — yes, peace, in truth! But such a peace as the ear can achieve 'Twixt the rifle's click and the rush of the ball, 'Twixt the tiger's spring and the crunch of the tooth, 'Twixt the dying atheist's negative And God's Face — waiting, after all!
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‘First News from Villafranca’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning responds to the Armistice of Villafranca signed by France and Austria.
The speaker of this poem addresses the Emperors who put an end to the Second Italian War of Independence by signing a treaty. They did not care what the people of Italy desired. This is why the speaker expresses her anger and frustration at the proposed peace deal. She explains how there could be no peace with the enemy (Austria) rooted in their soil. The peace promised to the people can only be achieved when they are totally free and the enemy is expelled from their country.
Structure and Form
Browning’s ‘First News from Villafranca’ consists of seven stanzas. Each stanza contains six lines with the rhyme scheme of ABCABC. The meter of the poem follows the rising rhythm of the iambic meter. Besides, the text is written from the perspective of Italians in strong disagreement with the Treaty of Villafranca. Browning uses the second-person perspective to address the rulers directly. They are the ones who disregarded the Italians’ desire for liberty. Apart from that, the first three stanzas begin with the same line, highlighting the main idea of the poem.
In ‘First News from Villafranca,’ the following literary devices can be found:
- Repetition: The first stanzas begin with the repetition of a question posed directly at the peacemakers, “Peace, peace, peace, do you say?” This question comprises the word “peace” thrice for the sake of emphasis.
- Rhetorical Question: The poem opens with three rhetorical questions. The answers to these questions are already known to the audience. Through these questions, Browning points out the futility of the peace deal in the last phase of the war.
- Alliteration: The repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of neighboring words can be found in “wrong not rendered,” “before, behind,” “sign and seal,” No, not Napoleon,” etc.
- Onomatopoeia: In the last stanza, the terms “click” and “crunch” resonate with the sounds they hint at, respectively.
Peace, peace, peace, do you say?
What! — with the enemy’s guns in our ears?
With the country’s wrong not rendered back?
What! — while Austria stands at bay
In Mantua, and our Venice bears
The cursed flag of the yellow and black?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s political poem ‘First News from Villafranca’ captures the reaction of the Italians when they heard the news of the Villafranca Armistice. With this treaty, Napoleon III put an end to the Italian War of 1859. However, the speaker is of the view that with the Austrian forces on their shores and defending their fortresses built on Italian soil, there could be no peace. This is why the speaker expresses her disbelief in the proposed plan. The repetition of the term “peace” in the first line hints at her disgust and frustration with the treaty.
In a confident and attacking tone, she explains how there can be no peace with the enemy’s guns pointed at them and the unfulfilled revenge. Austria stood at their bay in their Mantua fortress. At the same time, Venice still bore the yellow and black Austrian flag described as a mark of the “curse.” As long as they were in Italy, the people could not rest or sit idle. Then they could have the peace proposed by Italian allies.
Peace, peace, peace, do you say?
And this the Mincio? Where’s the fleet,
And where’s the sea? Are we all blind
Or mad with the blood shed yesterday,
Ignoring Italy under our feet,
And seeing things before, behind?
The second stanza begins with the musical repetition of the very first line. Then the speaker goes on to ask the French Emperor as well as her people about the Mincio River near which Austrians still had their fortified territory. There was no fleet in Mincio River defending Italy’s own land. Furthermore, she asks the rulers whether they are blind to the fact that Austria had shed enough blood on their lands. It is as if yesterday they were standing against each other. How is it possible to strike a deal with them? They could neither ignore nor overlook the past. It is the history that taught them about the enterprising rulers, occupying territory after territory, disregarding the birthright of the people originally residing there.
Peace, peace, peace, do you say?
What! — uncontested, undenied?
Because we triumph, we succumb?
A pair of Emperors stand in the way
(One of whom is a man, beside),
To sign and seal our cannons dumb?
In the third stanza of ‘First News from Villafranca,’ the speaker continues in her same enraged tone. In a manner of astonishment, she utters “What!” in the second line. Then she uses only two words similar in meaning in order to highlight the fact that the peace that is not won but bestowed to a nation is neither long-lasting nor celebrated. She remembers how they won the battles prior to signing the treaty and asks whether one nation that had won the battles required them to succumb in the end. Their fate was determined by a pair of Emperors namely Napoleon III of France and Franz Josef I of Austria. Using an aside, Browning mocks the Austrian Emperor by saying Napoleon is a “man,” not the other. They stood in their way to glory by hushing their roaring canons of war.
No, not Napoleon! — he who mused
At Paris, and at Milan spake,
And at Solferino led the fight:
Not he we trusted, honored, used
Our hopes and hearts for . . . till they break
Even so, you tell us . . . in his sight.
The fourth stanza begins with a negation. The speaker means no disrespect to Napoleon. She praises his support for the Italian cause. It is he who spoke in Paris and Milan and inspired Italians. At the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, it was he who led the battle to victory. This is why she could not believe that Napoleon signed the deal for the sake of chimeric “peace.”
The incident makes her befuddled. She could not believe the fact that it was the French Emperor upon whose words the whole of Italy relied. They honored his words and put their hopes and hearts to keep their end. Yet, by the end, when Italy was leading toward victory, he signed the deal breaking million of hearts, dreams, and hopes.
Peace, peace, is still your word?
We say you lie then! — that is plain,
There is no peace, and shall be none.
Our very Dead would cry ” Absurd!”
And clamor that they died in vain,
And whine to come back to the sun.
This stanza is written in response to the French promise of peace. The speaker asks whether “peace” is still the Emperor’s claim. According to her, it is plainly a lie. There is no peace without a just fight and their country’s wrongs rightfully avenged. It seems as if the news from Villafranca would make the blood of their dead boil in anger and shame. They would lament the absurdity of the event. Furthermore, they would regret their death for their beloved country and strongly wish to return if it were possible. This stanza captures the fury and disgust of Italians with the Villafranca Armistice.
Hush! more reverence for the Dead!
They’ve done the most for Italy
Evermore since the earth was fair.
Now would that we had died instead,
Still dreaming peace meant liberty,
And did not, could not, mean despair.
The sixth stanza responds to the previous stanza. It seems as if this section is narrated from another person’s perspective except for the speaker. In this stanza, the narrator urges the people not to disrespect their dead by saying such things. They did their best for Italy ever since the earth was fair. The speaker wishes to die instead on the battlefield, not to rejoice in the settled peace that promises nothing but shame and failure. She expresses how she would have died by dreaming about peace in liberty. This peace sparks only one thing in the hearts of Italians, which is despair.
Peace, you say? — yes, peace, in truth!
But such a peace as the ear can achieve
‘Twixt the rifle’s click and the rush of the ball,
‘Twixt the tiger’s spring and the crunch of the tooth,
‘Twixt the dying atheist’s negative
And God’s Face — waiting, after all!
The last stanza of ‘First News from Villafranca’ begins with an important remark. The speaker describes how peace can only be achieved in truth. The Armistice delivered a fake promise of peace. This is why there was no such thing as peace in their hearts. In the following lines, Browning goes on to describe how one cannot be at ease between the rifle’s ruthless sound or the rushing of the cannon balls. It is as if one is trying to find peace between a tiger’s claws and teeth. She presents another antithesis between faith and disbelief in the lines, “‘Twixt the dying atheist’s negative/ And God’s Face.” Finally, she claims that the people are still waiting for peace.
Published in her collection entitled Poems before Congress (1860), ‘First News from Villafranca’ is about how the Treaty of Villafranca promised only despair to Italians. Written in support of the Italian cause, this poem proposes how there could be no peace until the enemy (Austria) was totally expelled from Italy.
After the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, Napoleon III of France signed the Armistice of Villafranca on 11/12 July 1859 with Francis Joseph I of Austria for a number of military reasons. This led to the end of the Italian War, also known as the Franco-Austrian War.
It is a protest poem written in response to the Villafranca Armistice of 1859 between France and Austria. This piece contains seven sections each with six lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCABC.
The main themes of this poem include peace, independence, nationalism, and revenge. In this poem, Browning tries to capture the popular sentiment after the Treaty of Villafranca was signed. This Armistice disregarded the Italian cause of independence.
Here is a list of poems that are similar to Browning’s political piece, ‘First News from Villafranca.’ You can also read more Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems.
- ‘Gerontion’ by T. S. Eliot — This complex poem looks at Eliot’s own world as well as the politics of 1919.
- ‘1st September, 1939’ by W. H. Auden — This poem was occasioned by Germany’s invasion of Poland that led to the beginning of the Second World War.
- ‘Armistice’ by Sophie Jewett — This piece is about a brief moment of magic, contemplation, and peace two travelers experience on their journey through the ocean.
- ‘The Send-Off’ by Wilfred Owen — This poem is about the death caused by war.
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