That Old Identity Game

Robert Browning and His World: The Private Face

by Maisie Ward
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 318 pp., $8.50

The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton

by Fawn M. Brodie
Norton, 390 pp., $6.95

Robert Browning
Robert Browning; drawing by David Levine

Robert Browning and Sir Richard Burton—have they much in common apart from their initials? Both were poets (one truly a poet). Both were travelers, translators, men of cranky but encyclopaedic learning. Both were fascinated by language and languages, by exotic situations and outré cruelty, by disguises, acting, and hypocrisy (all the actors in ancient Greece were hypocrites). “Discovery is my mania”: the words which are Burton’s might have been Browning’s. Both were explorers—Burton penetrating the sources of the Nile, Mecca, and Salt Lake City; Browning penetrating other ages and other values, the minds and hearts of the fanatic, the casuist, and the murderer. Both manifested a skepticism laced with fascination toward hypnotism and spiritualism. Both were married to women of extraordinary talent and will power. Both were hunger-bitten. They may have hankered for love, fame, and wisdom, but what they hungered to be given was experience—and both found that the giving famishes the craving. Neither of them was a nobody.

Tennyson excoriating a critic, “Somebody being a nobody.” Emily Dickinson lethally and sweetly questioning, “I’m nobody—who are you?” Alice seeing nobody on the road, and being congratulated on her eyesight. The nineteenth century was not in fact the first to toy with this way of speaking, but it was the nineteenth century which had a thing about it. Earlier ages had dismissed people socially as nobodies and nonentities, but such words only gathered very much to themselves in the age when personal identity came more and more to seem an obsessive mystery, a burden, and even (some feared) a fraud. The words of the popular novelist Mrs. Gore in 1846 now seem to point to more than mere social snobbery: “Byron characterized our century as ‘The Age of Bronze.’ The truth would be far greater, were it defined as ‘the age of non-entityism.”‘

Neither Burton nor Browning was a nonentity. The Devil Drives is the title of Fawn Brodie’s colorful life of Burton, and if we were to ask “which devil?” one answer might be “an age of non-entityism.” When she finally seeks the core of the life of this man who had more lives than a cat (and not just in the sense of lucky escapes), she sees no more certain core than Burton’s own seeking. “The most arresting and significant aspect of Burton’s life was his ceaseless search for an identity.” Search, and doubt: Burton is a contemporary of Peer Gynt’s onion.

So is Browning. Peer Gynt appeared in 1867, three years after Burton’s A Mission to Gelele and Browning’s Dramatis Personae. Browning’s lightning power to enter into those “Dramatis Personae” is not in question—but was it a matter of extinguishing his own personality or of not really having a personality to extinguish? Maisie Ward’s first volume of Robert Browning and His World (it ends with the death of Elizabeth) is called The Private Face. Miss Ward is robust as…

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