Browning and Modernism
- The Poems of Browning. Vol. I: 1826-1840 edited by John Woolford and Daniel Karlin
Longman, 797 pp, £60.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 582 48100 7
- The Poems of Browning. Vol. II: 1841-1846 edited by John Woolford and Daniel Karlin
Longman, 581 pp, £50.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 05 820639 6
Browning is in high favour once again, or promises to be. Has not A.S. Byatt, CBE, declared him ‘one of the very greatest English poets’? In a switch to fighting talk, she adds that ‘his greatness has never been fully acknowledged or described ... in part because he is difficult to docket in terms of the usual literary discussions of Victorian Poetry.’ We are given no example of the literary discussions allegedly ‘usual’. However, the author of Possession (Booker Prize 1990) speaks on these matters with authority, being herself a Victorian poet, industrious and prolific:
These things are there. The garden and the tree
The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
The woman in the shadow of the boughs
The running water and the grassy space.
They are and were there. At the old world’s rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
And dozed and waited through eternity ...
These verses stand at the head of the first chapter of Possession, fathered on Byatt’s alter ego in the novel as an excerpt from his supposed poem dated 1860, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’. David West in the Times Saturday Review for 24 August 1991, show-casing the piece in a panel headed ‘Reading a Poem’, invited us to see here ‘many of the characteristics of the best Victorian verse: the vivid and disturbing pictures, the rich organ music ...’, and ‘the learning’. Byatt, he says, ‘wrote this Victorian poetry because she needed it’. Very true, no doubt. But what sort of curious need is this, that impels an English novelist in 1990 to revel in the verse-idiom of 130 years before? Are those intervening years a nightmare from which we are just awaking, or being exhorted to awake? The clock can be put back – is that what we are to think? It is what not just Byatt’s admirers but at times Byatt herself would seem to persuade us of.
So how does one protest that these verses, like the hundreds more that Byatt will put into her novel, are acoustically boring? Never a caesura that does not fall pat and undemanding, never before or after the caesura a reversed foot, no interplay that isn’t rudimentary between vowel and consonant, no memorable cadence, no justification but metrical exigency for ‘sharped’ rather than ‘sharpened’. If this is ‘the best Victorian verse’, it is verse that disregards Wyatt and Campion and Pope before it as certainly as, after it, it disregards Pound and the young Eliot. Such blank verse – the unrhymed, relentlessly regular pentameter – can be squeezed out like toothpaste, ignoring the audibie shape of any one verse-line or run of lines, because we are supposed to be attending to larger and more urgent matters, like the ‘mythic’ correspondence of the Garden of Eden with the Garden of the Hesperides. An admiring reader of Possession has told me that she ‘skipped the verse-bits’, and who will blame her?
‘To break the pentameter,’ wrote Pound recalling his confident youth, ‘that was the first heave.’ He was wrong on two counts: first, the venerable iambic pentameter, when tagged by rhyme into true couplets or true quatrains, had a lot of life left in it; secondly, his convicting the unrhymed pentameter as the source and locus of Victorian poetastry would go largely unnoticed, not acted on except briefly by an unregarded few. And so it comes about that the Victorians – Browning, no less than George Eliot – are back in favour, not just for their undemanding and verbally profligate forms but for their portentous preoccupation: how to lose religious faith and yet preserve all the psychological comforts which that faith had afforded. More than a century after George Eliot’s delphic pronouncements in the Fellows Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge, it seems we must still be impaled on her agnostic aphorisms.
Seventy or eighty years ago the exit from these occlusions was signalled and found, formally: in the lean and stenographic forms, exploring the strange beauties of disconnection, that nowadays we call ‘Modernist’ and are invited to consign to history’s dustbin. What survives of them – indestructibly, for those who have ears to hear – is an acoustic shapeliness that bypasses George Eliot’s threatening alternatives by exhibiting a transcendental value – a shaping and thereby transcending of passing time – such as that Sybil had never experienced, and so had taken no account of. Not such an acoustic shape, but one that foreshadows it, is in Browning’s ‘Cavalier Tunes’ (1842).
‘Stirring stuff,’ says someone amusedly. But that isn’t the point. Browning’s political ideology, so far as he condescended to have one, wasn’t Royalist but Cromwellian – as was only proper for a Nonconformist reared in affluent Camberwell. The overt themes of Browning’s poems, certainly when he was young, were seldom more than pretexts for him to invent or uncover cadences and rhythmical shapes at odds with the blanket orthodoxy of the iambic pentameter. It’s to be feared that later he seldom recognised this himself, dutifully bending his back to ‘concerns’ that his advisers declared to be pressing, though in truth they pressed on him hardly at all. In his youth he had the courage of his unconcern:
Nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the north-west died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest north-east distance, dawned Gibraltar grand and gray;
‘Here and here did England help me, – how can I help England?’ – say,
Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God to praise – pray
Yonder where Jove’s planet rises silent over Africa.
Militaristic? Imperialistic? Was Browning really so sold on the Early Victorian ethos? Interesting though unanswerable questions. What matters, it may be thought, is Browning’s audacity in denying us, in the closing verse, the full rhyme we’ve been so emphatically led to expect. Asymmetry, discontinuity – all the mileage that Modernist artists were to get from these principles is foreshadowed in this brief and (as it may seem) tub-thumping piece of perhaps 1844. Whether Admiral Lord Nelson deserved such accolades is a question that belongs in another universe of discourse; what matters for poetics is the momentous proof that off-rhyme can supply a more satisfying closure than full rhyme could. This was one Victorian who could speak to the Modernists; this is his importance historically, and perhaps intrinsically also.
Vol. 13 No. 21 · 7 November 1991
In his review of the first two volumes of our edition of Browning (LRB, 10 October), Donald Davie objects to our description of Sordello as a poem ‘written in heroic couplets’. The description is undoubtedly inadequate. But intentionally so: our point (as the context makes clear) is that Sordello eludes all but a minimalist categorisation in terms of genre. Hence by ‘heroic couplet’ we intended no more than the standard definition in which ‘heroic’ refers simply to lines in iambic pentameter (canonically the heroic measure of English poetry, as the Alexandrine is of French) and ‘couplet’ means no more than that they rhyme in pairs. This leaves open the question of the uses to which poets have put the form. On one reading of literary history, there has been an ongoing conflict between two influential models, Pope’s closed couplets and Donne’s enjambed couplets, and on this reading, Dryden is less unequivocably aligned with Pope than Davie seems to allow: in fact, Earl Wasserman has argued persuasively that Dryden’s example gave the Romantics a precedent for their own shift away from the closed couplet. Davie might wish to argue instead for the distinctiveness and superiority of Neoclassical practice, but it is not helpful to pre-empt the argument by redefining the terms.
How rhyme is realised is the nub of Davie’s second point. He disputes our claim that Browning asks us to pronounce ‘Africa’ and ‘Adela’ as ‘Africay’ and ‘Adelay’ respectively. Again what is at issue here is Davie’s map of literary history – in this case, his desire to claim Browning for Modernism and the triumph of the spoken. Twentieth-century practice, it is true, often subverts closure by weakening rhyme to half-rhyme (Davie himself, for instance, rhymes ‘coppice’ with ‘randomness’, ‘state’ with ‘favourite’). But in Romantic and Victorian poetry the exaggeration of rhyme is more frequent, whether grotesquely, as in Byron’s ‘intellectual … hen pecked you all’, or solemnly, as in Hopkins’s ‘boon he on … communion’. Davie actually notes that ‘Browning’s rhymes exultantly draw attention to themselves’ in ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. So why not ‘say … Africay’? In fact, although Browning recognises and defends the possibility of half or eye rhyme (‘sword … word’), he uses it very seldom, especially in the final position. The contents of our Volume II provide only three candidates: the two that Davie cites and, from ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘mice … promise’. And in the latter case there is a very clear indication on the proof-copy that Browning wanted a full rhyme, however incongruous it might sound. It is, we believe, significant that Davie’s two examples both involve the same sound pair, ‘ay … a’: the frequency with which this pair recurs in 19th-century poetry (Shelley, as our edition notes, has ‘day … gondola’, Byron ‘Africa … day’) suggests that when unstressed final ‘a’ occurs in a metrical stress position, it is treated as if it were Latin long ‘a’, which in the 19th century would have been pronounced ‘ay’. Hence, to take another example from Browning, ‘say’ can stand as rhyme to ‘fabula’ (‘The Statue and the Bust’). Like ‘Africa’ and ‘Adela’, ‘fabula’ concludes the poem; but another example, from ‘Waring’ (1842), rhymes ‘Taurica’ with ‘alway’ in the middle of the poem, suggesting that Davie is also wrong in associating Browning’s use of such problematic rhymes solely with formal closure.
Davie’s argument becomes explicit when he turns to the relation between Browning and Pound and disputes our (and Pound’s) estimate of Sordello. He seems to see two lines of influence from Browning to Pound: one malign – the obfuscations of parataxis spreading like an infection from Sordello to the Cantos – the other benevolent – the ‘foregrounding of artifice’ which Pound inherits from poems like ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. But this is to miss what Sordello and ‘Sibrandus’ have in common, a quality foregrounded by Henry James’s description (quoted by Pound in Confucius to Cummings) of Browning’s way of reading his own verse: ‘He particularised, if ever a man did, was heterogenous and profane, composed of bits and patches that betrayed some creaking of the joints … It came almost to harshness; but the result was that what he read showed extraordinary life.’ Such ‘life’ reflects what Pound called Browning’s ‘curiosity’, his inveterate concern with the concrete and immediate, and in his early draft of Canto I, it is Sordello Pound selects as his example:
say I take your whole hag of tricks,
Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form,
Your Sordello, and that the modern world.
Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in[?]
The significance of ‘rag-bag’ emerges from a passage in which Pound’s character Poggio remarks: ‘I myself a rag-bag, a mass of sights and citations, but I will not beat down life for the sake of a model’ (Pavannes and Divagations, 1960). ‘Curiosity’ makes the poet ‘heterogenous’, his poem a ‘rag-bag’, and fills both of them with ‘life’; and Sordello, when Pound came to attempt a long poem, was clearly of more use than briefer examples, since the procrastination of closure in a long poem allows a fuller image of the abundance and continuity of existence.
John Woolford, Daniel Karlin
King’s College London,
Vol. 13 No. 22 · 21 November 1991
In his article on Browning (LRB, 10 October), Donald Davie, quoting the poem beginning, ‘Nobly, nobly’ – twice, Mr Davie – ‘Cape St Vincent’, comments, ‘Pronouncing “Africa” “Afrikay” pushes poetic language away from common usage,’ and suggests that ‘Browning skewed his rhyme schemes … deliberately.’ Perhaps because I was brought up on music-hall songs, I have always read this rhyme to myself as ‘Afrikay’, led to this no doubt by the opening lines of ‘Percy of Pimlico’:
When I go out, the people shout
‘Here he comes! Clear the way!’
They think I’m a millionaire, you know,
From Johannesburg, in South Afrikay
I doubt whether the writer of this deliberately skewed his rhyme schemes: ‘Afrikay’ probably sounded right to Cockney ears of that, and Browning’s, time.
It seems that Browning added the second of these ‘noblys’ when he came to revise the text of the poem in question which is given in the edition in question.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 13 No. 23 · 5 December 1991
Concerning half-rhymes and eye-rhymes, John Woolford and Daniel Karlin (Letters, 7 November) say I go wrong ‘in associating Browning’s use of such problematic rhymes solely with formal closure’. But I never denied that Browning and many other poets (including myself, as they gratifyingly notice) use such rhymes in medias res. My point was that when such rhymes occur in circumstances of ‘formal closure’, they draw that much more attention to themselves, are that much more challenging. And how can that be disputed? ‘Closure’ is something different from merely ‘ending’ or ‘breaking off’; though Woolford and Karlin still refuse to acknowledge this. Thus, their defence of Sordello rests on the assumption that closures are fraudulent anyway; that ‘a rag-bag’ (Pound’s word) is as much of ‘form’ as a 20th-century poet can hope to aspire to. Pound’s subsequent Cantos show him struggling, not altogether successfully, to show that this isn’t necessarily so. Henry James wrote admiringly that Browning’s poetry ‘showed extraordinary life’. So it does: but the noblest office of poetry is not just showing but also shaping.
It is delightful to know that Percy of Pimlico is alive and well and living in Malta (Letters, 21 November). He is closely akin to the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and may be first cousin to Burlington Bertie (who rose at 10.30, and went for a stroll down the Strand – alas poor Bertie, my father knew him well). Freddy Hurdis-Jones rightly reveals that Percy is a lineal descendant of the grand old trouper, Amiens of Arden, whose half-rhymes have rocked them in the aisles for three hundred years. The impeccability of that line of descent was acknowledged in my review.