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 well as scrupulous—and she is generous. “Most generous of all Ultramontanes, Ward,” intoned Tennyson (uninspiredly) about her grandfather, “Ideal” Ward. Generous, yes—and not so stern a supporter of Papal authority as to be called an Ultramontane. But the generous can drift into the cozy and companionable, and Miss Ward’s biography does not convey what Mrs. Betty Miller’s—with all its guesswork, inspired and otherwise—did convey: that Robert Browning may have been jolly and kind but was also frightening and mysterious.

THE ONLY FRIGHTENING THING about Miss Ward’s book is its jacket. The Private Face here succumbs to surrealism, since the face in profile has crisp whiskers, gallant hair, and a neckerchief, but is blank of all features. The Private Face of Browning is a disturbing blank. And that, after all, is what Henry James adumbrated in his eerie story “The Private Life.” Inspired by Browning, notoriously, insofar as it is about an artist who is a public bore and a private genius (he has two identities)—but relevant to Browning too (albeit based on Lord Leighton) in that other “private life” which it tinglingly evokes for the other artist in the story: Lord Mellifont, who simply ceases to exist when he is on his own. “He couldn’t have been, in the time, anywhere but where I had left him. Yet the place was utterly empty—as empty as this stretch of valley before us. He had vanished—he had ceased to be.” What’s become of Browning since he gave us all the slip?

Ever since Richard Holt Hutton, we have known that Browning was a poetic ventriloquist. The ventriloquist has many identities and no identity, and there are maddening possibilities in his many voices and his metempsychoses. The metempsychotic Browning knows about the psychotic. And his fascinated loathing of mesmerism and spiritualism may be not just a fear of having his self discovered, but of having his lack of a self discovered. “Love in a Life” is certainly a superb poem about not ever being able to catch up with one’s true love, but that need not preclude its also being about the tantalizing fugitiveness of one’s true self:


Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together…
Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune—
Range the wide house from the wings to the center.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest,—who cares?…

It was John Stuart Mill who spoke of Browning’s “self-seeking and self-worshipping state”—and by self-seeking he did not mean careerist. The “morbid self-consciousness” of which Mill spoke, the “curious idealization of self-worship”—these are morbid and curious because what they most seek is the assurance that a self is really there. The Victorian nightmare is of gazing into an empty mirror.

What was Sordello about? “The incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study.” But Browning’s word “development” is an equivocal one. “God is the perfect poet,” he could asseverate—but in an age when His disappearance was suspected (nobody leave the room). Would the perfect poet, then, possess an identity and a self only in the very puzzling sense in which God might be said to possess them? It is to the point that the Keats who postulated “the chameleon poet” is the Keats who could ask “an intelligence—without an Identity?—and how is this Identity to be made?” and who felt the identities of others press upon and virtually extinguish his own.

The suppression of the self by which Browning achieves his unparalleled metempsychoses into “Men and Women” is not unlike those self-extinguishings which are central to both mesmerism and spiritualism—and to acting. Browning was “a capital actor.” He had ambitions as actor as well as playwright, and when he came to friendship with the actor Macready, he addressed him in warm words which have a chill: “You comprehend me as you comprehend Macbeth or Ion.” Well, life and art can be too disjoined, and Macready was indeed a great student of theatrical characters—but most of us would blench at so simply aligning ourselves with the characters of a play.

“Did you ever feel afraid of your own soul, as I have done?” Elizabeth Barrett asked him—she who had thought of writing a play about “a man haunted by his own soul.” But the haunting thing remained that prayer of hers: “Oh, God, if there be a God, save my soul if I have a soul.” Mrs. Carlyle had her doubts about Browning—“he is ‘nothing’ or very little more, ‘but a fluff of feathers!”‘ What then is life?—many nineteenth-century versifiers asked the question. They could fierily repudiate the idea that men are only “magnetic mockeries” (Tennyson), but they could not for long forget the story of Frankenstein. Ruskin wrote to Elizabeth Barrett Browning about the life of the body politic in Italy: “It is not life. It is only galvanism.”

BROWNING’S BEST POEMS are certainly galvanic—and they are studies in galvanism as well as in life. Which is it that animates the Bishop who orders his tomb, or the Duke who orders his new wife? What Miss Ward refers to as the Mystery of Browning is a more nearly total matter, perhaps, than she concedes. And if so, there is something desperately poignant about the interchanges on Elizabeth’s death-bed. “I would say ‘Do you know me’—’know you’ (And then what I can’t write) ‘And you know where you are?’—’Why—not quite.”‘ Has anybody, even once, seen Browning plain? It may not be the fault of the biographers that there hangs around any biography of Browning a bizarre flavor of identikitsch.

The Poetry of Experience is the title of the best book on Browning (that by Robert Langbaum).* Experience was Burton’s way of life too. He had to penetrate everything—disguises, cities, languages, women, and perhaps men (that business about the study of the Karachi male brothel never does get quite satisfactorily cleared up). Other men’s devouring hunger for experience he viewed as odder than his own—Mrs. Brodie records his qualms at the eccentricity of his fellow-explorer Speke, who would eat the embryos of the pregnant animals he killed. (As it is said that the zoologist Buckland set himself to taste all of the animal creation before he died. Skunk and bluebottle were apparently the worst. The poetry of experience meets its match in the zoology of experience.)


Mrs. Brodie’s book is more exciting than Miss Ward’s—Burton led a more exciting set of lives; those lives are less well known than Browning’s: and Mrs. Brodie is a more adventurous biographer. Burton’s exploits are stirring enough in themselves, but he is lucky to have won a biographer so skilled at synthesizing lucidly and at speculating unpretentiously. Isabel Burton thought that she alone was in a position “to lift the veil as to the inner man.” Mrs. Brodie never dodges the inexorable doubt felt by Burton as to whether he really wasn’t unmanned.

The special fascination of this in Burton comes from his own power to formulate all these questions. Himself a liar, he knew that the Sindians lie because they “have a hope of effecting by ‘sayings’ what there are no ‘doings’ to do.” And yet his own lies were splendidly gratuitous, for instead of the fabrication he could quite easily have told as astonishing an unvarnished tale.

He could criticize the plight of any boy at a boarding school in words which were a weapon handed to his critics: “He does not know what to do to show his manliness.” He could and did bite, boasting afterward that his bark was worse. He went in for extravagant self-accusation, in the manner of a cunning murderer who gets himself tried and acquitted, and can never again be indicted on that charge. “A sheep in wolf’s clothing,” they said—but then even the sheep looks a bit fishy. “Playing a part till by habit it becomes a nature”: the conception is Browning-esque.

Mrs. Brodie sees Burton’s passion for translation as a facet of this. “Translation meant wearing the mask of another.” The only occasion when Burton refuses to wear a mask is the one occasion when decorum demands it: in a duel. His scorn of course unnerves his opponent, and Burton wins—a crisp example of his trick of using a hyperbolical vulnerability in order to make himself invulnerable.

In Africa he suffered from nightmares in illness, oppressed by what he called “a queer conviction of divided identity.” He selected for translation a Hindu folktale “Showing that a Man’s Wife belongs not to his Body but to his Head.” A woman magically swaps the heads of her husband and her former suitor: “To which does she belong, the head or the body of her husband?” Yet he did his best to brazen these things out, and roundly told the British National Association of Spiritualists: “Personally I ignore the existence of soul and spirit, feeling no want of self within a self, an I within an I.” An I for an I? It is primitive justice which provides the oddest identity-story in Mrs. Brodie’s book:

He seems to have been the first to point out to Sir Charles Napier—who was most reluctant to believe it—that though he had signed the death warrants of several rich convicted murderers, the actual man hanged was usually a poverty-stricken substitute hired in his stead. Burton interviewed one pauper “badal” who had agreed to be executed for a murder he had not committed and asked him why. “Sain!” came the answer. “I have been a pauper all my life. My belly is empty. My wife and children are half starved. This is fate, but it is beyond my patience. I get two hundred and fifty rupees. With fifty I will buy rich food and fill myself before going out of the world. The rest I will leave to my family. What better can I do, Sain?”

For Dives, the appointment in Sind is less ineluctable than the appointment in Samarra. And the Lazarus is like somebody out of a Browning monologue.

This Issue

December 21, 1967