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:
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 ...
Any genuinely literary work achieves conviction because of some harmony between ends and means, between meaning and medium. From this point of view there is no real discrepancy in referring to Browning’s poem, with all its vivid realism, as something like a striking ‘Legend of Art’. In effect, the Duke is simply a bad artist – the bad Artist, one might say: in the game for what it satisfies of his instinct for power. The judicial presence of silent figures like Fra Pandolph and Claus of Innsbruck prompts the conclusion that Ferrara is less ‘maker’ than sterile dilettante, officious critic and connoisseur (‘here you miss/Or there exceed the mark’). As such, the character clearly influenced a second writer, earlier than Thurber and much more distinguished. The Duke of Ferrara surely fathered Gilbert Osmond, Henry James’s lethal dilettante in The Portrait of a Lady: a man who at first represents ‘the artistic life’ to the naive heroine, but whose antiquarian talent proves in fact confined, in a penetrating image, to tracing the common coinage of the world around him, just as Ferrara ends triumphantly with ‘cast in bronze for me!’ These interconnections are perhaps random accidents of literary history. Yet they suggest something of the curious power of this relatively short poem by Browning: its power and its nature. Realistic as the Duke’s story seems, the suggestiveness of Browning’s image can be measured by comparing it with an actual novel-character – with that, for instance, which seems to have provided the other side of Osmond’s ancestry, the character of Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda. Grandcourt is a brilliant social creation, with interesting psychological depths, but without the resonance that makes the Duke almost a simplified ‘mask’ – a royal mask speaking of the ambiguities of the Palace of Art. ‘My Last Duchess’ is, one might say, a striking art-work written in opposition to Art.
‘Art’ is to a large extent the invention of the 19th century, and it may be said to explain why the Victorian period produced no really great poets, only two figures as considerable, in their different ways, as Browning and Tennyson are. The enormous expansion of the ordinary culture of the age could be assimilated with some directness into the developing form of the novel, but it left poetry with peculiar problems. Tennyson met them by creating a post-Romantic verbal ‘magic’ so intense as to equal what it usually could not include, the sense of the real: Mill described his gift in 1835, some ten years before ‘My Last Duchess’ was published, as a ‘power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it; and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality’. This imposition of inward feeling on the external explains the extraordinary ‘beautifulness’ of Tennyson’s writing, his spellbinding aestheticising of all subjects – even the death of his own son at sea is recorded in a painfully beautiful dreamlike image. Tennyson’s verse is the most masterly and most distinguished of all Victorian poetic forms ‘for working on the world’ – the phrase being Bishop Blougram’s definition of religious faith, ‘the most potent of all forms/For working on the world’. Or one might apply to late 19th-century Romantic poetry an innocently dangerous sentence let fall by another of Browning’s characters, Mr Sludge: ’Really I want to light up my own mind.’ The equivocal qualms with which we listen to Blougram and Sludge suggest something of Browning’s odd and striking position as a writer. Post-Romantic art created for itself a ‘Palace of Art’ as refuge from the philistinism of an emerging industrialism. But certain natural impulses and principles in Browning made that ‘Palace’ quite as antipathetic as its alternative – perhaps rather more so. Everything he writes shows how strong was his inheritance of radical and independent Puritanism from his Scottish-German Calvinistical mother and of radical and independent liberalism from his power-hating father, who had forfeited his own paternal inheritance rather than continue to work for slave-owners. To the enormously talented, well-read if self-educated Browning, poetry and the love of the arts in general seem to have come as both the possession of power and the hatred of power: as an art that opposed Art.
This is, I think, the reason why his ‘Art’-loving but destructive Duke of Ferrara brings to Browning’s verse the sudden sense of the poet’s having for the first time found himself as a writer, as an artist. The cause is not merely the form with which he had experimented, that of the dramatic monologue, but the theme to which that form’s dubieties were so well-suited: the ambiguous nature of art and the artist. Browning was an undisciplined poet, who seems never (amiable as the characteristic is) to have taken himself seriously enough to know what it was he could best do. He went on for years grinding out his talentless plays, and brought out the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, in 1845 when he was already 33, only at the urging of his publishers; it was ten more years before his best collection, Men and Women, followed. All the most striking poems in these volumes involve ‘dramatic characters’ like the Duke; and all are ‘Portraits of the Artist’ like ‘My Last Duchess’. They are not precisely indictments, not even satires, but dark studies, at once complicated and comic or tragi-comic, of the artist’s negative shadow: of ‘Artistry’ in a writer as a vice, a lie or delusion. Closest to ‘My Last Duchess’ in Dramatic Romances is ‘The Bishop orders his tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church’, where the corruption of a creative holiness into a near-murderous connoisseurship flares out in images whose violent precision has made them famous:
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Blue as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast ...
In Men and Women, the Duke’s nearest match, or rather, converse-image, is Andrea del Sarto (‘Called “The Faultless Painter” ’): a gentle, sympathetic and helplessly weak man, whose ‘Artistry’ is the aching reflex of an acute if delicate worldliness, focused on the white image of his commonplace, treacherous wife. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ (‘poor brother Lippo’) makes this same self-betrayal mark with its dishonesties a stronger, more genial man, both relishing and distracted by the echoes of street songs which mockingly interrupt his half-factitious self-revelations (‘I’m a beast, I know’). In ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ as in ‘Mr Sludge, “The Medium” ’ (from the next volume, Dramatis Personae, published nearly ten years later in 1864), as also in what is in some ways the most brilliant of all these monologues, ‘Caliban Upon Setebos’, Browning retains the theme while adventurously leaving behind the literal persona of the artist. Sludge and Blougram are only metaphorically ‘artists’ in their amazing hold on us, professionals whose devotion to their ‘calling’ empties the air around them of all vestige of living truth: while they talk, existence becomes pure fiction, mere aesthetic soliloquy. And Caliban dreams most vividly of all of them, inventing his God in a reverie:
Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
’Thinketh, He dwelleth in the cold o’ the moon.
To Browning’s Caliban, an innocent and monstrously articulate animal, God is an Artist who makes and breaks by his dazzling and terrible will alone: ‘Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.’
To describe the poet’s strongest creations as dark images of the Artist is perhaps to give them some essentially modern colouring of paradox: to make them sound like that critical version of Eliot’s Quartets which stresses their self-critique, their self-parody. Certainly there are sides of Browning’s work that make it possible to understand why he so bewildered his contemporaries, who by and large refused to read him for the first thirty-five years of his career, and after this long period of failure acclaimed him rather as a source of wisdom than as any kind of poet. That aspect of the poet which so startled or bored his own period one can perhaps describe as ‘modern’. And his brilliant and incessant experiments with style, reflecting both his indiscipline and his generosity, make him a technical progenitor in the simplest sense: in his invention of modes and tones and manners, colloquial cadences and throwaway jokes, he seems sometimes to be discovering much of the technique of modern verse. This creative influence can ‘work’ even when his own poems don’t: the heavy-handedly sprightly religious meditations in Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, probably written under persuasion from his wife, managed to teach W.H. Auden the sparkling metric of his New Year Letter (sometimes wrongly described as ‘Augustan octosyllabics’); and the over-long, over-dense rather boring Fifine at the Fair, one of the late narrative poems, in some extraordinary way strikes notes that make it sound as if Browning has invented the whole of modern American verse style. From this point of view, the recent beginnings of rediscovery of Browning as a poet by (particularly) American critics seem hardly surprising; nor does the remarkably high status conferred on him by (for instance) Harold Bloom: ‘Browning, in this editor’s judgment, is the most considerable poet in English since the major Romantics, surpassing his great contemporary rival Tennyson, and the principal 20th-century poets, including even Yeats, Hardy and Wallace Stevens, let alone the various fashionable Modernists whose reputations are now rightly in rapid decline.’
Such an estimate may do justice to the scale of Browning’s work. Whether it comes to terms with Browning’s actual identity as a poet is much more doubtful: for Browning’s authenticity, which is really the only thing that matters in a poet, depends, I think, on his being in fact neither ‘great’ nor in any important way ‘modern’. A generous power-politics are here perhaps being allowed to push aside criticism: a ‘poet’ is being confused with a ‘figure of cultural importance’, and even that figure may be being translated into modern American. The Englishness of Browning seems to me for good and for bad a factor of peculiar significance – and even more, his character as a Victorian Englishman. He is a writer who demands to be seen in his own ‘milieu and moment’: the world of middle and upper-class English philistinism, of easy gentlemanly superiority to the arts and to intellect. Browning seems to have reflected with particular simplicity and directness most of the important cultural strains of the Victorian England which came into being in his young manhood: a world which, as his dramatic monologues reveal, he inhabits most intensely even when he most intensely criticises it. If the 14 years of residence in Italy which his wife’s ill-health necessitated gave the poet a focusing detachment from his society, this is nonetheless not quite the same as dissociation.
If this point seems to need stress, it is because most that is good in such criticism as the poet has received in the last hundred years has tended to find a role for him as a writer by isolating him within his period (those who by contrast see him as a typical Victorian do so as a formula for demolishing him). This worry about the ways in which Browning really fitted into his time appears to have been initiated by Henry James, who, with G.K. Chesterton, is still unsurpassed as a critic of Browning. James witnessed the somewhat uproarious spectacle of Browning’s social success during the last ten or twenty years of his life; and the sensitive and sophisticated American critic was at one with many of his English Art-loving contemporaries who experienced – and expressed – shock and disappointment at seeing from close quarters the creator of Pompilia shouting, red-faced, genial, noisy and spitting slightly, over his post-prandial cigar. James’s discomposure went so far as to make him develop a theory that there were two quite distinct Brownings, the public and the private, the social and the artistic. He may well have used his story ‘The Private Life’ to perpetuate this legend of the artist’s ‘secret’ or ‘buried’ self.
James’s literary power has bequeathed the legend to Browning criticism ever since. It supplies the thesis of the most recent biography of the poet, Donald Thomas’s quietly lucid and understanding Life within Life: the best and most straightforward of the modern lives of Browning. Similarly, it may dictate the title and theme of Constance Hassett’s sensitive study of Browning’s verse as an essentially introspective art, The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning. But the thesis seems regrettably mistaken, in that it generates and enforces a wrong notion of ‘poetry’ as well as of Browning: poetry as absolutely distinguished from the normal world in which the writer lives. In his early years Browning himself was tempted by the ‘magical’ notion of poetry, and the result was the mediocrity of the earliest long poems and then the powerful impossibility of Sordello. He becomes both better and more recognisably himself the more he struggles – as do none of his contemporaries – to bring the living and immediate and ‘modern’ life of his time direct into his poetry.
Certainly Browning possessed reticences as a man. But when he finds himself as a writer, nothing in his style – except perhaps its excellence – is altogether outside the mainstream sensibility of his age. He accepts, both from principle and from temperamental affinity, the dominating element in Victorian culture that is public and (the word has to be used) philistine. The poet’s very best writing, his most authentic verse, includes that public and philistine self: the self that Henry James and so many others saw as red-faced, genial, noisy and spitting slightly. One of the most famous and surely the most amiable of remarks ever made about a poet was let fall by Lockhart, Scott’s biographer, who said: ‘I like Browning. He’s not the least bit like one of your damned literary men.’ One couldn’t put the point better when discussing Browning’s literary personality. As a poet, Browning is good, because he’s not the least bit like one of your damned literary men.
There are, of course, disadvantages and difficulties in the case of an ‘Artless’ artist. For his first thirty or forty years as a writer Browning was essentially a failure – not, probably, because he was too ‘modern’ for his audience, but because he showed the age itself with a clarity for which it was unprepared: to the unimaginative there are few things less easily readable than the mirror held up to nature. When the poet did meet success, in his last ten or twenty years, it was as a sage or mage more than as a poet. Similarly, for most of the last fifty or sixty years, literary criticism has largely ignored Browning: there is no place for him in a Modernist or post-Modernist critique. The situation has been interestingly reflected in its scholarly parallel: in a period distinguished by high-powered definitive editions of the English poets, there has been no new and complete Browning after the one begun while the poet himself was still alive. But just as a new critical interest in the poet seems to be beginning, so also is the textual situation altering. In 1969 appeared the long-awaited first volume of the Ohio University Press Browning, under the general editorship of Roma King Jr; the most recent volume brings the reader from ‘A Soul’s Tragedy’ to the first volume of Men and Women. This fifth volume incorporates some changes in editorial policy and personnel which reflect the rough reception the Ohio Browning has met. Reviewing its first two volumes, one of its severest critics, the late John Pettigrew, found that they didn’t make him want to modify the statement that ‘there is nothing remotely like a good scholarly edition of the works.’ It was, in fact, the problems of the Ohio Browning that made the editors of the Oxford Browning turn back to much-earlier conceived but relegated plans for a similar multi-volume edition, so Ian Jack tells us in the General Introduction to the first volume, which has just appeared, and is devoted to Pauline and Paracelsus. Meanwhile John Pettigrew’s own admirable edition in two volumes, completed and supplemented by Thomas Collins, and published by Penguin and Yale, includes all the extensive poems of Browning’s later maturity except for The Ring and the Book, already edited for the same series, the ‘English Poets’, by Richard Altick; it omits the plays after Pippa passes, but adds poems uncollected by Browning himself, and also, in an appendix, the prose ‘Essay on Shelley’.
In his brief but dense and elegant Preface John Pettigrew manages to allude to the difficulties encountered in annotating Browning in a manner that evokes the literary character of Browning himself: ‘The ideal Browning annotator needs – besides sympathy – to be thoroughly at home with music, art and seven or eight languages and literatures, to know the Bible and the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes (and Victorian scholarship on them) by heart, to be intimately familiar – for a start – with Keats and Shelley and Donne and Milton and Homer and Anacreon and Alciphron and Herodotus and Thucydides and Horace and Shakespeare and Wanley and Quarles and the Illustrated London News and Johnson’s Dictionary and the fifty-odd – very odd – volumes of the Biographie Universelle.’ This is Browningesque: this is, as it were, Browning. Pettigrew adumbrates here our sense of how the poet offers pleasures that lie outside the narrower definition of the ‘poetic’: facts and fictions, data, quotations, learning, knowledge always broadening and broadening out – just as the poet made sure that, whatever poetry was, verse was an inventive brilliance of metrics and rhetorics and linguistics endlessly extended and adventured on. But the editor’s light comment implies more. Plenty of the English poets have been widely learned men; more than a few, moreover, acquired their education in a manner not unlike Browning’s own – which is to say by reading at large through the enormous and recondite library of his gentle, sensitive and talented clerk-father. What makes the unschooled Browning special is hinted with pleasant wit in the following-up of Horace and Shakespeare by Wanley, whom the DNB locates as an Augustan antiquarian. The Victorian poet too, so the paragraph seems to say, surely – in Jonson’s phrase for Shakespeare – ‘wanted Arte’: or lacked or didn’t care for whatever it is that makes the learning of other poets more lucid, more systematic, more available to annotation. Pettigrew’s light allusion to what is ‘very odd’ in the sources just happens to echo the word Henry James was to choose in his affectionate and informal obituary summary of the poet: ‘None of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd.’
In short, no account of (or denial of) Browning’s ‘greatness’, no arguments for or against his standing as a ‘considerable poet’, will satisfy unless they take stock of this ‘oddness’ of Browning’s: his particular authenticity as a writer. The poet’s own contemporaries recognised it, and attributed it either to his not being a writer at all or, if they liked him, to his being a writer of something else disguised as poetry. The very inclusion of Browning in James’s Notes on Novelists suggests how near the critic came to agreeing with Wilde’s witticism about Browning being celebrated ‘Ah, not as a poet! He will be remembered as a writer of fiction’ – as one who used ‘poetry as a medium for writing in prose’. The conclusion that the poet was incapable of the lyric was a truism of the time: to some extent, this meant an inability to arouse, or to seem to be arousing, simple emotion on simple subjects; and to some extent it posited an incapacity on Browning’s part to shape and limit his writing in a fashion that observed the more obvious formal laws. It was this last charge that G.K. Chesterton was meeting when, in his splendidly generous and strongly intelligent study of the poet, he defended Browning as a great master of form, so long as we define the grotesque as a major poetic form.
But there is casuistry as well as truth in this, and Chesterton’s talk of Toby jugs does not really solve the problem. A jug is to be drunk out of, and a poem is to be read. The fact is, that while a Toby jug may be drunk out of, Browning’s longer poems – and they make up a large part of his poetic output – are normally anything but read, and, having just read through them, I do not find this a fault in the modern reader. They are the work of a man of great talent, an interesting and a highly sympathetic man in addition; they have splendid things in them over and over again; and they are still not readable. The fault lies with that aspect of the ordinary philistine Victorian mind that could not help believing that ‘More means better,’ that could not stop demanding longer and longer poems for larger and larger audiences, without for a moment coming to terms with the aesthetic problems posed by very extensive works of art. The famously obscure early Sordello, a tortuous though often striking tale of Medieval Italy, is for these reasons hardly more difficult (i.e. no less so) than the pellucidly-told and modern-circumstanced Inn Album or Red Cotton Night-Cap Country.
In no long poem of Browning’s is it easy to know what precisely is going on: so much for his fictive gifts. It seems that verse narrative, like any other verse of length, requires respect for certain kinds of necessity: a reader has to be told what he needs to know before the current of the verse carries him past the point of no return; and this demands of the poet either egoistic intensity of will (to govern both his materials and his audience at once) or deep familiarity with ancient narrative structural formulae, which will do the same work for him. These necessities Browning disregards or does not possess or positively disapproves of, with the result that, to a degree startling in a writer celebrated for his grasp on human psychology, the long poems ignore or even offend reader-psychology.
This is true, to my mind, even of The Ring and the Book. The two books ‘Caponsacchi’ and ‘Pompilia’ are remarkably good, compacting into themselves the heart of the simple story of love unfulfilled but self-transcending: deep and moving and exciting too, they probably constitute the poet’s most solid success. But the retelling of this same story, in its lineaments both bald and cruel, more than ten times over, through the medium of speakers foolish and boring when not actually incapable of truth, is – despite the linguistic and rhetorical brilliances and the neat angles of character that occasionally occur – largely unendurable, the kind of bright ‘idea’ that comes to a civilisation out of touch with the realities of art in practice. One can almost think Guido’s self-description meant to echo defeatedly the structure of the whole: ‘I am one huge and sheer mistake.’ James wrote the perfect review of the poem when, in Notes on Novelists, he circled the work with gloomy, delicate prevarication: ‘We can only take it as tremendously interesting.’ Interesting is what it is, and what really good writing perhaps is not: a bright idea is often a bad idea as far as poetry is concerned. In its lack of correspondence with the actual, The Ring and the Book – for all its genuinely impressive theoretical magnificence – is reminiscent of other and baser Victorian misunderstandings about the nature of the aesthetic, from wax-flowers under glass to models of the Crystal Palace constructed out of matchsticks.
All these problems arise from Browning’s peculiar relationship to what his age regarded, admiringly but in practice reductively, as the ‘magic’ of poetry. Both temperament and principle urged Browning to resolve the enclosing pressures of Victorian philistinism and of the ‘magic’ it made of literature, by embodying them – by dramatising their clash, in poems of an intensity the writer could never have achieved in actual drama. The result is a potent and idiosyncratic pseudo-realism, which is at once a hatred of Art and a creation of art-works. The verse emerging from the struggle, characteristically lacking most recognisable forms of inward aesthetic necessity, takes on those effects of spawning undisciplined scale, and of randomness within it, that Pettigrew’s editorial note gestures at: a poetry, like its sources, of ‘fifty-odd – very odd – volumes’. And yet the oddness is without doubt poetry: a poetry which extends, as all good poetry should, our sense of what the art consists in. It is Henry James (yet again) who gave the strongest sense of its elements, when – all doubtfully and critically reviewing The Inn Album, Browning’s late strange sensationalistic yet also tedious yet also brilliantly original if endless narrative verse account of a crime passionel in outer Surrey – he concluded: ‘The whole picture indefinably appeals to the imagination. There is something very curious about it and even rather arbitrary.’ ‘Even rather arbitrary’: the phrase is important, helping not merely to extend but to explain the presence of the ‘curious’ and the ‘odd’ in Browning, a presence evident to so many of his more appreciative readers. The arbitrariness is the poet’s own salute to that truth, that reality which not only – in his view – lay fruitfully beyond the sterilities of Art, but which condemned it. Thus, to return a last time to ‘My Last Duchess’, it is striking that precisely those randomnesses that the Augustan Pope gave to his Belinda as symptoms of her shallowness, the Duke angrily gives to his Duchess as unwilling testimony of her natural truth:
she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
We can hardly fail to understand that it is the quick changes of life and truth which animate the Duchess, and bring rage and despair to the tyrannous Artist-Duke. It is not surprising, therefore, if Browning’s own style characteristically ‘goes everywhere’, random and richly-spawning and inventively indecisive, perpetually converting itself away from ideation towards what the poet himself called ‘word pregnant with thing’. One of the things that commands respect in ‘Pompilia’ is the central and moving respect the poet gives to the girl’s own pregnancy, which becomes, in the poem, an essential moving force, the power of life’s elusive creativity.
And yet that power always comes to Browning in the medium of a breaker, a fragmenter. When one of his friends voiced doubts about the subject of The Ring and the Book, Browning tried half-inarticulately to silence her – and he was more intelligent than she – by vehemently stressing the ‘Truth’ of the ‘Old Yellow Book’ on which the story was based. The true context of that truth-book he describes in the poem:
Mongst odds and ends of ravage, picture-frames
White through the worn gilt, mirror-sconces chipped,
Bronze angel-heads once knobs attached to chests,
(Handled when ancient dames chose forth brocade),
Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude,
Samples of stone, jet, breccia, porphyry ...
The life that exists beyond Art is, to Browning, curious and arbitrary, a chaos of fragments that wait – like the elements of the poet’s own hyphen-jointed speech – to be worked together by love into a mosaic of truth. In this sense, the whole 17 volumes of Browning’s work are ‘odds and ends of ravage’: here a beautiful half-dozen lines, there an anecdote from the Biographie Universelle, jokes, metres, wisdom, a human voice – as it might be after dinner – entertainingly, inexhaustibly, formlessly talking and talking. As he said somewhat desolately to his loved and far more successful poet-wife, ‘I only make men and women speak – give you truth broken into prismatic hues.
‘Truth broken’: the arbitrary is built deep into the basis of all Browning’s work. If he had moments of despair when he contemplated the story of The Ring and the Book – whose source-materials he tried to give away, before he wrote it, to both Trollope and Tennyson – it was because he quailed before the essential randomness in it, the great rubble of data and crime and history that had to become a kind of miracle, a 21,000-line work of love: which was what he meant by referring to ‘my great venture, the murder-poem’. And the making of this, often thought Browning’s greatest poem, was – I would suggest – a good deal more arbitrary than scholars like to think. It seems to me probable that an accidental encounter played a large part in its inception. Browning bought the gathering of documents he called the ‘Old Yellow Book’ in 1860, but he did not start to write until October 1864: clearly he was finding difficulties in beginning. But, some time in the spring or summer of 1864, he met the young Ellen Terry at Little Holland House, where she had gone to live earlier that year.
She was 16 (though she and everyone else thought she was 15) and had just married G.F. Watts, a morose and slightly neurotic man in his late forties. An observer at the wedding spoke of the ‘atrabilious bridegroom ... and the radiant child bride’. Ellen Terry herself said that at marriage she had ‘never had the advantage ... of a single day’s schooling’; her parents arranged the marriage, which proved unhappy and broke up something over a year later. I suspect that Browning, who was both a compassionate man and one recently widowed, discovered within the first few minutes of his encounter with this extremely beautiful young girl that life, and not the Yellow Book, had found his Pompilia for him and begun his poem. At all events, in the autumn he began his four years of intense work on it.
I mention what may be the fructifying power of this brief encounter to suggest how vital to Browning was the sense of the arbitrary in life. It seems tome to mark and shape his whole poetic career. The problematic character of that career can be summed up briefly by noticing that 1864, the year that he met Ellen Terry and settled down to beginning The Ring and the Book, is the year at which the old Oxford Standard Authors edition of Browning stops. But in the Penguin and Yale near-complete edition, the second of the two near-1200-page volumes begins with the long poem Browning published in 1872, Fifine at the Fair. It will not do to say simply that the poet ‘went off’: I myself prefer any of the later poems to Pauline or Paracelsus, except for the weak Ferishtah’s Fancies or the tedious Parleyings. There are at best superb and at worst interesting passages to be found throughout all the others. Nonetheless, neither the Oxford Standard Authors Browning nor the general reader is wrong in thinking that, huge as Browning’s output is, his best work falls within a relatively narrow channel: being written between, say, 1844 and 1864, and really comprising only Men and Women and some outworks. Only in this area does there occur something like real artistic intensity. It was brought about, I would say, by causes in themselves arbitrary, or at any rate external to the poet’s self, and their convergence has elements of the accidental. The first of what seem to me these operative facts is the pain of professional failure. By 1855, when Men and Women was published, Sordello had sold only 157 copies out of the 500 printed 15 years before. One reviewer greeted the appearance of Men and Women with the comment, ‘It is really high time that this sort of thing should, if possible, be stopped’; another added, more temperately: ‘There is no getting through the confused crowd of Browning’s Men and Women.’ Browning pretended not to care, but malevolent human stupidity is always hard to take, and he clearly minded it a very great deal.
The minding was intensified by an odd fact, one always treated by the poet himself with the maximal simplicity, generosity and cheerful admiration that made a large part of his unusually amiable and open character: his wife was about the most successful and respected poet publishing in England, and had just all but beaten Tennyson to the Poet Laureateship. It is, of course, the poet’s marriage to Elizabeth Barrett from 1846 until her death in 1861 that constitutes the second operative fact: one would guess that this warm and vivid relationship acted on Browning’s direct and responsive nature to produce a condition of continual emotional ‘openness’, availability to feeling. Central as it was in his life, the relationship with a loved and famous invalid kept his emotional nature acutely alive: so that even while his private happiness compensated and reassured him for his public failure, in one unavoidable sense it exacerbated that sense of failure – that capacity in him to feel the failure.
The result is, that in these central decades that surround Men and Women, Love and Art become in his poetry interlinked sources of pain and pathos: a pain and pathos that are all the more effective as a reticence below the cheerful jingling matter-of-factness:
Laughs with so little cause!
We devised games out of straws.
We would try and trace
One another’s face
In the ash, as an artist draws ...
Then we would up and pace
For a change, about the place,
Each with arm o’er neck:
’Tis our quarter-deck,
We are seamen in woeful case.
Help in the ocean space!
Or if no help, we’ll embrace.
The situation in ‘A Lovers’ Quarrel’ could be said to be not altogether clear, so that if the poem were more ambitious or less haunting it might like so much else in Browning get called ‘obscure’. But the obscurity, the arbitrariness, has become co-substantial with the poem itself, which catches some comic and yet desolating mundanity in love, its existence trapped in the house and yet exquisitely, purposelessly out of time – wasting time, playing games, remembering. Here, as in so many moments of Men and Women, Browning reminds a reader of a remarkable passage he wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Barrett in the months before they married: ‘I fancy myself meeting you on “the stairs” – stairs and passages generally, and galleries (ah, those indeed!) – all, with their picturesque accidents, of landing-places, and spiral heights and depths, and sudden turns and visions of half-open doors into what Quarles calls “mollitious chambers” – and above all, landing-places – they are my heart’s delight – I would come upon you unaware on a landing-place in my next dream!’
All Browning’s best moments are ‘landing-places’ in a dream, stairs and passages and galleries on the way to nowhere. ‘Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather’: there are few ghosts in Browning, but it would not be surprising if it were he who taught Henry James how to invent his daylight spectres in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, so striking and so – with all its mundanity – imaginative is Brownings’s poetry of the empty indoors. The poet has happened, under the pressures of love and failure, to convert his own Artlessness to ‘sudden turns and visions into half-open doors’, a Philistine art full of the bewilderment born of the ordinary:
We shall have the word
In a minor third
There is none but the cuckoo knows;
Heaps of the guelder rose!
I must bear with it, I suppose.
It is a curious fact that Browning is a master of the art of minor thirds – curious, given his equally real character in the brisk and boisterous vein, a producer of poems like ‘Waring’ which still (to my mind) amuse and energise and exhilarate. But it is the co-existence of this sturdy commonplaceness of mood that makes the ‘minor thirds’ so suddenly touching and undermining, so dramatically effective. To some degree, this is a matter of brilliance in catching human half-tones, the smile of the defeated (‘The chance was, they might take her eye’), or the honesty of the imperfect: ‘Well, I forget the rest.’ This last is an example of Browning’s peculiar truth of endings: like that of the over-long, over-popular ‘By the Fireside’, which concludes its philosophical aspirations with the wonderfully self-undercutting
And the gain of earth must be heav’n’s gain, too;
And the whole is well worth thinking o’er
When autumn comes: which I mean to do
One day, as I said before.
Browning can get this subtly-modulated shock-effect by ending with a question: the dim and rambling ‘Master Hugues of SaxeGotha’ is abruptly irradiated by its closing ‘Do I carry the moon in my pocket?’, and equally ‘out of the blue’ is the way the knotty, discursive and actually rather muddled stanzas of ‘Popularity’ rise at the end with their burst of splendid rage on
Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?
The aesthetic effect of this last stanza, which seems to me considerable, lies in the way the poem finds a place for the superbness of purple dyes, but brings that splendour back to the ‘porridge’ of a Cockney poet. A contemporary of Browning’s tells the story of how ‘On another occasion I heard him smilingly add, to someone’s vague assertion that in Italy only was there any romance left, “Ah, well, I should like to include poor old Camberwell.” ’ The Camberwell Browning was born in was at that time by way of being a leafy village. Nonetheless, its present sound of South London suburban is to the point. All the apparent sources of the romantic in Browning, all the Italian Renaissance goings-on, are only costume drama, personal props for getting his audience to listen to him without the exercise of illegitimate ‘magic’. The real centre of his art is pure Camberwell: a medium quite consciously unpretentious, at home in its location on the outskirts of things. Indeed, it is from this sense of the self-dependency, the accepted limitations, of his craft that the deeper notes of Browning’s poems come. One of his most powerful tragi-comic creations is his Caliban, brooding metaphysically as might some unhappy vocal bulldog on the Dark God of its daily existence:
here are we,
And there is He, and nowhere help at all.
’Believeth with the life, the pain shall stop.
The mask of Caliban moves and amuses at least in part because we see under it a poet coming to terms with the awful situation of living humanly as Artist without, so to speak, any ethical or magical equipment for it. This self-appraisal is clearly the secret too of ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’. Much-discussed though the poem has been, it is curious that no critic or editor seems to have noted the point of the title’s being a quotation: a quotation, what is more, spoken by a character (Edgar in King Lear) disguised as a madman, and giving all the signs of quoting from some ballad or romance. The title acts as one of Browning’s ‘half-open doors’ into long disappearing corridors of quotation upon quotation, the great tradition of poets interlinked one with another only by the high hopelessness of the enterprise they share. The first line of the poem is, symptomatically, ‘My first thought was, he lied in every word’; the whole could easily have been signed with Sludge’s phrase, ‘Cheat’s my name’; its style throughout is a dense amalgam of Browningesque ersatz, of amazingly suburban Victorian journalese, Artless-talk, that will suddenly narrow and focus on some deep-needling poignancy:
What with my search drawn out through years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.
This easy experienced rasp is the sound of Browning writing at his best. He would not have been Browning had he not entertained the large hopes incorporated in poems like The Ring and the Book, but it is not discordant with that ambition that he should also be the man who released for poetry words like ‘cope’ and ‘scope’ and ‘obstreperous’ – Camberwell words, and one would have said impossible in verse. It is this side of Browning which makes a reader warm to him now. A lot of his best lines hardly seem, for good and for bad, to be ‘poetry’ at all: they are, sometimes disturbingly, more like a voice straight out of the past, accidentally silenced and then eerily revived by some trick radio-wave: ‘I must learn Spanish, one of these days’; ‘You have seen better days, dear? So have I.’ At these moments, Browning speaks our language, or we speak his: for the poem acts as one of his ‘half-open doors’ in time, and it doesn’t much matter which side one is. In ‘How it strikes a contemporary’, the 100-line poem that is perhaps my own particular favourite out of all his work, this simple communicating door opens up vistas surprisingly large: past and present, Spain and England, art and politics, time and eternity. The man whom the poem describes (‘I only knew one poet in my life:/And this, or something like it, was his way’) is really the Duke of Ferrara’s antitype, just as the poem is a quiet answer to ‘My Last Duchess’. There is no Duchess, no Ambassador; indeed, nobody seems to be speaking in it, only thinking aloud; and nothing really happens, except that a person, who might be someone like Cervantes, that type of the totally unpretentious and unlucky original genius, goes for what feels like a 19th-century walk around the town where he lives, with an old dog at his heels, up an alley ‘that leads nowhither’, on to the promenade ‘just at the wrong time’. He’s an almost invisible presence, his ‘scrutinising hat’ throwing a shadow under an old house left to crumble away, his ‘stick’ trying the mortar of a new one being built:
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognizance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note ...
Browning names the town Valladolid, but it could as easily be Camberwell – or anywhere where the reader happens to be, for it is of course the reader who is the true ‘contemporary’. And, though the poem has no Duke to call ‘That piece a wonder now’, it strikes us as a remarkable enough testimony to Browning’s art as a maker.
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.