Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning

Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday.

Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

That’s Robert Browning in seven lines: indirection, allusiveness, verbal economy, dizzying facility with English rhyme and meter. That may be the first time anyone has ever associated “verbal economy” with Robert Browning, but I mean it in the sense that he typically packed an impressive range of meanings and ideas into few words. At the same time, he wrote countless words, so that his poems include vast stretches of hard going. Of his early long poem Sordello, he famously said late in life: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.”

With his usual perverseness, Ezra Pound claimed that Sordello was a masterpiece. Most readers prefer Browning’s dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In these expansive, intricate poems, characters review their lives, offering realizations, rationalizations, obfuscations, and rueful observations – behaving, that is, much like real human beings, if real human beings could speak effortless blank verse. Effortlessness is the famous theme of “Andrea del Sarto”:

I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less.

Verse came so easily to Robert Browning that he may have feared the fate of Andrea del Sarto. But his achievements were massive and important. They culminated in The Ring and the Book, one of the great Victorian novels, almost unread today. It’s complicated, it has an obscure historical setting, its effects are operatic and grand, and it’s in verse: you can see why people read Dickens instead. But The Ring and the Book is a milestone of incipient postmodernism. Several observer-participants tell the story of a murder. They have different interests at stake, different memories, and different styles: where does the truth reside? Almost a century later, Rashomon would become shorthand for fictions dependent on the perspective of multiple observers – but Browning had figured out how to do the Rashomon thing on a grander scale, and long before.

Even while he was making a considerable living as a professional poet, and drawing critical acclaim, Robert Browning saw his literary reputation overtaken by his celebrity. When he and Elizabeth Barrett married in 1846, they became the Brangelina of the Victorian literary world. Barrett was the better-known poet then, would write at least one poem far more famous than any of her husband’s, and would, like him, write a great verse novel that nobody reads – or at least, nobody read Aurora Leigh for a long time, till feminist critics captivated by its themes and its sheer readability vaulted it past The Ring and the Book in reputation and canonicity. For much of the 20th century, though, the Brownings were known mainly from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and from mandatory memorization of “My Last Duchess” or “How do I love thee?

And from Max Beerbohm’s devastating cartoon of the long-widowed Robert “taking tea with the Browning Society.” The poet survived his wife by many years, writing the whole time, enjoying salon superstardom, but becoming less and less relevant to late-Victorian art and intellectual life. Robert struck his acquaintances as shallow and not all that smart – the contrast he posed to his extremely sharp poetry puzzled observers and led them to discount his intelligence. Henry James even wrote a story, “The Private Life,” about the discrepancy between Browning the person and Browning the poet. It’s not that either Browning ever quite became a joke, but that both, and their relationship, were sentimentalized out of significance. They were the kind of writers that, if you had unlimited money, you might build an incongruous shrine to in the middle of Texas. To love the Brownings, by the 1960s, was a sure sign of middlebrow aesthetic inertia.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame now largely redeemed in the case of Elizabeth, who now figures as a major poet and major voice for feminist and progressive causes; but even that recuperation seems to cast a bit of shadow on her husband, whom we suspect was probably doing something to enmesh her in patriarchy. There’s little evidence for that – she wrote Aurora Leigh during their marriage – but there’s little evidence that Robert was as progressive as Elizabeth. He was no Thoreau; he wasn’t even George Eliot, for that matter. He was a writer with an incredible verbal gift, who had the even rarer gift of recognizing a “poetic moment” and conveying it with deft obliqueness. “Memorabilia” is perhaps the best example of this gift: a poem so slight that it can pass unnoticed, and once noticed, it seems to be unable to pay attention to what it’s about. But that’s only until you see that being unable to pay attention is the nature, and the minor-key tragedy, of an ephemeral existence. That minor tragedy has never been better evoked.

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

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