Browning and Modernism

Donald Davie

  • 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.

Browning had already effected such a closure in ‘Count Gismond’ (1842), a much longer poem in stanzas:

And have you brought my tercel back?
I was just telling Adela
How many birds it struck since May.

But Woolford and Karlin don’t notice that closures are what they are dealing with, confidently telling us that ‘Adela’ must be ‘pronounced to rhyme with “May” ’, as in the other poem that ‘Africa’ must be ‘pronounced to rhyme with the other end-words’. No asymmetries for them! And of course this is not nitpicking. When Amiens in As you like it strikes up ‘Blow blow, thou winter wind,/Thou art not so unkind/As man’s ingratitude’ our school-mistresses were doubtless right to tell us to pronounce ‘wind’ as ‘wynde’. But these are the opening, not the closing lines of Amiens’s little piece and (more important) the piece is a song, whereas both the Browning poems are for the speaking voice. Moreover, we shall seldom recite either poem and in silent reading asymmetry will register willy-nilly to the eye: for the point is not how we speak either of the disputed words but how we imagine them spoken. The Browning who skewed his rhyme schemes even as he signed off surely did so deliberately; and in doing so he proved himself nearer to a sophisticated Modernist than his editors realise or can approve. Pronouncing ‘Africa’ ‘Afrikay’ pushes poetic language away from common usage, and as with ‘sharped’ for ‘sharpened’ it seems that some of us still like it that way.

As late as the 1950s, Browning’s Kentish Sir Byng reappeared as Ezra Pound’s ‘Duke Liu’:

Duke Liu, the frank,
unhoused, unhapped,
from bound to bourne
put all barned corn in sacks
and ration bags
for glorious use, stretched bow
showed shield, lance, dagger-axe
and squared to the open road.

Of course the Browningesque cadences are not replicated; they are a murmur in the background, for those who have ears to hear them – they are a theme on which the later poet plays variations. Consider only his dissolving of full rhyme into assonance and echo. It should be plain that this is a quite different operation on a Victorian poet from producing a pastiche of him – the one is creative re-invention, the other parasitical.

Those who can’t trust then ears may latch on to another page of Pound’s Confucian Anthology, where Pound explicitly pays his dues by way of the parenthetical epigraph: ‘(King Charles)’. But in this case Pound’s adaptation is so inferior that there’s no point quoting anything but the Browning original. This is a deeper and more troubling poem than ‘Kentish Sir Byng’, because it articulates the all but suicidal sentiment of a doomed remnant. We might not unreasonably imagine some SS detachment in 1945. Thus, ‘in Hell’s despite’ is not hyperbole, nor a rhetorical flourish. But poetically the achievement (not subtle, for it is Browning’s virtue always to be bold) is in making the strong stresses of ‘King Charles’ set a tune for coupled strong stresses later: ‘right now’, ‘fight now’, ‘went since’, ‘sank once’, ‘spent since’, ‘drank once’, ‘quaff else’, ‘laugh else’. In the last stanza where ‘boy George quaff else’ gives us four strong stresses in sequence, the variation to the felling cadence of ‘begot him’ and ‘shot him’ is heart-breaking. This is an effect that blank verse could not manage so concisely, if at all.

There is here, for those who care, a pretty case of intertextuality. For Woolford and karlin are inclined to accept R.L. Lowe’s suggestion, in Notes and Queries for 1952, that the source for Browning’s ‘Cavalier Tunes’ was in Walter Scott’s Woodstock. And this raises the possibility – very unlikely, I think – that Pound drew directly on Scott without needing Browning as intermediary. However, Pound was a very bookish poet, as Browning was also. In Browning’s case, the proclivity was inherited: for Browning’s father was a perhaps compulsive bibliophile. (And if this seems out of character for a pre-Victorian Dissenter, perhaps we should revise our stereotypes of what a Dissenter of that age might be.) Browning’s most explicit attempt to cope with that legacy, physical as well as psychological, was in the second half of a two-part poem that he sent to Hood’s Magazine in 1844. It is called ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’ (that title bookish in itself): and it is too delightful not to be considered in full.

This poem has its light-hearted but still mordant contribution to make to up-to-the-minute soul-searchings about ‘the canon’. What is Modernist about it is the foregrounding (as we have learned to call it) of artifice: Browning’s rhymes exultantly draw attention to themselves, there is no pretence that they ‘just happened’ or ‘came naturally’. The translingual rhyme in the fifth stanza – ‘accentibus laetis’ with ‘treatise’ – was obviously a precedent for the Greek/English rhyme on ‘tin’ that has caused apoplexy in readers of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’; though even more audacious, because of the rhythmical disturbance it makes, is, in the seventh stanza, the rhyme of ‘blind dead face’ with ‘preface’. Perhaps this is not Modern but Post-Modern; unashamedly, in any case, it kicks over the traces of the Horatian maxim that the art is in the concealment of art. True on the contrary to the Rabelaisian authority that it invokes, the poem will not pretend to be anything but what it is; exuberantly an artifact. In such a case it is pointless to complain that the occasion, the overt theme, does not deserve such elaboration. For the discrepancy between the occasion and its elaboration is precisely, as in Rabelais, the point that is being made. The far from Rabelaisian texts that Browning subsequently read – David Strauss’s and Renan’s Lives of Jesus, for instance – are more to the taste of A.S. Byatt, but they supplied the poet with no comparable occasions for displaying the exuberance of artifice.

Moreover this art, pushed so intransigently under our noses, is not ‘for its own sake’, it is not Parnassian. For Elizabeth Barrett was on the ball when she applauded the poem: ‘it is so new, ... full of a creeping crawling grotesque life.’ We may have had our fill of creepy-crawlies since: but in 1844 to sympathise with slugs and newts was momentous, and an achievement not just of art but precisely of sympathy – that’s to say, of nature.

A.S. Byatt’s sensibility is, as she knows and frankly professes, mythopoeic or mythographic; the constant slippage of time is, so far as she’s concerned, to be arrested and conquered not by acoustic shapings but by the observed and perpetuated recurrence of certain primordial myths. Accordingly she takes seriously Browning’s initial sympathy with Shelley, and she finds among his successors Van Gogh (surprisingly but persuasively) and Wallace Stevens – the Stevens who wrote pentameters, in ‘Sunday Morning’. But this case for Browning rests on much later poems than those in these first two volumes. The young Browning was at his best when he was being sportive and audacious, formally restless and inventive. We must wait for later volumes in this exhaustively erudite edition to see whether the sportiveness did not ossify into idiosyncrasy, and whether, as hospitality to myth brought Browning nearer the world of Freud and Sir James Frazer, this enriched his poetry or merely demoted him from the rank of poet to that of earnestly worried, though never very worried, thinker.

However, there remains Sordello, perhaps the most proto-Modernist of all Browning’s poems and among his most ambitious ever. Woolford and Karlin say roundly: ‘Sordello is Browning’s central and pivotal work.’ This is disconcerting, for Sordello is a very tiresome poem, and has been found so ever since it first appeared in 1840, when it was almost universally panned, and destroyed Browning’s reputation for years after. However, a tiresome poem can also be a great one, as we know from the case of Pound’s Cantos, a poem which began indeed as an attempt to rewrite Sordello.

Accordingly it is Ronald Bush, in a book about Pound (The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’, 1976), who has put his finger on the tiresomeness of Browning’s poem, speaking of its ‘infamously confusing use of parataxis’. Parataxis is the habit of mind, hence of speaking and writing, which distrusts all connectives except ‘and’: in the OED definition, ‘the placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of co-ordination or subordination) between them’. This makes it seem that paratactic grammar is primitive or naive; and so it is, if we believe E.A. Havelock in his Preface to Plato, who found Homer paratactic whereas Plato set us on the opposite course, hypotaxis, which has governed us ever since. Citing Homer suggests that parataxis is peculiarly fitted to narrative, and Browning, quite apart from the primitivism that attracted him, made this inference too: unbelievably, he thought that, making Sordello a narrative, he would appeal to a more popular audience than he’d reached with his non-narrative and Shelleyan poems of length, ‘Pauline’ and ‘Paracelsus’. What he and many of his Modernist successors failed to recognise was that harking back to this primitive or naive grammar did not in any way guarantee limpidity: on the contrary, eliminating all the signs that distinguish co-ordination from subordination creates an obscurity, a proliferation of ambiguities, that is all but impenetrable – in the nature of the case, not just because we have been conditioned through centuries to expect the hypotactic rather than the paratactic. In a later phase of the Modernist endeavour this would be recognised, so that Michael Edwards (Of Making Many Books, 1990) can say of Charles Tomlinson – in my view, quite rightly: ‘Tomlinson’s syntax is what makes his poems, linguistically, what they are ... in the poetry of our century, Tomlinson enacts the revenge of hypotaxis’.

So, where or how does that leave Sordello? An enigmatic fossil that, seventy years too soon, encapsulated a Modernist endeavour that was bound in the event to fail? Even on that understanding reading Sordello is a sort of duty, a required act of homage to, as it were, a dauntless pioneer. But people do not read poems because they are in duty bound to do so (unless they are unfortunate students). So ... is Sordello, even now, readable?

Certainly it is nearer being so in this edition than ever before, thanks to the notes, which much of the time simply explain to us what the hell is going on. But what are the rewards of this in any case unsettling procedure, switching from text to notes and back again? Pound in ABC of Reading, having given 60 lines from Book One of Sordello as an exhibit, exhorted us: ‘There is here a certain lucidity of sound that I think you will with difficulty find elsewhere in English, and you very well may have to retire as far as the Divina Commedia for continued narrative having such clarity of outline without clog and verbal impediment.’ But we may concede to Pound, if only for argument’s sake, that the impediment is not ‘verbal’: what it is, we may protest, is structural (which is worse). For the paratactic principle can be extended outside the sentence, as it is by both Browning and Pound, to govern the disposition in the poem of much larger units, which we may call ‘episodes’ or ‘scenes’. The scene that Pound picks out for his exhibit, the description of a font with caryatids, comes to us with no indication of how it is either co-ordinated with, or subordinated to, what has gone before and what will come after. And this is what creates the obscurity of the Cantos as of Sordello – an obscurity that no consulting of dictionaries or Annotated Indexes can clear up.

The most useful thing that Pound says is the tip that he gives in his last sentence: ‘Again as in the case of Golding, the reader must read it as prose, pausing for the sense and not hammering the line-terminations.’ This Golding is Arthur Golding, who published in 1567 Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated into couplet-rhyming fourteeners. Earlier in ABC of Reading Pound had enthusiastically exhibited excerpts from this work, and had added: ‘The reader will be well advised to read according to sense and syntax, keep from thumping, observe the syntactical pause, and not stop for the line ends save where sense requires or a comma indicates.’ Pound’s advice that this is also how to read Sordello flies in the face of Woolford and Karlin, who declare: ‘Sordello is a narrative in six books, written in heroic couplets.’ This is surely wrong: Browning’s couplets are not ‘heroic’, for his couplet is not a compositional unit, as it was for Dryden or Pope, but merely as with Golding a device for ‘keeping going’. Accordingly, if we look for acoustic shapes in Sordello, we cannot expect anything so ringing and emphatic as we find in ‘Cavalier Tunes’, nor anything so crisp and compact as in the best of Dryden or Pope, but only the much more relaxed and fugitive music that sounds in Golding’s couplets or Chaucer’s:

                                 Then wide
Opened the great morass, shot every side
With flashing water through and through; a-shine,
Thick steaming, all alive. Whose shape divine
Quivered i’ the farthest rainbow-vapour, glanced
Athwart the flying herons? He advanced,
But warily; though Mincio leaped no more,
Each foot-fall burst up in the marish floor
A diamond jet: and if you stopped to pick
Rose-lichen, or molest the leeches quick,
And circling blood-worms, minnow, newt or loach,
A sudden pond would silently encroach
This way and that.

But no, it’s no good. This passage isn’t typical; and anyhow it’s no great shakes – ‘shape divine’, indeed! The rhyme doesn’t in the end do anything to stiffen or to disturb (except loutishly) the run of pentameters that might as well be blank verse. Sordello is, whatever concessions we make and however we genuflect to Pound, indeed a fossil – evidence, for literary archaeologists, of the prehistory of the Modern Movement. The young Browning that we need to remember and revere is the author not of Sordello but of ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’.

Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis

Plague take all pedants, say I!
He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
Leaving this rubbish to bother the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime
Just when the birds sang altogether,

Into the garden I brought it to read;
And under these arbutes and laurestine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal account;
And then proceeded to my revenge.

Yonder’s a plum-tree, with a crevice
An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine point-levis
In a castle of the middle age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
When he’d be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady’s chamber:
Into this crevice I dropped our friend.

Splash, went he, as under he ducked.
– I knew at the bottom rain-droppings stagnate:
Never a handful of blossoms I plucked
To bury him with, my book-shelf’s magnate:
Then I went in-doors, brought out a load,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.

Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
And sate in the midst with arms a-kimbo:
So I took pity, for learning’s sake,
And, de profundibus, accentibus laetis
Cantate, quoth I, as I got a rake,
And up I fished his delectable treatise.

Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow –
Oh, the droppings have played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grew, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!

How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover;
When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet.

All that life, and fun, and romping,
All that frisking, and twisting, and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping,
Clasps cracking, and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
To the play at Paris, Vienna, or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
And danced off the Ballet in trowsers and tunic.

Come, old martyr! What, torment enough is it?
Back to my room shall you take your sweet self!
Good bye, mother-beetle: husband-eft, sufficit!
See the snug niche I have made on my shelf.
A’s book shall prop you up, B’s shall cover you,
Here’s C to be grave with, or D to be gay,
And with E on each side, and F light over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the judgment-day!

Marching Along

Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King,
Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing
And, pressing a troop unable to stoop
And see the rogues flourish and honest folk droop,
Marched them along, fifty-score strong,
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song.

God for King Charles! Pym and such carles
To the Devil that prompts ’em their treasonous parles!
Cavaliers, up! Lips from the cup,
Hands from the pasty, nor bite take nor sup
Till you’re (Chorus) marching along, fifty-score strong,
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song.

Hampden to Hell, and his obsequies’ knell
Serve Rudyard, and Fiennes, and young Harry as well!
England, good cheer! Rupert is near!
Kentish and loyalists, Keep we not here
(Chorus) Marching along, fifty-score strong,
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song?

Then, God for King Charles! Pym and his snarls
To the Devil that pricks on such pestilent carles!
Hold by the right, you double your might;
So, onward to Nottingham, fresh for the fight,
(Chorus) March we along, fifty-score strong,
Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song!

Give a rouse

King Charles, and who’ll do him right now?
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here’s, in Hell’s despite now,
King Charles!

Who gave me the goods that went since?
Who raised me the house that sank once?
Who helped me to gold I spent since?
Who found me in wine you drank once?
(Chorus) King Charles, and who’ll do him right now?
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here’s, in Hell’s despite now,
King Charles!

To whom used my boy George quaff else,
By the old fool’s side that begot him?
For whom did he cheer and laugh else,
While Noll’s damned troopers shot him?
(Chorus) King Charles, and who’ll do him right now?
King Charles, and who’s ripe for fight now?
Give a rouse: here’s, in Hell’s despite now,
King Charles!