Browning’s contemporaries agreed he was a genius, but they were not all sure he was a poet. Wilde’s quip – ‘Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning’ – expresses a view shared by admirers such as George Eliot and Henry James, doubters like Carlyle and Hopkins, and a chorus of others. But the history of poetry is a history of revolutions in what counts as poetry. Today, Browning’s density, his chattiness, his specificity, his preference for dramatic and narrative forms, even the undisciplined sprawl of his vocabulary wouldn’t be reasons to disqualify him as a poet. And yet that old idea still matters, because his divergence from what people most expected of poetry was at the root, not only of the now unread long works in verse, but also of the intense monologues that have become fixtures of anthologies and syllabuses.
To be so honoured is a mixed blessing. The institutions of culture dignify their exhibits: as James anticipated, they can make ‘even Robert Browning lose a portion of the bristling surface of his actuality’. Big editions, such as the still far from complete Longman Poems, or the Oxford Poetical Works (now up to Volume IX), or the rather less authoritative Ohio Complete Works (now up to Volume XVI), join in the process of ennoblement. But they also exert a countervailing force, helping us to imagine how the poems might have looked before they formed their reputations. The detritus of drafts, contemporary references and early responses is dug up for us to examine, and famous works are shown in company with inglorious early associates.
In Browning’s case, such hangers-on are multitudinous and (it has to be said) largely unappealing. He survives thanks to the greatness of perhaps twenty short poems from the period of his marriage (1846-61), together with some brilliant antecedents and parts of The Ring and the Book (1868-69). But since canonisation imposes itself on authors, not just on works, full editorial care is being extended to everything else as well, including tens of thousands of lines of unfocused, grinding verse from both the beginning and end of his career. Of course, parts of this vast hinterland do reward scholarly attention (I am myself much interested by the versions from Greek that Browning wrote in the 1870s). But three enormous editions? Surely some of that labour could more profitably have been diverted to the many better poems by lesser poets which remain unedited.
The character of Browning’s early work – ambitious but vulnerable – owes something to his family circumstances. He was from a middle-class, Nonconformist background on the southern outskirts of London; the family was loving and close. He was educated mainly by tutors: when he was 16 he lasted for only a few days in student lodgings away from his mother and for only a few months of lectures at UCL. (One part of the dazzlement of his flight to Italy with Elizabeth Barrett two decades later was that he was at last leaving home.) In his twenties he wrote Pauline, Paracelsus and Sordello: all long, and all clad in the vesture of prestigious genres handed down from the Romantics; the poems are, respectively, a confessional fragment, a closet drama and a historico-psychological epic. Browning was setting out from Camberwell to make his mark. One can imagine the family’s excitement as the poems began to find their way into the world: a copy of Pauline has been handed to J.S. Mill! And also the impact of critical responses. This was Mill’s verdict: ‘With considerable poetic powers, this writer seems to me possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being.’
Paracelsus (1835) was better received, especially in liberal periodicals, and more widely read: people began to talk of Browning as a Coming Poet. This moderate success must have puffed up his aspirations for what was intended to be his great work, Sordello (1840), nourishing the bindweed-like proliferation of its syntax and expanding its embrace, which eventually included not only the story of a 13th-century troubadour but great truths about history, self, poetry and the Ideal. Ezra Pound later admired, with some reason, the poem’s endeavour to ‘tell you something’, as well as the ‘variety in the rhythm’; Browning’s contemporaries saw only bluster and self-involvement. The Parnassian figures who had begun to welcome him now turned vicious. Tennyson said he could understand only the first and last lines of Sordello; Macready failed to make sense of it both before and after dinner; Jane Welsh Carlyle read it from cover to cover without discovering whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book.
Few had noticed a couple of short poems published in a radical magazine, the Monthly Repository, in 1836. They seem to have occurred to Browning when his mind was straying from the composition of his would-be magnum opuses; and yet they condense more artistic energy than all those thousands of lines put together. Like his other work, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘Johannes Agricola in Meditation’ had their roots in familiar genres. They conjure up visualisable scenes (as did Romantic lyrics such as Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’) and are spoken by characterised individuals (like Felicia Hemans’s dramatic lyrics ‘Arabella Stuart’ or ‘Properzia Rossi’, published in Records of Woman, 1828). But whereas those earlier poems reached out to their readers rhetorically, Browning’s brilliant innovation was to balance attraction and repulsion. Porphyria’s lover says:
That moment she was mine, – mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good.
The first few words might be uttered by any lover, but the tune immediately veers off-key: there is something over-possessive about the second ‘mine’, something unpleasant in the slide from aesthetic appreciation to moral approval. It turns out that the speaker is murderously deranged. His psychosis is brilliantly imagined and discomfitingly offered up for our enjoyment: ‘No pain felt she,’ he reassures us after he has strangled her; and he continues to admire her ‘smiling rosy little head’. ‘Head’ is the rightly chosen wrong word: ‘smiling … face’ would have sounded sane. Yet this weirdness does not quite cancel out the warmth of some of his rhetoric, or even perhaps of his feelings. The verse holds back from the ‘poetry’ of horror as much as from the ‘poetry’ of romance. Written in time off from Browning’s main endeavours, these poems also stand non-committally to one side of themselves.
After Sordello, Browning continued to write monologues, even though he was now mainly trying, unsuccessfully, to make it as a playwright (a historical drama, Strafford, had been performed to mild public approbation in 1837). These poems continue to balance familiarity and strangeness, but extend their scope to include national and historical difference and the rhetorics of aesthetic appreciation and political command. ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, ‘The Laboratory’, ‘Pictor Ignotus’, ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’: it is a brilliant list.
And yet there is something a bit too glamorous about these poems, an air of the virtuosic rather than the searching. One reason for this is that they derive so thoroughly from Browning’s reading, and from experiences that were in other ways not wholly his. Italy, for instance, was for him then still only a holiday destination: it was a place he knew about but did not know. The limitation of this is revealed, unintentionally, by Ruskin in his famous praise of ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb’: ‘It is nearly all that I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice put into as many lines, Browning’s being also the antecedent work.’ The poems encapsulate what we know (or at least have always suspected) about Italian dukes or Renaissance bishops or ancien régime chemists. They are pure crystallisations of ideology.
Elizabeth Barrett gave him a subject for his verse that he could never tell himself he had fathomed: married love. But at the start of their relationship he was overwhelmed by something much simpler: the feeling that – in their letters and eventual clandestine meetings – he was at last really talking and being heard. Of the various explanations he offered for the catastrophe of Sordello, the most moving, and the most plausible, is this: ‘The fact is I live by myself, write with no better company.’ His family could not give him what he needed most – good criticism – and friends such as Joseph Arnould and Alfred Domett, who were ready with advice, seem to have been asked for it only rarely. Browning’s attachment to the monologue form must have a root in this partly self-constructed lack of sympathetic surroundings. The feeling of oddness and isolation that attaches to the speaker, and the uncertainty as to what the listener makes of him, shadow Browning’s own sense of his relation to his readers.
His failure to ‘speak out’ in his verse was almost the first thing he admitted to Elizabeth Barrett: ‘You speak out, you, – I only make men & women speak – give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me: but I am going to try.’ Her influence strengthened his desire to write something like her lyrically declarative poetry. The religious poem he set about producing after their marriage and move to Florence, Christmas Eve and Easter Day, has similarities to the work she was writing at the same time, Casa Guidi Windows, an exhortation to the revolutionaries of 1848. Both consist of a couple of thousand lines of ruminative verse, with descriptive interludes, presented in two parts. Her question to Italian nationalists – ‘but the teacher, where?’ – is also Browning’s to the various Christian churches. And they both end up having doubts about their ‘dream’ – of Italian unification, of Christ – while simultaneously keeping faith with it.
The influence went both ways. With its ‘people-organ’ responding to ‘electric calls/ Of life in the sunbeams’, Casa Guidi Windows goes in for revolutionary enthusiasm with all the gusto of a Verdi chorus and somewhat less control: it has been much scorned by critics ever since its first publication. But what has not been properly noticed is the poem’s quality of turning back on itself (‘what do I say? I only meant …’), the way it is framed as the sympathising utterance of an Englishwoman looking out of her sitting-room window. This, I think, is what it owes to her husband, both because such countercurrents are characteristic of his monologues, and because the poem feels like half a conversation, spoken by someone confident of being appreciated and indulged, but also expecting to be met with a ‘yes, but’. It has an ebullience quite different from the earnestness of her earlier work, even including Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Her husband responded to Casa Guidi Windows in this spirit, in another poem written somewhat in her style, ‘Old Pictures in Florence’. By the early 1850s the revolutions had failed and Florence had been occupied by the Austrian army: ‘such hatred, such internal revolt & protestation as we hear on all sides’, Barrett Browning wrote in a letter. But Browning takes the occasion of a bright spring morning to describe his enjoyment at seeking out old master paintings, and conjures up from them a promise of liberation: ‘when the hour is ripe …/ How shall we prologuise, how shall we perorate,/… Set truth at blood-heat and the false at a zero rate/… Pure Art’s birth being still the republic’s!’ With its airy generalities, hopscotch rhythm and wildly optimistic rhymes, the passage captures not so much the energy of revolution as the way English observers invested so many varied hopes in their dream of the Risorgimento: including, here, Browning’s own aspiration somehow one day to utter the white light that would count as pure ‘poetry’.
If that hope is more jovially treated in ‘Old Pictures in Florence’ than in the early letter to Elizabeth Barrett, it is perhaps because a second and better part of her influence on him made him value more highly the difference of his writing from hers. ‘She was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison,’ he later said. And what the clever person mainly wrote during his marriage was the not simply or not quite ‘poetry’ of the dramatic monologues, published under a title which again echoes that early letter, Men and Women. But this time round the poems do not put on such virtuosic displays of knowledge, or – except in throwbacks such as ‘Mesmerism’ – resort to the cheap if seductive thrills of villainy. They have a more open, exploratory disposition.
One sign of the warmth of feeling between Robert and Elizabeth – officially, at least – was the warmth of their disagreements. He distrusted Napoleon III, she was a fan; he doubted the reality of table-turning, she was a true believer. Before he wrote ‘Old Pictures in Florence’, a friend witnessed a discussion between them as to whether ‘a Republican form of government was unfavourable to the Fine Arts … which was carried on for some time with the greatest spirit, husband and wife taking directly opposite views’.
The sort of animation that lends itelf to being called ‘the greatest spirit’ often carries a risk of turning bitter. Married life seems to have prompted Browning to imagine the many ways in which things might go, or have gone, wrong. Hence the contrast between the happy life-story the couple created for themselves to live through and the melancholy vignettes in several of the poems: frustration and infidelity in ‘Andrea del Sarto’; love disappearing in ‘A Lovers’ Quarrel’; love never acted on in ‘The Statue and the Bust’.
Elizabeth reported to her sister that Robert said he was glad she never placated him: ‘You do not give up to me, & attempt to soothe me by agreeing with me or letting it pass, as so many good tempered women do to the eternal injury of foolish men, … but you always tell me the truth plainly.’ The negative of this is given in ‘A Woman’s Last Word’, which begins: ‘Let’s contend no more, Love.’ The soothing voice goes on to reveal that it is a ‘last word’ not only because that is what a woman always has, but because it may be in a sense the last word this woman will ever speak:
Teach me, only teach, Love!
As I ought
I will speak thy speech, Love,
Think thy thought –
In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning engineered a reversal from what looked like love to what was obviously murderous obsession. But here the threat to love is more gently shaded: it is not even clear that ‘threat’ is the right term. Like all the speech in the great middle-period monologues, these words are imagined as coming into being between two people: uttered by one of them but composed by both together. Different tones are interleaved: the tick-tock simplicity of the language has the mildness of a lullaby, but also the severity of lines set to be written out in detention (that repeated word ‘teach’). But which of the lovers hears which tone? Perhaps she is resentful at having had to ‘give up’ to him; and perhaps he takes her words as nothing but his due. Or maybe he is already feeling like a brute and she is finding pleasure in calming him. Or is she projecting onto him a wish he wouldn’t think quite his? Or are bits of all of this being felt by both of them? There may be only two characters in the poem but there are more than two points of view, not all conscious, and unpredictably interlinked. The poem gives us a piece of language and lets us see that what lies behind or around it – ‘the dramatic situation’ or ‘what is really going on’ – cannot be securely known, perhaps least of all by those involved.
The new third volume of the Longman Poems of Robert Browning (which appears 16 years after Volumes I and II) gathers all the poems written between his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett and her death. It prints the first published text – which I have been quoting – rather than, as in the Oxford and Ohio editions, the last authorised one. Some textual variants are recorded in the notes (Oxford gives a fuller selection; Ohio endeavours to supply a complete record). The Longman text therefore has historical interest, though Browning’s revisions were, it seems to me, generally improvements. Still, since none of the poems in this volume was altered substantially, the differences are slight.
The annotation supplied by John Woolford, Daniel Karlin and Joseph Phelan is, as always with a Longman edition, very full: it is especially detailed about the Brownings’ life together. It is good to see Donne’s influence on Browning being fully traced (Donne was not much read in this period) and good also to be alerted to the pressure of foreign languages on Browning’s use of English: ‘blessedest’ from the Italian ‘santissimo’; ‘tyranny’ in its Greek more than its English sense. Altogether, a great deal of material has been gathered. So much, in fact, that there is sometimes a feeling of strain as the editors struggle to squeeze it all in. At line 98 of ‘Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha’ the eponymous composer is accused of a lack of musicality, and a footnote announces promisingly: ‘For the possible reflection of this complaint in criticism of B.’s own work see headnote.’ One treks back to the headnote only to be rebuffed: ‘Complaints against B. for his lack of musicality, and his incorporation of several overlapping voices in his poetry, may be echoed at l. 98.’ On page 336 the ‘certain dotard’ mentioned in ‘Old Pictures in Florence’ is said to be the Austrian general Count Radetzky; but on page 343 he becomes ‘the Grand Duke of Tuscany’ (a more plausible candidate).
The editors are very keen to explain Browning’s poems and reduce them to good order: perhaps it is the difficulty of this enterprise that accounts for their sergeant-majorish tone. It is ‘important’, we are told in the headnote to ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, ‘to make a clear distinction between those texts to which the poem explicitly refers and those which B. may have drawn on unconsciously’. Such a distinction is not likely to be wholly clear in any poem, and especially not this one, since its textual landscape, like the ‘tract’ Childe Roland travels through, is designed to be eerily half-recognisable. Of the many candidates the editors offer up for us to divide between ‘explicit reference’ and ‘unconscious drawing-on’, several could be put in either box; others call for the recognition of intervening categories such as ‘implicit reference’ and ‘conscious drawing-on’. The editors also like to be sure that we have noticed the ‘themes’ they think the poems embody. For instance, to a line from ‘Love among the Ruins’ in which a king sees ‘all the mountains topped with temples’, a note tells us that ‘the image is of nature subordinated to human art.’ Well, sort of.
Finding the right tactics for editing Browning is tricky. Men and Women – let alone the oeuvre as a whole – includes very disparate kinds of writing. There is a poetry of movingly direct statement, as in ‘Cleon’; of pleasurable exasperation, as in ‘Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha’; of religious striving, as in ‘Saul’; and of relish for unusual words, as in the ‘Epistle’ of Karshish: ‘A viscid choler is observable/In tertians.’ What many of the poems nevertheless have in common is an air of making points that readers need to grasp, and that editors can help us to get hold of. As G.K. Chesterton said of the last stanza of ‘Popularity’ (the one that asks ‘who fished the murex up?’): ‘The thought contained in this amazing verse is not abstruse or philosophical at all, but is a perfectly ordinary and straightforward comment, which anyone might have made upon an obvious fact of life.’ So it is understandable that the editors have adopted paraphrase as one of the main strands of their commentary.
But many poems in Men and Women – like ‘A Woman’s Last Word’ – offer different challenges: not unclear argument or abstruse reference but linguistic nuance and depth and range of imaginative evocation. Undeterred, Woolford, Karlin and Phelan keep on trying to tell us what the poems mean. Perhaps the weirdest instance of this comes in the commentary on ‘In a Year’. The speaker, stuck in a relationship that is now dead, remembers when she was ‘at love’s brim’ and her partner was too. She speaks in the clotted utterance of great anguish:
‘Speak, I love thee best!’
‘Let thy love my own foretell, –’
‘Clasp my heart on thine
Since upon thy soul as well,
Here is the Longman commentary:
Line 33 (‘Speak, I love thee best’) elliptically fuses his statement ‘I love thee best’ with his demand that she respond by saying it back to him. The woman, however, does not love the man as he loves her, and made the mistake of confessing as much. Line 35 means that the man would have to trust that his feeling would, in time, create a reciprocal feeling in her. She went on to plead with him that he should not blame her, but rather bear the burden for both of them (since true, faithful love leads to salvation, and since he is the only one of them who has it, if he fails they will both fail).
And so it goes on, with all the subtlety of an episode of Desperate Housewives: ‘The consequence of the woman’s honesty was disastrous; the man turned against her, and nothing she could do to repair the damage was of any use. It is at this point that the poem begins …’
The comment on line 33 is right and perhaps helpful. But what follows is almost wholly misleading, not only because of its no-nonsense air of having sorted out the poem’s ambiguities, but because it neglects some incontrovertible details. Line 35 might be the beginning of her response, but it might equally continue his speech: in later editions Browning made this much the more likely reading by changing the full stop at the end of the previous line to a colon (the Longman editors, incidentally, have mistranscribed the verse here, erroneously putting in a comma). The confession that follows could be summed up in various ways, but its main current strikes me as running contrary to what the editors think. She loves the man, hence the echo (though the editors do not hear it) of Posthumus’s declaration to Imogen towards the end of Cymbeline, ‘hang there like fruit, my soul,/ Till the tree die.’ The story implied by the rest of the poem is complex and not wholly clear (the speaker is doing what Dante’s Francesca thought so painful: remembering happy times in times of misery), but its most plausible contour is that the man finds possession cloys.
‘In a Year’ is admittedly a knotty example. But in many of his other poems of love and marriage, Browning combines complexity of evocation with great lucidity of statement, as in this passage from ‘Two in the Campagna’:
How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above.
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?
Here again the editors think they need to – and can – tell us what is going on: ‘The speaker tries to respond to the prompting of the landscape to spontaneous, all-encompassing passion by proposing a similar fusion between himself and his beloved, but immediately recognises that human love falls short of this ideal.’ There is certainly an erotic element to this stanza, which is clear in the swell of the repetition and in the echo of a gorgeous line of Tennyson’s (which again the editors miss): ‘Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars.’ Even so, I’m not convinced that ‘fusion’ is being proposed here, though I’m not quite sure what the editors think they mean by that word. What the speaker most seems to be saying is rather chilly: that the two of them should not be ashamed to admit that, like the flowers and spiders’ webs and beetles he has just been describing, love is susceptible to change. But what is so beautifully intricate about Browning’s poetry here is that the tone in which this is said, and the fact that it is being said at all, imply great closeness and warmth between the couple.
The mixture of analysis and intimacy continues in the extraordinary lines that follow:
I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more –
Nor yours, nor mine, – nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? what the core
Of the wound, since wound must be?
I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs, – your part, my part
In life, for good and ill.
The Longman editors note that ‘several passages in B.’s letters to EBB. during their courtship express his yearning to be subject to her will,’ which might lead one to suppose that the poem simply regrets the failure of that ambition. But they could equally have adduced passages from other poems, such as ‘Mesmerism’, where unity of will figures as a cruel fantasy, or ‘A Woman’s Last Word’, where it is at best accompanied by some feeling of constraint. These echoes chime with aspects of the verse here, the odd sudden vehemence of ‘nor slave nor free’, and the hints of mechanism and vulgarity in the phrasing: ‘set my heart’; ‘drink my fill’; ‘just so much’. The speaker’s desire is phrased so as to rebut itself as it is being uttered: there are cross-currents of relief as well as disappointment in his temporarily decisive ‘No.’
You can follow these spiralling complexities down into the darks of the speaker’s mind, but never quite get hold of them; and the questions that seem so urgent in the early monologues (how will the listener react? what will happen next?) are here both unanswerable and oddly uninteresting. In the brief creative upland of his poems of love and marriage, Browning becomes an artist of verbal play, not so much ‘the dance of the intellect among words’ (Pound’s phrase) as the drift of feelings between them. The layered possibilities are brought out especially at moments when the poems shadow or mime or parody one another. Browning later formalised this innovation in the ten rigidly parallel monologues of The Ring and the Book, a structure that Barbara Everett (in a brilliant essay published in the LRB 25 years ago) likened unanswerably to ‘other and baser Victorian misunderstandings about the nature of the aesthetic, from wax flowers under glass to models of the Crystal Palace constructed out of matchsticks’. But the much more loosely intermingling echoes in Men and Women help touch language into life.
After the tiff in ‘A Lovers’ Quarrel’, for instance, the speaker sounds at first like the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ (‘will you cast … off …/Me’), then like the gentle, husbandly voice of ‘By the Fire-Side’ (‘I must bear with it, I suppose’), and ends up in a fantasy straight out of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’: she will knock on his door at midnight in a storm; ‘I shall have her for evermore!’ Even their earlier happy time together recalls ‘Two in the Campagna’ and ‘Mesmerism’ in ways that make it seem uncertain and even a little sinister. It’s not that the speaker is thereby revealed as a maniac: the perception Browning is pursuing here is of the way a word – perhaps especially when spoken between people in love – can be a seedhead of possible feelings; the way what was meant (at one level of intention) as an act of pure generosity can become a cause of resentment, or the harshest rebuke can vanish suddenly into a smile.
On a hunch (‘there is no concrete evidence of the date of composition’), the Longman editors begin this volume with ‘Love in a Life’. And aptly so. The speaker chases his beloved through room after room of the house ‘we inhabit together’; door after door, he tries ‘the fresh fortune’ but, ‘still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.’ They are close – he knows her every move, he can smell her perfume – but he cannot quite catch her. She leaves him ‘such closets to search, such alcoves to importune’. ‘Such’, with its implication of openness and plenitude, seems strange when applied to closets and empty alcoves: the effect of simultaneous having and not-having is a bit like Laura’s utterance near the end of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’: ‘“Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life – ”’
Mansfield ends on the chime of a question that feels like an answer: ‘He quite understood. “Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.’ Browning’s speaker gets no response: the poem stops on ‘importune’. But, with a delicate counterbalancing of tone that is oddly similar to Mansfield’s, ‘importune’ rhymes or half-rhymes (how do you pronounce ‘importune’?) all the way back to ‘fortune’ five lines before, creating a feeling of completion within the unfulfilment. This droll, moving fable of how love can be is also a good hint as to how one should read Browning’s so importunate yet so elusive poetry.