His and Hers

Matthew Reynolds

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.

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

You are not logged in