07 May 2010

'The Glory of His Nature'—Robert Browning

Today, 7 May, is the birthday of the Victorian poet, Robert Browning (1812-1889). Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom write of him, ‘. . . [W]hen you read your way into his world, precisely his largest gift to you is his involuntary unfolding of one of the largest, most enigmatic, and most multi-personed literary and human selves you can hope to encounter.’ [1] And since, of course, the encounter with ‘literary and human selves’ lies at the centre of the Geisteswissenschaften, I find this a very enticing comment indeed. Here is the entry on Browning in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia:

The son of a bank clerk, Browning was long unsuccessful as a poet and was financially dependent upon his family until he was well into adulthood. In his teens, he discovered Shelley and adopted Shelleyian liberalism in opinion and confessionalism in poetry. Accordingly, his first poems—Pauline (1833), Paracelsus (1835), Sordello—were long, personal, and self-consciously poetic, though the latter two supposedly had as their subject actual historic personages. All three works were considered failures, and, from 1837 to 1846, Browning attempted to write verse drama for the stage, again unsuccessfully. In 1845 he met Elizabeth Barrett, then considered one of the outstanding poetsof the day, and married her the following year. Partially because of her ill health and partially because of her father’s opposition to the marriage, Browning took his wife to Italy and remained there until her death in 1861. The story of their love has been dramatized by Rudolf Besier in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Pippa Passes, a dramatic poem included in the collection Bells & Pomegranates (1841-46), was among Browning’s first significant works; Pippa, a little Italian girl, passes by singing and unwittingly influences the lives of four groups of people. During
the next twenty-five years, Browning published many volumes of poetry, all of which sold badly: Dramatic Lyrics (1842), which contained ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Closter’, and ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’; Dramatic Romances & Lyrics (1845), which included ‘How the Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ and ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’; Christmas Eve & Easter Day (1850), a long poem; and Men & Women (1855), which contained many of his best-known poems: ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, Andrea del Sarto’, ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’, ‘Two in the Campagna’, and ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral’. In the collection Dramatis Personae (1864) were included ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ and ‘Prospice’.

After forty years of poetic obscurity, Browning abruptly came into his own with the publication of the massive ‘The Ring & the Book’. The story, which Browning found in an old manuscript, deals with a 17th-century murder case. In the poem, each of twelve characters presents his view of the action in a long dramatic monologue.

Though his philosophy is now considered less profound than it was at the heigh of his success, Browning is notable for his psychological insight into character and motivations; his sometimes abrupt but forceful colloquial English; his perfection of the form of the dramatic monologue, in which a speaker tells something of himself and reveals more than he intends or realizes; his learning; and his predilection for Italian Renaissance subjects. [2]

Trilling and Bloom call Browning ‘by temperament and belief, . . . one of the most vehement Protestants in the language’. [3] Psychologising in the extreme, they write of his religion that his mother ‘was an evangelical Protestant, and her dissenting religious views, though in altered form, were always to remain vital in Browning’s consciousness.’ Finally, the esteemed editors go on to tell us: ‘Under the impact of Shelley’s spirit, Browning renounced his mother’s religion. . . . His attachment for his mother proved immediately more compelling than his need for his own integrity, and he yielded. Something fundamental in him was never to forget.’ [4] Terry Glaspey, however, in his delightful little Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading, says of Browning, ‘The intensity of Browning’s faith shows itself in many of his poems. He is the rare poet who can write of spiritual things in such a way that they communicate even to the unbeliever.’ [5]

Without a doubt, Browning’s best-known lines are in the first of thirty-two stanzas that make up ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’, a poem about old age in which the speaker is supposed to be the mediæval Jewish scholar and astrologer, Abraham ben Meïr ibn Ezra (c. 1092-1168):

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’ [6]

My comment about the stanzas of course hints at a problem that may well have helped to keep Browning’s work little-read these days: his poems are usually pretty long. But of course, they are also very obscure. Edward Berdoe, in the preface to the 2nd edition of his Browning Cyclopædia agrees, ‘With the exception of certain superfine reviewers, to whom nothing is obscure—except such things as they are asked to explain without previous notice—every one admits that Browning requires mor or less elucidation.’ [7] This is precisely why the title page of the same work tells us that it is equipped ‘with Copious Explanatory Notes & References on all Difficult Passages’!

Anthony Esolen spends the first chapter of Ironies of Faith analysing Browning’s ‘longest and most difficult work, The Ring & the Book’, which Esolen calls ‘a masterpiece of Christian poetry’. Browning is said to have written it ‘to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another’ because of the limits placed on their vision by ‘their moral compromises’. [8] The central idea is summarised in some lines (7.918-29) spoken by the heroine, Pompilia, whose ‘humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else’: [9]

So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man, 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 crystal 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.’ [10]

As Esolen comments, ‘We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.’ [11]

I have also found myself drawn to Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The title is taken from King Lear III.iv.187-89:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still,—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man. [12]

But as Tom Shippey has observed, it is much older than Shakespeare—‘The line obviously comes from some lost ballad telling the story of how Child Roland [13] went to Elfland to rescue his sister from the wicked King, a monster-legend, a Theodoric-story.’ [14] At any rate, Browning has turned it into a poem that is dark in more ways than one. As the speaker says in the seventh stanza (ll. 37-42):

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among ‘The Band’—to wit,
The kinghts who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit? [15]

Trilling and Bloom call it a ‘nightmare poem’ which, while having ‘no overt allegorical purpose’, is full of phantasmagoria ‘so powerful as to invite many allegorizings’. [16] Thus, Berdoe informs us:

For my own part, I see in the allegory—for I can consider it no other—a picture of the Age of Materialistic Science, a ‘science falsely so called’, which aims at the destruction of all our noblest ideals of religion and faith in the unseen. The pilgrim is a truth-seeker, misdirected by the lying spirit—the hoary cripple, unable to be or do anything good or noble himself; in him I see the cynical, destructive critic, who sits at our universities and colleges, our medical schools and our firesides, to point our youth to the desolate path of Atheistic Science, a science which strews the ghastly landscape with wreck and ruthless ruin, with the blanching bones of animals tortured to death by its ‘engines and wheels, with rusty teeth of steel’ . . . . Most of the commentators agree that when Childe Roland ‘dauntless set the slug horn to his lips and blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”’, he did so as a warning to others that he had failed in his quest, and that the way of the Dark Tower was the way of destruction and death. [17]

Of course, it should not be supposed that Browning is all ‘destruction and death’. I was delighted and amused by a poem in nine stanzas that I chanced across once among his Complete Poetic & Dramatic Works, called ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. Berdoe’s entry on the title summarises the poem thusly: ‘The name of some old scholar, who has wirtten a book, which is read by a profane fellow in a garden, who throws it into a decaying tree, there to be in company with congenial fungi.’ [18] It is enough to produce a shudder in any bibliophile, a feeling compounded for me by the fact that I was reading it in an 1895 Riverside Press edition. Finally, the profane fellow, taking pity ‘for learning’s sake’, fishes out the unfortunate volume:

Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all of the binding all of a blister.
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow:
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!

How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover?
—When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet? [19]

[1] Lionel Trilling & Harold Bloom, Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1974), p. 494.

[2] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), pp. 132-3.

[3] Trilling & Bloom, p. 393. Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister is noted for its reflection of his ‘extreme Protestant prejudices’ (ibid., p. 500).

[4] Ibid., p. 492.

[5] Terry W. Glaspey, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 43.

[6] The Complete Poetic & Dramatic Works of Robert Browning (Cambridge Edition) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895), p. 383.

[7] Edward Berdoe, The Browning Cyclopædia: A Guide to the Study of the Works of Robert Browning, 2nd ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1924), p. v.

[8] Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2007), p. 1.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Browning, pp. 516-7.

[11] Esolen, p. 5.

[12] A.L. Rowse, ed., The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. III: The Tragedies & Romances (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 382.

[13] ‘Child’ being ‘a term specially applied to the scions of knightly families before their admission to the degree of knighthood’ (Berdoe, p. 103), and Roland being the hero of the Song of Roland.

[14] T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (London: Grafton, 1992), p. 165.

[15] Browning, p. 287.

[16] Trilling & Bloom, p. 528.

[17] Berdoe, pp. 104-5.

[18] Ibid., p. 472.

[19] Browning, p. 167.


Steve said...

I've seen the excerpt you quoted ("Grow old along with me. . . .")abbreviated significantly, using the first half as a simplistic epigram meaning "try to be happy in old age!" But seeing again the whole thing in the context of your thoughts about Browning's work reminds us that the Creator God is at the heart of RB's encouragement. (A notable exception to the shortening abuse: that old, dusty tome "Seasons of the Spirit" uses the full quote on the opening page!!)

Extollager said...

Here's what I wrote on Tolkien and Browning for the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (ed. Michael Drout):

Tolkien claimed to “loathe” the “Pied Piper” of Robert Browning (1812-1889) (Letters 311). Imagery and thematic material in Browning’s “‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’” however, seem likely to have contributed to LOTR. The “Dark Tower” is a name for Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr (LOTR 245). Phrases describing the poem’s wasteland strongly suggest the approaches to the Dark Land and the ash-smirched leagues of Mordor: “grey plain,” grass that grows “scant as hair / In leprosy,” “Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth,” “blotches rankling” “two hills …. Crouched like two bulls locked horn and horn in fight” (Browning); “Hard and cruel and bitter was the land that met his gaze,” “tormented earth,” the Tower of Cirith Ungol having a “horn,” etc. (to take a few phrases from one page of LOTR, 879). While a “red eye” glares across Sauron’s domain (LOTR 634, 716), in Browning’s poem the setting sun “shot one grim / Red leer” across the landscape. The weary narrator of Browning’s poem cannot recall anything pure and good, while Frodo loses the ability to remember the Shire (LOTR 897) and professes to have no hope left (907). The Dead Marshes, so often associated with Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of the Great War, may also have been suggested by a shallow river in Browning’s poem; when the narrator fords it, he fears that he will “set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” and that, as he tests the depth with his spear, his weapon will catch in a corpse’s tangled hair (compare LOTR 613).