The cypress stood up like a church, that night we felt our love would hold


Saintly moonlight seemed to search and wash the whole world

The cypress stood up like a church
That night we felt our love would hold
And saintly moonlight seemed to search
And wash the whole world clean as gold;
The olives crystallized the vales’
Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:
The fireflies and the nightingales
Throbbed each to either, flame and song.
The nightingales, the nightingales.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861)
excerpt from Bianca Among the Nightingales (1862)
found in Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems
image – blmurch

Epic Love

Those first two lines draw me in. I can imagine standing in the moonlight by tall trees, believing I was at the beginning of a sanctified passion that would last forever. Like that feeling, this stanza can almost stand on its own. I like the rhythm of three-syllable words like “crystallized,” “fireflies” and “nightingales, the nightingales.” They’re like the sound of two hearts, beating together but not quite in unison.

This is the first stanza of a tragic sixteen-stanza epic. Love is found and betrayed. There is another woman, described as “too bold to sin, too weak to die.” The narrator scorned becomes obsessed, leaving her native Florence to follow her beloved and his new love to “gloomy England,” an interesting choice because Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself ran away with her one true love, leaving “gloomy England” for Italy.

Through it all, eventually resented by the narrator, we hear “the nightingales, the nightingales.”

Nightingales are songbirds that are known to sing at night, especially just before dawn. In many poems and stories nightingales are a symbol of romantic love or longing for freedom. It’s easy to imagine that a Victorian woman would identify with nightingales.


The whole poem posted at once is too long and dense for what I do here at QuoteSnack every day; I want to offer bite-sized tastes readers can fall into for a few minutes. Because Bianca Among the Nightingales is public domain, it can be found all over the place online, whole or in pieces, though often overwhelmed by advertising and usually without commentary.

I have mixed feelings about interspersing a longer piece with too much commentary – though it can deepen, commentary chops up the work, interrupting a reader’s own interpretation. On the other hand, the writing I’m doing alongside excerpts seems to be working for my readers. A good compromise might be offering a complete version of a work like this in a separate part of QuoteSnack, then interlinking wherever excerpts occur in the longer piece. What do you think?

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4 Responses to “The cypress stood up like a church, that night we felt our love would hold”

  1. clarissa mcfairy Says:

    ‘thou wast not born for death immortal bird ……

  2. E. A. Able Says:

    Hope is the thing with feathers. 🙂

  3. Jennifer Says:

    Love…enduring, exquisite, joyous, torture, inspiring, amazing. Such a complicated word.

    And I like the interlinking idea on the longer pieces.

    A side comment, I no longer see the facebook ‘sharing’ feature here. Several of my friends enjoyed the postings so was curious if you decided to not share it via facebook.

  4. E. A. Able Says:

    I expected to find more bodice-busters where nobody gets hurt – not so! Death and despair seem to come right along with new life and joy. Maybe it’s about balance, or maybe straight-ahead happiness is not as sexy as strife. Where would we be without our challenges?

    Thanks for the heads-up about Facebook. I haven’t changed anything, but I’ll bet they did. Facebook just did some re-designing.