Browning Versions

Barbara Everett

  • Robert Browning: A Life within Life by Donald Thomas
    Weidenfeld, 334 pp, £12.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 297 78092 1
  • The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning by Constance Hassett
    Ohio, 186 pp, £17.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 8214 0629 9
  • The Complete Works of Robert Browning. Vol. V edited by Roma King
    Ohio, 395 pp, £29.75, July 1981, ISBN 0 8214 0220 X
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Vol. I edited by Ian Jack and Margaret Smith
    Oxford, 543 pp, £45.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 811893 7
  • Robert Browning: The Poems edited by John Pettigrew and Thomas Collins
    Yale/Penguin, 1191 pp, £26.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 300 02675 7
  • Robert Browning: ‘The Ring and the Book’ edited by Richard Altick
    Yale/Penguin, 707 pp, £21.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 300 02677 3

James Thurber’s best-known cartoon has an impassive little man introducing his spouse to a dazed friend with ‘That’s My First Wife Up There, and This Is the Present Mrs Harris.’ The first Mrs Harris seems to be crouched on all fours on the top of a very high (glazed) bookcase, just behind the second Mrs Harris. This image has found an appreciative audience even among those not particularly interested in American humour of the 1930s. In part, this large appeal probably derives from a real social sophistication concealed in the innocence of the drawing. The linguistically prim social formula of the caption underwrites the wild surprise both of the occasion in itself and of its medium, Thurber’s own very peculiar and vestigial draughtsmanship; together they cover the way in which our formulaic social manners have to contend with the extreme ad hoc-ness of experience – a first wife on the bookcase, crouched to spring, or embalmed, or perhaps just teasing.

But one could go further and say that this social joke in fact works in linguistic terms: that the whole cartoon is a sober pun on ‘Up There’ and on ‘Present’, and indeed on the entire verbal gesture of introduction. We expect an introduction not to introduce so much – not to take us in so far; from ‘Up There’ we look for a portrait, and we scarcely want any artwork to be as much ‘present’ with us as is the first Mrs Harris, up on that bookcase. In fact, this linguistic quality seems to me to extend as far as the literary (Mrs Harris was the potently invisible friend of Dickens’s Mrs Gamp, and Thurber was a writer before he was a cartoonist); and it may be that the ‘extra’ dimension in this cartoon came about because its essential idea had first been established by another and earlier writer. Somewhere at the back of his mind Thurber was surely remembering, with profit and perhaps with gratitude, a poem by an inventive, a hugely fructifying writer widely read sixty or eighty years ago when Thurber was young, although out of fashion for at least the last half-century. Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ begins, with a fine surprising immediacy:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now ...

– the 16th-century Duke of Ferrara speaking with a flamboyant strength that Thurber’s capitals echo at a distance; and the Duke, too, ends by introducing a second wife in circumstances felt as not altogether usual:

       his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is a tricky poem: very striking in its own right, it yet hardly proclaims the fact that it is a good poem, and even less suggests the reasons why it should be so. And yet it has a potency that makes one understand how it could generate out of itself so successful an image as the cartoon has been, in a different medium, and for an age and a continent so different from its own. In this, the poem is characteristic of Browning’s work as a whole, and of the problems it seems to present to criticism. Such essays as have lately been written about ‘My Last Duchess’ – for something like a critical revival is happening in Browning studies, one marked by the accession of new editions – do little more than try to base an ethical conclusion on what they take to be the psychology of what they take to be the Duke’s ‘character’; and though such probings are often acute and sensible, they hardly advance understanding of the poem beyond the critical consensus of Browning’s lifetime, that the poet was of course not a poet at all but a prose-writer, indeed a novelist. This antique tradition (the term is precise, since the poet died nearly a century ago in 1889) has probably continued silently ever since in the conventional handing-over of the poet, all through the period of his unfashion, to the innocent and the unwilling, to the schoolchild and the undergraduate, presumably on the supposition that Browning is securely far from all such troublesome complications as anything, in the nature of the aesthetic would entail. The Thurber cartoon at least does better than that – which is why, I think, his ‘quotation’ from the poet is worth remembering: it mediates aesthetically what it has clearly seen aesthetically. Speaking less clumsily, one might say that in the cartoon itself a magnifying glass will not make really clear whether the Mrs Harris on the bookcase is animate or inanimate, is glaring or just glass-eyed. These things are not important; the drawing has to be allowed to speak for itself. To ‘read’ it at all is to recognise how much is entailed by style, both the farcical personal style of the drawing and that severe social intonation that the caption implies: the two in special combination constitute Thurber’s own style. Browning’s poem is richer in details of sense-experience than most cartoons will be, but all the same it offers no more than meets the eye.

What the eye sees is a (relatively) short poem that all the same bears one or two delusive attributes of drama. It begins with a quasi-speech-heading, ‘Ferrara’, and it is consistently couched in that essence of Browning’s stylistic character, the sound of a voice talking in an intensely recognisable human situation. To this degree the poet is, despite all his older reputation for obscurity, a very simple poet – the sort of human being who enters a room talking. In Browning a temperamental downrightness and impetuosity meet and fuse with the common Victorian preference that literature should be public and popular: with the result that his first lines tend to put us into the presence of all that is there to be communicated. In this case the opening line is appropriately a form of social introduction. To say this, however, is not to predict a drama: the very strength and self-consistency of that voice which begins talking brings with it the inheritance of Romantic poetry, which is a subjective mode – and nothing that follows in the poem is in itself free-standing and extraverted enough to break down that in fact private and poetic communication. For a speech-heading is not a stage-direction, nor is a voice a character. Earlier periods can sometimes startle us by their possession of what we think of as ‘modern’ attributes, just as the present is often archaic and retrospective; Browning is (we can say if we want, though the comparison may not be fruitful) making a new metaphor out of fragments of old forms and genres, as Eliot and others were to do eighty years later.

The only literal way to take a metaphor is not to make the mistake of believing it to be literal. The Duke’s situation is confined to that brilliant imagined voice: he will never really come down the portrait-adorned staircase into the actuality we stand on. Browning was later to say of Sordello that ‘the historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires’: background and foreground are metaphors too – what the reader of ‘My Last Duchess’ sees and hears is a voice, which is less 16th-century Italian (Browning’s pervasive easy humour, emerges here in the relative insignificance of the trappings) than 19th-century Victorian, indeed the voice of the poet’s or the reader’s contemporary moment. Poetry itself is to Browning ‘How it strikes a Contemporary’. The voice’s inflections are, if we like, upperclass or at least authoritarian English of the reader or writer’s own period, with a powerful assurance written in every phrase, as in that still encountered idiom by which proprietorship is signalled by the addition of ‘my’ to properties sometimes unexpected: my plumber, my milkman, my archivist, my last Duchess. Person at once converts into owned object (‘his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object’). This proprietorship, whether of wife or of painting, is so marked that we may for a moment think that the Duke himself is an artist: as the wife is no more than a painting, ‘looking as if she were alive’, so is the Duke for an instant something very like a highly successful and established Victorian artist, Ferrara, RA. But his Italian Renaissance prototype could of course in practice scarcely have been a professional painter in this way. Therefore someone must be introduced to do the actual work, hence the existence of Fra Pandolph:

                                       I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolph’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
Fra Pandolph by design ...

It is in the interest of both the poet and the Duke himself to keep the Friar’s part in things as small as possible, so that his work on the portrait is diminished to that contemptuous ‘busily a day’. Reading the poem naturalistically, editors and critics have found ‘problems’ in it, of which this is one: how did the Friar manage it in a day? Another is what discoverable ‘design’ the Duke can have had in so naming him, for the poem itself does not appear to disclose it. But, just as the ‘day’ is really the measure of the Duke’s dismissal of the true artist, so is the ‘design’ really the difference between the creative idea of the quiet, almost invisible Friar painting in the background, and the Duke’s insistent will to turn attention solely on himself (‘none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’). Thus, in the manner of any work of literary art, words like ‘day’ and ‘design’ do trace back into truth, but not into an imported psychology: to suppose that is to ignore the working of an aesthetic medium, just as the Duke treats with contempt his aesthetic workmen. We cannot, in short, know much about the dramatic plot, the precise fate of the last Duchess or the putative future of the next one (and Browning is very unlikely to have known it either). What we can say is that from the moment that the Duke fuses together woman and portrait into that fatal image of ownership – ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘there she stands,’ ‘as if alive’ – the poem finds a language vividly metaphorical to the point of drama, in which to speak of both love and art in terms of the power they both yield. From first to last, the Master (both Maestro and tyrant) is the Duke himself: ‘That’s my ... for me.’ But while we read, we cannot usefully distinguish between Browning’s voice and the Duke’s – between the authority of the writer and the tyranny of the despot. Because this is true, all critical accounts that attempt to settle finally the moral status of the Duke are in themselves pointless: he is made of an ambiguity. Even while we follow the quasi-history of the Duke’s destruction of his wife, we acknowledge that his servants are Fra Pandolph, preserver of the natural life of art, and Claus, the bringer of a bronze-like immortality. And more, that such servants have it in themselves to perpetuate, even against the will of the Duke – indeed through that same incisive intense voice of authority that is his – and even through deathly forms, all the natural life that is in the fluid evanescent actualities of the Duchess’s existence: ‘the faint /Half-flush that dies along her throat’,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her ...

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

‘The English Poets’

This series of editions (Penguin paperback, Yale hardcover) is one of the most cheering developments in recent publishing. Each volume provides a newly edited text, with full annotation, a table of dates, a reading-list and indexes, all in a pleasant readable format – and remarkably inexpensive. The Introductions are brief and factual: no space is given to critical appreciative essays, though select bibliographies inform the interested reader where the best scholarship and criticism can be found. The footnotes are placed at the back of the volume, though keyed to the pages of the text, leaving the text itself clearly laid out and uncluttered with editorial apparatus. All these decisions on the part of the General Editor, Christopher Ricks, are well-judged. Most of the editions represent major scholarly under-takings. In some cases, the poet concerned has not been edited for many years, so that the commentary supplied in the notes makes a substantially new contribution to the subject. This is so with John Scattergood’s Skelton (whose notes are supplemented by a glossary) and Pat Rogers’s Swift (with over 300 pages of notes plus a biographical dictionary). Alan Rudrum’s Henry Vaughan supersedes what was the standard Oxford edition by L.C. Martin, which, good though it was, is inferior in annotation to Rudrum’s. Similarly, J.D. Fleeman’s Samuel Johnson is the best, most textually refined edition of these poems available anywhere. R.A. Rebholz’s Wyatt is the third edition of this poet in recent years, following those by Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thomson (1969) and Joost Daalder (1975). The text and canon of Wyatt’s poems are especially difficult to establish; the whole subject is controversial. Rebholz’s edition is excellent: he presents a modernised text, deals with the problematic issues rigorously and systematically, lays out the poems lucidly according to genre, and provides a fine commentary. This is undoubtedly the best buy for students – orreaders of any sort – wishing to make the acquaintance of a poet still too little read. Other volumes are planned: The Canterbury Tales, Sidney, Dryden, Pope and Rossetti.

The following volumes in ‘The English Poets’ series are published by Yale University Press and Penguin:

Samuel Johnson: The Complete English Poems, edited by J.D. Fleeman, 256 pp., £12 and £4.95, 22 July 1982, 0 300 02824 5.
John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, edited by John Scattergood. 573 pp., £17.50 and £6.95, 20 January, 0 300 02970 5.
Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, edited by Pat Rogers. 955 pp., £26 and £9.95,27 January, 0 300 02966 7.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Idylls of the King, edited by J.M. Gray. 371 pp., £16 and £6.95, 23 June, 0 300 03059 2.
Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, edited by Alan Rudrum. 718 pp., £21 and £5.95, 1981, 0 300 02680 3.
William Wordsworth: The Prelude, A Parallel Text, edited by J.C. Maxwell. 573 pp., £22 and £4.95, 21 January 1982, 0 300 02753 2.
William Wordsworth: The Complete Poems, edited by John Hayden. Vol. I, 1072 pp., £32 and £8.95, 1977, 0 300 02751 6. Vol. II, 1104 pp., £32 and £3.75, 1981, 0 300 02752 4.
Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by R.A. Rebholz. 588 pp., £16.95 and £3.50, 1981, 0 300 02681 1.
Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems, edited by George Parfitt. 640 pp., £20 and £3.95, July 1982, 0 300 02825 3.
Lord Byron: Don Juan, edited by T.G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt. 768 pp., £14.95 and £5.95, July 1982, 0 300 02687 1.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by J.A. Burrow. 176 pp., £8.95 and £3.50, July 1982, 0 300 02906 3.
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, edited by Thomas Roche, with the assistance of Patrick O’Donnell. 1246 pp., £26 and £5.95, 1981, 0 300 02705 2.