Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Portrait of Robert Browning by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1855)

[Image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

This post compiles all the pieces that I've written about Browning. The two most substantial pieces appeared in Intercapillary Space, so I've just given links to them.


Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.


Strafford (1837)


"Bishop Blougram’s Apology" (published in Men and Women, 1855)

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.


Everyone who has done the canon knows a few things about Browning. They know that he is copiously good. Also, that he isn’t good like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Keats’ odes. (You can read Men and Women with exuberant pleasure, but you don’t bother to learn any of his lines by heart.) Finally, that apart from the copiously good there is also a more-than-copious not-so-good, mainly in the last twenty years of his career, and there’s no conceivable requirement to dip into it.

So finding yourself in company with a volume of late Browning is a very liberating experience, though it is death to stay there.

Ferishtah’s Fancies (1884), published when the author was 72, is in no way outstanding. The man who had produced a great collection (Men and Women) was as interested as ever in the shape of a collection, and this one is typically complex, the poems about the Persian philosopher (a pleasant image of the ageing author) interspersed with slight love-lyrics that play with the same themes. In the “Prologue” Browning supplies us with the image of spitted ortolans separated from each other by bread and sage-leaves.

Browning’s “poems” are, as Wilde acutely noted, a new kind of form that is close to prose. Much of it is barely more exciting than prose:

Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
As wholly love allied to ignorance!
There lies thy truth and safety. Love is praise,
And praise is love! Refine the same, contrive
An intellectual tribute – ignorance
Appreciating ere approbative
Of knowledge that is infinite? With us
The small, who use the knowledge of our kind
Greater than we, more wisely ignorance
Restricts its apprehension, sees and knows
No more than brain accepts in faith of sight,
Takes first what comes first, only sure so far. 

It is, no doubt, rather frustrating that this is not “even” very limpid prose. The last sentence in this passage draws a parallel between the infinite knowledge of God and the merely “greater” knowledge of our more skilled peers, but the parallel is hardly laid out to the eye, and the curious expression “our kind greater than we” is a positive hindrance to understanding. Yet this casualness of exposition is important. It took me several readings of Shah Abbas to grasp exactly what the point of difference was between the two speakers – this is because the speakers are not lecturing, and some things are just implied in the tone. Towards the end of A Bean-stripe, a moving conciseness is achieved by the speakers’ digressiveness; the proposed discussion is in effect cancelled by the influx of solider things. From there I quote some examples of the poetry that lies lurking in the seams of the argument:

- Those Seven Thrones, Zurah’s beauty, weird Parwin!

Then let the stars thank me who apprehend
That such an one is white, such other blue!
But for my apprehension both were blank.
Cannot I close my eyes and bid my brain
Make whites and blues, conceive without stars’ help,
New qualities of colour? Were my sight
Lost or misleading, would yon red – I judge
A ruby’s benefaction – stand for aught
But green from vulgar glass? Myself appraise
Lustre and lustre; should I overlook
Fomalhaut and declare some fen-fire king,
Who shall correct me, lend me eyes he trusts
No more than I trust mine?

Yet I think the most memorable lines are after all quieter and close to prose.

Shelter, of some sort, no experienced chill
Warrants that I despair to find.

And there seems no reason why a valid art could not contain this high proportion of prose-interest to poetry-interest. Obviously, though, the arguments need to be grasped, so here are my brief summaries:

The Eagle: You should work for the world, and be a “helpful strength”.
The Melon-Seller: Do not bewail a fall from grace, but give thinks for your undeserved past happiness.
Shah Abbas: To be right-hearted, to be on the side of God and virtue, is more important than strict belief.
The Family: To pray is human. To submit to God’s will too easily may be less than human.
The Sun: In praising, we attribute a human aspect to the divine.
Mihrab Shah: The existence of pain is necessary for us to give thanks to God and love to each other.
A Camel-Driver: God does not punish like man may need to.
Two Camels: Enjoy the good things in life – it makes you more fit for work, and more aware of what joy is.
Cherries: Give praise for the smallest things, don’t despise them for the greater things you hardly understand.
Plot-Culture: God does not need to spy on the details of sensual love.
A Pillar at Sebzevar: Love is sure, knowledge is uncertain.
A Bean-Stripe; also, Apple-Eating: This is the most substantial poem in the collection; a discussion that begins with whether life is good or bad; it sinks all in man’s impotence and God’s omnipotence, and in the humbly optimistic faith of one who does not try to know too much.

Browning’s later career of course attracts the charge of facile optimism, as well as that damning facility for verse.  To do him justice, he is prepared to defend the optimism. I don’t know why we should be so unforgiving to this aspect of the late Victorian sages, when there is a clear line of descent to the scientific writers of today, whose universal optimism is a matter of no note.

[nb this sentence was written with a memory of Gregg Easterbrook’s remarkable A Moment on the Earth (1995) and Adam Philips’s Darwin’s Worms (1999), where the blurb’s statement that the author “unexpectedly finds much to celebrate” unwittingly emphasises just how expected, in another sense, it all is.]

Browning was a happy poet. Of Browning’s optimism we can say in reproof that he ignored – well, the Victorian slums, for instance. Yet he saved Elizabeth Barrett; through egocentrism and ignorance, it may be, but I don’t know that. I have to listen to his sanity, cheerfully selfish though it may have been. It is the selfish and rich who are intelligent.  Charity exacts a cost. If you love your neighbour, as Browning perhaps did not do (I mean in a practical way), do not suppose that you will write better, or even think better, as a result. On the contrary, to fight evil is to court the probable infection of evil. You must do it, if you’re going to do it, only because it’s right.

Did Browning, we may wonder, take drugs, or was it a natural high? Was it just his temperament? In the Prologue to the Parleyings with Certain People (1887), he puts it down to wine – this poem, which considers his own cheerfulness, pursues many of the same themes as A Bean-Stripe.

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day (1887)

By the time of Men and Women (1855) Browning had developed the form of the dramatic monologue (DM) to a stage where it seems to us simply a natural form that we accept unquestioningly – and this was a monumental achievement.

The problem arose when he tried to think about what he was doing in an analytical way. He observed that the material of a DM was highly partial, usually chosen by the speaker to defend his own way of life. In The Ring and the Book (1868-69) he had the idea of composing a multiplicity of DMs that all addressed the same material. This would make clearer the partiality of each speaker; it would also supply a peculiarly rich presentation of the material itself, presented from many different viewpoints. But when we try to read the Ring and the Book we see that the experiment fails. Because each speaker is made to go over the same ground, s/he is inevitably compelled to rehearse long stretches of material that shed no interesting light on her/his character. Nor does the story itself gain greatly from this repetition; where slight contradictions appear, we are left not with a deeper insight but merely with doubt. 

The Parleyings, too, have the air of being composed in response to an over-schematic idea. The speaker is Browning, and the “people” (they are all men, by the way) are brought in to inspire his meditations on a number of interlinked themes. These, we might suppose, are the sort of thought-processes that precede the composition of DMs. But in the Parleyings, instead of progressing to writing the DMs, Browning versifies the notes. In principle, and occasionally in practice, this allows him to introduce frankly contemporary material – instead of composing a historical fiction, he can openly ponder the relevance of the past to his present. But this constitutes a loss of belief in poetry – what we value in the younger Browning is not his ideas, but his fiction.

(My prose – your poetry I dare not give,
purpling too much my mere grey argument)

he writes, as an aside, in Christopher Smart – and these are among the more memorable lines, because one tends to concede the rightness of Browning’s choice of colours. Yet the Parleyings deserve some attention.

Apollo and the Fates: A Prologue.  (The meter is similar to the Epilogue; galloping stanzas rhyming ababb where a is normally disyllabic.)  Apollo visits the Fates to plead for the life of Admetus. They scornfully point out that the life of man is mere misery; happiness only an illusion. Apollo persuades them to drink wine, man’s consolation, and they become temporarily merry, and applaud man’s potential and stubborn survival – “no defeat but a triumph”.  But then a mysterious “explosion at the earth’s centre” sobers them. Man is fated, they re-assert. But they grant Apollo’s plea for Admetus if anyone, for love’s sake, will offer to die for him. Apollo agrees, and sees his relatives contending for the honour. And sees Admetus refuse them – he’d rather die. The Fates laugh, interpreting this as a confirmation of their argument and a thwarting of Apollo’s plan. Our own response is more ambiguous, of course.

Bernard de Mandeville.  The central part of the poem is (I find) extremely obscurely expressed, but the basic argument is clear. A “parlous friend” asks for one plain demonstration that God is on the side of good. Browning argues by analogy; it’s impossible to comprehend the sun doing good, but thanks to Prometheus we have the little gift of fire and with it can do good ourselves. Not intellectual knowledge which fails before immensities, but our mere senses and our practical application, are enough to supply the faith that is wanted. [The poem’s drift became somewhat clearer once I looked up Mandeville, and learned that his idea was that in society individual evil such as pride and avarice led to the common good – for instance, by boosting the economy. It was an argument whose sources can be guessed at, for instance, in the medieval poem Wynnere and Wastoure – but after Mandeville it became dominant in economic thinking. Browning considers only the moral aspect, and seems to approve of it.]

Daniel Bartoli.  Largely devoted to the story of a woman who gives up a great Duke’s love so that he can retain his political power. Browning finds “saintship” in this worldly chronicle (not in a legendary) – he means the woman’s, though her life is not religious. He even finds something to please him in the duke, who tamely goes along with this (i.e. gives her up) – at least he too was once devoted to love, and though now a mere ghost of his past idealism, might rise again to that splendour.  

Christopher Smart.  Browning wonders why Smart produced only one inspired work (i.e. the Song to David). Browning seems to approve Smart’s humility in retiring to commonplace once the visionary experience had passed away, and contrasts him with those who seek “the end ere the beginning”. But the last section is confusing.

George Bubb Dodington. Concerned with statesmanship, and the politician’s habit of feathering his own nest. Browning decides (for the sake of argument) to accept this selfish motive as valid, but criticizes GBD for advising the statesman to adopt a sham zeal which will deceive no-one. Suggests that the statesman should go further and create in us a sense of awe by revealing his blatant lack of human conscience; behaviour which might persuade us, perhaps, that he is mystifyingly superhuman and thus merits our subservience. In George Bubb Dodington it’s quite clear that Browning doesn’t mean what he’s saying – this is an example of what (I think) is meant by Browning’s “casuistry”.

Francis Furini. FF was a painter-priest who painted nudes as well as religious subjects and who, according to legend, requested on his death-bed that his works be destroyed. But Browning refuses to credit this legend – assumes that Francis was a defender of the noble profession of art. Imagines him addressing the sceptical evolutionists and other speculators – putting forward the nobility of the body and man’s own desire for righteousness as signs of the innate goodness of the world. This “starting from what we know” links up with Christopher Smart and with Ferishtah’s optimism; it’s a fairly plain statement of what Browning himself had, it seems, come to think of as his “philosophy”.

Gerard de Lairesse. A fanciful and mythological writer, because he became blind? But Browning tries to achieve an insight into the world that is based only on sober sense and not on fancy. The centrepiece of the poem is a lengthy description of a day, from dawn to dusk, peopled by Lairesse-style imaginings – but Browning calls it “fooling”. Browning criticizes the “Greek” (perhaps Platonic) despair of the world – everything merely a shade. His joy in the actual.

Charles Avison. An organist of Newcastle, who composed a simple march. Browning considers music, an art whose expression of the soul exceeds any other, but which is necessarily transient, displaced by what follows it, so that the music of Avison’s time has no inspiring power for us moderns (e.g. of Browning’s time) who have Wagner and Brahms. And yet the fading is not inglorious. “Soon shall fade and fall / Myth after myth – the husk-like lies I call / New truth’s corolla-safeguard: Autumn comes, / So much the better!”

Fust and his Friends: An Epilogue  The friends, a conventional and benighted crew, come to Fust’s study – he is discovered, a “lost wretch” apparently sunk in despair. They conclude that he has made a pact with the devil. But Fust proudly demonstrates his astonishing invention – a printing press. Fust praises its power for spreading the truth, the faultless multiplication of a psalm. But asked why then he was found in such a woebegone attitude, he confesses his fear of how the press could be used to multiply falsehood. The friends agree – what if another Huss should make use of it? “I foresee such a man”, Fust agrees (i.e. Luther).  The basic connection with the Prologue is the concern (ultimately optimistic) with man’s potential for both good and evil. [Fust was also of interest to Jonathan Oldbuck – see The Antiquary, Ch XI. Scott has the astrologer Galeotti deliver a similar effusion on the ambiguous powers of the printing-press in Quentin Durward, Ch XIII.]

In writing up these notes (which I think ought to be useful, since few will trouble to read such a book) I have injured my vanity, both by admitting that some passages defeat me and also by revealing to a better reader – who I hope may enlighten me – where I’ve unwittingly missed the drift. It can be infuriatingly difficult to follow the argument. Often I am in doubt who is speaking, and whether they are expressing their own beliefs, or putting a case, or surmising or burlesquing someone else’s argument. Often the point at issue is bafflingly buried in the mass of common ground.

It’s easy to see why modernist poets who followed in Browning’s paths decided to drop the interconnecting links between “presentations” (such as a description of the dawn (Gerard de Lairesse) or a visit to a great house (Christopher Smart) or a bird picking at a thread (Charles Avison) and allowed the reader to do the work of inferring a connection between the materials. One can perhaps interpret the unresolvable pseudo-argument of Ashbery’s poetry as a reaction against these disjunct and imagistic “presentations”, in a certain way readmitting the “process” that we meet with in the Parleyings*.  Browning’s subjects are of such a kind that argument is in any case necessarily hazy and/or mercurial. It comes quite close itself to being pseudo-argument, except that there is a repetitious chiming of certain abstract words (such as will and beauty) which had a positive meaning for Browning because of his religion and his culture.

*Note. This has been noticed before, e.g. by Peter Porter.

[2001, 2002, 2007, 2009]

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