ON A LONG-TO-BE REMEMBERED SPRING MORNING in March of 1957, the 22nd to be exact, Mrs. S. L. Abbot was well into the presentation of her program when the building trembled: windows rattled as the earth heaved.
Startled ladies extended gloved hands to neighbors as the president, Mrs. F.B. Nourse, rose to inquire whether the meeting should be adjuourned. The response was unanimously, "NO."
The moment in the history of the San Francisco Browning Society was appropriately commemorated by Julia Cooley Altrocchi, who wrote a poem that said, in part:
"From all the loveliness of poetry
Pouring from lips of one who dared to read
Old poetry -- not new. Then suddenly there came
A roar louder than battle-roar. Earth shook,
And shook again, -- and the tall building moved
And trembled. At very first a crescent line
Of smiles ran round the room as who should say
'Earth shrugs. We know this shrugging well.'"
Whether it was because they were San Franciscans or whether their mission for that morning was the reading and appreciation of poetry, those gathered members of the San Francisco Browning Society remained undaunted to the rattling earthquake and continued their monthly meeting relatively unfazed. Maybe the earthquake even added a bit of excitement to the already stimulating verse upon the page.
Due to the passionate lovers of poetry, this art form has thrived and will continue to do so--perhaps not in the brightly lit halls of mainstream media, but in the caverns of obscure websites and blogs, and most importantly in the rich hearts of lovers of good literature.
The San Francisco Browning Society, now in its second century, is a place for those who love older yet still vibrantly mysterious works of poetry and prose. Members gather, share their enthusiasms, sponsor younger readers, and hold the torch for this exquisite gem of the past, the works of Robert Browning and other writers of the English Victorian Renaissance, including people like Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
In 1968, the Society donated its library of 87 volumes and 37 pieces of memorabilia to Domincan College in San Raphael as a memorial to Sarah Wingate Taylor, one of our founding members. We also honor other forebears, as in our Sloss-Locke Tribute Fund, named for Mrs. Hattie Hecht Sloss and Miss Florence Locke. The fund augments dues and helps defray the Society's costs of rent, postage, printing, publicizing events, refreshments, and honoraria for our speakers and invited guests.
Many of our members are or have been notable members of San Francisco literary culture or poets, writers and artists in their own right. We hope through the sponsorship of an annual poetry contest, in conjunction with San Francisco State University, to be contributing to a new generation of skilled poets.
By-laws of the Society were first composed in 1914 and have been amended over time. Our meetings have shifted locale through the years and have included such notable venues as the Sir Francis Drake Hotel on Powell and Sutter Streets. We are fortunate to have made a wonderful home at The Sequoias on Geary Street, a beautiful senior residential tower with easy access by BART and MUNI bus.
. . . Old thoughts, upheld against the assault of death
By courage, beauty, poetry, ancient faith,
And graciousness -- toward vulgar death itself."
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven--
All's right with the world!
(from "Pippa Passes," Robert Browning)
Current Officers of the
SF Browning Society:
Dennis Parks, President
Publications of the San Francisco Browning Society
1909- "The Proceedings of the San Francisco Browning Society (1902-1909)" A volume bound for the Society by Paul Elder
1919- "Certain Papers of Importance" A bound volume compiled by Mrs. B.F. Norris, founder and literary director of the Society.
1952- "Certain Papers of Importance" A bound volume commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Society, compiled by Helen Knight Doyle, M.D.
1956- "Prize Monologues" A linen-bound volume, published in Mill Valley, California, by The Wings Press, awarded by the Society (1945-1955).
1967- "Prize Monologues" A paper-bound volume awarded by the Society (1956-1965), printed in the U.S. by National Aid to the Visually Handicapped.
1977- "The San Francisco Browning Society" A paper-bound volume commemorating the Society's 75th Year, compiled by Mrs. Lewis Specker.
1982- "Prize Poems" A paper-bound volume awarded bby the Society (1976-1982).
1992- "The San Francisco Browning Society (1977-1992)" A paper-bound volume commemorating the Society's 90th Year, compiled by Myrna Brunton Hughes.
Browning Societies sprang up in the late 19th century to celebrate the writings of Robert Browning, the exemplary master of the dramatic monolouge and writer of many lyric and narrative poems that have stood the test of time. These societies have been an indication of the importance of the poet in the lives of many readers, some having started during Browning's own lifetime. At first, Browning did not approve of such organizations--false modesty, perhaps--but the enthusiasm and tenacity of his readers persevered and continue to fluorish as new groups formed on both sides of the Atlantic and among readers of English literature across the globe.
The oldest and longest, continuing Browning Society was created by Hiram Corson at Cornell University in 1877. The Boston Browning Society followed in 1885 and has been very influential. Frederick James Furnivall and Emily Hickey began the London-based Browning Society in 1881, meeting monthly at University College in London. The society there published reading aids to Browning's work, as well as inexpensive copies of his books. They even attempted amateur productions of Browning's plays.
It is said that a cowboy or pioneer on the Western plans of America would travel with two books in his satchel or her trunk: a very well-thumbed copy of the Bible and an earmarked copy of the works of Robert Browning. The poet's mastery of rhythm and rhyme continue to be reflected in the versification of Western poets, although the man himself is frequently forgotten.
Browning Societies continue in a number of British and American locales. In the United States, the two main groups are in New York and San Francisco.