In his new biography of Browning, Donald Thomas takes us no great distance into the nature of the poet or his work. Yet the connection between the private man and the poems will tantalize anyone who examines Browning’s career. At the center of the dramatic monologues is usually a revelation of character. The protagonist may not realize what he is disclosing, but the poet lets him deliver facts that keep startling us while the personality that emerges remains stable.
Ultimately, such a poem invites us to think we have understood the speaker, have arrived—perhaps in spite of him—at a sight of a true self. Yet Browning’s narrative method, which is to compete with and outsmart the reader, can be discouraging. Is the poet craftily unveiling an essential reality, or is he determined to show us up?
In the very last lines of “A Forgiveness,” we learn that the monk hearing the confession of a man who has killed his adulterous wife was himself the dead woman’s lover. The turn is perhaps dazzling in conception, but do we not feel tricked? Do we not think of the poet rather than the revelation, and suspect that Browning would top or transform this surprise too if he could?
When the organist, in “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,” complains that he cannot fathom the meaning of the fugue he admires, are we to decide he is too shallow to grasp it, or that the meaning is not there? Browning commented that the fugue performed in the poem was a labyrinth “leading to nothing.” Yet the design of the monologue invites us to believe there is indeed a golden significance hidden from the musician.
The uncertainty whether the poet is cunningly planting genuine clues or playing an unfair game of hide-and-seek may tell us something about Browning’s personality. First with his mother, later with his wife, I think he habituated himself to conniving at opinions and tastes that went against the grain when he let himself reflect on them. Living at home until he was thirty-four, receiving a maternal bedtime kiss every night (regardless of when he came in), he believed that his ailments were often sympathetic with his mother’s.1 To his prospective bride he wrote that the “prolonged relation of childhood” delighted him. “I have been accustomed, by pure choice,” he said, “to have another will lead mine in the little daily matters of life”; and he invited his fiancée to assume such authority (August 13, 1846). Already, he had said, “I cannot presume to suggest thoughts to you, resolutions for the future—you must impart to me always” (August 10, 1846).
Such a pleasure in identifying himself with the character of others must have left him little opportunity to recognize his own. The ambiguity of the poems, I suspect, starts from the poet’s instinct of outward conformity. In her biography, Betty Miller reminds us of how Browning disliked being seen when not fully dressed.2 He wore gloves in all kinds of weather, the hottest as well as the coldest.3 To the woman he was about to marry he wrote,
I shall begin by begging a separate room from yours—I could never brush my hair and wash my face, I do think, before my own father—I could not, I am sure, take off my coat before you now—why should I ever? [July 22, 1846]
If he had felt quite easy about his identity, would he have been so hesitant to expose it?
Anyone who studies Browning’s courtship of Elizabeth Barrett will agree that he simply attributed to the lady the qualities he wished her to have, and that the engagement was a triumph of projective imagination. This power of splitting feeling from knowledge, of falling in love with a person one has hardly met, suggests the division in Browning’s style between tone and theme. Just as he chose to experience deep affection without the labor of adjusting himself to the actual nature of the beloved, so he wrote about sensational erotic entanglements without conveying the emotion they ought to elicit.
Certainly, Browning’s language is often at odds with his subject. He dealt in the morbid, the violent, the bizarrely sexual. Yet his expression is buoyant and healthful. The title “Red Cotton Night-Cap Country” seems typically misleading in the evocation of normal domesticity; for during the wildest scene of the poem, a prodigal son burns off both his hands as penance for the death of a sorrowing mother. But Browning gives a brisk energy to the action, steering us past the agony while lingering on a concrete detail supplied by a witness:
…And when, combining force,
They fairly dragged the victim out of reach
Of further harm, he had no hands to hurt—
Two horrible remains of right and left,
“Whereof the bones, phalanges formerly,
Carbonized, were still crackling with the flame,”
So also when the same prodigal leaps from a tower to his death, Browning deprives the fall of pathos:
A sublime spring from the balustrade
About the tower so often talked about,
A flash in middle air, and stone- dead lay
Monsieur Léonce Miranda on the turf.
A poet who likes to enjoy—in fantasy—frightful or sublime situations while sparing himself the palpitations they should excite must have an ambiguous attitude toward the demands that common existence imposes on most of us. Pedestrian routine may appear tiresome to him, but extreme situations must be managed coolly. In “Abt Vogler,” where the protagonist is a genius at improvising on the organ, Browning seems to melt willingly into the strong feelings of the musician, but only (I think) because they are transient responses to transient art. The sudden motion up and down, in the visual motifs, and the contrast between an imaginary palace and the earth on which Vogler finally rests, all anticipate the features of the suicide leap in “Red Cotton Night-Cap Country.” Here, however, precisely because the emotions are aesthetic in origin and explicitly momentary, Browning can indulge himself in them.
Abt Vogler admits the transience of his creation and draws a contrast with the permanence promised by his religious faith. Yet the familiar. Christian doctrines sound more assertive than vivid, with none of the concreteness of the musical fantasy. Is the poet, in these stanzas, separating himself from the character? A closing stanza brings Vogler down from the secondary, religious rapture to dull, ordinary life, which the poet does not particularize. Where is Browning himself now?
If we think back to the poet’s childhood, we may connect the division between passion and caution with peculiar circumstances. Browning’s erudite father was ten years younger than his wife. He mastered ancient and modern languages, had a gift for drawing, and loved to bury himself in books. Browning’s mother administered the affairs of the family, delighted in music, and was deeply religious. Both parents devoted themselves to the boy, but the mother attached him to her presence. Afflicted with neuralgia and anemia, she nevertheless hovered over her child like a second self, and could hear him talk in his sleep (when he was thirty-four) because, as he told Elizabeth Barrett, “My room is next to hers and the door is left ajar” (July 13, 1846).
Betty Miller, in her eloquent and persuasive book, assembled the evidence and drew the conclusion that in marrying a consumptive, celebrated poet six years his senior, Browning was recapturing aspects of his childhood. The defining marks of the relation are so bold that it is hard to disagree with the main lines of Miller’s argument. We should not be astonished that during the first three years of his marriage, Browning produced no more than one poem that has been preserved. The themes that awoke his creative energy were not those that Elizabeth Barrett welcomed. Her preoccupation with morally elevating ideas did not feed his dramatic lyricism. Desiring to be at one with her, as he had been with his mother, Browning could not have felt comfortable giving his attention to topics that alarmed the benevolent despot.
Soon he discovered that on subjects as far-ranging as spiritualism, French politics, and the bringing up of his son, the two of them could not agree. It was only after Elizabeth died that Browning composed his slashing satires on Louis Napoleon and the American medium Daniel Home—both of whom had met with her approval.
Browning returned, of course, to his writing, and composed some of his best poems while Elizabeth survived. But critics have observed how many of them deal with the disappointments of marital love. In what is arguably the masterpiece of those fifteen years, “Andrea del Sarto,” the painter (as Miller notoriously pointed out) declares that the supreme masters who outshone him were unmarried—“What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?” As Robert Langbaum puts it in a penetrating, subtle analysis of Browning’s accomplishment, the painter in “Andrea del Sarto” enjoys playing his wife’s victim; for “it means that he has resigned his will to her and can blame her for his moral failure in art.”4 Is it an accident that when Andrea del Sarto accepts his fate and says, “There’s still Lucrezia,—as I choose,” he echoes the words in which Browning said he was used to having his own will led by another—“by pure choice”?
Surely it was an advantage to Browning’s dramatic imagination that he should have grown up with a zest for acquiescence in the desires of those he loved. But I wonder whether the taste for morbid, erotic, and sensational themes may not have been his way of compensating for the reflex of sympathy, by defying in his fictions the tastes he bowed to in life. I also suspect that he was not always sure where he himself stood in relation to the poses assumed by the characters he created.
Donald Thomas repeatedly touches on such questions in his book. But he offers no concise, thoughtful analysis of the basic problem, nothing to rival Betty Miller’s work. So he tells of Browning’s devotion to his mother but never makes clear the dominating position she claimed in the family. He follows a desultory path, rather than an orderly design, and changes his focus erratically from inner life to outer. At points we suddenly hear anecdotes about other luminaries whom Browning knew, along with summary accounts of the poet’s social relations.
Among these paragraphs Thomas intersperses brief, unsystematic treatments of the important works; but—apart from a brief invocation of Alfred Adler—he establishes no fresh principles to illuminate the poet’s personality. Thomas shows no deep insight into the poems, and gives us little information not more reliably or elegantly available elsewhere. For a much better written, more accurate, well-organized biography exists, in William Irvine and Park Honan’s The Ring, the Book, and the Poet.5
The humblest tribute that a biographer can pay to his subject is accuracy. Thomas’s standard may be tested by his many misquotations. In Browning’s description of the castle of Goito, Thomas replaces the animated “shrinking Caryatides” with lifeless “shining Caryatides.”6 He replaces “earthly forms,” in a passage of idealist musings, with irrelevant “earthly charms.”7 Quoting a key passage from “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” he gets five words wrong, giving us “demireps / That love and save their souls” for “demirep / That loves and saves her soul.”8
Other errors are failures of learning. The name Euphrasia, Thomas tells us, means “eyebright” in literal translation (p. 77); of course, it means good cheer. He repeatedly uses “bon viveur” for “bon vivant” (pp. 2, 154, 188).
Some crucial passages rest on blunders. Thomas demonstrates the widower poet’s fidelity to his dead wife with a stabbing remark made, we are told, about a decade after Browning lost Elizabeth, and in the midst of a splendid whirl of social engagements in London: “Oh, me—“ he wrote to a friend, concerning the memory of a hill near Florence, “to find myself there, some late sunshiny Sunday afternoon, with my face turned to Florence,—’ten minutes to the Gate, ten minutes home!’ I think I should fairly end it all on the spot.” The outburst floods one with the color of the poet’s grief. Only it did not occur ten years after Elizabeth died but hardly sixteen months (October 18, 1862).9
As a critic, Thomas shows little strength, and his misinterpretations are sometimes gross. He reads Browning’s poem “Development” as celebrating the downfall of “pedants like Wolf and Strauss” (p. 12). By what definition F.A. Wolf and D.F. Strauss may be labeled pedants, I do not know; but those great and imaginative scholars are undefeated in Browning’s poem. Dealing with “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Thomas spends 600 words saying he is unsure what the poem means. Yet he could have drawn on the acute, convincing analysis by Langbaum10 and spared us his own vagaries.
As an appreciative critic, Thomas conceives of praise largely in terms of modernity. In the place of thoughtful estimates backed by examples and analyses, he offers assertions that a poem anticipates the styles of our century. A Soul’s Tragedy receives an accolade when Thomas calls it, in many ways, “about eighty years ahead of its time.” Of “Love in a Life” he says it foreshadows the suggestiveness of Rilke. “Caliban upon Setebos” becomes an example of Browning’s similarity to Beckett. “Red Cotton Night-Cap Country,” in the episode of the suicide leap, has “the modernity” of a poem by Auden. To sum up, Thomas calls Browning “the poet of post-romantic modernism.”
One can only feel baffled, therefore, when Thomas utterly misconceives the relation of Browning to Ezra Pound, and informs us that the well-known allusion in Canto 2 is a “scathing reference.” If there is any proof of Browning’s pervasive importance for modernist literature, it is in Pound’s acknowledgments of his own indebtedness. But when Pound spoke of his special devotion to the “dramatic lyric,” he was representing only one important instance of a general condition. Not in this or that element of Browning’s style, or in this or that episode of a poem, but in the use of the genre of the dramatic monologue by the masters of twentieth-century verse do we feel the presence of the poet among us.
September 29, 1983
August 22, 1846; The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1845-1846 (Harper, 1899; reprinted by Arden Library), vol. 2, p. 453. ↩
Robert Browning (Scribner, 1953), pp. 111-112. ↩
Alexandra Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, revised by F.G. Kenyon (Houghton Mifflin, 1910), p. 95. ↩
The Poetry of Experience (Norton, 1963), p. 149. ↩
McGraw-Hill, 1974. ↩
Sordello, book 1, line 412; Thomas, p. 79. ↩
Sordello, book 1, line 501; Thomas, p. 80. ↩
Lines 397-398; Thomas, pp. vii, 169. ↩
See Dearest Isa: Robert Browning’s Letters to Isabella Blagden, edited by E.C.McAleer (University of Texas Press, 1951), p. 131. ↩
The Poetry of Experience, pp.192-199. ↩