Browning, Wordsworth and the Rules of Golf

As promised in my last Post, here is another poem written by Robert H. K. Browning, a golf writer, magazine editor, historian and poet of the first half of the 20th century. As a writer, Browning is most famous for his book, A History of Golf, first published in 1955 and still widely available.

Browning’s poem is titled “Wordsworth Re-worded.” On the surface, the poem is a reminder that your score, even on a meaningless hole, is governed by the rules of golf. Read the poem a couple of times and I’ll meet you below.

Wordsworth Re-Worded

An aged man,
Racked by a ceaseless cough,
And shivering in his wretched clothes,
What should he know of golf?

But when he saw me start to play
His sides he well nigh split;
He said, “I’ll take you round today
For the mere fun of it.” “

With strokes and misses, empty head,
How many have I had?” –
“You’ve taken seven to here,” he said.
His answer made me mad. “

And how d’ye think that that can be?” –
He answered, “Take my word;
Two strokes to knock it off the tee,
And bunkered from your third.

“And other two to get it out,
And also — here’s the rub —
Two more, because beyond a doubt
I saw you ground your club.”

“But this is not a match,” said I,
“For cups I do not strive;
And leaving out the penalty,
It seems I’ve taken five.”

“Two on the tee – and one – makes three” –
He checked them on his hand –
“Two to get out, and other two
For grounding in the sand.”

“But they don’t count; those two don’t count;
The slip must be forgiven.” –
Twas throwing words away, for still
That ancient man would have his will;
“I say you’ve taken seven.”

So, Browning’s poem leaves us with some questions. First, why the title with its reference to the famous romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850)? Second, who is the “aged man?” Is he real or is the poem in some way about the conversation we have with ourselves when adding up the score during a bad hole? And third, did Browning really know a golfer who was this big a duffer? No doubt!

To answer the first question, we would need a Wordsworth scholar. From the title it would appear that the poem is a kind of a parody. Does anyone have any ideas? The aged or “ancient man” in the last stanza might represent the rule book which even a hundred years ago, when this poem was written, was old. The rules, as we have seen again recently, make no exceptions. Maybe Browning is using the poem to characterize the cruel reality of playing golf by the rules. What do you think? If you like, leave a comment as to how you read the poem.


Golf Poetry by Robert H. K. Browning

Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a famous English poet. Robert H. K. Browning (1884-?) was a scholarly golf historian from Scotland who was the editor of  “Golfing,” the premier British golf periodical, from 1910 to 1955. H.K Browning’s major claim to fame is his book, “A History of Golf,” which the late Herbert Warren Wind described as “…far and away the finest one-volume history of golf.”

But like the earlier Browning, Robert H. K. Browning was also a poet, thought he limited his subject matter to golf. Samuel L. McKinlay, another noted Scottish golf writer, wrote in the Afterword to the Classics of Golf’s edition of Browning’s book:

One good critic thought Browning’s light verse among the best of his generation, but it was so widely scattered among different periodicals as to defy any attempt at collection.

McKinlay singled out “The Pilgrims’ Progress” as one of Browning’s longest and best poems. The poem “describes in rhymed couplets the exploits of four London golfers who set out ‘to golf all August around the North.'” McKinlay then provides what he described as “some lovely lines” from the poem:

Then off through Dirleton, cool and shady,
To Muirfield, Archerfield, Aberlady.
They golfed at Gullane, on ‘One’ and ‘Two’
They played Longniddry and Luffness New.

And at St. Andrews, they

Laughed in the ‘Beardies’, despaired in ‘Hell’,
But played the first and the last quite well.

McKinlay, being a West of Scotland man, cites his favorite lines,

Troon and Prestwick–Old and ‘classy’–
Bogside, Dundonald, Gailes, Barassie.

I wonder if anyone could provide me with a reference to the entire poem? But even just these few lines make me wish I could have tagged along with the London foursome.

In my next Post, in two weeks, I will return to Robert H. K. Browning’s golf poetry.

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