Breathing on the British public

Danny Karlin

  • Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism by Herbert Tucker
    Harvard, 481 pp, £29.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 674 87430 7
  • Browning the Revisionary by John Woolford
    Macmillan, 233 pp, £27.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 333 38872 0
  • Poetic Remaking: The Art of Browning, Yeats and Pound by George Bornstein
    Pennsylvania State, 220 pp, £17.80, August 1989, ISBN 0 271 00620 X
  • The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry by Eric Griffiths
    Oxford, 369 pp, £35.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 19 812989 0

Nine years ago Herbert Tucker wrote an excellent first book, Browning’s Beginnings; like many first books it gave the impression of being a labour of love. Tucker’s second is a tremendous disappointment. It has all the inflated idea of itself that the title suggests. Browning’s Beginnings was short, keen and suggestive. It used Post-Structuralist approaches with verve and point. It was, in nothing but the good sense of the word, a modest book. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism is not short, neither is it modest. It is the Big Book which American academics must ‘produce’. The brilliant close readings which distinguished the earlier book can still be found, but their context has altered: they emerge against the grain of the argument, not as part of it. Exit Young Tucker, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota; enter Tucker Senior, full Professor at the University of Virginia. And Tucker is robed in professorial garb from head to footnotes.

Part One of his book, which covers Tennyson’s career up to the Poems, is founded on a reading of Tennyson’s encounter with, and transformation of, the poetics of Romanticism. He terms it ‘specifically literary biography’, which he distinguishes from ‘the doggedly contextual historicism that has stood in the way of interpretation and disabled our estimate of a great writer’. Tucker views Tennyson locked in abstracted colloquy with the mighty dead, a prey to his reading rather than to his cultural or family history. Tucker’s neo-Bloomian narrative is narrow in scope and stifling in atmosphere, and is marred by disturbing instances of misreading and distortion. In his discussion of ‘Recollections of the Arabian Nights’ he makes great play with its ‘gently fanciful jokes’, among which he cites the lines,

So, leaping lightly from the boat,
With silver anchor left afloat,

commenting: The “silver anchor” has aroused objections, but the fact that Tennyson leaves this prop afloat suggests that he is having rather more fun with his mechanical ballet than some readers want to tolerate.’ It is not the ‘anchor’ which is afloat, but the ‘boat’, left afloat with (by means of) its anchor instead of being drawn up on the bank. More serious than this is Tucker’s selective use of Tennyson’s original and revised texts. Since the argument in the early chapters concerns the development of Tennyson’s poetics, it might seem crucial to quote as a matter of course from the first-edition texts. But Tucker does so only when it suits him; on other occasions, in discussions of the 1830 and 1832 poems he quotes from the revised versions of 1842, without telling the reader that he is doing so and without remarking its effect on what he is saying. The effect is damaging when, for example, he quotes the 1842 version of two stanzas of ‘the Lady of Shallot’ as showing ‘the new direction’ of Tennyson’s 1832 poems, or says that the fourth stanza of the poem ‘re-opens the ambiguities of the third’, which it may do in 1842, but not in 1832, where, besides the changes in the text, the order of the stanzas is reversed. Comparing ‘Mariana’ with ‘Mariana in the South’, Tucker states that when the southern Mariana ‘sees images pass her door in stanzas six and seven, they are far more substantial and sociable than their northern counterparts: they stop, look and let themselves be quoted.’ Not in 1832, they don’t: both these stanzas were added in 1842, and were probably, as Christopher Ricks suggests, ‘precipitated by the death of Hallam’.

The oddest features of Tucker’s method of ‘specifically literary biography’ is that it is confined to Part One of the book. He sees Tennyson’s career divided into a phase of post-Romantic self-making, followed by a phase of cultural engagement. In Part Two, as Tucker promises, historical context is allowed back, and the book becomes both more interesting and more persuasive: but it never fully recovers from this distinction. The idea that Tennyson’s early work is ‘neutral’ with respect to culture and history is simply preposterous. Even were Tennyson himself to have declared as much, it would prove nothing. The poems which Tucker chooses to discuss from Poems by Two Brothers (1827) are ‘I wander in darkness and sorrow’ and ‘Midnight’: but this collection also included ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’ and ‘Written during the Convulsions in Spain’. And this is only to take the notion of cultural engagement at its most literal and specific. It is characteristic of Tucker’s approach, in this connection, that among literary influences that of Byron is slighted in favour of ‘Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats’; Tennyson, Tucker solemnly informs us, read Byron at Somersby before he encountered these other more significant figures, and ‘subsequently repudiated’ him as ‘an adolescent infatuation’. But Tucker should know better than to take Tennyson’s word for that: it is just that Byron suits his project less well than the others. For that matter, the political side of the Romantic poets to whom Tucker does attend (Wordsworth and Shelley in particular) gets short shrift: the number of occurrences of the word ‘politics’ in the index is none. Carlyle is mentioned twice; Wellington, Gladstone, Disraeli are absent. The author of ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’, not to mention the ‘The Penny-Wise’ (refrain: ‘Arm, arm, arm!’), ‘Riflemen, Form!’ and ‘Britons, guard your own’, is the occulted, Jamesian double of the one in Tucker’s book. Of The Princess, Tucker remarks: ‘Tennyson manages warfare here as he does in the occasional “Charge of the Light Brigade” and the mythic Idylls of the King: by transforming the sacrifices of war into musical offerings.’ If that were really the case, we might come to the point of asking what the point was of reading Tennyson at all.

Tucker’s motto might have been taken from Browning’s preface to Sordello when he republished it over twenty years after its first, disastrous appearance: ‘The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study.’ But the very lapse of time involved here, and Browning’s sense of himself as a reader and interpreter of his earlier work, might lead one to beware of taking such statements at face value. They are value-laden, and the values are subject to change. Such change is the central topic of John Woolford’s book. He, like Tucker, is interested in ‘the incidents in the development of a soul’ – specifically, the soul of a Victorian poet subject to, and struggling for mastery of, Romantic poetics: but he narrates that process as one of Browning’s developing relationship with his contemporary audience, his response to the felt pressures of both private readers (notably, though not exclusively, Elizabeth Barrett) and public critics. It is this element of ‘interaction’, Woolford argues, which represented, in Browning’s own eyes, ‘his revision of Romantic poetics, and stimulated his progressive revision of poetic form’ (‘progressive’ here has the double sense of ‘evolving’ and ‘politically advanced’).

The first chapter of the book, ‘the Problem of Power’, traces the evolution of Browning’s political beliefs from their Romantic and Puritan origins; it becomes clear, as the book progresses, how intimately linked these beliefs are to Browning’s creative life, how his ideas about what the poet should write about, and how, and for whom, are inextricably bound up with them. Browning was a radical and a republican in his youth, and, though the professed politics of his later years were those of orthodox Liberalism, the current of his hatred for oppression and his suspicion of all structures of authority ran deeper and more persistently in his work. ‘the Problem of Power’ is followed, in Woolford’s scheme, by ‘The Problem of Audience’ and ‘The Problem of Form’. Woolford describes Browning’s response to these linked concerns, and suggests the ways in which his response coincided with, or diverged from, that of his contemporaries. Browning had plenty of examples around him of writers like Tennyson or Dickens to whom the wide readership he craved had come, it seemed, almost without effort. It took Browning 35 years – from the publication of Pauline to that of The Ring and the Book – to begin to approach Tennyson’s position. That he has not yet reached it, and in all likelihood never will, may be gauged from the fact that a conference commemorating the centenary of his death, due to be held later this year at Christ Church, Oxford, has just been cancelled for lack of sufficient advance bookings.

Woolford is alert to the paradoxes and tensions of Browning’s fraught relation with the ‘British Public – ye who like me not’. He explains why Browning’s approach to poetic form is so flexible and experimental, and accounts for the presence, in his attitude to his public, of apparently contradictory elements. At times Browning sounds a note of prophetic distance and high-mindedness. Writing to Ruskin he declared that ‘a poet’s affair is with God, to whom he is accountable and of whom is his reward: look elsewhere and you find misery enough.’ But this ‘misery’ was Browning’s own, in the aftermath of the (to him) inexplicable failure of Men and Women to succeed with the critics and the public. He had written these poems ‘as a first step towards popularity’, just as, earlier in his career, he had wistfully desired a ‘sort of Pit-audience’ for the cheap pamphlets of Bells and Pomegranates; the prophet was more than prepared to come down from the mountain, and, if necessary, to rewrite his tablets of stone.

These tablets shift, in the period covered by Woolford’s book, from the unitary long poem (Parcelsus, Sordello), to the conventional stage-plays with which Browning attempted to make his name in the 1840s (he wrote to Macready that A Blot in the’Scutcheon had ‘action in it – drabbing, stabbing, et autres gentillesses’), to the dramatic monologue, and ultimately to the fusion of all these forms in The Ring and the Book. Browning’s poetic practice evolved, Woolford argues, in order to satisfy the conflicting imperatives of Romantic élitism (the poet as bard, prophet, exalted teacher, ‘accountable’ to no one but God) and Romantic humanism (the poet as ‘brother’ to his readers, and accountable to them). Men and Women leans to the latter side, not just in its individual monologues, but in the order of the collection itself. It is not, after all, called Ladies and Gentlemen; aristocrats rub shoulders with the common people in its pages; some poems are given more prominence than others by being placed at the beginning and end of its two volumes, but in the main the principle is a levelling one as between poems on different subjects, of different lengths, in different styles and tones. The collection therefore has no structure, no architectonic principle; poems are not organised in sequences or hierarchies, but ‘gathered’ in a democratic crowd, in which, moreover, authorial voice is displaced and diffused. Woolford argues that Browning interpreted the failure of Men and Women as, in part, a rejection of this formal strategy. He did not abandon the dramatic monologue, but attempted to make it function as part of a larger design, what Woolford calls the ‘structured collection’. The revised Men and Women which appeared in the Poetical Works of 1863, consisting of just 12 poems arranged in a demonstrably patterned sequence – eight of them drawn from the 55 poems of the original Men and Women, the others from earlier collections – is the first experiment with this form, which Browning continued, and took forward, with Dramatis Personae (1864); it culminates, as does so much else in Browning, in The Ring and the Book. The latter work, combining the attributes of epic and serial novel, unitary long poem and structured collection, reconciling the author’s overt control over his text and didactic intervention in it with his abdication from those bad eminences, finally put Browning in touch, if not finally at ease, with his critics and his public.

Woolford makes his case with acuteness and subtlety, and with a complete mastery of his materials. His analytical grasp of the relation between intellectual history and the practice of writing is impressive, though his exposition of it is sometimes over-compressed and elliptical. This is not the only difficulty which the book poses. Its story is shaped too neatly: from his early, experimental works, Browning moves onward and upward, recuperating what was valuable in the old work at each new stage. The forward drive does not leave much room for false starts (since everything is retrospectively incorporated in the argument’s providential design), nor for circling back. And yet, to give an example of the latter, the concept of the ‘structured collection’ has been found not just in the work Browning produced after Men and Women, but in collections such as Dramatic Lyrics or even in the whole series of Bells and Pomegranates, of which Dramatic Lyrics was a part, and in which Browning planned to express, as he put it, an ‘alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought’. George Bornstein, in a recent book of essays on ‘post-romantic poetic development’ which has clear affinities with both Woolford’s and Tucker’s projects, devotes one essay to the arrangement of Dramatic Lyrics as a collection which ‘displays considerable architectonic skill in its deployment of paired poems punctuated by individual, free-standing ones’. Bornstein’s analysis is at times strained, but in the main ingenious and convincing, and implicitly challenges Woolford’s view that the ‘structured collection’ came to Browning’s notice only after the failure of looser forms. He seems rather to have played with it and put it aside, to take it up again when the time was right.

Given the interest of what Woolford’s book has to say, it’s a shame that it should have been so poorly turned out by its publishers. It would be charitable to assume that the book had somehow inadvertently gone into production straight from the author’s typescript, without a copy-editor’s second glance. The design is incompetent, with the same typeface used for main text and quotations, and the page layout is grossly amateurish. The reference system is hard to use, with occasional gaps and duplications. Of the many misprints and slips, some are undoubtedly attributable to the author’s oversights; the publishers, for their part, far from seeing the book through the press, appear to have been looking the other way. In Woolford’s case, the flaws and mistakes are all minor ones – the book’s substantive case nowhere rests on them. And anyway, we might say, aren’t all writers in the same boat? No one is safe from the printer: in one text of Sordello the line ‘Each foot-fall burst up in the marish-floor’ reads ‘Each foot-ball burst up in the marish-floor,’ and that got by one of the 19th century’s most pedantic proofreaders. Browning also committed plenty of solecisms on his own account, most famously when he made the goody-goodiest of his heroines, Pippa, utter the word ‘twat’, a word he came across in a scurrilous 17th-century ballad and took to mean a sort of nun’s wimple.

If you want to attribute a sentiment to a writer, and rely on close reading to back it up, you must be sure the words are his. Eric Griffiths praises Tennyson’s conception of the desire for an afterlife by contrasting his reach with someone else’s gasp: ‘“what opposite needs converge to this desire of Immortality!” as another Victorian exclaimed. Tennyson’s genius is to do more than merely exclaim about the fact.’ The ‘other Victorian’ is identified as Robert Browning, writing to his friend Julia Wedgwood: but it is in fact Julia Wedgwood, writing to her friend Robert Browning (it is also misquoted: ‘desire of an Immortality’, it should read, which makes a difference). Griffiths should have checked, too, the date of composition of Browning’s poem ‘The Flight of the Duchess’ before linking it so positively to Browning’s courtship of Elizabeth Barrett. The poem was not written, as Griffiths maintains, between April and November 1845: it was begun before Browning knew Elizabeth Barrett, in 1842, probably in the spring or summer; broken off, and resumed in the autumn; the first nine sections were published in Hood’s Magazine in April 1845, and the whole poem was finished by July, when Browning showed it to Elizabeth Barrett and received her comments on it. The poem may well have played a role in the courtship, but it cannot be the one proposed for it by Griffiths: ‘one of the most responsible poems of seduction in the language’. The word ‘responsible’, a favourite of Griffiths’, grates a little here.

This is a book about which there are many more good things to say than bad. But it seems proper to take Griffiths to task for such cases of inattention because he is himself so attentive to the failings of others. He is a critic who takes issue; judicious discriminations, scrupulous weighings and siftings, are more than Griffiths’ métier, they are his passion.

The book’s title comes from The Ring and the Book and reflects on the fact that the lawyers’ pleadings in the trial of Guido Franceschini were conducted not in open court but on paper. Pompilia’s advocate, Bottinius, yearns to be an orator and sway the judges with his spoken eloquence, but is confined to the medium of text: hence, Browning comments, the irony that his actual words have not been lost, since they were never spoken, and ‘The printed voice of him lives now as then.’ But in his monologue Bottinius, alone in his studio, recites the speech as he would like to deliver it: and so the irony doubles back, for, as Browning reminds us, we, the readers of the poem, ‘miss the very tones o’ the voice’ in which he does this. What life does the ‘printed voice’ have? What exactly do we miss in not hearing ‘the very tones o’ the voice’ of poets, and is there, in fact, a corresponding gain?

In his consideration of these questions, Griffiths begins not with literature but with linguistics, though literature is the ultimate goal of his enquiry. In the first chapter he starts from the premise that no writing system can cover the full range of possible meanings in any spoken utterance – in particular, those governed by prosodic features such as intonation: there is a ‘permanent conceptual intractability in the material’, a resistance in speech to the attempt of writing to transcribe and represent it. ‘An achieved version of the transcriber’s plight,’ Griffiths states, ‘dominates much of the greatest English poetry of the 19th century’: in the work of Tennyson, of the Brownings, of Hardy, of Hopkins, Griffiths traces the way in which writers responded to the shifting values of text and voice.

Dissatisfaction with writing as a sterile medium of art and instruction goes back at least to Plato (whose attack on writing we would not possess but for generations of transcribers), but in our own century the influential theories of Derrida have attempted to reverse the priority of voice over text which, for different reasons, was also a cardinal principle of Romantic and Victorian poetics. Victorian poets – Browning is an extreme example – wrote at length about how awful writing was, and their anxiety emerges in the popularity of words like ‘sing’ and ‘chant’ to describe what they did. While he rejects Derrida’s deconstructive attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’ in language, Griffiths does himself make a special claim for writing as opposed to speech. For the very disability of writing in terms of its relation to speeech is a source of one of its strengths, since writing can posit several ways of speaking at once, and hold in suspension meanings that a spoken utterance must decide between. More than this, even, writing can call attention to the difference between text and voice as part of its very mode of evocation; writing may ask to be imagined as speech, to be ‘realised’ as voice, and yet simultaneously prompt the reader to realise that it is not that: poetry may take this very play of difference as its ground of argument about the way we imagine ourselves and our relations with other people.

In the book’s second chapter, ‘Tennyson’s Breath’, Griffiths explores ‘the centrality of respiration, and other physical motor-rhythms, to Tennyson’s poetry, a centrality which was his boast and also his quandary’. The poet who yearned for the assurance of a life after death was the one whose verse most inhabited the rhythms of breathing, who was least at home in the imagination of a disembodied self. Griffiths’s readings in this chapter are skilled, and in many instances carry conviction; he is right to see Tennyson’s famous mellifluousness as an instrument of his ‘preoccupation with self-identity over time and beyond time’, which ‘drew him down repeatedly to an encounter with the human body itself as the crucial location of his thinking’. But Griffiths sides too much with Tennyson, seems to want to explain away things that simply need explaining. ‘It was not petulance only or touchiness which made him miserable about people’s comment on his work,’ Griffiths informs us:

Meredith asked him, of one carper who had said that Tennyson was not a great poet, ‘Why should you mind what such a man says?’ and Tennyson answered, ‘I mind what everybody says.’ Meredith was too confident that a poet can insulate himself linguistically from what is said around and about him; Tennyson knew that his creative life went on so entirely in the language that he could not but mind what ‘everybody says’ because what everybody said was the air he breathed, the material he composed.

It is in the third chapter of the book, ‘Companionable Forms’, that Griffiths most successfully applies his leading principles about the relation between speech and writing. In this chapter Griffiths traces the ramifications, both fine and broad, of this relation in the Victorian poetry of love and marriage. He excels both in the study of details (word, phrase, cadence) and of design, and in the fruitful combination of the two. As you might expect, the dramatic monologue in both Browning and Hardy lends itself especially to Griffiths’s method; and the terms he uses to describe the form also serve him well in a searching account of the Browning love letters: ‘The dramatic monologue constantly trades back and forth between ear and eye, between our imagination of the text as spoken and our reading of the text as written. This most distinctive of Victorian poetic forms works principally with the difficulties and opportunities set before the poet in the intonational silence of the written word, and the correspondence ... often reads like a schooling in the rich significances of the printed voice ... The subtlety and verve of their letters ... like that of the dramatic monologue, consist in their not pretending to be transcripts of speech; they ask for the imagination and not the illusion of speech.’ Nevertheless there are moments even here when Griffiths pushes his case too far. It may be true that when we speak poetry aloud we are forced to choose between possible stresses and intonations which writing, by contrast, allows us to play against each other, but it is rarely the case that we say things once and for ever. Distinguishing dramatic monologue from the acted drama, Griffiths maintains that it is ‘not designed for performance’ and that ‘there is therefore no need to call a halt at any particular time to the vocal ambiguities of the text, nor are they so arranged that some set of them may be chosen and presented’ (this is one of his most Derridean moments). ‘On the contrary,’ Griffiths insists, ‘the essence of the form is that the poem most fully exists as the imagination of a set of mutually incompatible voicings between which we are not only not asked to choose, but asked not to choose.’ The dramatic monologue can be, and was by Browning himself, performed, however, and hearing it aloud would in this sense be like listening to a piece of music. Each performance is singular, but listeners may hear many performances, all differing from each other. And each time a new performance is heard, the (admittedly selective) memories of previous performances will gather behind, press on and permeate the one that is taking place, binding the now of the present experience with the multiple nows of the past. (There is a good illustration of this in the narrator’s successive accounts of the Vinteuil sonata in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.) The same obtains for drama, and for the dramatic enactments of poems which occur when we read them to ourselves or to others.