Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12391
SOURCE: "Dramatic Romances and Lyrics," in Becoming Browning: The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning, 1833-1846, Ohio State University Press, 1983, pp. 201-29.
[In the following essay, Ryals maintains that the poems in Browning's 1845 volume, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, are linked by the theme of loyalty, a theme which Ryals argues is often expressed ironically.]
Several months after the publication of Colombe's Birthday, Browning wrote to his friend Domett enclosing a copy of his play: "… I feel myself so much stronger, if flattery not deceive, that I shall stop some things that were meant to follow, and begin again" (Domett, p. 106). The things meant to follow seem to have been plays, for although two more were soon to be published, neither was intended for stage production. Beginning again apparently meant returning to shorter pieces of the kind that had appeared in Dramatic Lyrics three years earlier. Yet before he could begin—"I really seem to have something fresh to say"—Browning felt himself in need of a change, a trip to southern Italy to complement his visit in 1838 to northern Italy, where he had found artistic renewal. After which, "I never took so earnestly to the craft as I think I shall—or may, for these things are with God" (Domett, p. 106).
The second journey to Italy made between August and December 1844, proved remarkably fruitful. He not only wrote verse on the way there and back but also was inspired by Italian scenes to compose a number of poems upon his return. Again in England, he began correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett in January 1845 and finally met her in person some four months later. She too may have inspired some of the short poems that Browning now wrote. She did, at any rate, see a number of them in manuscript and in page proof and made suggestions for changes in them.1 The verses were published as Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, the seventh number of Bells and Pomegranates, in November 1845.
As he was completing Colombe's Birthday, Browning seems to have discovered that ironic romance was a more salutary mode for him than tragedy, certainly as far as playwriting was concerned. Dramatic Lyrics of 1842 had proved, in the words of John Forster in the Examiner for 26 November 1842, a "continued advance in the right direction"—lyrics for the most part dramatic that are "full of the quick turns of feelings, the local truth, and the picturesque force of expression, which the stage so much delights in" and that redeem his genius from "mere metaphysical abstraction." Where Browning excelled, said Richard Hengist Horne, was in "dramatic portraiture."2 By 1844 Browning could have had no doubt that his genius was essentially ironic. For some years now he had been forcing his native gift into literary forms alien to it—namely, the dramatic tragedy, basically a closed-end form that gravitates toward judgment in favor of one particular side of a dilemma. Browning had struggled mightily with the form, attempting to provide it with the multiple perspectives, even in its closure, that his genius dictated. But it was all wrong, for only with the greatest wrenching of the plot could he force it to yield the ironic possibilities of character portrayal—"dramatic portraiture"—that he found most congenial. Writing for the stage would simply no longer do. As he told Elizabeth Barrett, he would compose no more plays after the one he was currently working on (Kintner, 1:26).
We have already noted how the dramatic monologue—what Browning called the dramatic lyric—is a salutary form for an author who hangs between immanence and transcendence, involvement and detachment, the lyric and the dramatic. We have also noted how those dramatic lyrics in which an ironic conflict is most strongly felt are those that realize most fully the potentialities of the form. But what of poems in which ironic tensions are significantly diminished, as for example in those works where the conflict between love and power is concluded by the choosing of one and the suppression (or forgetting) of the other? We have seen in Colombe's Birthday how Valence and Colombe choose love and Berthold chooses power and how their decisions force the play into the mold of ironic romance. Shorter forms dealing with such subject matter would then also be romances. Irony would not cease to inform poems of this nature, but ironic tensions would be reduced. As a result the emphasis would lie more heavily on narrative than on revelation of character. Browning decided therefore to call such poems dramatic romances. One cannot be sure exactly which of the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics the poet had in mind as romances. In the edition of 1863, at any rate, six of the poems of this volume come under the head of "Dramatic Romances."3
Like Dramatic Lyrics this collection covers a wide range of subjects treated from many different points of view and expressed in highly varying meters and line lengths. Here as in the earlier volume, some of the poems were published under titles by which they are no longer known. The contents were as follows:
"How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." (16—.)
"Pictor Ignotus." Florence, 16—.
"Italy in England" [later called "The Italian in England"]
"England in Italy." (Piano di Sorrento.) [later called "The Englishman in Italy"]
"The Lost Leader"
"The Lost Mistress"
"Home Thoughts, from Abroad"
"The Tomb at St. Praxed's" (Rome, 15—.) [later called "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church"]
I. "The Flower's Name"
II. "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis"
"France and Spain"
I. "The Laboratory" (Ancien Regime.)
II. "Spain—The Confessional"
"The Flight of the Duchess"
"Song" ["Nay, but you, who do not love her"]
"The Boy and the Angel"
"Night and Morning"
I. "Night" [later called "Meeting at Night"]
II. "Morning" [later called "Parting at Morning"]
"Claret and Tokay" [later called "Nationality in Drinks"]
"Saul" [the first nine sections only, at the end of which is printed "(End of Part the First.)"]
"The Glove" (Peter Ronsard loquitur)
It will be noted that a number of these poems are complementary but, with the exception of three instances, are not, as in Dramatic Lyrics, given joint titles. Why this should be so is unclear. It may be that Browning no longer felt the need to emphasize the dramatic (as opposed to the personal) nature of the verses; it may be that he felt the yoking under one title to be too obvious. But the fact remains that several of the poems are related and are enhanced, as I propose to demonstrate, by being considered together. Indeed, all the poems gain from examination of them as related pieces having a common theme, which more often than not is expressed ironically.
Like Dramatic Lyrics the volume begins with a lyric narrative of adventure in war and on horseback. The anapestic lines of "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" carry us with the rider on an urgent journey to bring the news that alone could save Aix. The poem has an unusual perspective in that the narrator makes his horse, Roland, and not himself the protagonist of the story, this being emphasized by the meter that almost suggests that the tale is being told from the horse's point of view. In the end all the narrator remembers is the last of the town's wine being poured down the horse's throat, "which … / Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent." In the end, in fact, Roland becomes the hero—not "which" but "who" brought the goods news to Aix.
"How They Brought the Good News" was eventually classified as a dramatic lyric. We might even call it a low-level dramatic monologue in that the selfless character of the speaker in this instance is obliquely revealed by what he says. But the romance quality of the poem is evident in the narrative, which stresses not the result but the process. Thus the narrator remembers every detail of his journey—the departure, what his fellows said, what the landscape was like, what he wore—but of his goal he can remember nothing save the state of his horse, the means by which the journey was made.
Loyal praise of a brave animal is inverted in the next poem to self-praise, at least self-defense, by a cowardly painter—not how he triumphed but why I failed. "Pictor Ignotus" is the monologue of an unknown painter of the Florentine High Renaissance who explains why he has not achieved the fame of the youth, presumably Raphael, who seems everywhere to be praised.4 He could have done all the youth had done: he had the necessary talent and insight, nothing barred his way. Yet a voice spoke forbidding him to paint for the kind of worldly collector portrayed in "My Last Duchess." If then he is bested and his pictures die because he has shrunk from the new naturalism now fashionable, at least he has been able to dictate the terms of his defeat, having consciously and determinedly chosen to paint in the old style and thereby keep his art unsullied by the marketplace.
On first hearing, the apologia sounds convincing enough. We are in fact impressed by the artist who turns from the materialism of the Medicis and preserves a religious concern for his art. If there is a note of self-pity in his plea, it serves all the more to elicit our sympathy for this man of enormous potential but limited achievement. Yet on reflection we begin to wonder about two matters—namely, was he as talented as he says, and whose was the voice deflecting him from the fame he wished? In other words, judgment sets in when sympathy of the moment fades.
Claiming a God-given ability to perceive truth in the heavens, on the earth, and in man, he also makes pretense to the talent that would permit him to translate this truth to canvas, showing
Each face obedient to its passion's law,
Each passion clear proclaimed without a tongue;
Whether Hope rose at once in all the blood,
A-tiptoe for the blessing of embrace,
Or Rapture drooped the eyes as when her brood
Pull down the nesting dove's heart to its place,
Or Confidence lit swift the forehead up,
And locked the mouth fast, like a castle braved.
We know from his descriptions that he would be showing these not embodied in real men and women but as personified abstractions in stylized form. And he too half faces up to his limitations when he asks, in the very next lines, "Men, women, children, hath it spilt, my cup? / What did ye give me that I have not saved?" The questions are not answered, but we see from the metaphor that whatever artistic gifts he possesses he has hoarded without ever expending them in art.
He has dreamed of fame, of sending his pictures forth "through old streets named afresh" in honor of him, and then in death would "not go to heaven, but linger here," on earth. The thought was thrilling; but then it grew frightful, "'tis so wildly dear!" The expenditure of psychic energy would be simply too great: it would mean nothing less than becoming a new man, undergoing a rebirth. And is it worth it, after all? No, for "a voice changed it," this aspiration. The speaker does not tell us who spoke. He does not tell us for the very reason that he does not know. If he knew, then he could blame someone for his failure, and no apology to himself or to anybody else would be necessary. But he cannot seriously consider that the voice is his own because to do so would be tantamount to admitting to inadequacy.
Like so many of Browning's characters whom we have noticed, the painter attributes his limitations to fate, which in effect is the voice's authority. He was like a man looking through a door to the revels inside, the revels "of some strange House of Idols at its rites." Suddenly the world was changed for him. But he was afraid of what he saw, even afraid of himself. "Who summoned these cold faces which began / To press on me and judge me?" To enter would mean turning his back on the kind of art that he had perfected, doing violence to it and to himself. "They drew me forth," but "spite of me," like a nun "shrinking from the soldiery." Then the voice spoke and he went no farther. Fate intervened just in time. He can therefore urge that he did not transgress his own moral destiny: "they" drew him forth in spite of himself.
He and his pictures have been spared the "daily pettiness" of the collector who might purchase "our" work. Other artists may be willing to suffer the inanity of the material-minded virtuosos concerning "our pictures," but as for himself, "I chose my portion." If he is an unknown painter, it is because he has wanted to remain so. Fate, in the form of limitation of either skill or vision, has not barred the way; the responsibility, he says in a gesture of pride, is totally his: he has determined his own defeat.
The note of bravery wavers however: his heart "sinks" as he goes about his ordinary, "monotonous" business of painting the "endless cloisters and eternal aisles" with the "same" series of religious figures,'all with "the same cold, calm, beautiful regard." In the end he poses as the pathetic but brave little soul who has consciously elected obscurity for himself and his art out of the highest principle. He knows his pictures will die, blackening and mouldering in the silence of the shrine, but at least he and they will be spared the merchant's traffic. Finally, he asks, is fame worth the debasement of principle and purity?
Throughout the monologue there are images of expansion and contraction, of blazing light and darkness, of expenditure and hoarding. Even the pictures he would paint reveal the same imagery: Hope rising to be embraced, Rapture drooping the eyes as when her brood pulls down the heart to its place, Confidence lighting up the forehead and locking the mouth. He paints, in other words, images of his own inhibiting will. Clearly every leaping up of his heart is checked by timidity and fear. Like his spiritual brother J. Alfred Prufrock, the unknown painter always settles down on the side of parsimony: "it" would not be worth the expenditure; the expense of spirit, whether in love or art, is lust in action.
The design of "Pictor Ignotus" is much like that of "My Last Duchess." The speaker inadvertently reveals his character by his utterance, which in this case is, as it is partially in the case of the earlier poem, a defense of, and apology for, himself. Where in the earlier monologue Browning employed rhymed couplets for a certain effect, he here uses alternative rhyme—abab, bcbc etc.—to suggest enclosure. Likewise, at the conclusion of the monologue, he introduces a further ironic note in a passage that epitomizes the speaker. Where the duke referred to Neptune taming a sea-horse, Pictor Ignotus asks: "Blown harshly, keeps the trump its golden cry? / Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?" These are of course the old Romantic questions: Is not the idea profaned when expressed in the imperfect medium of language? Is not the thought debased when translated into action? But here the questions, which the speaker intends as images of empty fame, are ironically expressed, as Herbert Tucker suggests,5 in images of prophetic creativity. Gabriel's trum pet awakens the dead to new life; Shelley's west wind is to be a trumpet of prophecy. Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water from the earth; Browning himself uses the story in book three of Sordello to speak of the water of life that the multitude dispraises as dim oozings. By such means the poet himself intrudes, as it were, into his poem, to comment upon his creation, to make himself known, and to remind us that the monologue, for all its verisimilitude, is after all not life but art.
The same imagery of expansion and contraction is likewise used in the next two poems to yield an ironic effect. The first of the companion poems, "Italy in England," is the monologue of an Italian patriot now in exile in England recounting how a loyal contadina helped him escape the Austrian police. For three days he had been hiding in a recessed aqueduct, when he managed to attract the attention of a girl passing by. He was going to lie to her concerning why he was there; but finding her so artless he tells her the truth, asks for food and drink, and requests her to carry a message into Padua. She does all this and thereby helps him elude capture. Now, safely in England, he looks back over his last days in Italy long ago, and in doing so reveals how the intervening years have taken their toll of his youthful fervor and openness to spontaneous emotion.
During his long exile the monologist has become a professional patriot, so to speak, doing all those things, like raising money and eliciting statements of support, necessary for his cause. But in the process he has become a monomanic, has little "thought / Concerning—much less wished for—aught / Beside the good of Italy / For which I live and mean to die!" He is, in effect, dead to all save The Cause. He knows this, although he does not put it in exactly those terms and rationalizes it as the price one pays for such patriotism. Yet looking back over those few days just before he left Italy for good, he experiences something of the old emotion. For thinking what he might possibly wish for, if he pleased to spend three wishes on himself, he still turns to matters connected with The Cause for the first two, both of which, not unexpectedly, issue from hate: the bloody murder of Metternich and the slow death from a broken heart of his old friend Charles, who deserted The Cause. As for the third, he wishes to see the girl who rescued him, now grown into a married woman with children:
know if yet that woman smiles
With the calm smile—some little farm
She lives in there, no doubt—what harm
If I sat on the door-side bench,
And, while her spindle made a trench
Fantastically in the dust,
Inquired of all her fortunes—just
Her children's ages and their names,
And what may be the husband's aims
For each of them—I'd talk this out,
And sit there, for an hour about,
Then kiss her hand once more, and lay
Mine on her head, and go my way.
Instead of such natural but homely joys that love can bring, he was wedded The Cause, which has sapped his soul's energy and made him dead to all natural joy. For an instant he is almost willing to admit that he wishes his life had been otherwise, but then the mania returns and in an envoi he says: "So much for idle wishing—how / It steals the time! To business now!"
Like Pictor Ignotus, the Italian in England refuses spiritual rebirth out of a mistaken sense of loyalty. And, as in the preceding monologue, Browning enters the poem, disguisedly, to try to make certain that we do not overlook what he intends. He does so here by infusing the poem with imagery of rebirth. The story takes place during Holy Week. The speaker is a man with a price on his head and has a friend who betrays him. The girl comes to him in his "crypt." He pictures her as Mary is frequently represented iconographically, her foot on a snake, and he asks her to be the mediatrix between himself and the help he seeks in the Duomo, where as a type of Our Lady of Peace she is to ask "whence comes peace?" to which she may expect the reply "From Christ and Freedom." At the end of seven days—that is, on Easter—help comes through her aid and he rises from his hiding place and departs from Italy by sea.6 There is never any hint of passionate love between the two, only selfless devotion on her part to a man in need and, on the part of both, to a common cause. " … I could not choose," says the speaker, "But kiss her hand and lay my own / Upon her head," the same gestures he would make again were his third wish granted. By his imagery Browning would have us see that the possibility of rebirth still remains: what is necessary is that the patriot for a while forgo his "business" in favor of more ordinary and purely human relationships. The poem depicts concisely the monomania and the bitterness of long political exile.
The companion monologue, "England in Italy," suffers from lengthiness and from the poet's lack of a clear conception of what he wanted it to be. Apparently Browning originally intended it as a description of the landscape around Naples, but then he added an ending concerning the Corn Laws, probably for two reasons: to give it a political slant so that it could more properly serve as a pendant to "Italy in England" and, secondly, to give the discursive stanzas a more pointed ending. Elizabeth Barrett wrote to the poet, after having seen first the manuscript and then the printer's proofs, that the ending "gives unity to the whole … just what the poem wanted" (Kintner, 1:244).
The monologue is addressed to a small peasant girl frightened by the scirocco that has brought a storm of rain. The Englishman tries to comfort her by describing his impressions of the past day: the dryness, the churning seas, the flapping birdnets, the wine-making, his ascent of a mountain to view the sea below and the clear sky above—all images suggestive of death and rebirth and clearer vision. The wind has now come, the storm has passed, the festive celebration will soon begin. All this is described in 285 lines, at which point the speaker says, doubtless sensing the child's boredom, '"Such trifles' you say?" On this very day in England, Parliament is debating the Corn Laws, whether abolishing them be "righteous and wise." Why, they might just as well debate whether the scirocco should vanish in black from the skies!
The sentiment is noble, and the poem has been read as expressive of Browning's own political liberalism. If it is no more than that—description of Neapolitan landscape followed by an ejaculation of political liberalism—then it can make no claim to being a dramatic monologue. We must, however, recall that the poem is presumably intended as a companion to "Italy in England" and that we are expected to note certain similarities. This means that, at the very least, we must suspect an ironic intent. When we look carefully, we are puzzled by the speaker's claim to share Ulysses' secret: "He heard and he knew this life's secret/I hear and I know!" (227-28). Whatever the secret is—apparently it is that men should be free—the monologuist does little to help others realize it. Unlike the Italian in England, he is not forced into exile; on the contrary, he is a tourist fascinated by the quaint ways of Italian life and the oddity of the landscape. While "in my England at home, / Men meet gravely to-day" to debate the Corn Laws, he amuses himself with the "sensual and timorous beauty" (195) of southern Italy. Where the Italian exile has his country's freedom as his "business," the English tourist can give but a passing mention—and this to a child—of the most serious cause of starvation in England during the "hungry forties." The echo of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" that Browning so strongly intended is purely for ironic effect.
Loyalty to a cause is more forcefully the informing idea of the following poem, "The Lost Leader." The poet who was once in the glorious company of Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, and Shelley has broken from the vanguard and the freemen to sink to the rear and the slaves, although in the eyes of the world he is up front in the limelight for all to see. The apostate has gone and will never be welcomed back, being a "lost soul," the most serious charge Browning can make against anyone. But this Judas is lost only as a leader; his accomplished work remains and entitles him to be "pardoned in Heaven, the first by the throne!" It is not, I believe, so much Browning's devotion to the poetry of Wordsworth (who so obviously is the Lost Leader)7 as his sense of irony that dictates the final turn in the poem.
"The Lost Mistress" is artificially linked to its companion by the adjective in the title. In tone it is entirely different. Where the speaker of the former poem was more than ready to shout invective and heap opprobrium upon the disloyal leader, the speaker of the second is more than gentle, making no charge against his unfaithful lady love. "The Lost Mistress" is a more interesting poem dramatically than its companion because here the speaker has a design upon his auditor, which is to elicit pity and show himself as the manly knight of infinite resignation. "All's over then..?" he asks. Surely this can hardly be, for his mistress's words of dismissal sound no bitterer than the sparrows' good-night twitter. Surely her farewell is but a signal for a slight transition in their relationship. She will not really send him away? He will appear as no more than a friend, claiming but ever so slightly more than mere friendship entitles him to.
We cannot know how the mistress interprets his pretty little speech, but we see that he enjoys his status as the rejected lover. In the first place, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all because in being the loser there are certain claims to distinction. In the second place, he enjoys playing the role of the martyr, enjoys abasing himself, enjoys the revel in self-pity: "Mere friends are we,—well, friends the merest / Keep much that I'll resign." The monologue is only twenty lines long but it manages to reveal the character of a rejected suitor who makes every effort to present himself in the most favorable light, to his auditor and to himself, as infinitely injured but eternally faithful. It is a sort of preliminary sketch of "Andrea del Sarto."
Loyalty of another kind is the theme of "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad," which was originally composed of three separate lyrics instead of the two that we now know. The beauties praised in "Oh, to be in England" are those quiet ones alluded to in the "The Lost Mistress." We have often noted, from Paracelsus onward, how for Browning the present moment takes on meaning only when viewed in terms of the future, as being ever in the process of becoming. We may note the same in this lyric.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And who wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brush-wood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
The "some morning" turns out to be "now," and the lines that were growing longer under the promise of a future morning end in a final "In England—now," the shortest line of the strophe.
For most poets these beautiful lines would be poem enough. For Browning, however, they must be redeemed from their April nowness by the coming May. Or to put it another way, the lyric moment is to be incorporated into a dramatic movement.
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows—
Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That's the wise thrush; he signs each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields are rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower,
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
The April-becoming-May is a month of rapid movement. Where the boughs and sheaf are in tiny leaf in the first strophe, the pear tree leans and scatters. Where April's chaffinch sings, the thrash of anticipated May sings his song twice over. Like the bird the poet of this lyric sings twice over so as to recapture the first moment, to bind his days together, to redeem the past from its pastness, to put futurity into the present. All will be gay when April becomes May. And because April possesses this quality of becoming, the flowers of the future-in-the-present are far brighter than this southern gaudy melon-flower here and now. It is not that we pine for what is not or that unheard melodies are sweeter than tonal ditties—attitudes of Romantic poets; rather, it is the pregnancy of the present that makes it meaningful. This is why the English April landscape of dainty, quiet beauties about to be the blossoms of May makes dull by comparison the gaudy beauties of the south, which, in this spring month, are already fullblown.
The second lyric of "Home-Thoughts"—"Here's to Nelson's memory!"—is a drinking song that sounds more like Thomas Hood than Browning and that the poet may have included so as to give his volume a certain topicality.8 In the third of "Home-Thoughts," which takes place in the waters that inspired the preceding lyric, the speaker admonishes him who would help England to turn away from noisy earthly feats to silent prayer.
The irony is more pronounced in the next poem, "The Tomb at St. Praxed's." Officially a Christian, the speaker is actually an independent thinker who does not perceive that his speculations are often contrary to Christian doctrine. Like the soliloquizer of the Spanish cloister, he adheres to the outward forms of his religion but is almost totally oblivious to the meaning behind them. He begins his monologue with a quotation from Ecclesiastes—"Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!"—which causes us to believe that we are about to hear a sermon on that text. But immediately we learn that the bishop, as the revised title of 1849 identifies him, is not in the pulpit but in bed. Yet in bed as in the pulpit, the bishop adopts a homiletic manner: "And as she died so must we die ourselves, / And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream. / Life, how and what is it?" The bishop is infected by a déformation professionelle: throughout his monologue he lapses into his homiletic style.
As he pleads with his sons for a magnificent tomb in which to be buried, he recalls his past (worldly) life, rehearses the recumbent posture of his effigy atop the desired tomb, and slips from time to time into his pulpit manner—all of which serve to point up the discrepancy between what as a Christian prelate he should be and what he actually is. Evidently unconcerned for the salvation of his soul, he is preoccupied with the tomb, which offers him a form of physical immortality. The most telling moral irony is expressed in the quotation from Job: "Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: / Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?" Where indeed? According to the bishop, in a beautiful tomb where he may gloat over his defeated rival. The bishop's greatest fear is not of the Last Judgment but of a cheap sepulcher.
As he continues to talk, his mind becomes muddled. At the beginning when he asked, "Do I live, am I dead?" he knew very well that, though dying, he was still very much alive and able, for perhaps the last time, to entreat his sons to bury him in proper fashion and to bargain with them concerning what they would be willing to give. At the end, however, when he asks the same question, he fancies himself already lying on his entablature atop the tomb, his sons' "ingratitude" having stabbed him to death.
In the case of the bishop of Saint Praxed's as in that of the Duke of Ferrara, the monologue serves no strategic prupose. The bishop knows that the more he talks, the less likely he is to get the tomb he wants. The sons have heard all this many times before and they whisper to Anselm that the old man's at it again. Why then does the bishop continue his monologue? For the same reason that the duke makes his indiscreet remarks to the envoy. The lyric impulse is so strong in each of them that they allow themselves to be carried away by the song of self, the song that they conceive not as condemning but as apologetic and justifying. In the bishop's own mind, he is an exemplary clergyman—"how I earned the prize!" He has met all the demands of religious formalism and been a Renaissance humanist to boot. What matter if he violated his priestly vow of celibacy or hated his brother clergyman? He has loved the blessed mutter of the Mass, felt the altar's candle flame, and tasted the strong incense smoke; he has lived with popes and cardinals and priests. What more could be expected of him? And now to crown his life, he must have a beautiful tomb as testimony not only to his Christian life but also to his superiority over his old rival, Gandolf. His sons may not give him what he deserves, but he wants to make clear that he has every right to it and is perfectly justified in whatever self-pity he may feel.
There is an obvious irony in all this. But the great irony is the poet's own intrusion into the monologue, an act that marks the monologue as a poem, calls attention to it as not merely the utterance of a Renaissance bishop but as a work of art. For Browning has designed the monologue as an exemplum, a sermon by example, on the text Vanitas vanitatem, the first line (in translation) of the monologue. "The Tomb at St. Praxed's" is thus a sermon unknowingly preached by the bishop; which is to say, the preacher proves his text by the revelation of his own character, and his plea for sympathy becomes a literary form—a sermon—that stands in judgment of him. A poet can hardly go further in achieving so subtly those reflections of the work of art in the work of art itself that characterize Romantic Irony. In brief, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church," the title by which it is now known, is a masterpiece. In future years Browning might add to the complexity of his dramatic monologues,9 but he would never surpass the extraordinary ironic dimension of this poem.
The poems immediately following are of much smaller scale. "Garden Fancies" is composed of "The Flower's Name" and "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis," both about language. In the first the speaker's lady has given to an inconspicuous flower without any obvious beauty "its soft meandering Spanish name: / What a name! was it love, or praise? / Speech half-asleep, or song half-awake?" Where "The Flower's Name" deals with the preservative power of language, the second deals with the uncreating word. The speaker recognizes the book by the author named in the title as the work of a pedant that may well be cast away. He places it in the crevice of the crotch of a plum tree, where it meets with all sorts of teeming animal life that mock the lifeless words. Finding this unquiet grave unfit, the speaker then takes the book to be buried on a bookshelf under other dead books by "A," "B," and "C" to "dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!"
The next two poems, with the joint title "France and Spain," are also concerned with language. In the first, "The Laboratory," words disguise the horror of the action: if the lady describes the poison with which she would kill her rival as beautiful, then it cannot be so bad to administer it. The lady, in fact, attempts by language to make murder a fine art. She is an innocent concerning the means to do her deed: "Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?" "And yonder soft phial, … —is that poison too?" And it is her very innocence, the quality of the ingenue, that gives a passionate intensity to her monologue and the hatred that it expresses.
Throughout her visit to the laboratory, the lady—wearing a mask of glass to ward off the noxious fumes as well as a mask of language to filter reality—acts as though she were inspecting a flower garden, asking the name of each and admiring its pretty color. This is, however, but the vorspiel to the main play. "Let death be felt and the proof remain; / … He is sure to remember her dying face!" she says, preparing the enactment of the drama that she is concocting. And for the man who has put together the requisite properties, she offers, with all the innocence and cold-bloodedness of a diva acting an ingenue: "Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill, / You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!"
In contrast to the dramatic monologue to which it is linked, "The Confessional" is more nearly a romance, the monologue of an imprisoned young woman who was tricked into revealing the secrets of her lover, a political revolutionary. The poem turns on the verb "to lie," in both its physical and linguistic meanings. Having lain with her lover, the girl is shocked to discover that his lips have "kissed / My soul out in a burning mist." She feels guilty not so much for the act of fornication as for the fact that physical love has supplanted religious love. Confessing her sexual transgressions to a priest, she is informed that she can "turn this love … / To lawful love, almost divine"; even further, she can be an angel to save the soul of her lover. All she has to do is ask of her paramour, when he "lies" upon her breast, his plans for political action, then steal off and reveal them to her confessor, who may then act to purge the lover's soul. Because her father confessor seemed full of "love and truth," she does as he wishes: her lover tells all, as she "lay listening in such pride," and she next morning trips off to the confessional "to save his soul in his despite." The result is that the young man is hanged. As the girl discovers his distorted body on the scaffold, she sees also, "lo,—on high—the father's face!" Now in prison, she turns her back entirely on religion. Clearly the truth for her is the physical "lying" of passionate lovers, not the "lying" of the Church.
There is a slight revelation of character in this confession, but it results more from the story than from the manner in which the story is told. The same is likewise true of "The Flight of the Duchess," which also shares the theme of loyalty. The poem seems to hesitate between the narrative and the dramatic modes. This was true of "Waring" of 1842, but as we saw, that poem finally comes down on the side of the dramatic. In the case of "The Flight of the Duchess," a much longer monologue recounting a more elaborate story, we can never be sure whether the interest should lie in what the speaker sees or how he sees. All commentators refer to it as narrative,10 yet it has a dramatic setting and a dramatically portrayed speaker.
The monologue takes place in what seems to be a country tavern and is addressed to a long-suffering auditor who sits through 915 lines without saying a word. The speaker begins the story in a tone of beery confidence to his "friend," apparently a man he has never seen before. Now it may be that he has a design upon his auditor, for two matters, besides the story of the duchess, are very much on his tongue: drink, which he mentions at least twenty times, and friendship, which he praises frequently and which, to my ear at any rate, he protests too much. It may be that he tells the story of the duchess in hope of a free drink. If so, his hope seems to be unrealized because at the end he speaks of "no further throwing / Pearls before swine that can't value them: Amen"—which utterance may be intended to apply to the listener as well as to the duke.
We can have no assurance that we are to read the poem in this (dramatic) way—and I offer this interpretation unconfidently—because the poet has not, so far as I can see, given us enough clues. If it is merely a dramatic monologue manqué, the fault is perhaps owing to the difference between the original conception and the actual composition of the poem at a later date. Browning said that the idea of the poem grew out of a snatch of song he heard a gypsy singing. Some time soon thereafter he sat down to work on it but was called upon by a visitor and then other interruptions occurred so that he forgot the plan of the poem (Hood, Letters, p. 217). He told Miss Barrett that of "the real conception … not a line is written"
—tho' perhaps after all, what I am going to call the accessories in the story are real though indirect reflexes of the original idea, and so supersede properly enough the necessity of its personal appearance,—so to speak: but, as I conceived the poem, it consisted entirely of the gipsy's description of the life the Lady was to lead with her future gipsy lover—a real life, not an unreal one like that with the Duke—and as I meant to write it, all their wild adventures would have come out and the insignificance of the former vegetation have been deducible only—as the main subject has become now…. (Kintner, 1:135)
It would appear, therefore, that having the story told by a retainer of the duke's household was an afterthought, which may account for the imperfect dramatic realization of the speaker.
The story itself is one common enough in Browning's later works—a woman rescued from a stultifying marriage to pursue a freer life of emotional fulfillment—but this is its first major expression. Commentators have argued that the poem was a calculated move in the poet's courtship of Elizabeth Barrett,11 but as we have seen, something of the same pattern of movement is reflected in Colombe's Birthday, written and published before he even met his wife-to-be. Something happened to cause Browning to decide that he would admit the dialectic struggle between power and love to be irresolvable and that he would declare in favor of love, but showing it to retreat in the face of power. "The Flight of the Duchess" is the retelling of "My Last Duchess," the heroine this time, however, fleeing from the husband besotted by his family lineage. The gypsy woman who helps her escape assures her of "the thrill of the great deliverance," but such a life of love means to "retire apart" (671) from the ordinary world and all its responsibilities, as for Colombe and Valence it required retreat to flowery seclusion. In Browning's world love may no longer be a matter of pathology, but it is not one of healthy acceptance of the world. This is a point continually but unconsciously made by the narrator.
What the narrator proposes to recount is the duchess's tale "from beginning to end" (3). Yet it is the story of himself from start to almost finish. As far as the duchess is concerned, she does not even appear till line 133. The narrator then gives us a brief, straightforward, realistic account of the duke and of the duchess's unhappiness as his wife. But the realistic vein is soon transmuted as the old gypsy is metamorphosed from a crone into a stately woman who speaks with the sound of music and looks with beguiling eye to lend the duchess new life and transform her into a queen. Only at the end does the note of realism return, when he speaks of his dead wife and his duty to the duke. The world of the gypsies is but make-believe, one in which the fancied inhabitants live happily ever after, their story never coming to an end. The world of the huntsman, on the other hand, is all too real, lacking in picturesque adventure perhaps but not without its quiet pleasures, the domestic affections and loyalties that end (because being real they must end) only with death.12 In romance the protagonist may depart into fancy to be a gypsy wanderer forever, but in the realistic tale, which is that of the huntsman, one "must stay till the end of the chapter" (861). In "The Flight of the Duchess," therefore, we have two versions of love and loyalty—one enclosed and the other open-ended—both of which we are in effect invited to see as true.
Like earlier works "The Flight of the Duchess" portrays characters self-consciously playing roles and speaking in accord with what they believe the scripts for those roles to be. The narrator presents himself as the plain man ready to tell a tale in an artistic fashion, even in verse, but limited by his halting manner—"More fault of those who had the hammering / Of prosady into me and syntax" (699-700). The duke is a product of Gothic Revival: a "middle-age manners adapter" (861) who talks and acts according to how "old books showed the way of it" and "how taught old painters in their pictures" (228, 231). In the cast of his little play, he is The Duke, his retainers are Serfs, Thralls, Venerers, Prickers, and Verderers. In reality he is effete, artificial, and anachronistic, so frozen in his role (and in a stultifying past) that his duchess, craving for real life, as Browning put it, cannot bear to live with him. Only in "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis" does Browning so blatantly make fun of one of the characters in this volume.
"The Flight of the Duchess," although it has some of the same charming improvised air as "The Pied Piper," is not a successful poem because of its imperfectly realized narrator and because it is too long. It is, however, something of an experimental poem in that Browning employs in the opening lines a symbolic landscape.
Ours is a great wild country;
If you climb to our castle's top,
I don't see where your eye can stop;
For when you've pass'd the corn-field country,
Where vineyards leave off, flocks are pack'd,
And sheep-range leads to cattle-tract,
And cattle-tract to open-chase,
And open-chase to the very base
Of the mountain where, at a funeral pace,
Round about, solemn and slow,
One by one, row after row,
Up and up the pine-trees go,
So, like black priests up, and so
Down the other side again
To another greater, wilder country,
That's one vast red drear burnt-up plain,
Branch'd thro' and thro' with many a vein
Whence iron's dug, and copper's dealt;
Look right, look left, look straight before,
Beneath they mine, above they smelt,
Copper-ore and iron-ore,
And forge and furnace mould and melt,
And so on, more and ever more,
Till, at the last, for a bounding belt,
Comes the salt sand hoar of the great sea shore,
—And the whole is our Duke's country!
The mixing of the agricultural and the industrial, the high and the low, the light and the dark, the open and the enclosed—all suggest the course the poem is to follow. This lovely piece of landscape painting is admittedly more or less forced on the huntsman's tale, but it is worthy of remark in that it shows Browning experimenting with more sophisticated modes of narration.13
In the first lyric of "Earth's Immortalities," the poet's grave—and by implication his reputation—"wants the freshness of its prime," the work of time having "softened down the crisp-cut name and date." In the second lyric the speaker, who may be the poet of the first, his initial line echoing the last word, "date," of the former14, notes how spring's garlands are severed by June's fever, which in turn is quenched in winter's snow—all in constant mockery of the words "Love me for ever!"15 In "Song" ("Nay, but you, who do not love her"), the irony resides in a form of praeterita. In "The Boy and the Angel," the irony of God's need for the human is set forth in a simple lyric reminiscent of the manner of Blake.
The first lyric of "Night and Morning," now known as "Meeting at Night," is in the present tense and describes the lover's coming to meet his beloved, the rhythm and imagery suggesting tension and anticipation until the final coming to rest with "two hearts beating each to each." In the lyric now known as "Parting at Morning," which is one-third the length of the preceding one and which is related in the first person and in the past tense, there is no question of romantic love, as the speaker refuses to delude himself that rapture can sustain life: departing from the night's meeting, he declares "the need of a world of men."16 "Claret and Tokay" are overly cute associations of certain wines with certain countries and are unworthy of mention save that they evince Browning's penchant for dramatizing everything, even bottles of claret and tokay.
"Saul" was printed as a fragment in 1845. It consisted of short half-lines instead of the anapestic pentameters with which we are now familiar, and it ended with the present section nine of the completed poem. These 102 lines, sung to the spiritually benumbed King Saul by the shepherd boy David, recall earth's beauties and bounties, great moments in Jewish history, his people's hymns of aspiration, the greatness of Saul's accomplishment—in short, all the things that Saul has to be thankful for. The matter and the manner of the song, largely a cataloguing of events and details, are doubtless borrowed from Christopher Smart, especially his "Song to David."17 As it stands in 1845, the poem leaves us with the situation of a man who has everything to praise God for being unable to utter a word or even lift his eyes to heaven. Browning may not have been able to complete it either because after 102 lines he had exhausted the matter and manner of his model or because he had not in 1845 arrived at the stage of his religious development that would enable him to offer the Christian answer of the completed version.18
As a fragment (or even as a completed poem, for that matter), the monologue is generically unlike anything else in the 1845 volume. It is not a dramatic monologue because there is no revelation of character. It has a number of narrative elements, but clearly it is not primarily intended to tell a story. What it most nearly resembles is a Davidic psalm—and of course it would be very like Browning to have his David sing in the manner of the reputed author of Psalms.19 In any case, the fragmentary "Saul" is a highly experimental poem, blending lyric, narrative, and dramatic elements in almost equal proportions. Browning recognized that some song of a different nature was required to bring Saul out of his lethargy and so complete the poem. The solution he eventually hit upon was to go beyond Psalms, as in the first nine sections he has gone beyond the Historical Books, to the Prophets; but that is a story for later telling, the completed poem not being published till 1855.
"Time's Revenges" deals with romantic love. On the one hand, the soliloquizer has a loyal friend who would go to any length of trouble for him but for whom he cares almost nothing. On the other hand, he has a ladylove who, although he has given up body and soul for her, not only would not help him in distress but would let him roast over a slow fire if this would procure her an invitation to a famous ball. In the end there is a balance of loyalties: his indifference to his friend is avenged by the indifference the lady shows toward him. Demanding obstacles to be erected and overcome so that he can prove himself "that sea / Of passion" which he "needs must be," the soliloquizer reminds us that every romantic lover is engaged in playing a role.
"Time's Revenges" is like a prelude to the next and last poem in the volume, for its ironies of loyalty and disloyalty are developed at greater length and with greater complexity in "The Glove." The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by the French poet Pierre Ronsard at the court of Francis I. Browning makes daring use of him, for he has Ronsard report, accurately enough, the details of the central story yet be himself a not totally sympathetic or even reliable narrator. His use of the speaker is, then, slightly different from that of earlier dramatic monologues, for the speaker here tells a story in which he was not involved other than as a spectator and thus has no need to defend or apologize for himself where the details of that story are concerned. It is only when the speaker refers to himself and others in relation to him that we must be wary and carefully scrutinize what he has to say. In terms of genre this means that "The Glove" is a dramatic monologue incorporating a narrative that is the main business of the monologue. It is truly a dramatic romance. All this may be obvious enough, but I do not recall having read any commentary that questions the total reliability of the speaker and thus reads the poem as anything other than a narrative monologue or romance.
We have noted frequently the number of times that Browning calls attention to language as a mask for deception. In "The Glove" he again cautions us, indirectly, to suspect ulterior meanings behind the words spoken by making rhetoric a dominant motif of the poem. Ronsard speaks as a buffoon, sounding like a cross between Samuel Butler and Thomas Hood; his words are rendered in fairly regular trimeter couplets all having feminine rhyme.20 He accuses others of making "fine speeches like gold" (90), intending by the term to suggest the pretensions and triviality of the court. His harshest words, however, are reserved for the poet Clément Marot, whom he regards as a rival "whose experience of nature's but narrow, / And whose faculties move in no small mist" (46-47) and who is supposedly given to learned talk. Yet when the king asks for a verse, the best Ronsard can do is quote Ovid to the effect that "men are the merest Ixions" (14), whereupon the king interrupts to suggest that they go look at the lions. "Such," says Ronsard, "are the sorrowful chances / If you talk fine to King Francis" (17-18).21 Further, he reports that when the lady departed after the glove episode, Marot stayed behind while he followed to ask "what it all meant" (119).22 He goes up to her and says, "For I… am a Poet: / Human nature,—behooves that I know it!" (121-22). Surely such blatant posturizing (and such insipid rhymes) mark him as not much of a poet at all. Ronsard may not make "fine speeches like gold," but it may be because he is not capable of them. He may assume an ironic pose as a protest against the decadence of King Francis's court, but behind the pose there is little more than vacuity.
The lady's speech is rendered in somewhat irregular trimeter couplets all of male rhyme. Her speech sounds like human conversation instead of buffoonery. Although she holds views of mere words that seem to coincide with Ronsard's, we know that in her case they are not expressed simply for the benefit of others. The court is in fact depraved, from King Francis down. The talk is of superficialities or of views not truly held. Thus DeLorge wooed her with protestations of love and of his willingness to risk all danger for her sake. Too long she had heard "of the deed proved alone by the word" (124), so on the spur of the moment, as she reflected on what had been suffered by so many that the king might have a lion to look at as a sometime amusement, she decided to test DeLorge's words and threw the glove into the pit.
It is part of the irony of the tale that neither the lady nor Ronsard perceives that DeLorge's were not merely empty words. DeLorge had said that he would brave death if she commanded it, and when he leaps into the lion's pit to retrieve the glove she threw there, this is exactly what he does. The lady had thought to test his bravery or, rather, to discover the extent of his love by probing his courage. He proves his mettle, backs up word with deed, and does it, apparently, not only because the eyes of the court are upon him but also because of his regard for the lady and for the promises made to her. But her wanton disregard of his life causes him to question the object of that regard and, having fetched the glove, he gives public notice that he is through with her forever. The flinging of the glove into the lady's face is thus a symbolic act of praise and dispraise, of praise of himself for having endured the ordeal and dispraise of the one who forced such an ordeal upon him. As for the lady herself, she had every right to know whether her lover's protestations had any reality in deed. Yet from the trial she discovers his courage only to lose his love. It is worth noting that she makes no demands of her next lover to pass a similar test.
Objectively we have no reason to believe the lady more in the right than DeLorge. Most readers—all readers so far as I can find—see the right as belonging exclusively to the lady's side simply because the narrator says this is the way it should be. But as we have already noted, his is a flawed character, and we cannot accept what he says any more uncritically than we can accept what Browning's other narrators say. The king pronounces for the knight, saying, "'twas mere vanity, / Not love, set the task to humanity" (101-2). In a way his judgment is just as correct as Ronsard's, which is that the lady flung the glove so as "to know what she had not to trust to" (115). The fact that Marot does not go running after her the way Ronsard does also gives us additional reason for not fully accepting the speaker's view of the situation. This is again a case where, in Thirlwall's words quoted earlier, "characters, motives, and principles are brought into hostile collision, in which good and evil are so inextricably blended on each side, that we are compelled to give an equal share of our sympathy to each…."
The story of the subsequent marriages of DeLorge and the lady to other people does not help us to come down finally on the side of one or the other. Ronsard says that the lady carried her shame from the court and married a youth of lower social status. The court foresees unhappiness in this mixed marriage, but "to that marriage some happiness" Ronsard "dared augur" (169-70). We wonder whether we can trust his prophecy any more than the court's.
As for DeLorge, he married a renowned beauty, who eventually became King Francis's mistress for a week. DeLorge, now serving the king not as knight but as courtier, is frequently "honored" with the commission to fetch his wife's gloves from her chamber while the king is in conversation with her. When DeLorge appears with the gloves, the king always tells the story of this modern Daniel in the lion's den and his wife always says that nowadays he brings the gloves and "utters no murmur" (188). Obviously Ronsard includes this story to show how DeLorge has been placed in the ignominious position of assisting the king to enjoy his wife's favor and, further, been subjected to pleasantries upon his discomfiture. DeLorge's marital distress may be a fact, but does· this in any way validate the lady's wanton demand that he enter a lion's cage to retrieve her glove?
As we have already seen, Browning frequently arranges the final lines of a dramatic monologue as a summation of a character or situation. Here in the last two lines of "The Glove" he does more or less the same thing. "Venienti occurrite morbol / With which moral I drop my theorbo," says Ronsard in farewell. This piece of macaronic verse is a fitting summation of the character who has told us the story. First, it suggests the "fine" writer manqué, one retreating into doggerel and burlesque to show his contempt for what he cannot do but nevertheless employing the learned language that he makes fun of his rival Marot for using. Second, the Latin proverb offered as the moral is not a particularly felicitous one.23 "Go to meet the approaching ill"? Far more apropos as a moral would have been the scriptural counsel Sufficit diei malitia sua. Third, the theorbo, the lute with two necks, suggests the two contending strains of the narrative that merge into the song, the dramatic lyric, which is "The Glove."24
As a dramatic monologue recounting a tale of opposing loyalties, "The Glove" fittingly brings the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics to a close. Thematically all the poems—with the possible exception of "Claret and Tokay," which themselves may be about national loyalties—are concerned with many kinds of loyalties. In manner all are dramatic. In range of subject matter and prosody, they are enormously variegated. To this extent the 1845 poems bear a strong resemblance to the Dramatic Lyrics of 1842. The difference between the two volumes lies in the greater complexity of the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. For here Browning makes his poems more allusive, more densely packed with different levels of meaning. In "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," for example, there is not only a perfect evocation of what Ruskin called the Renaissance spirit but also an implied comment on contemporary Anglo-Catholic ritualism. Or, to take another instance, "The Italian in England" is not only a celebration of the patriot typified by Mazzini25 but a study of the stultifying effect of exile for the political revolutionary. A large number of the poems in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics deal with contemporary matters—the Corn Laws, the hunger and poverty of the 1840s, Puseyism, the laureateship, Austrian domination of Italy—of general concern in 1845. In short, the poet was turning toward a sociocultural scene to make meaning. But he was not thereby forgoing irony. For he gives us an ironic reading of society and history embodied in a form that only superficially is a little less extravagant than that of Sordello and Pippa Passes.
In Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Browning perfected the dramatic monologue. Though hereafter he was to write other exquisite monologues, they were formally to be but variations on those in this collection. Perceiving the quality of Browning's achievement, Walter Savage Landor wrote and published, in the Morning Chronicle for 22 November 1845, one of the most generous compliments ever paid by one poet to another.
There is delight in singing, tho' none hear
Beside the singer: and there is delight
In praising, tho' the praiser sit alone
And see the prais'd far off him, far above.
Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world's,
Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walkt along our road with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze
Of Alpine highths thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
Landor recognized that by 1845 his friend had become "Browning," a name to be listed, along with Shakespeare and Chaucer, among the greatest English poets.
- Browning Institute Studies
- College English
- DeVane, Handbook
- A Browning Handbook
- Domett Robert
- Browning and Alfred Domett
- Griffin and Minchin
- The Life of Robert Browning
- Hood, Letters
- Letters of Robert Browning Collected by Thomas J. Wise
- Irvine and Honan
- The Book, the Ring, & the Poet
- The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846
- New Letters
- New Letters of Robert Browning
- New Literary History
- Orr, Handbook
- A Handbook of the Works of Robert Browning
- Orr, Life
- Life and Letters of Robert Browning
- Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America
- Philological Quarterly
- Review of English Studies
- Studies in Browning and His Circle
- Studies in Romanticism
- Studies in Philology
- Texas Studies in Literature and Language
- University of Toronto Quarterly
- Victorian Newsletter
- Victorian Poetry
- Victorian Studies
- Yearbook of English Studies
1 Elizabeth Barrett's letters to Browning are full of remarks about the poems of the 1845 volume. In addition, she wrote fifty-six manuscript pages about them and the two plays that were to follow. A somewhat inaccurate transcription is printed in New Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and reprinted in the Macmillan Edition of Browning's works, The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning, New Edition with Additional Poems First Published in 1914. Eleven of the fifty-six pages were inexplicably omitted and have never been printed. See Kintner, 1: 134 n. 1.
2 Richard Hengist Horne, A New Spirit of the Age (London: Smith, Elder, 1844), 2: 170.
3 They are "The Italian in England," "The Englishman in Italy," "The Flight of the Duchess," "The Boy and the Angel," "Time's Revenges," and "The Glove." "Pictor Ignotus" and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church" were subsumed by the heading "Men and Women." The rest were classified as "Dramatic Lyrics."
4 DeVane believes that the poem embodies a culturalhistorical type: it is Browning's conception of how the unknown painters "of those pale, formal, monastic series—Virgin, Babe, and Saint—might defend themselves in the face of the great vogue for the newer, more vulgar, painters who depict the expressions of contemporary human beings" (Handbook, p. 155). This was first questioned by Paul F. Jamieson, "Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus, Florence, 15—,'" Explicator 11 (1952): item 8. Jamieson sees the speaker not as a type but as a failed painter who would have liked fame but found exposure to the crowd and to criticism unendurable. Jamieson suggests that "the youth" is Raphael. J. B. Bullen, "Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus' and Vasari's 'Life of Fra Bartolommeo di San Marco,'" RES 23 (1972): 313-19, identifies the speaker of the poem as Fra Bartolommeo, whose history Browning learned from Vasari's Lives of the Painters and who was a painter of great talent but limited achievement. Michael H. Bright, "Browning's Celebrated Pictor Ignotus," ELN 13 (1976): 192-94, argues that Bullen has missed "the central point Browning is making. The whole idea of the poem, as the title makes clear, is that the painter is unknown" (p. 194). In a later essay, "Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus': An Interpretation," SBHC 4 (1976): 53-61, Bright admits that the speaker could have done all he says but that the true reasons for his forswearing fame were his fear of idolatry and his less justifiable fear of unsympathetic criticism. In contrast to Bullen and Bright, Richard D. Altick, '"Andrea del Sarto': The Kingdom of Hell Is Within," in Browning's Mind and Art, ed. Clarence Tracy (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968), pp. 18, 24, maintains that the unknown painter's claim to artistic talent is unsupported and that the painter is thus rationalizing to his own satisfaction his refusal to compete.
5Browning's Beginnings, p. 170.
6 I am endebted to Bernadine Brown, "Robert Browning's 'The Italian in England,'" VP 6 (1968): 179-83, for the suggestion of the religious overtones in the poem.
7 See Hood, Letters, pp. 166-67; Orr, Life and Letters, p. 123; and DeVane, Handbook, pp. 159-62.
8 James F. Loucks, "The Dating of Browning's 'Here's to Nelson's Memory,'" SBHC 4 (1976): 71-72, suggests that the poem was prompted by the recent donation of the coat Nelson wore when he was wounded at Trafalgar to the Greenwich Hospital. Loucks says that the poem could have been written so late as the autumn of 1845, when the poet was readying the volume for publication.
9 Browning spoke of it as "just the thing for the time—what with the Oxford business, and Camden society and other embroilments" (New Letters, pp. 35-36), referring to the Tractarians and the concern over John Henry Newman's recent conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Ruskin was of the opinion that there is "no other piece of modern English, prose or poetry, in which there is so much told, as in these lines of the Renaissance spirit,—its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin" (Modern Painters, vol. 4, chap. 20, in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. Å. Ô. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn [London: George Allen, 1903-12], 6: 449). See Robert A. Greenberg, "Ruskin, Pugin, and the Contemporary Context of 'The Bishop Orders His Tomb,'" PMLA 84 (1969): 1588-94.
10 See, for example, Robert Felgar, "Browning's Narrative Art," SBHC 3 (1975): 82, who says that Browning uses a dramatically imagined participant or onlooker in this poem to give the reader "a sense of immediacy, of almost being there."
11 See Frederick Palmer and Edward Snyder, "New Light on the Brownings," Quarterly Review 269 (1937): 48-63, and DeVane, Handbook, pp. 175-76.
12 Mrs. Orr, Handbook, p. 276, says of the narrator: "He is a jovial, matter-of-fact person, in spite of the vein of sentiment which runs through him; and the imaginative part of his narrative was more probably the result of a huntsman's breakfast which found its way into his brain." Here as elsewhere Mrs. Orr is more perspicacious than many of Browning's commentators who belittle her.
13 The technique is reminiscent of Tennyson, particularly of such poems as "Oenone," in which the opening lines descriptive of the landscape prefigure, in their suggestive detail, the action of the poem. For Browning's love of Tennyson's early poems, see Domett, pp. 40-41, and the many references to Tennyson in Kintner.
14 Mrs. Orr, Handbook, p. 293, also notes the close relationship of the two lyrics: "The words: 'love me for ever,' appeal to us from a tombstone which records how Spring garlands are severed by the hand of June…."
15 Browning said that he intended the refrain to be "a mournful comment on the short duration of the conventional 'For Ever'" (quoted in Macmillan Edition, p. 1350).
16 Browning said that the man is the speaker in both parts of the poem and that "it is his confession of how fleeting is the belief (implied in the first part) that such raptures are self-sufficient and enduring—as for the time they appear" (quoted in Macmillan Edition, pp. 1350-51).
17 See DeVane, Handbook, pp. 255-57.
18 That the fragmentary nature of "Saul" is owing to an impasse in Browning's religious life is advanced by William Clyde DeVane, Browning's Parleyings: The Autobiography of a Mind (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1927), pp. 116-18; A. W. Crawford, "Browning's Saul," Queen 's Quarterly 34 (1927): 448-54; and, later, Collins, Robert Browning's Moral-Aesthetic Theory, 1833-1855, pp. 91-92. Arguing that the first nine stanzas are as Christian in outlook as the stanzas of the second part completed seven years or so later are W. David Shaw, The Dialectical Temper, pp. 224-25; Ward Hellstrom, "Time and Type in Browning's 'Saul,'" ELH 33 (1966): 370-89; and Elizabeth Bieman, "The Ongoing Testament in Browning's 'Saul,'" UTQ 43 (1974): 151-68.
19 J. S. McClatchey, "Browning's 'Saul' as a Davidic Psalm of the Praise of God: The Poetics of Prophecy," SBHC 4 (1976): 62-83, is, I believe, the first to note this as the genre of the poem.
20 Cadbury, "Lyric and Anti-Lyric Forms: A Method for Judging Browning," p. 52, contends that the speaker of the poem "has no interest in lying to us, and so we can question what he says only by asking his relationship to it. Why, we ask, does he remain in a court, the depravity of which he sees so clearly? … He remains precisely because of the operation of the humorous irony which is the tone of the poem. His defence against depravity, his ironic wit, makes particularly vivid the necessity for less ironic souls to get out." David Sonstroem, '"Fine Speeches Like Gold,' in Browning's 'The Glove'," VP 15 (1977): 85-90, maintains that Ronsard's substitution of buffoonery for a lofty style is for the sake of deflation of the court, showing its pretensions and trivialities.
21 Ronsard also sums up the moral of his story in a Latin tag.
22 The historical Ronsard and Marot were bitterly divided on the subject of religion. During the religious wars Ronsard was committed to an extreme royalist and Catholic position. He was noted for attacking his opponents, especially in his Discours, whom he dismissed as traitors and hypocrites. Marot, on the other hand, was a Protestant who was imprisoned for his beliefs and who finally fled from France. If we apply this biographical information to the poem, then the action becomes doubly ironic.
23 George Saintsbury, "Browning," reprinted in The Browning Critics, ed. Litzinger and Knickerbocker, p. 28, agrees that "the moral is mainly rubbish" and, in addition, that "Marot was a poet."
24 Louise Schutz Boas, "Browning's 'The Glove'," Explicator 2 (1943): item 13, claims that by the theorbo Browning meant to refer to DeLorge's two actions in fetching the gloves for the two different ladies.
25 Mrs. Orr, Handbook, p. 306 n., says that Mazzini told Browning how he had read the poem to his fellow exiles in England to show how an Englishman could sympathize with them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
Robert Browning 1812–1889
English poet and dramatist.
Though Browning was eventually considered a premier Victorian poet, his critical reputation was hard won. Throughout his career, he honed the dramatic monologue, elevating the form to a new level. His experimentation with versification and with language, combined with the diversity and scope of his subject matter, forced Browning's critics to realize that this poet could not be evaluated by conventional literary standards. Particularly devoted to dramatic characterization, Browning explored the human psychology through his characters and the dramatic situations he presented. Modern critics are concerned with Browning's poetic development, with the themes that unite the various poems in a particular volume, and with the unique elements of Browning's innovative style.
Born in Camberwell, a borough in southeast London, Browning was raised in a relatively affluent environment. His father was a well-read clerk for the Bank of England, and his mother was a strict Congregationalist. While Browning read widely as a boy, his formal education was somewhat irregular. Beginning in the early 1820s he attended the nearby Peckam School, where he studied for four years. Because Browning had not been raised as an Anglican, he was unable to attend the major English universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, in 1828 he entered the recently-founded London University but terminated his studies after less than one year. Browning decided to pursue a career as a poet and lived in his parents' home, supported by them, until 1846. He published his first poem, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession, anonymously in 1833. Browning continued writing and publishing and experimenting with the dramatic monologue until 1845, when he fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett. The pair secretly married in 1846, then departed for Italy where they settled in Florence and wrote until Elizabeth's death in 1861. Browning then returned to England, and after a period of literary inactivity, he began writing again. He remained highly prolific throughout the rest of his life. Browning died in 1889 while visiting his son in Venice. Browning's body was returned to England and buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
After the anonymous publication of Pauline, which Browning later insisted was a dramatic piece, many readers speculated that the sentiments expressed were the poet's own. In his next work, Paracelsus (1835), Browning established the objective framework offered by a more dramatic form and was thus able to distance himself from the characters in the poem. The dramatic monologue is based on the life of the Renaissance chemist Paracelsus, and the work received largely positive critical reviews. Browning then published Sordello in 1840, also based on a Renaissance subject, but the poem was less than favorably received by the critics, many of whom found it obscure and affected. In 1841, Browning began publishing a series of poems and dramas under the title Bells and Pomegranates. The final volume appeared in 1846 and failed to restore Browning's reputation among critics. In 1855, with the publication of Men and Women, containing Browning's well-known love poems and dramatic monologues, Browning began to receive the respect of some of his critics, although popular success still eluded him. It was not until the 1860s, and in particular the publication of Dramatis Personae in 1864, that Browning achieved major critical and popular success. The volume was followed shortly thereafter by his masterpiece, The Ring and the Book (1868-69). A series of dramatic monologues spoken by different characters, the work was based on an Italian murder case. The Ring and the Book cemented Browning's reputation as one of the foremost poets of Victorian England.
Contemporary critical acclaim evaded Browning for many years. Gertrude Reese Hudson observes that the poet's critics required regular and frequent exposure to his unique dramatic method in order to recognize the excellence of Browning's art. Hudson also notes that other factors contributed to Browning's winning over of his critics, including their changing opinion regarding the nature of poetry, as well as a growing appreciation for both the timeliness of Browning's writing, his intellect and originality, and the "totality of his achievement."
Browning's highly individualized style and his usage of dramatic monologue fascinate modern scholars as much as these elements troubled his early critics. John Woolford and Daniel Karlin demonstrate that in using the dramatic monologue format, Browning was primarily interested in the creation and development of dramatic speakers and dramatic situations. The two critics also analyze Browning's style, finding that his poetry, in its focus on the speaker, insists on being read aloud. Woolford and Karlin further argue that Browning develops two distinct voices in his poetry, voices Browning himself described as "saying" and "singing" voices and which the critics contend result from the influence of the Romantics on Browning's work. In a separate essay, Daniel Karlin examines Browning's use of binary oppositions, finding that "every Browning poem is oppositional in nature." Karlin studies in particular the opposition between love and hate, maintaining that Browning explores hate not simply as the opposite of love, but as a force with its own purpose, a force which can lead to love as well as self-realization.
Other critics review certain volumes of Browning's poetry as a whole, arguing that the individual poems support a larger theme or purpose. Clyde de L. Ryals studies Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) with this in mind. Ryals stresses that the theme of loyalty unites the poems in this volume, and that this theme is often expressed in an ironic manner. Furthermore, Ryals argues that while the majority of the poems may concern national loyalties, the poems also explore other kinds of loyalties, including loyalty to one's self, to one's religion, and to one's beloved. Similarly, Adam Roberts argues for the unity of the poems in Browning's Men and Women (1855), asserting that the volume demonstrates Browning's first successful attempt at balancing the subjective and objective impulses in his poetry. This synthesis is achieved, Roberts argues, through Browning's characterization. Roberts explains that compared to the idiosyncratic, often insane characters in the earlier Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, the personalities in Men and Women, though complex, "communicate on something approaching our own level," and thus engender empathy and understanding among readers. Roberts goes on to discuss how Browning's continued usage of "grotesque" style and imagery (including colloquial language, rough syntax, and precise but blunt forms of expression) helps to link the form of these poems to their content.
Considerable critical discussion of Browning's work pertains to his murder mystery, The Ring and the Book. The twelve dramatic monologues, delivered by different characters, have led critics to question which, if any, of these characters serves as the moral authority, or center, of the poem. Adam Potkay argues against assigning this position of moral authority to any one of the characters and instead considers the poem as a "decentered struggle of interpretations" in which the character of Guido leads the way in "decentering" the poem by questioning the very conception of identity. W. David Shaw likewise contends that there is no central viewpoint in The Ring and the Book and maintains that while Browning ranks the authority of the characters in the poem, the poet creates no central authority figure. Additionally, Shaw explores the way in which deconstructionism and hermeneutics pervade Browning's masterwork, finding the Pope aligned with hermeneutical criticism and Guido and Tertium Quid aligned with the deconstructionists.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8531
SOURCE: Introduction to Modern Critical Views: Robert Browning, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Bloom explores the tendency of Browning's critics to misread the nature of the epiphanies and the "visions-of-failure" in Browning's poetry, noting that epiphanies are often wrongfully interpreted as negative events, while "visions-of-failure" are mistakenly read as celebrations.]
One of the principles of interpretation that will arise out of the future study of the intricacies of poetic revisionism, and of the kinds of misreading that canon-formation engenders, is the realization that later poets and their critical followers tend to misread strong precursors by a fairly consistent mistaking of literal for figurative, and of figurative for literal. Browning misread the High Romantics, and particularly his prime precursor, Shelley, in this pattern, and through time's revenges most modern poets and critics have done and are doing the same to Browning. I am going to explore Browning, in this chapter, as the master of misprision he was, by attempting to show our tendency to read his epiphanies or "good moments" as ruinations or vastations of quest, and our parallel tendency to read his darkest visions-of-failure as if they were celebrations.
I will concentrate on a small group of Browning's poems including "Cleon," "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," "A Toccata of Galuppi's," "Abt Vogler," and "Andrea del Sarto," but I cannot evade for long my own obsession with "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," and so it and its contrary chant, "Thamuris Marching," will enter late into this discourse. Indeed, I want to end with a kind of critical self-analysis, and ask myself the question: why am I obsessed by the "Childe Roland" poem, or rather, what does it mean to be obsessed by that poem? How is it that I cannot conceive of an antithetical practical criticism of poetry without constantly being compelled to use "Childe Roland" as a test case, as though it were the modern poem proper, more even than say, Tintern Abbey or Byzantium or The Idea of Order at Key West? Is there a way to make these questions center upon critical analysis rather than upon psychic self-analysis?
In Browning's prose "Essay on Shelley," there is an eloquent passage that idealizes poetic influence:
There is a time when the general eye has, so to speak, absorbed its fill of the phenomena around it, whether spiritual or material, and desires rather to learn the exacter significance of what it possesses, than to receive any augmentation of what is possessed. Then is the opportunity for the poet of loftier vision, to lift his fellows…. The influence of such an achievement will not soon die out. A tribe of successors (Homerides) working more or less in the same spirit, dwell on his discoveries and reinforce his doctrine; till, at unawares, the world is found to be subsisting wholly on the shadow of a reality, on sentiments diluted from passions, on the tradition of a fact, the convention of a moral, the straw of last year's harvest.
Browning goes on to posit a mighty ladder of authentic poets, in an objective and subjective alternation, who will replace one another almost endlessly in succession, concerning which, "the world dares no longer doubt that its gradations ascend." Translated, this means: "Wordsworth to Shelley to Browning," in which Browning represents a triumph of what he calls the objective principle. Against Browning's prose idealization, I will set his attack upon the disciples of Keats in his poem "Popularity":
And there's the extract, flasked and fine,
And priced and saleable at last!
And Hobbs, Nobbs, Stokes and Nokes combine
To paint the future from the past,
Put blue into their line.
For "Hobbs, Nobbs, Stokes and Nokes" we might read Tennyson, Arnold, Rossetti, and whatever other contemporary Keatsian, whether voluntary or involuntary, that Browning wished to scorn. But the next stanza, the poem's last, would surely have cut against Browning himself if for "John Keats" we substituted "Percy Shelley":
Hobbs hints blue,—straight he turtle eats:
Nobbs prints blue,—claret crowns his cup:
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats,—
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?
The vegetarian Shelley, according to his friend Byron, tended to dine on air and water, not fit fare for the strenuously hearty Browning, who in his later years was to become London's leading diner-out. But though Browning seems not to have had the slightest personal consciousness of an anxiety of influence, he wrote the most powerful poem ever to be explicitly concerned with the problem. This is the dramatic monologue "Cleon," in which the imaginary jack-of-all-arts, Cleon, is in my judgment a kind of version of Matthew Arnold, whose Empedocles on Etna Browning had been reading. Arnold's Empedocles keeps lamenting his own and the world's belatedness, a lament that becomes a curious kind of inauthentic overconfidence in Cleon's self-defense:
I have not chanted verse like Homer, no—
Nor swept string like Terpander, no—nor carved
And painted men like Phidias and his friend:
I am not great as they are, point by point.
But I have entered into sympathy
With these four, running these into one soul,
Who, separate, ignored each other's art.
Say, is it nothing that I know them all?
Browning could enjoy the belatedness of Arnold or Rossetti, because no poet ever felt less belated than this exuberant daemon. We remember the malicious epithet applied to him by Hopkins: "Bouncing Browning." I think we can surmise that poetic belatedness as an affliction, whether conscious or unconscious, always rises in close alliance with ambivalence towards the prime precursor. Browning felt no ambivalence towards Shelley, such as Yeats had towards Shelley, or Shelley towards Wordsworth, or Wordsworth towards Milton. Browning loved Shelley unbrokenly and almost unreservedly from the age of fourteen, when he first read him, until his own death at the age of seventy-seven. But ambivalence is not the only matrix from which the anxiety of influence rises. There is perhaps a darker source in the guilt or shame of identifying the precursor with the ego-ideal, and then living on in the sense of having betrayed that identification by one's own failure to have become oneself, by a realization that the ephebe has betrayed his own integrity, and betrayed also the covenant that first bound him to the precursor. That guilt unmistakably was Browning's, as Betty Miller and others have shown, and so the burden of belatedness was replaced in Browning by a burden of dissimulation, a lying-against-the-self, rather than a lying-against-time.
But is not that kind of shame only another mask for the guilt-of-indebtedness, the only guilt that ever troubles a poet-as-poet? Certainly, Shelley for Browning was precisely the "numinous shadow" or ancestor-god whose baleful influence is stressed by Nietzsche. Rather than demonstrate this too obviously, whether by recourse to Browning's poem Pauline or by an examination of the unhappy episode in which the young Browning yielded to his stem mother's Evangelical will, I think it more interesting to seek out what is most difficult in Browning, which is the total contrast between his optimism, a quality both temperamental and theoretical, and the self-destructive peculiarities of his men and women. I want to start by puzzling over the grotesque and unique poem, "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," with its curious and central contrast between the charming organist who speaks the monologue and the heavy pseudo-Bachian composer, also invented by Browning, whose name is the poem's title. The relationship between performer and composer is the poem. This relationship is not a displaced form of the ambivalence between ephebe and precursor, because the performer's reading/misreading of the composer is very different from the later poet's interpretation of an earlier one, or anyone's reading/misreading of any poet. It is true that a performance is an interpretation, but a performance lacks the vital element of revisionism that makes for fresh creation. The charm of the poem "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," like the chill of the somewhat similar but greater poem, "A Toccata of Galuppi's," is precisely that we are free of the burden of misprision and that the performer in each poem is more like a reciter of a text than he is like a critic of a text. Yet it remains true that you cannot recite any poem without giving some interpretation of it, though I would hazard the speculation that even the strongest recital, acting, or performance is at best a weak reading/misreading, in the technical antithetical senses of "weak" and "strong," for again there is no strength, poetic or critical, without the dialectics of revisionism coming into play.
The organist earnestly wants to understand Hugues without revising him, but evidently the world is right and the poor organist wrong, in that less is meant than meets the ear in Hugues' mountainous fugues. Hugues is a kind of involuntary musical nihilist, who in effect would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose. The organist is not only old-fashioned in his devotion to Hugues but, as we might say now, old-fashioned in his devotion to meaning. Yet skepticism, a suspicion concerning both meaning-in-Hugues and meaning-in-life, has begun to gain strength in the organist, despite himself. His quasi-desperate test-performance of Hugues, thematically racing the sacristan's putting-out of the light, moves from one sadly negative conclusion to a larger negation, from "But where's music, the dickens?" to:
Is it your moral of Life?
Such a web, simple and subtle,
Weave we on earth here in impotent strife,
Backward and forward each throwing his shuttle,
Death ending all with a knife?
The very reluctance of the organist's interpretation convinces us of its relevance to Hugues. Hugues will not "say the word," despite the organist's plea, and the organist lacks the strength to break out on his revisionary own and do what he wants to do, which is "unstop the full-organ, / Blare out the mode Palestrina," akin to the gentle simplicity of his own nature. Yet we must not take the organist too literally; after all, there is nothing whatsoever to prevent him from playing Palestrina to his own satisfaction in the moments of light that remain to him. But it is the problematical, cumbersome, absurdly intricate Hugues who obsesses him, whose secret or lack of a secret he is driven to solve. Despite himself, the organist is on an antithetical quest, like absolutely every other monologist in Browning. The luminous last line of the poem is to be answered, emphatically: "Yes!"
While in the roof, if I'm right there,
… Lo you, the wick in the socket!
Hallo, you sacristan, show us a light there!
Down it dips, gone like a rocket.
What, you want, do you, to come unawares,
Sweeping the church up for first morning-prayers,
And find a poor devil has ended his cares
At the foot of your rotten-runged rat-riddled stairs?
Do I carry the moon in my pocket?
If the organist is right, then the gold in the gilt roof is a better emblem of a final reality than the spider web woven by Hugues. But fortunately the darkening of the light breaks in upon an uneasy affirmation, and leaves us instead with the realization that the organist is subject as well as object of his own quest for meaning. Hugues goes on weaving his intricate vacuities; the organist carries the moon in his pocket. Has the poem ended, however humorously, as a ruined quest or as a good moment? Does Browning make it possible for us to know the difference between the two? Or is it the particular achievement of his art that the difference cannot be known? Does the organist end by knowing he has been deceived, or does he end in the beautiful earliness of carrying imagination in his own pocket, in a transumptive allusion to the Second Spirit in one of Browning's favorite poems, Shelley's The Two Spirits: An Allegory? There the Second Spirit, overtly allegorizing desire, affirms that the "lamp of love," carried within, gives him the perpetual power to "make night day." Browning is more dialectical, and the final representation in his poem is deeply ambiguous. But that is a depth of repression that I want to stay with, and worry, for a space, if only because it bothers me that "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," like so many of Browning's poems, ends in an aporia, in the reader's uncertainty as to whether he is to read literally or figuratively. Browning personally, unlike Shelley, was anything but an intellectual skeptic, and that he should create figures that abide in our uncertainty is at once his most salient and his most challenging characteristic.
"A Toccata of Galuppi's" can be read as a reversal of this poem, since it appears to end in the performer's conscious admission of belatedness and defeat. But Browning was quite as multi-form a maker as poetic tradition affords, and the "Toccata" is as subtle a poem as ever he wrote. It invokes for us a grand Nietzschean question, from the Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Adorais: "What does it mean when an artist leaps over into his opposite?" Nietzsche was thinking of Wagner, but Browning in the "Toccata" may be another instance. Nietzsche's ultimate answer to his own question prophesied late Freud, if we take the answer to be: "All great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming." I think we can say rather safely that no one was less interested in Selbstaufliebung than Robert Browning; he was perfectly delighted to be at once subject and object of his own quest. Like Emerson, whom he resembles only in this single respect, he rejoiced always that there were so many of him, so many separate selves happily picnicking together in a single psyche. From a Nietzschean point of view, he must seem only an epitome of some of the most outrageous qualities of the British empirical and Evangelical minds, but he is actually more sublimely outrageous even than that. There are no dialectics that can subsume him, because he is not so much evasive as he is preternatural, wholly daemonic, with an astonishing alliance perpetual in him between an impish cunning and endless linguistic energy. I think we can surmise why he was so fascinated by poets like Christopher Smart and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, poets who represented the tradition of Dissenting Enthusiasm carried over into actual madness. With energies like Browning's, and self-confidence like Browning's, it took a mind as powerful as Browning's to avoid being carried by Enthusiasm into alienation, but perhaps the oddest of all Browning's endless oddities is that he was incurably sane, even as he imagined his gallery of pathological enthusiasts, monomaniacs, and marvelous charlatans.
There are at least four voices coldly leaping along in "A Toccata of Galuppi's," and only one of them is more or less Browning's, and we cannot be certain even of that. Let us break in for the poem's conclusion, as the monologist first addresses the composer whose "touch-piece" he is playing, and next the composer answers back, but only through the monologist's performance, and finally the speaker-performer acknowledges his defeat by the heartlessly brilliant Galuppi:
[Stanzas XI-XV have been deleted from text.]
The "swerve" is the Lucretian clinamen, and we might say that Galuppi, like Lucretius, assaults the monologist-performer with the full strength of the Epicurean argument. One possible interpretation is that Browning, as a fierce Transcendentalist of his own sect, a sect of one, is hammering at the Victorian spiritual compromise, which his cultivated speaker exemplifies. That interpretation would confirm the poem's serio-comic opening:
Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy mind!
Galuppi's triumph, on this reading, would be the dramatic one of shaking up this cultivated monologist, who first half-scoffs at Galuppi's nihilism, but who ends genuinely frightened by the lesson Galuppi has taught which is a lesson of mortality and consequent meaninglessness. But I think that is to underestimate the monologist, who is a more considerable temperament even than the organist who plays Hugues and can bear neither to give Hugues up nor accept Hugues' emptiness. Galuppi is no Hugues, but a powerfully sophisticated artist who gives what was wanted of him, but with a Dance-of-Death aspect playing against his audience's desires. And the speaker, who knows physics, some geology, a little mathematics, and will not quite abandon his Christian immortality, is at least as enigmatic as the organist, and for a parallel reason. Why cannot he let Galuppi alone? What does he quest for in seeing how well he can perform that spirited and elegant art? Far more even than Galuppi, or Galuppi's audience, or than Browning, the speaker is obsessed with mortality:
Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
One of the most moving elements in the poem is its erotic nostalgia, undoubtedly the single sphere of identity between the monologist and Browning himself. Eros crowds the poem, with an intensity and poignance almost Shakespearean in its strength. Nothing in the poem is at once so moving and so shocking as the monologist's final "Dear dead women, with such hair, too—," for this spiritual trimmer is very much a sensual man, like his robust creator. It is the cold Galuppi who is more the dualist, more the artist fulfilling the Nietzschean insight that the ascetic ideal is a defensive evasion by which art preserves itself against the truth. But where, as readers, does that leave us, since this time Browning elegantly has cleared himself away? His overt intention is pretty clear, and I think pretty irrelevant also. He wants us—unlike the monologist, unlike Galuppi, unlike Galuppi's hard-living men and women—to resort to his ferocious version of an antithetical Protestantism, which is I think ultimately his misprision of Shelley's antithetical humanism. Yet Browning's art has freed us of Browning, though paradoxically not of Shelley, or at least of the strong Lucretian element in Shelley. Has the monologist quested after Galuppi's truth, only to end up in a vastation of his own comforting evasions of the truth? That would be the canonical reading, but it would overliteralize a metaleptic figuration that knowingly has chosen not to attempt a reversal of time. When the speaker ends by feeling "chilly and grown old," then he has introjected Galuppi's world and Galuppi's music, and projected his own compromise formulations. But this is an illusio, a metaleptic figuration that is on the verge of becoming an opening irony or reaction-formation again, that is, rejoining the tone of jocular evasion that began the poem. Nothing has happened because nothing has changed, and the final grimness of Browning's eerie poem is that its speaker is caught in a repetition. He will pause awhile, and then play a toccata of Galuppi's again.
Let us try a third music-poem or improvisation, the still more formidable "Abt Vogler," where the daemonic performer is also the momentary composer, inventing fitfully upon an instrument of his own invention, grandly solitary because there is nothing for him to interpret except his own interpretation of his own creation. The canonical readings available here are too weak to be interesting, since they actually represent the poem as being pious. The historical Vogler was regarded by some as a pious fraud, but Browning's Vogler is too complex to be regarded either as an impostor or as sincerely devout. What matters most is that he is primarily an extemporizer, rather than necessarily an artist, whether as performer or composer. The poem leaves open (whatever Browning's intentions) the problem of whether Vogler is a skilled illusionist, or something more than that. At the least, Vogler is self-deceived, but even the self-deception is most complex. It is worth knowing what I must assume that Browning knew: Vogler's self-invented instruments sounded splendid only when played by Vogler. Though the great temptation in reading this poem is to interpret it as a good moment precariously attained, and then lost, I think the stronger or antithetical reading here will show that this is very nearly as much a poem of ruined quest as "Childe Roland" or "Andrea del Sarto" is.
"Abt Vogler" is one of those poems that explain Yeats's remark to the effect that he feared Browning as a potentially dangerous influence upon him. If we could read "Abt Vogler" without interpretative suspicion (and I believe we cannot), then the poem would seem to be a way-station between the closing third of Adonais and Yeats's Byzantium poems. It establishes itself in a state of being that seems either to be beyond the antithesis of life and death, or else that seems to be the state of art itself. Yet, in the poem "Abt Vogler," I think we have neither, but something more puzzling, a willed phantasmagoria that is partly Browning's and partly an oddity, a purely visionary dramatic monologue.
Vogler, we ought to realize immediately, does not seek the purposes of art, which after all is hard work. Vogler is daydreaming, and is seeking a magical power over nature or supernature, as in the debased Kabbalist myth of Solomon's seal. Vogler is not so much playing his organ as enslaving it to his magical purposes, purposes that do not distinguish between angel and demon, heaven and hell. Vogler is no Blakean visionary; he seeks not to marry heaven and hell, but merely to achieve every power that he can. And yet he has a moving purpose, akin to Shelley's in Prometheus Unbound, which is to aid earth's mounting into heaven. But, is his vision proper something we can grant the prestige of vision, or is there not a dubious element in it?
Being made perfect, when the subject is someone like Vogler, is a somewhat chancy phenomenon. Unlike the sublimely crazy Johannes Agricola, in one of Browning's earliest and most frightening dramatic monologues, Vogler is not a genuine Enthusiast, certain of his own Election. Stanza VI has a touch of "Cleon" about it, and stanza VII is clearly unheimlich, despite the miraculous line: "That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star." But with stanzas VIII and IX, which are this poem's askesis or sublimation, it is not so easy to distinguish Vogler from Browning, or one of the beings always bouncing around in Browning, anyway:
Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too slow;
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he feared,
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was to go.
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better perchance: is this your comfort to me?
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same
God: ay, what was, shall be.
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
The poem, from here to the end, in the three final stanzas,' is suddenly as much Browning's Magnificat as the Song to David, which is deliberately echoed in the penultimate line, is Smart's. But what does that mean, whether in this poem, or whether about Browning himself? Surely he would not acknowledge, openly, that his is the art of the extemporizer, the illusionist improvising? Probably not, but the poem may be acknowledging an anxiety that he possesses, to much that effect. Whether this is so or not, to any degree, how are we to read the final stanza?
Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones, till I sink to the minor,—yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so now I will try to sleep.
This descent to C Major separates Vogler totally from Browning again, since of the many keys in which the genuinely musical Browning composes, his resting place is hardly a key without sharps or flats. Browning has his direct imitation of Smart's Song to David in his own overtly religious poem, "Saul," and so we can be reasonably certain that Vogler does not speak for Browning when the improviser belatedly stands on alien ground, surveying the Sublime he had attained, and echoes Smart's final lines:
Thou at stupendous truth believ'd;—
And now the matchless deed's achiev'd,
DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE.
What Vogler has dared and done is no more than to have dreamed a belated dream; where Browning is, in regard to that Promethean or Shelleyan a dream, is an enigma, at least in this poem. What "Abt Vogler," as a text, appears to proclaim is the impossibility of our reading it, insofar as reading means being able to govern the interplay of literal and figurative meanings in a text. Canonically, in terms of all received readings, this poem is almost an apocalyptic version of a Browningesque "Good Moment," a time of privilege or an epiphany, a sudden manifestation of highest vision. Yet the patterns of revisionary misprision are clearly marked upon the poem, and they tend to indicate that the poem demands to be read figuratively against its own letter, as another parable of ruined quest, or confession or imaginative failure, or the shame of knowing such failure.
I turn to "Andrea del Sarto," which with "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," and the meditation entitled "The Pope" in The Ring and the Book, seems to me to represent Browning at his greatest. Here there would appear to be no question about the main issue of interpretation, for the canonical readings seem fairly close to the poem in its proclamation that this artist's quest is ruined, that Andrea stands self-condemned by his own monologue. Betty Miller has juxtaposed the poem, brilliantly, with this troubled and troublesome passage in Browning's "Essay on Shelley:"
Although of such depths of failure there can be no question here we must in every case betake ourselves to the review of a poet's life ere we determine some of the nicer questions concerning his poetry,—more especially if the performance we seek to estimate aright, has been obstructed and cut short of completion by circumstances,—a disastrous youth or a premature death. We may learn from the biography whether his spirit invariably saw and spoke from the last height to which it had attained. An absolute vision is not for this world, but we are permitted a continual approximation to it, every degree of which in the individual, provided it exceed the attainment of the masses, must procure him a clear advantage. Did the poet ever attain to a higher platform than where he rested and exhibited a result? Did he know more than he spoke of?
On this juxtaposition, Andrea and Browning alike rested on a level lower than the more absolute vision they could have attained. Certainly Andrea tells us, perhaps even shows us, that he knows more than he paints. But Browning? If he was no Shelley, he was also no Andrea, which in part is the burden of the poem. But only in part, and whether there is some level of apologia in this monologue, in its patterning, rather than its overt content, is presumably a question that a more antithetical practical criticism ought to be capable of exploring.
Does Andrea overrate his own potential? If he does, then there is no poem, for unless his dubious gain-in-life has paid for a genuine loss-in-art, then he is too self-deceived to be interesting, even to himself. Browning has complicated this matter, as he complicates everything. The poem's subtitle reminds us that Andrea was called "The Faultless Painter," and Vasari, Browning's source, credits Andrea with everything in execution but then faults him for lacking ambition, for not attempting the Sublime. Andrea, in the poem, persuades us of a wasted greatness not so much by his boasting ("At any rate 'tis easy, all of it! / No sketches first, no studies, that's long past: / I do what many dream of, all their lives …"), but by his frightening skill in sketching his own twilight-piece, by his showing us how "A common greyness silvers everything—." Clearly, this speaker knows loss, and clearly he is the antithesis of his uncanny creator, whose poetry never suffers from a lack of ambition, who is always Sublime where he is most Grotesque, and always Grotesque when he storms the Sublime. Andrea does not represent anything in Browning directly, not even the betrayed relationship of the heroic precursor, yet he does represent one of Browning's anxieties, an anxiety related to but not identical with the anxiety of influence. It is an anxiety of representation, or a fear of forbidden meanings, or in Freudian language precisely a fear of the return-of-the-repressed, even though such a return would cancel out a poem-as-poem, or is it because such a return would end poetry as such?
Recall that Freud's notion of repression speaks of an unconsciously purposeful forgetting, and remind yourself also that what Browning could never bear was a sense of purposelessness. It is purposelessness that haunts Childe Roland, and we remember again what may be Nietzsche's most powerful insight, which closes the great Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals. The ascetic ideal, Nietzsche said, by which he meant also the aesthetic ideal, was the only meaning yet found for human suffering, and mankind would rather have the void for purpose than be void of purpose. Browning's great fear, purposelessness, was related to the single quality that had moved and impressed him most in Shelley: the remorseless purposefulness of the Poet in Alastor, of Prometheus, and of Shelley himself questing for death in Adonais. Andrea, as an artist, is the absolute antithesis of the absolute idealist Shelley, and so Andrea is a representation of profound Browningesque anxiety.
But how is this an anxiety of representation? We enter again the dubious area of belatedness, which Browning is reluctant to represent, but is too strong and authentic a poet to avoid. Though Andrea uses another vocabulary, a defensively evasive one, to express his relationship to Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo, he suffers the burden of the latecomer. His Lucrezia is the emblem of his belatedness, his planned excuse for his failure in strength, which he accurately diagnoses as a failure in will. And he ends in deliberate belatedness, and in his perverse need to be cuckolded:
What would one have?
In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance—
Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,
Meted on each side by the angel's reed,
For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me
To cover—the three first without a wife,
While I have mine! So—still they overcome
Because there's still Lucrezia,—as I choose.
Again the Cousin's whistle! Go, my Love.
Can we say that Andrea represents what Shelley dreaded to become, the extinguished hearth, an ash without embers? We know that Shelley need not have feared, yet the obsessive, hidden fear remains impressive. Browning at seventy-seven was as little burned out as Hardy at eighty-eight, Yeats at seventy-four, or Stevens at seventy-five, and his Asolando, his last book, fiercely prefigures Hardy's Winter Words, Yeats's Last Poems, and Stevens's The Rock, four astonishing last bursts of vitalism in four of the strongest modern poets. What allies the four volumes (The Rock is actually the last section of Stevens's Collected Poems, but he had planned it as a separate volume under the title Autumn Umber) is their overcoming of each poet's abiding anxiety of representation. "Representation," in poetry, ultimately means self-advocacy; as Hartman says: "You justify either the self or that which stands greatly against it: perhaps both at once." We could cite Nietzsche here on the poet's Will-to-Power, but the more orthodox Coleridge suffices, by reminding us that there can be no origination without discontinuity, and that only the Will can interrupt the repetition-compulsion that is nature. In the final phases of Browning, Hardy, Yeats, and Stevens, the poet's Will raises itself against Nature, and this antithetical spirit breaks through a final anxiety and dares to represent itself as what Coleridge called self-determining spirit. Whether Freud would have compounded this self-realizing instinct with his "detours towards death" I do not know, but I think it is probable. In this final phase, Browning and his followers (Hardy and Yeats were overtly influenced by Browning, and I would suggest a link between the extemporizing, improvising aspect of Stevens, and Browning) are substituting a transumptive representation for the still-abiding presence of Shelley, their common ancestor.
I want to illustrate this difficult point by reference to Browning's last book, particularly to its "Prologue," and to the sequence called "Bad Dreams." My model, ultimately, is again the Lurianic Kabbalah, with its notion of gilgul, of lifting up a precursor's spark, provided that he is truly one's precursor, truly of one's own root. Gilgul is the ultimate tikkun, as far as an act of representation can go. What Browning does is fascinatingly like the pattern of gilgul, for at the end he takes up precisely Shelley's dispute with Shelley's prime precursor, Wordsworth. By doing for Shelley what Shelley could not do for himself, overcome Wordsworth, Browning lifts up or redeems Shelley's spark or ember, and renews the power celebrated in the Ode to the West Wind and Act IV of Prometheus Unbound. I will try to illustrate this complex pattern, after these glances at Asolando, by returning for a last time (I hope) to my personal obsession with "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," and then concluding this discourse by considering Browning's late reversal of "Childe Roland" in the highly Shelleyan celebration, "Thamuris Marching."
The "Prologue" to Asolando is another in that long series of revisions of the Intimations Ode that form so large a part of the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century British and American poetry. But Browning consciously gives a revision of a revision, compounding "Alastor" and the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" with the parent poem. What counts in Browning's poem is not the Wordsworthian gleam, called here, in the first stanza, an "alien glow," but the far more vivid Shelleyan fire, that Browning recalls seeing for the first time, some fifty years before:
How many a year, my Asolo,
Since—one step just from sea to land—
I found you, loved yet feared you so—
For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No—
No mastery of mine o'er these!
Terror with beauty, like the Bush
Burning but unconsumed. Bend knees,
Drop eyes to earthward! Language? Tush!
Silence 'tis awe decrees.
And now? The lambent flame is—where?
Lost from the naked world: earth, sky,
Hill, vale, tree, flower,—Italia's rare
O'er-running beauty crowds the eye—
But flame? The Bush is bare.
When Shelley abandoned the fire, then it was for the transumptive trumpet of a prophecy, or in Adonais for the same wind rising ("The breath whose might I have invoked in song / Descends on me") to carry him beyond voice as beyond sight. Browning, as an Evangelical Protestant, fuses the Shelleyan heritage with the Protestant God in a powerfully incongruous transumption:
Hill, vale, tree, flower—they stand distinct,
Nature to know and name. What then?
A Voice spoke thence which straight unlinked
Fancy from fact: see, all's in ken:
Has once my eyelid winked?
No, for the purged ear apprehends
Earth's import, not the eye late dazed:
The voice said 'Call my works thy friends!
At Nature dost thou shrink amazed?
God is it who transcends.'
This is an absolute logocentrism, and is almost more than any poem can bear, particularly at a time as late as 1889. Browning gets away with it partly by way of a purged ear, partly because his Protestantism condenses what High Romanticism normally displaces, the double-bind situation of the Protestant believer whose God simultaneously says "Be Like Me in My stance towards Nature" and "Do not presume to resemble Me in My stance towards nature." The sheer energy of the Browningesque demonic Sublime carries the poet past what ought to render him imaginatively schizoid.
But not for long, of course, as a glance at "Bad Dreams" will indicate, a glance that then will take us back to the greatest of Browning's nightmares, the demonic romance of "Childe Roland." "Bad Dreams III" is a poem in which the opposition between Nature and Art has been turned into a double-bind, with its contradictory injunctions:
This was my dream! I saw a Forest
Old as the earth, no track nor trace
Of unmade man. Thou, Soul, explorest—
Though in a trembling rapture—space
Immeasurable! Shrubs, turned trees,
Trees that touch heaven, support its frieze
Studded with sun and moon and star:
While—oh, the enormous growths that bar
Mine eye from penetrating past
Their tangled twine where lurks—nay, lives
Royally lone, some brute-type cast
In the rough, time cancels, man forgives.
On, Soul! I saw a lucid City
Of architectural device
Every way perfect. Pause for pity,
Lightning! Nor leave a cicatrice
On those bright marbles, dome and spire,
Structures palatial,—streets which mire
Dares not defile, paved all too fine
For human footstep's smirch, not thine—
Proud solitary traverser,
My Soul, of silent lengths of way—
With what ecstatic dread, aver,
Lest life start sanctioned by thy stay!
Ah, but the last sight was the hideous!
A city, yes,—a Forest, true,—
But each devouring each. Perfidious
Snake-plants had strangled what I knew
Was a pavilion once: each oak
Held on his horns some spoil he broke
By surreptitiously beneath
Upthrusting: pavements, as with teeth,
Griped huge weed widening crack and split
In squares and circles stone-work erst.
Oh, Nature—good! Oh, Art—no whit
Less worthy! Both in one—accurst!
In the sequence of "Bad Dreams," Browning himself, as interpreter of his own text, identifies Nature with the husband, Art with the wife, and the marriage of Art and Nature, man and woman—why, with Hell, and a sadomasochistic sexual Hell, at that. But the text can sustain very diverse interpretations, as the defensive intensity of repression here is enormously strong. The City is of Art, but like Yeats's Byzantium, which it prophesies, it is also a City of Death-in-Life, and the previous vision of the forest is one of a Nature that might be called Life-in-Death. Neither realm can bear the other, in both senses of "bear"—"bring forth" or "tolerate." Neither is the other's precursor, and each devours the other, if they are brought together. This is hardly the vision of the "Prologue" to Asolando, as there seems no room for either Browning or God in the world of the final stanza. Granted that this is nightmare, or severe repression partly making a return, it carries us back to Browning at his most problematic and Sublime, to his inverted vision of the Center, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."
As the author of two full-scale commentaries on this poem (in The Ringers in the Tower, 1971, and in A Map of Misreading, 1975) I reapproach the text with considerable wariness, fairly determined not only that I will not repeat myself, but also hopefully aiming not merely to uncover my own obsessional fixation upon so grandly grotesque a quest-romance. But I recur to the question I asked at the start of this discourse; is there an attainable critical knowledge to be gathered from this critical obsession?
Roland, though a Childe or ephebe on the road to a demonic version of the Scene of Instruction, is so consciously belated a quester that he seems at least as much an obsessive interpreter as anything else purposive that he might desire to become. He out-Nietzsches Nietzsche's Zarathustra in his compulsive will-to-power over the interpretation of his own text. It is difficult to conceive of a more belated hero, and I know of no more extreme literary instance of a quest emptying itself out. Borges accurately located in Browning one of the precursors of Kafka, and perhaps only Kafka's The Castle rivals "Childe Roland" as a Gnostic version of what was once romance. Nearly every figuration in the poem reduces to ruin, yet the poem, as all of us obscurely sense, appears to end in something like triumph, in a Good Moment carried through to a supreme representation:
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-hom to my lips I set,
And blew, 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'
Surely it is outrageous to call this a Supreme or even a Good Moment? The stanza just before ends with the sound of loss: "one moment knelled the woe of years." Wordsworth and Coleridge had viewed the Imagination as compensatory, as trading off experiential loss for poetic gain, a formula that we can begin to believe was an unmitigated calamity. It is the peculiar fascination of "Childe Roland," as a poem, that it undoes every High Romantic formula, that it exposes the Romantic imagination as being merely an accumulative principle of repression. But such negation is itself simplistic, and evades what is deepest and most abiding in this poem, which is the representation of power. For here, I think, is the kernel of our critical quest, that Kabbalistic point which is at once ayin, or nothingness, and ehyeh, or the representation of Absolute Being, the rhetorical irony or illusio that always permits a belated poem to begin again in its quest for renewed strength. Signification has wandered away, and Roland is questing for lost and forgotten meaning, questing for representation, for a seconding or re-advocacy of his own self. Does he not succeed, far better than Tennyson's Ulysses and Percivale, and far better even than the Solitaries of the High Romantics, in this quest for representation? Let us grant him, and ourselves, that this is a substitute for his truly impossible original objective, for that was the antithetical, Shelleyan dream of rebegetting oneself, of breaking through the web of nature and so becoming one's own imaginative father. Substitution, as Roland shows, needs not be a sublimation, but can move from repression through sublimation to climax in a more complex act of defense.
Psychoanalysis has no single name for this act, unless we were willing (as we are not) to accept the pejorative one of paranoia for what is, from any point of view that transcends the analytic, a superbly valuable act of the will. Roland teaches us that what psychoanalysis calls "introjection" and "projection" are figurations for the spiritual processes of identification and apocalyptic rejection that exist at the outer borders of poetry. Roland learns, and we learn with him, that the representation of power is itself a power, and that this latter power or strength is the only purposiveness that we shall know. Roland, at the close, is re-inventing the self, but at the considerable expense of joining that self to a visionary company of loss, and loss means loss of meaning here. The endless fascination of his poem, for any critical reader nurtured upon Romantic tradition, is that the poem, more clearly than any other, nevertheless does precisely what any strong Romantic poem does, at once de-idealizes itself far more thoroughly than we can de-idealize it, yet points also beyond this self-deconstruction or limitation or reduction to the First Idea, on to a re-imagining, to a power-making that no other discursive mode affords. For Roland, as persuasively as any fictive being, warns us against the poisonous ravishments of truth itself. He and his reader have moved only through discourse together, and he and his reader are less certain about what they know than they were as the poem began, but both he and his reader have endured unto a representation of more strength than they had at the start, and such a representation indeed turns out to be a kind of restitution, a tikkun for repairing a fresh breaking-of-the-vessels. Meaning has been more curtailed than restored, but strength is revealed as antithetical to meaning.
I conclude with a great poem by Browning that is his conscious revision of "Childe Roland:" the marvelous late chant, "Thamuris Marching," which is one of the finest unknown, unread poems by a major poet in the language. Twenty-two years after composing "Childe Roland," Browning, not at the problematic age of thirty-nine, but now sixty-one, knows well that no spring has followed or flowered past meridian. But "Childe Roland" is a belated poem, except in its transumptive close, while all of "Thamuris Marching" accomplishes a metaleptic reversal, for how could a poem be more overwhelmingly early than this? And yet the situation of the quester is objectively terrible from the start of this poem, for Thamuris knows he is marching to an unequal contest, a poetic struggle of one heroic ephebe against the greatest of precursors, the Muses themselves. "Thamuris marching," the strong phrase repeated three times in the chant, expresses the exuberance of purpose, the Shelleyan remorseless joy in pure, self-destructive poetic quest, that Browning finally is able to grant himself.
Here is Browning's source, Iliad II, 594 ff:
… and Dorion, where the Muses
encountering Thamyris the Thracian stopped him from
singing, as he came from Oichalia and Oichalian Eurytos;
for he boasted that he would surpass, if the very Muses,
daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis, were singing against him.
and these in their anger struck him maimed, and the voice of wonder
they took away, and made him a singer without memory;
Homer does not say that Thamyris lost the contest, but rather that the infuriated Muses lost their divine temper, and unvoiced him by maiming his memory, without which no one can be a poet. Other sources, presumably known to Browning, mention a contest decided in the Muses' favor by Apollo, after which those ungracious ladies blinded Thamyris, and removed his memory, so as to punish him for his presumption. Milton, in the invocation to light that opens Book III of Paradise Lost, exalted Thamyris by coupling him with Homer, and then associated his own ambitions with both poets:
Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget
Those other two equall'd with me in Fate,
So were I equall'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Maemonides.
Milton presumably had read in Plutarch that Thamyris was credited with an epic about the war waged by the Titans against the Gods, the theme that Browning would associate with Shelley and with Keats. Browning's Thamuris marches to a Shelleyan terza rima, and marches through a visionary universe distinctly like Shelley's, and overtly proclaimed as being early: "From triumph on to triumph, mid a ray / Of early morn—." Laughing as he goes, yet knowing fully his own doom, Thamuris marches through a landscape of joy that is the deliberate point-by-point reversal of Childe Roland's self-made phantasmagoria of ordeal-by-landscape:
Thamuris, marching, laughed 'Each flake of foam'
(As sparkingly the ripple raced him by)
'Mocks slower clouds adrift in the blue dome!'
For Autumn was the season; red the sky
Held morn's conclusive signet of the sun
To break the mists up, bid them blaze and die.
Morn had the mastery as, one by one
All pomps produced themselves along the tract
From earth's far ending to near Heaven begun.
Was there a ravaged tree? it laughed compact
With gold, a leaf-ball crisp, high-brandished now,
Tempting to onset frost which late attacked.
Was there a wizened shrub, a starveling bough,
A fleecy thistle filched from by the wind,
A weed, Pan's trampling hoof would disallow?
Each, with a glory and a rapture twined
About it, joined the rush of air and light
And force: the world was of one joyous mind.
From Roland's reductive interpretations we have passed to the imagination's heightened expansions. And though this quest is necessarily for the fearful opposite of poetic divination, we confront, not ruin, but the Good Moment exalted and transfigured, as though for once Browning utterly could fuse literal and figurative:
Say not the birds flew! they forebore their right-
Swam, reveling onward in the roll of things.
Say not the beasts' mirth bounded! that was flight-
How could the creatures leap, no lift of wings?
Such earth's community of purpose, such
The ease of earth's fulfilled imaginings—
So did the near and far appear to touch
In the moment's transport—that an interchange
Of function, far with near, seemed scarce too much;
Roland's band of failures has become the glorious band of precursors among whom Thamuris predominates. The Shelleyan west wind of imagination rises, Destroyer and Creater, as Thamuris, eternally early, stands as the true ephebe, "Earth's poet," against the Heavenly Muse:
Therefore the morn-ray that enriched his face,
If it gave lambent chill, took flame again
From flush of pride; he saw, he knew the place.
What wind arrived with all the rhythms from plain,
Hill, dale, and that rough wildwood interspersed?
Compounding these to one consummate strain,
It reached him, music; but his own' outburst
Of victory concluded the account,
And that grew song which was mere music erst.
'Be my Parnassos, thou Pangaian mount!
And turn thee, river, nameless hitherto!
Famed shalt thou vie with famed Pieria's fount!
'Here I await the end of this ado:
Which wins—Earth's poet or the Heavenly Muse.'
There is the true triumph of Browning's art, for the ever-early Thamuris is Browning as he wished to have been, locked in a solitary struggle against the precursor-principle, but struggling in the visionary world of the precursor. Roland rode through a Gnostic universe in which the hidden God, Shelley, was repressed, a repression that gave Browning a negative triumph of the Sublime made Grotesque. In "Thamuris Marching," the joyous struggle is joined overtly, and the repressed partly returns, to be repressed again into the true Sublime, as Browning lifts up the sparks of his own root, to invoke that great mixed metaphor of the Lurianic Kabbalah. There is a breaking-of-the-vessels, but the sparks are scattered again, and become Shelley's and Browning's words, mixed together, among mankind.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 293
Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession [anonymous] (poetry) 1833
Paracelsus (poetry) 1835
Strafford (drama) 1837
Sordello (poetry) 1840
*Pippa Passes (drama) 1841
*Dramatic Lyrics (poetry) 1842
*King Victor and King Charles (drama) 1842
*A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (drama) 1843
*The Return of the Druses (drama) 1843
*Colombe's Birthday (drama) 1844
*Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (poetry) 1845
*Luria. A Soul's Tragedy (dramas) 1846
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (poetry) 1850
Men and Women (poetry) 1855
The Poetical Works, 3 vols. (poetry) 1863
Dramatis Personae (poetry) 1864
The Ring and the Book 4 vols. (poetry) 1868-69
Balaustion 's Adventure, Including a Transcript from Euripedes (poetry) 1871
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (poetry) 1871
Fifine at the Fair (poetry) 1872
Red Cotton Night-Cap Country; or, Turf and Towers (poetry) 1873
Aristophanes' Apology, Including a Transcript from Euripedes, Being the Last Adventure of Balaustion (poetry) 1875
The Inn Album (poetry) 1875
Pacchiarotto, and Other Poems (poetry) 1876
La Saisiaz (poetry) 1878
Two Poets of Croisic (poetry) 1878
Dramatic Idyls, first series (poetry) 1879
Dramatic Idyls, second series (poetry) 1880
Jocoseria (poetry) 1883
Ferishtah's Fancies (poetry) 1884
Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, to Wit: Bernard de Mandeville, Daniel Bartoli, Christopher Smart, George Budd Doddington, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles Avison (poetry) 1887
**An Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley (essay) 1888
Poetical Works. 16 vols. (poetry) 1888-89
Asolando: Fancies and Facts (poetry) 1889
The Works of Robert Browning. 10 vols. (poetry, dramas, and translation) 1912
The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning (poetry) 1915
The Complete Works of Robert Browning. 5 vols. to date (poetry, dramas, and essays) 1969-
The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. 4 vols. to date (poetry) 1983-
The Brownings ' Correspondence. 4 vols. to date (letters) 1984-
*This work was included in the series Bells and Pomegranates, published from 1841 to 1846. Dramatic works in this series are chronologized by date of publication rather than first performance.
**This work was first published in 1852 as an introductory essay to Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6938
SOURCE: "The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and the Book" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 143-57.
[In the following essay, Potkay suggests that contrary to the contentions of most modern critics, The Ring and the Book does not identify any character in the poem as the moral center or authority. Rather, the poem offers a "decentered struggle of interpretations, " with the character of Guido taking on a decentering role which questions the very notion of identity.]
Criticism of The Ring and The Book, with few exceptions, unites in assigning an infallible center of authority to the poem. Critics have attempted to transcend Browning's "text"—in which different interpretations of the Roman murder story converge and contend—in favor of an authoritatively unified "Book," obliquely promised by Browning in his title, but brought to light only through the auspices of humanist criticism.1 Robert D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, for example, devote their full-length study of The Ring and the Book to tracing the "basic movement" of the poem in "the coalescence of partial truths into a transcendent Truth."2 The index to the transcendent Truth of the poem is, in practice, usually either Robert Browning in propria persona, the Pope as Browning's alter ego, or Pompilia as an authoritatively privileged figure of purity and sanctity. In "Pompilia and Pompilia," William Walker summarizes and criticizes contemporary critical efforts to attribute a transparent identity and absolute integrity to Pompilia, and consequently to designate Pompilia as the moral touchstone of the poem.3 Similar critical efforts mark the Pope and the Robert Browning of Books I and XII as the intellectual and moral center of the poem.4
However, we cannot locate decisively a center of the poem because we cannot, preliminarily, attribute a definitive identity to a given character. The critic's gesture of assigning transparent identities to several characters in the text—notably to Robert Browning, the Pope, and Pompilia—is already "in play" within the text: anticipated by, mirrored in, and finally belied by the inutility of the crucial interpretive gestures of those very characters. As The Ring and the Book makes abundantly clear, all of our knowledge derives from acts of interested or relative interpretation, and the will to apodictic truth is merely symptomatic of the anxiety of misinterpretation.
To accept The Ring and the Book as a decentered straggle of interpretations has two conspicuous consequences for our evaluation of the characters in the poem. First, we emphasize Guido's archly decentering role in the poem. Guido, as the shifting self-presentations of his first and second monologues make clear, is not tied to a specific line of interpretation or to a specific construction of personal identity. Indeed, Guido throws the very notion of essential "identity" into question. Guido, as much as the structure of the poem itself, denies that the self can transcend public and normative interpretations.5 Second, a decentered reading of The Ring and the Book disrupts the usual alignment of Robert Browning and the Pope; we are led, rather, to consider the affinities between Guido and the characterological or, to use Morse Peckham's phrase, the "compromised" Robert Browning of Books I and XII.6
I. The Identifying Mark
The wish to assign transparent identities to the characters of The Ring and the Book, and thereby sidestep or transcend the vagaries of interpretation, is not simply the response of an extraneous critical tradition. Rather, Pompilia and the Pope have already set this wish in play within the poem; their will to apodictic truth arises out of, and in reaction to, a fundamental concern with misinterpreting and being misinterpreted.
Pompilia is the first character to lament the absence of a transparent Truth in the poem. She refers us, instead, to "difference," a multeity of perspectives that resists integration:
So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man [Caponsacchi], you misinterpret and misprise—
The glory of his nature, I had thought,
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth
Through every atom of his act with me:
Yet where I point you, through the chrystal shrine,
Purity in quintessence, one dew-drop,
You all descry a spider in the midst.
One says, 'The head of it is plain to see,'
And one, 'They are the feet by which I judge,'
All say, 'Those films were spun by nothing else.'
Because of the necessary "difference" of perspectives, interpretation is inevitably and regrettably misinterpretation or misprision.8 The inevitability of "difference," as Pompilia acknowledges it, does not assuage her indignation. The encompassing glory of Caponsacchi's nature should be self-evident, and Pompilia is outraged that it is not. Pompilia, in other words, is indignant at the very necessity of interpretation.
Pompilia's compensatory fantasy is to transcend interpretation altogether. Pompilia, in a passionately heightened moment of self-justification, imagines a "mark" placed upon her by God:
I did think, do think, in the thought shall die,
That to have Caponsacchi for my guide,
Ever the face upturned to mine, the hand
Holding my hand across the world,—a sense
That reads, as only such can read, the mark
God sets on woman, signifying so
She should—shall peradventure—be divine;
Yet 'ware, the while, how weakness mars the print
And makes confusion, leaves the thing men see,
—Not this man,—who from his own soul, re-writes
The obliterated charter,—love and strength
Mending what's marred.
Pompilia praises Caponsacchi's ability to discern "the mark" she claims is upon her. This mark is oddly literal, a trace that God "sets" upon woman. Pompilia's invocation of the mark echoes the language of the archetypal marking of Cain: "And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him" (Genesis 4:15). Like Cain's mark, Pompilia's has a conspicuous, unequivocal, and universal meaning, "signifying so / She should—shall peradventure—be divine." The mark serves to consolidate the fluid self, subject to partial and unlimited interpretations, into a stable and limited identity. Thus, Caponsacchi does not need to interpret, that is, construct his own perspectival rendition of, Pompilia. He needs only to focus on—to "read" or at most "re-write"—the mark that is already written upon Pompilia, to know all that needs to be known about her character: that she "shall be" divine. The significance of the mark is perfectly apparent, if only to Caponsacchi and God.9 Pompilia has progressed, in the course of her monologue, from deploring misinterpretation to imagining a "mark" that transcends the very necessity of interpretation.
Pompilia's desire to transcend interpretation is echoed in the monologue of the Pope. Commencing with a meditation on misinterpretation, the Pope comes to assert that character—here, the character of Guido—can be unmistakably identified. In the opening lines of his monologue, the Pope begins his daily ritual of reading "a History / … Of all my predecessors, Popes of Rome" (X,6). He professes to look in that History for an "example, rule of life" to guide him in his judgment of Guido (1. 21). He derives, however, no very specific guidance from his perusal of history. His narration of the succession of ninth-century Popes who alternately anathematized and canonized the corpse of Pope Formosus (11. 24-149) suggests that judgment is provisional and, on the surface, strangely arbitrary. The Pope ends his narration not with conclusions, but with unanswerable questions:
Which of the judgments was infallible?
Which of my predecessors spoke for God?
And what availed Formosus that this cursed,
That blessed, and then this other cursed again?
The "rule" supplied by this brief history is, ironically, that history provides no steadfast rule to guide our judgment. Accordingly, the Pope concludes that he "must give judgment on [his] own behoof (1. 160). The Pope employs a brief parable to address this impasse between the necessity of "giving judgment" and the inherent fallibility of any judgment.
Perchance, that since man's wit is fallible,
Mine may fail here? Suppose it so,—what then?
Say,—Guido, I count guilty, there's no babe
So guiltless, for I misconceive the man!
What's in the chance should move me from my mind?
If, as I walk in a rough country-side,
Peasants of mine cry 'Thou art he can help,
Lord of the land and counted wise to boot:
Look at our brother, strangling in his foam,
He fell so where we find him,—prove thy worth!'
I may presume, pronounce, 'A frenzy-fit,
A falling-sickness or a fever-stroke!
Breathe a vein, copiously let blood at once!'
So perishes the patient, and anon
I hear my peasants—'All was error, lord!
Our story, thy prescription: for there crawled
In due time from our hapless brother's breast
The serpent which had stung him: bleeding slew
Whom a prompt cordial had restored to health.'
What other should I say than 'God so willed:
Mankind is ignorant, a man am I:
Call ignorance my sorrow not my sin!'
So and not otherwise, in after-time,
If some acuter wit, fresh probing, sound
This multifarious mass of words and deeds
Deeper, and reach through guilt to innocence,
I shall face Guido's ghost nor blench a jot.
'God who set me to judge thee, meted out
So much of judging faculty, no more:
Ask him if I was slack in use thereof!'
The meaning of the parable is clear. Because of man's limited perspective, the interpretation of signs always carries with it the possibility of misinterpretation. Moreover, as in the case of the misdiagnosed peasant, misinterpretation may be disastrous. But since man is, nevertheless, called upon to interpret, it is his practical duty to suspend his wariness of misinterpretation and commit himself to his interpretive act. The Pope of necessity interprets, and he believes in his own interpretations. The Pope's avowed belief about Guido, stated early in the monologue, is that he is culpable:
The case is over, judgment at an end,
And all things done and irrevocable:
A mere dead man is Franceschini here,
Even as Formosus centuries ago.
The sweeping cadence and dispassionate language of these lines connote an assured belief in Guido's guilt. Does, however, the Pope's belief fully allay his initial concern with misinterpretation? Once he begins his actual assessment of Guido, the Pope, far from embracing his interpretive belief on its own terms, imagines Guido as marked with a sign that needs no interpretation: "For I find this black mark impinge the man, / That he believes in just the vile of life" (11. 510-511). The Pope imaginatively disengages himself from the sloppiness of interpretation through envisaging a "black mark impinge the man." The unsettling force of the verb "impinge" suggests that this mark, like the mark set upon Pompilia, is literally struck upon Guido. The mark, in turn, fixes the meaning of Guido. The mark identifies Guido as vile, just as the mark perceived by Pompilia identified her as divine. And, in both cases, the mark is the fantasy of the individual interpreter by whom it is assigned, not found.
The identifying mark remains a private fantasy, of course, because if there were publicly verifiable marks, there would be no Franceschini trial, no mystery, no "Old Yellow Book," no The Ring and the Book. There would not be "the struggle for truth" that the Pope himself comes to value later in his monologue (11. 1850-1928). The Ring and the Book itself is both part of, and representative of, that interminable struggle. No one interpretation of the Roman murder story can claim absolute validity or transparent truth. Rather, The Ring and the Book dramatizes the way in which interpretation works in an arena where no final truth is available. One rhetorically powerful strategy of interpretation, evinced in the conjuring of a "mark," is to deny that interpretation need occur at all.
The thesis that The Ring and the Book is a decentered struggle of interpretations invites an obvious ethical objection. A traditional humanist critic might ask: If we cannot legitimately assign an essential identity to any character in the poem, and hence cannot establish an authoritative center in the poem, then what can keep the critical enterprise from slouching toward ethical relativism, solipsism, nihilism, or worse? Let us approach this question negatively, by first examining the validity of Robert Langbaum's very conservative, and very well known, understanding of The Ring and the Book. Langbaum serves, at a moral level, to indemnify critics of The Ring and the Book against unbridled relativism. He proposes that as we read the interconnected monologues of The Ring and the Book our "judgment" transcends our dissipated Romantic "sympathy" and allies itself with Robert Browning and the Pope, the absolutely right critics of the Franceschini case. In the psychology of our response to the poem, what finally saves us from relativism, then, is the constraint of a timeless and universally shared "judgment." The impasse of Langbaum's psychological model is, however, precisely that the uniform concept of "judgment" Langbaum wants to preserve is already studiously deconstructed by the course of nineteenth-century experiential relativism as Langbaum propounds it (Langbaum, esp. pp. 38-74). The questions that emerge from this necessary rereading of Langbaum are: On what grounds can we judge the post-Romantic character? On what grounds do we ourselves stand? What, if anything, stands between us and an utterly solipsistic methodology?
II. Guido: The Communal Grounds for Judgment, and the Critique of Identity
The character in The Ring and the Book who openly addresses these questions is Guido Franceschini. Guido believes in no absolute ground for judgment. Rather, he submits his case to be judged by convention, ancient prejudice, and the arbitrary "rules of the game":
I see my grandsire's hoof-prints,—point the spot
Where he drew rein, slipped saddle, and stabbed knave
For daring throw gibe—much less, stone—from pale,
Then back, and on, and up with the cavalcade;
Just so wend we, now canter, now converse,
Till, 'mid the jauncing pride and jaunty port,
Something of a sudden jerks at somebody—
A dagger is out, a flashing cut and thrust,
Because I play some prank my grandsire played,
And here I sprawl: where is the company? Gone!
A trot and a trample! only I lie trapped,
Writhe in a certain novel springe just set
By the good old Pope: I'm first prize. Warn me? Why?
Apprize me that the law o' the game is changed?
Enough that I'm a warning, as I writhe,
To all and each my fellows of the file,
And make law plain henceforward past mistake,
'For such a prank, death is the penalty!'
Later, Guido flips from sneering at his penalty to embracing it (from which he soon after flips back again); from this changed perspective, however, Guido still invokes the same notion of a social "pact" or "bond": "I broke bond, / And needs must pay price,—wherefore, here's my head, / Flung with a flourish!" (11. 543-545). For Guido, judgment—be it for or against him—is always and only meaningful in context, and the pertinent context is always public and conventional. Guido does not believe in absolute rules of behavior, but only in what is permitted.
If we turn back to Guido's first monologue (Book V), we can see how thorough his appeal is to convention and public verification. His definition of the murder as "the irregular deed" (11. 99, 113) denies any absolute value to the act; the murder has meaning only in relation to the sheerly normative standards of "regularity." Guido's entire narration makes no claims for transparent, self-evident truth, but instead acknowledges its own limited status as "interpretation" (1. 114), the validity of which is dependent on a communal verification: "Do your eyes here see with mine?" (1. 1064).
Guido's appeal to convention, as the case makes clear, would have succeeded in seventeenth-century Arezzo, where popular respect prevailed for the nobility and its ancient claims. As Guido himself claims, with a hyperbole that is not a little ironic, his privilege is as ancient as the "Etruscan, Aretine, / One sprung—your frigid Virgil's fieriest word,— / From fauns and nymphs, trunks and the heart of oak" (XI, 1919-21). Guido's appeal to ancient prejudice, but for the lights of the Pope, might even have succeeded in Rome. The historical "tragedy" of Guido is that his appeal, as Browning re-creates it, does not succeed in nineteenth-century England, or in the twentieth-century Anglo-American classroom. He is finally "reprehensible." What makes Guido such an oddly riveting and disconcerting character, however, is that his appeal to conventionality per se brings to light the bedrock of equally conventional assumptions and beliefs by which we judge him. The conventionality of our critical response to the character of Guido is evinced by the fact that that response changes in time, according to changing critical conventions. Hence, writing in 1987, I "condemn" Guido for his violent misogyny, but my condemnation does not extend to his flagrant atheism, which was reprehensible to Browning's Pope and would have doubtlessly been reprehensible to Browning's contemporaries, or to his putative "unmanliness," which formed the better part of the humanist critic's complaint against Guido. And although I can, in 1987, safely omit discussions of Guido's atheism and perhaps even of his manliness (or lack of it) within a "valid" interpretation of Guido's character, I cannot say just anything about Guido and still be heard. I cannot, for example, say that Guido's conception of women is essential to the preservation of a firm social order. I cannot say that Guido is a prefiguration of Mussolini. The reason is simply that my interpretation, in order to be heard at all, must operate within the constraints of the implicit codes of my own "interpretive community."10 Like Guido, my appeal is always and only to a communal or institutional verification. Thus, Guido himself can be made to answer the anticipated ethical objection to a decentered text: there will never be an unbridled critical relativism or solipsism because our personal interpretations are always validated or invalidated by public, conventional norms of interpretation. The critic must ask of his own audience, "Do your eyes here see with mine?"
Finally, while I find Guido reprehensible at a moral level, the conventions of my interpretive community do allow me to appreciate Guido at a hermeneutical level. With due skepticism, Guido embraces and exploits the fact that our interested and imprecise interpretations of each other are all we can know. Thus, Guido subverts the notion of essential identity which is upheld by Pompilia, the Pope, and the critics who act as their apologists.
Guido's monologues offer an implicit critique of the identifying mark. Unlike the Pope or Pompilia, each of whom imagines a God-given "mark" that puts an end to interpretation, Guido imagines a mark that is publicly imagined. Guido first imputes the imagining of a mark to the court that reads his testimony:
Would you not prophesy—'She [Pompilia] on whose brow is stamped
The note of imputation that we know,—
Rightly or wrongly mothered with a whore,—
Such an one, to disprove the frightful charge,
What will she but exaggerate chastity.'
Guido invokes the psychology of marking within quotation marks; the "stamp" upon Pompilia is part of the public response Guido anticipates. Similarly, Guido conjures an image of Pompilia's child, who may or may not be his son, and imagines on its forehead the "brand" of public disgrace (11. 1483-1531). In neither case does Guido actually refer to a "mark," a term whose theological connotations descend from Genesis. Rather, Guido invokes the public acts of "branding" and "stamping." A mark, according to this view, is the product of a public opinion. Guido's acknowledgement of the sheerly public significance of any marking serves as a counter to the Popean/Pompilian imagining of a "mark" whose meaning is independent of an audience.
A more profound (if inadvertent) critique of the identifying mark is found toward the end of Guido's second monologue. Commenting on his bad luck in not having caught Pompilia and Caponsacchi in flagrante delicto at the wayside inn, Guido concludes,
Oh, why, why was it not ordained just so?
Why fell not things out so nor otherwise?
Ask that particular devil whose task it is
To trip the all-but-at perfection …
Inscribes all human effort with one word,
Artistry's haunting curse, the Incomplete!
The passage offers a negative image of the identifying mark that, according to Pompilia and the Pope, God sets upon woman and upon Guido. In Guido's ironic version, a "devil" marks all human effort, not with positive identity but with negative potential, "the Incomplete." Applied broadly to Guido's monologues, the Incomplete can refer not only to Guido's endeavor but also to Guido's very self, which is not available for simple predication but is constantly changing according to shifting circumstances and being changed (as Guido rightfully laments) according to shifting interpretive conventions. Taken as a denial of the identity of the self, the Incomplete stands as the emblem for Guido's activity throughout the poem. As commentators have noted with some indignation, Guido has an extremely fluid sense of self-definition; he juggles motivations for his actions, causes for his effects.
Yet Guido's essential identity is routinely explicated by critics of The Ring and the Book. Critics, by the grace of Guido's last lines, would stamp Guido's character as complete. For that very reason, Guido's last lines are notorious:
I am the Granduke's—no, I am the Pope's!
Pompilia, will you let them murder me?
Taking these lines as an absolute revelation of character—the completion of our formerly incomplete picture of Guido—Morse Peckham writes that Guido "suddeniy reveals" himself as "the jelly" he always was (p. 246). Langbaum writes, "When Guido finally speaks out of his deepest instinct, he recognizes in his own absolute evil and Pompilia's absolute goodness the reason for the fundamental antagonism between them" (Preface, emphasis mine).11 The intransigence of these condemnations is in excess of any assertion about Guido that might be actually supported by the text. These condemnations are, in other words, in excess of interpretation.
The character of Guido is not so much critically judged at the end of his monologue as it is willfully marked or scapegoated. Guido must be marked so that the notion of verifiable identity and the corresponding possibility of a privileged judgment can be preserved. If we view Guido with critical sensitivity rather than with uncritical rancor, objections to his utter condemnation become apparent. How can we be sure that Guido's final lines are not said for a grand penitent effect? As Altick and Loucks point out, "normally it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish sincerity from show in [Guido's] wild speech" (pp. 71-72). Why exempt Guido's last lines from this "normal" condition of indeterminacy? Why decide that only Guido's last three lines, of a 2,425 line monologue, are unequivocally from the heart? In a move that fully reveals the mechanism of marking, Altick and Loucks turn, sharply and unexpectedly, from the judicious recognition that "it is impossible to distinguish fully" between fluctuating Guidos, to the identifying assertion that Guido "repeatedly likens himself to Jesus Christ but in reality is Satan" (p. 90, emphasis mine). In this move, as in all acts of marking in or of The Ring and the Book, the desire to positively identify a character as good or evil supersedes the interpreter's capacity to remain in uncertainty and doubt.
One possible justification of reading Guido's last three lines as absolutely revelatory of character is the argument for poetic closure: that is, for reading the end of a text (in this case, a monologue) as retrospectively and conclusively illuminating everything that has gone before in the text. The very structure of The Ring and the Book, however, militates against a closure argument. As Lee Erickson has most recently acknowledged, "The form [of The Ring and the Book] is almost frighteningly open-ended. As the trailing off of the reports in "The Book and the Ring" shows, there is always the possibility of considering yet another point of view" (p. 234). It is especially easy to imagine "yet another point of view" from a speaker like Guido who specializes in fabricating points of view. More than any of the other monologues in The Ring and the Book (except, perhaps, for the monologues of Robert Browning himself), Guido's two monologues resist closure; they do so by demonstrating that our sense of an ending is provisional and subject to the complications that may arise upon yet another beginning. As the ending of Guido's first monologue is, so the ending of his second monologue might be.
III. Robert Browning
For nearly all critics of The Ring and the Book, the firmest authority in the poem has been the Robert Browning of Books I and XII, who, despite Morse Peckham's caveat, is still identified rather routinely as the real, historical Robert Browning. Moreover, this real Robert Browning is somehow immediately knowable, if not through his monologues then through his letters, his biographically verifiable religious convictions, and his position in a humanist literary tradition. Whether the Robert Browning of Books I and XII is "real" (whatever that might mean) or characterological,12 this Robert Browning has much more in common with the character of Guido than critics have recognized. Browning is similar to Guido, not in his moral convictions but in the grain of his interpretive assumptions. Robert Browning does not present us with unequivocal portraits of his characters but rather presents and re-presents characters according to his own shifting interpretations; and he is skeptical of his own ability to conjure up a transcendent "Truth" out of the sequential "facts" he presents, especially a Truth that could claim to transcend the final tribunal of public, communal verification.
Browning, in Book I, commits himself to three distinct tellings of the Franceschini case. The first telling (11. 520-678) is Browning's Florentine "vision" of the murder story. Browning calls this rendition of the story "the tragic piece" (1. 523). It reads, more precisely, like a piece from the Grand Guignol. The narrative is condensed and melodramatic, laden with metaphors and a ponderous (even by Browning's standards) alliterative scheme. A feel for the style can be gathered from the following passage:
Guido Franceschini took away
Pompilia to be his for evermore,
While [Pompilia's parents] sang 'Now let us depart in peace,
Having beheld thy glory, Guido's wife!'
I saw the star supposed, but fog o' the fen,
Gilded star-fashion by a glint from hell;
Having been heaved up, haled on its gross way,
By hands unguessed before, invisible help
From a dark brotherhood, and specially
Two obscure goblin creatures, fox-faced this,
Cat-clawed the other, called his next of kin
By Guido the main monster,—cloaked and caped,
Making as they were priests, to mock God more,—
Abate Paul, Canon Girolamo.
Throughout the piece, the characters are defined in terms of absolutes that often teeter on the verge of comic overstatement. Guido is "the main monster" of "a dark brotherhood"; later, he is called a "wolf," a "werewolf," and "Lucifer." Meanwhile, Caponsacchi, "the young good beauteous priest," shines with the glory of "Saint George."
Browning's second telling of the story (11. 780-823) issues, according to Browning, from his return to London. It is cast in the form of a brief and fairly impartial summary. It does not assume the viciousness of Guido, but merely states that in Arezzo Pompilia and Guido lived "Unhappy lives, whatever curse the cause."
Browning tells the story for a third and last time (11. 838-1378) in his presentation of "the voices [that] presently shall sound / In due succession." In contrast to the cumbrous and impassioned melodrama of his early Florentine vision, the tone of this latter presentation is measured, distanced, and ironic. Browning's assessment of character is softened and is at times equivocal. For example, Caponsacchi, formerly "the young good beauteous priest," becomes "A courtly spiritual Cupid, squire of dames / By law of love, and mandate of the mode." Browning's tone, while affectionate, has become teasing and deflationary. On the other hand, by dwelling on the details of Guido's torture and digressing onto the topic of the religious sanctioning of torture (11. 975-1015), Browning oddly elicits our sympathy for Guido's first monologue. This sympathy is not so much retracted as it is complicated when Browning reverts, in his synopsis of Guido's second monologue (11. 1272-1329), to the language of the Grand Guignol. Guido again becomes "the part-man part-monster," attended this time by "the frightful Brotherhood of Death" that awaits his execution.
Browning's three divergent tellings of the Franceschini case do not necessarily converge in a kind of supertext, the ideal telling that critics refer to when they cite Browning's authoritative judgments in Book I. Instead, Book I offers a palimpsest of different interpretations, each telling remaining "visible" beside its subsequent re-telling. These different interpretations of a recurrent narrative event underline the very quality of interpretation involved in each telling, and thus highlight the relative, malleable nature of narrative "truth." Despite his predilection for certain characters, Browning makes no pretense of being able to identify authoritatively—to mark—any of the characters that he personifies in his text. His most emphatic (and little quoted) statement of the unavailability of "sentence absolute" comes near the end of Book I:
See it for yourselves,
This man's act, changeable because alive!
Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought;
Man, like a glass ball with a spark a-top,
Out of the magic fire that lurks inside,
Shows one tint at a time to take the eye:
Which, let a finger touch the silent sleep,
Shifted a hair's-breadth shoots you dark for bright,
Suffuses bright with dark, and baffles so
Your sentence absolute for shine or shade.
Once set such orbs,—white styled, black stigmatized,—
A-rolling, see them once on the other side
Your good men and your bad men every one,
From Guido Franceschini to Guy Faux,
Oft would you rub your eyes and change your names.
Browning, in cautioning the reader against "stylizing" and "stigmatizing," provides the poem with its most eloquent critique of the mark.
Yet this lip-service paid to indeterminacy is at variance with Browning's predominant concern with getting at the Truth of the matter. Critics have written much on Browning's concern with Truth in Book I.13 In brief, the criticism claims that Browning, through the happy analogy of the making of the Ring, successfully describes his own fabrication of a superior, unified "Truth" from the discrete "facts" of the Old Yellow Book. However, the relation of discrete "facts" to an overarching "Truth" is more slippery, as Browning expresses it, than critics have allowed. The following is frequently cited in traditional criticism of Browning's Ring-metaphor:
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more;
To-wit, that fancy has informed, transpierced,
Thridded and so thrown fast the facts else free,
As right through ring and ring runs the djereed
And binds the loose, one bar without a break.
Critics usually interpret the passage along these lines: Browning's poem can claim not only the "truth" of the "facts" he works with, but the higher truth ("fact") of having given those facts a united, living form. This reading, then, can be supported by Browning's reiteration of his point: "Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?" (1. 705). What critics have failed to take into account is the tentativeness of Browning's claims for the truth of his Book. The latter "claim" takes the form of a question—"Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?"—which we have no reason to dismiss as a "rhetorical question." The former claim—"fancy with fact is just one fact the more"—is, in its flat way, even more noncommittal. The crucial ambiguities of the word "just" (does Browning mean "no more than one fact the more?") give Browning's claim an overtone of resignation. And what, at the outset, does "fact" mean for Browning? The Old Yellow Book does not, of course, present "facts" in an empirical sense, but the inscriptions of interpretive testimonies, which are already at a remove from the inscrutable historical phenomena of the case. Browning's use of the term "facts" underscores its etymological roots in the Latin facta, things that have been made. We can read Browning's claim—"fancy with fact is just one fact the more"—as an expression of despair at the inability to escape sheer enumeration, the piling up of facts which are always already interpretive acts. We can see Browning as arguing, as Guido argues, against the possibility of uniting the facts of an ongoing serialization into an essential and identifiable "Truth."
As Browning realized, The Ring and the Book is always open to yet another "one fact the more," the interpretive act of its readership. In anticipation of Guido's appeal, the final appeal of Browning's text is not to a transcendent Truth, but to a public, communal verification. Browning defers authority, acknowledging the tribunal of the "British Public" (11. 410-412, 11. 1379-89). Indeed, Browning, in his third telling of the murder story, prefaces his sketch of the Pope with an acknowledgment of the superior authority of his readership: "Then comes the all but end, the ultimate / Judgment save yours" (11. 1220-21).14
In sum, the Robert Browning of Book I is closely related to Guido in his interpretive assumptions. Guido, accordingly, can claim to be at the epistemological heart of a decentered and decentering poem. There is no absolute knowledge or Truth in The Ring and the Book, but only a differential play of interpretations.
In his essay "On History" (1830), Thomas Carlyle writes,
It is, in no case, the real historical Transaction, but only some more or less plausible scheme and theory of the Transaction, or the harmonized result of many such schemes, each varying from the other and all varying from the truth, that we can ever hope to behold.15
Carlyle asserts that our reading of history is always a balancing act of divergent interpretations of the past, a reading which finally retains a temporal perspective and remains as partial as the divergent interpretations it attempts to "harmonize." Yet a few paragraphs down, Carlyle confidently urges an artistic appreciation of "the Whole" of History, although he is vague about what such an appreciation might look like (Carlyle, p. 90). Carlyle turns dramatically from a purview of heterogeneous interpretations "all varying from the truth," to a wish for an aesthetically unified "Whole." A similar turn defines the conclusive moment in most criticism of The Ring and the Book. Thus Langbaum, at the end of his preface to The Poetry of Experience, succinctly tells us that the "moral" of the whole of The Ring and the Book lies in Fra Celestino's enunciation, "God is true / And every man a liar" (XII, 597-598). For Langbaum, the characters of Browning, the Pope, and Pompilia are miraculously like God, and therefore exempt from the implications of Celestino's verdict on "every man." Yet for a critic such as William Walker, for whom no character in The Ring and the Book is ontologically privileged over any other character, Fra Celestino's pronouncement can only be read as a paradox:
But statements such as [Fra Celestino's] which explicitly assert the unreliability of all statement themselves are subject to the skepticism they voice and therefore allow for the possibility of reliable or true statement. Like some of Zeno's paradoxes, if they are assumed to be true they are false, and if assumed false they are true. There are, moreover, numerous affirmations in The Ring and the Book that, in spite of the limitations of individual statement, collective or aesthetic statement is capable of expressing true propositions…. As we are told in the summary to the work, "Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least" (XII. 839-840); "Art may tell a truth / Obliquely" (XII. 855-856). Given these assertions, one might reasonably argue that in one way or another The Ring and the Book does articulate a knowledge of the Franceschini affair and its agents which could serve as a criterion for assessing the relationship between a character and his monologue, (pp. 62-63)
Walker tries, at the end of his essay, to gesture beyond the Cretan paradox of Fra Celestino's pronouncement toward a possible knowledge of The Ring and the Book as a whole. Yet Walker's description of how we might attain this knowledge—"in one way or another"—is the index to a moment of interpretive exasperation or exhaustion. Walker cannot, in good faith, get beyond the paradoxical structure of Fra Celestino's enunciation; no reader can. The paradox of Fra Celestino's "moral"—a paradox that calls upon us to exert, in Keats's phrase, our negative capability—remains the emblem of The Ring and the Book.
1 Jacques Derrida draws the distinction between "text" and "book" in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), pp. 10-18.
2Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of "The Ring and the Book" (Chicago, 1968), p. 37.
3VP, 22 (1984), 47-63. Walker effectively challenges the critical notion that we can "know" Pompilia in a simple, unproblematic way and thereby decenters her narrative in The Ring and the Book.
4 Robert Langbaum contends that Robert Browning's absolutely "right judgments" in Book I provide us with a "God's-eye view" of the poem, and outweigh the relative claims of most of the other monologists. "Precisely right judgments" are also attributed to the Pope and Fra Celestino. The Poetry of Experience (New York, rev. ed. 1971), Preface; see also pp. 109-136. Agreement with Langbaum is nearly universal. See, for example, William O. Raymond, "The Pope in The Ring and the Book," VP, 6 (1968), 323-332; Altick and Loucks, p. 69. L. J. Swingle has discussed the problems that arise when the reader absolutely privileges Book I over the next eight Books. From an epistemological point of view the poem is no longer interesting: the revelation of absolute "truth" in Book I makes the rest of the monologues "anticlimactic," Swingle, however, sidesteps the problem he identifies by simply privileging the "ontology" of the poem over its epistemology. "Truth and The Ring and the Book: A Negative View," VP, 6 (1968), 259-269. Lee Erickson has recently revived Swingle's argument, with its ambiguities intact, in Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Audiences (Ithaca, 1984), pp. 234-237.
5 My thinking about Guido is indebted to William Warner's Nietzschean reading of Richardson's Lovelace in Reading Clarissa (New Haven, 1979).
6 Morse Peckham was the first critic to question the critical commonplace that Books I and XII are the unmediated expression of the historical Robert Browning. "The point," writes Peckham, "is that the carefully identified historical Robert Browning of Book I is fatally compromised by the very plan of the poem, for that plan puts Robert Browning in the same category as each of the other monologuists, including the two forms of Guido…. Hence the Robert Browning of Book I is to be conceived as interpreting the documents according to his own interests—necessarily and ineluctably." "Historiography and The Ring and the Book," VP, 6 (1968), 246.
7 All quotations of the poem are from Robert Browning: The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (New Haven, 1971); hereafter cited within the text.
8 This particular interpreter's "eyes," for instance, lead him to "descry a spider" in the midst of Pompilia's narration itself: her claim for the purity of her relationship with Caponsacchi is compromised by the sexual imagery with which she formulates that relationship: "The glory of his nature … / Shot itself out in white light … / Through every atom of his act with me" (VII. 921-923).
9 Neil Hertz has drawn attention to the psychology of "marking" in his essay "Two Extravagant Teachings," in The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York, 1985), pp. 144-160.
10 See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), pp. 342-347.
11 In a later essay, Langbaum pardons Guido precisely because Guido's ability to recognize his own absolute evil suggests his capacity for moral regeneration. See "Is Guido Saved? The Meaning of Browning's Conclusion to The Ring and the Book, " VP, 10 (1972), 289-305.
12 In much of his early correspondence with E.B.B., Browning insists upon his inability to speak out directly. In a letter of January 13, 1845, Browning writes, "You speak out, you,—I only make men & women speak—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me." A month later, Browning emphasizes his point: "First then,—what I have printed gives no knowledge of me—it evidences abilities of various kinds, if you will—and a dramatic sympathy with certain modifications of passion.. that I think: but I never have begun, even, what I hope I was born to begin and end,—'R.B. a poem.'" The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969), I, 7, 17. While Browning's apparent desire for a lyric voice may be quite real, we are not warranted to casually assume that he attained that heretofore unattainable voice in the opening and closing books of The Ring and the Book. For a brief but suggestive discussion of these issues, see Herbert F. Tucker, "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric," in Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hoek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca, 1985), p. 231.
13 See, for example, Paul A. Cundiff, "The Clarity of Browning's Ring Metaphor," PMLA, 63 (1948), 1276-82; George R. Wasserman, "The Meaning of Browning's Ring-Figure," MLN, 76 (1961), 420-426.
14 Langbaum's interpretation of this line privileges the Pope and the Pope's judgment of Guido: "The Pope is the most authoritative speaker in the poem. He delivers, Browning tells us in Book I, 'the ultimate / Judgment' … that should determine ours" (in "Is Guido Saved?" p. 295).
15 In Works (New York, 1964), XXVII, 88. Altick and Loucks cite Carlyle's essay on pp. 26-28.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993, 291 p.
Studies the poetical development of Browning, observing that Browning's poetry is informed both by Browning's "biographical presence" and his "biographical absence."
Armstrong, Isobel. "Browning in the 1850s and After: New Experiments in Radical Poetry and the Grotesque." In Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, pp. 284-317. London: Routledge, 1993.
Explores the development of Browning's poetry following his 1846 marriage and the subsequent 1855 publication of Men and Women, examining in particular the poet's experiments with language and form.
Bristow, Joseph. Robert Browning. Harvester New Readings. Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, 178 p.
Provides a critical introduction to Browning's poetry, focusing on Browning's desire and struggle to impart his views regarding the "divine necessity of cultural change."
Buckler, William E. Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. New York: New York University Press, 1985, 293 p.
Book-length study of The Ring and the Book, focusing on the "poetry" and the "imagination" of the text rather than on the "learning" and "erudition" of it. Buckler maintains that Browning intended the poem to be "a course in critical-creative reading."
DeLaura, David J. "The Context of Browning's Painter Poems: Aesthetics, Polemics, Histories." PMLA 95, No. 3 (May 1980): 367-88.
Argues that Alexis François Rio's influential 1836 book on the depiction of Christian devotion in paintings provides the backdrop against which Browning's painter poems may be understood.
Gibson, Mary Ellis, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Browning. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992, 275 p.
Collection of contemporary essays analyzing the structure, style, and themes of Browning's poems.
Jack, Ian and Margaret Smith, eds. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vols. I, II, III (edited by Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler), and IV (edited by Ian Jack, Rowena Fowler, and Margaret Smith). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, 1984, 1988, and 1991.
These volumes contain critical introductions to Pauline and Paracelsus (Vol. I); Strafford and Sordello II); and the individual poems contained in the Bells and Pomegranates series (Vols. III and IV). Volume IV also contains a critical introduction to Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day.
O'Neill, Patricia. Robert Browning and Twentieth-Century Criticism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995, 157 p.
Discusses the history of Browning criticism, from the time of the poet's death in 1889 through the critical debates of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
Roberts, Adam. "Men and Women, 1855," in Robert Browning Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996, pp. 57-74.
Argues for the unity of Browning's Men and Women.
——"Using Myth: Browning's Fifine at the Fair." Browning Society Notes 20, No. 1 (1990): 12-30.
Studies the mythological allusions in the poem to determine whether or not they are logically connected with one another. The critic also contends that classical mythic reference "underlies the broader message of the poem."
Slinn, E. Warwick. Browning and the Fictions of Identity. London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1982, 173 p.
Explores Browning's conception of human psychology and personality as exemplified in the poet's dramatic monologues.
Tucker, Herbert F., Jr. Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980, 257 p.
Examines Browning's fascination with "the fatal, frightening, yet necessary muse of closure," maintaining that it is this interest of Browning's which motivates his "open-ended" poetry.
Woolford, John. Browning the Revisionary. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988, 233 p.
Argues that Browning's desire to achieve popular success colored the first thirty-six years of the poet's career, and that this ambition drove Browning's "self-revision," or "the practical application of his revision of Romantic aesthetics."
Additional coverage of Browning's life and works can be found in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present, Second Edition; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 32 and 163.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9676
SOURCE: "Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modern Theory," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 27, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1989, pp. 79-98.
[In the following essay, Shaw analyzes the way in which Browning makes use of critical theories—particularly deconstructionism and hermeneutics—in The Ring and the Book. Shaw considers the main characters to be caricatures of various critical viewpoints and focuses on Tertium Quid and Guido specifically as the primary deconstructionists, and on the Pope as a representative of hermeneutical criticism.]
Problems associated with contemporary deconstruction and hermeneutics were familiar to Browning and already understood by him in his Roman murder mystery, The Ring and the Book. This assertion may seem less contentious if we recall that critical theories, though rich in their accidental varieties, are poor in their essential types. Deconstruction, for example, was a favorite exercise of Victorians like Pater, who dismantled metaphysics in Plato and Platonism, and of the agnostic theologian H. L. Mansel, who dissolved the idea of God into logically contradictory concepts in The Limits of Religious Thought. Mansel takes the idea of the infinite, the idea of the absolute, and the idea of a first cause, and argues that they cannot all be predicated of God at one and the same time. As for hermeneutics, though critics sometimes claim it as an invention of Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century, it is surely as venerable a pursuit as patristic exegesis and as old as biblical commentary itself. Let me proceed at once to a definition of terms. By deconstruction I mean Browning's subversive use of double binds and antinomies; and by hermeneutics I mean his study of the simultaneous preservation and transformation of the original meaning of a text. In The Ring and the Book Browning comes to deconstruction via a hermeneutical dilemma. The more scrupulously he, tries to transcribe the facts in his source-book—the facts in the Old Yellow Book—the stranger, more invented, they appear to be. The passage of events into history is not itself fictional. But every story an interpreter makes up about the past, especially if it is the story of a partisan or advocate, is precisely that: a historical fiction or a fictional history. The more Browning wrestles with this dilemma, the more double binds and contradictions of other kinds he discovers.
For example, a doctrine of historical continuity is developed by Browning's Pope, who discerns behind the literal events of the Roman murder story the lineaments of a biblical myth of rescue and deliverance. Opposed to his belief in a continuing bible or testament is the assumption of discontinuity favored by the skeptics, Tertium Quid and Guido. This opposition, which pervades the poem, starts to unravel, however (in a process critics have not so far discussed), when Browning shows how opposite critical methods unexpectedly converge. Thus, to accept the premise of Pompilia and Caponsacchi that truth is constant and that surface meanings do not deceive is to interpret events the way the skeptical exposer of discontinuity, Guido, finally does. Guido insists that he is fiercely loyal to a single set of values. He is more consistent than his adversaries. If the Pope decides to play Higher critic and changes the rules halfway through the game, why should Guido be punished for being more consistent? Conversely, to argue like Guido that action and being are fatally at odds in the adulterous priest who masquerades as a deliverer and in the unfaithful wife who pretends to be undefiled and pure is also to interpret events the way Caponsacchi and Pompilia do. For it is to allow for 180 degree conversions and for the discovery of hidden moral and theological meanings in a story that means more than it appears to mean. Caponsacchi, after all, is what Kierkegaard would call "a knight of the hidden inwardness." He wears a mask or incognito: he is not the wordly cleric he seems to be. The same is true of Pompilia: she lives from a depth of inwardness that cannot be outwardly expressed. And so, as in many deconstructive readings, to interpret suspiciously or inconsistently like Guido is also to interpret consistently or in a spirit of faith, like Pompilia and Caponsacchi, and vice versa. There seems to be no way out of this double bind.
When Browning's narrator in Book XII asserts that human speech is naught and all testimony false (XII.834-835), he is laying claim to knowledge of the ultimate order of things—a knowledge for which his own theory of consistent skepticism makes no provision. Browning seems aware of this contradiction. How can his narrator deplore the general warping of critical insight and still maintain the fiction that his own superior mind is unaffected by the general distemper? His irony is necessarily a two-edged sword. There is no possibility of reserving enlightenment for the narrator and consigning all other interpreters to darkness. Any systematic school of suspicion includes the skeptic in its net. Though the discrepant testaments of The Ring and the Book and the endless progeny of critical commentary that such testaments breed are all problematic, all equally suspect, the pervasive skepticism of Browning's own narrator in Book XII obliquely elevates the subversion of standards into exactly such a standard—one that is miraculously true of every testimony it examines. The program of dismantling a center by leading us through a centerless labyrinth implies recognition of a center after all. Unlike modern deconstructionists, however, Browning finds such dismantling as riddled with contradiction as any theoretical position he tries to dismantle. The narrator in Book XII is no more exempt from Browning's irony than any other commentator. When criticism cannot become a systematic body of coherent premises, arguments, and conclusions, then it may degenerate into an effort by each commentator to impose his own ideas by sheer force of will.
The clash of judgments among the speakers of The Ring and the Book replicates itself in a clash of opinion among the readers of the poem. Carlyle thought that Pompilia was guilty; Judge J. M. Gest insisted that "Caponsacchi was a frivolous young fellow, … light in thought and unscrupulous in action"; and Morse Peckham has concluded that Browning never presumes to resolve the issue.1 Such continuation of a critical quarrel that the poem itself initiates assimilates events of the narrative to events of reading in the most approved post-structuralist manner. Equally prophetic of some contemporary attitudes is the impatience of Tertium Quid, who despairs of criticism altogether. To both the ironists and the Hteralists Tertium Quid says in effect, "a plague on both your houses." He reminds us that double irony—the apparent endorsement of two opposite positions simultaneously—is evasive. The trick of presuming to understand both sides at once but rejecting (and so favoring) neither is liable to be unpopular in any historical period, not just among contemporary adversaries of deconstruction. As post-structuralist critics like to point out, the deeds of the characters are also the reverse of what we might expect from their nature. The Pope is sententious and reflective, yet in sentencing Guido on impulse he commits a violent act. What the sentencing of Guido means is undone by the way it means. The judgment and deliverance should be justified as instances of continuity between being and doing. But the way these acts are done affirms a discrepancy between being and doing that calls into question the principle affirmed.
As the deconstructionists of The Ring and the Book, Tertium Quid and Guido deserve brief separate treatment. Like some deconstructionists, Tertium Quid constructs aporias and antinomies with a facility that is mechanical and at times almost mindless. Forgetting that the mind's ability to lose facts unpredictably and to get relations wrong distinguishes it from an archival bank or computer, Tertium Quid tries to feed every fact through a grid of disjunctive propositions. He thwarts the intellect by contriving to trap it inside two alternatives that are made to exhaust the field of possibility. As in any disjunctive proposition, p and q cannot both be true, though there is no way of deciding which of the logically contradictory propositions is true and which is false. Tertium Quid is so wed to disjunction as an interpretive method that he even splits apart so undivided and spontaneous an act as Caponsacchi's decision to leap forth at once as Pompilia's champion. Tertium Quid must first invent a counter-speech for Caponsacchi, in which the priest counsels Pompilia to bear alone the heavy burden of her marriage, before inventing a speech pledging his service to her, which he then pronounces "best" (IV.826).
Tertium Quid realizes that if Caponsacchi makes the right choice, there is no way of knowing he makes it, since to "try" the "truth … by instinct" (IV. 1006) is to dispense by definition with rational proof. Either Guido was jealous of Caponsacchi and tortured Pompilia because he suspected her of committing adultery (IV.914-915), or else he was not jealous and wanted Pompilia to leave behind the dowry by eloping with the priest (IV.749-755). Since the two alternatives are in logical contradiction, one must be false. But since they exhaust the field of possibility—either Guido was jealous or he was not, either he plotted in cold blood or acted out of passion—one alternative must be true. Which that alternative is, however, Tertium Quid has no logical way of knowing. Tertium Quid realizes that either people are what they seem, or else being and action are in contradiction. But Guido, who avows consistency between his action and his being, ironically charges Caponsacchi, the priest whose incognito as an eloper hides his reserve of faith and inwardness, with the greater inconsistency in pretending to be what he is not. If Caponsacchi "must look to men more skilled / I' the reading hearts than ever was the world" (IV. 1111-12), then he must seek an interpreter like Tertium Quid who can accept the principle of discontinuity without being immobilized by the uncertainty which results from any incessant use of disjunction and any incessant exposure of contradiction and deceit.
So much for Tertium Quid. What about Guido? Like some analytic philosophers of language, Guido is a reductive interpreter, a Benthamite, who is resolved to make comprehensible the great mystery words of his adversaries—faith, love, religion, truth—even if he must explain them away in the process. In Guido's two orations everything is subject to reductionist explanations except reductionism itself. Should a thoroughgoing reductionism like Guido's not be courageous enough to reduce and devalue even itself? Should Guido not perceive that he is debunking Pompilia and Caponsacchi out of a resentful envy of their values? In rooting out the concealed poetry in language, Guido even tries to revise downward the mystique attaching to his own social rank. He shows how simple supply and demand curves useful in economics can be made to quantify and give exact, non-inflationary meaning to a mystery word like "count," which he can then, like the Duke of Ferrara, barter on the market "with all other ware" (V.463).
To convince the court of his honest resolve to strip away all false pretense, Guido concedes that he forced Pompilia to trace over the letters he had written in her confession. But this admission of coercion is a more damaging concession than Guido seems to realize (V.846-847), since how can we reconcile Guido's exposure of deceit in his present oration with the general condition of deceit which must exist throughout the monologue if the exposure is true? If the confession of pervasive deceit is true, it would seem to follow it cannot be true. The only escape from this dilemma seems to be the axiom that an off-hand admission of deceit like Guido's may have greater validity than direct testimony because, as Levi Hedge observes in his Elements of Logick, a book highly esteemed by Browning's father, "there is less reason" to apprehend in any act of casual self-incrimination a "deliberate intention to deceive."2
So far I have been concentrating on the exposure of double binds and contradictions appropriate to skeptics like Tertium Quid and Guido, the principal deconstructionists of the poem. Equally prophetic of modern theory is the hermeneutical criticism of Browning's Pope. Distinguishing between the Bible's essential meaning and the accidental significance it acquires for particular readers, the Pope asks how a sacred text can have both an original meaning and a new meaning for each successive generation. Faith in Christianity would seem to be faith in a historically grounded religion. But the Pope recognizes that this claim is paradoxical. For if faith is to be faith in history, as Dr. Thomas Arnold had insisted, then, as the skeptical W. G. Ward argued as early as 1841, in a review of Arnold's Sermons,3 it must be faith in a fiction we make up about the past, or else faith in something that once happened but is now irrecoverable. Moreover, even if the past could be recovered, how could an adventurous knight of faith like Caponsacchi have faith in what is merely given? Such historical faith would not seem to qualify as faith at all, for like any proof that bludgeons its opponents, reducing them to silence, it leaves no room for free assent. Christianity is an historical faith only in an altered nineteenth-century sense of the word "historical," which equates history not with the antecedently given but with a self-constituting process of development through time. Truth that evolves historically in this second sense is not at first expressible, because it does not authentically exist until knights of faith like Caponsacchi will it into being. Though history as self-making would seem to be at odds with history as a synonym for the received and given, only some combination of these two easily confused and incompatible theories of history would seem to explain how both the transformation and preservation of biblical meaning is possible.
The object of the Pope's faith is the proclamation that Pompilia was delivered and saved. She has to be offered up to another world before her goodness deteriorates. In a sense, Guido is required to play the role of priest, sacrificing his wife so that she can die without blemish. Her great love for Caponsacchi, like Juliet's for Romeo, does not go wrong. It goes in the only way it can go—out of this world, which is also the way Christ's love went. The hermeneutical dilemma facing Browning's Pope is that his faith in the resurrected or redeemed Pompilia, which is his equivalent of the Gospel's proclaiming faith in the risen Christ, does not involve any assent to a verifiable proposition. It is not an assent to a scientific classification, nor is it grounded ultimately in the kind of historical or factual evidence admissible in a court of law. Such laws have only a negative function. They can tell us what cannot have happened, but can offer no proof of what did happen. "Unless you introduce the resurrection," says Henry Melvill, the preacher who most influenced the young Browning, "you will not make intelligible 'the life.'"4 As a continuing Bible, The Ring and the Book proclaims the importance of "resurrection experiences" that break through the barrier dividing life from death. The Pope distinguishes between the knight of faith and the historical Caponsacchi, between the hidden Word through whom God shows just sufficient of his "light / For us i' the dark to rise by" (VII. 1844-45) and Caponsacchi, the public figure, who is half an embarrassment to the court, just as the historical Jesus was clearly an embarrassment to the establishment that had to deal with him. We begin to know God only when we know we know nothing about Him. The imminent deaths of Pompilia and the Pope invite us to discover the connection between death and the kind of goodness which must pass out of the world because, like Christ's goodness, that is where it already is.
An extraordinary experience, too good for this world, can break down the barriers, not just between life and death, but also between life as we live it now and life as it ought to be lived. We can experience new life when we allow our faith in someone like Pompilia or Caponsacchi to articulate a new understanding of human possibility. One does not first call Caponsacchi an exemplar of Christ and then experience an enlargement of life. It works the other way round. Grasping the significance of what redemption might be like enlarges and liberates the reader. Radical faith depends on an act of God which, though historical, is also curiously transhistorical. The Pope's belief seems to be both an object of historical knowledge and not such an object. But if faith has no historical content, it seems difficult to distinguish from Guido's formless faith, which is faith in nothing.
I associate "formless faith" with Paul Tillich's idea that faith cannot be identified with conscious assent to any truth. Faith is present whenever ultimate concern is expressed, and this concern—a theological equivalent of I. A. Richards' doctrine of "objectless beliefs"—is independent of any particular symbols or beliefs.5 Though Browning refuses to embrace such a formless faith, he is equally critical of any form of historical faith. If history is the basis of saving faith, it would also seem to follow that it is not such a basis. For historical facts are never recoverable. Truths of faith are never identical with historical truths, anyway, and it is a disastrous distortion of faith to confuse them. The Higher Criticism cannot erode the grounds of saving faith. All it can subvert are the grounds of historical faith, which for Browning's Pope is never real faith at all.
Despite what the Pope says about correcting the portrait by the living face (X.1872), Browning knows that he can never get behind the pictures to encounter the historical Pompilia or the historical Mrs. Browning, any more than he can encounter the historical Jesus. And even if he could, it would not be necessary. For what kindles faith is not the original but the portrait, not the historical person but the picture. There must be analogies, not between portraits and real-life originals, but between pictures and other pictures, especially between portraits like Caponsacchi's and the portrait of Jesus, which expresses as no other portrait can the cruciform nature of faith. That faith is no more to be eroded by any perceived discrepancy between these pictures and their historical originals than the Gospels' picture of Christ can be invalidated by historical criticism of a figure called Jesus of Nazareth.
We might argue, however, that, though all pictures are selective, some are more imaginatively transformed than others. Pompilia's picture of Caponsacchi as a lesser savior-god, like St. John's picture of Christ, alters and transforms the tradition of deliverance found in Hebrew and classical sources, just as John's picture transforms the more historical selections of St. Mark. We can profitably speak of two kinds of interpretation: interpretation as selection, which is more inductive and judicial like the Pope's, and interpretation as imaginative transformation, which is more metaphorical like Pompilia's. Interpretation as selection, because it retains more trace of a historical referent, can incidentally provide a canon for criticizing both the selective interpretation itself and the more imaginative interpretations of a Pompilia or St. John. But this hermeneutical refinement does little to affect the relative unimportance of a real-life original. For more is at stake than some residual historical trace. Browning and Pompilia want to know if the last power can be trusted. Is God gracious? Or is He a mere vacancy and void? Is life significant in some sense that breaks through the barriers of ordinary experience and allows us to go outside the world? Because these are life-and-death issues, questions of faith, which no distinction between selective and imaginative interpretations can hope to settle, some new chasms will always open up to divide the objects of faith from their grounds.
Hermeneutics teaches either that faith can be dissociated from historical narrative or that it cannot be so dissociated. There is no third choice. In either case biblical criticism illuminates and is not discontinuous with any other mode of criticism. If it teaches that faith is historically grounded, then it abets the strictness of interpretive precision: critical freedom must then operate only within the boundaries prescribed by the author's text. Such is the theory of biblical interpretation advocated by Benjamin Jowett in his essay "On the Interpretation of Scripture" (1860). This essay exercises an important influence on Browning, especially on a poem like Balaustion's Adventure (1871), the most hermeneutical Greek poem in Browning's canon. As a classical scholar Jowett wants to interpret the Bible with the same scholarly rigor and critical good sense that he brings to the study of Plato's Dialogues. Like Jowett, Browning seems to think that we should interpret the Bible as we interpret a work by Homer or Euripides. And if so, the converse is also true: we interpret secular literature as we interpret the Bible. But just as historical criticism can erode faith but cannot supply the grounds of it, so the text an author has supplied can invalidate a critical reading but cannot guarantee that any particular interpretation will begin to appropriate the full meaning of the text. Though the presentation of contradictory testimony requires the reader, like any member of a jury, to ask, "Is this what really happened?", readers must always project their own values, applying the warrants of their own beliefs as well as the warrants of history, logic, and the lawcourts. If Pompilia's deliverance were just another historical event, indistinguishable from other events like the marriage to Guido or the forgery of the love letters, then it could never be a true deliverance capable of shattering the boundaries of ordinary experience. An abnormal historical event would produce only the illusion of shattered boundaries. A real breakthrough must be a non-historical happening by which all other events in the story are bounded. To be fully meaningful, in other words, an event must be ungrounded, beyond history—and perhaps beyond truth or falsity—altogether.
Precisely this paradox keeps encompassing the Pope in contradictions. On the one hand, he has to refute the testimonies of Caponsacchi's critics, which are factual and historical, by making historical assertions about what Caponsacchi and Pompilia actually did. On the other hand, having made such assertions, he illogically claims that no historian, detective, or legal witness, has a right to assess them. One wonders whether an historical assertion that is incapable of being either refuted or confirmed is genuinely historical. If we want to claim the advantages of historical judgment, we must surely assume its risks. And if we want the warrants of faith, we have to assume a completely different set of risks. It is hard to have the faith without the loss of critical autonomy, and hard to enjoy the advantages of history without losing our beliefs.
Saving faith must see in an event a significance that revolutionizes the believer's self-understanding. But because of Browning's deep Protestant distrust of any continuity between faith and works, person and office, a character's motives tend to remain a mystery, even to the character himself. How can the Pope hope to read the hearts of Pompilia and Caponsacchi with any confidence when these characters cannot even read their own hearts? If a transformation of their self-understanding is to be the proper object of faith and the true meaning of correcting the portrait by the living face, on what a slender thread the whole enterprise is made to hang!
The leap involved in passing from historical to saving faith is the kind of leap envisaged by E. D. Hirsch in any transition from interpretation proper to the value-judgments of "criticism," by which he means the elucidation of significance as opposed to the examination of a given textual meaning. "It is not the meaning of the text which changes," he insists, "but its significance. Meaning is that which is represented by a text…. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person."6 Browning recognizes, however, that the distinction between criticism and interpretation, significance and meaning, is too simple, because the value-judgments of a critic may be just as much an antecedent fact as the events an historical interpreter tries to reconstruct. Like a contemporary commentator, Francis Sparshott, Browning also seems to doubt whether "the pure distinction between meaning and significance can be explicated or maintained in practice, except in cases where the significance is plainly idiosyncratic," as in the eccentric interpretations of the two advocates. "A meaning that is of no significance to anyone [else] is of no interest."7 Moreover, is the distinction between significance and meaning a true-or-false proposition or a mere evaluative proposal? As a proposal of a critic rather than a discovery of the interpreter (as a "significant" claim, in Hirsch's sense, rather than a "meaningful" statement), it would seem to follow it cannot be true: it can be at best a proposal, a significant suggestion that is more or less felicitous or apt.
In the last book of his poem Browning caricatures a variety of critical positions, several of which have found favor in our own time. The Venetian visitor to Rome and Don Celestine (the first and fourth interpreters) are both to be commended for seeking self-enlightenment. But too detached from the events they interpret, the Venetian visitor degenerates into a dupe and Celestine into a proud Olympian. Mistaking Guido's execution for a Crucifixion, rather than the capital punishment of a criminal, the visitor assumes that every falsehood is so true that any truth must be false. Don Celestine makes the opposite mistake of taking every sign agnostically, as a mere empty signifier, which allows the true referent to escape through a hole at the center: "God is true / And every man a liar" (XII.600-601). Assuming that the truth is so true that any expression of it must be false, Celestine embodies the vice of all ideological critics (from the theologian or Hegelian commentator to the Marxist) for whom the study of art or history is never, like the pursuit of virtue, its own reward, an endotelic enterprise, but merely a means to some external end.
The second interpreter, Arcangeli, and the third interpreter, Bottinius, both subvert the Socratic premise of self-enlightenment by using knowledge, like the sophists, to gain power over others. Whereas Arcangeli resembles the untenured professor eager to secure his next commission, the bachelor Bottinius is the established critic, trying to convince himself that his reputation for insight is well deserved, and trying desperately to mask his obvious inferiority to rival critics. Arcangeli is the interpreter as uncritical partisan, prepared to argue anything if it seems likely to influence a judge or client. Bottinius, the critic as jealous exhibitionist, who would rather lose an argument than invite the collaboration of some more gifted colleague who could make the case foolproof, glories in the relativist's axiom that every truth is so true that any truth must be false.
The commentator who intrudes at the end of the poem to assert that "human speech is naught" (XII.834) is the critic as disillusioned skeptic, who assumes that every interpretation is so false that no interpretation can be true. He is a precursor of some deconstructionists, who despair of reaching any consensus about the meaning of literature, except the consensus that no consensus can be reached. The skeptic shares the pessimism of the Augustinian monk, Don Celestine, the critic as proud Olympian. But if every man is a liar and only God is true (XII.600-601), how can we hope to learn this truth from a witness who, according to his own testimony, is a liar? The condition of falsehood which must prevail if the claim is true, the unreliability of all testimony, is incompatible with the claim that is made. Bottinius, a fame-seeker himself, is quick to spot a similar contradiction. The monk's claim that he seeks only obscurity cannot be allowed, for what else is his celebrated sermon on Pompilia's death if not a direct appeal for "just the fame he flouts?" (XII.645).
What is most subversive and unsettling about Browning's poem? The constant source of anxiety, I think, is Browning's repeated intimation that, even if Guido's suspicion about Pompilia's adulterous liaison with Caponsacchi were justified, even if the myth of deliverance and redemption turned out to be nothing more than stylized adultery, we still would not believe this suspicion was justified, and so we have no way of knowing that what Guido suspects is not true. The skeptic realizes that we could be living in a world conceptually identical to the one in which we think we are living, but in which everything we believe is false. Pompilia and Caponsacchi would then be as guilty as Guido says they are, and we would have no way of knowing this. Different worlds can lead to our having the same beliefs, just as different threedimensional objects can have the same two-dimensional plane projection. Two worlds that produce identical beliefs can be different enough for everything believed in one world to be false in the other. The worlds inhabited by Second Half-Rome, Bottinius, and the Pope, for example, produce roughly identical beliefs. But could any worlds be more bizarrely different?
How, in retrospect, are we to identify the critical positions of the main speakers? I have argued that Tertium Quid and Guido are the deconstructionists of The Ring and the Book. Tertium Quid sets forth all the wrong ways of interpreting. He parodies the assumption of some of the more doctrinaire post-structuralists that there is a teachable method of deconstructing texts that will enable him to dismantle truth at will. His method is an uncritical, reflex demonstration that every truth is so true that any truth must be false. His indifference is a perversion of the skeptical critic's detachment, and his anxiety about ever reaching truth a perversion of the hermeneutical critic's concern. He is anxiously indifferent instead of disinterestedly concerned.
Guido, for his part, feels that the absence of standards turns critical judgment into a mystery exclusively controlled by the high priests of the Vatican. One might have thought that the Pope's scrupulous sifting and weighing of the testimony allows his own critical authority to be earned. But, as Guido reminds us, the Pope discovers that any critical theory, like any scientific theory, is "underdetermined" by the evidence: it is never tested proposition by proposition, but stands or falls by grids of other theories into which it is locked. Though the Pope keeps refining and exercising his interpretive capacities, they are ultimately of little use to him. At the end of his monologue an heroic leap to truth, followed by a self-congratulatory announcement that he has arrived safely on the far side of doubt, comes to the rescue of a theory of knowledge that has proved too unruly to be useful. But if judgments are reached by the use of some favorite code word like "the unknown God" or "the Genius of the Vatican" (XI.2028-29), as Guido charges, or by some ritual initiation into the mysteries guarded by the high priests of criticism, then no standards ' of evidence and no intentions would seem worth assessing.
One Victorian version of these priestly exercises is the typological criticism of Scripture advocated by John Keble in Tract 89—a theory of criticism vigorously attacked by Benjamin Jowett in his essay on "The Interpretation of Scripture" in Essays and Reviews. Jowett's critique applies with equal force to the secularized typologies of many structuralist critics today. In their hands the only setting in which the historicism of The Ring and the Book can survive is the verbal labyrinth, a literary haven for every historical phantom or ghostly abstraction that has lost its moorings in a world outside the maze. And yet, with its chain of commentary on commentary, stretching as it seems to infinity, The Ring and the Book often abets such an enterprise: the poem is curiously unincremental and exitless. Browning has little sympathy with Jowett's straightforward, demystifying view that the meaning of the Bible is its plain, historic sense. How are we to extract such a sense, assuming it exists? And how are we to identify or judge an author's intentions or the meaning these intentions had for his original audience? Indeed, once in the labyrinth of The Ring, it is difficult to find either an escape route or a center. And who in the poem is any longer capable of creating or initiating anything? Certainly not the poet. All Browning's narrator can do is play the role of ghostly resuscitator. As a poetic Elisha breathing life into the dead facts, he may, if he is lucky, resuscitate a corpse (I.760-762), but genuine creation is beyond him.
Unlike Tertium Quid and Guido, the two deconstractionists, Caponsacchi and Pompilia are both myth critics. Their aim is not to classify texts or verbal propositions but to make metaphoric proposals. Their recommendation of projected values is the stabilizing principle that enables them to see life steadily, as the reenactment of some biblical or classical myth. And their empathy with other characters is the liberating principle that allows them to see life whole.
The Pope, by contrast, is a critical historian or judge, a surrogate for each reader, trying to infer what happened by harmonizing prior inferences about what happened. On the one hand, the interpreter must be certain that the witnesses brought the same consciousness to the past event as the interpreter would if he had been there. Only such an assumption allows him to empathize with the witness, to become the witness, by exercising negative capability. On the other hand, the interpreter must be critical of his witnesses: only by registering the differences between his own thought and that of a different historical time can his interpretation be an invention, a "coming upon" or a "finding," in both the constative and performative sense of that word.
Even when a prior event is unearthed, however, it has a way of turning out to be, not the first event in a series, but an imitation of earlier events. Browning is an oddly belated, even parasitic, poet, whose most authentic creations often seem a product of archival research or historical reconstruction. The most apparently original metaphor in the poem, the metaphor of the ring, proves not to be original with Browning at all. The poet who praised Elizabeth's "rare gold ring of verse" cannot have been Browning himself, because Browning is associated, like his dead wife, with "our England," while the phrase "his Italy" is reserved for the poet from whom Browning borrowed his metaphor:
Might mine but lie outside thine, Lyric love,
Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised)
Linking our England to his Italy!
What we wrongly took for an original metaphor—the rounding of "the rough ore … to a ring" (XII.865)—is only an instance of an instance, an example of a prior example.
What finally emerges, then, from the many caricatures of critical positions in The Ring and the Book? Positively, we may say that any single interpretation is provisional. What we say about a text or an event is for the time being. A second conclusion is the futility of trying to abase ourselves before any positivist model of historical research. Except in the mind of H. T. Buckle, such a model does not exist. As the Pope reminds us, a scientist's acoustical charts of the wrath of the sea are just as fictive a construction as a poet's description of the angry roar of the waves, even though the scientist looks for abiding cause-and-effect relations while the poetic interpreter tries to place himself at the center of energy, inside the waves themselves (X.1399-1402). Competing models of how sound waves work cannot be entirely adjudicated by theory-neutral rules and data. And even though choices are agent-relative, the rationality of science itself is never impaired. A final inference to be made is the importance of critical strategy. A resourceful interpreter will be able to capture and possess symbols like Molinism or rallying cries like "Quis est pro Domino?" (V.I549, X.2099), which the Pope effectively takes back from Guido, who thinks he has prematurely captured it from the Church. A critic's ability to demystify his adversaries' rhetoric, however, often prompts that critic to obfuscate or mystify language for his own ends. The strategies of obfuscation are universal and allow Browning to sharpen our own sense of irony by discriminating between critical positions like perspectivism, which partially ranks its views, and relativism, which holds all views equally deficient.
If there seems to be no center at the middle of Browning's ring, it is not because Browning knows the center of every ring is necessarily an empty space, like the hole in the middle of a doughnut. Browning works on the contrary assumption that his ring has a center. But the interpreters with the greatest claim to centrality are least prepared to press their claim. For they know that to declare any point of view central at the expense of other viewpoints has disastrous results. The so-called center then becomes a mere still center, like the superannuated symbols of a church which is all machinery without any vivifying soul. Browning's own position is not relativism, because his points of view are ranked. And yet no single view is adequate by itself. Though Browning writes monologues in order to step outside himself, he discovers that something of himself always remains behind the lens. Because something in the poet must continue to determine the resulting picture, Browning will have reason to doubt, whatever window he looks through, that he is really getting any closer to a detached view. As one commentator says, "The same ideas that make the pursuit of objectivity seem necessary for knowledge make both objectivity and knowledge seem, on reflection, unattainable."8
Browning and his speakers are involved in a contradictory enterprise. On the one hand, they are hard pressed to explain how critics can arrive at valid interpretations. On the other hand, they refuse to take refuge in the conclusion of some post-structuralist critics that skepticism justifies a reluctance to interpret at all. They continue to criticize and comment even when they half recognize the futility of doing so. The alternative would be to offer interpretations that are merely "interesting." But who is to arbitrate disputes about intrinsic "interest"?
If no interpreter is infallible, perhaps a whole interpretive community devoted to accurate knowledge of texts can preserve the goals and values of historical scholarship. In the most enlightened speakers in The Ring and the Book Browning seeks his own hermeneutical equivalent of David Friedrich Strauss's community of believers. Instead of equating truth with Strauss's community of faith, Browning equates it with a community of experienced and devoted critics—some of them Higher Critics—committed to accurate knowledge of what is not, strictly speaking, knowable. Yet Browning's hermeneutical community is not to be confused with the "interpretive community" of a contemporary critic like Stanley Fish. How can a community of interpreters confer stable meaning on a text, when each individual reading is unstable?
The individual reader turns out to be the real hero of The Ring and the Book. He is invited to take some middle ground between the errant structuralism of the two advocates and the lunacies of Guido. Browning knows that prolonged study may rob the mind of its elasticity, and that erudition may make critics like the two advocates duller and sillier than they naturally are. Unless readers think for themselves, every truth they discover will adhere to them as a mere excrescence, as a false tooth or artificial limb. Beguiled by the a priori, like Swift's projectors in the Grand Academy of Lagado, the advocates begin at the roof and work downwards to the foundation. Their lack of method helps Browning dramatize a recurrent dilemma. If the biggest archive in the world is in disorder, it will be less useful than a small but well-organized library. The interpreter can organize only what he knows, but how can he know anything until he has organized it? If the facts are in perpetual disorder, then the biggest archive in the world will never produce organized thought. Schopenhauer says that "you can think about only what you know … ; on the other hand, you can know only what you have thought about."10 Until original thinking has already taken place, it is difficult to imagine how it can ever get launched.
Browning shows that immersion in a text and its history is a reader's best antidote to slavery to fashion, and so his best hope of thinking originally for himself. I am not suggesting that Browning would advocate a return to historical criticism and research. He is saying, I think, that interpretive purity of any kind breeds self-destruction: a variety of critical modes is called for. Critics should recognize the limits of every single method of interpretation, and when one method threatens to become dominant they should endlessly advocate the restoration of disorder. To resist change and even strife in the name of methodological purity is a philosophical mistake. It is even a mistake to banish a new interpretive method because it seems wed, like some contemporary critical schools, to an uncongenial jargon. A jargon-ridden critic like Bottinius is the first to object to the jargon of the monk, whose discourse he rejects as mere "ampollosity" (XII.643). Someone else's critical jargon is the first refuge of ignorance, and the eternal refuge of disciples too stupid or fossilized to learn anything new.
Browning's Pope realizes that the surest way for the Church to commit institutional suicide is to try to stem the rising tide of skepticism. He tries instead to empathize with people experiencing new adventure—people like Caponsacchi, Pompilia, and presumably the much maligned Molinos. Conservative critics denounce Molinos in the name of morality and the authority of existing methods of interpretation. They frustrate reasoned argument and refuse to join in a critical debate that should be seized as an intellectual opportunity instead of denounced as a heresy. Browning's poem suggests that the cry of vested interests against interpreters who ask new, difficult, even embarrassing questions, and who then question the answers, has always been wrongheaded, whether it be the attack of theology on science in Victorian Britain or the attack of historical scholars on theorists or of theorists on historical scholars in our own time. Such rearguard attacks never succeed, it seems, in stemming the tide. Like Browning's "old Pope," who "totters" for a moment "on the verge o' the grave" (XII.38), all things sway forward on the dangerous flood of history. And the more we try to stay the tide, the more we find ourselves engulfed.
At the end of the poem Browning's narrator proclaims the existence of a latent meaning behind the manifest sense. He has written a book, he boasts, that "shall mean beyond the facts, / Suffice the eye and save the soul beside" (XII.862-863). Phrases like "Beyond mere imagery," "beyond the facts," "Deeper than ever the Andante dived" (XII.859-861), continue to intimate a hidden meaning. Inside the outer ring of the poem there is always some secret inner sense, which bears the same relation to the manifest meaning as the rougher ring of Browning's own commentary bears to Elizabeth's rarer inner "ring of verse" (XII.868-869). For all the boldness of these proclamations, however, the text is reticent to disclose its hidden sense. At the end of this inordinately long poem, it is as if Browning, like Guido at the end of his second long monologue, has spoken not "one word" "Out of the whole world of words [he] has to say" (XI.2415-16). What is Browning trying to deafen inside him with the fortissimo of his long declamations and fear of closure? We should remember that only with the publication of Men and Women in 1855 did Browning become as popular a poet as his wife. Will the publication of The Ring and the Book, his first long poem since Sordello, consign him to obscurity for another twenty years? Is he afraid to face the verdict of his "British Public, ye who like me not, / (God love you!)" (1.410-411; 1379-80)? Moreover, what has been concluded that there is anything to conclude? Since the data are so hopelessly patient of all interpretations, they are an endless source of pleasure but also a necessary disappointment. Obscure order can be a blessing, but only because more definite order proves delusive.
After line 363 of the first book, the poem should conclude. "This is the bookful": all else is adulterating alloy added to untempered gold. Carlyle thought Browning's story could be told in ten lines and only wanted forgetting. Either the poem must end almost before it begins, or else it can never end at all. It becomes a book that is all beginning, without any end that is not imposed by an arbitrary stop rule. Like the Old Testament, the poem is in search of an ending, of a design that will fulfill it. But the ending is endlessly deferred. We cannot even satisfy our desire for an ending by regarding the concluding use of the ring metaphor (XII.869) as a synecdoche for the ending that is not there, the way we construe "De te, fabula " in "The Statue and the Bust" (l. 250). The ring parable simply returns us to the use of the same parable in Book I, and it intensifies our bafflement rather than eases it.
To think accurately about parables we have taken most completely for granted is always hardest. At the beginning of the poem Browning's fact-loving narrator is more adept at fashioning excessively precise descriptions of the ring than at explaining what they signify: "A thing's sign: now for the thing signified" (I.32). The narrator poses as a puzzled semiotician. Prejudging the referent by assuming it will be as material and thing-like as the ring, he gives the impression of stalling for time, trying to work out the exact meaning of his sign. It is as if his injunction to the errant reader—"beseech you, hold that figure fast!" (I.142)—were also a reminder to himself. Concluding that the gold in the ring is "Fanciless fact" (I.144), he is at a loss to say what the alloy is. If it is mere fancy, what use is it? Because the critic as positivist simply omits all reference to that part of his parable which resists analysis according to scientific methods, it remains for a second interpreter, the poet-critic, to assert that "Fancy with fact is just one fact the more" (I.464). Is that statement made as a fanciful interpretation of fact? Or is it offered as what his positivist adversary would call a "fanciless" fact? If, it is a fanciful interpretation, then it is an interpretation of an interpretation, and the interpreted fact seems to recede farther and farther from view. Conversely, if the claim is offered as a fact, it would seem to follow it cannot be a fact. For the condition which must prevail if the claim is true—the union of "Fancy with fact"—is incompatible with the claim's being a "fanciless" fact. Moreover, the additive quality of the model—fancy superimposed on preexisting fact—precipitates a crisis in representation which puts at risk the more appropriate metaphor of the alloy's informing and transpiercing the gold until the two are no longer distinguishable.
The parable can support two contradictory interpretations, depending at what point in the process the alloy is examined. Early in the operation, the alloy is thoroughly mixed with the gold to make it malleable. Imaginative interpreters are drawn into the parable itself, as the alloy of the poet's own interpretation is drawn into the gold. And yet the second half of the parable reminds us of an unsettling truth: interpretation, though necessary, is bound to seem intrusive. Like the alloy that flies free after the acid is applied (I.24-25), interpreters may find themselves expelled from the parable by their very desire for access. They are free only in the sense that, like the alloy set free by the acid, they are free to stay outside the secret sense of the parable. Readers are dispossessed and excluded by the very parable that seemed at first to admit them. Because interpretation is always as obtrusive an act as the alloy's penetration of the slivers of gold, the illusion of being an insider is only a more elaborate way of being kept outside. It is as if Browning had written a parable about parables. For the more we seem to penetrate a parable, the more we are also kept on its periphery or edge: no great parable has ever been exhausted by our meditations.
Any theory of latent order in The Ring and the Book is put in question by the narrator's manifest playfulness. The "one lesson" to be learned, he says ironically at the end of the poem, is "that our human speech is naught, / Our human testimony false, our fame / And estimation words and wind" (XII.832, 834-836). If the text has a secret meaning, it is certainly not this "one lesson" half facetiously, half defensively extracted by the poet-narrator. Like some mysterious ur-text, Browning's hidden meanings are as obscure as a sunken object whose qualities we have laboriously to reconstruct from the splash made by the object as it sinks in the pool. The waves generated in the water then become "vibrations in the general mind," quite unable to fathom the "depth of deed already out of reach" (I.844-845). The phrase "depth of deed" focuses on both the inscrutability of human motives and on the very rapid removal of events from even the closest, most knowledgeable observers.
It is as if Browning were writing an ongoing testament or Bible, and that he does not yet know which germs in his mass of narrative detail exist merely in their own right, like some original covenant that is meaningful in itself without later typological "fulfillments" of its meaning, and which details are going to be fulfilled in some new testament, some new Life of Jesus, still to be revealed by a future David Friedrich Strauss. In The Ring and the Book we are puzzled, because we cannot tell which details resemble Mr. Candy's mysterious disappearance and return during the birthday dinner party in Wilkie Collins' novel The Moonstone (a detail that will grow immensely in importance later in that mystery fiction), and which details are merely gratuitous touches, a means of making the surface of the narrative more like the crowded surface of everyday life.
There are intermittent fulfillments in The Ring and the Book, but nothing sustained. The mystery poem is less like a book than an archive of newspapers, a cupboard of scrolls, which is the form Browning uses in the manuscript roll that both records and comments upon St. John's testament in "A Death in the Desert." Codexes promote figural designs; rolls discourage them. As Frank Kermode observes, "The Jews, upon whom the end of time had not come, whose prophecies of a Messiah were unfulfilled, kept the roll, but the Christians, having the desire to establish consonance between the end of the book and the beginning, needed the codex."11The Ring and the Book had the logic of a newspaper, and because nothing seems organized sequentially, quotations that stick in the throat of memory are often hard to find again in the text. Contributing to the enigmatic, scroll-like quality of the text is the fact that narrative in the source-book generates the character of agents in the poem and the character of commentators like Half-Rome, Other Half-Rome, and Tertium Quid, who keep interpreting the story recorded in the source. These characters generate new narratives, which often take their form from the narrative of the source-book, the way parts of Matthew's gospel are thought to be modeled on the narrative of Mark. And yet the total effect is less that of a Gospel codex than of an Old Testament roll because Browning's canon, unlike that of the New Testament, is never closed. Though the story in the Old Yellow Book is to the hidden or latent sense that Browning is continually trying to extract from it what the old covenant is to the new covenant in figural readings of Scripture, the typologies of the poem still require completion in the life and mind of each interpreter.
It is both important and unimportant that the source-book be historical, and for the same reason that it is both important and unimportant that the Old Testament be historical. It is unimportant because, in one sense, the whole historicity of the Jewish Bible is to be sacrificed to a validation of the historicity of the gospels. But historicity is also important, because the whole authority of an historical Jewish Bible is needed to establish the historicity of a figural reading of it. The more fictitious and typological Browning's narrative becomes, the more historical it must also claim to be, because typological readings always assume the historicity of the types they try to fulfill.
In interrogating the Old Yellow Book, Browning seems to be writing and reading simultaneously, like a Victorian Derrida. Even in Browning's source-book, which recalls the midrash of accumulating commentary in "A Death in the Desert," presumably only three-fifths of the book is a true source, for the rest is said to be "written supplement" (I.119). The Ring and the Book repeats this process by offering glosses on a work which, like Jennings' transcript of Candy's delirious testament in The Moonstone, already consists in part of marginal glosses. In Goethe's aphorism, "Alles factische ist schon Theorie." A fact is not even a fact without its interpretive supplement. The combination of F1S1 becomes a second fact, F2, only by adding a second supplement, S2. And F2S2 generates F3 only by adding S3, and so on. Even the interfilleting of cramped Latin with Italian streaks in the source-book replicates this seemingly endless regress of transcribed testaments and "written supplements." The only way to block an infinite regress of facts and supplements is to assume that one of the facts to be blocked is the fact that every fact requires an interpretive supplement. The "stooping" of the testament to "mother-tongue" (I.139) recalls the use of "stooping" in "A Death in the Desert" as a metaphor for Incarnation (l. 134). The "mother-tongue" is like the alloy of the ring: it gives the precepts and axioms a body. But it also suggests, in approved post-structuralist fashion, that figures of body and supplement, text and gloss, are easily reversed. The full-blooded Italian commentary may be more meaningful than the cramped and bloodless Latin axioms that seem at first to enjoy privileged status, just as the alloy may prove more important than the gold, which is the most prized but least useful of metals.
Browning's Roman murder mystery looks for mysteries and finds only Mystery. By "Mystery" I mean an ultimate principle that does not have an explanation. In this sense, God's treatment of Pompilia, like the laws of quantum mechanics, is a mystery. Equally mysterious is the way the world becomes intelligible in The Ring and the Book only as a nesting structure of sacred books, of commentaries on commentaries. Browning knows that there is no single sense or truth in the world, and that dreams of transparent meaning are at best consoling fictions. But he also knows that he must keep trying to entertain such fictions, because only by worshipping at the shrine of transparent sense, in a quest for some sacred ur-book or bible that "shall mean beyond the facts" (XII.862), can he discover the intermittent radiances, the moments of luminous seeing, that make the book and the book of the world an endless source of meaning.
1 John Marshall Gest, The Old Yellow Book (Boston, 1925), p. 624. Morse Peckham, "Personality and the Mask of Knowledge," Victorian Revolutionaries: Speculations on Some Heroes of a Culture Crisis (New York, 1970), pp. 124-125: "There is no doubt that [Browning] believes he has found the truth of the story, the answer to the only real problem in it: Was Pompilia guilty of adultery with Caponsacchi? His answer is no, yet so well had he worked that Carlyle, for example, said it was obvious she was guilty. The argument over whether Browning had found the 'truth' of the matter, which has gone on for a hundred years, is quite beside the point. He does not assert that he has found what the truth really is, or even what it was, but only that he has found a 'truth' which is satisfactory to him."
2 Levi-Hedge, Elements of Logick; Or, A Summary of the General Principles and Different Modes of Reasoning (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1816), p. 112. According to The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction, ed. Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley (London, 1984), Browning owned a copy of this 1816 edition. It was inscribed by R.B. Sr. on the title page, and the father's annotations and underlining occur throughout.
3 W.G. Ward asserts that "history by itself, if. we knew it ten times better than we do, could prove little or nothing." "Review of Arnold's Sermons," British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 30 (1841): 318.
4 Henry Melvill, Sermons By Henry Melvill, B.D., ed. Rev. P. Mcllvaine (New York, 1838), p. lll. Browning owned the 1833 London edition of Melvill's Sermons.
5 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago, 1951), 1:11-15.
6 E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, 1967), p. 8.
7 Francis Sparshott, The Theory of the Arts (Princeton, 1982), p. 260.
8 Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere (New York, 1986), p. 67.
9 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), especially pp. 303-371.
10 Arthur Schopenhauer, Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, ed. and trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 89.
11 Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979), p. 88.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9395
SOURCE: "Epiphany and Browning: Character Made Manifest," in PMLA, Vol. 107, No. 5, October, 1992, pp. 1208-21.
[In the following essay, Tucker argues for the place of the concept of epiphany (or, "the moment of sudden illumination ") in literary criticism, particularly in the analysis of character construction in Browning's poetry. Tucker contends that Browning explores the use of "epiphanic faith" as a measure of character.]
James Joyce minted a two-faced counter when he coined the term epiphany for literary use. "By an epiphany," he wrote of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, "he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. It was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments" (221). Moment or record? Letter or spirit? On one side, a Joycean epiphany is the account of an experience, of a secular instant as sudden and complete as what was once called grace. Obversely, though, it is the account of an experience, the inspired composition of a moment of spiritual composure. Epiphany thus names something lived through, yet also something written down. At once empirical and documentary in character, it offers both a human image for recognition and a coded legend for interpretation.
Joyce's coinage probably has as wide a circulation as any other literary term now in use, and much of its currency seems due to the place it sustains between the world and the word. Its ambiguity lets readers hold in mutual solution their often conflicting desires for the intimation of a vitally imagined meaning and for the connoisseurship of an artistic feat. The double-sided Joycean epiphany extends the promise of a reading experience that is simultaneously appreciative and analytic: an indulgence in sympathy without deception, an exercise in discernment without alienation. To identify—and identify with—a literary epiphany is to claim what the modern reader has sought since Wordsworth: knowledge not purchased by the loss of power.1
This attractive claim has lately forfeited much of the prestige it used to enjoy. While the call of epiphany still makes itself felt in our lecture halls, writers' workshops, and book review columns, its appeal to scholarly inquiry and sophisticated criticism has grown faint. In graduate seminars and professional journals this once potent name is less confidently invoked now than it was during the heyday of the New Criticism, when it spread from Joyce scholarship into academic criticism at large and thence entered the general climate of informed literary discussion.2 The divided fortunes of the term register more general divisions within literary discourse: a cultural disparity between academic criticism and informal discussion about books and, within academic criticism, a historical disparity between the leading orientations of today and those of a generation ago. At mid-century, epiphany achieved a thriving symbiosis with the highly influential, avowedly nonideological poetics and pedagogy of the New Criticism. But then, having prospered together during the 1950s and 1960s, together they fell, displaced first by structuralist emphases on differential linguistics and then by the deconstruction of symbolic meanings into allegories of reading. As a result, just when epiphany was irrigating a broader literary culture, its academic fonts were going dry.
Interest in epiphany may have evaporated at its source from the same cause that has kept it current elsewhere: the promise of ready commerce between the inner sanctum of writing and the greater world outside. Whether and how literature bears on the conduct of life are questions to which the academy has recently formulated a variety of sophisticated answers. Amid this variety, however, one common denominator is the conviction that the word and the world cannot share a magical identity, and to prevailing notions of epiphany such a conviction is poison. The late renascence of inquiry into the ideological configurations governing literary production has recalled scholarly criticism from exclusively rhetorical and textual concerns to a broader cultural pertinence. Although studies in this new-historicist mode might be expected to welcome the epiphanic bond between experience and writing, in methodological practice they are obliged to reject it. Indeed, the new historicism must distinguish between experience and writing before it can get on with its work. If it fails to discern and articulate the relation between empirical actuality and literary practice, it loses its disciplinary charter and practical agenda. Epiphany may have fallen under theoretical suspicion and into academic neglect because currently popular definitions violate the postulates of much advanced scholarship.
Acknowledging these developments need not deprive epiphany of descriptive and analytic value but may instead initiate its rehabilitation. Toward that end I would argue that the New Critical epiphany rested on an interpretive distortion compounded by historical oversight. The use the New Critics made of epiphany was essentialist and ahistorical; so was their sense of the literary background from which the term emerged in the modernist period. That they slighted Joyce's Romantic and Victorian antecedents is not surprising in view of their tilt against Romanticism. What is more curious, given the frequently Christian complexion of their work, is that they also slighted the scriptural tradition from which the term ultimately derives.
In attempting to redress these oversights, I proceed from remarks on Wordsworth and Joyce to more extended considerations of the Epiphany narrative in Matthew and the dynamics of character construction in Robert Browning's poetry. The texts I discuss show that epiphany, far from escaping ideology, is instinct with it. For its ablest and most traditionally scriptural exemplars, epiphany is not the hermetic phenomenon that a few tum-of-the-century experiments and many subsequent critical studies would suggest. It is instead one feature among many that conspire in the constitution of a written life. Major modern epiphanists use the device to represent character as an effect of culturally determined forces, even as they demonstrate that nothing more distinctly typifies modernity than the desire to elude such forces. In a culture where awakening from the nightmare of history is our common dream, the contradictions vested in epiphany continue to move us—and, perhaps, to keep us where we are. I examine them again in the hope that a fresh approach may revive epiphany for academic inquiry and in the belief that critical scholarship will not make much difference outside the academy until it can put to better use the literary terms that have already won general practical acceptance.
Scholars concerned with the continuity of the Romantic tradition have noted parallels between Joycean epiphanies and the "spots of time" Wordsworth wrote about a century earlier (Prelude 12.208; see Langbaum, "Epiphanie Mode"; Clayton; Nichols). Wordsworth's rich phrase captures a number of epiphanic features that are by now amply documented: the specificity of the privileged moment, its local-rooted ordinariness, and the tenacity of its spatiotemporal grip on the mind. Reading further in the same Prelude section that discusses the "spots of time," we observe an extra, particularly Joycean feature. For when Wordsworth says that the "efficacious spirit" of "renovating virtue" abides among certain "passages of life" (12.210-20), a gentle pun on "passages" (as pathways and as texts) implies that writing is the medium where otherwise volatile spirits stay put for contemplation. One of Wordsworth's deliberate raids across the line between spontaneous experience and tranquil recollection, the phrase "passages of life"—like the later "memorials" (12.287)—anticipates the duplicity of the Joycean epiphany; and it answers to a need, like Joyce's, to textualize life in the creation of a text that may live.
What keeps epiphanic time on the spot is textuality. Yet textuality, as poststructuralism reminds us, proves a slippery fixative at best. If the New Critical epiphany promised to dissolve the perennial (proverbial?) antagonism between the letter and the spirit, that solution left behind a residue, which has been extensively analyzed in subsequent debates over the relation between texts and referents. Yet the insistence, in such debates, on holding the theoretical line between experience and description suggests that this line tends to blur in literary practice. Wordsworth and Joyce in effect read an epiphanic experience as a passage of life: a text awaiting transcription by "the man of letters," the writer as innocent clerk. Equating the occurrence with the verbal account appears to finesse questions of mediation by regarding language as a window on experience.3 But the view through a window runs both ways, and the epiphanic equation is reversible: if we read it backward, the vitality of epiphany entails the textualization of life. The verbal record may reproduce the privileged moment and give to it, "as far as words may give, / Substance and life" (Prelude 12.283-84), only insofar as that moment is textually preempted on the spot.4
The literary epiphany thus represents a pretextualized phenomenon, as the autobiographical practice of Wordsworth and Joyce makes conveniently clear. Both authors place their seminal discussions of epiphany within extended accounts of personal change. The Prelude and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man exploit the tension between a climactic moment and the temporal sweep within which this moment punctually meets the needs of narrative development. Composing a faithful and credible autobiographical record means negotiating epiphanic passages of life in ways that keep them intact but also embed them within a controlling story. The whole work becomes a whole precisely as its privileged moments exhibit affinities both with one another and with those little, nameless, underprivileged moments that mark a life's daily character and ultimate course.5
Instantaneous and incongruous, an epiphany appears to come out of nowhere, whether during the empirical past or, as Wordsworth attests, during the act of composition.6 But then epiphanic writing overtakes that sur prise by making it a device for developing portraiture. In semiotic terms, an epiphany seems underdetermined in origin and indeterminate in significance. It strikes the affected character—and, at first, probably the writer and reader too—as a moment glowing with genuine, though imprecise, meaning. Under analysis, however, a successful literary epiphany will seem adequately determined, even overdetermined, by the pattern of the life it illuminates. To the apprehending consciousness, an epiphany may intimate the meaning of life, but to the observer of that consciousness, an epiphany signifies the meaning of a life. And it is this charactered meaning that constitutes the epiphanic effect proper.
Epiphany as a textual effect, then, does not come out of nowhere. Neither does epiphany as a phenomenon of literary modernism, for Joyce's term gave a new name to a standard nineteenth-century practice. The situation of the literary historian thus resembles that of the creative writer: both seek to set a momentary luster within a larger design that will make it illustrative. Putting Joyce's upstart neologism in historical context admittedly entails some anachronism. When discussing epiphanies from the writings of Robert Browning (or John Ruskin, or George Eliot), we should bear in mind real differences in perspective between a lapsed latter-day Irish Catholic and a dissenting English Victorian.7 Still, it is worth asking what epiphany might have meant in any case—upper or lower—to a mid-century figure like Browning. It meant something other, I submit, than the transcendental category postulated by Joyce's early critical followers: something truer to the reciprocal complexities of language, character, and society, something more entangled with a Victorian sense of history. In Browning's poetry epiphany involves conspicuous narrative and cultural dimensions, and a hard look at Browning here may make these dimensions easier to see in Wordsworth and Joyce as well. The way epiphany functions in a patently historicist poet like Browning suggests how, in the tradition exemplified by all three authors, epiphany arises at a major narrative juncture of modernity, the place where the story of the essential self meets the accidents of historical contingency.
Browning died in the decade of Joyce's birth, and neither epiphany nor any cognate term occurs through out his lexically prolific oeuvre. But he was a staunch though idiosyncratic Christian who knew the Bible thoroughly, read it subtly, and alluded to it all the time. An attempt to plot Browning's use of epiphany might take bearings from the one text that he would surely have considered epiphanic, Matthew 2.1-12, the King James Version:
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet;
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem; and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed: and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod they departed into their own country another way.
The charm of this vivid narrative, and much of its widespread iconographic appeal for the pictorial tradition in which Browning took so lively an interest, inheres in its promise that they who "search diligently" shall find the place of faith where seeing is believing. The direct idou 'lo and behold' that frames and punctuates the tale; the dramatic sighting of the star; and the beautifully understated revelation of child and mother—all highlight the visual accessibility of the Christian miracle to those who have eyes to see. In the Greek testament epiphaneia and its cognates connote a light to the gentiles, which remains the principal ecclesiastical meaning of Epiphany to this day.8 Although Matthew does not use the term, the contrast he draws between the blindness of clerical insiders who know the prophecies cold and the warm trust of wise men from beyond the pale has led a crusading church to canonize his tale above all others as The Epiphany.
The invitation to belief issued by the Magi's example formed a staple in the exegesis of Matthew's Gospel across the nineteenth century (e.g., Henry and Scott 7-10; Sumner 15; Trench 68-71). Browning, as a Christian, almost certainly concurred in this interpretation. But, as a poet never given to simple commitments, he would have found imaginatively congenial several latent complications in the Mattheic Epiphany. For the plain tale of the Magi proves quite subtle from a semiotic viewpoint. The story turns on the interpretation of a set of ambiguous, enigmatically related signs. The first of these, the conspicuous star, is a physical phenomenon that portends something sufficiently extraordinary to motivate the journey of the Magi and sufficiently specific to guide it. Not only is the celestial appearance unusual (tou phainomenou asteros [v. 7]), it is also significant in the astrological system that wise men from the east are supposedly wise to. The Magi read the heavens, in other words, like a text. Whether they actually follow the star westward or only follow the directions encoded in its rising—as en tēi anatolēi (v. 2) strictly suggests (Brown 174)—their wisdom consists in interpreting the star's instructions and carrying them out. Those instructions are both necessary and insufficient: the Magi know that a new Jewish king has been born in the west, but they do not know just where. To focus their quest, they must supplement gentile science with the different, privileged authority of Hebrew scripture, which appears at verse 6 in a paraphrase of the prophecy in Micah 5.2. Their need for this supplement asserts the traditional authority of Scripture over nature and of God's chosen people over the gentiles. More broadly, and more pertinently to Browning's treatment of epiphany, it defines significance as essentially textual and underscores the concomitant importance of interpretation.9
In returning to Matthew's Epiphany, we return to the relation between experience and text that we also meet in the epiphanies of Joyce and Wordsworth. The Gospel's unapologetically miraculous story steers clear of the mystified phenomenality that attends modern critical conceptions of epiphany, and Matthew frankly prefers the order of interpretation to that of mere being.10 He sees, moreover—with Wordsworth, Browning, and Joyce—how this preference bears on the cultural situation of interpretive acts. For while Matthew affirms the reign of grace over nature, his immediate concern is a related but distinct contrast between nature and culture. His entire Gospel draws energy from the tension between its ecumenical call to all believers and its focus on a target audience well versed in the Law and the Prophets. This tension produces in Matthew what might be called a primitive Christian anthropology.11 The very exoticism of a visit by wise men from the east makes their story a study in cultural difference, a theme reinforced by Herod's application to the local custodians of cultural authority, the Jerusalem clerisy of chief priests and scribes.
Now it so happens that these archiereis and grammateis discharge their duty in verse 6 by garbling the prophecy they cite. This confusion of tongues has puzzled commentators since Jerome, who regarded the passage as a swipe at bad scholarship within a corrupt establishment.12 For our purposes, though, the experts' official misquotation illustrates Matthew's evangelically anthropological agenda. His source reads, "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel" (Micah 5.2). The most arresting difference between this text and Matthew 2.6 lies in the emphatic priestly contradiction of the prophetic diminutive: little Bethlehem, say the priests and scribes, is "not the least" (oudamōs elachistē). Why should these authorities violate the letter of Micah's text? In order, I think, to protect the spirit of his prophecy from misprision by uninitiated outsiders. From an intercultural perspective Matthew's misquotation seems the sort of rhetorical adjustment to circumstance that always caught Browning's fancy. It is an accommodation that adepts in the arcana of a culture under imperial siege might offer to flatteringly curious strangers for the sake of clarity on the main point: appearances notwithstanding, little Bethlehem is a place big with meaning.
The incommensurability of appearances and meanings lies at the heart of the modern literary epiphany; it is also a major ingredient of biblical narrative.13 Commentators have long agreed that Matthew expected learned readers to take his tale of gentile stargazers as a typological fulfillment of the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24.17: "There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel."14 Balaam in the Old Testament, like the Magi in the New, is an alien wise man—very nearly a wise guy, a folk trickster best known for his slapstick role in a fable about a speaking ass. It may have been a sense of the ironic potential in his materials that led Matthew to Balaam as a type of the gentile mage. For when Balaam is summoned by the wicked Moabite king Balak to curse Israel, he instead repeatedly testifies—to his own surprise—to God's grandeur and to the confusion of any earthly power that would suborn prophecy. If Balaam's outlandish exploits inform Matthew's conception of the Magi as outsiders who outwit bad King Herod, then the doctrine of accommodation I impute to the chief priests and scribes may have a further ironic point. Balaam's prophecy, like Micah's, highlights a familiar scriptural contrast between the humble and the mighty, between human appearances and divine purpose. This disparity, which is structurally essential both to biblical narrative and to the modern literary epiphany, is glossed over in the Jerusalem clerics' misquotation. As a result, the full weight of the incongruity falls on the fundamental point of Matthew's passage, of his Gospel, and indeed of the entire New Testament: the epiphanic manifestation of God in man, the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the messiah who fulfills prophecy to the letter, yet enlarges its national spirit to global and transhistorical proportions.
This plenary evangel must remain implicit on the first page of the New Testament, where our story occurs. But Matthew borrows its force for a hushed climax: "And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him." Here a syntactic parallelism between verses draws out an epiphanic difference. By preceding the proper Epiphany of the second verse with the prevenient grace note of the first, Matthew heightens the contrast between the familiar joy of expectation confirmed and the uncanny wildness of surprise; between the star the Magi already know and the new king they instantly recognize despite his unprepossessing surroundings. The flat description of mother and child belies any standards of oriental majesty that the advice given the Magi in Jerusalem may have reinforced.15 "They saw … and fell down": Matthew has set his wise men up for a fortunate fall that works, through an incongruity rooted in cultural difference, to lift ethnic barriers and enable the recognition of a sovereign mystery. Reserving comment on the quality of that mystery, Matthew does not say whether the Magi regard the goal of their quest as a Holy Family or wholly as a family. Instead, he sustains an ecumenical balance between divine and human truth, comparable to the balance between iconic and realistic portraiture in the Renaissance images of madonna and child that Browning most admired.16
That Browning likewise admired the narrative craft of the Epiphany text in Matthew must remain a matter for conjecture. His lifelong exposure to the Bible, biblical commentary, and preaching based on Scripture makes it certain that the episode of the Magi came regularly to his attention, and his interest was probably sharpened by an early fascination with magic and the figure of the sage. Still, in default of specific evidence, it will suffice here to educe a set of parallels between the Epiphany narrative and Browning's practice as a poet of character in the modern epiphanic line. Matthew's story concerns the interpretation of signs, an acculturated activity that culminates in the manifestation of personality. This manifestation occurs in two ways. The response of the Magi to the star, the effect the news has on the Jerusalem authorities, and the influence on the Magi of the vision of mother and child are all personal notes that animate the narrative with a local human interest. But the goal of the Magi's journey, the climax of the story and its doctrinal crux, is also the manifestation of personality: the revelation of deity in human form. These two sorts of personal manifestation—the texture of the Epiphany narrative and its point—converge in the question of scriptural incongruity. A sequence of imperfect interpretation, shortsighted accommodation, and defeated expectation (each a culturally induced event) leads the Magi to a surprising epiphany that fulfills the signs in unpredicted ways.
Browning's epiphanic poetry likewise aims to manifest personality through the interpretation of culturally specific signs. Like Matthew, Browning exhibits an interest in the historical insignia of manner, speech, and thought that differentiate characters and uses these limiting particulars to appeal to his readers' recognition of a fellowship that all souls share. But his epiphanies are as secular as the biblical Epiphany is theological, and his dramatic poetry reveals a personality resolutely human. This dramatic secularization of epiphany effaces the distinction between the incidental and the essential manifestations of personality. What I have called narrative texture and point in the Mattheic Epiphany—respectively, the culture-bound quest of the Magi and its culture-transcending goal—achieve identity in the economy of the dramatic monologue. Where a text aims at revealing human personality rather than divine personhood, its texture is identical with its point, its empirical Joycean "evanescence" with its written Wordsworthian "memorial" or "passage of life."
In this respect Browning's practice typifies the modern literary epiphany, which deducts the biblical model's theological claims and reclaims them within a human story. The derivation of the secular epiphany from the religious original appears with particular clarity in Browning's works, where speakers often define themselves by their yearning for absolute ideals. These ideals, whether overtly theological or quasi-religious (a flawless art, a fulfilled love), serve as goals that Browning's dramatis personae postulate, seldom if ever attain, yet always strive for in characteristic ways. In straining after the absolute, the speakers attest to its hiddenness and undertake its imaginative recovery as an object of individual desire or an article of cultural faith. The abeyance of theophany—if not the disappearance of God, then God's failure to show up—draws forth the characteristic Browning miracle: the dramatic epiphany of the worded self.
The reader assists at this miracle, not despite the cultural differences that a poetics of sympathy may neutralize, but thanks to the cultural differences that a poetics of irony may exploit.17 Browning's reader learns to note the symptomatic differentiae that set speakers off as historical subjects or objects of study. The speech of this Renaissance prelate or that Yankee spiritualist reproduces the assumptions, and the conflicts, of the cultural ambience that has produced him. But this ironic cognition of character entails a further recognition: historical contingencies also engulf the reader, asserting themselves in every judgment. The regularity with which Browning's speakers engage in interpretive acts that reveal character reinforces the specular structure of his dramatic epiphanies. If those acts manifest character, then so does the act of interpreting the poem. The way we read Browning's monologues characterizes us: recognizing the hermeneutic complicity that his texts both enact and exact, we disclose our investment in their epiphanic effectiveness.
Once dramatic irony turns back on the reader as ironist, the grounds of objectivity buckle to reveal, in their very historical and cultural distinctiveness, a common condition soliciting acknowledgment. And this solicitation constitutes in Browning a secular equivalent of the evangelical challenge that the Bible issues to its reader. Idou 'lo and behold': Matthew never imagines the reader as a passive spectator but always addresses a historical agent implicated by the Gospel. For Browning's generation faith in the factual authenticity of Scripture was fast eroding; yet in a newly skeptical historicism he found for modern literature the terms of an immediacy like Scripture's. "You of the virtue (we issue join) / How strive you? De te, fabula" (249-50). The Horatian tag here at the close of "The Statue and the Bust" (1855) expressly transmits the moral charge that Browning's art usually implies. De te, fabula: Reader, you're It.
Owning a common ground in the very fact of cultural difference, Browning's reader as grammateus 'scribal arbiter' turns magos 'wise man' and witnesses to mysteries of historically conditioned personality from which no reading is exempt. In this sense the Browningesque dramatic monologue is a paradigmatic modern genre: it recapitulates, and subjects to critique, structures of lyrical autonomy that we find in the age of Wordsworth; and it bequeaths its critical strategies to major lyrical and fictional forms practiced by the modernist generation of Joyce.18 When opening the text of a Browning monologue, readers open their own analytic gifts to analysis. From such a transaction readers return, as they must, to their native place in cultural circumstance. But insofar as the transaction with the text has made them wiser—if only about that imperative return—like the Magi they go back into their own country another way.
Epiphany is where you find it; and in Browning's poetry you find it everywhere. Yet in that poetry the moment of sudden illumination occurs far less often as an event than as a topic for discussion. When Browning scholars invoke the epiphanic doctrine of the "infinite moment" or "good minute," they are entering a conversation that Browning's speakers have already begun.19 From the first his poetry centers on figures for whom epiphany is an article of faith rather than a matter of empirical record, and his career comprises a series of experiments in dramatic genres that assay epiphanic faith as an index of character. In Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840), nothing short of an exhaustive drama or narrative will do the trick: last lines like "And this was Paracelsus!" (5.908) and "Who would has heard Sordello's story told" (6.886) send the nonplussed reader back to the entire work as a spheric manifestation of the eponymous poet-mage at its center. With Pippa Passes (1841), Browning shortens the attention span to a single scene: Each major episode of the play culminates in an epiphanic moment—the overhearing of Pippa's adventitious song—which redeems a tortured psyche in ways that the reader interprets as consistent with psychosocial determinants hidden from the character himself. Browning's early predilection for the psychological effect of epiphany, rather than for its ontological substance, culminates in his dramatic monologues. As a rule these poems find their plots not in the narrative of an epiphany but in a speaker's memory of or desire for a potentially epiphanic experience. Browning's monologists keep epiphany at art's length, picking it up on the reflective rebound; and the ways they cope with epiphany compose their lives and constitute their characters.
One instance especially germane here is that of Karshish, the Arab physician. A medical student doing fieldwork in Palestine during the first century, Karshish is a belated gentile wise man from the east.20 His situation parallels the Magi's, with the signal difference that his omen-ridden journey leads not to Jesus but to Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. Lazarus has been so touched by the presence of Jesus that his own presence touches Karshish in turn, but it touches him into literature rather than into conviction: "An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!" ("An Epistle … of Karshish"  67). The distance between Karshish and the incarnate Christ creates, in the letter Karshish writes his friend Abib, the secular space of surmise, which is also the space of humane letters where the modern epiphany flourishes. "The madman saith He said so: it is strange" (312). From Jesus to Lazarus to Karshish to Abib to Browning to the reader—the medium transmitting this chain reaction of epiphanic contingency along a sequence of historically situated subjects is a discourse that incarnates meaning in personality.21 Neither infidel nor enthusiast, Karshish signs off with the word strange, as good a word as any for what befalls in the Browningesque epiphany of character. The word signifies the outward differences that mark strangers; it also highlights the estrangement that is produced in Karshish, or in the time-traveling historicist reader, when encountering an uncanny presence that mines and riddles the cultural formations of personal identity.
Browning's humanist manifestation of character emerges further in two other poems from Men and Women (1855) that, like "Karshish," translate into a secular context materials recalling the Mattheic Epiphany. The first of these is "My Star":
All that I know
Of a certain star
Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue;
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled:
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.
This poem turns on a conceit that exploits a new nineteenth-century use of the word star to denote a celebrity, a personality endowed with the sort of charisma that Victorian readers had conferred on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the presumptive subject of the poem, but had withheld from her husband.22 Read as a reworking of the Mattheic Epiphany, the conceit of "My Star" conflates the astral with the human manifestation and presents in its speaker a magus with special gifts of insight. Even to this seer, however, the star reveals its soul only on the sly, by the chromatic way it "dartles the red and the blue," in contrast to the steadily shining planet Saturn. Even a sidereal language, it seems, deals in asides; like the "star," or main attraction, of a dramatic monologue, Browning's star declares itself not through what it is but through what it does, how it makes its characteristic mark.
The speaker, too, whether or not we accept his traditional identification as the poet, reveals himself as a modern familiar by his colloquial diction. Under an older dispensation the phrase "a certain star" would connote, as it would to Matthew's Magi, the transcendent fixity of the heavenly spheres. Here, though, it exhibits that blend of objective uncertainty and subjective certitude which typifies the modern spirit in its mid-Victorian phase. If a saturnine science has reduced the once ethereal stars to material worlds, "What matter to me?" The offhand idiom, like the dartling of the star, imparts a confidence in quirky beauty and private truth that is all the speaker knows on earth and all he needs to know. As sophisticated readers we need to know more, to be sure, and the advantage we seek consists in knowing the speaker—or, at least, in gauging the speaker's cultural position. If we deem his astral projection a typically Victorian bid to secure an intimate sphere of meaning against the public opinion and scientific materialism that threaten it, this judgment makes us epiphanic readers in Browning's sense. It illustrates the process whereby the privacy of epiphany helps create an external, historically placed, and publicly identifiable character: in short, a certain star.
"My Star" thus is something of a poetic manifesto. It both exemplifies the workings of the dramatic monologue and talks them over; and it does so through an image that has pronounced affinities with the Epiphany narrative in Matthew. Something similar may be said of "'Transcendentalism: A Poem in Twelve Books,'"a meta-poetic epilogue to Men and Women in which one Victorian poet counsels another on the function of poetry at the present time. That time being an age of thought, and the proper vehicle for thought being prose, the younger poet's composition of a philosophical epic on transcendentalism amounts to a generic category mistake: "Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak? / 'Tis you speak, that's your error. Song's our art" (1-2). In an era like the present it falls to poets to supply, not the prose of propositions, but a lyrical mode of "images and melody" that deliver the epiphanic sense of meaningfulness (17). We have purchased modern sophistication, the speaker complains, at the cost of our vital wonder at things in themselves:
Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss—
Another Boehme with a tougher book
And subtler meanings of what roses say,—
Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt,
John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about?
He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself,
Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all,—
Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring Heaven into this shut house of life.
Here is the promise of modern epiphany in full force, a force that I suspect owes much to the instance of Matthew's story. The age demands a poet who can show rather than tell, who overleaps textual discourse to make things happen, with the challenge of the New Testament idou: "look you!" The modern poet stands among the Magi, "some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt"—or them of Bethlehem—and testifies to a wonder that buries scribal industry, "musty volumes, Boehme's book and all," in a grammarian's funeral. The "sudden rose" that disrupts "this shut house of life," the miraculous image that bursts the coffin of the text, is a typological symbol of the Christian incarnation: not the "Star out of Jacob" from Balaam's prophecy, but its Old Testament analogue by the magic of New Testament hermeneutics, the everblooming rose sprung at winter midnight from Jesse's stem, out of the house of David.
I can think of no passage in Browning that is more Epiphanic. Yet the full Browningesque epiphany does not occur until the moment of privileged vision finds its secular place within the charactered pattern of a life:
So, come, the harp back to your heart again!
You are a poem, though your poem's naught.
The best of all you showed before, believe,
Was your own boy-face o'er the finer chords
Bent, following the cherub at the top
That points to God with his paired half-moon wings.
Ultimately the speaker reads his junior colleague's work as a "show" or manifestation of character, in a triumph of what amounts to psychological transcendentalism. To the speaker's expert eye, the promise of the earnest beginner rises above his unpromising topic, as his "boy-face" hovers over the instrument he harps on. This psychology lesson of the master, furthermore, teaches us to master the master in turn, through just the sort of character analysis to which he subjects his disciple. Even as the speaker vaunts a patronizing superiority, he takes his stand on an epiphanic poetics that soothes his cultured malaise a little too blandly for critical comfort. "By the time youth slips a stage or two / While reading prose," he confesses, "We shut the clasps and find life's summer past" (29-30, 33). As this musty whiff of Romantic nostalgia suggests, the magical epiphany sought by Browning's speaker flowers out of a mid-life crisis into a mid-century fantasy of rejuvenation.
The development of epiphanic writing across the turn of the century into the first modernist decades gives additional cause for skepticism about the critical doctrine of Browning's speaker. By now we can see how an epiphanic poetics very like the speaker's in "'Transcendentalism'" played into—and arguably played itself out in—certain symbolist and imagist works of Browning's successors. The young W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, two poets who acknowledged their debt to Browning, would appear to have taken the advice of his monologue to heart when versifying the epiphany of the theosophical rose or troping the apparition of metropolitan faces as "Petals on a wet, black bough." "The Secret Rose" (1897) and "In a Station of the Métro" (1916) are beautiful poems, but we have left the mystique of early modernism far enough behind to see how limited, and dated, their wan beauty appears beside Browning's robust copiousness. In retrospect his "'Transcendentalism'" looks like a proleptic critique of that naïveté of decontextualized vision, that escape from personality into the innocence of the eye, which constrains much modernist literature and theory.23
To an eye trained on Browning, epiphany in its rarefied symbolist or imagist form seems a diminished thing: the expression of a hunger for authenticity that craves isolated perceptions while it starves the perceiving self. Browning offers, in contrast to the impersonally streamlined epiphany of modern poetics, the ampler if messier model of character made manifest in the language and ideology of a conditioning time and place. Eventually modernism would ratify this model: it was to a contextualism like Browning's that Yeats returned in the great personal lyrics of his maturity, as did Pound in The Pisan Cantos. These masterpieces, along with Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's Four Quartets, continue to apprehend in ordinary events extraordinary meanings, but meanings that arise from the design of a life. The luminous detail radiates in constellation: the rose pattern in the iron filings owes its significance, for the highest modernism, to its place in the larger pattern of a historically specific humanity.24
Although we may not credit the kind of epiphany the speaker in "'Transcendentalism'" advocates, the very skepticism his ideas awaken contributes to his own epiphany as a speaking self. Consider the title of the monologue, where nothing but a set of quotation marks distinguishes the urbane speaker's position from the zealous harper's. If to quote is to appropriate, the two poets in this poem remain vulnerable to critical takeover, and vulnerable in the same way. Certainly neither of them meets the high standard of magical creativity set by John of Halberstadt, for both merely "speak" versified thought; their ultimately prosy ideas remain susceptible to the same cultural-psychological critique.
And so, at last, does that critique. The final lines of the poem describe a structure of stacked supervisory vantages: a harp under a face under a cherub under God. This structure, like the nested structures of interpersonal transference in "Karshish" and in many other poems by Browning, renders not a hierarchy of being but a progression toward the infinite. It corresponds to the potentially infinite regress that frames hermeneutic consciousness and to the rhetorical entanglements in which Browning's poetry involves its reader. What the psychologizing speaker says to his brother in the art—"You are a poem"—the reader learns to say in turn to the speaker, thus bringing this oddly titled monologue to charactered life and confirming its place in a collection called, not Selected Poems, but Men and Women. Just here, though, Browning gives us all the slip. For what the discerning reader says to the speaker, the poem says in haunting echo right back to the reader: You are a poem like me, a worded self, a cultural construct. "'Transcendentalism'" thus transcends the interpretation it prompts, as the reader too is read. Our instructed impulses to naturalize this Victorian poem by psychological means and to socialize it with reference to its cultural setting and afterlife can instruct us in turn about the constitution and situation of our critical practice now. What the interpretation of an epiphanic moment manifests, in the final analysis, is the character—psychological or formalist, deconstructive or historicist—of its interpreter. When all is said, the end of the text is the epiphany of the reader. Idou, hypocrite lecteur: De te, fabula.
1 The ambiguous place of epiphany between self-accrediting vision and artificial construct is registered in the first critical treatment of the subject, Harry Levin's study of Joyce. Having done preliminary homage to epiphany as a "spiritual manifestation," Levin then calls it a "device," "a matter of literary technique" (28-31). For Booth, the double-sidedness of Joyce's epiphanic manifesto makes "the complications of distance become incalculable" (332). Like Donoghue, Booth decries in Joyce an abdication of authorial responsibility, a charge sometimes leveled against Browning as well.
2 Introduced by Levin in 1941, the term epiphany acquired special cachet for Joyceans with the 1944 publication of Stephen Hero. Although Hendry extended its application in 1946, only during the 1950s was it widely adopted. It does not appear in the 1943 glossary to Brooks and Warren, but Brooks and Wimsatt's 1957 work refers in passing to the "now current Joycean word epiphany" (134). Writing in 1960, Levin called the term "a catchword of criticism" (230), and a decade later Abrams registered its promotion to canonical status: Joyce "affixed to the Moment what seems destined to become its standard name" (421). For an updated bibliographical survey, see Beja, "Epiphany."
3 When Nichols writes that "the perceptual experience and its transformation into language is primary" (33; my emphasis), his grammar stumbles on the ideological crux of the New Critical epiphany. Beja gathers various modernist assertions of verbal art's fidelity to the preverbal moment (Epiphany 19).
4 Frye holds that an epiphany is for Joyce "an actual event, brought into contact with the creative imagination, but untouched by it" and for Wordsworth "something observed but not essentially altered by the imagination" (158). Yet Frye himself casts imagination in a more formative role when he recognizes that epiphany is based not so much on "existential nature" as on "a picture of nature … something to be contemplated but not lived in" (161). Weiskel notes Wordsworth's "passages" pun (169) and goes on to show how the poet's "resistance to reading … as opposed to seeing" entails a "regression from the order of symbol to that of image" (173, 179).
5 Abrams discusses Wordsworth's subordination of the spots of time to the plot of The Prelude (77, 419) and likens the "structural function" of the Snowdon vision from book 14 to Stephen's climactic epiphany in Portrait (422). Beja regards Joyce's epiphanies as fragments that are "transformed" into wholes by narrative contextualization (Epiphany 85-86) and comments on the crucial difference between Stephen's objectivist theory of epiphany and the psychological use to which Joyce's epiphanies are put (25, 78). The very theory, I would argue further, serves as a character note that dramatizes Stephen's need to drown subjectivity in the quidditas and claritas of things. See Bowen; S. Joyce 124.
6 See, for example, Prelude 6.592-99. For Clayton this passage shows that a collision between "visionary power" and "the life of narrative"—antithetical forces "beyond the determination of the artist"—results in "a dislocation at a primary level of discourse, an alteration in narrative form that can neither be augmented nor suppressed without doing gross damage to the work's integrity" (14).
7 Walzl reads Dubliners with reference to the "sub-cycle" of the liturgical year running from Epiphany to Candlemas. While such associations may inform the epiphanies of Hopkins, Matthew's text seems a likelier point of reference for Low Church Victorians like Browning.
8 Some of the more striking New Testament occurrences of epiphaneia and its cognates are Luke 1.29, Acts 2.20, 2 Timothy 4.8, and Titus 2.11. For Victorian and contemporary ecumenical applications of the Epiphany see, respectively, Trench 68 and Prabhu 297. See also Beare 74.
9 On the relation between scriptural authority and pagan science, contrast Patte 34 with Nolan 44, 78. The priority of Scripture to nature virtually becomes a plot event in verses 9-10, where the star departs from its westerly course and veers southward, forsaking a natural for a prophetic direction.
10 Here Matthew differs sharply from those modern epiphanists for whom subjectivity is beside the point and interpretation a blot on claritas. For a strongly worded statement of this New Critical position, see Kenner 141-45; see also Nichols 17, 113. Conceptions closer to Matthew's—and Browning's—emerge from poststructuralist theory: "manifestation itself does not reveal a presence, it makes a sign" (Derrida 49); "The symbolic manifestation as a thing is a matrix of symbolic meanings as words…. The manifestation through the thing is like the condensation of an infinite discourse" (Ricoeur 11).
11 The relation between an anthropological perspective and biblical hermeneutics lies at the heart of the Higher Criticism practiced in Browning's day. Strauss makes the analysis of Matthew 2.1-12 a set piece vindicating the Herderian "mythical" method of recuperating a collective mentality: "the mythus is founded not upon any individual conception, but upon the more elevated and general conception of a whole people" (78; see also 246). Even the insular commentator Horne recognized that Matthew wrote to a divided audience of Christians and Jews (230).
12 Trench discusses Jerome's criticism (44). Home attempts to harmonize the Testaments by adducing rare Greek and Syriac texts that translate Micah 5.2 as a rhetorical question. Strauss's astringent reading of this verse—the text means only that the Messiah will be a descendant of David—confers on the priests and scribes a yet more active hermeneutic role: "Thus allowing the magi to have been rightly directed by means of the rabbinical exegesis of the oracle, a false interpretation must have hit on the truth" (221).
13 Beja's epiphanic criteria are "incongruity" and "insignificance" (Epiphany 16-17). Alter makes comparable points in his reading of the typologically germane Balaam narrative in Numbers (104-07).
14 See Strauss 238-42; Trench 34; Farrar 1: 29; and, in modern times, Brown 190-96. The visual motif that Alter stresses in the book of Numbers is also present in the Epiphany narrative, as Trench maintains (68-73). Compare the obeisance of the Magi with the passage in Numbers where Balaam, his eyes newly opened to the militant angel of the Lord, "bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face" (22.31). The comparative humility of Matthew's account might be read as an instance of the revisionary ratio that Bloom associates with homely repetition and calls, after the New Testament, kenosis (77-92).
15 See Strauss: "One might wonder that there is no notice of the astonishment which it must have excited in these men to find, instead of the expected prince, a child in quite ordinary, perhaps indigent circumstances" (226). The way Strauss identifies the narrative issue at stake here, while entirely missing its affective point, helps us understand the ambivalence his work prompted in Browning, who caricatures him in "Christmas-Eve" (1850).
16The Ring and the Book (1868-69), for example, makes sustained use of the imagery of madonna and child. Caponsacchi compares Pompilia to a Rafael madonna (6.400-06, 909-15); representations of the Virgin Mary so inform Pompilia's identity that she likens Caponsacchi to the Mattheic "star" (7.1448-50).
17 Langbaum regards epiphany and irony as "the alternate modes by which realistic notation achieves form and significance" ("Epiphanic Mode" 36). I contend, rather, that in Browning's monologues the "epiphany of character" (37), instead of setting off the ironic mode, incorporates it as a means of implicating the reader in the drama of interpretation. Guerra proposes a different reader-response theory of epiphany.
18 See Langbaum, Poetry; Martin; Tucker; Nichols 5, 30-31. The influence of Browning on modernist fiction needs further investigation; the best recent study is Posnock's.
19 At least since Chesterton identified "the doctrine of the great hour" (109), Browning scholars have been expounding that doctrine, in a torrent of studies that it would be as futile to itemize here as to divide into the aesthetic, ethical, and religious categories they fill. Suffice it to say that my approach to epiphany dissents from majority opinion (e.g., Whitla, Nichols), in which Browning's "good minute" or "infinite moment" constitutes a timeless transcendence of contingency.
20 Browning's antiphon to "Karshish" in the 1855 Men and Women is "Cleon," an epistolary monologue whose blend of Christian polemic and cultural pathos Trench had strikingly anticipated five years before (72-73). The ethnological malaise behind "Karshish" may have helped inspire the most epiphanic of T. S. Eliot's dramatic monologues (in both biblical and Browningesque senses), the 1927 "Journey of the Magi": "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods" (41-42).
21 Whitla contends that in Browning "the moment of vision is also the moment of Incarnation," which "gives significance to the whole poem" (17). But this standard formulation elides the role of interpretation in determining "significance." For an epiphanic poetics, opposed to an incarnational one, stress falls on the moment not of vision but of reading. See Weiskel 169-79.
22 That Browning typically chose this poem for inscription in autograph albums does not make it any less a dramatic lyric. As in "One Word More" (1855), the "Epilogue" to Dramatis Personae (1864), and the introduction to The Ring and the Book, this poet in propria persona remains very much a persona.
23 I have chiefly in mind the nuggets of pure image that adorn both sides of the fin de siècle in poetry and prose. As the major modernists grew into longer forms, of course, they adapted nineteenth-century arts of epiphanic contextualization to the demands of what Bornstein describes as a "continual tension between the public, prophetic stance and the private concern for lyrical moments" (Poetic Remaking 121). Still, as Bornstein suggests elsewhere, at first even the modernists' longer poems conformed to the standard of impersonality: Eliot's and Pound's associationist experiments in the dramatic monologue tend to dissolve character in privileged moments that come to the speaker only "as chance epiphanies, having nothing to do with his ordinary self (Transformations 139).
24 Christ sketches the line that extends through modernism to the tensional and persona-based poetics of the New Criticism (100).
Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1971.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981.
Beare, Francis W. The Gospel according to Matthew. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.
Beja, Morris. "Epiphany and the Epiphanies." A Companion to Joyce Studies. Ed. Zack Bowen and James F. Carens. Westport: Greenwood, 1984. 707-25.
——. Epiphany in the Modern Novel. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1971.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.
Bornstein, George. Poetic Remaking: The Art of Browning, Yeats, and Pound. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.
——. Transformations of Romanticism in Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Bowen, Zack. "Joyce and the Epiphany Concept." Journal of Modern Literature 9 (1981-82): 103-14.
Brooks, Cleanth, and R. P. Warren. Understanding Fiction. New York: Crofts, 1943.
Brooks, Cleanth, and W. K. Wimsatt. Literary Criticism: A Short History. New York: Knopf, 1957.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City: Doubleday, 1977.
Browning, Robert. The Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.
——. The Ring and the Book. Ed. Richard Altick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.
Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. London: Macmillan, 1903.
Christ, Carol T. Victorian and Modern Poetics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Clayton, Jay. Romantic Vision and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Donoghue, Denis. "Joyce and the Finite Order." Sewanee Review 68 (1960): 256-73.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. 1930. New York: Harcourt, 1934.
Farrar, Frederic W. The Life of Christ. London: Cassell, 1874.
Frye, Northrop. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random, 1968.
Guerra, Lia. "Fragmentation in Dubliners and the Reader's Epiphany." Myriadminded Man: Jottings on Joyce. Ed. R. M. Bosinelli et al. Bologna: Cooperativa, 1986. 41-49.
Hendry, Irene. "Joyce's Epiphanies." Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 449-67.
Henry, Matthew, and Thomas Scott. The Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible. Ed. William Jenks. Vol. 4. Brattleboro: Fessenden, 1834. 5 vols.
The Holy Bible. King James Version. Cleveland: World, n.d.
Home, Thomas Hartwell. An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. 5th ed. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: Desilver, 1833. 4 vols.
Joyce, James. Stephen Hero. 1944. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions, 1955.
Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother's Keeper: James Joyce's Early Years. New York: Viking, 1958.
Kenner, Hugh. Dublin's Joyce. London: Chatto, 1955.
Langbaum, Robert. "The Epiphanic Mode in Wordsworth and Modern Literature." The Word from Below: Essays on Modern Literature and Culture. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987. 33-57.
——. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. 1957. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.
Levin, Harry. James Joyce: A Critical Introduction. 1941. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions, 1960.
Martin, Loy D. Browning's Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
Nichols, Ashton. The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1987.
Nolan, Brian M. The Royal Son of God: The Christology of Matthew 1-2 in the Setting of the Gospel. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1979.
Novum Testamentum Graece. Ed. Alexander Souter. Oxford: Clarendon, 1910.
Patte, Daniel. The Gospel according to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
Posnock, Ross. Henry James and the Problem of Robert Browning. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
Pound, Ezra. Personae. New York: New Directions, 1926.
Prabhu, George M. Soares. The Formula Quotations in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew. Rome: Biblical Inst., 1976.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. Trans. Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper, 1967.
Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus. 4th ed. Trans. Marian Evans. Vol. 1. London: Chapman, 1846. 3 vols.
Sumner, John Bird. Practical Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark. London: Hatchard, 1838.
Trench, R. C. The Star of the Wise Men: Being a Commentary on the Second Chapter of St. Matthew. Philadelphia: Hooker, 1850.
Tucker, Herbert F. "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric." Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Ed. Chaviva Hošek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 226-43.
Walzl, Florence L. "The Liturgy of the Epiphany Season and the Epiphanies of Joyce." PMLA 80 (1965): 436-50.
Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Whitla, William. The Central Truth: The Incarnation in Robert Browning's Poetry. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1963.
Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. Rev. Ernest de Selincourt. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6105
SOURCE: "Overview," in Robert Browning's Literary Life: From First Work to Masterpiece, Eakin Press, 1992, pp. 548-62.
[In the following essay, Hudson reviews Browning's critical reputation from 1833 through 1870, arguing that Browning's critical acclaim was slow in coming because the poet's critics refused for many years to realize that his unique and innovative poetry could not be judged by conventional literary standards.]
The basic elements that determined Browning's reputation from 1833 to 1870 were of course his professional activities and the opinions of critics and others. To these should be added certain significant movements in the intellectual and spiritual milieu that encouraged relaxation of conventional poetic standards by widening the scope of subjects thought to be suitable to poetry and by liberalizing the manner of treatment. This was beneficial to Browning in the fifties and sixties and helped him advance to his position of security by 1870. The complexities of his career, present from the first, can hardly be reduced to simple statements and easy generalizations.
With considerable struggle Browning and his critics persevered in different ways until his reputation was established. Over a long period of time and with difficulty critics learned that they could not judge Browning's works by traditional standards. Repeated exposure to his individual dramatic method, a shift in their opinion of what constituted the province of poetry, an increasing awareness of the totality of his achievement, and a recognition of the timeliness of his work—these contributed to the process of growing acceptance and appreciation. Very early in his career Browning became aware of the gap between himself and the critics, who represented the poetry-reading public. Feeling that he had a sacred duty to attain his place as a poet, he was determined to protect the central force of his creative genius and at the same time narrow the existing gap. He was sensitive to whatever would help or hinder the achievement of his desired goal.
The highlights of the broad canvas with many details indicate the character and direction of the efforts of both Browning and his critics. In Browning's exercise of his innovative genius, his workshop habits, and the performance of the critics during the first period of his literary life (which ended with the publication of the collected edition of 1849) lie the clues for understanding the gradual progress that led to wide recognition. Browning's readers were frustrated in the beginning by his experimenting with genres. To recognize his movement toward the best medium of expression for his individual talent they would have needed superior judgment, with the ability to see beyond the early period of misleading efforts.
The four w'orks after the unacknowledged Pauline included two that partook of the character of drama but were different from each other (Paracelsus and Pippa Passes), one play (Strafford) that was performed, and a poem that was primarily narrative (Sordello). All of them bore the mark of his originality and all were difficult for the critics to understand. In his continuing experiments in the forties Browning wrote six more plays, which seemed to type him as a dramatist. His interest in internal states and changes rather than external action kept his plays from being successful on the stage, though he wrote four out of the six to be performed. Best suited to his genius were the innovative Pippa passes and such short poems as those in Dramatic Lyrics and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. Unfortunately these were overshadowed by the sheer volume of works less indicative of his future accomplishments. The critics would need considerable exposure to his poetry to see the direction of his efforts. Although they were not capable of adequately appreciating the value of Browning's efforts, early critics observed that he was better than the rank and file of poets. His interest in man and human behavior and his dramatic ability were noted, and qualities of his poetry that were later to be repeatedly praised were pointed out—intellect, originality, and power (variously called force, energy, or strength). In this awareness lay the bare rudiments of a better understanding. Though they recognized his poetic ability, even when they did not approve of the work they were reviewing, critics could not see that what they considered praiseworthy was involved in what they attacked. They were unable to relate lines of criticism. They perceived that Browning had originality, but their deeply ingrained conservatism impelled them to feel that he should follow conventional rules of art and avoid unwholesome or otherwise unacceptable subject matter for poetry. To them he seemed little concerned about the obscurity of his verse. Why not make an effort to be clear, pleasing, and easy to read? Since the critics thought that Browning could be better, they often indulged in irritable accusations of wilfulness. In their faultfinding they occasionally had a glimmer of his individual techniques without seeing their significance. These were years of frustration for both Browning and his critics.
Browning had confidence in his instinctive creative force, and he wanted others to understand his intentions. In an effort to guide readers and encourage acceptance he wrote introductory comments for three of his early works, but they did not serve the purpose he had in mind. He had not yet won over many readers when he made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to write plays for the stage, which provided an opportunity for attracting wide attention. After reviewers (and Macready) made clear the qualities necessary for a play to succeed, Browning tried in A Blot and Colombe's Birthday to tailor his creative ideas to the demands of critics, who represented the tastes of the general public. In spite of his failures in poetry and drama he was tireless in his efforts to advance his art as well as his reputation.
Browning paid attention to what critics and others said of his work. He was fully aware of the influence of reviews. The helping hand of explanation that he apparently extended to friends who were critics was intended to prepare the way for a better understanding of his artistic aims. He watched for reviews anxiously and took to heart particularly the important ones. Though at times he demonstrated rather noisily his sensitiveness to the detrimental effect of a review, at other times in general remarks he showed tolerance for shortsighted criticism. He expressed gratefulness for favorable reviews, even showing a remarkable appreciation for those by friends who wrote sympathetically but in some respects showed deficiencies in judgment. Alert to suggestions of ways to gain an audience, he not only attempted to adapt his own ideas to standard notions of playwriting; he also wrote short pieces at the suggestion of his publisher Moxon and acted upon Fox's criticisms in his review of Pauline. He heeded professional advice for the best time to publish, and he gave up the compact appearance of his works as in Bells and Pomegranates, which he personally favored, after critics as well as other readers called attention to the cramped, ill-printed pamphlets in the series.
He took criticism seriously, and even sought well-intentioned suggestions. In fact, in the early part of his career he leaned on his friends to a great extent, though he had difficulty in seeing the problems that his work presented to others. He turned to Fox, Fanny Haworth, Domett, and Harriet Martineau as well as to others and later to Elizabeth, sometimes pressing them for suggestions. Most disturbing was the obscurity of his writing. He repeatedly assured others that he was working to eliminate it. Clarity in expression of thought was the "whole problem" of the artist, he wrote Elizabeth. His works as well as the reviews, indicated that his efforts resulted in improvement.
Contrary to the impression that he occasionally left on critics and others that he produced his works rapidly and did little or no revision, Browning put forth much effort in planning, writing, and revising his works. There is evidence that he withheld certain works, sometimes for a considerable period, so that he could better revise them, and then he examined them in proof for further revision. The early habits which he formed as a part of his literary life continued except as they had to be modified because of changes in his situation.
At the end of Browning's first period he was not satisfied. He looked upon his past efforts as experience that would result in better poetry. With a fundamentally optimistic nature, Browning sometimes suffered states of dejection that gave place to confidence in the future. The artistic ego that had prompted him to talk to Macready of his eventual celebrity, of Sordello with "obstinate faith" in it, and of the wisdom of putting his plays on the stage enabled him to continue his work. As strong as his ego, was a sense of humility in his dedication and his dependence on others for help.
After choosing a subject and deciding upon a plan for treating it, Browning applied his great energy and creative force to the task in hand, even before completing one work looking ahead to possible subjects and different genres. His unyielding application was not in vain. By the later forties signs of a departure from the earlier hidebound critical approach to his poetry began to appear. Indications of better understanding in the reception of the second collection of shorter dramatic poems continued through the criticism of the collected edition. Browning had drawn on his varied intellectual resources and critics were beginning to be impressed by the versatility of his genius and his interest in dramatic portrayal of character. In looking back on his total production, most of them were able to see the dramatic quality that characterized both poetry and plays. Instead of condemning the plays as unfit for the stage they were considering them as closet drama.
Complaints of the unwholesome and immoral were still present, but it is noteworthy that in religious periodicals, which were giving increasing attention to Browning, complaints were replaced by a marked duality of opinion. In both the sectarian and the nonsectarian press there were objections to the immoral and degrading. There also arose, with the recognition of Browning's intellectual range and interests, an awareness of the high seriousness with which he dramatically presented variety in life. These more definite perceptions of the qualities of Browning's poetry gave evidence of some attempt at drawing together hitherto separate lines of criticism with, in a few instances, clear and definite relations of lines. When the collected edition was published in 1849, the long poems, Pippa Passes, and the plays attracted most attention because they occupied the bulk of the two volumes. Since the shorter poems occupied less space the impression was given that they were of minor importance and hence they did not receive the recognition that the reviews of Dramatic Romances and Lyrics had promised.
The limitations of the critics when they were faced with unconventional writing had often contributed to their irritability. By the later forties Browning's manner of writing was not as disturbing as it had formerly been. Faultfinding because of obscurity had decreased. In fact, there was either acceptance of his manner or less emphasis on its shortcomings as attention was directed to the dramatic method and the subject matter. This and a very positive effort on the part of a few critics to explain the individuality of Browning's style and to persuade others that his poetry was worth the exertion needed to read it foreshadowed a critical position of the fifties and sixties.
The attitude of the critics toward Browning in the later forties seemed to predict an advance in the understanding of his genius upon the appearance of his next work. But instead of continuing his experiments with the dramatic revelation of character, which the critics had begun to appreciate, Browning, now living in Italy, wrote Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850), which dealt with contemporary religious beliefs in a poem unlike any he had previously written. There was an outcry in the first of the reviews against the grotesque element and Hudibrastic style as unbefitting a religious poem. Passage of time could bring better understanding of a work of Browning's, as in the case of Pippa Passes, and now there was a shift in the appraisal after the major weeklies (with the exception of the Examiner) railed against Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. In the second month after publication, criticism of the style weakened as approval of the religious import began to appear in denominational periodicals, which had already given signs of seeing Browning as a poet of high seriousness. This shift in emphasis led to the view that Browning was a religious poet, which did much to shape his reputation. The realization that Browning, an intellectual poet, was concerned with contemporary religious questions took root in the fifties, when old beliefs of the Victorians were already being questioned.
In Men and Women (1855) Browning reverted to the mode of dramatic poetry that he had initiated in Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and continued in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). Instead of profiting by the gains which they had made in the late forties, many critics were overpowered by the wealth and number of original poems in the two volumes of 1855. Some were completely blind to the value of the great dramatic poems in this collection, and they as well as others who had a glimmer of light were so vociferous and querulous in their objections primarily to the style that it is difficult to see the progress that was in fact taking place. A cursory look at the reviews can easily result in a sweeping condemnation of the critics.
A more thorough examination shows that the lines of criticism favorable to Browning that began to emerge in the late forties, as well as new ones, received support in the fifties—even in the confusion, contradictions, and struggles that were present. These prepared the way for the effectiveness of critical appraisal in the sixties. Browning's employment of his wide range of knowledge and interest in the varied experience of man as shown by his dramatic revelation of character was impressive, and some critics called attention to his manner of projecting himself into the mind of the characters. The more liberal tolerance of different kinds of knowledge, characters, and mental states, especially those traditionally considered not fit for poetry, resulted in part from seeing Browning not only as an intellectual but also as a religious poet. Recognition of him as a poet of high intent went hand in hand with an awareness of the relevance of his poetry to the religious movements and spirit of his day, an awareness that had followed the publication of Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. The critics' changing attitude toward remote and unusual subject matter was noticeable in their discussions of poems with moral or religious significance and of other poems as well.
The conventional attitude toward Browning's style that characterized many earlier reviews and a number of reviews of Men and Women was giving way in the more perceptive reviews. This was especially demonstrated in the discussion of obscurity. The discriminating critics spoke out in defense of Browning on that score, with the implication that too much emphasis had been placed on it. Though their understanding of his technique was limited, especially in the dramatic lyric, they appreciated the blank verse of his great dramatic monologues and a few seemed to realize that his poetry was not to be judged by ordinary standards. Objective and poised criticism characterized these reviews, which made up more than a third of the total number dealing with Men and Women. Other critics were querulous in a confusion of praise and blame while attempting to understand Browning, whose genius they recognized without clearly comprehending it. Guided by preconceived notions of poetry, the remaining were completely blind to Browning's merits and were blatantly impatient.
Browning could not see that the encouraging notes foreshadowed the advancements to be made in the sixties. What he did see was that the poems he and others had justifiably thought would bring recognition were received with much irritable condemnation. He wrote his publisher in strong language to express his anger with critics, who he thought were threatening his financial and professional success. As a result of the greatest professional disappointment of his life, Browning felt the futility of further attempts. Earlier he had been able to continue his efforts in spite of poor reception; now he wrote little and that little he pushed aside.
On his return to England after Elizabeth's death in 1861, following his fifteen years of married life in Italy, Browning ended his long period of nonproductivity as he again took up old professional habits. Following the earlier trials and errors in his attempts to gain an audience, the first publications could not have been better planned and presented as a means of advancing his reputation. The Selections (1863), arranged by friends to attract readers, and his Poetical Works (1863), published volume by volume with his most distinctive works first to emphasize their importance, achieved the desired effect. Browning further advanced and secured his reputation when he published two new works, successful because of their contemporary relevance and their position in the sequence of his works—Dramatis Personae (1864) and The Ring and the Book (1868-9).
After the publication of the Poetical Works and Dramatis Personae a new note appeared in the reviews. The critics were aware that Browning had gained sufficient recognition from readers to warrant the republication of his works and a second edition of Dramatis Personae. No longer, as after the publication of Selections (1863), did critics need to fear that readers failed to share their high opinion of Browning. The deterrent to their assertive recommendation was removed. There was another sign of forward-moving independence. Critics had already reproached other critics for their damagings reviews: in the forties blame was incidental and after the publication of Men and Women it was more noticeable, usually either general or clearly directed against specific but unidentified reviews. After Dramatis Per-sonae there were pronounced attacks. No less than four on the Edinburgh Review appeared, all effective in discrediting the identified offender.
Browning had not advanced in one area. His dramatic lyric failed to gain approval. He had first used the conventional lyric (in Paracelsus) as the result of Fox's advice. Later appeared the lyric that bore the stamp of his originality, but critics were too much blinded by their own traditional notion to accept Browning's individuality. Outspoken criticism began in the fifties and continued in the sixties. Except when they were discussing lyrics, the critics had grown less severe in their objections to style. In fact, there were encouraging signs in the reviews of the Poetical Works and Dramatis Personae. Among them was the continuation of recognition (which had appeared from time to time) that Browning's verse harmonized with the intended effect, that it could not be judged independently of the thought. Irritability had weakened as acceptance increased. Obscurity was no longer a main target. The attacks on it that had started with Sordello had lost force. When critics began opening their eyes in the forties, they realized that Sordello was not to be summarily rejected and in the sixties they discussed it on a new level.
The critics' opinion of what Browning said and how he said it should be examined with reference to the Victorian frame of thought. In the early sixties religious beliefs were being questioned in a climate of uncertainty. The second edition of Dramatis Personae was called for largely because of the attraction to the emphatic moral and religious pertinence of Browning's poetry. Changes in the intellectual milieu, such as the questioning of old assumptions and the appearance of new interests, contributed to the relaxing of hidebound standards of literary evaluation. Unusual or peculiar subjects, psychological probing, stylistic traits that made the poetry difficult—the general acceptance of these attested to the increasing appreciation of the range and employment of Browning's genius and at the same time to the intellectual forces at work. With more freedom in thinking came the acceptance of realism and the grotesque for serious purposes—both earlier denounced. The various dramatic presentations of a broad perspective of human behavior was welcome. Browning's projecting his mind into that of the characters provided not only the intellectual quality for better character revelation; it also allowed acceptable moral and spiritual values to emerge. In support of faith, the dramatic method was more effective than the subjective approach, said several critics of Dramatis Personae.
With Dramatis Personae out of the way and well received, Browning directed his energy to the great poem that he could now write and critics could appreciate. In The Ring and the Book he turned the account of a murder, abhorrent in itself and remote in time and place, into an epic of human behavior with profound thought such as appealed to the Englishman of the time. He translated experience into moral and spiritual truths by going beyond the single monologue, which had already gained approval, to a series of related ones. The result was compatible with critical values, which had been undergoing changes not only as the result of the uprooting of settled religious beliefs and the search for new footings but also as the result of the shifting away from insularity, the intellectual stir in the study of history, and interest in the importance and complexities of the individual.
The general habits of thinking, expansive in the search for new outlooks, had already been reflected in the more liberal critical position. Browning had employed the ruminations of a brute in Caliban and the roguery of an imposter in Mr. Sludge to point up matters of contemporary moral and spiritual concern of special importance to Victorians. In The Ring and the Book he turned to a Roman murder story. Now instead of expressing a desire for a simple subject and inoffensive elementary human emotions for the sake of mere pleasure in reading as in earlier years, the great majority of critics did not object to the sordid story. It was the use made of the subject that had become the test for value, and the use of it involved the interrelation of the various aspects of Browning's poetry that critics had once considered separately. The continuing process of merging lines of criticism prompted them to see the whole of the poem in a better light.
Changing habits of thinking were further reflected in the criticism of Browning's manner of writing in The Ring and the Book. The earlier frequent cry, "We want poetry that is easy to read," challenged by relatively few, was now subdued. At first Browning's poetry had been considered too difficult; then appeared the notion that the poetry was difficult but worth the effort required for understanding it; then out of the new intellectual movements grew attitudes that further modified the early complaint. In the intellectual climate readers desired meaningful poetry, and many preferred poetry that brought before them serious topics in such a way as to exercise their thinking. The preference was for dramatic poetry, which—unlike subjective poetry with its restriction to the thought and feeling of the writer—extended to a great variety of human experiences. The process of analyzing the working of the mind of man in the totality of life—seeing reality as related to the ideal, the earthly to the divine—was welcome in a time when questions were being asked and values weighed.
That Browning was not completely orthodox and did not impose his judgments didactically upon his readers appealed to those who wanted the benefit of his thought but also the chance at the same time to follow through the process of arriving at a belief, an opinion, or a judgment. Critics of various faiths or no faith at all were receptive to Browning's poetry. They saw that searching for the truth and arriving at personal convictions was important. Browning's stress on the value of individualism was appropriate in a time when many had lost faith in orthodoxy. The shaping of his source material in The Ring and the Book made a special appeal; readers were involved in the conflicting evidence in the search for truth just as they were involved in the conflict of new knowledge and old convictions in their search for a solution to their problems in a changing world.
Critics were more interested in what Browning said in The Ring and the Book and the way he approached his subject than in his poetic line. In chiefly the unfavorable reviews there were severe complaints about the verse. In the rest there was, relatively speaking, a modicum of faultfinding, which was well controlled. In fact, what stands out in the criticism is that instead of isolating and exaggerating the faults the critics stressed the greatness of the poem. They had arrived at an attitude that Browning, in a letter to Isa Blagden had advocated for critics: "animadverting, if you please, on any blemishes, but doing justice on the whole to the real worth there."
Pertinent to the evaluation of a review was the character of the periodical in which it appeared—its life span, kind and extent of audience, and periodicity. Besides the value of each review according to the character of the periodical, important in a study of Browning's reputation is the effect of reviews in certain groups of periodicals. The first group consisted of weeklies falling between 1833 and 1845. The majority of reviews of Browning's works were published in them and they were generally unfavorable. To some extent the value of a review in a weekly was its immediacy after publication, but to prepare a review of Browning's poetry on short notice meant that the critic did not have enough time to cope with difficult and original writing. Most of the reviews in weeklies that were favorable as well as other receptive ones in nonweeklies were written by men who moved in Browning's social-professional circles, some of them close friends to whom he probably talked of his poetry.
The second significant group was composed of reviews in the sectarian periodicals of the late forties and the fifties. The nonweekly periodicals increased in number in the late forties, and among them were sectarian periodicals whose critics turned their attention to Browning as a poet of high seriousness. Then after Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day they saw him as a poet interested in religious beliefs. This awareness was significant because it gave direction to Browning's reputation.
Changes taking place in the multiplicity of periodicals of the sixties influenced the reception of Browning's poetry. For the first time he benefited by reviews in weeklies. Two of the long established weeklies that had formerly disapproved of him and ones reviewing him for the first time placed their stamp of approval on his works. Some of these commanded a wide readership, either general or literary, and others appealed to restricted audiences of different kinds. The most significant change came in reviews in monthlies making their first appearance. These monthlies manifested a lively interest in varied aspects of Victorian life and appealed to readers who were capable of appreciating Browning.
He profited by the high caliber of many critics of the sixties. In the widening vistas of thought, intellectual and openminded men were attracted to critical expression, including reviewing. Generally the critics of Browning no longer felt subservient to restrictive principles. Besides those who were receptive to new standards, though in some respects timidly rejecting the old, there were those who by virtue of training or profession (some were recognized in fields other than literature) had little difficulty in following their own critical dictates. The practice of signing articles, as it came into increasing use, was beneficial to Browning; his poetry had a head start when reviews favorable to him were signed by men from various areas of thinking whose names carried weight.
It is instructive to set the opinions of professional critics against the opinions of those who did not review Browning in the course of earning their livelihood. On the negative side they both denounced or lamented the obscurity and difficulty of his verse. Agreement existed in the praise of Browning's thought, originality, strength, and interest in human behavior and also in the conclusion that whatever might be the faults of The Ring and the Book its greatness assured Browning's place as a foremost poet. Some of both groups wished to serve as explicators and thus convince others that the poetry was worth the effort required to understand it. In both groups there were enthusiastic readers who, being members of the younger generation, welcomed Browning's individuality for its fresh departure from the conventionally acceptable. Two differences stand out. The irritable faultfinding that was prominent in the negative and unsympathetic reviews was the exception in the comments of the nonprofessionals who did not like Browning's poetry. The complaint of Browning's immorality and unwholesomeness was absent from private assessments, but it often appeared in the earlier professional criticism, which was influenced by public opinion. Taken all in all, there was considerable agreement between the professional and nonprofessional attitude toward Browning's poetry.
After Browning's early period of experimentation, criticism by both reviewers and friends continued to play an important part in his life. He turned to Fox, Lytton, Kenyon, and Milsand for criticism of Men and Women. The surviving acknowledgments of his comments to Kenyon and other friends indicated that the most frequent complaints had to do with obscurity and difficulty. Since he could not escape the fact that his readers did have trouble, throughout his life he assured his friends that he made an effort to improve. There were times when he defended his manner of writing, but knowing that his friends had his interests at heart he was not indignant as he often was when he thought professionals were severe or obtuse.
Although after the forties Browning did not so openly show his desire to have his works reviewed—even to the point of soliciting reviews in earlier years—his letters to Conway indicated his willingness to help smooth a reviewer's path. After the publication of a work of his he continued to watch for reviews; that he felt their power is shown by his tenseness during the waiting period and his remarks after their appearance. When one was expected in an influential periodical and was delayed or did not appear at all he could be unduly disturbed. He was sometimes inclined to strike out against a critic who abused or misunderstood the work under consideration. His early frustration might be overcome temporarily and then, after going underground, reappear when activated by some reminder; harbored feelings gathered force and then erupted into an exaggerated account of what he considered an unfair or unjust reception. Unfortunately after the passage of years he could easily mix facts and fancies in defending his poetry. Throughout his life discordant notes tended to accompany the recall of a disappointing reception one of his early efforts. Browning's reactions are best explained in the light of his strong impulse to foster his works and resist impediments to their acceptance.
Browning greatly appreciated those reviews that were written to further his cause and readily and generously gave credit where it was due. Long after the deed itself he was not forgetful of what others had done in his behalf. He acknowledged indebtiness to them in various ways and told others of the help he had received. A response that should be brought out as well as his gratefulness was his recognition, in the face of critical misunderstanding and inadequacy, of the difficult task of sympathetically inclined critics who could not, in a limited time, see his works as a whole. He also knew that they were sometimes subject to an editor who would diminish their degree of appreciation or otherwise alter their text for the worse. To his credit Browning maintained a high regard for Macready and Carlyle, who he felt had failed him professionally; he was capable of divorcing the lasting acute disappointment from the perpetrator of it, the professional pain from the friend.
Browning paid close attention to reviews and his consequent actions suggest their influence on htm. He had turned from the confessional in Pauline after critics called attention to it and made changes in plays according to some of the complaints of his critics. He turned to contemporary English life in Dramatis Personae after objections to his use of the remote in time and place, especially Italy. The first part of The Ring and the Book was more than likely the consequence of repeated urging that to encourage ready understanding Browning should add an introductory explanation of what was to follow, and he said the simplicity of the story was an answer to the complaint of obscurity. His arrangements of the works in his collected editions of 1863 and 1868 were influenced by his desire to prevent critics from repeating mistaken evaluations made in the past and to guide them in the future. After the critics had difficulty as the result of coping in a limited time with the great wealth of subject matter and the individuality of poetic treatment in the two volumes of Men and Women, Browning published Poetical Works and The Ring and the Book in installments to allow time for understanding. And after being advised of the cramped effect of the pamphlet format of Bells and Pomegranates on his readers, he decided that the collection of 1868 should have six rather than fewer volumes, to make for easier reading and handling. Even after the failure of his early Prefaces, written to guide readers, he tried other means of forestalling misunderstanding, as in his lines at the end of Christmas-Eve.
Browning did not hesitate to talk of the means he used to attract readers. He talked to Allingham, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George MacDonald, and others. During the years of his active professional life in England he talked with freedom of his writing and with enthusiasm for the finished product. He talked of his poetic life to one person or to a few in intimate gatherings in his ever-widening social life of the sixties. When serious discussion of his poetry was out of place, he was adept at making remarks to suit the occasion. Out of his social aplomb grew misconceptions of his attitude toward his works. A broad examination of his behavior shows that when communication was appropriate he did not hesitate to refer to his works, and he wrote to friends and sometimes to strangers of matters of importance to his poetry. He even went so far as to admit that socializing was beneficial to his writing.
In early years Browning revealed notions basic to his writing to Domett, Horne, Fanny Haworth, Macready, and Elizabeth, and later to Ruskin, Isa Blagden, W. W. Story, Julia Wedgwood, Kenyon, and Milsand as well as others. Besides stressing the importance of originality and clarity, he indicated his preference for conciseness and emphasized the worthiness of the study of the soul and the duty of the poet to teach, to advance truth, and to show evil as well as good in representing life and revealing spiritual insights. He admitted his sympathy with undesirable characters and his propensity for exploring dark corners of the soul. He talked of his aim to preserve the integrity of his art and of the responsibility of readers and audience. As a dramatic writer he talked of the degree of self-revelation that he sanctioned, of his principle of creating a central effect with subordinated details, and he called attention to the difference between the work of a dramatic poet and that of a narrative writer. He also indicated the change he had made in his prosody and his right to adapt verse to the rhythm of speech.
Both Browning and his critics, with frustration, confusion, and irritation throughout years of struggle, contributed to the gradual narrowing of the distance that lies between a great original poet and those who judge him. Browning followed and developed the bent of his creative impulse and observed critical response, and the critics by virtue of exposure and effort, supported by general changes in thinking, arrived at different standards of measurement. In The Ring and the Book Browning's genius—its integrity always safeguarded—reached a high level of expression, and his critics had attained a degree of appreciation that enabled them to recognize his achievement. Because of his confidence in his daemon and his determination to persevere, Browning produced poetry that in spirit and presentation contemporaries related to their time and in expression recognized as individual. He had attained a secure place as one of England's great poets.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8572
SOURCE: "Hatred's Double Face," in Browning's Hatred, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 169-92.
[In the following essay, Karlin examines the binary oppositions in Browning's poetry, particularly the opposition between love and hate. Karlin asserts that the interplay between such contraries exists within all aspects of Browning's poetry and is especially fundamental to the poet's exploration of human relationships.]
Following Anaximander he [Heraclitus] conceived the universe as a ceaseless conflict of opposites regulated by an unchanging law, but he found in this law the proper object of understanding; it is the Logos which spans but could not exist without the cosmic process: 'people do not understand how what is at variance accords … with itself, an agreement in tension as with bow and lyre' … This Logos Heraclitus equated with transcendent wisdom and the elemental fire.
(Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edn., 1970)
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
the hateful siege
Of contraries …
Browning's dualism has often been remarked upon. He is a writer obsessed as much as Blake (or Yeats, or Lawrence) with contraries, with binary opposites; and, like these writers, he sees such contraries as essential to human identity and behaviour, constitutive of each individual, of the relations between individuals, and of all the forms of social life. Contraries work through historical time (in the political struggle between progress and reaction, for example) and through personal time (in the moral conflicts that shape a life). It is not too much to say that Browning's poetry works, is driven by oppositions, at every level of structure, theme, and style. Sometimes these oppositions are enshrined in the titles of paired poems ("Meeting at Night/Parting at Morning", "Love in a Life/Life in a Love", "One Way of Love/Another Way of Love", "Before/After", etc.),3 sometimes in the subtitles of individual works or volumes: A Soul's Tragedy ("Part First, being what was called the Poetry of Chiappino's Life: and Part Second, its Prose"), Red Cotton Night-Cap Country ("Turf and Towers"), and Asolando ("Fancies and Facts"). But more important than these formal gestures is the sense in which every Browning poem is oppositional in nature: both he and the characters he creates are seized with the passion of conflict and argument, whether with others or themselves. And these arguments come down to fundamental divisions, to radical and irreconcilable opposites: male and female, good and evil, soul and body; or at any rate to divisions that seem fundamental, to opposites that start out as fixed and unalterable, for the same poem which begins by taking them for granted may end up by calling them into question.
The opposition between love and hate, as I pointed out in the previous chapter, is among the most basic of all in Browning's work. Its importance can be measured by the frequency with which the two terms, or their cognates, are paired in single or adjoining lines. In the concordance I count at a glance over a hundred such pairings: take as an example the following, all from The Ring and the Book:
Thus, two ways, does she love her love to the end,
And hate her hate,—death, hell is no such price
To pay for these,—lovers and haters hold.
Too nakedly you hate
Me whom you looked as if you loved once …
I am not ignorant,—know what I say,
Declaring this is sought for hate, not love.
'Your husband dashes you against the stones;
This man would place each fragment in a shrine:
You hate him, love your husband!
'It is not true I love my husband,—no,
Nor hate this man.
My babe nor was, nor is, nor yet shall be
Count Guido Franceschini's child at all—
Only his mother's, born of love not hate!
Give me my wife: how should I use my wife,
Love her or hate her?
What I call God's hand,—you, perhaps,—this chance
Of the true instinct of an old good man
Who happens to hate darkness and love light—
All these examples have one thing in common: they assume an absolute and stable opposition between the two terms 'love' and 'hate', whatever kind of feeling or state these terms describe (in the first example sexual passion, in the second parental love, in the fifth spiritual symbolism, in the last moral allegiance). Duality is produced, of course, by division: the final example overtly alludes to the primary division of creation itself:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. (Genesis 1: 3-5)
From this primary division all others flow: physical, metaphysical, moral. One of Browning's most extraordinary late poems, "Pan and Luna" (published in Dramatic Idyls, Second Series, 1880), itself a meditation on the duality of male and female, opens with a version of Genesis, in which the utter darkness of an Arcadian night abolishes the distinction between earth and sky ('the pines, / Mountains and vallies mingling made one mass / Of black with void black heaven', ll. 4-6), a distinction which is then restored, re-created by 'The naked Moon, full-orbed antagonist / Of night and dark' (ll. 20-1).
Such oppositions are productive—in the examples from The Ring and the Book productive of meaning, since without distinction the characters could not express ideas or emotions; productive of behaviour, too, since they lead to moral and other choices.5 Oppositions play a dynamic and progressive role, as Bishop Blougram insists:
No, when the fight begins within himself,
A man's worth something. God stoops o'er his head,
Satan looks up between his feet—both tug—
He's left, himself, in the middle: the soul wakes
And grows. Prolong that battle through his life!
Never leave growing till the life to come!
But the principle of division is not in itself a neutral one. It is light that God creates and finds good, not darkness; his division is also a judgement (as is the parable of the sheep and the goats, for that matter). In Blougram's tableau, after all, God is on top and Satan underneath (though with characteristic ambiguity God is stooping and Satan looking up). Christian dualism sets out to combat the Gnostic or Manichaean heresy that the principles of light and dark, good and evil are separate and equal forces, and of equal value in creation. Christian eschatology posits a struggle between opposites, but also, as Blougram acknowledges by alluding to 'the life to come', an apocalyptic end to the struggle, in which God triumphs over Satan, Heaven over Hell, the saved over the damned.
Even where the model is not explicitly Christian, it follows the same pattern: Juan, in Fifine at the Fair, imagines a progress of the soul towards ultimate truth whose prime requirement is that 'soul look up, not down, not hate but love, / As truth successively takes shape' (ll. 2172-3). In Carlyle's Sartor Resartus the 'Everlasting No' gives way to the 'Everlasting Yes': the dualistic division of the cosmos is ultimately progressive, as it operates both externally (in the political and social world) and within each individual. Moreover, Carlyle follows traditional Christian polemics (first formulated by Augustine, who drew on the work of Plotinus and other Neoplatonic sources) in his insistence that the negative side is all the time, however unwittingly and unwillingly, doing the work of the positive. When Teufelsdröckh is in the toils of negativity and doubt, 'perhaps at no era of his life was he more decisively the Servant of Goodness, the Servant of God' (chapter 7). Perhaps the fullest (if not the most straightforward) development of this idea in Browning comes in Fifine at the Fair, in Juan's vision of the carnival of souls: progressing from his initial impression of repulsive and apparently unredeemable evil, Juan comes to see that the vices of mankind are necessary and, indeed, praiseworthy:
Are we not here to learn the good of peace through strife,
Of love through hate, and reach knowledge by ignorance?
Why, those are helps thereto, which late we eyed askance,
And nicknamed unaware!
Following Augustinian logic, not only can the necessity of evil be demonstrated, but its very existence (as a substantive force in its own right) is called into question, since its operation is governed by divine providence, as part of an all-encompassing divine plan. In Paradise Lost, accordingly, when Satan raises himself from the burning lake he has only the illusion of heroic autonomy: in reality 'the will / And high permission of all-ruling heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs' (i. 211-13), heaven's own design being to show 'How all his malice served but to bring forth / Infinite goodness' (ll. 216-17). It is this providential design of making hatred itself generate love which Adam perceives as his crowning consolation at the end of the poem:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that by which creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!
According to this principle, one term of any pair is always subordinate to the other: light/dark, heat/cold, love/hate, each forms part of a vertical structure, a hierarchy of purpose and value. Good and evil co-operate, but only to produce good; equivalence of effort does not imply a balance in the outcome.
Browning's dualism is not, however, as orthodox or as optimistic as Milton's. Take, for example, its application to the political struggle between progressive and reactionary forces. Browning inherited from both Shelley and the tradition of radical Dissent a deep reverence for Milton's republicanism; but could anything be less Miltonic than Ogniben's emollient statement of the case in A Soul's Tragedy?
you begin to perceive that, when all's done and said, both great parties in the state, the advocators of change in the present system of things, and the opponents of it, patriot and anti-patriot, are found working together for the common good, and that in the midst of their efforts for and against its progress, the world somehow or other still advances—to which result they contribute in equal proportions, those who spent their life in pushing it onward as those who gave theirs to the business of pulling it back—now, if you found the world stand still between the opposite forces, and were glad, I should conceive you—but it steadily advances, you rejoice to see! (ii. 408-21)
What's wrong with this jovial view of things? Just what its tone suggests: that it is a burlesque, which the clever and manipulative papal legate is recommending to the political turncoat Chiappino as a means of justifying his betrayal of the popular revolution he has recently led, all the while intending to unmask him and restore the status quo. Ogniben offers Chiappino the argument that, since 'both great parties in the state' contribute equally to 'the common good', it doesn't matter which side he supports. Chiappino falls into the trap: he begins to slide into the comfortable position that good and evil not only co-operate with each other, but that in the course of their struggle they come to resemble each other, to turn into each other: 'the bitterest adversaries get to discover certain points of similarity between each other, common sympathies—do they not?' (ll. 433-5) Whereupon Ogniben pulls the rug from under him with sardonic relish:
Ay, had the young David but sate first to dine on his cheeses with the Philistine, he had soon discovered an abundance of such common sympathies … but, for the sake of one broad antipathy that had existed from the beginning, David slung the stone, cut off the giant's head, made a spoil of it, and after ate his cheeses with the better appetite for all I can learn. My friend, as you, with a quickened eyesight, go on discovering much good on the worse side, remember that the same process should proportionably magnify and demonstrate to you the much more good on the better side … (ll. 436-50)6
So Ogniben would, after all, preserve the distinction between the two terms of every opposition, and if Chiappino had the wit to see it he would realize where the argument was leading. To support reform is honourable, and to support reaction is honourable; but to support both (or neither) is dishonourable, because it abolishes the moral distinction between them. The integrity of Chiappino's position is destroyed, and Ogniben will proceed with conscious irony to restore the 'present system of things'—not because he believes that reaction is superior to reform, but because Chiappino is a spurious reformer, a David who sits down to eat his cheeses with Goliath rather than holding to 'one broad antipathy that had existed from the beginning'.
Ogniben would agree with Blake that the reconciling of opposites is a treacherous ideal. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake praises Christ for rejecting such a reconciliation. Referring to the division of humanity between the 'prolific' and the 'devouring', he writes:
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
Note. Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to seperate them, as in the Parable of sheep and goats! & he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword.
Where Ogniben would differ from Blake is in Blake's refusal to acknowledge hierarchy as well as difference. Blake cites the parable of the sheep and the goats without acknowledging that it relates to an eschatological division between the saved and the damned. Ogniben would argue that the Gnostic division of the world between equal, contending forces leads inevitably to the very reconciling which Blake purports to shun. Each is the mirror image of the other; each might as well be the other.
Sordello discovers (with, for a poet, an appropriate rhetorical flourish of parallelism and chiasmus) that the warring factions of the Guelfs and the Ghibellins are fundamentally identical, each degraded by self-interest and violence: 'men ranged with men, / And deed with deed, blaze, blood, with blood and blaze' (iv. 908-9). Or, in plainer language:
Two parties take the world up, and allow
No third, yet have one principle, subsist
By the same method; whoso shall enlist
With either, ranks with man's inveterate foes.
Sordello tries to replace one dualism with another: instead of an illusory battle between two parties, one oppressive and the other liberal, there is a real battle between the two equally oppressive parties on the one hand, and the cause of mankind on the other. But this ideal dualism turns out to be itself illusory and impractical: setting up the cause of mankind outside existing conditions is either Utopian foolishness or cowardly quietism, but in either case self-defeating. In the end, Sordello has to choose the less evil of the two existing parties, to convert equivalence (Guelf = Ghibellin) into hierarchy (Guelf > Ghibellin). He has to confer differing value where none apparently exists, or, more accurately, to perceive such value in a larger historical context. The Guelfs are part of the progressive movement of history, and must therefore be supported, even though their local behaviour is indistinguishable from that of their opponents. Moreover—like a supporter of Communism in the 1930s—Sordello confronts the unpalatable fact that the god of Humanity is worshipped with human sacrifice. For the sake of the future he must 'hate what Now [he] loved, / Love what [he] hated' (vi. 211-12). These human sympathies are in themselves aspects of a dualism, so that one opposition (between what is humanly lovable and hateful) has got tangled up with another (between what is politically good and bad).
Browning is both disturbed and exhilarated by the facility with which contraries can turn into each other, adopt each other's mask, employ each other's rhetoric. Seeking to express his unbounded admiration for Elizabeth Barrett's poetry, he wrote to her of a 'friend' who wanted to express his unbounded dislike of the efforts of 'a sonnet-writing somebody', and who was forced to coin 'a generous mintage of words to meet the sudden run on his epithets', from the simple 'bad, worse, worst' to 'worser, worserer, worserest … worster, worsterer, worsterest' and so on. At the end he commented: 'What an illustration of the law by which opposite ideas suggest opposite, and contrary images come together!' (Kintner: 11). Browning offers his homage to Elizabeth Barrett's 'affluent language' (as he called it in his first letter to her) by his own 'generous mintage of words', by sporting in the element of language for her delight and his own. The action of the 'law' is benign: love expresses itself by means of its contrary, with an added ingenuity, a spice of playfulness, as Aristophanes argues in Aristophanes' Apology:
For come, concede me truth's in thing not word,
Meaning not manner! Love smiles 'rogue' and 'wretch'
When 'sweet' and 'dear' seem vapid; Hate adopts
Love's 'sweet' and 'dear,' when 'rogue' and 'wretch' fall flat;
Love, Hate—are truths, then, each in sense not sound.
But this attempt to divorce rhetoric from substance, to allow mobility in language without threatening the 'truths' that underlie it, can't be sustained either philosophically or practically. Meaning constantly threatens to collapse into manner: love represented by hate may be indistinguishable from hate itself (this is the argument Balaustion uses against Aristophanes himself).8 In Pippa Passes the evil Lutwyche tells his enemy (or is it his beloved?) Jules that love and hate are 'the warders / Each of the other's borders' (ii. 168-9), and it is clear that in this relationship the very stability of the terms 'love' and 'hate' is in question.
In The Ring and the Book, Pompilia is threatened in Guido's house at Arezzo by just such a dissolving of categories, when Guido's brother (with Guido's connivance) tries to seduce her with 'love' which is 'worse than hate' (ii. 1291-2), a phrase which Pompilia herself repeats in her monologue, but modifies in her anxiety to separate name and thing: 'worse than husband's hate, I had to bear / The love,—soliciting to shame called love,— / Of his brother' (vii. 843-5). In such an atmosphere she pleads with her parents (in the letter which the sympathetic, but cowardly, friar agrees to write on her behalf but never sends):
Even suppose you altered,—there's your hate,
To ask for: hate of you two dearest ones
I shall find liker love than love found here,
If husbands love their wives. Take me away
And hate me as you do the gnats and fleas,
Even the scorpions!
Pompilia's reflections extend back to her real mother, the prostitute who sold her to Violante Comparini: and here, too, she sees the conventional definitions cracking at the foundations:
The rather do I understand her now,—
From my experience of what hate calls love,—
Much love might be in what their love called hate.
Pompilia is striving to preserve the quality itself from the label which denominates it, since in her experience the labels have got mixed up. To Caponsacchi, no punishment for Guido seems more fitting than a nightmarish fusion of love and hate: in his fantasy of Guido's damnation he imagines him, 'at the doleful end' of hell, encountering and getting entangled with his soul-mate Judas Iscariot:
The two are at one now! Let them love their love
That bites and claws like hate, or hate their hate
That mops and mows and makes as it were love!
The desire which underlies Caponsacchi's vision is for love and hate to be kept distinct, since an exchange of qualities threatens both their identity and the hierarchy of value in which they should be fixed. Caponsacchi cannot, in the nature of things, acknowledge that Guido's hatred is in any way like love, except as a perversion, a travesty. Even less can he acknowledge that such hatred might have an equal value in the moral universe, that it might be as truthful as love, that it might bear witness with the same integrity to a divine principle, a divine creativity (though Pompilia herself recognizes that hate is 'the truth' of Guido (vii. 1727)). He would agree with Browning's tiresome sage Ferishtah, who adjures his 'foolishest' student in "A Pillar at Sebzevar" to 'love the loveable':
'And what may be unloveable?'
If out of sand comes sand and nought but sand,
Affect not to be quaffing at mirage,
Nor nickname pain as pleasure.'
Again and again in Browning's writing this strenuous effort to maintain a division between absolutes proves unavailing. Ferishtah's injunction to love the lovable and hate the hateful is simplistic rather than simple. It cannot be obeyed, first because the energy which animates love and hate seems to come from the same source and to pour itself indifferently in either channel, and second because the opposition between the two terms is always on the point of collapse.
In "A Forgiveness", the speaker wonders whether his wife might have been ready to admit her adultery because she was 'hungry for my hate … Eager to end an irksome lie, and taste / Our tingling true relation, hate embraced / By hate one naked moment' (ll. 62-5). This 'one naked moment' is no different in kind from the 'moment, one and infinite' of the lovers in "By the Fire-Side". It turns out, as the speaker of "A Forgiveness" later realizes, that this was not what his wife had in mind at all: but he speaks truer than he knows, because hatred is indeed, in this instance, the mouthpiece of love. His wife declares:
I love him as I hate you. Kill me! Strike
At one blow both infinitudes alike
Out of existence—hate and love! Whence love?
That's safe inside my heart, nor will remove
For any searching of your steel, I think.
Whence hate? The secret lay on lip, at brink
Of speech, in one fierce tremble to escape,
At every form wherein your love took shape,
At each new provocation of your kiss.
The 'secret' couldn't be plainer, you would think: it reveals itself as an instinctive physical repulsion, similar to that which Pompilia, unlike the woman here, was never able to hide from Guido:
Deceive you for a second, if you may,
In presence of the child that so loves age,
Whose neck writhes, cords itself your kiss,
Whose hand you wring stark, rigid with despair!
But later on in "A Forgiveness" the speaker's wife tells him that her outburst of sexual hatred had been a lie: that she had loved him all along, but had been jealous of his neglect of her. The 'love' she speaks of was indeed safe in her heart, but it was love for her husband, not her lover; the hatred she expressed was the inverse image of her desire for him. When the speaker hears this, he says:
your words retrieve
Importantly the past. No hate assumed
The mask of love at any time! There gloomed
A moment when love took hate's semblance, urged
By causes you declare; but love's self purged
Away a fancied wrong I did both loves
—Yours and my own: by no hate's help, it proves,
Purgation was attempted.
What matters to the speaker is the 'retrieval' of the past, the knowledge that his wife had concealed not her hatred of him but her love—that it was love masked as hate, and not hate masked as love, which motivated her actions. The hierarchy of love over hate reasserts itself, and allows the woman, in turn, to 'rise / High by how many a grade!' (ll. 361-2) in the speaker's estimation: his former contempt for her gives way to hatred, and hatred (after he has killed her) to love.11
But though the speaker may be relieved that his wife, like Bishop Blougram, had 'said true things but called them by wrong names', the reader may wonder whether it might not be put the other way round. The rhetoric of hatred in the poem—that of the speaker as well as his wife's—is more powerful and more convincing than the love of which it is supposed to be merely the disguise, and which we have to take on trust. The 'tingling true relation, hate embraced / By hate' has a stamp of Browningesque reality which the speaker's own hatefulness does nothing to diminish.
It is hard to keep separate the opposed terms of love and hate, to maintain them as 'pure' qualities in a hierarchy of value. At the very end of his visionary, deathbed speech, Paracelsus attempts to restore this hierarchy, to reinterpret his own bitter experience in terms of a Miltonic salvaging of good from evil, love from hate. But he cannot end there: he goes on in an attempt to resolve the duality itself, not by envisaging the eventual triumph of love over hate, but by finding a third term, a reconciling and 'temperate' state. He tells Festus that he learned from 'love's undoing', the tragedy of the poet Aprile's failure, 'the worth of love in man's estate, / And what proportion love should hold with power' (v. 841-3). Love, the desire for power, must always exceed the power actually available; the engine of human evolution is driven by lack, as human beings attempt to bridge (or leap) the gap between, to use Browning's own favourite terms, 'fancy' and 'fact', what can be imagined and what can be done. In Aprile's case, the gap had been too great: he failed, and perished, because love became an absolute for him; his desire to be a consummate artist overwhelmed his ability to be any sort of artist at all.
But Paracelsus does not fully understand the lesson of Aprile's fate. He is warned in time to engage with the world, to share some of his discoveries with mankind, and not to wait, like Aprile, for an ultimate revelation which will never come; but he preserves his vision of this ultimate revelation separate and intact, and despises those who cannot see beyond the immediate 'facts' to the consummate 'fancy':
And thus, when men received with stupid wonder
My first revealings—would have worshipp'd me—
And I despised and loathed their proffered praise;
When, with awaken'd eyes, they took revenge
For past credulity in casting shame
On my real knowledge—and I hated them—
It was not strange I saw no good in man
In my own heart love had not been made wise
To trace love's faint beginnings in mankind—
To know even hate is but a mask of love's;
To see a good in evil, and a hope
All this I knew not, and I fail'd; let men
Regard me, and the poet dead long ago
Who lov'd too rashly; and shape forth a third,
And better temper'd spirit, warn'd by both;
As from the over-radiant star too mad
To drink the light-springs, beamless thence itself—
And the dark orb which borders the abyss,
Ingulf‧d in icy night, might have its course
A temperate and equidistant world …
Paracelsus starts by suggesting that he ought to have overcome his hatred of mankind (for their ignorance and malice towards him) by analogy with his own internal development. Just as he has been forced to acknowledge that perfection can only be attained by imperfect advances, so mankind's response to him was an imperfect, but not negative phenomenon: their hatred of him is a mask of love, in that their disappointment at his 'ill-success' measures the 'hope' they had of him. Seen in its right context, his rejection by mankind was not just inevitable, but cherishable.
Yet Paracelsus's vision does not culminate in this transformation of hate into love, or rather the subordination of hate into a means of love. What happens instead is that Paracelsus shifts his ground: he envisages a reconciling of opposites, and the production of a '"better temper'd spirit'. Although the opposition between Aprile and Paracelsus has been posed throughout the poem as that of 'Love' and 'Knowledge', Paracelsus's language here implies that it would be equally true to call it the opposition of love and hate, figured by a traditional imagery of heat and cold, light and dark, fire and ice, star and abyss.12 Paracelsus's pursuit of knowledge has led him to hate and be hated, to the brink of 'the abyss, / Ingulf‧ d in icy night' (remember that in Dante's Inferno, it gets colder the lower down you go: and these are degrees of lovelessness, of distance from the divine 'love which moves the sun and the other stars'); Aprile's 'love', by contrast, acted like the gravitational pull of a black hole, absorbing creative energy into the ecstatic self, but giving nothing back. The notion of a 'temperate and equidistant world' between these two extremes is a way of evading an otherwise ineluctable dualism: for clearly the first solution, making hatred serve the purposes of love, is not tenable. Nor is the third term a transcendent and over-ruling force, such as that which operates in Wyatt's poem 'To cause accord':
To cause accord or to agree
Two contraries in one degree,
And in one point, as seemeth me,
To all man's wit it cannot be:
It is impossible.
Yet Love, that all things doth subdue,
Whose power there may no life eschew,
Hath wrought in me that I may rue
These miracles to be so true
That are impossible.
Wyatt's 'Love' holds the opposition of contraries in a paradoxical suspension, so that the lover can both burn and freeze, live and die, but it does this by rhetorical force majeure. The 'better temper'd spirit' envisaged by Paracelsus is produced by an 'accord' of contraries some time in the future. And there lies the problem. It turns out, here and elsewhere in Browning, that the fusion of opposites is always being deferred to a future beyond the reach of the warring parties themselves. In his essay on Shelley, for example, the union of 'objective' and 'subjective' poetry is said to be theoretically possible, but also never to have occurred in practice:
there [is no] reason why these two modes of poetic faculty may not issue hereafter from the same poet in successive perfect works, examples of which … we have hitherto possessed in distinct individuals only. A mere running-in of one faculty upon the other is, of course, the ordinary circumstance. Far more rarely it happens that either is found so decidedly prominent and superior, as to be pronounced comparatively pure: while of the perfect shield, with the gold and the silver side set up for all comers to challenge, there has as yet been no instance.13
Browning looks forward to two kinds of union between the contrary 'modes of poetic faculty', either their being jointly possessed by a single artist, who can produce purely objective or purely subjective works, or to their fusion in a single work, the 'perfect shield'. What he rejects is a false reconciliation, the 'mere running-in of one faculty upon the other', confusion rather than fusion. But in any case it hasn't happened yet: it is a Utopian fiction, similar to the one proposed by Balaustion in Aristophanes' Apology, and half-ironically accepted by her antagonist, of a poet who could reconcile the modes of comedy and tragedy:
Had you, I dream…
Made Comedy and Tragedy combine,
Prove some Both-yet-neither, all one bard,
Euripides with Aristophanes
Coöperant! this, reproducing Now
As that gave Then existence: Life to-day,
This, as that other—Life dead long ago!
The mob decrees such feat no crown, perchance,
But—why call crowning the reward of quest?
Tell him, my other poet,—where thou walk'st
Some rarer world than e'er Ilissos washed!
But dream goes idly in the air. To earth!
Aristophanes agrees with Balaustion as to the desirability of this 'Both-yet-neither', who can incorporate both the contemporary realism of comedy and the mythic truth of tragedy—and agrees with her as to its fancifulness:
as to your imaginary Third
Who,—stationed (by mechanics past my guess)
So as to take in every side at once,
And not successively,—may reconcile
The High and Low in tragicomic verse,—
He shall be hailed superior to us both
When born—in the Tin-islands! Meantime, here
In bright Athenai, I contest the claim …
Both Aristophanes and Balaustion deliberately bring themselves back 'to earth', to the here and now of 'bright Athenai', from the 'dream' of a reconciliation between contraries. We might say that the fulfilment of this dream, like Andrea del Sarto's heaven, is necessarily and beneficially out of reach: that the strife of contraries works towards a resolution which is perpetually deferred, and which thus guarantees continued progress—assuming, as Bishop Blougram does, such strife to be progressive in the first place. This idea depends, however, on each side of the opposition keeping its integrity, refusing, so to speak, to be influenced by the future. Aristophanes refuses to try to be 'the imaginary Third': 'Half-doing his work, leaving mine untouched, / That were the failure!' (ll. 5155-6).
It seems, then, that the very value of the 'temperate and equidistant world' foreseen by Paracelsus depends on the preservation of the radical opposition it is meant to resolve. Ten years after Paracelsus, Browning returned to the metaphor of fire and ice, once in a letter to Elizabeth Barrett (20 May 1845) and once in his play Luria (1846); and each time he did so in terms of unreconciled opposites. In Luria, Luria and his antagonist Braccio are emblems of love and hate: and Braccio claims that each has its function in the service of Florence to which both he and Luria are dedicated:
Florence took up, turned all one way the soul
Of Luria with its fires, and here he stands!
She takes me out of all the world as him,
Fixing my coldness till like ice it stays
The fire! So, Braccio, Luria, which is best?
Notice that Braccio specifically does not say that there is a 'temperate and equidistant' ground between himself and Luria, but that their conflict is governed by a Heraclitan 'Logos', a transcendent term, 'Florence'. In his letter to Elizabeth Barrett, Browning moves the conflict of ice and fire inside the psyche, so that identity itself becomes the transcendent term:
To be grand in a simile, for every poor speck of a Vesuvius or a Stromboli in my microcosm there are huge layers of ice and pits of black cold water—and I make the most of my two or three fire-eyes, because I know by experience, alas, how these tend to extinction—and the ice grows & grows—still this last is true part of me, most characteristic part, best part perhaps, and I disown nothing—. (Kintner: 74)
Volcanoes are 'fire-eyes' because they resemble the Cyclops, the one-eyed artificers who, in classical mythology, labour in the forge of Vulcan, the god of fire, traditionally located beneath mount Aetna. The image generates as much light as heat, since the eye is the organ of perception (both physical and intellectual); together, light and fire make up an image of creativity, of sexual and artistic potency: we might say, an image of love. Against these 'fire-eyes' are set the 'huge layers of ice and pits of black cold water' which represent inhibition, impotence, hatred, and death. Moving the metaphorical ground from mythology to science, Browning then alludes to the theory that the earth was formed by processes of eruption and cooling, first advanced in James Hutton's Theory of the Earth (1795). He does so to emphasize that the forces of attraction and repulsion are equally 'natural', equally 'true' and 'characteristic' of his 'microcosm'; this microcosmic self is like 'Florence' in the passage from Luria, the 'Logos' which governs a strife of opposites. As Bishop Blougram puts it, man is 'left, himself, in the middle' of the struggle between God and Satan. The commas single out 'himself like a spotlight: the self is the star of the show. Browning's letter gives the self an equally central role; but whereas Blougram, as I pointed out earlier, implicitly subscribes to the idea that God is also the director of the play, Browning's scientific metaphor implies the opposite: that, by a natural process, the divine fire 'tends to extinction' while 'the ice grows and grows'.16 The self is bleakly neutral, certainly not allied to a transcendent and over-ruling value.
But Browning was unwilling to abandon the quest for such a value, for a 'Logos' which would govern the oppositions of human nature without collapsing them into each other. Yet this result perversely arises before the quester at every turn, as the Dark Tower arises before Childe Roland. At the end of his life, Sordello receives a final revelation, a 'closing-truth' which both sums up his experience and allows him to transcend it:
Himself quite thro' mere secondary states
Of his soul's essence, little loves and hates,
Into the mid vague yearnings overlaid
By these; as who should pierce hill, plain, grove, glade,
And so into the very nucleus probe
That first determined there exist a Globe:
And as that's easiest half the globe dissolved,
So seemed Sordello's closing-truth evolved
In his flesh-half's break-up—the sudden swell
Of his expanding soul showed Ill and Well,
Sorrow and Joy, Beauty and Ugliness,
Virtue and Vice, the Larger and the Less,
All qualities, in fine, recorded here,
Might be but Modes of Time and this one Sphere,
Urgent on these but not of force to bind
As Time—Eternity, as Matter—Mind,
If Mind, Eternity shall choose assert
Their attributes within a Life …
All life's qualities are relative, defined only in relation to the conditions of human existence and identity, time, and matter; these conditions are 'urgent on' our life, that is they dictate its course, but are not 'of force to bind' what happens beyond their reach. The binary categories of human understanding collapse under the stress of an action which Browning represents as both radical, reaching to the 'very nucleus' of the world and the self, and transcendent, the self breaking through existing boundaries to a new kind of knowledge.
Sordello now sees his 'little loves and hates' as 'mere secondary states / Of his soul's essence', since that soul partakes (as do all human souls) of the absolute, the condition in which contraries are reconciled and the very principle of division is abolished. What he achieves is not absolute knowledge itself, but the projection of his self into 'vague yearnings', a state of desire whose object is the 'very nucleus' of life. What will this nucleus consist of? And what would happen to the self if it actually reached it? The 'probe/globe' rhyme takes us back to Book II of the poem, and to the platitudes of Naddo, Sordello's critic and hanger-on:
Would you have your songs endure?
Build on the human heart!—Why to be sure
Yours is one sort of heart—but I mean theirs,
Ours, every one's, the healthy heart one cares
To build on! Central peace, mother of strength,
That's father of … nay, go yourself that length,
Ask those calm-hearted doers what they do
When they have got their calm! Nay, is it true
Fire rankles at the heart of every globe?
Perhaps! But these are matters one may probe
Too deeply for poetic purposes:
Rather select a theory that … yes
Laugh! what does that prove? … stations you midway
And saves some little o'er-refining.
Sordello is laughing at Naddo for offering a timid, compromised 'theory' of art, which rests in turn on a view of the self as stable and 'calm-hearted'. Naddo's language ('Central peace, mother of strength, / That's father of … ') may be clear as mud, but his argument is coherent enough: it can be found better expressed in Pope, not to mention Horace. His disagreement with Sordello can also be seen as a disagreement within Romanticism: Sordello defends Byronic individualism ('one sort of heart') against Naddo's espousal of Wordsworthian common humanity ('theirs, ours, every one's'). And true to his Byronic programme, Sordello sees not stability, but imbalance at the heart of the creative self. The word 'rankles' is especially sharp here: it is associated with an inward action of physical corruption or mental suffering, has no positive connotations that I can find in any dictionary,19 and uncompromisingly expresses Sordello's belief that creative power is born of dissatisfaction and pain. Like the speaker of 'Two in the Campagna', he turns from 'Silence and passion, joy and peace' to ask the key question: 'Where does the fault lie? What the core / Of the wound, since wound must be?' (ll. 23, 39–40). To be stationed 'midway' is indeed to be saved the trouble of ore refining, of getting at what lies 'at the heart of every globe'. Alchemists (Browning's Paracelsus among them) believed that gold and other precious metals were deposits of fire:
The centre-fire heaves underneath the earth,
And the earth changes like a human face;
The molten ore bursts up among the rocks—
Winds into the stone's heart—outbranches bright
In hidden mines—
Might we say, then, that what Sordello is probing for at the end of his life is such a 'centre-fire', a hidden, volcanic source of energy and creation? Perhaps; but if the desire to reach this 'nucleus' is a desire for the intensest kind of life, it is also 'evolved' by, and directed towards, death.
The nearness of plenitude to nothingness is a philosophical commonplace, and a commonplace in Browning's poetry. 'What's come to perfection perishes', he writes in "Old Pictures in Florence" (l. 130); and in the idyllic landscape of "Love Among the Ruins", with its 'plenty and perfection … of grass', the bliss of sexual union is figured as annihilation:
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.
The extinction of sight and speech means the extinction of personality, of selfhood, of the capacity to discern and express difference. The closing of the eyes and stopping of the voice by a kiss reappear in the last lines of "Now" (published in Asolando, 1889): 'When ecstasy's utmost we clutch at the core / While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut and lips meet!' Here, moreover, the suppression of the lovers' personal identities in their 'moment eternal' of sexual bliss is figured by the grammatical suppression of the personal pronouns. Such a state of rapture, of the loss of self, is also a feature of the consummation of hatred in Browning's poems. In his first monologue in The Ring and the Book, Guido tells of his reaction when Violante Comparini opened the door of the villa:
She the mock-mother, she that made the match
And married me to perdition, spring and source
O' the fire inside me that boiled up from heart
To brain and hailed the Fury gave it birth,—
Violante Comparini, she it was,
With the old grin amid the wrinkles yet,
Then was I rapt away by the impulse, one
Immeasurable everlasting wave of a need
To abolish that detested life.
Guido's description of Violante as 'spring and source / O' the fire inside me' suggests that in abolishing her he is abolishing the principle of his own existence, the fire that rankles at the heart of his globe of self.
Hatred, like love, can precipitate the loss of self as well as the realization, the achievement of selfhood. In Part I of Pippa Passes, the murderer Sebald is drowned and reborn in the 'black, fiery sea' of his hatred (of Ottima, his accomplice, and of himself). Which is the 'true outcome', salvation or damnation? The poem doesn't tell. Similarly, at the end of his second monologue in The Ring and the Book, Guido defiantly refuses to 'unhate [his] hates': 'I use up my last strength to strike once more … ' (xi. 2399). Is he used up, or fulfilled? Perhaps the narrator, Browning, who follows hard on Guido's heels with the final book of the poem, can tell us:
Here were the end, had anything an end:
Thus, lit and launched, up and up roared and soared
A rocket, till the key o' the vault was reached,
And wide heaven held, a breathless minute-space,
In brilliant usurpature…
now decline must be.
The phrase 'wide heaven' is Miltonic, and alerts us to the parallel between Guido and Satan, with his soaring ambition and 'immortal hate' (Paradise Lost, i. 107). But the difference is that, for a 'breathless minute-space', Guido's 'usurpature' of heaven succeeds. In "Two in the Campagna" the speaker has a similar upward-moving triumph, followed by a similar 'decline':
I yearn upward—touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul's warmth,—I pluck the rose,
And love it more than tongue can speak—
Then the good minute goes.
Just as Guido's 'usurpature' of heaven associates him with Satan, so the speaker's love associates him with divine rapture, with Dante's vision of the divine rose at the climax of the Paradiso. Dante, too, is able to grasp the full splendour of his vision only in a flash of perception, instantly followed by failure:
la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore, in che sua voglia venne.
All' alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disiro e il velle,
sì come rota ch' egualmente è mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.
It is the last qualifying but which is missing in "Two in the Campagna": in Dante 'desire and will' are at one with divine love, even though consciousness fails to contain or express its fullness. Even Wordworth's sublime diminishment of Dante, at the end of 'A slumber did my spirit seal', where death and loss accomplish the work of love, and the great wheel of heaven is reduced to the inanimate movement of the earth ('No motion has she now, no force … Rolled round in earth's diurnal course')—even this is unavailable to Browning. The speaker of "Two in the Campagna" answers the speaker of "Love Among the Ruins" by refusing the rush to a death-like embrace, by 'standing away' from the kiss which seals up utterance; and he answers Sordello by refusing to 'cast / Himself quite thro' mere secondary states / Of his soul's essence', asserting instead the separation of the will from its object, the obstinate aloneness of the perceiving self and the grandeur of its negation: 'Only I discern— / Infinite passion, and the pain / Of finite hearts that yearn' (ll. 68–70). The lover's tragedy—or the hater's—is the writer's opportunity.
1The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 3.
2Paradise Lost, ix. 121–2.
3 See Karlin 1981 for a discussion of Browning's paired poems.
4 The first edition of The Ring and the Book (unusually for 19th-cent. verse) has line numbers, which I follow, and which count incomplete lines as wholes; hence 'I returned' counts here as l. 1163.
5 In 'Pan and Luna' sexuality is produced by the division of light from dark, but in an odd, indirect, and disturbing way: the absolute contrast between the moon's brightness and the surrounding dark is figured as the moon's consciousness of nakedness, which impels her to take refuge in a cloud; the cloud turns out to be a disguise assumed by Pan.
6 The 'cheeses' are those which David brought from his father Jesse as a present to the captain of the troop in which his older brothers were serving: see 1 Sam. 17.
7 The spelling of 'separate' is authorial. The parable of the sheep and the goats is in Matt. 25: 31–46; 'I came not to send peace, but a sword' is in Matt. 10: 34.
8 Browning may well have recalled Coleridge's lines at the end of Christabel, in which a father's love for his child is so intense 'that he at last / Must needs express his love's excess / With words of unmeant bitterness. / Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together / Thoughts so all unlike each other; / To mutter and mock a broken charm, / To dally with wrong that does no harm' (ll. 663–9). De Quincey quotes and comments on this passage in his 1839 essay on Wordsworth, agreeing that 'love in excess' is 'capable of prompting such appellations as that of "wretch" to the beloved objects' (p. 163)….
11 I am not concerned here with the dramatic or psychological probability of this story, or indeed with its narrator's chilling and repugnant character, but with the specific terms of his response….
12 This imagery may be found in, for example, the poetry of courtly love, especially that of Petrarch and his imitators. Its origin is in Neoplatonic cosmology, which divided the elements and their qualities into the attractive (air, light, fire, warmth, lightness) and the repulsive (earth, dark, water, cold, heaviness).
13 The essay was published in 1852 as the preface to a volume of Shelley's letters, which was withdrawn soon after publication when the letters were discovered to be forgeries; it is reprinted in Pettigrew and Collins: 1001–13. The passage quoted is on p. 1003.
14 The 'Cassiterides' or 'Tin-islands' was the name given to Cornwall and the Scilly Islands in classical times, and here signifies (to the poem's readers) the whole of Britain. The 'other poet' or 'imaginary Third' therefore 'really' arrived in time: he is Shakespeare, of whose 'mechanics' neither Balaustion nor Aristophanes can conceive. To them Shakespeare is a mythical projection; but it should be noted that, to Browning, Shakespeare was himself the type of the 'objective' poet, the supreme representative of one side of an opposition.
16 Since Browning goes on to speculate that the 'ice' might in fact be the 'best part' of his nature, it could be argued that Providence has rescued itself by an exchange of qualities between the two contraries; but this seems a desperate recourse to paradox.
17 'Mid' in l. 459 means 'midst of; 'with' is understood after 'easiest' in l. 463, the sense being: 'And as this process [of probing into the nucleus] is easiest when the surface has been stripped away … '. The achievement of transcendental understanding is linked in both religious and philosophical tradition to the mind or soul freeing itself from the body.
18 In l. 802, the sentence should be completed by something like 'the artist's works'; this is implied by what follows: 'nay, find out for yourself how full of energy are the works of those who are inwardly calm'. The passage is one of several prototypical dramatic monologues in Sordello, where the presence or utterance of an interlocutor (in this case Sordello himself) is inferred from what the speaker says.
19 Dr Johnson is typically unequivocal: 'To fester; to breed corruption; to be inflamed in body or mind'.
20 'My mind was smitten by a flash wherein its will came to it. To the high fantasy here power failed; but already my desire and will were rolled—even as a wheel that moveth equally—by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars' (trans. Wicksteed, Temple Classics edn.).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13239
SOURCE: "Genre and Style," in Robert Browning, Longman Group Limited, 1996, pp. 38–73.
[In the following essay, Woolford and Karlin study Browning's use of the genre of dramatic monologue as well as elements of the poet's style. The critics argue that Browning's primary concern in his usage of dramatic monologue is the creation of dramatic speakers and situations. Additionally, Woolford and Karlin maintain that the style Browning employs is a vocal one—his poetry is meant to be spoken aloud—and they define two distinct vocal styles in his poetry—a voice that "says " and a voice that "sings."]
'O lyric Love!' begins one of the most famous passages of Browning's poetry, his invocation of EBB [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] in The Ring and the Book. But it is an unusual moment.1 Browning is not a lyric poet. He never wrote an ode, disliked the sonnet-form, has a mere handful of solitary effusions or meditations.2 "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad", one of his best-known poems, is in this sense one of his least typical. His poetry is primarily dramatic: it consists of a few stage plays and a multitude of dramatic poems of one kind or another.3 The titles of his shorter collections reflect this: Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Dramatis Personae, Dramatic Idyls. The most famous, Men and Women, does not have 'dramatic' in its title, but still implies a group of dramatic characters, a point which is made explicit in the 'extra' poem which concludes the volume, "One Word More":
Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth,—the speech, a poem.
The titles of individual poems often reflect this emphasis on character and dramatic speech: poems are named after their speakers ("Fra Lippo Lippi", "Andrea del Sarto," "Cleon," "Mr Sludge, 'the Medium'", "Martin Relph"), sometimes with a specific pointer to the dramatic situation ("Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister", "Artemis Prologuizes", "A Woman's Last Word", "Any Wife to Any Husband", "Bishop Blougram's Apology").5 In "A Light Woman" Browning adopts a different tactic: the speaker reveals at the end that the person he has been confiding in is the poet himself:
Well, any how, here the story stays,
So far at least as I understand;
And, Robert Browning, you writer of plays,
Here's a subject made to your hand!
The poem cannot be 'Browning's', since it is spoken to him rather than by him. Indeed the text pretends not to be a poem at all, but a story told in conversation, which among other things illustrates the annoying habit that a writer's friends have of pressing their life-stories on him as suitable material; Browning's friend here hasn't even realised that Browning is no longer a 'writer of plays', having abandoned writing for the theatre ten years before.
Even when Browning declares that he is going to abjure the dramatic method for third-person narrative, as he does at the outset of Sordello, he cannot keep to the straight and narrow: the authorial voice keeps giving way to the voices of characters in the story or, even more significantly, splitting itself into more than one voice, staging a debate within the narrator-self which occupies half of book iii of the poem.6 There are plenty of exciting stories in Browning, but most of them are told by participants and eye-witnesses, especially in his earlier work: "Count Gismond", "Incident of the French Camp", "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix", "The Flight of the Duchess", "Italy in England", "The Confessional", "The Glove", all dating from 1845 or before.7 "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" marks a crisis in this method, since Roland, who tells the story, ends up, like some of Edgar Allan Poe's narrators, in the apparently impossible position of surviving his own death in order to relate it. In later poems Browning experimented with narrative and dramatic frames: in "Clive" (Dramatic Idyls, Second Series, 1880), for example, the core of the poem is a story told by the great Lord Clive, but it is relayed, in a way which anticipates Conrad and Kipling, by an obscure acquaintance of Clive's, who is trying to justify to his son his own life's lack of adventure and achievement. But the greatest example of such framing is of course The Ring and the Book, ten of whose twelve books consist of monologues by participants in the story, while the first and last books comprise an authorial prologue and epilogue.8
Browning's dramatic method is varied, or rather he works with a number of dramatic methods; there is certainly no such thing as an archetypal dramatic monologue which dominates the field. The formal criteria for 'pure' dramatic monologue usually include the presence of an implied listener or interlocutor, a dramatic situation which is inferred from what the speaker says but not stated directly, and the poem beginning in the middle of its action. "Andrea del Sarto", for example, begins:
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia…
Immediately the reader picks up clues as to what is going on, and what has been going on before the beginning of a poem; Browning uses this technique in numerous poems, and he is especially fond of opening lines in which the speaker's desire to grab the listener's attention doubles as the poet's desire to grab the reader's; three poems open with the arresting word 'Stop':
Stop playing, poet! may a brother speak?
Stop, let me have the truth of that!
All the features of 'pure' dramatic monologue occur many times in Browning's work, but a list of poems in which they all occur would comprise only a fraction of it. This fraction would admittedly contain some famous poems ("My Last Duchess", "Andrea del Sarto", and "Mr Sludge, 'the Medium'", for example) but other, equally famous, poems would be left out: there is no implied listener in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", the dramatic situation is stated in the opening lines of "Caliban upon Setebos" (rather clumsily, too, as though Browning couldn't trust his readers to work it out), and "A Grammarian's Funeral" opens with the start of a funeral procession and ends with its arrival at the cemetery. Even the commonest condition of all, that the poem should be spoken, is not universally fulfilled: "An Epistle of Karshish", as its title implies, is a letter, and so is its companion-poem in Men and Women set in the early Christian period, "Cleon; A Death in the Desert" (Dramatis Personae) contains a long speech by St John, but it is a reported speech, transcribed in a parchment scroll.
The dramatic monologue cannot, then, be reduced to a set of generic rules; but it remains the case that Browning was principally concerned, as a poet, with the creation of dramatic speakers and dramatic situations. Many of his characters resemble him in this respect. Even where the speakers of poems are nominally alone, they often imagine an audience. The speaker of "A Toccata of Galuppi's" addresses the composer whose music he has been playing, as does the organist in "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha"; but these examples pale beside that of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau. When the poem of that name opens, the prince (a portrait of Napoleon III) is apparently in exile in London after the downfall of his political career. He tells the story of his life to a sympathising woman. Only when the poem nears its end (after nearly 2000 lines) do we learn that this whole scene has been a fantasy: the prince is on his own in his palace in Hohenstiel-Schwangau, his political career is not yet over, and he is in fact debating whether to send a certain letter which will decide his fate. But he could not bear to reason it out on his own. He had to project a time and place in which he could recast soliloquy as dramatic monologue. Similarly, when Bishop Blougram wants to discomfit his interlocutor, Gigadibs, he does so by constructing an imagined speech by Gigadibs, set at some point in the future:
I well imagine you respect my place
(Status, entourage, worldly circumstance)
Quite to its value—very much indeed
—Are up to the protesting eyes of you
In pride at being seated here for once—
You'll turn it to such capital account!
When somebody, through years and years to come,
Hints of the bishop,—names me—that's enough—
'Blougram? I knew him' (into it you slide)
'Dined with him once, a Corpus Christi Day,
All alone, we two—he's a clever man—
And after dinner,—why, the wine you know,—
Oh, there was wine, and good!—what with the wine …
'Faith, we began upon all sorts of talk!
He's no bad fellow, Blougram—he had seen
Something of mine he relished—some review—
He's quite above their humbug in his heart,
Half-said as much, indeed—the thing's his trade—
I warrant, Blougram's sceptical at times—
How otherwise? I liked him, I confess!'
Ché ch 'é, my dear sir, as we say at Rome,
Don't you protest now! It's fair give and take;
You have had your turn and spoken your home-truths—
The hand's mine now, and here you follow suit.
By projecting a monologue within his own monologue, Blougram gives Gigadibs a phantom voice even as he effectively silences him on the occasion of his own overbearing speech. It is a tactic which fits Blougram's dramatic character, it matches the combination of burly swagger and urbane irony with which he treats Gigadibs throughout the poem, but it is also compulsive on the poet's part; that is, Browning's poetry is filled with mimics, impersonators, ventriloquists, with characters whose speech consists of putting words into other people's mouths, for all the world as though they were poets or dramatists themselves. In "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" the jealous monk satirises Brother Lawrence's innocent prattle:
At the meal we sit together:
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
What's the Latin name for 'parsley'?
What's the Greek name for Swine's Snout?
In The Ring and the Book, Guido is visited in his death-cell by two old friends; he imagines them making capital of him after his execution:
I use my tongue: how glibly yours will run
At pleasant supper-time … God's curse! … to-night
When all the guests jump up, begin so brisk
'Welcome, his Eminence who shrived the wretch!
Now we shall have the Abate's story!'
The thought of life continuing after his own death is bound up for Guido with this social scene, with there being speakers and storytellers. His antagonist, the Pope, makes up his mind to confirm the death-sentence after a monologue in which he 'listens' to other, imagined voices, some of which he allows their own dignity and integrity (the voice of Euripides, for example, whose ghost challenges him from the classical past), others which he satirises and parodies, such as the collective voice of civil society, the 'instinct of the world', which demands that he spare Guido in the name of a false pity:
'Come, 'tis too much good breath we waste in words:
The pardon, Holy Father! Spare grimace,
Shrugs and reluctance! Are not we the world,
Bid thee, our Priam, let soft culture plead
Hecuba-like, "non tali" (Virgil serves)
"Auxilio", and the rest! Enough, it works!
The Pope relaxes, and the Prince is loth,
The father's bowels yearn, the man's will bends,
Reply is apt.'
The Pope imagines himself bullied, patronised, and taken for granted, but of course he has the last laugh: Virgil will not serve here, after all. The quotation comes from the Aeneid: as Troy falls, Hecuba persuades her husband, the aged King Priam, not to go out to fight: 'It is not aid like that [non tali auxilio], nor any armed defence, which is needed now' (ii 521-2). Priam would do better, Hecuba says, to cling to the altar and hope for mercy. It doesn't work: he's killed anyway. The Pope imagines 'the world' casting him as this enfeebled, weak-willed, and doomed old man, but by his very imagining of its speech, he pre-empts it and demonstrates his own mastery. Unlike Priam, he still has the authority and power to strike a blow; it is Guido who clings to the altar and is not spared.
The tendency of Browning's characters to dramatize the voices of others can make for a baffling complexity.11 The most extreme example in a short poem is "Dîs Aliter Visum" (Dramatis Personae, 1864). This poem is spoken by a woman to a man who has just informed her that, ten years before, he had been on the point of proposing marriage to her, but had not done so. Perhaps he uses the title phrase to her: 'to the gods it seemed otherwise', a tag from Virgil which is like a fatalistic shrug: 'it was not meant to be'; he is a famous and learned poet, after all. Her reaction is swift and bitter. It is not 'the gods' who are to blame for missing an opportunity which might have proved their salvation, but his own emotional cowardice. She recalls not just the occasion, but what she now realises went through his mind as he hesitated and then failed to speak. Within her monologue, therefore, she projects his voice (the inner voice of his thoughts). But that is not all. The figure she projects—the man of ten years ago, debating within himself whether to ask her to marry him—is himself a dramatiser, who projects her voice, imagining what she would think if they did get married and it turned out badly; and, as though that were not enough … but here is the passage at its most complex:
'Then follows Paris and full time
For both to reason: "Thus with us!"
She'll sigh, "Thus girls give body and soul
At first word, think they gain the goal,
When 'tis the starting-place they climb!
' "My friend makes verse and gets renown;
Have they all fifty years, his peers?
He knows the world, firm, quiet, and gay;
Boys will become as much one day:
They're fools; he cheats, with beard less brown.
' "For boys say, Love me or I die!
He did not say, The truth is, youth
I want, who am old and know too much;
I'd catch youth: lend me sight and touch!
Drop heart's blood where life's wheels grate dry!
'While I should make rejoinder'—(then
It was, no doubt, you ceased that least
Light pressure of my arm in yours)
' "I can conceive of cheaper cures
For a yawning-fit o'er books and men." '
She imagines him thinking that if they were to marry, they would both regret it (she because of his age, he because of her excessive emotional demands); the way she imagines him thinking this is by him imagining what she would say; and what she imagines him imagining her saying consists, in part, of her version of what he ought to have said had he been honest with her—at which point single and double quotation marks give out and the printers have to resort to italics. When the single quotation marks in 1. 86 close and the parenthesis opens, it brings us back for a sharp instant to the 'present' in which the monologue is being spoken, and to the woman who speaks it: she remembers how the pressure of his arm relaxed, but only now can she reconstruct the thoughts which influenced that small gesture and appreciate its fatefulness.
With "Dîs Aliter Visum" dramatic monologue reaches an apotheosis which is close to breakdown.12 It is a sign that dramatic method, like civilisation, has its discontents. Browning had cultivated it since his earliest published poem, Pauline, but he did not do so with an express sense of pride or pleasure. On the contrary, he constantly described dramatic writing as inferior to lyric. Why should this have been so? The answer lies in the ideas about poetic creativity which govern Browning's work, ideas which, in turn, were generated by the pressure of his philosophical and political beliefs.13
So many Robert Brownings
Yet here comes one of those fatal ifs, the egoism of the man, and the pity of it. He cannot metempsychose with his creatures, they are so many Robert Brownings.
Eliza Flower's comment on Pippa Passes (cited Woolford and Karlin, ii, 17) is a familiar one in Browning criticism. Ruskin made exactly the same point, and about the same work, in a letter to Browning himself:
I entirely deny that a poet of your real dramatic power ought to let himself come up, as you constantly do, through all manner of characters, so that every now and then poor Pippa herself shall speak a long piece of Robert Browning. (Appendix B, pp. 255-6)
Ruskin's 'poor Pippa' puns on the idiom: poor Pippa to be forced to spout Browning, but especially so because Pippa is really, materially poor, a factory girl. The poet who asserted unequivocally that his poems were 'so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine' ('Advertisement' to Dramatic Lyrics, 1842) stands accused of producing no more than 'so many Robert Brownings'. Compared to his vigorous rebuttals of Ruskin's other criticisms in this letter, Browning's reply on this point is curiously tentative:
The last charge I cannot answer, for you may be right in preferring it, however unwitting I am of the fact. I may put Robert Browning into Pippa and other men and maids. If so, peccavi [I have sinned]: but I don't see myself in them, at all events. (Appendix B, p. 258)
He was more robust with a later critic, Julia Wedgwood, though her criticism was more charitably expressed. She complained about a passage in The Ring and the Book which she found too learned for its speaker:
I should like to ask why you break down the dramatic framework so often in your characters? That passage about Justinian and the Pandects, for instance, is yours, and not Franceschini's. But you must have a distinct intention in this, and I can't help always enjoying it, it seems so characteristic of you—though it does seem to me an artistic defect. (Curle: 156)
Browning denied the particular charge and challenged Julia Wedgwood to substantiate the general one:
Why is the allusion to Justinian mine and not the man's I give it to? The whole of his speech, as I premise, is untrue—cant and cleverness … but he was quite able to cant, and also know something of the Pandects, which are the basis of actual Italian law. What are the other escapes from dramatic propriety into my own peculiar self—do tell me that! (p. 161)
But in one sense the charge is impossible to answer, because it is true: Julia Wedgwood is quite right to say that Guido's speech at this point is characteristic, in the sense that all Browning's characters sound like Browning; a Browning poem is instantly recognisable as itself, and for a writer with so much surface Browning is surprisingly hard to imitate. In "Within a Budding Grove", Proust remarks of the painter, Elstir:
The particulars of life do not matter to the artist; they merely provide him with the opportunity to lay bare his genius. One feels unmistakably, when one sees side by side ten portraits of people painted by Elstir, that they are all, first and foremost, Elstirs. (Proust: i 910)
That Elstir is a fictitious painter makes the observation positively Browningesque; I imagine Browning enjoying the joke, but also taking it seriously. 'There they are, my fifty men and women', he tells EBB in 'One Word More'; there may be lots of them, but they are all his: 'Naming me the fifty poems finished' (11. 1-2, my italics).14 The multiplicity of Browning's characters are first and foremost characters in Browning; yet the multiplicity also matters, is in itself a formidable fact. There are two truths, then, about Browning's dramatic method, neither of which cancels the other out: that he is always himself, and that he is so in many guises: 'so many Robert Brownings'.
In his second letter to EBB, Browning was already keen to seize the low ground. 'Your poetry,' he declared, 'must be, cannot but be, infinitely more to me than mine to you' (13 Jan. 1845, Kelley: x 22). He was wrong, she replied:
Why shd you deny the full measure of my delight & benefit from your writings? I could tell you why you should not. You have in your vision two worlds—or to use the language of the schools of the day, you are both subjective & objective in the habits of your mind—You can deal both with abstract thought, & with human passion in the most passionate sense. (15 Jan. 1845, Kelley: x 26)
A month later, she repeated this praise of Browning's double vision, this time emphasising not subject matter but style:
You have taken a great range—from those high faint notes of the mystics which are beyond personality .. to dramatic impersonations, gruff with nature, 'gr-r- you swine' … (17 Feb. 1845, Kelley: x 79)15
The 'high faint notes of the mystics which are beyond personality' evidently belong to the 'subjective' world of 'abstract thought' while the 'dramatic impersonations, gruff with nature' belong to the 'objective' world of 'human passion'. Browning himself was later to deploy this opposition between subjective and objective poetry in the Essay on Shelley, but with a crucial variation in the meaning of the first term. In the Essay, the association of 'subjective' poetry with abstraction does not imply going 'beyond personality', but, on the contrary, the expression of pure personality, namely the poet's own:
Not with the combination of humanity in action, but with the primal elements of humanity he [the subjective poet] has to do; and he digs where he stands,—preferring to seek them in his own soul as the nearest reflex of that absolute Mind, according to the intuitions of which he desires to perceive and speak…. He is rather a seer, accordingly, than a fashioner, and what he produces will be less a work than an effluence. That effluence cannot be easily considered in abstraction from his personality,—being indeed the very radiance and aroma of his personality, projected from it but not separated. (Appendix A, p. 247)
Shelley, in Browning's view, was such a poet, and so was EBB; but he himself was not. In his letter to her of 13 January 1845, he goes on to explain why her poetry must mean more to him than his to her:
you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time—you speak out, you,—I only make men & women speak,—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me …
According to Browning, then, all his poetry consists of 'dramatic impersonations', including the 'high faint notes of the mystics'. None of it is the 'effluence' of his own personality, the 'pure white light' of self-consciousness; none of it is 'speaking out'. 'I never have begun, even, what I hope I was born to begin and end,—"R.B. a poem" ' (11 Feb. 1845, Kelley: x 69). EBB agreed: 'in fact, you have not written the R.B. poem yet—your rays fall obliquely rather than directly straight' (17 Feb. 1845, Kelley: x 79).
The terms 'effluence', 'radiance' and 'pure white light' take us straight to the Platonic idea of knowledge or truth as inwardly generated which so influenced Browning's intellectual life. In Chapter 6 [of Robert Browning] we cite a passage of Paracelsus which directly bears on this point; and, as far as the opposition between dramatic and lyric forms is concerned, we can add the passage in his letter to EBB which immediately follows his declaration that he had not yet written 'R.B. a poem', and in which Browning describes the difficulty he feels he has in enabling his own 'imprison'd splendour' to 'dart forth':
And, next, if I speak (and, God knows, feel) as if what you have read were sadly imperfect demonstrations of even mere ability, it is from no absurd vanity, tho' it might seem so—these scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power,—which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea—wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you … the work has been inside, and not when, at stated times I held up my light to you—and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you … even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! (11 Feb. 1845, Kelley: x 69-70)
The sense of imprisonment and frustration, of an almost physical bafflement, is palpable here; but there is also something odd about it, something which should alert us to a turn, a twist in the plot which the writer is unfolding. A lighthouse could not function with a steady, permanent beam; it would defeat the object, which is precisely to send out an intermittent, flashing signal. The conditions under which the light exists—the dark gallery, the weary interval, the narrow chink—are the only ones in which it can serve its purpose. And we should not forget what that purpose is: to illuminate, to warn, to save. These are not ignoble analogies for poetry.16
In the Essay on Shelley Browning wrote admiringly of Shelley's 'spheric poetical faculty', which had 'its own self-sufficing central light, radiating equally through immaturity and accomplishment, through many fragments and occasional completion' (Appendix A, p. 251). The word 'occasional' carries the sense of 'on occasion', but it can also mean 'accidental, not essential to the main purpose'. To perceive Shelley's greatness, in other words, is not to evaluate the works he actually produced, but to worship the 'self-sufficing central light' of his genius. The dualism fostered by Platonic thought, and expressed in the Gnostic division of the cosmos into spiritual and material principles, results, when you apply it to poetry, in a contempt for actual poems (and the language of which they are composed), since these are the mere 'body' in which genius is forced reluctantly to clothe itself. But if genius, creative inspiration, 'radiatefs] equally through immaturity and accomplishment', why bother to accomplish anything at all?
The danger of poetic genius taking itself and its audience for granted can be articulated in the vocabulary of Platonic or Gnostic philosophy; it can also be articulated in another vocabulary equally close to Browning's experience, that of Protestant theology. Browning was well aware of extreme tendencies in Protestant thought: his father's library was filled with pamphlets, sermons, spiritual autobiographies, and histories of the religious controversies of the Reformation and beyond, which figure constantly in his work. One of his earliest dramatic monologues is spoken by a historical figure, Johannes Agricola, an early Protestant who founded the 'Antinomian' sect. Antmomianism is a perversely logical extension of Calvinist doctrine, and consists in the belief that the elect, those whom God has predestined for salvation, are exempt from the moral law: nothing they do or don't do can affect their ultimate salvation, since God has arbitrarily chosen them from all eternity. As Johannes says:
I have God's warrant, could I blend
All hideous sins, as in a cup,—
To drink the mingled venoms up,
Secure my nature will convert
The draught to blossoming gladness fast …
However, Browning is not so interested in the licence which Johannes' theology gives him to commit sin without penalty, as in the malign consequences it has for his view of other people. In a passage of grotesque brilliance, Johannes imagines himself in heaven, 'smiled on, full fed / With unexhausted blessedness' (ll. 41-2), an infant eternally suckling but with a devil's relish:
I gaze below on Hell's fierce bed,
And those its waves of flame oppress,
Swarming in ghastly wretchedness,
Whose life on earth aspired to be
One altar-smoke,—so pure!—to win
If not love like God's love to me,
At least to keep his anger in …
And all their striving turned to sin!
Priest, doctor, hermit, monk grown white
With prayer: the broken-hearted nun,
The martyr, the wan acolyte,
The incense-swinging child … undone
Before God fashioned star or sun!
The damned are all, not surprisingly, Roman Catholic religious figures ('doctor' in 1. 51 means 'doctor of the church', like Thomas Aquinas), but the point goes deeper than Johannes' local Protestant prejudice. His exalted belief in his own union with God has cut him off from humanity. Browning's satire on Antinominanism has a strong political edge: the poem was published in the Monthly Repository whose editor, Browning's 'literary father' W.J. Fox, was not only a Unitarian in religion but a radical in politics.17 Egalitarian and democratic ideas, ideas of solidarity and community, depend crucially on empathy, on the willingness and ability to imagine other people. (This is especially true for those who, like Browning, come to such ideas from the privileged end of the social scale.) They also depend on the willingness to act, and to take responsibility for action. The 'striving' which Johannes scorns is one of Browning's talismanic words, summed up in the proverb he cites in the "Epilogue" to Asolando, 'Strive and thrive'.18 But Johannes conceives of himself as blessed with divine inertia, divine irresponsibility:
I lie—where I have always lain,
God smiles—as he has always smiled;—
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
The heavens … God thought on me his child,
Ordained a life for me—arrayed
Its circumstances, every one
To the minutest …
This stasis of spirit, where nothing can 'wax and wane', where even the most majestic acts of creation are irrelevant, figures a poetry of utter self-absorption. Johannes is blazing away all right, without weary intervals or narrow chinks, but his 'self-sufficing central light' is, to use Milton's phrase, 'no light, but rather darkness visible'. Not surprisingly, therefore, Johannes is not speaking to anyone, except himself: he is his own dramatised listener.19 Fear of becoming like Johannes, it might be argued, keeps Browning a dramatic poet, prevents him from yielding to the lyric self-expression he praised in the poetry of Shelley, of Tennyson, and of his wife. In the invocation to EBB from which I quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Browning pays his most intense and moving tribute to the faculty from which he had consciously alienated himself, but he makes it clear that he is not trying to emulate or adopt it. As against the image of the 'half-angel and half-bird', who 'braved the sun … And sang a kindred soul out to his face' (i 1391-5), an image which clearly links EBB to Shelley's skylark, is set the image of Browning himself as a 'wistful eagle' who dies with 'heaven, save by his heart, unreached'; and even that image sounds too grand, for Browning immediately adds: 'Yet heaven my fancy lifts to, ladder-like,— / As Jack reached, holpen of his beanstalk-rungs!' (i 1342-7). It is an undignified image; but perhaps we should remember that the first thing Jack stole from the giant and brought back to earth was his golden harp.
Style: 'Is It Singing, Is It Saying?'20
Browning's style is vocal. His poems, like those of Donne, demand to be voiced: speakers predominate in Browning's work, pleading, hectoring, boasting, repenting, expiring. As we shall see, Browning's conception of voice is not uniform and does not follow a single creative pattern. There is a great division, a fault-line, running through Browning's poetics, a division which gives rise in his poetry to two voices, for which he himself used the terms 'saying' and 'singing'. But it is also the case that the voice for which Browning is best remembered is the first, the voice of 'saying', and we should begin by looking at how it works.
The voice of saying
In the poems written in this style, Browning makes verse imitate, as far as possible, the diction, idioms, and rhythms of human speech, the speech which consists of ordinary words in their natural order of utterance. He stretched the metrical forms with which he worked (both in blank verse and rhyme) to the limit in order to do this, though he never broke them and never showed any interest in 'free' verse or prose poetry.21 This practice of making verse imitate speech does not depend on subject, mood, or occasion; the speakers concerned can be happy or sad, subdued or exclamatory, their utterances can be ten lines long or a thousand. Browning's poetic voice imposes itself on a multitude of differing dramatic situations and psychological states:
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia…
I will be quiet and talk with you,
And reason why you are wrong…
Now, don't sir! Don't expose me! Just this once!
I am just seventeen years and five months old…22
The purpose of this style is to give the impression that someone is 'simply' talking; the reader may not be taken in, but will be affected nonetheless, may even collude in the process, voicing the poem in such a way as to bring out its 'spoken' quality and subordinate its formal properties (rhyme, metre, structure, etc.). "My Last Duchess" is written in couplets, and yet the 'natural' rhythm of the Duke's speech is at certain moments so strong that it seems to over-ride and dissolve the poem's versification:
A heart .. how shall I say? .. too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
She thanked men,—good; but thanked
Somehow .. I know not how .. as if she ranked
My gift of a nine hundred years old name
With anybody's gift.
(ll. 21-24, 31-34)
A combination of enjambement and the Duke's colloquial hesitation makes the rhymes 'had/glad' and, to a lesser extent, 'thanked/ranked' almost undetectable, certainly without rhetorical weight. The speaking voice in Browning is often modulated in this way in order to disguise, or off-set, the effects of metre and rhyme; not that rhyme and metre are unimportant, but that they are felt as pressure, as atmosphere, rather than as constitutive of expression (the contrast with Tennyson, again, is especially sharp). Such speakers seem to have fallen by accident into a metrical stream, the force of whose current they alternately acknowledge and resist.23 And the current can be strong, as strong as the swinging couplets of "Up at a Villa—Down in the City":
But bless you, it's dear—it's dear! fowls,
wine, at double the rate.
They have clapped a new tax upon salt, and
what oil pays passing the gate
It's a horror to think of. And so, the villa for
me, not the city!
Beggars can scarcely be choosers—but still—
ah, the pity, the pity!
or the jaunty quatrains of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister":
Oh, those melons! If he's able
We're to have a feast; so nice!
One goes to the Abbot's table,
All of us get each a slice.
Both these poems are ostentatiously metrical, and yet the speakers give the impression that, had they not been in a poem by Browning, they would still have spoken in the same way. For the speaker of the 'Soliloquy', in particular, the strongly marked rhymes seem to be part of his colloquial energy and not at all an external form imposed upon it. Browning is equally capable of subordinating the rhythms of a speaking voice to a metrical pattern, yet without diminishing this sense that verse is second nature to voice. Take, for example, these lines from "Andrea del Sarto":
I dared not, do you know, leave home all day,
For fear of chancing on the Paris lords.
The best is when they pass and look aside;
But they speak sometimes; I must bear it all.
Apart from the first phrase (which replaces 'I did not dare, you know'), there is little to distinguish this from prose as far as the word order is concerned; but the rhythm is a different matter. Even written out as prose the strong segmentation of the lines reveals itself:
I dared not, do you know, leave home all day, for fear of chancing on the Paris lords. The best is when they pass and look aside; but they speak sometimes; I must bear it all.
End-stopping is the mark of Andrea's melancholy: there are only a handful of true enjambements in the whole poem, and most of the lines have the falling cadence which suggests not merely Andrea's failure but the pleasure he takes in it:
There's the bell clinking from the chapel-top;
That length of convent-wall across the way
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside;
The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
The third line runs on syntactically from the second, but the enjambement is notional: the strong stress on 'Holds' ensures that the self-containment of the line is barely affected. Andrea's conversational phrasing ('There's the bell … That length of wall') is subordinated to a lyric self-absorption whose sign is 'the poetic' (alliteration, in this example, as well as rhythm).24 And yet these 'poetic' features seem not to make Andrea's speech forced, but on the contrary to form part of its naturalness.
In many poems the colloquial style predominates because it is itself of the essence of the speaker's dramatic character.25 Other examples (not coincidentally they are some of Browning's best-known works) include "Fra Lippo Lippi", "Bishop Blougram's Apology", and "Mr Sludge, 'the Medium'". 'I was a baby when my mother died,' Lippi says, 'And father died and left me in the street' (ll. 81-2). He is rescued from the street, yet compulsively returns there: it is in the street that the watch finds him, and the street gives him his emotional and aesthetic language. His career as a painter begins in the margins of learned texts and sprawls outwards into the world:
I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the antiphonary's marge,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found nose and eyes and chin for A.s and B.s,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
On the wall, the bench, the door.
It is 'They, with their Latin' who denigrate his art (l. 242); Lippi's way of speaking, in its very vulgarity and matter-of-factness, is an intrinsic part of his protest at 'their' repressive learning and piety. Sludge, though a much less attractive character than Lippi, has the same linguistic grievance against his patrons and social superiors, expressed with a similar demotic relish. 'May I sit, sir?' he asks Hiram H. Horsefall, with mock-politeness, after agreeing to spill the beans about his career as a fraudulent medium:
May I sit, sir? This dear old table, now!
Please, sir, a parting egg-nogg and cigar!
I've been so happy with you! Nice stuffed chairs,
And sympathetic sideboards; what an end
To all the instructive evenings! (It's alight.)
Well, nothing lasts, as Bacon came and said!
Here goes,—but keep your temper, or I'll scream!
These lines do more than mark Sludge's characteristic tone of odious familiarity; they show the edge of his intelligence and resentment, his ability to discomfit the very man who apparently has the power to ruin him. The 'dear old table' is the one which Sludge has been rapping in order to deceive Horsefall, whose bourgeois respectability and gullibility are figured in the 'Nice stuffed chairs / And sympathetic sideboards'. The parenthesis, which shows Horsefall ministering to Sludge instead of beating him, fixes the scene with a single dazzling stroke of the poet's art and the speaker's impudence. Bishop Blougram, too, is a master of conversational idiom, which in his case represents not impudence but condescension and the exercise of power, as when he interrupts his extended metaphor of the voyage of life to give Gigadibs a taste of how the metaphor works in practice:
You peep up from your utterly naked boards
Into some snug and well-appointed berth
Like mine, for instance (try the cooler jug—
Put back the other, but don't jog the ice)
And mortified you mutter …
or when he disdains to remember the title of one of Verdi's operas:
Like Verdi when, at his worst opera's end
(The thing they gave at Florence,—what's its name?)
or when he flicks a crumb of his intellect in Gigadibs' direction:
Do you know, I have often had a dream
(Work it up in your next month's article)
In all these examples, Blougram knows what he is doing; he is using idiomatic speech in the active sense, rather than using it because he always talks like that.26 Yet such speech is also in the grain of the man, is characteristic and constitutive. Moreover Blougram's style, and that of Fra Lippo Lippi and Mr Sludge, is one aspect of a conflict between different ways of perceiving and interpreting the world.
All three of these speakers see themselves as realists, as down-to-earthlings, as partisans of the here-and-now against the untenable illusions and attempts at transcendence of their fellow-men, whether masters or dupes (in the case of Sludge, both). Lippi's painting is founded on the premise that
This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank—it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
It was the 'admonitions from the hunger-pinch' which, Lippi says, taught him 'the look of things' in the first place (ll. 125-6); the idiom 'my meat and drink' comes naturally to him, he reads the world through an appetite for its surfaces, 'The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades' (l. 284). Instructed by his superiors that his
business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh …
Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
And can't fare worse!
So natural is the indignant exclamation in the first line that it takes a moment to realise the pun on 'sense', which means both 'common sense' and 'the faculty of physical sensation' (Lippi has already used 'sense' in opposition to 'soul' at l. 124). Lippi then takes the notion of elevation in art ('lift them over it') and, again using a popular turn of phrase, converts the vertical into a vulgar horizontal: 'must go further / And can't fare worse'.
For Blougram, too, plain speaking is the vehicle of a worldliness, a materialism, which he repeatedly launches against Gigadibs's unthinking idealism: 'your grand simple life, / Of which you will not realise one jot', as he puts it (ll. 82-3):
The common problem, yours, mine, every one's,
Is not to fancy what were fair in life
Provided it could be,—but, finding first
What may be, then find how to make it fair
Up to our means—a very different thing!
No abstract intellectual plan of life
Quite irrespective of life's plainest laws,
But one, a man, who is man and nothing more,
May lead within a world which (by your leave)
Is Rome or London—not Fool's-paradise.
We speak of what is—not of what might be,
And how 'twere better if 'twere otherwise.
I am the man you see here plain enough …
This 'common problem' is a problem common to all human beings, but also a commonplace; the epithet threatens to become derogatory, if once the existence of a world which is neither 'Rome or London' nor 'Fool's-paradise' is acknowledged. And Blougram does acknowledge it; like Lippi and Sludge, he is haunted by what he has repudiated; on occasion he speaks in a different register, as when he argues that complete disbelief in God is as difficult to sustain as complete faith; but this 'high' speech is confused and flawed:
Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,—
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as Nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again,—
The grand Perhaps!
Romantic pathos governs the images in the first three lines, which speak of transience and closure in nature, human life, and art as though they were all alike and belonged in Keats's 'Ode on Melancholy'; then 'fifty hopes and fears', with Victorian briskness, 'rap and knock and enter in our soul', like spirits summoned by Sludge; finally the evocation of 'the ancient idol' shows that Blougram is abreast of current developments in religious anthropology which traced the links between Christianity and paganism.27 The instability of the language here suggests that Blougram is more truly himself in the mask with which he confronts his opponent, that his declaration 'I am the man you see here plain enough' is truer than he would like to think.
Blougram's defence of living 'for this world now' is also a defence of the voice of 'saying', and is conducted in that voice; but it is not the voice that his interlocutor Gigadibs heeds. Blougram himself, as I pointed out earlier in this chapter, disappears from his own monologue, and it is Browning who, at the end of the poem, records that Gigadibs has emigrated to Australia, adding:
there, I hope,
By this time he has tested his first plough,
And studied his last chapter of St. John.
The 'last chapter of St. John' may be either the last chapter of St John's gospel, or the last chapter of Revelation, both of them among Browning's favourite books of the Bible.28 The last chapter of St John's Gospel concerns the third and final appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples; the last chapter of Revelation tells of the 'river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb' (xxii 1). Neither in subject matter nor style are they concerned with 'this world now'. Gigadibs, we should note, has gone to Australia not to pursue a Utopian project but with 'settler's-implements' (l. 1010); his feet will be on the ground, but the spirit which guides him will nevertheless be exalted and apocalyptic. It is this spirit which governs the second voice of Browning's poetry, the voice of 'singing', dissident, devious, ineradicable; subversive of common speech, suggestive of transcendence. Without this radical opposition, Browning's colloquial style would lose half its force; but the opposition was there from the beginning, and Browning found the quarrel between singing and saying in the very roots of his poetic identity.
Genius and the common man
As with so much else in Browning's career as a writer, the conflict between 'saying' and 'singing', between the two voices of his poetry, derives from a conflict within Romanticism, in this case from the dispute over poetic language between Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth argued
that not only the language of a large portion of every good Poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good Prose, but likewise that some of the most interesting parts of the best Poems will be found to be strictly the language of Prose, when Prose is well written.29
This argument is not simply technical; in the next paragraph Wordsworth links it explicitly to a radical humanist aesthetic:
I do not doubt that it may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of Prose and metrical composition. We are fond of tracing the resemblance between Poetry and Painting, and, accordingly, we call them sisters; but where shall we find bonds of connection sufficiently strict to typify the affinity betwixt metrical and Prose composition? They both speak by and to the same organs; the bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of the same substance, their affections are kindred, and almost identical, not necessarily differing even in degree; Poetry sheds no tears 'such as Angels weep', but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of Prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both. (Mason: 68-9)
Wordsworth directs his allusions principally against Milton: it is Satan in Paradise Lost who sheds 'tears such as angels weep' (i 620), and when he is wounded 'A stream of nectarous humour issuing flowed / Sanguine, such as celestial spirits may bleed' (vi 332-3).30 And it is Milton who, in the invocation to book ix of the poem, seeks an 'answerable style' for his epic from his muse, Urania, his 'celestial patroness' (ll. 20-1). Wordsworth renounces a centuries-old tradition of the poet as vates or seer, uttering divinely-inspired oracles in an 'answerable style', a style whose first requirement is that it differ from 'natural and human' language. On the contrary, the poet is (in the preface's most famous phrase) 'a man speaking to men', and the word 'speaking' is not the least important part of this formula.
In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge ridicules Wordsworth's assertion that the language of poetry should be that of 'real life', and that a poem should sound as far as possible like someone (anyone, that is, but the divinely-inspired poet) talking.31 And, citing a passage from 'The Thorn' as evidence that the best of Wordsworth's poetic language is in fact elevated and sublime even where it purports to be 'the language of ordinary men', Coleridge 'reflect[s] with delight how little a mere theory, though of his own workmanship, interferes with the processes of genuine imagination in a man of true poetic genius'. These phrases—'genuine imagination' and 'true poetic genius'—go to the heart of the matter; for Coleridge the poet is not 'a man speaking to men' but a philosopher or prophet, possessed of 'the highest and intuitive knowledge as distinguished from the discursive, or, in the language of Wordsworth, "The vision and the faculty divine" ' (ch. xii, Watson: 139).32 Wordsworth would admit only differences of degree, not of kind, between the poet and the common run of humanity:
the Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner. But these passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men. And with what are they connected? Undoubtedly with our moral sentiments and animal sensations, and with the causes which excite these; with the operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible universe; with storm and sunshine, with the revolutions of the seasons, with cold and heat, with loss of friends and kindred, with injuries and resentments, gratitude and hope, with fear and sorrow. These, and the like, are the sensations and objects which the Poet describes, as they are the sensations of other men, and the objects which interest them. The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of the passions of men. How, then, can his language differ in any material degree from that of all other men who feel vividly and see clearly? It might be proved that it is impossible. But supposing that this were not the case, the Poet might then be allowed to use a peculiar language when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself. But Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men. Unless therefore we are advocates for that admiration which depends upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from hearing what we do not understand, the Poet must descend from this supposed height, and, in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other men express themselves. (Mason: 78-9)
It is hard to see that the object of a poem like 'Kubla Khan' is to 'excite rational sympathy'. Coleridge's poetics are based on the opposite principle to Wordsworth's: on the difference in kind between the poet and 'other men', on poetry as the product of 'the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition' (ch. xii, Watson: 139). In an elaborate figure, which intentionally, I think, recalls a Wordsworthian landscape, Coleridge argues for the existence of a special and privileged class of beings, exactly the class to which Wordsworth denied that poets belonged:
The first range of hills that encircles the scanty vale of human life is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale, is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapors appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow with colors not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few who, measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls, have learnt that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few who even in the level streams have detected elements which neither the vale itself nor the surrounding mountains contained or could supply, (ch. xii, Watson: 137-8)
Coleridge's scorn for the 'common sun' which shines on 'the multitude below', and his corresponding exaltation of the 'few' who dare the 'higher ascents' translates into scorn of common language, the speech of ordinary people being as ill-adapted to transcendent vision as it is well-adapted to 'the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men'.33
Browning's poetic style is the product, not of a choice between these two opposed notions of poetry, but of a ceaseless and unstable conflict between them.34 It figures in his poetry as a conflict between speech and song, associated respectively with Wordsworth and Coleridge. As 'a man speaking to men', the poet uses not just the vocabulary and syntax of common language, but its form as well, which is one reason why there are so many speakers in Browning's poetry. Speech is the medium of 'men and women' (Browning's most famous collection is not called 'ladies and gentlemen') and suggests the poet's appeal, with all the word implies of humility and fellowship, to 'the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men'. But song is the most ancient form of poetry: poets began as singers, as bards, and the figure persisted long after poetry ceased literally to be sung or chanted. By Browning's time the 'singer' was either very high and famous (the prophetic bard with his lyre) or very low and anonymous (the ballad-monger), but in either case could claim a prestige which was specifically denied to colloquial speech, the middle class of literary language. Not surprisingly, therefore, though Browning's poetry is famous for its speakers, the first poet in his work, the narrator of Pauline, consistently describes himself as a singer,35 the second, Sordello, is a minstrel who sings his own compositions, and the pattern continues throughout his work. Its most potent manifestation comes towards the end of Aristophanes' Apology (ll. 5182-258) in a poem recited (or chanted) by Aristophanes, which is known to Browning critics by its first two words, 'Thamuris marching'.36 Thamyris was a legendary Thracian bard who boasted that he could defeat the Muses in a singing-contest, for which they blinded him and took away his gift of song. Homer tells his story briefly in the Iliad (ii 594-600), and Milton also names him with honour in Paradise Lost (iii 35). In 'Thamuris marching', the bard is represented as advancing, confident of victory, towards his fatal contest with the Muses, through a landscape of incandescent beauty, his perception of it matched by his lyric power. The poem is written in the same terza rima as Shelley's The Triumph of Life, with a comparable intensity of vision and utterance. There is nothing like it in Browning except "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", of which it is undoubtedly, as Harold Bloom remarks, a 'conscious revision', its 'landscape of joy' a 'deliberate point-by-point reversal of Childe Roland's self-made phantasmagoria of ordeal-by-landscape' (Bloom and Munich: 144-5). But Bloom is wrong, I think, to read the poem in isolation from its context. It is true that Browning wrote it separately and pasted it into its position in the manuscript of Aristophanes' Apology; but after all, that is what he did with it. Unlike the beautiful 'Spring Song' ('Dance, yellows and whites and reds') which was originally published as a separate poem and subsequently incorporated into "Parleying with Gerard de Lairesse" (ll. 426-34), "Thamuris marching" was never published separately, and indeed never finished as a complete poem in itself. It resembles The Triumph of Life not only in form and rhetorical energy, but in being a fragment; it resembles "Childe Roland" in breaking off just before a moment of defeat which may also be read as a moment of triumph; but it resembles neither Shelley's poem nor Browning's own in being performed by a dramatic speaker. Aristophanes tells the story as an apologia for his own art, which is deliberately not that of the transcendent singer. The intensity of the verse is rhetorical in this sense: it represents Aristophanes' desire for the kind of creative power which he attributes to Thamuris, and simultaneously suggests that this power carries too high a price. A speaker enfolds and encloses the song, and the figure of the singer, in a gesture of yearning but also of renunciation. Thamuris reaches and grasps his heaven, in which the qualities of the world exchange themselves in blissful abandon:
Say not the birds flew! they forbore their right—
Swam, revelling onward in the roll of things.
Say not the beasts' mirth bounded! that was flight—
How could the creatures leap, no lift of wings?
Such earth's community of purpose, such
The ease of earth's fulfilled imaginings,—
So did the near and far appear to touch
I' the moment's transport,—that an interchange
Of function, far with near, seemed scarce too much …
But it is too much, and this is what Aristophanes knows: he shows Thamuris attaining an unfathomably ironic immortality, struck blind and dumb in a pose of inspiration:
Thamuris, marching, let no fancy slip
Born of the fiery transport; lyre and song
Were his, to smite with hand and launch from lip—
Peerless recorded, since the list grew long
Of poets (saith Homeros) free to stand
Pedestaled mid the Muses' temple-throng,
A statued service, laureled, lyre in hand,
(Ay, for we see them)—Thamuris of Thrace
Predominating foremost of the band.
The 'moment's transport' and the 'fiery transport' both figure the poet's daemonic energy, which expresses itself in motion ('Thamuris marching') and in the mobility of the natural world, so that fixed properties are loosened and freed, and the barriers of separate identity are dissolved. But how does Thamuris end up? His 'transport' is imaged as fixity, as ultimate stasis; with cruel wit Aristophanes says that he is 'free to stand / Pedestaled'; he epitomises the violent overthrow of poets who 'smite with hand and launch from lip'. Aristophanes concludes his recital with Thamuris's 'outburst / Of victory' (ll. 5251-2), but breaks off before he can be implicated in the terrible reply to the bard's challenge:
Here I await the end of this ado:
Which wins—Earth's poet or the Heavenly Muse….
But song broke up in laughter. 'Tell the rest,
Who may! I have not spurned the common life,
Nor vaunted mine a lyre to match the Muse
Who sings for gods, not men! Accordingly,
I shall not decorate her vestibule—
Mute marble, blind the eyes and quenched the brain,
Loose in the hand a bright, a broken lyre!
—Not Thamuris but Aristophanes![']
It would be too simple to say that Browning sees himself here as Aristophanes/Wordsworth, embracing 'the common life' and its poetic language; what he has done is to stage the conflict between this Wordsworthian impulse and the transcendent or Coleridgean side of his poetry, its claim to divine origin and warrant, to special insights and privileges, its lofty attitude towards its readers. Twenty years before Aristophanes' Apology Browning had written to Ruskin: 'I poet's affair is with God, to whom he is accountable, and of whom is his reward; look elsewhere, and you find misery enough' (Appendix B, p. 258). After all he, too, 'sings for gods, not men'.
In writing thus to Ruskin Browning was paraphrasing the description of the poet in "How It Strikes a Contemporary" (recently published in Men and Women):
Did the man love his office? frowned our Lord,
Exhorting when none heard—'Beseech me not!
Too far above my people,—beneath Me!
I set the watch,—how should the people know?
Forget them, keep Me all the more in mind!'
Was some such understanding 'twixt the Two?
The poet's 'contemporary', who claims he 'could never write a verse' (l. 114), is the speaker of the poem, one of the most 'colloquial' in Browning (in fact, it would be a good candidate for the poem least like 'Thamuris marching' in all his work). The speaker represents the poet as the reverse of poetic or even bohemian in appearance and habits, and he does this in language which implies that he, himself, is a plain man using plain speech. Yet what this plain man speaks is verse. "How It Strikes a Contemporary" is song masked as speech; its speaker passionately affirms the poet's transcendent status and destiny, in language which apparently denies it. The speaker describes the poet as an acute observer of life in terms which have nothing Coleridgean about them:
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster's brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognisance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody,—they stared at him,
And found, less to their pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know them and expect as much.
Why should the artist here be a poet rather than a novelist or a painter? The speaker's own language is as prosaic as Wordsworth could wish, devoid of a single figure of speech; the syntax, with the sole exception of line 34, is utterly plain.39 Yet the speaker has not done with the theme of watching. At the end of the poem the poet-observer becomes the subject of the speaker's speculative gaze:
I'd like now, yet had haply been afraid,
To have just looked, when this man came to die,
And seen who lined the clean gay garret's sides
And stood about the neat low truckle-bed,
With the heavenly manner of relieving guard.
The poet watching 'the cobbler at his trade' has become a poet who dies watched over by angels, or by the spirits of other great poets, in a transformation of the scene of mourning in Shelley's Adonais; watched also by the supposedly unpoetic speaker, whose poetic imagination in fact creates this scene of triumph and transcendence.40
Wordsworth at Coleridge's service? The poem's colloquial style may carry a message of divine provenance, but the irony cuts both ways; the message has to be smuggled in, disguised as its opposite, because if it appeared in its own guise it would not be accepted. It might be rejected, or ridiculed, or simply not believed, as the speaker does not believe reports of the poet's hidden wealth:
I found no truth in one report at least—
That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate!
Poor man, he lived another kind of life
In that new, stuccoed, third house by the bridge,
Fresh-painted, rather smart than otherwise!
In one sense the speaker misses the point here. He is wrong to find 'no truth' in the 'report', if the 'truth' be understood metaphorically; the poet may indeed conceal, beneath his respectable bourgeois exterior, just such a life of luxury and erotic excess, the life of the imagination; if you 'tracked him to his home', the place of his inner being, you might find the singer of Pauline who 'ne'er sung / But as one entering bright halls, where all / Will rise and shout for him' (ll. 77-9). But the poet lives his daily, visible life in the house of speech. So does Browning. What we hear in "How It Strikes a Contemporary" is the speaker's urbane, worldly chat; like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain in reverse, he speaks verse without knowing it.41
1 Only 9 of his poems begin with 'O' or 'Oh'; Shelley has 17, Tennyson 30, EBB 23.
2 Of Browning's 11 sonnets he included only 3 in his published volumes, the three slight 'illustrations' of Rabbinical legend which follow 'Jochanan Hakkadosh' (Jocoseria, 1883). He did not collect his best sonnets, notably 'The Names'. Among Browning's major works, I would count only 'Johannes Agricola' ['Johannes Agricola in Meditation'], 'Abt Vogler' and the 'Prologue' to Asolando as meditative lyrics, and 'Caliban upon Setebos' as a genuine soliloquy (a debate with the self).
3 Browning himself never used the term 'dramatic monologue'. The term seems to have been first used by George W. Thornbury in a collection of poems published in 1857 (Culler: 366) and first applied to Browning's poetry in William Stigand's review of Dramatis Personae in the Edinburgh Review, Oct 1864 (not, as Culler says, in a review of The Ring and the Book in 1869). Browning did distinguish between 'dramatic lyric' and 'dramatic romance', the former presenting an emotional or psychological state (e.g. 'The Laboratory', 'Two in the Campagna', 'A Toccata of Galuppi's') and the latter telling a story of action (e.g. 'Incident of the French Camp', 'The Flight of the Duchess', 'Childe Roland'). The two categories are present as 'Lyrics' and 'Romances' in his Poetical Works of 1863, and as 'Dramatic Lyrics' and 'Dramatic Romances' in the Poetical Works of 1868 and 1888-9. See Woolford and Karlin: ii, Appendix A (pp. 463-9). Some of the poems included in either category don't fit ('How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' and 'The Confessional' are 'lyrics', while 'Time's Revenges' is a 'romance'), and the boundary between the two categories is in any case blurred by such poems as 'By the Fire-Side', 'Saul', 'Waring', 'The Last Ride Together', and 'A Grammarian's Funeral' (the first two are 'lyrics', the others are 'romances'). Browning defined the 'idyl' of Dramatic Idyls as 'a succinct little story complete in itself' (letter of 7 Oct. 1889, cited in Pettigrew and Collins: ii 1067).
4 If 'each and all' means what it says, then it includes the speakers of poems which have traditionally been regarded as strongly autobiographical—for example 'By the Fire-Side', 'The Guardian-Angel', and 'Two in the Campagna'. The case of 'The Guardian-Angel' is especially puzzling, since in the three concluding stanzas Browning all but names himself and his wife and does in fact name his close friend, Alfred Domett. Perhaps he is using himself as a persona, to whose feelings and ideas he is not (as a poet) committed; but this seems a rather desperate expedient, and I think it more likely that Browning wanted to insist on the uniqueness of 'One Word More' and was prepared to cut corners….
5 This is probably the reason why Browning changed some of his titles from their first-edition forms: 'The Tomb at St Praxed's', for example, became 'The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church', which gives much more of a stage-direction to the reader.
6 See the notes to Sordello iii 574-994 in Woolford and Karlin: i 562-93.
7 There are exceptions, of course: 'The Statue and the Bust' in Men and Women, for example, 'Gold Hair' in Dramatis Personae, a number of the Parleyings (1887), for example the 'Parleying with Daniel Bartoli', and 'Beatrice Signorini' in Browning's last volume, Asolando (1889). These stories are all told by a narrator who is so close to the poet as scarcely to be distinguished from him except in purely formal terms. Asolando also has a cluster of short, anecdotal poems: 'Which?', 'The Cardinal and the Dog', 'The Pope and the Net', 'The Bean-Feast', 'Muckle-Mouth Meg'. Of the book-length poems, only Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873) and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878) would qualify as stories told by the poet as omniscient narrator, and in both cases the telling of the story is staged in a narrative frame. Dialogue-poems are even rarer in Browning: 'In a Gondola' (Dramatic Lyrics, 1842) is the only example before the appearance in a long poem, La Saisiaz (1878) of a dialogue between 'Reason' and 'Fancy' (ll. 405-524); then there is nothing before Asolando, which has the only other examples: 'Arcades Ambo', 'The Lady and the Painter', and 'Flute-Music, with an Accompaniment'. See also Chapter 4, p. 131 and n. 14 [of Woolford and Karlin's Robert Browning].
8 Even in book xii there are several interpolations by characters in the story, some of whom we have met before (the two lawyers, for example), others of whom make cameo appearances (a Venetian envoy, the friar who gave Pompilia absolution).
9 'Transcendentalism' (Men and Women), 'Dîs Aliter Visum' (Dramatis Personae), 'Ponte dell' Angelo, Venice' (Asolando). To these we might add the opening of 'Popularity' ((Men and Women): 'Stand still, true poet that you are.'
10 This passage is finely analysed by Hugh Sykes Davies (pp. 12-14) from the point of view of its 'representing the fluidity of a man's most intimate colloquy'; see my discussion of Browning's style in the second section of this chapter.
11 The complexity occasionally defeated his printers even before it affected his readers: there is a brain-bewildering example in Sordello iii 617-25 (see notes in Woolford and Karlin: i 567-9).
12 In Fifine at the Fair (1872) the form does in fact break down, and, for the first time in Browning's work, the interlocutor in a monologue breaks the convention and speaks (first at l. 199, then ll. 254-6 and other places).
13 For more detail on some of these ideas, to which brief reference will be made in the next section of this chapter, see Chapter 6 [of Woolford and Karlin's Robert Browning].
14 The syntax of ll. 1-2 is ambiguous; it allows this reading, but does not prescribe it.
15 EBB quotes the last line of 'Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister'; the 'high faint notes of the mystic' probably refer to Paracelsus, especially Paracelsus's deathbed speech beginning at v 582.
16 For other images of imprisoned creativity, see Chapter 4, pp. 143-4 [of Woolford and Karlin's Robert Browning].
17 Unitarians rejected the doctrines of the trinity and of the divinity of Christ, and were sceptical about the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment. Their rationalism and belief in the goodness of human nature made them natural exponents of political reform. See also Chapter 5, pp. 160-1 [of Woolford and Karlin's Robert Browning].
18 The words 'strive' and 'strife' occur 139 times in 55 poems by Browning. The eponymous speaker of 'Ixion' (Jocoseria, 1883) is representative: 'Strive, my kind, though strife endure thro' endless obstruction, / Stage after stage, each rise marred by as certain a fall!' (ll. 97-8). In the Poetical Works of 1888-9 Browning revised 'my kind' to 'mankind'.
19 Browning emphasised this point when he revised the title in the Poems of 1849 to 'Johannes Agricola in Meditation'.
20 The phrase is adapted from 'The Flight of the Duchess', l. 512. See the note on this line in Woolford and Karlin: ii 318.
21 The closest Browning comes to an irregular metre is his occasional use of variable stress in, e.g., the Gypsy's speech in 'The Flight of the Duchess' (ll. 567-689), where the influence of Coleridge is prominent: see Chapter 1, p. 10 [of Woolford and Karlin's Robert Browning].
22 The openings of 'Memorabilia', 'Andrea del Sarto', 'Mr Sludge, "the Medium" ', part iv of 'James Lee' ('Along the Beach'), and book vii of The Ring and the Book.
23 See, for example, the moment in 'Mr Sludge, "the Medium" ', which is written in blank verse, when Sludge perpetrates an 'inadvertent' rhyme and comments: 'Bless us, I'm turning poet!' (l. 1184).
24 'There's the bell' and 'That length of wall' are also characteristic of Andrea's use of demonstratives: 'There's what we painters call our harmony … This chamber for example—… that cartoon, the second from the door … Yonder's a work, now … That arm is wrongly put' (ll. 34, 53, 57, 103, 110). He points to things, to landscapes, to the actions of his wife and himself: 'To paint a little thing like that you smeared … My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here' (ll. 74, 87). The word 'here' brings together a general condition ('earthbound') and a particular situation ('here, in this room with you'). A similar combination is active, but to a quite different effect, in the passage from 'Bishop Blougram's Apology' discussed earlier (p. 43). Where Andrea stages a drama of defeated narcissism, Blougram uses 'here' to point towards the future, to control his interlocutor's own demonstrations: 'here, / I well imagine you respect my place … Are up to the protesting eyes of you / In pride at being seated here for once … The hand's mine now, and here you follow suit'.
25 The same reason would account for Browning's extensive use of technical vocabulary and professional jargon (e.g. medicine, music, law); but it is also true that Browning (like Kipling) delighted in such language for its own sake, as his comment on a particularly ripe legal document in The Ring and the Book shows: 'I like and shall translate the eloquence / Of nearly the worst Latin ever writ … ' (xii 794-5).
26 The effectiveness of Blougram's conversational asides may be judged by comparing them with their lacklustre equivalents in Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (e.g. ll. 255-61).
27 Browning returned to this image in later poems, after he began spending his summer holidays in Brittany, where traces still remained of pre-Christian fertility rituals: see Fifine at the Fair, 2022 ff. and The Two Poets of Croisic, 89 ff.
28 The full title of Revelation is The Revelation of St John the Divine. The traditional identification of John the author of Revelation with the John who wrote the fourth gospel was already being questioned by biblical scholarship in Browning's day, but Browning accepted it, at any rate for poetic purposes: see 'A Death in the Desert' (Dramatis Personae, 1864).
29 The text is that of the 1805 edition (Mason: 67).
30 The word 'ichor' glances at Homer as well as Milton; Satan's wound is modelled on that of Ares, the god of war, in Iliad v 339.
31 Coleridge takes the first lines of 'The Last of the Flock' as a 'chance' example: 'In distant countries I have been, / And yet I have not often seen / A healthy man, a man full grown, / Weep in the public roads, alone', and rewrites them as they would really have been spoken by a 'rustic' narrator: ' "I have been in a many parts far and near, and I don't know that I ever saw before a man crying by himself in the public road; a grown man I mean, that was neither sick nor hurt," etc. etc.'
32 The quotation is from The Excursion i 79. Coleridge uses it again, with even more ironic force, in the passage from ch. xviii just quoted.
33 'A Grammarian's Funeral' takes up the theme of genius and the imagery of ascent, and is purportedly chanted by a chorus of students.
34 It is arguable that this conflict is in fact present in both Wordsworth's and Coleridge's own poetry, but this does not affect the argument here.
35 See, for example, ll. 17, 77, 126, 252, 258, 376.
36 The name is more usually Thamyris; Browning's spelling of Greek names attempts a more phonetic rendering than the traditional forms; for his defence of this practice, see his Preface to the Agamemnon (1877).
37 The phrase 'foremost of the band' may well allude to Wordsworth—a poet who also marched through a good deal of landscape in his day, and who would figure here not as 'a man speaking to men' but as the exponent of what Keats called the 'egotistical sublime'. 'Foremost of the band' occurs twice in the 1850 text of The Prelude, which Browning certainly read: once in book x (l. 570), when Wordsworth meets a group of travellers and the 'foremost of the band' tells him the thrilling news of Robespierre's death; and once, even more significantly, in book xiv, when Wordsworth describes climbing Snowdon with a companion and their guide, 'And I, as chanced, the foremost of the band' (l. 34); the great vision of the moonlit 'sea of hoary mist' immediately follows. If Wordsworth is saved, in Browning's eyes, from Thamuris's fate (and it is not certain that he is saved) it may be because his vision is itself followed by reflection. But this is too complex a topic to pursue here.
38 The poet's observant eye here is both like and unlike that of Fra Lippo Lippi (see ll. 112-26) and the Roman police spy described by Sludge (ll. 519-43). The passage also uncannily foreshadows Browning's discovery of the Old Yellow Book on a market-stall in Florence (see The Ring and the Book i 33 ff.).
39 Even the omission of 'that' before 'If' in lines 31 and 32 and 'He' in line 35 (nominally required by 'such' in line 30) is more of a colloquial feature than a poetic device.
40 Compare the poets whom Aprile sees in a vision at the point of death (Paracelsus ii 594-90), and the 'lost adventurers', the 'peers' whom Childe Roland similarly sees gathered to witness his death (ll. 194-201).
41Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme II iv: '[M. Jourdain:] What? when I say: "Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my night-cap," is that prose? [Philosophy Teacher:] Yes, Sir. [M. Jourdain:] Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.'
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11105
SOURCE: "The Decade's Work in Browning Studies," in Browning Re-viewed: Review Essays, 1980-1995, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 127-57.
[In the following essay, Maynard reviews the critical issues concerning Browning's poetry which were debated throughout the 1980s. Maynard also traces the roots of such issues, noting the dependence of modern criticism on the work of earlier scholars.]
When I was volunteered to write a summary of the decade's work in Browning criticism and scholarship for Victorian Poetry, this did not seem a too much larger task than the year's evaluations I have been turning out for most of this decade—only one-thousand percent. It was, in any event, not the entirely appropriate, but far too ambitious, task of a summary and evaluation of the century's work. The common wisdom is that criticism, and even editing practices, have (as you like it) finally come of age/gone entirely crazy or to the dogs of late so that recent critical history should, in any event, stand alone, case unparalleled.
In fact, I find now that I am not so sure that the subject easily stands alone. The more I think about what we have said and learned about Browning recently, the more I am seeing patterns that go right back to the century of criticism—so much of it seemingly outdated and overworn—since Browning's death. I should not be so surprised: one of the many things we have been learning by relearning is the dependence of all cultural products, including our own genteel work of criticism, on the work that preceded it and on which it necessarily feeds—feeds much more than we like to admit, with our Romantic and overreaching faith in the originality of critical genius. As modern theoretical criticism has tended to diminish belief in the absolute originality of creative genius, it has seemed only to leave critical originality, by vanity or courtesy, still standing as a hopeful exception. All the recent work in criticism, so new and original, looked at again, seems at least firmly rooted in the past. By the same token our residual Romantic faith in a few Promethean and determining new critical approaches and individual critical movers and shakers bumps up against a growing sense that an invisible hand of critical history has moved us all along a few heavily channeled critical canals. Doubtless certain critical barges catch our attention far more than others, blazoned with sharp thinking, festooned with wit and excellent writing. But the more I assemble the pieces of the picture, the more I begin to see the preoccupations that create our critical culture, that indeed give us as firm critical horizons as those of any other age and make true originality, except as small moments of innovation on the current drift, unimaginable. What will criticism of Browning look like at the bicentenary? We can't know or we would be there already. All we can know is that the scene then will have great historical sap roots in our own—though what now seem the major elements to my eye in 1989 may look like so many irrelevant miscellanea put in one of those time capsules to the desperate reviewer of 2089 who—God love you—should take an interest in what we thought of our contribution at the time.
Perhaps I dare say that the future historian of the reception of Browning in the 1980s will be likely to say very much what we all always say of Victorian culture: it was a time of change and a time of continuity, a time that thought it was undergoing major changes and achieving major conservations. (And of course it thought it was the best of critical times and the worst of critical times.) The sense of great change, great conservation, momentous consequences hanging on the resolution, was nowhere more evident, or strident, than in the set of critical issues turning on the current debates variously labeled deconstruction, post-structuralism, or more broadly, post-modernism. And here the historian, like ourselves, may see the intense disagreements of the time as often more apparent than real, concealing by their shrill opposition the tacit agreement about what issues are central and worth discussing.
Certainly this is the area of Browning studies, as of literary study in general, where there has been the most action—and most lively discussion. I hope I will be forgiven if I begin, like the author of Sordello, by summoning up a worthy from the past to focus this discussion and suggest how deeply seated it is in perennial preoccupations of Browning criticism: I call as undeconstructive a figure as G. K. Chesterton himself—a pre-postmodern, pre-modern, indeed by preference medieval man. Yet his mature fictions, no less than his early tortured drawings, were haunted by a vision of a world in which nothing exists beneath appearance, all things fall apart, noses, as in The Man Who Was Thursday, keep deconstructing. In fear of such a postmodern world he of course called up a ruddy solid man, a kind of Yeatsian fisherman of poetry, the good Robert, English as old ale, creating a super-solid neo-Chaucerian world of fictional people. Never mind that many are villains, fast-talkers, or self-deceivers: they are at least real fictions, with no complexities of difference between art and life, from an age when writers' hearts beat hard and their brains ticked high-blooded. If Chesterton could shore up a vision of Browning's unified sensibility against the ruin promised by the coming century, Santayana, of course, saw him not as the solution but the problem, a force of barbarous emotional chaos threatening to overwhelm organization and order. Browning's position as a contested case—a figure of either reassuring solidity or disturbing disintegration—has persisted through the rage of modernism for order and into the rage of post-modernism at order. The issue could of course be traced back to Browning's own confused vacillations between an objective and subjective role for the poet and these conceptions have also persisted in the debate. Those seeing Browning as a creator of objective and hence "real" characters have focused on explaining their genesis or on the moral issues that naturally come to the fore when we imagine fictional characters as people much like those who live in real Valladolid. Jacob Korg's Browning and Italy (1983) continued this tradition in focusing on the relation between Browning's life (in Italy) and his works (Italian scenes—though mostly from literature not life) and in arguing for the influence of Italy in leading Browning to an objective poetry based on a substantial world of real men and women. Or William Buckler, working in a close analytical and in itself somewhat skeptical tradition associated with the New Criticism in his Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1985), nonetheless emphasized moral issues in evaluating Browning's characters, on the presumption that an essentially mimetic art demands an evaluative and moral criticism: how lifelike and convincing are they? what does one say about their values and actions? Or, in an apparently different mode of criticism, Samuel L. Chell in The Dynamic Self: Browning's Poetry of Duration (1984) used Bergson (and not Poulet) to stress the coherence of internal experience and internal time in Browning's rendition of the consciousness of time of a lifetime compressed into a dramatic monologue (and we remember that stream of consciousness itself could function either as an extreme of realism or as its subversion). The combination in Chell of a substantial and referential view of the nature of Browning's art (creating coherent consciousnesses) with an argument stressing Browning's belief in immersion in the destructive element of time and defending Browning against Santayana only suggests on how many different levels of criticism these issues played out their oppositions.
On the level of character, the most obvious and most recurrent arena for debate in Browning criticism, the case for insubstantiality and deconstruction was made most emphatically by E. Warwick Slinn in his Browning and the Fictions of Identity (1982). Here again, far from creating a totally new approach to Browning, Slinn had distinguished predecessors, for instance in J. Hillis Miller's early phenomenological criticism, The Disappearance of God, which stressed a common experience in Browning characters rather than their solid individuality, or in W. David Shaw's focus on argumentation, which created not so much a vision of substantial identity as Kierkegaardian levels of being in character (The Dialectical Temper). Drawing on the full-blown poststructuralist dogmas of the necessary fictive non-referentiality of language, Slinn subjected Browning to a rigorous reading on a "dramatically based model of man as artifice." As in Leo Bersani's seminal study of character in fiction, A Future for Astyanax, substantial characters, all those men and women, are dissolved not merely into dramatis personae but a "shifting series of dramatic hypotheses, unified only by a self-perpetuating consciousness." Each monologue deconstructs its own appearance of creating coherent identity. Slinn has somewhat moderated his views in later, interesting articles (e.g., BSN 15:1-9: VP 25:67-81) but his position, in its extreme deconstructionist first form, found echoes in later criticism, for instance Adam Potkay's somewhat reductive reading of The Ring and the Book (VP 25:143-157). A less influential work, in some respects less challenging in its approaches to individual poems, Constance Hassett's The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning (1982) is also a more useful approach to the broad issue of substantiality of character. Hassett in effect argued for discriminating between constructivist sheep, known by the experience of conversion that creates a coherent personality within, and incoherent goats, who, like Guido, are mere artifices of their own will to persuade or perform. She allowed us to see Browning's presentations of character historically, set in a moment (though perhaps it is one of those historical moments that keeps recurring) when the notion of character is in crisis between creation and decreation and thus problematic.
Two finer works of criticism, by Herbert F. Tucker, Jr., and Clyde de L. Ryals, and a suggestive one by Loy D. Martin, with many parallels, took these issues to a different level of critical discourse. Tucker's justly celebrated Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (1980) looked less at the idea of character than at the way in which Browning's language and poetry works. As such his explicitly Derridean investigation of difference in Browning as a process of avoiding closure picked up much of the strength of the New Critical focus on careful analysis of verbal structures. (Tucker's model explication of Cleon's too well-wrought urn perhaps exemplified the liaisons as well as contrasts between Yale past and more recent.) Starting with an elegant restatement of Browning's convoluted relation to Shelley—differing from whom, he learned to always be differing even from himself—continuing with a thorough rereading of that gateway to Browning monologues, Sordello, Tucker elegantly unrolled the process of Browning's poetry in which renewal and new beginnings displace each movement toward artistic finish or completion, thus both enacting and creating modern poetry.
Some of the excitement of Tucker's work—in which we felt a new critical mode really offering a new experience of the work—was repeated in Martin's eclectic, fitfully brilliant and opaque work, Browning's Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject (1985). His notion of processive experience paralleled and drew strength from Slinn and Hassett on Browning's characters, from Tucker on the structure of the poems. To this he added the conceptual schemes of Bakhtin and Kristeva (also suggested by Susan Blalock, BIS 11:39-50) as a way of recognizing the openness and freedom of Browning's poetic world: rather than direct and control his characters he enables them to create a complex system of communication, combining voices of author and speaker, reaching out from the isolated individual to a community of language, everywhere allowing in the monologue a dialogue of social values and of ways of representing reality.
Ryals' work, Becoming Browning: The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning, 1833-1846 (1983), comes closest to Tucker's in giving us an entire way to reread Browning. Apparently something of a glutton for punishment, Ryals moved from his earlier studies of difficult late Browning to the early difficult (or sometimes tedious) work. What he found there is a different, though often compatible model to Tucker's, more rhetorical than deconstructive, for Browning's ceaseless rewritings of himself. If in Tucker's view Browning is always beginning over again, in Ryals' he is always becoming, moving to position himself at a higher level of being or consciousness. Ryals labeled the process Romantic Irony and stressed the way in which greater breadth of consciousness is always paid for by ironic self-awareness, often both of the limitedness of everyday life and matters and also of the insufficiency of any mythic fabrication of one's becomings into higher intellectual and spiritual states. Such an approach, here focused on the overall strategy of Browning's art, whether in his early long poems, his attempts at drama, or his first monologues, parallels Hassett's to character in that it leaves room for deconstruction and construction, working simultaneously to offer, take back, offer again. The pattern is a familiar one in Paracelsus with its ironies of aspiration, attainment, failure, aspiration in failure, and of course in the essential mode of narrative creation/destruction in Sordello. Like Tucker, Ryals was especially good in opening up Browning's long deplored early masterwork as the critical entrée to his poetics that it is. Also like Tucker, he was somewhat less impressive when he turned to the fruit of that poetics, the early success of the Bells and Pomegranates monologues—though both are excellent on Pippa.
If the postmodern, poststructuralist controversy enacted itself in Browning criticism as a restatement in new terms of issues central to Browning since his own distinction between objective and subjective poetry, the equally current and vivid feminist movement in criticism found voice through new articulations of equally old issues: namely the issue, beginning in the 1840s, between Robert and Elizabeth. Who dares judge between a wife and her husband? the traditional wisdom asks. "I," said Victorian critics, who of course regularly preferred Elizabeth and, later, saw Robert as an obstacle to their curiosity about her. "I," said Besier, De Vane, and also so many male and female sentimentalists in and out of Browning societies who fixated their gaze on the rescue of poor Andromeda Elizabeth from dragon Edward Barrett by Perseus Robert—a Caponsacchi determined on rescuing his Pompilia and having her too. And "I," have of course said feminist critics of all persuasions who regularly begin with a view of the marriage of the poets and, from that, fabricate their reading of the works. Here, while there has been important work on the long neglected Elizabeth herself, one must begin by saying that there has been far less important work on Robert than that promoted by deconstruction. Feminist approaches to male writers are a relatively late phase in the rapid evolution of feminist criticism since the mid seventies; the first explicitly feminist booklength study of Robert appeared only this year. The most seminal work, also perhaps the most extreme, was an article by Nina Auerbach, "Robert Browning's Last Word" (VP 22:161-173), whose general approach has been followed, with equal wit and panache, by Adrienne Munich (BIS 15:69-78). Beginning by deconstructing the idyll of rescue and happy Victorian marriage, they saw the conflict between two types of poets, two sexes, worked out in the poems, especially The Ring and the Book, where Browning's final one word more, after his spouse's death, serves to appropriate (or, in Munich's adaption of the ring metaphor, encircle and enclose) Elizabeth. If Auerbach's argument led her to understate the strength of Browning's treatment of women, especially the relatively great truth spoken by Pompilia, other approaches to Browning's treatment of women, focusing on the same issues, some-what overstated both Browning's "feminism" and the place of Pompilia in the poem. Buckler's study of The Ring and the Book virtually excepted Pompilia from the careful scrutiny of the limits of human truth in words that he brought to bear on the other speakers. Ann P. Brady's recent Pompilia (1988) followed U.C. Knoepflmacher's argument for Browning's anti-patriarchal feminism (VP 22:139-159) with some illuminating detail on Guido's very specifically sexual tyranny. The work romanticizes both Pompilia and Caponsacchi as saintly discoverers of pure love. The tendency to turn Robert into either a husband devil or a writer of feminist saints' lives was usefully corrected by Ashby Crowder's summary of Browning's perplexed and perplexing attitudes to women (SBHC 14:91-134) and William Walker's look at Pompilia's rhetorical strategies (VP 22:47-63).
Perhaps the most significant work on Browning and women has been free of direct feminist intent but also centrally focused on the Brownings' relation. Lee Erickson's Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Au diences (1984) traced Robert's movement toward writing for an audience of one, his spouse, though this study of a very special reception situation was weakened by his failure to acknowledge the differences and conflicts Auerbach stressed. Daniel Karlin's The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (1985), one of the more original works on both poets of the past decade, drew on Elvan Kintner's splendid edition of the love letters to provide a striking analysis of both the psychodynamics and mythopoesis involved in this marriage of true, and very complicated, minds. His analysis of the necessary mythmaking in the damnation of Edward Barrett and the inevitable mutual misprision of poet and lover by poet and lover gives a firmer base on which to develop future stories, whether biographical or critical, of the two poets.
Another major field of critical activity of the past decade, what the New Criticism called the affective fallacy and we have come to call reader-response criticism, has also been a steady area of activity in Browning studies. And like feminism and deconstruction, it has very substantial roots in Browning criticism, along with the coordinate reception studies that also emanate from Germany's critical school of Constance. Study of Browning's reception, before we knew it by that name, featured serious evaluation of the aims and limitations of Browning's age in William Peterson's book on the Browning Society, Interrogating the Oracle (1968). Robert Langbaum's classic study of the dramatic monologue in many ways derived its importance from the recasting of traditional genre studies into what we would now call a reader-response mold. Experience in The Poetry of Experience is not only the subject of the poem but an action in the reader, who evaluates the poem on that somewhat restricted response coordinates of sympathy and judgment. Langbaum's relative success in speaking excitingly about Browning at a time when the New Criticism signally failed with him, might have suggested the productivity of this approach, under its new name and theoretical formulations, in the eighties.
Erickson's book, mentioned above, was the closest thing to recent full study of Browning's reception. His approach, with its interesting summaries of information concerning Browning's critical fortunes among his contemporaries, opened up a number of subjects but was also marred by its diffuseness and lack of critical self-definition. His shift to an author-centered criticism to propose the rather strained thesis that Browning moved from writing to people generally to an ever narrower target, first Elizabeth and God, then finally God alone, drew his attention away from the full and rigorous study of the context in which Browning's works were received that we need. John Woolford's recent Browning the Revisionary (1988) also contained useful information on Browning's critical reception, especially the shocking failure of Men and Women. But his main focus in a critically syncretic study was also reader-centered, on Browning's reactions to his contemporary readers' responses—in his next work, where he revised his prior work in a careful response. The dialectic of author and contemporary readers was productive of new approaches to Browning—for instance Woolford's focus on the "structured collections" of monologues in the 1863 reordering of poems, in Dramatis Personae, and in The Ring and the Book. Woolford's definition of a Browning sequence of poems as a strategy to bring the reader into active work of interpretation often left me in doubt whether he was uncovering Browning's structure or merely providing his own response to (that is, his interpretation of) the themes he found in the group of poems. But as an approach that tried to define Browning's relation to his Victorian audience from his point of view—the critical terms here are strategy or response—it was more convincing than Erickson's. Finally, David DeLaura, in a subtle study of interrelations and to some extent intertextuality between Browning and Ruskin (in Victorian Perspectives, ed. John Clubbe and Jerome Meckier, 1989), used Browning's famous comments to Ruskin describing reading as a form of skipping over glaciers as a starting point for fine observations on Browning's demanding, sometimes teasing relation to his reader. He saw Browning positioning himself between the removed classicism of Arnold and the blunt moralism demanded by many Victorian readers—indeed, where Ruskin would have the artist, though he failed sadly to appreciate it in Browning.
Woolford's study, especially the good sections on the political attitudes implicit in Browning's strategy to involve the reader in the poems of the 1830s, can profitably be set beside the more specifically reader-oriented work of David E. Latané, Jr., Browning's Sordello and the Aesthetics of Difficulty (1987). Latané usefully located Browning's strategy toward the reader in contemporary attitudes, stemming from the Romantics, about the necessary challenge to the reader made by serious works of literature and he provided a just summary of basic theoretical issues in reader-response criticism. His work was especially helpful in unwinding the mummy's sheet of Sordello by showing us both the thematics of reader issues in the poem (the many readers it conjures up, including ourselves) and in offering a model reading by the active reader. Christine Froula, "Browning's Sordello and the Parables of Modernist Poetics" (ELH 52:965-992) also intelligently discussed readers in Sordello. The dramatic monologues, where reader-text interrelations are most productively at play in Browning, have received less attention. Dorothy Mermin's The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets (1984) looked specifically at the varieties of listeners in the poems and their relations to the speakers. Herbert F. Tucker, Jr. (in a contribution to Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hošek and Parker, 1985, pp. 226-243), drew upon Ralph Rader's concise generic taxonomy of 1976 (CI 3:131-151) to tease out the conflict in the reader's experience of a dramatic monologue between rhetorical, dramatic communication, and lyric utterance. My own article (BIS 15:105-112) attempted to configure and calculate the dynamics among speaker, listener, and the reader conceived as an overhearer. Perhaps it is worth stressing the reader-oriented approach implicit in so much traditional Browning criticism. Those "new views" of familiar speakers of major monologues that were so common a product of the New Critical emphasis on interpretation of individual poems paradoxically forced us to transcend all single perspectives by displaying the variety of plausible interpretations available to successive readers. If clever special pleaders and devil's advocates, those attractive/despicable wits of the Browning critical world, have been less prominent recently it is perhaps because a more theoretical decade asks for broader views rather than interpretive tours de force alone. Still I enjoyed many briefer articles that forced us to see another side of a monologue we knew thoroughly and had settled in one pattern or a few: for instance, Joseph A. Dupras' (BIS 15:113-122) and Russell M. Goldfarb's (SBHC 13:59-65) reversal of our usual sympathetic response to that genial and worldly imprecision and genius Fra Lippo Lippi. Andrea as a Rabelaisian carnival figure anyone? She or he who should be tired of critical one word mores (as I confess I sometimes am) would be tired of criticism itself.
Studies of influences and sources, a preoccupation in Browning criticism since the days of the first Browning Society, have been themselves heavily influenced by the large critical shadow of Harold Bloom who has, of course, generally been at the center of thinking about tradition and intertextuality. Although Bloom himself has never written extensively on Browning, he has given him a central place as a major poet in the tradition and the first strong successor who had to grapple with Shelley's influence. Indeed this central agon of the imagination was already very present at Yale, through the work of Pottle and DeVane, as a model case for Bloom's rethinking of influence in psychoanalytic terms. Bloom's reading of Childe Roland as antithetical quester, a Romantic reading of a Victorian poet with which we have, most of us, been uncomfortable, has been among the most influential, and provocative, rereadings of Browning since the New Criticism. In his introductory essay for his Chelsea Robert Browning (1985), otherwise not a particularly representative or useful selection of contemporary essays on Browning, Bloom eloquently revisited this central critical preoccupation. His importance has been felt more emphatically in the work of his students, especially Tucker's elegant restatement of the Shelley-Browning relation, not to mention productive parleyings with his view in Erickson's, Martin's, and my own study of the early Browning. Important as Shelley's influence obviously was, I argued that we must also see Browning in a broader relation to central English and continental traditions. Two articles on Browning and Keats, U. C. Knoepflmacher on Keats and Browning's feminism mentioned above, and Martin Bidney on "Madhouse Cells" (SEL 24:671-681) have at least begun to fill in the picture of Browning's broader romantic heritage. John Coates reached back to Cervantes to interpret "How It Strikes a Contemporary" (SBHC 11:41-46) and I argued for Donne's formative influence on Browning's development of the dramatic monologue (John Donne Journal 4:253-257). Two full books and one booklet filled in Browning's relations with Italian, French, and Russian literature. Korg's book, mentioned above, was a compendium of source work on the poems with an Italian setting, especially those on art, though less helpful on Browning's relations to serious Italian writers, classical or contemporary. Other complementary studies of Italian sources were made by Mary Louise Albrecht (SBHC 11:47-60) and Allan Dooley (MP 81:38-46). Roy Gridley, The Brownings and France (1982) was exceptionally useful in detailing Browning's reading in and enthusiasm for French writers, especially contemporaries such as Balzac (his favorite), Stendhal, and Flaubert. Mark Siegchrist's Rough in Brutal Print (1981) thoroughly presented the lurid French legal sources for Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, showing Browning's distortions and changes without denying him his creative rights, as so many commentators on The Ring and the Book have, to lie in the service of imaginative truth. Finally, Patrick Waddington's little book, Browning and Russia (1985) provided a detailed account of what little Browning did know of Russian writers (on a personal level, mainly a not very cordial relation with Turgenev) and examined sources of "Ivàn Ivànovitch." Browning's problematic relation with Arnold was reexamined in two good articles, John Coates's "Two Versions of the Problem of the Modern Intellectual" (MLR 79:769-788) and Jane A. McCusker's study of Arnold and Aristophanes' Apology (MLR 79:783-796). DeLaura, in the study mentioned above, drew upon both articles to position Browning in opposition to Arnold but in fundamental agreement with Ruskin. The article, using the letters DeLaura previously published, was important for its fuller view of Browning's debt to Ruskin in his poetics—a big improvement over the endless retelling of Ruskin's gracious recognition of "The Bishop Orders His Tomb." It also offered an interesting appendix on Browning's distrusting use of Arnold's key term, "culture."
The investigation of Browning's own influence on contemporaries and successors, also a topic with a long pedigree in Browning studies, found fertile, largely unfilled soil, in a nonpoet modern, Henry James. Ross Posnock's Henry James and the Problem of Robert Browning (1985) again showed the influence on influ ence studies of Bloom: his elegant argument from both biography and textual comparison suggested that Browning was a central and troubling figure of potency to James. (Men and Women was a forbidden and therefore dangerously attractive book to the young James.) In Posnock's original formulation James created a myth of Browning to overcome his influence, much as Browning did of Shelley and, again like Browning with Shelley, he proceeded to encompass and to rewrite Browning's work in his own fiction. The study was a good critical approach to both writers, with interesting ideas about the development of the theatrical self, as opposed to the sincere self of the Romantics, and the use of perspectivism. I was less persuaded by the comparative readings and somewhat unsure of the cross discussions from biography and society to the works: like New Historicist studies that it resembles, there was both originality and a certain degree of idiosyncrasy.
The relation to Pound continued a valued old chestnut in discussion of Browning and modernism. George Bornstein (in his edition of Ezra Pound Among the Poets, 1985), offered a full review of Pound's Browning, emphasizing the way in which Pound's renovative relation to past writers allowed him to learn from Browning and build on him without the distortions and displacements of Bloomian anxiety. Jonathan Ward (BSN 15:10-27) focused more narrowly on Pound's recasting of historical poetry as he worked through and then away from Browning and, in his penultimate chapter, Loy Martin interestingly underlined the difference in sensibility and relation to the past that led Pound, and even Eliot, to transform totally, and finally abandon, the dramatic monologue. Finally, Bornstein also looked at Browning's relation to Yeats (Yeats Annual 1:114-132) and here we end back in Bloom's main-traveled road with Yeats reacting to, and attempting to swerve away from merely following, Browning and Tennyson's first generation reaction to and swerve from Romanticism.
Many major topics in Browning studies over the years have found contemporary critical restatement, though often less satisfactorily and thoroughly than one would wish. There is the old one of Browning and religion, the issue that moved the Browning Society—those pale, unsatisfied ones in their quest for another answer to the crisis of faith of their time—they being unsatisfied by the Tennysonian turbulence that had contented an earlier generation. Vincent P. Anderson's serviceable Robert Browning as a Religious Poet: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1984), with excerpts and summaries, served to remind us how regularly Browning has been reread to fit each generation's religious preoccupations. We have had heretical Brownings, skeptical Brownings, Brownings very sure of God and pessimist Brownings, existential Brownings, Brownings preoccupied with a central Truth of Incarnation, and Brownings swimming in phenomena, Brownings for whom God is love, and Brownings for whom he refuses to come. Woolford's book restated Whitla's emphasis on the Truth of Incarnation. Hassett's study of how Browning adapted ideas of conversion and apocalypse in his presentation of character offered a more original study of Browning's particular moment—putting to secular use major aspects of religious tradition. The same was true of Glenn Everett's "Typological Structures in Browning's 'Saul'" (VP 23:267-279), which followed generally the work of George Landow and also Linda Peterson's excellent summary, "Biblical Typology and the Self-Portrait of the Poet in Robert Browning" (in Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, ed. Landow, 1979). Everett rightly raised questions about the implications of such a traditional mode of interpretation, here again consciously and perhaps also historically used, in an essentially secular literary form. Peterson's more recent article, "Rereading Christmas-Eve, Rereading Browning" (VP 26:363-380), provided an important reflection on Browning's awareness of hermeneutic problems arising in religious issues and spilling over to all forms of interpretation. Her elegant interpretation of Christmas-Eve saw it as an enactment and demon stration of the problems of religious interpretation, whether typological, based on historical tradition, or rational and mythological. In her persuasive view, we are driven to accept the impossibility of privileging any one interpretive stance; hence Browning's poems employing typology necessarily question and historicize the biblical interpretive structures they offer. I was less persuaded by her special pleading for the poem as a turning point in unleashing Browning's reader to multiple interpretations of monologues (the history of criticism of "My Last Duchess" alone says the moment was far earlier).
Other good interpretive articles have focused on religious issues: Blair Ross on progressive mythology in "Apollo and the Fates," a typological poem outside the Christian system (VP 22:15-30); Michael Berens, on "Karshish" (SBHC 12:41-53), also concerned with religion as universal myth-making; and John Lammers and Jeff Karr (SBHC 12:94-119; 13:37-46) on "Caliban Upon Setebos." Lammers read the poem as a mini-divine comedy ready for his allegorical interpretation; Karr noted parallels to Paley in order to read the poem as a version of natural theology in a Darwinian world; both were helpful, neither fully persuasive.
This relatively weak addition to thinking and knowledge on the topic of religion found a parallel in the even weaker record of studies on two other great issues, politics and science. Here the earlier critical history itself is less rich, except in regular complaints (such as this one) over the failure to explore such obvious subjects. Yet on first sight the failure seems to have been also Browning's, especially in science. His apparent interest in evolution in Paracelsus yielded to uninformed positions later in his career. Only George Myerson, in an article on the science of Browning's Paracelsus (BSN 15:20-47), returned to this apparently barren field. Drawing on Kuhn's paradigm for the emergence of modern science, he interestingly plotted Paracelsus' growth as one toward scientific as well as moral awareness. Browning endorses the modern scientific view of the world as open, objective, and infinite, though he draws back from a totally secular vision of the universe. We need other studies that similarly examine the implied, if often confused, attitudes of Browning toward the emerging scientific disciplines, hard and soft, of his century.
Politics was a more conscious and habitual theme of Browning's, though we look in vain, as we do in so much nineteenth-century British literature, for the central work overtly about politics. Here three studies have at least raised the discussion to interesting levels of discourse. John Woolford, in an article (BSN 14:1-20) substantially repeated in his recent book, offered a thoughtful analysis of Browning's early liberalism as an author's position. Browning's ideal of power, stemming from what Woolford called Puritan anarchism, made him reject the author's authority over the reader, an elegant way of explaining the embarrassed attempts at sharing authorship in Sordello. In somewhat parallel terms to the early study by Lawrence Poston (PMLA 88:260-270) of Browning's political skepticism as an ironic view of the relation between nobility and power, Woolford interestingly reviewed the themes of renunciation and abdication of power so clear in some of the plays. Robert Viscusi (BIS 12.1-28) found a different, also intriguing, way of unmasking the political positions of the apparently apolitical professed liberal. His study of imperialism in Browning's celebration of Italy avoided the simplicities of classic Marxist imperialist theory by its sensitivity to the positive side of Browning's liberal culture, his ability to balance and hold in suspension various views of a subject, here both the Italy of classical Rome and that of Dante. In this decade of renewed and highly abstract Marxist cultural/literary theory Loy Martin's formulations of a social drive for an event in literary history—the production of the dramatic monologue—were predictably abstract and unfortunately lacking in specific social context. His thesis of a crisis in bourgeois Cartesian individualism leading to a work (of art) alienated from its producer (the author, who cedes authority, here not in the first instance to the reader but to the indeterminable dialogic subjects of the dramatic monologue), leans heavily, almost certainly too heavily, on a single long interpretation of "Pictor Ignotus." It is a way of thinking about the relation between a literary form and a cultural-economic context (superstructure and infrastructure) useful enough in itself but much too speculative in form. Obviously we badly need more comprehensive and fully worked out approaches to both Browning's own discourse on politics and society and his larger place in a rapidly changing Victorian world.
The coordinate subject of history was of course much more directly a concern of the poet and has elicited regular critical comment since, from the only somewhat useful research into the real history behind Browning's poems, undertaken with the rather naive aim of seeing how true Browning's poetry was to history, to the sophisticated historiographical comments of Morse Peckham. There have not been many persons writing about Browning and history in the last decade, but fortunately there was one good article and a substantial, well-developed book. Lee Baker (VP 24:31-46) drew on Hayden White's rhetorical approach to history writing as necessarily a form of fiction making to contrast Browning and Carlyle. He found Carlyle a romantic ironist (as Ryals has found Browning) but Browning an unselfconscious mythmaker. From this analysis he criticized Peckham's view of Browning as an historical relativist, aware of the limits of all positions, including his own. Mary Ellis Gibson's History and the Prism of Art (1987) was a much larger and more impressive approach to the complexities of this major subject in Browning. She cast a wider net, avoiding reductive descriptions of Browning's involvement with history. Her overall position on Browning's historiography was closer to that of Peckham than Baker. She emphasized Browning's affinities to Carlyle as relativist and ironist: she rightly stressed the concern with history Browning learned in his family, from father and half-brothers. She accepted the influence of Ranke and his school in Browning's concern with sources and accurate evidence but saw this as compatible with a perspective on history that stressed context, cultural history, and the relativism of perspectivism. Clearly there is still an issue that will not go away, as Baker rightly insisted, in Browning's countervailing push—let us call it a force of desire against its own skepticism—to have the record mean something and mean for good. Yet it is Browning's persisting relativism and even skepticism, as Gibson competently showed in her good discussions of the rhetoric of the poems on historical issues, that creates the objective plenitude of his art against the reductive mythmaking of his heart. Better, perhaps, to see the tension between the two historicisms, romantic/prophetic and relativist/skeptical as the determining site of the poems. Gibson makes a case for affinities between Browning's historicism and that of twentieth-century writers; but again, this should be balanced against other points of view, especially Ward's article and the section in Martin's book, both mentioned above, on the differences between Browning and Pound's historicism, which take better account of the radically antihistorical vision of much high modernist art.
A complementary, interesting, and relatively unexplored topic, Browning's relation to the heart of darkness in man's prehistory and in his psyche at least found one able analysis in Dorothy Mermin's "Browning and the Primitive" (VP 20:211-237). Here again Browning is surprisingly in touch with the newer historical—here anthropological—work of students such as Edward Tyler, who saw primitive cultures as the origins, not degradations, of civilized societies. And here again, as Mermin ably showed, Browning counters his own expanding, implicitly relativist vision with his heart's need to impose a Christian mythological pattern—albeit a very sophisticated progressive one—on the span of human history. As interesting was Mermin's sense of Browning's preoccupation in his later works especially, with primitive urges, sexuality, violence, religious ritual, often revealed through dreams and other unconscious phenomena. In this she followed Samuel B. Southwell's Quest for Eros: Browning and "Fifine" (1980). Southwell explored a similar terrain of intellectual history, relating Browning's use of the term "soul" to the emerging concept of the unconscious as outlined by Lancelot Whyte's The Unconscious Before Freud. Like Mermin, he generally saw Browning involved in the fertile discussion of myth, anthropology, primitivism, and sexuality that led both to modern anthropology and Freud. His provocative analysis of Fifine at the Fair seemed more problematic, just because his argument wanted to show what Browning wished to say but dared not. Such an author-, or biography-, centered reading was naturally more effective in suggesting external influences on the poem—the presence of Browning's complicated feelings for the dead Elizabeth, for example—than in fully proving his thesis, that Browning's hidden meaning, the meaning whose name he dared not speak, was a vision of cultural unity built on acceptance of the sexual drive as a central life force. Yet his approach rightly reminded us how very much this poem, which we have tended to treat as a casuistic or metaphysical sport, was involved in the new ideas of woman, sexuality, and primitivism. This area of Browning should not be romanticized into a confrontation between Mr. Browning and the dark gods. Mermin especially sets us on the right track by seeing the emergence of these modern myths of myth, sexuality, and primitivism in Browning as a part of a general intellectual movement in his culture to which, unlike developments in the natural sciences, Browning was rather precisely attuned.
I might end this summary of criticism by daring ourselves to look directly sometimes at the white light that Browning himself mostly avoided: the poetics stated or implicit in his work. What theoretical statement can we find in Browning or create from our reading of his works that might seem somewhat to suffice as an explanation of his unique imagination? Of course answers exist everywhere in all these special studies of aspects of Browning's work. We have been less ready, despite the heady theoretical dialogue of our day, and despite some heavy theoretical statements about Browning, to try a direct art of Browning's poesy. Despite his reticence as a self-explainer, Browning's own statements are not irrelevant. "The Essay on Shelley," as Thomas J. Collins well showed some years ago, offers an elliptic but often stunningly useful system of criticism for speaking of his work. "The Essay on Chatterton," too, as Donald Smalley and I have emphasized, provides ways of talking about Browning's poetic argumentation and his sense of his own development. We have recently had added to this Browning's rather wonderful letter of August 1837 to his French friend, Count Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, in which he sketches his history of his own growth as a poet. In the study of Browning and Ruskin mentioned above, DeLaura, who gave us the unusually self-reflexive Ruskin letters, well used them to define precisely the similarities between Browning and Ruskin's poetics. Christine Froula's article, also mentioned above, has called our attention to the poetics that are somewhat more than half stated in Sordello. Her useful discussion in effect completed the statements of Sordello as a poem about the nature of poetry, seeing Browning advocating a turn from a Shelleyan poetics of inspiration to an exploratory and open-ended engagement with experience, in which the reader is involved in the process of making the poem. Her more direct attempt to formulate a poetics from Browning's agonizing self-inquiry into his art in Sordello built upon, or had clear parallels to, the excellent reading of the project of the early Browning that we have had especially in the books by Tucker, Ryals, and Latané.
Perhaps most important, Daniel Karlm's study of the letters of Robert and Elizabeth has amply shown what a helpful ring of keys they are to unlock both poets' poetics as well as their hearts. The problem was of course following their private, allusive, and especially elliptic (indeed filled with actual ellipses) way of discussing their ideas and aspirations for their poetry. Karlin saw Robert creating Elizabeth to take the place of the Shelleyan poet and then using this formulation to reestablish his own view of himself as different from this romantic idea of a poet who is the poetry he speaks.
By contrast, Browning is almost morbidly aware that he speaks not as the linnets sing but through the forms of poetry and the cultural artifice of words. Since Rader's 1976 article, mentioned above, there has been little work directly on issues of genre in Browning, nothing to compare with the earlier work of Donald S. Hair in Browning's Experiments with Genre (1972). Exceptions might be Martin's book, which as I noted brought various theoretical perspectives to bear in explaining the production and nature of the dramatic monologue, or the genre discussions implicit in reader-response approaches to the dramatic monologue. There have been few works—William Butts on Menippean satire in Caliban (SBHC 13:24-36) and Allan Dooley on The Ring and the Book as epic and anti-epic (BIS 15:137-150) are two exceptions—that look directly at Browning's parodie genius in recasting and replaying traditional genres with seemingly effortless dexterity and unlimited resourcefulness. John Woolford's recent book called attention to a special kind of genre in Browning, which he called the structured collection of groups of dramatic monologues.
There has also been nothing on the varieties of resources in language in Browning to compare with Park Honan's 1961 Browning's Characters. With some success, both Martin and Gibson risked making their already somewhat prolix books too diffuse in order to include chapters linking their general topics to analysis of style and diction. Gibson saw Browning's commitment to the objective detail of recorded history and to accepting life lived through history finding its parallel in a language filled with colloquial speech, hard, knotty, and difficult style, and the resistant "clayey soil" of specific words for real things, people, places. She then suggested a system of variation from this standard diction by which characters are satirized through grandiloquent speech or elevated by sincere lyric. This was useful for certain poems but, unlike Honan's study, it tended to reduce Browning's infinite variety too much to one plain song—that indeed of an essentially prose Browning. In a chapter on "The Being Written" Martin used a linguistic analysis, primarily of progressive verb forms, to show on a local level how Browning finds a way of communicating open-ended process rather than closed and complete being. As he acknowledged, this was a systematically formulated parallel to the similar analyses of processive effect in Tucker's readings of Browning's poems. Oddly, the analysis of individual poems is more persuasive, because it seems clearly to hold true for the poem in question. Martin's broader description of "typical" Browning linguistic effects left me uneasily aware of its unscientific form and uneasy about the intimidating computer studies, comparing Browning's usages to norms in other poets (or average great poets!) that could back a proper linguistic study.
Objective scholarship will always be with us—and indeed we have great reason to be thankful for the painstaking and careful labors in the vineyards of a number of biographical scholars and editors. The emphasis for the eighties should be on the fine work of editors. In biography there have been no full-length studies to succeed Irving and Honan's 1974 The Book, the Ring and the Poet or, if I do say so myself, my own 1977 study of the formative period and culture, Browning's Youth. Donald Thomas' survey biography, Robert Browning: A Life Within a Life (1982), merely retold others' tales, often without even using the latest scholarship. Gridley's study of the Brownings in France provided important new information and a gracious account of the Brownings' infatuation with France, Paris, and all things French. Korg's study of Browning and Italy, with less new information and a far less surprising story to tell, did recount gracefully Browning's once lyric, later somewhat tired love affair with Italy. The much briefer fling with Russia was carefully reported, with some important new detail, in Waddington's study. Perhaps most important, Daniel Karlin's reading of those perplexing and voluminous love letters from the Cherokee, also noted above, provided the best plotting and psychological analysis of the real courtship years that we have. We should be grateful for a number of other special studies in biography, John Coulter's (BSN 15, nos. 2-3:3-19) identification of the Brownings' residence at New Cross from work in local records; Richard Purdy's (YULG 61:143-153) gracious summary of the relation with Ripert-Monclar, now available in the record of the letters as well; and Meredith's Raymond (SBHC 14:32-62) well-researched and well-presented account of the Brownings' magnificent Maecenas, John Kenyon. These most illuminating stabs into the relative dark of Browning's biography suggest how much more could be accomplished through determined biographical research. Honan's treatment of the late Browning, my own of the early life and culture, and many of these specialized studies rightly begin with the assumption that the biography of Browning is not complete in detail, is filled with traditional myths and pieties that need critical examination, and is, like criticism, and despite its dependence on the good gold of fact, finally a matter of individual fabrication and interpretation—and thus always beginning over again with each new student of the poet and his life.
This survey of the decade's work in Browning studies, which seems to me to be reporting in fact some substantial new strengths, if also some relative weaknesses, in our contemporary current of ideas about Browning, is structured to end in any case on an upbeat. I have been suggesting how much more than we may like to think our critical approaches to Browning have grown out of and built on the tradition of discourse about him and his work. In the record of editing this is more obvious. The work of generations in assembling and editing the full record of Browning works and letters has been coming to remarkable fruition. The achievement of the last decade was striking. From its position as one of the weakest (and indeed even rather ridiculed) areas of basic scholarship in Victorian literature, Browning studies now stand fair to be one of the best and most sophisticated. And, as often, sophistication here has come in the maturing theoretical study of editing to mean both great knowledge and also a willingness to live in awareness of diversity and differences of opinion. Oddly, it was more lack of knowledge than of sophistication that brought Browning editing efforts in the 1970s into disrepute. The now notorious first four volumes of the Ohio Browning foundered especially over the ignorance of the entire Browning world about Browning's own writing, editing, and publishing practices and the location and even existence of certain manuscripts and revises. That lack has been and is still being rather massively corrected. Part of the problem was the incredible dispersion of Browning family letters, manuscripts, and books at the great Sotheby sale in 1913, at which the entire remains of the poet's literary life were sold off in large lots, often to other booksellers who kept breaking them down and dispersing them to buyers throughout the world.
Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, lately assisted in part of their work by Betty Coley, have done us all a truly major benefit in tracking down as many of these materials as they could and cataloging them carefully in two essential works of reference: The Brownings' Correspondence: A Checklist, published by Kelley and Hudson in 1978, and The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction (1984), compiled by Kelley and Coley. The latter completed this great task of reassembling the collection in catalog form in a magnificent way. It gave Browning students—both those of Robert and Elizabeth—a single invaluable source for locating manuscripts, proofs, revises, corrected copies, notebooks, diaries, address books, memoranda, and even all the known copies of Pauline. 2519 books of Browning or his family were identified—albeit some, here, as in other parts of the Reconstruction, only by booksellers' references—as well as presentation copies, association copies and manuscripts, and even lists of likenesses and photos, works of art, and household and personal effects, including 37 known locks of hair of the Brownings! We are now far more in control of the primary information available on Browning than on most other Victorian writers: a major, foundational achievement.
Kelley and Hudson, whose grasp seems surprisingly well suited to their bold reach, have added to this great work with the very solid beginnings of another—publication of The Brownings' Correspondence. There have now appeared seven volumes. All, certainly including the most recent (1989), maintained impressively high standards not only of comprehension and editorial accuracy—which we expected—but also of scholarship and annotation, where Hudson's work splendidly complemented Kelley's assembling and editing. The publication, a cost-efficient operation through Kelley's Wedgestone Press, has also been splendid: handsome, spacious, beautifully illustrated volumes that recall fine academic editions of an earlier decade. The generous inclusion of reprints of all contemporary reviews of the time period at the end of each volume has been a bonus that has already proven of great value in critical and reception studies, where we can all substitute our own appraisal of what the critics of the age said for the inherited, usually reductive and anecdotal, wisdom about Robert's reception.
With all this, the student of Robert may be nonetheless not a little disappointed to find how little of him has appeared in the seven volumes so far, where he is outwritten by his spouse-to-be far more than seven to one (volumes 6 and 7, June 1842 to October 1843 have, respectively, 19 and 7 letters to and from Robert and 147 and 225 to and from Elizabeth). Doubtless the Robert Browning scholar would have been better served for the early period, before the convergence of the twain, by one separate (and rather slim) volume, though already in volumes 6 and 7 some references to each other and different perspectives on contemporary events—for instance, Elizabeth's interesting comments on Macready's damning Robert's new play A Blot—show the eventual advantage of full com bined publication when they do couple. On the face of it, there were also few major additions to Browning's record for this period, perhaps mainly the letters to Ripert-Monclar that had been in Professor Purdy's private collection. Browning has been on the whole very successful in covering his early tracks. Yet just because of the scarcity of information on his early life, we should be doubly appreciative of the comprehensive method that has presumably brought virtually every scrap there is to proper publication. To take the most recent volumes again as examples, 9 of the 16 by Robert in volume 6, and 3 of the 6 in volume 7 were previously unpublished. If most of the new letters are, as typically with Robert, brief, unrevealing, embarrassed, or all three, they also often provide important new details for what are otherwise entirely blank months in the record or, sometimes, offer new perspectives—as the letter in volume 6 showing Robert asking Macready to help him divide A Blot into three acts from five and planning to revise the play "while the printers have it in hand"! The editors' inclusion of a further section of supporting documents is also helpful, but here probably they will find their record less definitive; I also thought the biographical sketches, often of well-known folk, usually unnecessary, though they might interest the casual reader, if there are any, of these volumes.
Complementary to this excellent, ongoing work have been Ian Jack's collection of letters to James T. Fields, Browning's American publisher (HLQ 45:185-199), and Michael Meredith's handsome book, More Than Friend (1985), publishing the letters to his affluent American Friend in his autumn years, Katharine de Kay Bronson. Meredith annotated these interesting letters carefully and also provided a graceful and informative introduction; I must say I was skeptical of his attractive thesis, that an autumn friendship was also more: an Indian Summer passion. The mystery of Browning's late romantic life would seem to be other than we naturally think: not who was he with after Elizabeth but why was he generally still with her (love, guilt, convenience, habit?). Daniel Karlin's edition of Robert and Elizabeth's Courtship Correspondence (1989) is an attractive selection, about one half of the letters in the full, monumental Elvan Kintner edition and a good deal less than that in bulk. It is a reader's edition, focusing on the love tale to the exclusion of much of the literary and other gossip. I am not sure why the text had to be re-edited: annotation is itself useful, giving the common reader much of the helpful perspective and analysis provided in Karlin's earlier fine book on the letters. Finally, Mark Samuels Lasner (BIS 15:79-88) ably provided the context for his discovery of Browning's interesting first letter to Rossetti in William Allingham's commonplace book.
As for manuscripts other than letters, Craig Turner well edited the odd journal of Browning's envious and rather untrustworthy cousin in The Poet Robert Browning and his Kinsfolk by his Cousin Cyrus Mason (1983). Turner impressively eschewed overplaying his material, giving us an objective and critical view of this document which, brought out otherwise, could have generated any number of new Browning myths, those hydra things. Another odd but interesting set of documents, the acting versions of Strafford, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, and Colombe's Birthday, published in facsimile, without apparatus, and too quietly in a Salzburg series by James Hogg (from the Lord Chamberlain's collection in the British Library), is now available from Longwood (U.S.A.) along with Hogg's companion volume summarizing criticism of Browning's plays. The edition complements Anneliese Meidl's (BIS 12:163-188) report of the Strafford text.
So much new information, very much including investigation in the 1970s of two separate records of Browning's revisions of the first ten volumes of his 1888-1889 The Poetical Works (the Dykes Campbell copies in the British Library and a list for volumes 4-10 at Brown) and useful commentary on Browning's publishing practices by Ian Jack (BIS 15:161-175) and Michael Meredith (SBHC 13:97-107), have improved, or are still improving, all three new editions of Browning's work. After the fiasco of the first four volumes of the Ohio Browning we have had a rare corroboration of Milton's faith that truth would not be put to the worse in a fair grapple with falsehood. We now have three acceptable versions of truth about texts of Browning's works and a fourth announced as on its way. The only completed text was that in the Penguin/Yale series of The Poems (1981) begun by John Pettigrew and finished by Thomas J. Collins. The two-volume text, which has already become accepted as the current usable scholarly edition for classes and most students, accepted Browning's last wishes as known by the volumes of The Poetical Works emended by his authoritative corrections for the second impression of the first ten volumes. The editors have implicitly followed Morse Peckham's persuasive argument, made by his edition of Sordello (1977), that editors must scrutinize the final text for printers' errors introduced in successive editions or even the poet's own repeated mistakes. There are corrections indicated, though perhaps fewer than one would suspect to be there. Annotation was a particular strength, with Pettigrew's pithy and often witty definitions throwing added salt in the wounds the original Ohio volumes received in reviews of their long, pedantic notes or identifications of Venice. The weakness of this edition was mainly outside the editors' control: Penguin/Yale had already issued Richard Altick's The Ring and the Book in the series; Altick's interesting reprint of the first edition is not compatible with the editorial principles of the Collins-Pettigrew edition nor does it pretend to full annotation. Penguin/Yale also did not find room for the plays; as part of plans to base a concordance on the edition, the plays now have appeared in a separate volume published by Garland (1988) and edited by Collins and Richard J. Shroyer. This is a compatible scholarly text, though again one suspects more errors than are found (Oxford found eleven needing emendation to Collins and Shroyer's six). They have not used some manuscript variants for A Blot and Colombe's Birthday on the view that these are not in direct descent; but Oxford does use them profitably. The annotation was competent, though neither as full or incisive as Penguin/Yale. The brief history of criticism of the plays is a helpful summary essay. The edition will serve its immediate purpose but is not likely to have the practical use of the Penguin/Yale text, which rightly has been having its day while the two editions in progress are slowly appearing.
Ohio has in fact got its act together and come out with a competent volume 5 (1981) of its Complete Works as well as two very useful volumes, 7 (1985) and 8 (1988) of three planned on The Ring and the Book, which has no other full modern edition. (Volume 6, despite some notices to the contrary, has not yet appeared.) Ohio now incorporates manuscript variants and has a good argument for its only slightly different choice of copy-text. (They use the second, 1889, impression of The Poetical Works for volumes 1-10 rather than 1888 as Penguin/Yale and Oxford, with the updated rationale that Browning's actual changes may amount to more than the two records of changes Penguin/Yale and Oxford use and that the later text is reliable because the plates were changed only where Browning called for changes.) They are now especially suspicious of the copy-text as one that may carry forward or create error. Volume 8 emends the text in twenty-two places and restores lost line breaks accurately. The texts in my examinations were very accurate, unlike the earlier volumes, and annotation was far better focused than before and yet often generous and well researched.
The special value of the Ohio text was in fact one of its features that first provoked most vehement criticism. By providing a record of all the variants, now from manuscript through earlier collected editions to final copy-text, Ohio gave each reader a way of establishing Browning's text at any point in its, and his, career. The implicit challenge to notions of an author as a solid thing existing at only one point in time, when his definitive text was created by his fiat for all time, so troubling in the early 1970s, now seems reasonable enough (pace, Professor Crowder). For different critical purposes we require or prefer different texts. Browning did not generally rewrite his texts as remarkably as a Wordsworth or a Yeats; but he did continuously innovate (as the original Ohio editors rightly noted). For our practical purposes we may have good reason to prefer the earlier Pauline or the manuscript of Paracelsus, the first edition of Dramatic Lyrics (as George Bornstein has argued in an essay in Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections, ed. Neil Fraistat, 1986), or, as John Woolford's recent book interestingly suggests, even to go back to the reordering Browning himself imposed on his dramatic monologues when he collected his works in the 1860s. Ohio gives us the kit to build the text we need: guarantee not valid if not used cautiously and wisely.
The Ohio editors plan—someday—to return to those early volumes and correct. Meanwhile Ian Jack and his associates have published three of the excellent volumes in his projected The Poetical Works. The copy-text was the same as that chosen by Penguin/Yale and it has been especially carefully scrutinized for errors by comparison to manuscripts and revises, wherever available, as well as earlier editions. Jack did not give full variants but he usefully indicated those that seem most important and clearly marked his own emendations. In the case of Pauline and Paracelsus, he published the earlier versions (Pauline, 1833, and the manuscript of Paracelsus). We were not given everything we might want or need; rather, and this is true throughout Jack's edition, we were given the editor's personal but well-seasoned and judicious choices of what seems especially important. (I might say I would have welcomed more parallel texts, say of the first Dramatic Lyrics or Pippa Passes, in volume 3.) Oxford's glory has been its scholarly introductions and annotations. Here Jack has made especially good use of the full biographical record available in the letters, published and unpublished. The introductions really update and replace DeVane on most issues relating to the works published. The notes are especially strong in providing a literary context for Browning, a particularly difficult task for a poet so concerned not to sound like his predecessors. And Jack has not been afraid to befriend the reader and help him through cruxes in meaning, especially in his fine notes on Sordello. Each of the three editions of Browning has notes with different emphases worth consulting. Jack's are, however, generally fuller than Penguin/Yale and better focused than Ohio.
In sum, I think we have great reason to be pleased with the development of all three editions. Penguin/Yale is already available as a very respectable text for the serious student, a great improvement over what we had in general use before, with sharp and lively notes. Ohio, back on its feet, offers an acceptable scholarly text, full annotation, and a unique library-in-one of Browning's different texts. Its The Ring and the Book is immediately useful as the only scholarly text. Oxford is on its way to being the most authoritative and reliable single text, the choice for critical work and the most helpful compilation of information on a poem. If this were not plenty already, we have plans announced by Woolford and Karlin for another text, in the Longman's Annotated English Poets series, that will feature publication of poems in their first printed form, a rival text, in effect, to that of all three other editions.
On this note, with such plenty of good editions on or in hand and promise of a rejuvenated, younger Browning to come, I will end this review. With all the controversy in our current critical, and even editing, worlds Browning has not been neglected. Our criticism has shown him as an especially interesting test case for many of the current critical approaches, or for their opponents. The good of this is of course that we are taking the problem of reading and understanding Browning seriously; we are challenging former readings and approaches, which go dead in any case with mere repetition; or we are being challenged to defend our positions, exhibiting the rationale behind our customary procedures. Major work in editing Browning has both made important new information and texts available and helped us to rethink more carefully our relation to those texts. Put all this in the time capsule and see what it will look like—important or minor—another centenary from now. The level of activity, even the amount of disagreement and excitement over it, assures me that Browning at least will survive for another hundred years.
Abbreviated Journal Titles
- —Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association
- —Browning Institute Studies (later VLC)
- —Browning Society Notes
- —Critical Inquiry
- —English Literary History
- —Huntington Library Quarterly
- —Journal of Narrative Technique
- —Modern Language Review
- —Modern Philology
- —Studies in Browning and His Circle
- —Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
- —Times Literary Supplement
- —Victorian Literature and Culture (formerly BIS)
- —Victorian Poetry
- —Victorian Studies
- —Yale University Library Gazette