Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
Much of Browning’s finest writing was done during his thirties, years which comprise most of the poems in the volumes Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Lyrics AND ROMANCES, and Men and Women. The intentions and procedures of these three volumes are similar, so that most often one’s comments on the first two hold good for the third as well. In fact, Browning himself in a later collected edition reshuffled many of these poems, breaking down the divisions between individual books but preserving always the dominating premise that the poems should be, as he said, “though often Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” During his middle years we see Browning striving to write poems at once less sentimental and more objective than those of his early hero, Shelley: he develops his own form of the dramatic monologue in the attempt to overcome subjectivity and vagueness, and his success here is in the nature of an overcompensation. The poems in these volumes, “always Dramatic in principle,” are brilliant but somehow chilly.
Browning’s verse-play, PIPPA PASSES, published in 1841, immediately precedes Dramatic Lyrics and by its superb rendering of the spirit of Italy—a country which is for Browning always the dialectical counterpart of England, a kind of anti-England—the play foreshadows the skeptical attitude conveyed by the poems. In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” in “My Last Duchess,” and in the immense narrative poem THE RING AND THE BOOK the poet was later to draw implicit and explicit contrasts between contemporary England and Renaissance Italy. His habitual approach is in this way argumentative and skeptical, the counterbalancing of opposing countries, times, sexes, and beliefs which is suggested even by many of the titles in these volumes: “Meeting at Night” against “Parting at Morning,” “Love in a Life” against “Life in a Love,” “The Italian in England” against “The Englishman in Italy.” The method permits Browning to end an elegant dialogue between two Venetian lovers, “In a Gondola,” with a vicious stabbing. Alternately, he can present the interior monologue of a warped person, allowing the character to condemn himself by his or her words: as is the case of the female poisoner, crossed in love, in “The Laboratory,” or the deranged murderer who speaks in “Porphyria’s Lover.” Perhaps the best of these interior monologues is the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in which a splenetic monk grumbles against his abbot:
GR-R-R—there go, my heart’s abhorrence!Water your damn flower-pots, do!If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,God’s blood, would not mine kill you!What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?Oh, that rose has prior claims—Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?Hell dry you up with its flames!
The lines are characteristic: not only does the voice contradict the speaker’s appearance and vocation, but the very exclamations and dashes render the punctuation histrionic and serve to define a particular habit of mind.
The monologues which imply a listener are psychologically more complex. “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” appeared in 1842 and 1845, respectively, and are models, in these earlier volumes, of the kind of irony and immediacy which the dramatic method at its best is capable of generating:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,Looking as if she were alive, I callThat piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s handsWorked busily a day, and there she stands.
Browning consciously follows Donne in beginning poems with arresting first lines. Here, much of the Duke’s ruthlessness is conveyed at the very outset by his exquisitely casual reference, with the possessive “my", to his dead wife, by his evident pleasure at being able now to consider her as an art object, not as an intractable life-study:
She hadA heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,Too easily impressed; she liked whate’erShe looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Subtly, Browning manages to turn the Duke’s criticism of his former wife, his specious yet elegantly phrased “how shall I say?” claim that she was too much alive, too indiscriminately joyous, into an exposure of his own monstrous pride in “a nine-hundred-years-old name.” Flexible couplets with unobtrusive rhymes are the fit medium for his self-justifying logic and for the vicious sweetness which informs even his dealings with his present auditor, the envoy of the woman who will probably be Ferrara’s next Duchess (“Will’t please you rise?” addressed to the envoy is a command in the guise of a question). By tracing a logic of association in the blank verse of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” Browning focuses in a similar way on an incident of crucial importance for the self-revelation of his title character, the delirious churchman whose dying words concern pagan luxury and wordly pomp rather than Christian salvation.
Two dramatic monologues from the Men and Women volume, “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “How it Strikes a Contemporary,” are explicitly concerned with aesthetics and the process of composition in poetry and painting. If we read between the lines of these poems, looking for the passages which most accord with Browning’s actual practice, it is clear that he believes the best art is a universalizing of individual experience; and that to this end the poet or painter must be first of all curious, pre-eminently a noticer. Indeed, the verbs “notice,” “mark,” “see” are common in Browning’s dramatic lyrics, where to notice a unique scene or situation is to exert an individual consciousness, and where to notice intensely is the first step in separating the apparent from the real and in beginning to write, a book that in words from THE RING AND THE BOOK, “shall mean beyond the facts.” Accordingly, a collection of “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons” would escape the charge of subjectivity, yet taken as a whole it would convey a meaning beyond the mathematical sum of the dramatic lyric voices involved. These speakers reveal themselves far beyond what the occasion warrants, and the poems are essentially more dramatic and romantic than lyric. Browning takes definite pleasure in the vivid selfhood of his speakers, and pleasure as well in the multiple vision of the artist who can create and embody conflicting viewpoints while remaining himself uncommitted.
Browning’s interest in conflict, incongruity, even in the grotesque, has its natural complement in his dramatic technique. The range of styles and effects is as various as the range of complexity among his characters. “An Englishman in Italy” exhibits a cataloguing, descriptive style, for instance in the request that one observe a fishing skiff from Amalfi, with alien English eyes watching
. . . Our fisher arrive,And pitch down his basket before us,All trembling aliveWith pink and gray jellies, your seafruit;You touch the strange lumps,And mouths gape there, eyes open, all mannerOf horns and lumps. . . .
In “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and in “Incident of the French Camp,” Browning manages well two very different kinds of narrative. The mode of “Pictor Ignotus,” an early monologue which looks ahead to “Andrea Del Sarto” and “Fra Lippo Lippi,” is one of ratiocination, following a proud artist’s ebb and flux of thought:
O human faces, hath it split, my cup?What did ye give me that I have not saved?Nor will I say I have not dreamed (how well!)Of going—I, in each new picture, —forth,As, making new hearts beat and bosoms swell,To Pope or Kaiser, East, West, South, or North. . . .
There is also the lyric outcry of “Home-Thoughts, From Abroad,” with its famous lines, “Oh, to be in England/Now that April’s there.” Browning’s metrical range is diverse and experimental as well; in “Boot and Saddle” and “How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix” he brilliantly turns the difficult anapestic meter to his own purposes, for both poems succeed in conveying by a kind of metrical imitation the excitement of a fast ride on a horse (“I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three”). Finally, it accords well with Browning’s perspectivism, his prizing of unique objects and irreducible selfhood, that he should have created a new metrical or stanzaic form for almost every separate poem.
These earlier poems are a true representation of Browning in that they show him to be intellectually ingenious but no philosopher; an experimenter with both social and literary norms but by no standard a Victorian radical; a writer aware of evil and violence, but for the most part a cautious optimist. The later poems and THE RING AND THE BOOK bear out one’s sense that his major achievement is in fact in these dramatic poems of his middle years, where the view of truth as relative is first impressively demonstrated in dramatic monologues. There is, of course, something deeply subversive in the notion that different points of view are equally valid, in the oblique yet damaging criticisms of Victorian sexual and religious conventions conveyed in some of these poems, in the attacks on bureaucracy such as the telling poem written against the “official” Wordsworth, “The Lost Leader.” The dramatic monologue, at once objective and subjective, public and private in its methods, was the main vehicle used by Browning for criticism of Victorian society and manners; the monologue permitted ethical pronouncements to be made through someone else’s voice, as it were, ventriloquially.
Thus in “My Last Duchess,” in “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” in many of his best poems Browning is a public writer with disturbing private tendencies: he never pushes exposure or criticism past the point of pleasure, and his work as a whole gives an effect of hard impersonal brilliance. Browning was typically a man of his age in believing that the poet was a moral agent in his society, a “Maker-see” whose concerns were norms and value, the discovery and presentation of a heightened reality. Yet in wishing to write poems which would mean “beyond the facts” he settled on a method which from the start excluded personal directness. Because all his sincerities and critiques had to be conveyed indirectly, these poems for all their peculiar triumphs will be found to lack the keynote of passionate personal despair which is the most profound theme in the finest Victorian poetry.
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