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.

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