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 9781501743221

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Browning’s Later Poetry,

1871~1889

Brownings Later Poetry

^ 1871-1889 Clyde de

L.

Ryals

Cornell University Press ITHACA AND LONDON

Copyright

©

1975 by Cornell University

Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or parts thereof, must not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address Cornell University Press, 124 Roberts Place, Ithaca, New York 14850.

All

rights

reserved.

1975 by Cornell University Press. Published in the United Kingdom by Cornell University Press Ltd., 2-4 Brook Street, London WIY lAA. First published

Book Number 0-8014-0964-0 Congress Catalog Card Number 75-16927 the United States of America by York Composition

International Standard

Library of Printed in

Co., Inc.

In

Manory

of

Henri Talon,

1909—1972

and Lionel Stevenson,

1902—1973

Contents

9

Preface

Introduction

13

1.

Balaustion’s Adventure

28

2.

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau

42

3.

Fifine at the Fair

59

4.

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

83

5.

Aristophanes’ Apology

101

6.

The Inn Album

119

7.

Pacchiarotto and Other

Poems and The Agamemnon

Aeschylus

The Two

of

132

8.

La

9.

Dramatic Idyls and Jocoseria

165

Fancies

190

Saisiaz:

10. Ferishtah’s 11.

147

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in

Their 12.

Poets of Croisic

Day

201

Asolando

227

Conclusion

241

Bibliography

249

Index

257

;

^ Preface many

Like

what

forthrightly

pages. I

am

work, that

prefaces this one I

is

defensive. I should like to state

do and do not attempt to do

in the following

primarily interested in the form of Browning’s later the overall structure of a

is,

poem

and, in a local way,

manner in which themes and ideas are presented in interweaving and contrapuntal fashions throughout the poems. I do the

much about language

not say very

language and

them;

it

why

poem

a

style

is

pretend to say

Thanks should

style. It is

unimportant or that

just that I

is

or

am

I

am

not that

I

uninterested in

here more interested in questioning

cast in a certain form. In other words, I

all

think

that could be said about any given

do not

poem.

are due to several in the preparation of this book.

like to indicate

my

I

debt to two former students, Maryanne

and Janice Haney, who gave me helpful ideas. Dorothy Roberts proved an impeccable typist, for whose careful work I am most appreciative. Boyd Litzinger and Roma King gave the Caporaletti

book a rigorous and sympathetic reading profited

from

their

sponsibility for their help

any

many

suggestions and, absolving

errors of fact

with gratitude.

in typescript. I

I

them

have of re-

and judgment, acknowledge

should also

like to

record

my apprecia-

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a Fellowship which made the writing of the book possible. Portions of the book have been previously published. Parts of

tion to the

Chapter

1

appeared

in

PM LA

(October 1973)

of

in

Honor of Ryals (Durham: Duke Uni-

Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays Lionel Stevenson, ed. Clyde de L.

Chapter 2 in

10

Preface

versity Press,

1974)

;

of

Chapter 3

in Essays in Criticism (April

1969) and English Language Notes (September 1969)

;

of

Chap-

Romantic and Victorian: Studies in Memory of William H. Marshall, ed. W. Paul Elledge and Richard L. Hoffman ter

4

in

(Rutherford:

Chapter 5

Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,

in Carlyle

Richard Sanders, Press,

1975).

I

ed.

Honor John Clubbe (Durham: Duke

and His

Circle: Essays in

1971); of of Charles

University

thank the various editors of the journals and the

university presses for their kind permission to reprint this material. Lastly, a bibliographical note. All quotations later poetry, except as otherwise noted, are

London

edition.

from Browning’s

taken from the

first

Line numbers have been added to correspond

with the Camberwell Edition, Complete Works of Robert Brown-

and Helen A. Clarke, 12 vols. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1898). Quotations from Browning’s poetry prior to 1871 and from the Essay on Shelley are from the Camberwell Edition.

ing, ed. Charlotte Porter

C. L. R.

London and Durham, North Carolina

Browning’s Later Poetry,

1871 “ 1 889

God, perchance, Grants each new man, by some as new a mode. Intercommunication with Himself, Wreaking on finiteness infinitude; By such a series of effects, gives each Last His

The

How

own

process: it

imprint ’t is

succeeds.

the

old yet ever

way

:

I

only

know

of creatureship abound.

just as varied intercourse

For each with the creator of them

Each has

new

of Deity.

He knows

That varied modes Implying

:

his

own mind and no

all.

other’s

mode.

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, 171-82

Introduction

Writing in 1942, H. B. Charlton

Browning’s later poetry:

cal estimate of

agreed by

summed up

“Now

shades of opinion

critics of all

the current

.

.

it

.

is

criti-

universally

that after

The

Ring and the Book, though his output of verse was vast, the poetic prerogative had faded before the demands of a more formally philosophic purpose. This opinion has not changed sub.

.

stantially

during the past three decades.^

to attempt a

new

Honan posed

in his review of

It is

now

time, I believe,

appreciation in answer to the question Park

Browning scholarship: “Will our generation, or a later one, discover that Browning did not fall ?”^ As there are few critics who would deny asleep in 1869 .

.

.

“Browning’s Ethical Poetry,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 27 (1942), 40-41. 1.

2.

Three quotations

which held. The first is from an essay by an Balaustion’s Adventure [1871] ought to

will suffice to indicate the general disfavor in

Browning’s later poems are important Browning critic: be considered as closing

.

.

still

“. .

.

.

Browning’s best period” (Robert Langbaum,

“Browning and the Question of Myth,” PM LA, 81 [1966], 582-3). The second is from a widely used anthology of Victorian p>oetry: “The majority of his poems written before the seventies are free of glib doctrine and of false assurance” (Introduction to the Browning section in Victorian Poetry and Poetics, ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968], p. 169). The third is from a recent volume of selections of Browning’s poetry: “Most of the poetry written after The Ring and the Book ... is usually considered inferior to Browning’s earlier work. It is marked by crabbed argumentation, or by a headlong, undiscriminating verbosity of style” (Introduction to The Poetry of Robert Browning, ed. Jacob Korg [Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971], p. xx). 3. “Robert Browning,” The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research, ed. Frederic E. Faverty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 117.

— 14

Introduction

Browning a place among the major English poets, it is shocking that the poems written during the last twenty years of his life more than one-third of his corpus are largely unread and un-



studied.

My

purpose in

this

book

is

to

show, mainly by studying indi-

vidual poems, that Browning’s later work ing, unstructured

whose

mass of

the late 1860’s. Indeed,

ments of Browning’s is

not simply a sprawl-

argument written by a

had somehow been maimed or

artistic gifts

worth

versified

is

I

dissipated in

wish to demonstrate that the achieve-

later years are

due primarily

man

remarkable and that their

to his plastic imagination, the

shaping

power that molds the most disparate ideas and experiences into a unified whole. I want, in other words, to present the later Browning as a poet intent upon discovering forms that would give shape and meaning to thought and gest incidentally that

language or

style

on the

largely

if

the poet

feeling,

and, further, to sug-

was occasionally

careless

about

he was so because his attention was focused

overall design of his poetry. In

my

investigation of

each of the volumes published from 1871 to 1889,

my

point of

departure will be an examination of the form of the poetry, by

which

mean both

and the modal strategy employed by the poet to deal with and thus encompass a certain idea or problem. For it is mainly on the basis of form that Browning’s later work is deplored. Benjamin Jowett long ago exI

the inner structuring principles

pressed this dissatisfaction most succinctly

has

and his

4.

it

only by accident

when

the subject

:

is

“He

has no form, or

limited. His thought

and knowledge are generally out of all proportion to powers of expression.”® And Browning himself, repeating the feeling

Of

the

many

recent books on

Roma

Browning only two pay

serious attention

The Focusing Artifice (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1968); Philip Drew, The Poetry of Browning: A Critical Introduction (London: Methuen, 1970). I have drawn freely on to the later

poems:

A. King,

Jr.,

both these very useful studies.

Quoted in Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (London: Macmillan, 1897), II, 344. In speaking of form, I refer, as does Jowett, to structure, not to “crabbed argument,” “unmusicality,” and other infelicities with which the later Browning is frequently charged. 5.

Introduclion

on

strictures

his prolixity

and

15

formlessness, jokingly has one of his

characters say in reference to the author of a piece of doggerel:

“That bard’s a Browning; he neglects the form” {The Inn Album, I. 17).® The most rewarding way to deal with a work of literature, especially one by an author regarded as at least competent in his craft,

why

is, I

feel,

not to dismiss

assumes such shape as

it

it

it

as formless but to ask

has.

In his later work as in his earlier. Browning sought for the

proper forms to tion, that

is,

embody

to express his idea of reality.

firmly than that of

and imaginaheld no belief more

the content of his intellect

He

growth and development; he

insisted that life

not a having and a resting but a growing and a becoming, the

is

organism being dead that ceases to change. And, of course, the

man

himself changed. Those the

Book

“is

philosophy of

life”^

have, in

The Ring and ing’s

critics,

consequently,

a definitive

my

summing up

Some

hold that

of

Brown-

opinion, contributed to the

confusion concerning Browning’s later poetry. 6.

who

I

do not wish

to

further characteristic remarks on the supposed formlessness in

Browning’s later poetry follow. Browning’s poetic force were allied with a corresponding feeling for poetic form he would have been beyond dispute the greatest poet England Defects of manner and of form has possessed for many generations. [R. E. Prothero, “On Robert Brownrepel the advances of would-be readers. ing” (1890), reprinted in Browning: The Critical Heritage, ed. Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 520-21] If

.

.

.

,

.

.

.

.

,

.

Even his short poems have no comHis long poems have no structure. [George Santayana, “The Poetry of Barbarism” pleteness, no limpidity. (1900), reprinted in The Browning Critics, ed. Boyd Litzinger and K. L. Knickerbocker (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967), p. 71] .

.

.

seldom altogether sure or perfectly sustained in poems of any length, underwent surprising fluctuations in the years following The Ring and the Book. [Introduction to the Browning section in Victorian Poetry, ed. E. K. Brown and J. O. Bailey (New York: Ronald Press, 1962), p. 168] His

art,

He

wrote too much [in the 1870’s] and frequently ignored form. [John Hitner, “Browning’s Grotesque Period,” Victorian Poetry, 4 (1966), 12]

M.

Much

of his poetry, with the exception of the best of his dramatic monologues, lacks unity, it is crowded with non-essentials. [Barbara Melchiori,

Browning’s Poetry of Reticence (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1968), p. 17]

William O. Raymond, The Infinite Moment, and Other Essays in Robert Browning, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 7.

p. 4.

Introduction

16

claim that his

thoughts were his best or that they more accu-

last

Browning. For the “real” Browning

rately represent the “real”

the whole

man, the poet who wrote the Parleyings

My

is

as well as the

poet

who composed Men and Women.

ing’s

thoughts and feelings changed and, moreover, that as they

changed so did to

examine

tion.

It

is,

To

his forms.

point

is

see the truth of this,

his religious views, particularly those

that

Brown-

we have

only

on the Incarna-

perhaps, not an overstatement to say that the chief

problem with which Browning deals

is

a theological one and that

concern in large part determines the form of

his theological

his

work. In his guise, of

“be

all,

published

first

poem

the poet spoke, through a thin dis-

“a principle of restlessness” within himself, which would have, see, know, taste,

{Pauline, 287-8). This

feel, all”

was, in his second work, spelled out as the desire “to comprehend the works of

God,

And God

/

With the human mind”

himself,

{Paracelsus,

and

God’s intercourse / 533-5). The heroes of

i.

Browning’s early works seek to leap to the tion of the soul,

of

and

fail,

infinite in a single

mo-

discovering instead of an intensification

only a dissipation of their energies. Recognizing God’s in-

life

finitude in contrast to their cially in the tions.

all

The

finite

condition, they learn, espe-

human

dramas, that they must work within

soul

terms of the

own

must

real.

find a body, the ideal

limita-

must be expressed

in

Sordello hopes that,

must abide a thorough vent

though

With dreams now,

I

may

find

I

For all myself, acquire an instrument For acting my soul Hunting a body out may gain its whole [i. 832-7] Desire some day! .

.

.

;

For he knows: “I must, ere flesh, I

face

up

begin to Be, / Include a world, in comprehend / In spirit now” (iii. 172-4). Yet, unable to to the

demands

bition, Sordello

The

I

of reality that require

ends his

life

him

unfulfilled both as

to

temper am-

man and

poet.

reasons for his failure are complex, but ultimately his prob-

:

Introduction

lem was

his inability to find

17

a ground of values which would per-

mit him to resolve the conflict between the

and the finite. Browning wrestled with Sordello for seven years and finally concluded it in a state of obvious frustration. Yet he had made gains since Pauline, for he had learned that Romantic idealism ofTers no ground for action in either art or society. Where such a ground was to be discovered still eluded him. Although with the writing of Sordello he put aside as vain any attempt to comprehend fully God and all his works, he nevertheless retained the desire to discover

how

the finite

infinite

related to the infinite.

is

If,

he

appears to have reasoned, one cannot reach Ultimate Truth by a single leap, perhaps

one can approach

have been Browning’s strategy

number

on

life.

facets.

As

This seems to

dramatic poems, deIf

somehow he could

of points of view, then perhaps he

could achieve something approaching

many

in steps.

in his short

vised to render different perspectives

enter into a sufficient

it

vision.

full

For

life

has

Sordello says

Since

One

object,

viewed

Beauty and ugliness

diversely, .

.

may

evince

.

Why must What No, “the

real

a single of the sides be right? bids choose this and leave the opposite?

way seemed made up

for almost thirty years

ceeded to give as

He

Browning

many ways

of

441-6]

the ways” (vi. 36).

all

in his

[vi.

And

dramatic monologues pro-

of seeing

life

as

he possibly could.

would, of course, favor certain points of view to the exclusion

of others, because he found

some kinds

of speakers

more con-

genial than others, but in using these special vantage points he

would attempt

to survey life in

its

infinite variety.

monologue was the mode that proved best suited to Browning’s needs at this time. He more or less perfected it. And he did so because it permitted him for the

As

all

the world knows, the dramatic

most part values.®

8.

to begin without assumptions as to

But even

this

mode broke down

as

moral and

religious

an instrument when

For a study of the development of the dramatic monologue and

Introduction

18

Browning turned

his attention to certain subjects.

There

is,

for

example, the famous case of “Saul,” which the poet printed in

an unfinished version

1845 because he could find no

in

satisfac-

tory solution to the speaker’s problem.

Part of the problem of “Saul” was solved

when Browning

turned to the Incarnation of Christ as the source of values that

had previously eluded him. This seems

to

have happened shortly

after his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett in

1846.®

We

first

see

Browning’s Incarnational theology reflected in a reissue of Paracelsus in 1849^®

and then

and

Men

in

Christmas-Eve and Easler-Day

and

in 1850,

Women

volume of 1855 containing the completed “Saul,” wherein the King is permitted the saving vision of Christ as the embodiment of power and love. in the

The structuring of life on the basis of a transcendental vision of God Browning had come to recognize as an impossibility. Without this vision, however, the universe appears to be void and formless, without purpose or direction.

years unfold, they

show that

in

As the poems

middle

a world characterized by multitu-

dinousness and fragmentation a pattern

on the chaotic nature of

of his

existence.

is

needed to impose order

For Browning the pattern

is

to

be found in the mystery of the Incarnation, which vouchsafes to

Langbaum’s epochal The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New Browning’s use of

York:

it,

see Robert

Random

House, 1957). 9. In the 1849 reissue of Paracelsus Browning added to the original lines, “God is the PERFECT POET, / Who in his person acts his own creations” (ii. 610-11), the following passage:

man refuse to be aught less than God? Man’s weakness is his glory for the strength Which raises him to heaven and near God’s self.

Shall



Came

spite of it: God’s strength his glory is. For thence came without our weakness sympathy Which brought God down to earth, a man like us.

In the 1863 edition he deleted the added passage and returned to the original reading. 10.

An

excellent discussion of Browning’s changing views

entation of his art during his early career

may be found

and the in

reori-

Thomas C.

Robert Browning's Moral- Aesthetic Theory, 1833-1855 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967).

Collins,



Introduction the

phenomenal world

creative, organizing,

19

and redemptive pow-

The Incarnation is not, however, an event that occurred many years ago once and lor all but, on the contrary, is an ongoing process by which God manifests Himself in the lives of all men who wish to make sense out of existence. The poet would ers.

have us see that underlying ties

of

life is

is

and impenetrabiliand redemption, for which

the ambiguities

the basic pattern of sin

the Incarnation

To

all

the archetype.

Browning, moreover, the Incarnation of Christ offered an

analogy to the practice of poetry. Just as central truth of

through

life

plain the

by means of the Incarnation, so does the poet impart value to disordered phe-

his imaginative vision

nomena by

God makes

penetrating the illusions of existence and revealing the

With Christ the poet shares in the work of redeeming men from error and bondage, making them focus on the true and the eternal. As Browning observed in “Old Pictures true nature of things.

at Florence,” the artist tries “to bring the invisible full into play.”

The analogy between

and the practice of poetry is suggested in the Essay on Shelley of 1852, which is of considerable interest for the light it throws on Browning’s own poetic theory. According to the literary criticism of his day, there are, says Browning, two kinds of poets. On the one hand there is the with an imobjective poet, who reproduces “things external the Incarnation

.

mediate reference, in every case, to the hension of his fellow men.

.

.

.

common

Such a poet

.

.

eye and appreis

properly the

and the thing fashioned, his poetry, will of necessity be substantive, projected from himself and distinct.” On the other hand there is the subjective poet, who “is impelled to

poietes, the fashioner;

embody the thing he perceives, not so much with reference to the many below as to the One above him, the supreme Intelligence Not which apprehends all things in their absolute truth. .

what man

sees,

but what

God

sees,

.

he struggles” {Works, XII. 282-3).

.

.



We

it is

.

.

toward these that

can discern that

in de-

See William Whitla, The Central Truth: The Incarnation in Brownings Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963). Whitla, however, deals with the later poetry' in a cursory' fashion. ll.

20

Introduction

scribing

two

different kinds of poets

ing the two strains in his

upward toward toward the

Browning

own work

—one

is,

in effect, describ-

transcendental and

the infinite, the other descendental

the

finite;

first is

most evident

and downward

in his poetry

through

1840, the second, most readily discoverable in the monologues of his

middle years.

own why

And

he goes one step farther and presents

(veiled) aspiration

these

when he

says:

“Nor

is

there any reason

two modes of poetic faculty may not

from the same poet

only” {Works, XII. 285). This Christian; indeed,

it

issue hereafter

examples of

in successive perfect works,

which ... we have hitherto possessed

may

well

of poetic genius to Carlyle.^^

much

owe

But

its

in

his

distinct individuals

of the Essay

is

not overtly

two strains Browning presents

analysis of the

at the close

him a man of religious mind, because every audacious negative cast up by him against the Divine was interpenetrated with a mood of reverence and adoration, and because I find him everywhere taking for granted some of the capital dogmas of Christianity, while most Shelley as a Christian poet malgre lui

:

“I call



vehemently denying their Shelley

historical

basement” (XII. 296-7).

was a great and. Browning would have (

it,

Christian ) poet

because, like the author of the completed “Saul,” he perceived

simultaneously “Power and Love in the absolute” and “Beauty

and Good

in the concrete,”

because ultimately his poetry

is

an

essay “towards a presentment of the correspondency of the uni-

and of the actual to which. Browning implies, is figured

verse to Deity, of the natural to the spiritual,

the ideal” (XII. 299),

all

of

in the Incarnation.

During the years of 12.

The opposing

his

marriage Browning seems to have acand “subjective” complement somewhat the same manner as those of

ideas of the “objective”

and interplay with each other in the “descendental” and “transcendental” are interwoven in Sartor Resartus. I After completing the Essay on Shelley, Browning wrote to Carlyle, “. have put down a few thoughts that presented themselves one or two, in respect of opinions of your own (I mean, that I was thinking of those opinions while I wrote)” {Letters of Robert Browning, Collected by Thomas /. Wise, ed. Thurman L. Hood [London: John Murray, 1933], p. 36; hereafter cited as Hood, Letters). .



.

Introduction

cepted the Incarnation without denying

its

21

“historical basement.”

After Mrs. Browning’s death in 1861, however, he appears to have entertained doubts as to

its

Throughout the 1860’s

historicity.

Browning was preoccupied with the assaults constantly being made on Christianity, and his concern is manifested in the poems of Dramatis Personae ( 1864). The publication of Essays and Reviews, the Bishop Colenso case, the publication of Renan’s

de Jesus



these, in addition to the

work

La

Vie

“Higher Critics”

of the

Germany, caused the poet great uneasiness, not because he found them unsettling to his own faith but because they served to

in

“The candid

diminish the popular belief in Christianity.

That the Christian

to surmise of late /

faith proves false, I find,”

he wrote in “Gold Hair,” apparently speaking

But “I

still,

to suppose

What

sons.”

“A Death

it

true, for

my part,

matters, he says, through the

in the Desert,”

is

incline

in propria persona.

/ See reasons

mouth

of St.

and

John

men

as taught

by the Christian

faith

“Why, where’s

or, to

;

the sovereign credential of Christianity perience.

in

not the importance of historical proofs

but the realization and appropriation of the divine love of

by

rea-

is its

put

it

God

another way,

truth to

human

ex-

the need of Temple,” the speaker asks

Epilogue to Dramatis Personae, “when the walls / O’ the world are that?” God is eternally manifesting Himself throughout in the

and

the whole creation insist

upon

in the heart of

man.

No

need then to

special revelation in a particular place to elect indi-

viduals, since every

himself to the

man, imperfect

power

of

as he

may

be, can,

by opening

God, become temporarily God-like. In

spite of the questioning of the historical Jesus, the essence of

Christianity remains above controversy:

That one Face,

Or decomposes Become my

far

from vanish, rather grows,

but to recompose.

universe that feels and knows.

Dramatis Personae we learn that for Browning the historicity of the Incarnation is not of prime importance. As Roma King observes, “It serves intitially, he proposes, as a

From

the

poems

of

hypothesis, an imaginative projection, to

which

man commits

22

Introduction

becomes the motive and the tentative shaping pattern self-creating action. The result of man’s commitment, the ex-

himself. It for

perience which ensues,

man

believes

tion

is

and

is its

acts as

if it

own

meaning.”^^ In other words, a

were

historically true.

a necessary fiction that assumes a mythic

The Incarna-

reality.

Browning’s changing views concerning history and historical evidence, particularly as related to the Incarnation, contributed greatly to his increasing dissatisfaction with the dramatic logue. Initially, he conceived of the dramatic

mono-

monologue

as a

means of seeing aspects of life, that is, of producing “testimony” from different points of view. But more and more he came to distrust all

casuistic

human

testimony.

We

note this particularly in the

monologues of Dramatis Personae

— “A

Death

in the

Desert” especially, which, says Elinor Shaffer, exhibits “the process

by which the claim to ocular witness was transformed into the

claim to valid Christian experience.”^'*

Thus recognizing

the

fail-

upon by a common theme

ure of the dramatic monologue as a poetic strategy, he hit

a

new

and

strategy

:

to relate various perspectives

action, as Hillis Miller says, to “use point of

view to tran-

scend point of view.”*^ By providing a large number of perspectives centered reliability,

on one event, the poet could

the special pleading,

and could perhaps

at last

at last escape the un-

which characterizes human speech,

approximate God’s own

infinite

and

“objective” vision. This at any rate was Browning’s hope in writ-

ing

The Ring and

the Book. Yet with the composition of this

“The Necessary Surmise: The Shaping Spirit of Robert Browning’s Poetry,” Romantic and Victorian: Studies in Memory of William H. Marshall, ed. W. Paul Elledge and Richard L. Hoffman (Rutherford, Madison, 13.

and Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971), p. 349. 14. “Browning’s St. John; The Casuistry of the Higher Criticism,” Victorian Studies, 16 (1972), 216. This essay brilliantly explores Browning’s ways of interpreting history. In showing that St. John in “A Death in the Desert”

“Browning’s archetypal casuist” (p. 221), this article calls into question the notion of “Browning the Simple-Hearted Casuist,” which is the title of an essay by Hoxie N. Fairchild first printed in the University of Toronto Quarterly, 48 (1949), 234—40. 15. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (rpt. New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 148. is

— Introduction

poem

of epic scope

Browning was

to discover again

what he had

no such thing

as “objective

already known, namely, that there

What man

truth.” truth,

is

himself

is

left

with

is

in his determination of

finally,

in his search for “objective reality”

:

23

he discovers

that he always confronts himself alone.

This it

all

is

The Ring and

the final statement of

the poem’s chief themes point



Toward

the Book.

the unceasing conflict of

testimony, the constant reminders that appearances are often

more plausible than reality, the demonstration that language is more frequently a vehicle of falsehood than of truth. The Pope is aware of these vagaries of life when he makes his determination of Pompilia’s innocence and Guido’s guilt. He also bears them in mind when he addresses himself to the Incarnation, accepting it not as indisputable historical fact or as infallible truth tested

on the

pulses.

dogma but

as a

In the figure of the Pope Browning

would have us see that the crucial consideration of any creed is not so much what men believe as how they respond, any belief being a meaningless abstraction which neither occasions action

nor

results

tions of

from

it.

The

point the Pope makes

judgment, whether of things

sympathy, commitment

finite

—must be anterior

is

that in

all

ques-

or infinite, love

to reason.

Hence he

does not weigh argument against argument or fact against fact

but cuts through them to a sympathetic apprehension of their truth.

Thus endowed with

truth / Obliquely,

the

power of

do the thing

shall

love,

a

man “may

tell

breed the thought, /

a

Nor

word” (xii. 855-7). In The Ring and the Book Browning tried to overcome the barrier of language through form. Earlier, in Sordello, he had acknowledged the difficulty indeed the impossibility of communicating the immediacy of perception in language: wrong

the thought, missing the mediate





Because perceptions whole, like that he sought To clothe, reject so pure a work of thought As language: thought may take perceptions’s place But hardly co-exist in any case, Being its mere presentment of the whole By parts, the simultaneous and the sole By the successive and the many. [ii. 589-95]



24

Introduction

The

tools

one has to work with are not adequate

the wholeness of man’s being



to expression of

his transcendental as well as his

descendental impulses, his soul as well as his body, his fancy as

Browning

well as his facts. In the Essay on Shelley, however.

who

posited the poet

could see and show both the high and the

low “in successive perfect works,” although “of the perfect with the gold and the

up

silver side set

no instance”

lenge, there has yet been

for all

comers to chal-

285). But

(xii.

shield,

it

was not

through language alone that such a shield was to be forged. “I

know told

that I don’t

make

out

my

Ruskin in an often-quoted

infinite

within the

finite.

conception by

my

All poetry

letter.

You would have me

is

language,” he

“a putting the

paint

it

all

plain

which can’t be.” Yet, he goes on, “by various artifices I try make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if

out,

to

they bear the conception from

me

to you.”

Which

is

to say that

not by language alone but by discontinuities and manipulation of

communicate “the whole [which] is all but a simultaneous feeling with me.” Therefore, he tells Ruskin, “in asking for more ultimates you must accept less mediates, nor expect that a Druid stone-circle will be traced for you with as perspective he hopes to

few breaks to the eye as the North Crescent and South Crescent that go together so cleverly in spectivist art of

The Ring and

form to the formless

metaphor

of the

many the

— a paradox

Book Browning sought

[different

lutely in a portion, yet / Evolvible

to give

expressed in the central ring

poem. As the Pope

yet everywhere in these

Through

a suburb.”^® With the per-

says,

“Truth, nowhere,

perspectives]



from the whole”

/

lies

Not abso-

(x.

228-30).

the efficacy of form the poet wished, to use the terms of

his letter to

Ruskin, to arrive at ultimates with fewer mediates, to

a truth / Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought, / Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.” Through form he aspired to express the disparate elements of man’s nature “tell

in a

work that

“shall

save the soul beside”

mean beyond (xii.

Quoted in The Works ander Wedderbiim (London: 16.

the facts, / Suffice the eye

and

862-3). of

John Ruskin,

Allen, 1909),

ed. E. T.

XXXVI,

Cook and Alex-

xxxiv.

— —

—— — Introduction

25

However successful Browning may have found his formal innovations in The Ring and the Book, the fact remains that he never again turned to

knew

this particular

that the fullness of his

kind of perspectivist

own

art.

For he

being could be apprehended

only through a process of creative action, which means constant

He

experimentation and breaking bounds.

could realize himself

only in the acts in which he assumed the most contradictory ele-

ments of

manner

he could become a person only when, in a

his nature;

of speaking, he authorized himself.

Man,



as befits the

Purposed, since

Yet forced

made, the

made

inferior thing,

to grow, not

and make,

make

in turn.

grow, Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain The good beyond him, which attempt is growth, to try

else fail to



Repeats God’s process in man’s due degree. Attaining man’s proportionate result, Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps. man, bounded, yearning to be free. .

.

.

May

so project his surplusage of soul

In search of body, so add self to self By owning what lay ownerless before,

So

find, so

fill

full,

so appropriate forms

.

.

.

[The Ring and the Book, In the chapters that follow cation between the

man and

Shelley, “Greatness in a tality”

I

I.

705-19]

assume a high degree of

identifi-

the author.

work

As he

said in speaking of

suggests an adequate instrumen-

[Works, XII. 287). In every work a drama

tween the

man and

of his being resides.

himself

;

and

it is

in the

Without form there

ing the testimony of forms, therefore, spiritual tensions that dictated those

I

is

drama

is

enacted be-

that the truth

no drama. By examin-

shall try to perceive the

forms that became “Brown-

ing.”

My

interest

is

look to the

man

poems may

also

not primarily biographical.

briefly,

sometimes simply

to find the poet, realizing full well that in the

be found the man.

tion of Browning’s later work,

though

I

I

To

discern the unique distinc-

believe that

we must examine,

evidence of those singular tensions working within

26

Introduction

him. This requires us to inspect the events of his

edge his

his cares

and concerns,

we

program. In short,

to discover

On “I am

man

an admirer of the

first

himself

:

what

a

little

liking’ ” I

altered

(Hood,

)

‘you must like

,

can do no

this point I

heartily glad,” he tells

I write. Intelligence,

new book

scarcely the thing with respect to a (

Browning

two volumes of The Ring and the Book,

‘T have your sympathy for

says

acknowl-

vicariously re-enact

shall try to get at the truth of

through a sympathetic understanding. better than quote the

and

to

life,

before

it

it



by

itself, is

Wordsworth

as

be worthy of your

Letters, p. 128).

do not believe that The Ring and the Book represents the

culmination of Browning’s art and thought any more than

“two Robert Brownings.”^"

lieve that there are

there

is

a unity in his

stant quest to

life,

which

is

to

finite to

he put aside a

nite. If, for instance, in his later years

was, as the Pope says in

it

maintain that

be discovered in

apprehend the relationship of the

in the Incarnation,

I

be-

I

his con-

the

infi-

literal belief

The Ring and

the

Book, only to “correct the portrait by the living face, / Man’s God, by God’s God in the mind of man” (x. 1867-8). During the quest of his later years there were, to quote a

maxim from

Rimbaud’s line Saison en Enfer, “no violent salvation games.” Browning suffered few of the lacerations of those who abandon themselves to the blessed violences of the storm. For he advanced deliberately

and even

defensively, step

his transcendental aspirations

talism.

Many

manners,

his

by

step, carefully

balancing

with a firmly grounded descenden-

of his contemporaries

might laugh

at his

formal

almost agressive bonhomie, his willingness to be

mistaken for a successful financier, to his admirers in the

Browning

his

solemn banalities iterated

Society.

Yet behind

it

all

was a

This hypothesis was first proposed by Henry James (see William Wetmore Story and His Friends [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903], II, 69) and then dramatized in his stoiy “The Private Life.” More recently, it has been advanced by Richard D. Altick in his essay “The Private Life of Robert Browning,” Yale Review, 41 (1951), 247-62. The second volume of Maisie Ward’s biography, Robert Browning and His World (London: Cassell, 1969), is subtitled Two Robert Brownings? 17.

Introduction

more deeply

poet desiring to inquire ever

27

into the nature of

things/® His chief problem was to discover the proper forms that

would permit him 18.

Two

to

approach ever

closer to

Ultimate Reality/®

of Browning’s letters of the sixties are interesting in their reve-

To Julia Wedgwhat am I to write?

lation of the poet’s concern to get to the truth of a matter.

wood he wrote





more and more don’t care what men think now, knowing they

in July 1864: “I live



never think

man I my thoughts;

whom?

that / shall be the better, the larger for

for

God

not

yet I need increasingly to

tell

the truth

will

— for

have the fairer start in next life, the firmer stand? Is it pure selfishness, or the obedience to a natural law?” {Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship, ed. Richard Curie [London: John Murray and Jonathan Cape, 1937], p.

Is

it

53; hereafter cited as

And

Wedgwood

it,

Letters).

Blagden he confided in September 1867 that he and his wife would argue about their “profoundly different estimates of thing and person”: “And I am glad I maintained the truth on each of these points, did not say, ‘what matter whether they be true or no? Let us only care to love each other’” [Dearest Isa: Robert Browning’s Letters to Isabella Blagden, ed. Edward C. McAleer [Austin: University of Texas Press, to Isabella



1951], p. 282; hereafter cited as Dearest Isa).

Donald

Hair’s Browning’s Experiments with Genre

(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972) is a study of the poems through The Ring and the Book somewhat along the lines I pursue in this book. Mr. Hair is frank to admit that a study of Browning’s experiments “should not, ideally, come to an end with The Ring and the Book. Browning experimented relentlessly throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and many of the 19.

poems are

S.

fascinating puzzles for the critic

.

.

.” (p.

183).

Bfllaustion’s

1

Adventure

Between early 1869, when the final volumes of The Ring and the Book appeared, and 1871 Browning published nothing. Apparently he was resting from the extraordinary labor required for the writing of his

Roman murder

been dead ten years, and

it is

the spring of that year to a

he recalled

his

story.

By 1871

possible that his thoughts turned in

poem commemorating

her death. As

happy years with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he

whom

seems to have been reminded of Euripides, the poet loved and revered as pre-eminently human.

memorialize her than a

Whether any

in

this

case,

had

his wife

poem

What

better

she

way

to

dealing with the Greek dramatist?

was Browning’s intention

is

however, practically

commentators see

all

a matter of conjecture; in the

character of Balaustion, the central figure of the poem, a reflec-

Browning.

tion of Mrs.

Balaustion’s Adventure, Including a Transcript des, written in

May

and published

in

from Euripi-

August 1871,

given over to a retelling of Euripides’ Alkestis.

Many

is

largely

critics

have

wondered whether it should be considered anything more than a mere translation. Browning himself made few claims for it. In

Cowper he referred to it as a task which “proved the most delightful of May-month amusements,” and to Isabella Blagden he spoke of it as “my little new Poem, done in a month, and I think a pretty thing in its way” the dedication to the Countess





{Dearest Isa, p. 362). Rossetti, however, found “the structure of the

work

.

.

.

beyond

all

conception perv’erse” and the Euripi-

dean Alkestis “interlarded with Browningian analysis

to

an extent

Balaustion's Adventure

beyond

all

29

reason or relation to things by any possibility Greek in

any way.” Swinburne thought that “the pathos of the subject is too simple and downright for Browning’s analytic method.”^ Later commentators have likewise been worried by the question of

its

faithfulness to the

sideration

is

Greek

when

civilization

tion, the spirit, if

In

my

opinion, such a con-

an estimation of the poem.

irrelevant to

Balaustion's Adventure

a time

spirit.^

is

the poet’s message to his age that, at

seems on the verge of complete disrup-

not the forms, of the past can enliven the present

and redeem the individual from despair. By means of the young girl from Rhodes who narrates the poem Browning presents a parable of personal salvation gained through love and the creative powers. The poem is thus a further exploration of the major themes of The Ring and the Book A In The Ring and the Book, it will be recalled, the Pope allows that in pre-Christian times some did attain to truly Christian lives without the benefit of a specifically Christian revelation. Such a Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and J. R. Wahl (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), III, 981; The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New Haven: Yale Uni1.

Letters of

versity Press, 1959), II, 155-6. 2.

See

Thurman

L.

Hood, “Browning’s Ancient Classical Sources,” Har-

vard Studies in Classical Philology, 33 (1922), 79-81; Edmund D. Cressman, “The Classical Poems of Robert Browning,” Classical Journal, 23 (1927), 198-207; Robert Spindler, Robert Browning und die Antike 59-77; Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition (1937; Norton Edition, New York, 1963), pp. 366-75; William C. DeVane, “Browning and the Spirit of Greece,” Nineteenth-Century Studies, ed. H. Davis, W. C. DeVane, and R. C. Bald (Ithaca: Cornell (Leipzig,

1930),

I,

University Press, 1940), pp. 183-4.

See Robert Langbaum, “Browning and the Question of Myth,” PMLA, 81 (1966), 575-84, for a treatment of Balaustion as a successful poem employing the mythical method. Langbaum has a very high opinion of the poem: “It is actually more successful than The Ring and the Book in achieving what it sets out to do. If I hesitate to rank it above or even with The Ring and the Book, it is only because the poem is after all mainly Euripides. Yet I am not sure this matters. We probably ought to understand the poem as we understand Ezra Pound’s translations as a creative appropriation of ancient material, a way of giving an ancient poet a historical consciousness he himself could not have had” (p. 583). 3.



30

Browning’s liater Poetry

one was Euripides,

men (x.

whom

Pope

the

possessing the light denied to

1756) are not morally

fancies he hears asking

him

in

“a tenebrific time”

The Greek

better.

why

dramatist intuited

God and exhibited in his plays that which the experience of God had taught him. He saw, the Pope implies, that the “perfection fit for God” is “love without a limit” something of the nature of

(x. 1362,

1364)

;

he knew that

gence” and love “unlimited

if

there

is

in its self-sacrifice /

and God shows complete” instance of Euripides and the there

the tale

life

of Pompilia, the

is

divine instance of self-sacrifice /

man” (x. 1649-52). The Ring and the Book,

is

1364-7). Ruminating on the

voice to his understanding that in each

made new” when

Then

(x.

true

things

“strength” and “intelli-

man

Pope

gives

there can be “first

“repetition of the miracle, /

The

That never ends and aye begins

for

especially the Pope’s

monologue, pre-

sents a full statement of Browning’s belief that to

be “creative and

self-sacrificing too”

sive as

“The Pope”

dity, the

manner

to

is is

be “God-like”

in

its

(x.

1377-8). Yet impres-

humanity and philosophical profun-

poet barely manages to hide behind his persona. In a of speaking,

“The Pope”

like Yeats, believed that

is

a revelation. But Browning,

poetry not only

is

revelation but also

should have the effect of revelation. For years Browning had pur-

sued a poetic method by which he sought, as he says in the Preface to Strafford, to display “Action in Character, rather than

Character in Action.”

He had

placed characters, historical as well

and caused them to reveal themselves in moments of lyric intensity; and with the elaborate design of The Ring and the Book he evidently felt that, through the interior method of character analysis, he had fully explored the potentialities of the dramatic monologue. For almost forty years he had worked in the same mode; he had taken a part of the actual world, a personage, and made that individual show himself for what he really was. As he wrote to Julia Wedgwood upon completion of The Ring and the Book, “The question with me has never been ‘Could not one, by changing the factors work out the sum to better result?,’ but declare and prove the actual as fictional ones, in various situations

)

Balaustion’s Adventure

result,

and

there an end.” Apparently, he felt the need to try yet

other methods, for he adds in this letter to Miss

“Before

I die, I

hope

Ring and the Book]

to purely invent something,

my

pride

was concerned



is

so

much

—the white, no more”

Wedgwood: here [in The

to invent nothing:

the minutest circumstance that denotes character

black

31

is

{Wedgwood

true: the Letters, p.

To

be sure, the poet remained interested in “the incidents in the development of a soul” (Preface to the 1863 edition of But was it not possible for this development to be inSordello 144).

.

vestigated

by an exterior

as well as

by an

interior

means, which

method of the dramatic monologue? Furthermore, by an exterior method might he not also show the effect of a “soul” as is

the

development, display character in action as well as action in character? These possibilities must certainly have been running through the poet’s mind. When he undertook his next

well as

its

work, he turned his back on the dramatic monologue as he had perfected it; he elected to explore a mode that was not only an possibilities of the

attempt to enlarge the but,

by comparison with

his established

dramatic monologue

form, was also an entirely

Book there evidently remained a great deal which Browning wanted to say about both art and religion, the subjects always of deepest interest to him. In his long poem of twelve books he had come to more or less settled conclusions about both. But still he had to make his per-

new method.

After

The Ring and

the

ceptions accessible through a proper symbolizing process, without which earth’s verities remain only abstractions to be capitalized

Power, Knowledge, Love, and Will. “A myth may teach, the poet was later to say in “Bernard de Mandeville” in the Parleyings: “Only, who better would expound it thus / Must be Euripias

des not Aeschylus” (204-6).

As only a scant record of Browning’s own account of Balaustion's Adventure exists, we can only speculate as to the origin and germination of the poem. No doubt his wife s long affection for Euripides and his

middle in

sixties

own

intensive study of the dramatist during the

suggested the use of Euripidean material. Secondly,

The Ring and

the

Book

the fancied questioning of the

Pope by

32

Browning’s Later Poetry

the Greek tragedian indicates that in Browning’s

mind

the dra-

matist was associated with the idea of the Incarnation, of which

Pompilia creator

is

shown

and

to be

an avatar. Euripides and Pompilia, the

self-sacrificer,

Godhead

the very attributes of

de-



The Ring and the Book what if both were to be brought together in a poem in which their essential qualities were comfined in

bined in one person? Moreover, what

the personality of this

if

character were revealed by her interpretation of a play by Euripides? In Balaustion^s Adventure Browning created a heroine very

much

like

Pompilia,

who

possesses the characteristics of

poet and the person whose love

and

is

both the

redemptive and whose moral

poetic powers are sharpened by acquaintance with a Eurip-

idean drama.^ Doubtless the pathos and simplicity of the Alkestis appealed to

Browning, but evidently he wondered that Euripides did not con-

demn

the

man whose

moral weakness permitted the death of

his

was probably this questioning of the morality of the play that led him to make the Alkestis part of his poem. Also, he must have remembered Plutarch’s telling of how some beloved wife.

It

captive Greeks were rescued in Syracuse by recitation of the play,

and, with his constantly iterated belief that art inspires action, he

no doubt envisioned a way to make Euripides’ drama the center of a poem that would have as its main concern the relation between art and the mythopoeic power. Balaustion^s Adventure is a poem about salvation, first through art

4.

and then through The

love.

The world

of the

poem

is,

as

was

authors of the latest biography of Browning speculate on the

biographical significance of Balaustion.

She combines the gaiety and girlish grace of a lyric Pippa with the readiness to act and the wit of a tragic Pompilia, except that she is not tragic. Threatened by pirates, she inspires her oarsmen ... by singing them a song from Aeschylus, and then, debarred from safety by Syracusans, she promptly reSymbolically cites her way into their hearts by remembering Euripides. .

.

.



her prologue reconstructs the key events in Elizabeth Barrett’s life at least Threatened by the enas Browning wished to understand them. croaching will of an overbearing parent, she too had saved herself by turning to Aeschylus and then Euripides. Frail and beautiful as Balaustion, Elizabeth also had won over the hearts of the populace by offering them exquisite [William Irvine and Park Honan, The Book, the Ring, the Poet poetry. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), pp. 457-8] .

.

.

&

Balaustioifs Adventure

previously suggested, very

much

like

Browning’s

own

33

—a world

in

process of radical change, a civilization almost in wreck. Athens has been defeated by Sparta at Syracuse, and her allies and de-

pendencies, like Rhodes, are preparing to foiwear their allegiance to Athens and join the Spartan league in order to “share the spoil (15). The young Rhodian girl Balaustion, however, refuses to turn her

back on the civilization that is “the life and light/ Of the whole world worth calling world at all” (25-6). She will choose “the sacred grove” (33) and “the great Dionusiac theatre

that

(37)

is,

religion

and poetry

“spoil” of a purely materialistic culture. tirely

her

own



in preference to the

The poem, which

is

en-

shows how Balaustion manages not only the values that Athens epitomizes for her but also to

to cling to

narrative,

transform those values so that they remain viable in a “Spartan” world. In brief, Balaustiords Adventure is the young woman’s

(and Browning’s) way of exemplifying for a younger, crasser world that it can be enriched and enlivened when the essence of the culture of the past

imaginatively re-created in the present. In this altered world, Balaustion relates, poetry no longer holds is

accustomed sway. Only a “certain few” (156) are responsive to the new kind of poetry such as practiced by Euripides, who, its

along with his friend Socrates, is misprized and scorned by the populace. Only “some foreigner uncouth” (300)’, whose mind

and

bound by traditional drama, appreciates the genius of Euripides, who, unheeded, lives almost totally isolated from the community for which he writes. Yet, “because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts, / And poetry is power” (235ears are not

6), poetry

may

still

have

though Euripides appears,

work tivity

totally

without

value in these changing times. Al-

its

at least

effect, his

and perhaps death,

it

brings her a husband,

who

Poetry has this potency because play tne whole

is

to say,

man and

his fellow citizens, to

poetry saves Balaustion from cap-

the lot of those Greeks in Syracuse

(318), which

among

and

it

eases

are oppressed.

“a power that makes” when properly apprehended it calls into causes

For poetry, “speaking to one

him

it

is

to perceive the unity of being.

sense, inspires the rest, / Pressing

34

Browning’s Later Poetry

them

into

all

hears,

and

its

feels

sees,

simultaneously, taking in “time, place, and per-

son too” (328). Thus shipmates have

(319-20), so that the recipient

service”

it is

like the

young Balaustion,

whom

her

named “Wild-pomegranate-flower”:

where’er the red bloom burns r the dull dark verdure of the bounteous tree, Dethroning, in the Rosy Isle, the rose, since,

You

shall find food, drink, odour, all at

once;

Cool leaves to bind about an aching brow, And, never much away, the nightingale.

The

first

Browning

357

lines of the

in the title called

are, as indicated above,

“A

ser\^ as a prologue to

what

Transcript from Euripides.”

They

devoted chiefly to proclaiming the

demptive power of poetry. pose that in this

poem

[208-13]

re-

would be wrong, however, to suppassage Browning is setting forth a purely huIt

manistic view of poetry as the proper substitute for religion in a skeptical age. Set against this introductory section exploring the

miraculous effect of art

is

Balaustion’s retelling of the Alkestis,

the whole point of which in the structure of the

poem

is

to

show

the ability of a sympathetic auditor to transmute art into that

higher morality which

Although

critics

is

closely allied to religious experience.

have argued that Balaustion^s Adventure

is

a

misrepresentation of the original. Browning in fact never set out

simply to translate the Alkestis. gives us

is

What

Balaustion^s Adventure

not a translation but a young woman’s interpretation

of the play, the significance of related in the play

is

which

is

that her idea of the events

a morally and spiritually higher idea than

that presented by Euripides. In narrating the dramatic events,

Balaustion interweaves moral explanations of the characters with Euripides’ dramatic colloquies.

Whereas Euripides was

careless of

some of the moral implications of the story, his interest centering on Admetos’s self-control, Balaustion focuses her attention on the development of a soul in Admetos. De-emphasizing the whole idea of arbitrary fate, she shifts attention from or indifferent to

Admetos’s increasing

self-pity, as

he contemplates the loneliness

Balaustioiis Adventure

35

he must endure and the taunts of his enemies, to his learning the

meaning

of love

and

loss.

Balaustion also changes the character of

who

Herakles from that of a jovial giant

enjoys his wine and

willing to help his host; she Christianizes

whose whole

him

into a

is

god-man

dedicated to the alleviation of the suffering of

life is

others.

In Balaustion’s retelling of the Alkestis the power of poetry

is

Although Apollo, the god of poetry, seeks to save Admetos from death and indeed is successful in urging the Fates strictly limited.

to allow a surrogate to die in his place,

Apollo

is

faced with Death,

completely helpless. In such a situation art

we

another savior, as

Unwilling to

shall see,

is

needed for the

Admetos has

die,

to rescue him, with the result that his life for is

when

him he

will

called

upon

impotent;

is

task.

all

powers

possible

he can find someone to give

if

be allowed to

live.

His wife Alkestis alone

willing to sacrifice herself to such a cause, and, utterly selfish,

the king allows her to go to the grave in his stead.

when he realizes the Admetos, now “beginning to be

interment of Alkestis, loss,

does

realize his live,

Only

at the

absolute finality of his

wife” (2000),

like his

wrong, understand that he “ought not

by evading destiny” (2014-15). But by

this

live,

time

/

But do

it is,

so he

has every reason to believe, too late to do otherwise.

At

this point

Herakles comes to his aid. Both

“human and

di-

man” (1049-51), Herakles is the “helper of our world” (1917), who comes “at first cry for help” 1731 ), “all for love of men” 1726), to “save man so” ( 1734)

vine,”

“half

God,

/

Half

(

(

“and saves the world” (1878). “All a friend” (1218), he cially

Admetos, “of

is

“truth

all evils

itself”

and obedience to (1197). To most men, espe-

faith, love,

in the world, the worst /

—being

Was

forced to die, whate’er death gain”

(1072-3); but Herakles “held his life / Out on his hand, for any man to take” ( 1076-7). In short, Herakles is a Greek hero made Christlike. This exemplar of the Incarnation

whom

is

the Puritans fancied Christ to be.

not, however, the ascetic

A

prophet of joy (1738-

41, 1759-72), he reminds the children of the world that

“good

36

Browning’s Later Poetry

days had been, / (

1253-4)

.

And good is

not above a

little

tipsiness

seal /

might be”

Of Godship,

that

it

is

to help

on wine, and

his joyfulness, in Balaustion’s opinion, helps

agent of the divine. “I think,” she says, “this

and

still

Eager both to partake of earthly pleasures and

mankind, Herakles deed

days, peradventure,

mark him

.

.”

.

as

an

the authentic sign

ever waxes glad, /

And more

until gladness blossoms, bursts / Into a rage to suffer for

kind

in-

glad,

man-

(1918-21).

When

he learns of Admetos’s bereavement, Herakles immedi-

ately sets

about to help the grieving king. His harrowing of Hades

and return with the veiled Alkestis serve further to impress upon the husband his selfishness in allowing his wife to immolate herself for him. Now aware of his wrong and willing to repent, Admetos is redeemed from egoism by the self-sacrifice of Alkestis and the intervention of the heroic savior. tence, better than the

life

He vows

“to begin a fresh / Exis-

before” (2387-8).

In Balaustion’s version of the Alkestis the center of interest

we have

as

said, in the spiritual

lies,

development of Admetos. The

and indeed transforms the original to the point where we have an almost totally different piece of literature. Unlike the motion picture Never on Sunday, in which an ignorant woman completely misunderstands Sophoclean drama, Balaustion^s Adventure gives us an interpretation of the Alkestis in which the moral possibilities of the original are developed and stressed. Browning would have us see that Balauspersonality of the narrator informs

tion’s

is

not a criticism but a “higher criticism,” to use the theo-

logical term, of the text. Just as a

behind the

literal

modern Christian may look

accounts of the Gospels to grasp the essence of

the Christian message, Balaustion goes beyond the actual text of

Browning that the poem, “Euripides, the human, / With

the Alkestis to seize upon, In the words of Mrs. serve as epigraph to his

droppings of warm

Till they rose to

To tion.

tears, /

And his touches of things common

/

touch the spheres.”

be sure, certain

literalists will

object to such an interpreta-

After Balaustion told the play in Syracuse, a “brisk

little

.

Balaustion^s Adventure

37

somebody, / Critic and whippersnapper” objected to the liberties she had taken (306-16),® to which the girl replies that poetry is a power which makes sense transcend sense so that to the point

where one

is

and

so

simplicity” (333), sees the play”

natively

(335)

are unified

and feel, in faith’s that “who hears the poem, therefore, to “hear, see

—another way

and sympathetically

meaning, whereas the

its

made

all

of saying that he

who

imagi-

interprets the text truly understands

literalists

and the “friendly moralists”

(2390) entirely miss the point. And, as we have seen, the validity of Balaustion’s interpretation is proven by its effect: it saves her

and her companions and also “a band / Of lords grew kinder to” ( 260-6 1 )

“One

many

thing has

Truth has many

captives,

sides,” Balaustion

their

maintains (2402).

and may be approached

facets

whom

in different

ways:

“No good

supplants a good, / Nor beauty undoes beauty” ( 24034). Euripides and Sophocles and perhaps even others like Balaus-

can present visions of the central truth, which may “glorify the Dionusiac shrine / Not clash against this crater, in the tion

:

place /

Where

the

God

put

it

when

the last dregs, libation life-blood-like

the

young

woman

without fear In

lest

is

mouth had

his .

.

.”

drained, /

To

(2407-10). Hence

able to give her version of the Alkestis story

she be defiling a sacred myth.

The Ring and

the

Book

the

Pope believed that every Chris-

must refashion the Christian story for himself, putting “the same truth / In a new form” (x. 1392-3). Though not a Christian

tian,

Balaustion agrees with the principle enunciated by the Pope,

and illuminates the still

farther

when

ripides’ play in

Nearly

a

spiritual possibilities in the Alkestis.

She goes

she embodies the meaning she derives from Eu-

new

fonu. Poetry being a power that makes,

it

commentators identify the “brisk little somebody” as Alfred Austin, Browning’s most hostile critic, who was to become, after the death of Tennyson, Poet Laureate. (For Browning’s further vendettas with Austin see Chapter 7). Irvine and Honan suggest that the “critic and whippersnapper” refers not only to Austin but also to “the archetypal myope who cannot see beyond conventions, all of Elizabeth’s hostile critics together” [The Book, the Ring, the Poet, p. 458). 5.

all

&

— Browning’s Later Poetry

38

new

not only gives

perspectives

on the truth;

also stimulates

it

creation in others. “Ah, that brave / Bounty of poets,” Balaustion exclaims, the one royal race

That ever was, or will be, in this world! They give no gift that bounds itself and ends r the giving and the taking: theirs so breeds r the heart and soul o’ the taker, so transmutes The man who only was a man before. That he grows god-like in his turn, can give

He

also

share the poet’s privilege,

:

Bring forth

So

good,

new

beauty, from the old.

with her. She has “drunk” the

it is

thirst, satisfying

2)

new

—namely,

[2416-25]

poem and “quenched”

her

both heart and soul; “yet more remains” (2431-

the impulse to render her version of the Alkestis

legend.

In her version Balaustion dramatizes the redemption that she personally has experienced.

When

Apollo became the servant of

tamed the natural lusts and greed in Admetos to the point where he vowed to rule “solely for his people’s sake” (2450). He would perfect his people, yet a whisper says that the desire is vain. Why, Admetos asks, does evil prosper and why is good not allowed time for completion? Why cannot physical realthe king, his music

ity sustain

the soul’s longings?

Alkestis supplies the answers to her husband’s questions.

of the live

coming

fate,

and carry out

she has begged Apollo to allow

Aware

Admetos “to

to heart’s content / Soul’s purpose, turn each

thought to very deed” (2501-2). Apollo

is

her request but will allow Admetos to

upon condition

live

unable

fully to

grant

that she

Admetos refuses the bargain; for to agree would violate the very humanity for which he wishes to live. Let then some other mortal undertake his work. Enough if he has attained die for him.

Zeus’s purpose “inalienably mine, to end with

me” (2555)



namely, to love. Alkestis argues that he cannot forswear his

eous king.

He must

live

and

vow

to

be a right-

rule in order to carry out their

com-

Balaustion^s Adventure

So

billed ideal.

made

be

embrace, her soul enters

where the

his.

Queen past

of the

my

the embrace

metos

live

an individual.

She

dies

and her

And

as they lovingly

spirit

goes to Hades,

refused entrance. “Hence, thou deceiver!”

is it

Underworld. “This

very death which mocks

and

one being that the choice must

entirely are they

regardless of each as

power, / is

Is

me now,

lives

/

If,

by the

that’s left

behind

not to die, /

is

The

life,

commands

formidably doubled” (2632-5). Before

relaxed, Alkestis

out their

39

is

alive again,

and she and Ad-

long and well.

In Balaustion’s version, rendered in the most beautiful poetry of the work, there

there

was

no heroic redeemer

is

in Euripides’ play. Indeed,

to reclaim Alkestis as

it is

precisely the point of

her story that love saves Alkestis from death and allows her to

work with her husband for the benefit of the kingdom. In the newer world that Balaustion inhabits, when all the traditional beliefs and loyalties have begun to decay, she, like the Pope in The Ring and the Book, foresees a time when the old mythology must be reinterpreted to prevent the essence of the myth from being discarded along with the “perfection

when

fit

its

for

outer trappings. For her as for the Pope

God”

is

“love without a limit” (x. 1362,

and love “unlimited in its self-sacrifice, / Then is the true tale and God shows complete” (x. 1364-7). No need then for a mythic Herakles or an 1364)

;

there

is

strength, intelligence,

historical Jesus:

the “Christ”

when he assumes

the Christian attributes

tian

story’. If

cle of the

is

present in the individual’s

the instincts be right,

Incarnation

is

repeated.

if

life

and re-enacts the Chris-

love be complete, the mira-

Whatever the attacks made on

traditional faith, the substance of that faith

is

ever available to

him who would accept it. By his own spirit is man deified. Such salvation as love offers is, however, purely personal. Balaustion emphasizes this truth by ending her story with the statement that, concerning “the Golden Age, / [for which] Our couple, rather than renounce, would die,” she never heard that “ever one first faint particle came true” (2656-8). While endorsing what she understands to be the spiritual theme of Euripides’ play, salvation through love, and indeed exploring it further in her own

:

40

Browning’s Later Poetry

version, she reveals the limit of that love as a redemptive process.

For she presents a world impregnable to the values generated by

The Golden Age

that love.

does not come, nor

In her story only the savior Implicit in her version

is

is

is it

likely to

come.

saved.

why work

this question,

for the

good

of the world

if

that goal must be constantly frustrated? Although

the question

is

never fully answered, Balaustion suggests

ties

Her Apollo

of an answer.

tells

Alkestis that even

possibili-

though the

world appears to be utterly recalcitrant to morality there are

Throughout the world” (2537-8), which can be awakened, so that “no fruit, man’s life can bear, will fade” (2532). This is, however, only a hope, and nevertheless

“seeds

good asleep

of

man

should act on this hope.

for herself, Balaustion believes that

he “who venerates the

in spite of the evidence of his senses

As

Gods, to

the

i’

judge”

(

main

will

1295-6).

son must act as is

/

if it

/ Practise things honest

still

though obscure

Good will not necessarily prevail, but will. And the surest guide for human

a peraction

love.

Balaustion’s version forth

is

new good, new

proof of her belief that poetry can “bring

beauty, from the old” (2425).

theory of the efficacy of poetry

and the painter who, duce works of

at the

it

is

set

further vindicated by the poetess

end of her narrative, are said to pro-

down

not accomplished and forever done with

is

in

a certain form; rather,

reverberate and stimulate

Although Euripides failed to

her

art in response to Euripides’ play. Like the Incar-

nation, artistic creation

when

is

And

is

win the prize

new

it

continues to

impulses toward creadon in others.

scorned by the Athenians and his at the festival, his Alkestis

is

to

drama

be cherished

not only for aesthetic and moral qualities but also as an afflatus it

inspired the poetess, the

create

new works

her companions in

Kaunian

of art, and, moreover,

— Syracuse

“It

all

and Balaustion to saved Balaustion and

painter, it

came

of this play that gained

no prize!” (2704). What matter, then, whether

it

win acclaim or

not? Like the Christian story, Euripides’ poetry expresses the greatest values of session

and

human

life

and, further, by urging to self-pos-

fresh creation, offers salvation to all

who would open

:

Adventure

Balaustio?i*s

their ears to hear

and

“Why crown whom Ultimately,

their eyes to see. This

Zeus has crowned

Balaustion^s

Adventure

in soul before?” is

Browning’s idea of Christian love and of

on Shelley he had

poet. In the essay

hensiveness of his age

is

exactly

surely prize

is

41

enough (2705).

embodiment of what it means to be a the

insisted that “the

what a poet

is

misappre-

sent to remedy.”

By “looking higher than any manifestation yet made of both beauty and good,” the poet renders his vision of the “ideal of a future man” which may be realized in “the forthcoming stage of man’s being” {Works, XII. 292-4). This austion does,

by which

it

and

at a time

demonstrate

precisely

what Bal-

society has lost sight of the ideals

She takes an example of beauty and good shows its essential meaning, and then proceeds to

should

in her culture,

when

is

how

live.

the virtue of the past can be the stepping-stone

to higher good. In herself as in her art Balaustion manifests the

salvation to be attained through love

She sums up

and the

creative powers.

Browning had previously tried to say about both his artistic creed and his religious faith. Finally, she probably epitomizes all those qualities the poet had cherished in his wife.®

She

is

all

that

one of Browning’s

loveliest creations.

See Joseph H. Friend, “Euripides Browningized The Meaning of Balaustion’s Adventure,” Victorian Poetry, 2 (1964), 179-86. Friend argues convincingly that the poem is an effort on Browning’s part “to deal in his art with the living problem of his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett ten years after her death” (p. 186). He sees reflected in the poem Browning’s remorse over the “betrayal” of his wife when he proposed marriage to Lady Ashburton. For details of the proposal see the following chapter, note 5. 6,

:

2

^

Prince Hohcnsticl'Schwangau

Browning saw Balaustion^s Adventure through the press and almost immediately upon its pubhcation began work on a new poem. Although in setting and subject matter distantly removed from Athens of the

fifth

century, both formally

and thematically

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society bears a certain relationship to the

Greek poem.

It will

be recalled that in Balaus-

King Admetos, resolved to perfect his kingdom, could not bring into being that Golden Age of which he dreamed. In this next work Browning takes up a modem instance of a ruler who would redeem his people, Napoleon III, and extion’s version of the Alkestis

amines why he too

fails.

Prefaced by a motto from Euripides,

which suggests a kinship with Balaustion, Prince HohenstielSchwangau deals with one who (in Browning’s translation of the passage from the Hercules Furens)

To

labour



from labour pass’d tribes of labours! Till, at last,

Attempting one more labour, in a trice. Alack, with ills [he] crowned the edifice. In his investigation of a would-be savior of society the poet experiments further with the dramatic monologue, which he had

expanded an

and complex proportions in Balaustion, overcome the limitations of that mode.

to lengthy

effort to

Browning wrote the poem during a holiday

in the late

in

summer

of 1871. In the midst of composition he confided to his friend Isa Blagden: “I have written about

1800 absolutely new

lines or

more, and shall have the whole thing out of hand by the early

Prince winter, .

— that

I

can’t help thinking a sample of

When

{Dearest Isa, p. 367).

.

H ohenstieUSchwangau the

my

43

very best work

poem was completed he

wrote to another correspondent that he had just sent “a rather

poem to press” (Hood, Letters, p. 151). Yet by the poem appeared in print, in December 1871, his enthu-

important time the

He

siasm had apparently waned.

told Edith Story “.

.

.

I ex-

pect you not to care three straws for what, in the nature of

compared with other poems of mine which you have been only too good to. What poetry can ?” (Hood, Letters, pp. 151be in a sort of political satire 2) It is intriguing to ponder why Browning so drastically revised his estimate of the poem when it was published. An answer to things,

is

uninteresting enough, even

.

.

.

.

such a question must necessarily be speculative, but the attempt to provide

one might illuminate some of the problems of the

monologue, which, taking

J.

tive of the critical consensus, sistencies,

.

.

.

casuistries

M. Cohen’s is

strictures as representa-

thought to be

filled

and tangled argument”

with “incon-

resulting

from

the poet’s lack of control over his material.^

On

the manuscript of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau

Browning

wrote at the conclusion that a “few lines of the rough draft [were] written at Rome, 1860”;^ and soon after its publication he confirmed that he “conceived the poem, twelve years ago in the Via del Tritone p.

152).



The

in a little

handbreadth of prose” (Hood,

Letters,

idea of a monologue spoken by a character repre-

Napoleon HI was, then, not new.^ Evidently the original conception of a poem written in the name of the French Emperor

senting

had been

those in the

1.

monologue more or less along the lines of and Women volume of 1855. Yet in the decade

of a dramatic

Men

Robert Browning (London: Longmans, Green, 1952),

p. 129.

and places of composition, revisions, and publication of Browning’s poems are, unless otherwise indicated, taken from William Clyde DeVane, A Browning Handbook, 2nd ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955). Hereafter cited as DeVane, Handbook. 3. Early in 1871 Browning said: “I wrote, myself, a monologue in his [Louis Napoleon’s] name twelve years ago, and never could bring the printing to my mind as yet” (Hood, Letters, p. 145). 2.

Details regarding manuscripts, dates

44

Browning’s Later Poetry

or so after Browning

attempted a poem modeled on Louis

first

work had altered a great deal. As we have seen, in Balaustion’s Adventure Browning sought to widen the scope of the dramatic monologue by combining a purely objective form of literature, Euripidean drama, with the more interior monologue, by filtering the drama through the eyes and mouth of a young girl from Rhodes. Innovative though the Adventure was in form, it remained essentially a dramatic mono-

Napoleon, the shape of

his

logue expressive of only one point of view.

done with genial?

this

How

mode

could

that

it

What

else

could be

Browning had always found most con-

be made to yield a greater overview, so that

a blending of the “objective” and “subjective,” such as he had

spoken of in the Essay on Shelley, might be achieved in simultaneous perspectives?

One

additional possibility lay in the combination of dramatic

monologue with interior dialogue, employed previously in Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. After all, in a certain sense the monologues are what the speaker in “Christmas-Eve” calls “talking with my mind” (1132). What if he now experimented with an interior dialogue, in which the different voices are clearly not those of the speaker himself, set within the confines of a dramatic

would be basically the method of Balaustion^s Adthat is, monologue in propria persona plus interpolated

monologue? venture



It

material, with a return in the final lines to the speaker’s

own

voice.

In his later years Browning was not content to repeat his previous efforts. If this were to be a

Adventure

in form,

would not be

The what

it

poem somewhat

would nevertheless have

suffice that interior

dialogue

like Balaustion’s

to

be

different. It

serv^e in lieu of

a play.

dialogue would provide another point of view so that, somelike the later Parleyings, the vision of the

poem would be

almost double."^ Presumably with such a strategy in

mind Brown-

In “The Pope” Browning had also experimented with multiple audiences within one monologue. Park Honan counts ten sets of audiences in 4.

the poem.

“The Pope,”

ences in a different

Honan, “speaks to each one of these audimanner, and each one has the effect of bringing to says

Prince

ing set out in Prince

H ohenstiel-S cliwan gau

H ohenstiel-S chw an gau

to test

45

whether he

could achieve greater comprehensiveness by using a form which

would present

differing points of view, not sequentially but almost

simultaneously, within one poem.

Aside from purely experimental considerations of form,

it

was

Browning not be restricted to one point of view when writing about Napoleon III. For the poet had highly ambivalent and constantly changing feelings about the Emperor. During his wife’s lifetime he and Mrs. Browning did also quite necessary that

not often agree on the stature and sincerity of the French ruler,

and

this division in their

opinions was a source of some pain to

him. In the 1850’s and until her death in 1861 Mrs. Browning re-

garded Napoleon as the one hope for the liberation of

Italy.

Browning, however, “thought badly of him at the beginning of his career

.

.

.

;

better afterward,

on the strength of promises he

very p.

weak

371

later,

).

in the last miserable year



think

him

[1870-1871]” {Dearest

Isa,

made, and gave indications of intending to redeem,

I

Further, he wrote to another correspondent several days

“I don’t think so

in the last

few

much worse

years, because I

intellectual decline of faculty,

shown us be a physical and

of the character as

suppose there to

brought about by the man’s



own

.” no doubt but I think he struggles against these (Hood, Letters, p. 152). In brief, the poet saw in Napoleon III the man who is constantly pulled first one way and then the other

faults,

.

by the contradictory thrusts of

his personality.

This

is

.

to say that

Browning the Emperor was a complex personality whose ideals and actions were frequently antithetical. Napoleon III possessed a character about which the most contradictory statements seem true. Elected President of France as a for

something new and different in the Pope’s character-complex” {Browning* s Characters [New York and London: Yale University Press, ohenstiel-S chwangau is, however, some1961], p. 151 ). The technique of what different. There is an imaginary audience as in “The Pope,” but the light

H

Prince’s interior dialogue represents a dialectical exercise set off sharply

from the speaker’s monologue in his own voice. In this respect, the dialogue between the shrewd worldly voice and the impulsive, idealistic voice more nearly resembles the drama in Balaustion.

46

Browning’s Later Poetry

political liberal,

a repressive

programs thwarted and became youthful advocate of a democratic state, he

he soon found

ruler.

A

his

staged a coup d’etat and had himself, as “Savior of Society,” pro-

claimed Emperor, eventually aiming to found a dynasty. In his early years he

was dedicated

to the idea of a free Italy, but once

power he acted swiftly to suppress the Roman Republic. Yet some years later he joined Cavour and the King of Sardinia in an attempt to drive the Austrians out of Italy, finally, however, coming to terms with Austria and annexing Nice and Savoy for in

France.

A man who

declared that the Empire was Peace, he

Emperor making war. His policy was a curious mixture of democratic and imperialistic designs, and it is no wonder that in his day he was commonly referred to as the Sphinx. Louis Napoleon was the very sort of individual to appeal to Browning as subject for a poem. In his youthful poetry Browning had written of the romantic desire for the ideal untethered to the real and had portrayed characters, like Paracelsus and the lover of Pauline, who sought the infinite without regard to physical and psychological limitations and thus failed. But by and large the poet in his middle spent most of his time as

years focused instead on those personages who, bent, achieved their goals without claims, or

who,

if

be. In short,

idealistic

by

compromising with the world’s

material-minded, fought for their desiderata

without reference to an ideal conception of the

might

if

way

the world

he pictured individuals either unbothered by

or not subject to contending

demands

of personality. This

mittedly, a partially accurate generalization, but

we have

is,

ad-

only to

Grammarian, the coda to “The Statue and the Bust,” Pompilia, and Guido to see the truth in it. In 1871 Browning began 'once again to examine individuals whose actions were to some degree paralyzed by an unhappy recall the

blending in their temperaments of conflicting

desires.®

It

was,

The

reason for this renewed interest, which continued with the writing of Fifine at the Fair and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country in 1872 and 5.

1873,

may

not be far to find

if

we remember one

particular biographical

47

Prince Ilohcnstiel-Schwangau then, all the

more important

that he discover a

form that would

allow expression of the various sides of man’s nature. as to

which form would best serve apparently came

he was vacationing in Perthshire in the

summer

“I never at any time in

:

my

an occasion of work” {Dearest pleasure with the form that the

work which

The poem intentions

vided

is

And

he

to Miss Blag-

turned a holiday into such

Isa, p.

made him

367).

It

was evidently

his

hold so high an opinion of

later to misprize.

why do men with good aspire? And the answer pro-

implicitly asks this question,

fail to

that the

attain to

human

mands made upon

man

him while

have almost universally dispraised and

critics

which he himself came

life

to

of 1871.®

was so pleased with the solution that he declared den

The solution

it.

what they

personality

is

With imperfect

never adequate to the deeyes

and imperfect speech

never can properly visualize or verbalize the promptings of

his soul.

Once

those aspirations are released from the depths of

Browning’s proposal of marriage to Louisa Lady Ashburton in September 1869. Browning made his proposal in the frankest terms and on the most practical grounds, telling the lady that his son needed a mother but that his heart was buried with his dead wife in Florence. Naturally the offer was rejected. The ensuing guilt on the poet’s part for his unfaithfulness to the spirit of his beloved wife may well have contributed to the conception and composition of Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau. In this story of fact:

a

man tom between

his highest ideals

and the

practicalities of life

which

Browning may have recognized some of his own shortcomings. Betty Miller in her biography, Robert Browning: A Portrait (London: John Murray, 1952), sees in Balaustion’s Adventure the first expres-

sully those ideals

sion of Browning’s remorse for his unfaithfulness to his wife’s

memory

252). Joseph H. Friend in “Euripides Browningized,” 179-86, has vastly expanded and explored Mrs. Miller’s point. See also William (p.

Whitla, “Browning and the Ashburton Affair,” Browning Society Notes, 2, No. 2 (July 1972), 12-14.

January 1872 that he had conceived the poem twelve years earlier in Rome, he evidently meant that he had thought of writing a monologue about Napoleon III. It was only in Perthshire that “a little hand-breadth of prose” was “breathed out into this full-blown bubble in a couple of months this autumn that is gone” 6.

Although he wrote to Edith Story on

(Hood, Letters,

p.

152).

1

:

48

Browning’s Later Poetry

the self into the light of external reality they are, by the very nature of the world, deflected

from

poem

truth the speaker of the

their true intent.

learns

from

And

it is

this

attempted multi-

his

faceted examination of himself.

Yet to ask and to answer a question about the nature of man and the world is not the purpose of the Prince’s speech. Insofar any motivation — provides “Revealment myself!”

as the speech has

at all

it is

simply that which he

(22), talking for the sheer Commentators have called the monologue “a defence of

love of

it.

of the doctrine of expediency”

one of Browning’s great

casuists.^

implies deception the Prince

an

and have spoken

is

But to the extent that casuistry

no

pretence of an auditor

initial

of the Prince as

casuist at

—and

Although there

all.

this

mainly to provide a

dramatic context in which the monologue might occur Prince

is

—the

speaking solely to himself. Only as the monologue pro-

gresses does

means

is

become

it

clear that the revelation

justification of himself to himself.

As

is

it

logue evidently has no strategic purpose at

Schwangau

is

an unreliable narrator,

it is

which the mono-

to himself,

begins, all.

If

Hohenstiel-

not by design but from

lack of self-understanding.

The

first

part of his monologue

Here the Prince attempts

To

sav’e society

Whereby

was

to save

is

spoken

in

propria persona.

to justify his conserv^ative rule well: the

it,

—there

means

begins the doubt

Permitted you, imperative on me;

Were mine the best means? Did I work aright With powers appointed me? since powers denied



Concern His defense not done

is

all

cause he has his people.

me

nothing.

[701-6]

that he has acted in a practical

manner;

if

he has

would have him do, it is bedevote himself to the immediate needs of

that social visionaries first

He

had

to

recognizes the importance of idealism in politics,

Mrs. Sutherland Orr, A Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning, 6th ed. (London: G. Bell, 1927); hereafter referred to as Orr, Handbook. See also William O. Raymond’s chapter on “Browning’s Casuists” in his 7.

The

Infinite

Moment,

pp. 129-55.



:



Prince Holienstiel-Schwangaii

but he terial

is

also

aware that he must assure

49

people sufficient ma-

his

sustenance

my brave

No,

whom

thinkers,

I

recognize.

Gladly, myself the first, as, in a sense. All that our world’s worth, flower and fruit of Such minds myself award supremacy Over the common insignificance.

man!



When only Mind’s in question, Body bows To quite another government, you know. [1 101-7] But the more he talks the less convincing he finds himself to be, and he commences to perceive that his career may not have been quite so altruistic or even so successful as in the beginning he

claimed

was. For in speaking he half realizes that what he consciously thought himself to be may not be what in fact he is. it

you know the thing I tried to do! All, so far, to my praise and glory all Told as befits the self-apologist, Who ever promises a candid sweep



And clearance of those errors miscalled crimes None knows more, none laments so much as he. And ever rises from confession, proved

A

god whose

Just

fault

judge,

was



—trying

to be

man.

read smile aright I condescend to figure in your eyes As biggest heart and best of Europe’s friends. so, fair

And hence my

if I

failure.

God

will estimate

Success one day; and, in the

The

insight

evanescent but

mean

time

—you!

[1201-13]

by the Prince’s halfjocular admission that he is a “failure” (1212) and one of life’s “losers” (1217). Having so confessed, he immediately shifts perspective from “autobiography” (1220) to biography, from firstis

to third-person narrative.

it is

signified

Human

kind can bear only so

poem

what Hohenstiel-Schwangau

much

reality.

The second

part of the

is



terms “pure blame, history / And falsehood” “what I never was, but might have been” (1221-2, 1224). It is offered as a

counterbalance to what has already been recounted of his “praise



1

50

Browning’s Later Poetry

and glory ...

as befits the self-apologist”

soon see that the second

view

—those

of the

Head

half,

The

which

But we

.

from two points of

told

is

202-3 )

(

Servant, the idealized ruler, and Sagac-

the shrewd opportunist

ity,

to

:



is

another strategy in self-apology.

speaker claims always to have acted as the

Head

Servant and

have turned a deaf ear to the unprincipled pleas of Sagacity. Here, however, the speaker has as

much

convincing

difficulty in

had

himself that he has followed the highest ideals as he first

in the

part in pretending that he acted practically but altruistically

might have led, But did not, all the worse for earth and me Doff spectacles, wipe pen, shut book, decamp! [2085-7] thus the



The

life I

and opportunistic. In other words, Hohenstiel-Schwangau has had no consistent political philosophy; he has acted as it suited him at the moment. truth

is

that he has been both idealistic

mean

This does not that he

a

is

that he has been an evil ruler;

man who

Prince’s personality that he

ergy,

who must

undrawn, for (

and we

discover.

my

is

’t

There are

man

80 - 84 ). Moreover,

... it is

to put a thought

his

“mission” to act

when we

suspect a bit of self-delusion

of boundless en-

.

(

.

because, he claims, a

man

ills

from accusing him of No,

277 ).

learn that

not the

We begin to

all his (

alleged

710 )

has not sufficient time in one



life

this

span

of the world. Therefore his enemies, far reckless action, charge

Apathy, hesitation”

his is

),

Into an act”

.

energy in action was directed toward “sustainment”

lence, /

others.

(

nature

to put to right the

still

always be doing: “Better to draw than leave Fitter to do than let alone, I hold” 39 -40

I think, /



only

but one aspect of the

is

speaker begins by claiming to be a

one

signifies

has been aware of the right steps to take

but has frequently not taken them. This

The

it

gift to

(

1179 - 80 )

make “what

him with “indo-

.

is

absolutely

new”; rather

account the thing / That’s half“I make the best of the old, nor try for new. / Such will

his talent lies in turning “to best

made” to

act

serving

:

.

.

.

Constitute[s]

.

.

.

my own

/ Particular faculty of

God” 65 67 - 8 268 - 73 ). Although (

,

,

things are not better

:

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau

51

than one could wish, they might well be worse. Although he has not followed the visionary and socially dislocating schemes of humanitarian philosophers, the Prince at least has kept society together. In

sum, he has “held the balance straight” (473) by meeting the people’s immediate needs. here that the Prince begins to defend himself against the charge of expediency. His justification for his unwillingness or his It is

inability to

was

reform social

he did what, at the time,

evils is that

what he does not allow

possible to do. \et

or,

it

perhaps, even

comprehend is that the feebleness of his actions stemmed, in large part, from his incapacity to decide what he should be undertaking. The longer he talks the more we see in him an uneasy combination of good and ill, of democratic sympathies and imperial designs.

In

many

cases there can be

no doubt that he wants to do the right thing; yet it is difficult for him to act in accordance with his nobler aspirations because he “found earth was not air” (903) while IMind might advance in one direction, “Body bows To / quite another government” ( 1 106—7 ) Every time he wants to fol.

low

his

nobler impulses he

feels

forced by immediate practical ne-

cessity to take

a different course. In short, Hohenstiel-Schwangau

argues

his

that

ideals

have

had

to

yield

to

realities

descendental always triumphing over the transcendental.

he dimly

realizes, in

meet

different,

later)

He lives,

a complex social order that makes the deci-

sive action of, say, the old shall

—the

Pope

in

“Ivan Ivanovitch”

(whom we

psychologically impossible. If the world were

he would act

differently.

But imperfect nature

is

ever a

bar to the realization of noble hopes. Hence he must discourage a Comte, a Fourier, a Proudhon® who would give his people only Auguste Comte, the positivist philosopher, was deprived of his professorship at the Ecole Polytechnique when Louis Napoleon was made Emperor. Francois Charles Fourier, the socialistic philosopher, advocated 8.

communal

He

died in 1837 before Louis Napoleon came to power, but his social schemes were much discussed in Louis Napoleon’s day. living.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon,

who

advocated the abolition of private property, was twice condemned to prison by Louis Napoleon.

:

.

Browning’s Later Poetry

52

dreams instead of the bread they need

beautiful

to feed their

hungry stomachs

Mankind I,

i’

main have and power

the

being of will

Mankind, must help the But the truth

little

wants, not large;

to help,

least

the main.

i’

wants

first.

[1057-9]

nor destroyer” (299), the Prince has revealed himself akin to Milton’s Belial, content with eking out a

is

that, neither “creator

little life

from dried

tubers. Better to be, he seems to

no matter what the condition, than cease to be. Although he is sarcastic about the Thiers-Hugo version of

claim,

life

which occupies more than a third of the poem,

tory

a perfect analogue of the Prince’s

is

his

this heroic his-

self- justification in

the

preceding twelve hundred lines and of his whole existence as well.

The

vacillation

between high

ideals

made him impotent

ticality

has

possess

abundant energy, he has

to

and the demands of pracact. Although he claims to

led a life of constant frustration

because, torn by the conflicting claims of his nature, he has not

known how What we

to channel that energy in a proper direction.

have, then,

is

an indecisive ruler whose only claim

decent rule has been “sustainment”

and

his time,

—and

this,

to

given his nature

because he could not do otherwise.

Of

course, like

Fourier he has had his visions, but they have always met with revisions.

shadow to

be

Between the conception and the creation there

of indecisiveness.

his last great

Thus

moment

the monologue ends with

of indecision

—and,

fell

the

what

is

incidentally, the

great irony of the poem. Should he forswear the imperialistic idea

or not? “Double or quits!

The

letter goes!

Or stays?”^

For whatever he did or did not do, however, Hohenstiel-

Schwangau

refuses to

be held accountable.

He

has acted only in

accordance with the “law” enjoined upon him. titious listener that in

He

order to reveal himself he must

tells his fic-

make

plain

was Browning’s view that the decision to commence the war with Pnissia was made by the Emperor’s wife, not by the man himself: Napoleon “engaged in this awful war because his wife plagued him” {Dearest 9.

It

Isa, p. 371

)

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau

“the law by which

I

by which a man’s

life

lived” (26). This

any point

:

he

can be understood,

one’s existence can be connected to

is,

:

says, the only

how

“Rays from

all

53

means

the “facts” of

round converge

all

Study the point then ere you track the rays”

/

(65-6).

His “law” has been to act independently in the service of



that

to

is,

God

do God’s bidding. Other men, of course, may have

God imposed a duty upon him and he has tried to discharge it in every way possible, even if at times the commission seemed contrary to what his own better nature urged: “Such is the reason why I acquiesced / In doing what seemed best for me to do” (231-2). He did, therefore, not only “another law”

(

171

).

what “head and heart

/ Prescribed

my hand”

“every sort of helpful circumstance, / some nondescript” (235-40). In short,

and

what he

is

was “to

rule

to

men

but also used

Some problematic and it

was

his

“law” to be

do what he has done (246-50). His “mission”

—men within my reach” and

to “order, influ-

ence and dispose them so / As render solid and stabilify / Mankind in particles” (277-81)'. If he is pleased to act in a certain

way,

it is

rules

men

Hence

The

because he takes pleasure in doing God’s will “for their good

all is

excused by

this

and

my

“law” divinely mandated.

circularity of his views

and

God”

is

thus he

pleasure in the act” (282).

is

exemplified throughout the

by the Prince’s frequent appeals to law for self

;

justification of

poem him-

of the status quo. Just as his “particular faculty of serving to

“make

the best of the old, nor try for

new” (268-73),

work with God. God had a plan in making things as they are, and “my task was to co-operate / Rather than play the rival, chop and change / The order whence comes all the good we know” (620-22). Further, only in

so to conserve the present order



is

to



prove his devotion to

same society I save” can a man God; and for that reason Hohenstiel-

Schwangau has rapped

the tampering knuckles of the idealistic

an imperfect world

“this

reformers for twenty years to prevent society in

which

pity,

them from

setting

up a

courage, and hope could not be experi-

54

Browning’s Later Poetry

enced. Yes, “Such

was

the task imposed me, such

my

end” (639-

48).

would be tedious

It

speaker

to point out all the instances in

and too obvious

himself by appeal to law

justifies

amine the contradictions

which the

of his various appeals. It

is

to ex-

sufficient

simply to say that the word “law” occurs with greater frequency in Prince

Hohenstiel-Schwangau than

poems, as a glance

at the

any other of Browning’s

in

Broughton and

Concordance

Stelter

In each case the “law” of which the Prince speaks

will indicate.

what he feels God has enjoined upon him. To ask how he knows what God wishes for him is to ask a queshis interpretation of

is

tion that the Prince himself does not pose.

Such

rationalization for his lack of deeds

conscious

This

level.

is

not to say that his design

to state that in excusing himself for inaction

he

On

doing.

is

a

carried on at the

is

less

is

he

is

is

aware of what

conscious plane Hohenstiel-Schwangau

reveals another aspect of his nature which, even

the speaker,

to deceive, only

if

understood by

never openly expressed. In this connection

why

structive to inquire

it is

in-

he chooses such an imaginary auditor for

Mrs. Sutherland Orr suggests that “his choice of a

his revelation.

confidante suits the nature of what he has to

tell,

circumstances in which he

he has lived from

hand

to

mouth. So

161-2). But

analogue for streets. little

tells it. Politically,

in a different

way has she” {Handbook,

that his choice of listener reflects

it is

Prince

is

lines,

where the “bud-mouth”

who

lurks

“under a pork-pie hat and

pounce on Sphinx

and

prime.”

likes

We

We

by nature a voluptuary.

opening

gray,

imaginary lady of the

his political prostitution in the

more than a

about himself.

The pus

pp.

not that Hohenstiel-Schwangau finds a fitting

it is

Rather

as well as the

in Leicester

my

nose, /

is

crinoline, /

thinks a

have further intimations

as,

in the

fancied to be an Oedi-

Square” and

And

have hints

And,

lateish,

who “finds me hardly man of sixty at the

throughout, he dwells on

the delights of cigar-smoking, and, at the close of the monologue

spoken in

his

“this final (

1215-16).

own

pufT

And

.

(rather than imagined) voice, .

.

/

finally

To

die

up yonder

in

when he

sends

the ceiling-rose”

our suspicions tend to be confirmed when

Prince

we

are told that the speaker

tute but

daydreaming

is

is

H ohensliel-Schwan gau

not in a

London

in the Residency

:

55

cafe with a prosti-

“Alone,

—no such con-

would be a mistake to label the the sensual and specifically sexual

genial intercourse!” (2145). It

poem an

erotic reverie, yet

elements should not be overlooked. as

homme

sensuel, instead of

man

They

all

point to the Prince

of action as he initially thinks

himself.

the monologue the speaker reveals himself to his imaginary listener, Lais, (and to the reader) a different kind of

Through

man from

that

to

believes himself presenting.

She and we

an indecisive voluptuary. But what does he reveal himself? At the start he promised “revealment of myself” (22) Lais and, by implication, to himself. Does he achieve his goal?

learn that he to

which he

is

Does he learn anything at all? What Hohenstiel-Schwangau learns

is

what the poet himself

no matter how truthful one wishes to be whether he speak from his own point of view or whether he attempt to gain another perspective on himself one ultimately is forced to lie. No matter how objective one tries to be, all ratio-

learns: namely, that



cination to

say

but rationalization: “Yes, forced to speak, one stoops what it peradventure should have one’s aim / Was

is





been” (2113-14). In the “ghostly dialogue” (2092) that takes place within the self without verbal language there is no need to claims justify or defend one’s self and one’s motives, because all myself / are put “to insignificance / Beside one intimatest fact express one’s first to be considered” (2101-3). But try to

Am

aims in words, the result tives,

that did well

is

Somehow the modarkness, when you bring

special pleading:

enough

/

F

the



Are found, like those famed cave-fish, to lack eye / And organ for the upper magnitudes” (2106-9) The result monologue, that “one is, as the speaker discovers at the end of this truth, / Truth lies oneself / Even in the stating that one’s end was only, if one states as much in words” (2123-5). Yet “words have

them

into light /

.

come” language is man’s only means for dealing with the world, even though “words deflect / As the best cannon ever rifled will”

to

;

Browning said of Napoleon III that “when the mask fell found a lazy and worn-out voluptuary [Dearest Isa, p. 356). 10.

.

.

.

we

Browning’s Later Poetry

56

(2133-4). The only truthful statement about oneself that one can make in words is that language is inadequate for apprehension of the

self.

“Revealment of myself”? Impossible,

if

one aims

what one is and does. If the revelation comes, it will be only by indirection, by clues that one had no notion of. The disappointment the Prince expresses was doubtless shared by his creator. In his quest for greater objectivity Browning had

to

tell

sought to overcome the most serious limitation of the dramatic

monologue by combining the mode with interior dialogue. But the result was the same the exercise of the dialogue ended in special pleading, with the speaker rationalizing his motives and actions :

same way as in the monologue in propria persona. No wonder then that Browning’s enthusiasm for the poem flagged

in the

with

its

completion. Prince Holienstiel-Schwangau proved once

again that the dramatic monologue was at best a very partial

means by which to explore the world. It would require a good many more years of experimentation before the poet arrived at the two-level vision of the Parleyings.

But though Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau did not prove to be

Browning presumably had hoped, it nevertheless paints a picture of a man who, for the most part knowing and wanting to do right, failed to act in accordance with the formal breakthrough that

his noblest aspirations. In his portrait of the character

Napoleon

III,

Browning showed

it

modeled on

to be in the nature of things

for one’s best intentions frequently to

be frustrated. Hopes are

must take place on ground. “Once pedestalled on earth,” the Prince, like King Admetos, learns, “I found earth was not air” (902-3).^^ Whatever his situation, a born

11.

in air; their realization

The

tos too

Prince here echoes a. passage in Balaustion^s Adventure.

would be the heroic redeemer

The worth

On

of

whose

life, life’s

of his people:

having learned worth would he bestow

was cast, to live or die, As he determined for the multitude. So stands a statue: pedestalled sublime. Only that it may wave the thunder off. And ward, from winds that vex, a world below. all

Adme-

lot

[2455-6 li

But he learns that when “pedestalled on earth” instead of being “pedestalled sublime” he could not work his will.

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau

man

is



all,

of

always at the mercy of the world, the in short, that constitutes

phenomenal

devil,

57

and the

reality.

flesh

Remember-

Browning could create a verbal portrait of a complex man whom he did not admire but of whom he could charitably say when the picture was finished “I think in the main, he meant ing

this.

:

to

do what

I say,

parent in these I

and, but for the weakness,

last

years than formerly,

—would have done what

say he did not” {Dearest Isa, p. 371).

“casuistries,”

—grown more ap-

The

“inconsistencies,”

and “tangled arguments” are due then not

to the

poet’s lack of control of his material but to the character of the

speaker and ultimately, perhaps, to Browning’s conception of

human Most it

nature during his later years. critics

have been unsympathetic toward the poem, finding

intolerably long-winded

and

made

clear that the Prince has

Park

Honan

regards

feeling cheated

when

it is

been speaking to himself

all

finally

along.

as lacking “in that concentration that

it

seems to be the genius and the condition of the effective dramatic

monologue.”

Roma King

objects that the “action

is

subjective,

abstract rather than concrete, intellectual rather than emotional,

speculative rather than dramatic.”^^ Yet the diffuseness of action are just to the point.

character

who was

all talk,

Browning wanted

and lack

to present a

one who, in Honan’s words,

is

“the

mechanical chief of a large and complicated machine.”^^ Hohenstiel-Schwangau speaks in bureaucratic jargon; he cannot

even

when he

refers to his

a personality the Prince asked, / Since certainly

a good picture of a

I

humanistic

is

a cipher:

am

ideals, in



a

talk,

human way. As

‘Who’s who?’ was aptly

not I!” (2078-9). Browning drew

man whose

character was defective because

it

Honan, Browning’s Characters, p. 239; King, The Focusing Artifice, p. 169. G. K. Chesterton appears to be a minority of one in praising it as “one of the finest and most picturesque of all Browning’s apologetic monologues” [Robert Browning [New York: Macmillan, 1903], p. 121). A good discussion of the topical nature of the poem and of the demands it makes on the reader for necessary historical knowledge may be found in Philip Drew, The Poetry of Browning, pp. 291-303. 13. Browning’s Characters, p. 238; see pp. 237-40 for an analysis of the 12.

diction of the

poem.

58

Browning’s Later Poetry

had no poetry, satire

center. Perhaps, as the poet admitted, there if

by such we mean beauty of

(Hood,

verse, in this sort of political

Letters, p. 151 ), but there

sentation of character.

can be no

can be an excellent pre-



Fifinc at the Fair

3

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau ends with the speaker not only

wondering how truth can be grasped but also and more immediately how even the self can be realized as a defined entity: !”



‘Who’s who?’ was aptly asked, / Since certainly I am not I (2078-9)'. How, in other words, can one know anything, oneself included? This epistemological problem intrigued Browning so he

more fully. With amazing energy and prodigious speed he took up his pen and began another poem immediately upon publication of Hohenstiel-Schwangau, 2,355 writing half of it in less than a month and finally finishing it rhymed alexandrines, with Prologue and Epilogue of 108 lines could not

rest until

he examined

it



about

five

months

later,

the poem, he wrote to Isa Blagden, ""grow-

{Dearest Isa, p. 376). Hohenstiel-Schwangau had deluded himself that he lived by a “law,” only to find

ing under

me”

end that this “law” was ever changing, dependent on various times and settings as well as different moods. He came to recognize that without a law he was free but that freedom meant in the

finally perceived,

little;

he

could

come only within

dimly to be sure, that true liberty

the context of an unvarying law. But

what might this law be? And where was it to be found? This was the problem Browning wished to explore in writing Fifine at the Fair and, in dealing with

why men with good

it,

also to consider again the question of

intentions

fail

to live

up

to their highest

potentialities.

The form Browning

chose for his endeavor was again the

monolgue, but one almost

totally

different

from anything

at-

60

Browning’s Later Poetry

tempted previously.

I

perspectives in time

can describe

and space

nearly because lighter, Bunuel’s

but the story hardly matters.

crowd the various portant.

What

is

it

only as cinematic,

dreamy

films. It is

The landscape and

The

significant

progression

something

else

which we are

shifting

or,

is

the people in

it

unim-

the internal action, the plunge into

is

if

anything,

is

there au

not logical; everything seems to fade into

by chance suggestion.

carried,

more

a narrative,

scenes, yet they too are comparatively

the depths of personality to discover what,

fond.

Bergman’s

recalling

its

and only with

low the kaleidoscopic movement

It is

an unreal world into

greatest difficulty

do we

fol-

which nothing appears subthe poet told Miss Blagden. And it in

The poem grows, as ends only when the speaker has completed “this experiment / Of proving that we ourselves are true!” (Lxxxn). Fifine is, I believe, a poem Baudelaire would have admired enormously.

stantial.

.

.

.

Since Browning it is

is,

as

it

were, working out a problem in Fifine,

appropriate to consider the genesis of the poem. Critics have

long suspected a relationship between Fifine at the Fair and

its

author’s biography. Mrs. Sutherland Orr, for example, speculated that

“some leaven

of bitterness”

must have been working within

when he wrote the poem. It is probably true that, as W. O. Raymond theorizes, Fifine stems, at least in part, from the guilt aroused by Browning’s proposal of marriage to Lady Ash-

the poet

burton and her subsequent

refusal. It is

probably also true that, as

poem owes something to the author’s repressed sex drive.^ Quite possibly, the poem should be regarded in an even wider biographical context. The problem of Barbara Melchiori

states,

the

conjugal inconstancy was a cause for the poet’s revulsion not only toward himself but also toward the two most influential in his

men

life.

The

first

was

more than a year after his Robert Browning, senior, was looking to an-

his father.

beloved wife died,

Only a

little

Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, rev. by Frederick G. Kenyon (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908), p. 282; hereafter cited as Orr, Life. William O. Raymond, The Infinite Moment, pp. 10528; Barbara Melchiori, Browning's Poetry of Reticence, pp. 158-87. 1.

Fifine at the Fair

woman

other her.

and was,

The younger Browning

affair,

his

for consolation

proposing to marry

The second

early youth

both as

man and

new love memory of

considered his father’s

which was soon terminated, an affront

mother.

From

in fact,

61

to the

instance concerned Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Browning had admired the great Romantic poet almost to the point of idolatry.

When,

he learned in 1851 that Shelley had deserted his wife and child without providing for them, and had fled with another woman, the revelation came as a great shock. Here in the two men he honored most he discoverd only fickleness where he had

therefore,

expected to find

fidelity.

If

such

is

the case

among

the best of

men, what couldn’t one suspect of ordinary males? Is a composed that he is always at the mercy of the flesh? Is faithfulness to one woman only a dream and a mockery? In

“Any Wife

to

Any Husband,”

man

so

lifelong

written apparently soon after

about Shelley and his father. Browning turned his attention to the subject. The dying wife, who is the speaker, knows that, while her husband will prove true to her in spirit, he

his discoveries

not remain so in body. She anticipates the arguments he will make to justify his actions, and she sees them all as mere rationwill

alizations of weakness. In

its

analysis of the

man s

attitude the

poem was prophetic of Browning s affair with Lady Ashburton. What had happened to the father also happened to the son. In maran ill-considered moment Browning the widower proposed previously he riage to another woman. His action proved what the had suspected: man is indeed lacking in constancy, is indeed his beautiful spirit, slave of flesh. Although he prides himself on man is nevertheless always at the mercy of the senses. Fair, not unreasonable, then, to suppose that Fifine at the departure, is a poem whose central theme or, rather, point of owes its setting marital constancy, had a biographical genesis. It in the 1860’s after the death to Browning’s three visits to Brittany It

is

of his wife.

main monologue, and work if we do not Epilogue. We cannot thoroughly appreciate the critics have found the Prologue see its^ unity. While a number of Fifine consists of three parts: Prologue,

62

Browning’s Later Poetry

charming, none has explained

poem. At the

risk of

relationship to the rest of the

its

being tedious,

let

us consider the identity of

the speaker in the introduction. Although

him

as “the poet,”^

by which they seem

to

many critics refer to mean Browning, there

no warrant for doing so. He refers to himself only in the first person, and if indeed Elizabeth Barrett Browning is, as some commentators suggest (e.g. DeVane, Handbook, p. 369), is

absolutely

the “certain soul / Which early slipped its sheath” alluded to in lines 33^, the speaker does not call her so by name. Whether the

speaker of the Prologue

monologue



this

is

is

the

same

as the speaker of the

main

another question and one which will at pres-

ent be deferred.

Because biography has so frequently interfered with interpretation of the text, let us, again risking tediousness, quickly para-

phrase the Prologue (“Amphibian”) ently the

when a

amphibian of the

butterfly passes

each seems to foreign to the

title,

is

.

The

speaker,

who

appar-

is

floating far out in the

between him and the sun. Each

is

bay

alone,

own the element in which it is buoyed, and each is medium of the other. Thinking on the impossibility

of their exchanging supporting elements, the speaker

whether the butterfly can creature pretend that he rejoices that the air

is

“feel the better”

wonders

watching a

human

not a land creature, for he certainly

“comports so well” with the

insect

which once

had choice of land. This speculation leads him further to wonder whether “a certain soul,” having slipped its earthly sheath and

now

dwelling in heaven, does, like the butterfly, look

“one” (evidently the speaker)

who

still

lives

down on

on earth and has no

desire to slip his sheath.

Nevertheless, worldling though he be, there are times

world

is

too

much

with him, and

when

to escape

from

when it,

the

into a

sphere overbrimming with passion and thought, he leaves the land for the sea: “Unable to

when he

is

fly,

one swims!” In these moments

borne up by passion and thought, he smugly says that

creatures of the air fare scarcely better than those of the sea. 2.

See, for example, Charlotte C. Watkins,

Browning’s Fifine at the

Fair,''

PMLA,

“The

‘Abstruser Themes’ of

74 (1959), 426-37.

63

Fifine at the Fair

“Emancipate through passion / And thought,” the swimmer substitutes poetry for heaven and in this ecstasy the swimmer seems like the “spirit-sort” who live in air, imagining what they know ;

and dreaming what they do. Meanwhile, if one tires of

retreat into a quasi-heavenly sphere,

Indeed after a long swim it is always pleasant to return to “land the solid and safe” a mortal can bear just so much of heaven. Truly amphibian, indeed belonging (by

there

is

always land in

sight.

:

nature and desire) far more to land than to the ersatz heaven, the “I” wonders whether the soul previously alluded to looks at, pities,

and wonders

This

much

at

him who mimics

flight.

of the Prologue seems perfectly clear.

caveat to bear in

mind

is

as he frequently does, in

that its

Browning

widest sense,

uses the

The

only

word “poetry,”

more or

less as

Shelley

A Defense of Poetry to mean “the expression of the imadnation.” To understand it in its more limited meaning will

employs

it

in

perhaps mislead

us.

The obscure part of the Prologue is the opening two lines: “The fancy I had to-day,'/ Fancy which turned a fear!” The crux lies in the word “turned”: does it mean “turned into” or “turned away”? Browning probably uses it ambiguously. The the musing on the relationship between the swimmer “fancy”



and the

butterfly

—turned

into

a “fear” because

it

led

him

to

wonder whether the beloved soul in heaven looks with sympathy on his worldly life, on one who finds the sensible world more congenial than the spiritual.

The “fancy”

cause, as w'e shall see,

led to the

answer

it

turned away a “fear” be-

main monologue and

to the

in the final lines of the Epilogue.

The body of the poem is an attempt to deal with the nature of an “amphibian”— with one who belongs to phenomenal reality but who, capable of emancipation from the physical through exercise of the imagination, also

can partake, partially

at

any

rate,

In working out the implications of the Prologue, the main monologue renders a poetic statement about midthe nature of man. It shows him placed on the isthmus of a

of the spiritual realm.

dle state, seeing that his

home

is

earth but also perceiving that

64

Browning’s Later Poetry

his true

man

home

is

elsewhere, his real values different;

and

depicts

it

held in tension by a polarity of opposing thrusts, one tran-

upward toward

and one descendental or downward toward the palpable. Thus the monologue is structured on an interplay between the desire for change and lawlessness on the one hand and the wish for constancy and law on the scendental or

the infinite

other.

To

probe the amphibian nature most thoroughly. Browning

elected to explore the

whole contradictory makeup of

examining him as a creature capable of

amphibian ever

striving with a

love.

He would show

hungry heart to reach the

but always falling back into the merely sensible. tray

him assuming

man by

the stance of metaphysician

infinite

He would

and

his

idealist

por-

on the

subject of love but, in spite of his aspirations, constantly pre-

vented by his biological nature from reaching the state that he he should attain. Ultimately, his concern would

feels, in his heart,

same as that which preoccupied Tennyson in Idylls of the King, where man is shown properly bound “by such vows as is a shame / A man should not be bound by, yet the which / No man can keep” (“Gareth and Lynette”). But who was to be the speaker? There is no record of when Browning read Moliere’s Don Juan, a quotation from which be

essentially the

serves as

motto to

learn that he seventies. If

describes

maniere vrai It

would not be

was perusing the play

such speculation

stages of Fifine,

viously a

Fifine. It

is

surprising, however, to

in the late sixties

and

early

correct, then during the germinal

Browning was reading about a hero who was ob-

man after his own heart. This is the way his servant Don Juan in the play: “Vous toumez les choses d’une qu’il

semble que vous avez raison,

que vous ne

I’avez pas”

was doubtless

to talk, to

make

et

cependant

il

est

(i. ii).

this aspect of Moliere’s

—the versa —

Don Juan

the false appear true and vice

ability

that in-

Browning in molding his conception of his speaker and caused him to prefix a quotation from Don Juan to his poem. It was certainly not the libertine of legend that appealed to the poet trigued

as appropriate speaker for his monologue.

As W. H. Auden

de-

65

Fifine at the Fair

scribes the figure,

“Don Juan

of the

nature but by will; seduction trace of affection will turn a

myth

not promiscuous by

his vocation.

is

number on

his

Since the slightest

list

of victims into a

his choice of vocation requires the absolute renunciation of

name,

love. It

is

an

essential

element in the legend, therefore, that

be, not a sinner out of weakness,

Juan

is

Quite obviously. Browning’s hero

is

Don

but a defiant atheist.”^

not of this stamp.

There were also other appealing possibilities that the figure of Don Juan must have presented to Browning’s imagination. By

Don Juan

using

as his speaker he could in effect suggest that

man. Moreover, Browning could show, as it were, that just as the “Byron de nos jours” is not the Romantic Byron (“Dis Aliter Visum”), so the Victorian Don Juan is not the Don of legend: the great seducer would become a husband merely talking about seduction. Finally, by naming his there

is

something of the

Don

in every

Juan, Browning, with his predilection for undercutting his speakers’ arguments, could intimate that while in the beginning of the monologue the speaker had few, if any, simiprotagonist

larities

Don

with the

Don

of popular tradition, in the

prove to be a voluptuary after

The

all.

possibilities

end he would for irony were

practically unending.^

begins with the speaker inviting his wife to the fair of St. Gilles. It is a holiday, and the narrator adopts

The monologue visit

the

mood

of the day:

“O

trip

and

skip, Elvire!

Link arm in arm

(italics added). with me! /Like husband and like wife As we shall see, it is metaphorically the beginning of a quest in .

.

which the seeker explores various aspects and meanings of

life.

It

must be noted that the poem begins with a consideration of the fair,

fair as 3.

The speaker is concerned primarily with the which we soon see is made emblematic of life, and

not with Fifine.

a whole,

The Dye/s Hand and Other

Essays (London:

Faber and Faber,

1962), p. 392.

nameBecause there is only one speaker, the narrator is necessarily his name is Don Juan the epigraph, less. But there is strong evidence that reply, is from Moliere’s Don Juan to which the monologue is apparently a quotes his addressed to Don Juan; his wife is named Elvire; he 4.

:^

and

is

friends addressing

him

as

“Don

(e.g.

xxxv).

Browning’s Later Poetry

66

he expounds on

appearance and meaning before he mentions

Although he speaks of her

Fifine. is

its

in passing in section

not specifically considered until section xv,

when

iii,

Fifine

the narrator

makes clear that he is merely using her as the ground of his argument: “This way, this way, Fifine! / Flere’s she, shall make my thoughts be surer what they mean I” Regarded in this way, Fifine is

an object of seductive charm than a representation of a

less

particular trend of thought sue.

Mainly, she

Like so

an excuse for the speaker to

is

many

which the monologist wishes

speaking

many

—which

away from

is

Don Juan

is

In

a dialogue of the mind with self-analysis,

want

Fifine, realizing as

his utterance

an attempt to explain himself

formulate, once and for

all,

all,

cannot understand why, as a

effect, therefore,

itself:

is

her not only to his wife

inferior to Elvire, that she indeed

fizgig called Fifine” (xxxiii).

at

But deception of Elvire

his desire for

of reason, he should actually is

far easier to

attracted to the gipsy girl at

Don Juan

but to himself as well.

does that she

strategic pur-

would have been

his desire for Fifine.

he speaks in order to defend

and

it

no good by

on some simple pretext than to explain

not his purpose: insofar as he

man

no

to say, their utterance serves

Elvire

such great length

Don Juan speaks As Robert Langbaum

of Browning’s monologists achieve

pose.^ In the case of steal

talk.

of Browning’s characters,

chiefly because he likes to hear himself talk.

has shown,

to pur-

is

he

only “this

the argument is

is

both apology

to himself

and

to

the “law” which he would like to

live by.

Critics speak of Juan’s sophistry.®

deception there

little

that

monologue. Because he has so

little

plies

is

ment, the Don, caught up in his

most of what he 5.

The Poetry

says.

But insofar

is

as sophistry im-

sophistical in

Don

Juan’s

design on his wife in his argu-

own

rhetoric, probably believes

Throughout the

entire

poem

Elvire never

of Experience, pp. 182-209,

For example, John T. Nettleship, Robert Browning, 2nd ed. (London: E. Matthews, 1890), pp. 221-67, paraphrases Fifine and indicates which sections are truthful and which sophistical. See al.so DeVane, Hand6.

book,

p.

368.

— 67

Fifine at the Fair utters a

To

word.

be sure, the husband puts words into her

mouth, but she remains present. It

may

early slipped

its

silent. It

may

be that Elvire

is

not even

the “certain soul / Which sheath,” alluded to in the Prologue. Particularly

even be that Elvire

in the closing sections the

Don

is

seems to conceive of Elvire as a

mere “ghost” or “phantom” “Suppose you are a ghost !” he says, “A memory, a hope, / A fear, a conscience” (cxxx). “Be but flesh and blood,” he invokes more than once (cxxxi), only, in the lajst section, to admonish her to “slip from flesh and blood, and play the ghost again” if he does not soon return from his meeting :

(either real or fancied) with Fifine.

Don Juan, so little conscious human being, cannot be said

The

point to be

from a

is

to speak in order to impress her it

eventuates that his

argument none the

sophistical, that

that

is

of his wife as a flesh-and-blood

with the validity of his line of reasoning. If

argument

made

less

does not issue

desire to deceive.

For the speaker the two

women who

are ostensibly the subject

mere ghosts and phantoms as he calls them. On his quest Don Juan becomes unmindful of his immediate world. What is more important to him of his

musings become almost allegorical

figures,

than either lady, what in fact preoccupies him throughout the

poem

is

the subject of change in a world characterized by illusion.

as Mrs. Melchiori says, the

If,

not so

much

imagery

is

metaphysical

used

it is

problem of sexual relationships as to

to discuss the

illuminate the great problem of constancy its

largely sexual,

and commitment

in all

aspects.’^

In the milieu of the

fair,

nothing

is

stable

and nothing

is

as

it

metamorphosed from the grub, the fair being from unlikely elements; what was raw and

seems. Like a butterfly

come into brown has been transformed into a make-believe world inhabited by mountebanks and deceivers of all types. It is an unreal entity has

7.

The imagery

of

Fifine

is

extraordinarily variegated.

Because the

speaker continually seeks for the proper imagery to embody his thoughts “Thought hankers after speech” (xc) and because his thoughts are protean, the imageiy' is also protean. In my opinion Mrs. Watkins misrepre-



she ascribes fixed meanings to the various images (“The ‘.\bstruser Themes,’ ” p. 426).

sents the

poem when

68

Browning’s I.ater Poetry

obviously nent. It

is

made

only for the

moment but

yet apparently

perma-

an enchanted creation containing structures that seem

more Fully aware

to belong

to air than to earth.

of the unreality of all elements of the fair,

Juan nevertheless soon yields up when he sees above the

to

its

Don

enchantments. His heart leaps

airy structure the flapping

pennon

seemingly struggling to be free (v), and he yearns also to be

free,

not only of his marital bonds but also of the world’s annoy.

Passionate stretch,

To

share the

life

fires

Whose

up

for lawlessness, lays claim

they

whereof myself

am

losels,

will,

swam

who have and

—applaud

use

them or abuse

at the beck.

and stoop

call obey,

Just as the amphibian

and

heart makes just the same

they lead:

The hour what way Society,

My

to

burden

stiffest

neck!

[vi]

out to sea to escape worldly noise

dust, so does the monologist trippingly

and skippingly soar

into metaphysical speculation to forget his earthly cares.

Don Juan

wishes to

become hke the

losels of

the fair because

he envies their freedom, their unwillingness to be bound. Uncon-

and its usages, they do not engage in social pretense: they are what they appear to be. Creators of illusion, they do not claim that what they fabricate is real. What makes these people, whose only “law” is “lawlessness” (xiii), so appealing is their absolute truthfulness. Yet despite their disdain of organized society, these truants must nevertheless enter into it from strained by society

time to time in order to earn a livelihood, just as a bird has

“made

our place / Pay tax and toll, then borne the booty to enrich / Her paradise i’ the waste” (ix). Voluntary exiles from society, they still must depend in part upon the world of

men

furtively

for their existence.

In this manner the speaker leads into the theme adumbrated in the Prologue.

Juan

is

aware of the contradictory

forces in his

nature: seeking escape into lawlessness, he simultaneously com-

prehends the necessity of law; cognizant of the ties

of the soul, he

still

realizes

tion. Nevertheless, there

it

to be limited

come times when

infinite potentiali-

by

its finite

situa-

the wish for freedom

69

Fifine at the Fair

Juan him so

of soul predominates over rationality.

fancy, to relax the

bonds restraining

yearns, at least in

new

as to seek

ex-

periences.

With

in his consideration of “lawless-

xv Don Juan,

begins to focus on Fifine,

ness,”

law

section

/And

made

self-sustainment

who

loveliness for

has only

morality” (xvi). Judged im-

code. moral by the world, she none the less has an inner moral “LoveYet he no sooner praises her than he withdraws his praise. a device of “fancyliness” is not “law” enough. Hence, by using

and mere

stuff

/ Illusion,”

proper conclusions

by manipulating

—judgment

of

he arrives at

illusion,

those the false, by you

moves forward

the true” (xxvi). In like fashion he

by manipulating words. Joining speculations on appearance and

and me

in self-articu-

lation

reality

with his central

legend about concern of constancy, the speaker in xxvii recalls a sending Helen, according to which Helen never left home, Jove her fatal to Troy to test which men would yield to

phantom other words, would beauty and which would spurn her; which, in just a “make half the world sublime, / And half absurd, for wife and phantom all the time.” Thus, by using the phantom phantom mistress, Juan is able to evaluate his situation. only an illusion, a In fact, says Don Juan, the body itself is her

faulty sheath for the soul. this

world

pity

is

exist independently, they

that since souls cannot in

must be housed

in

unsub-

more than they reveal. The perminds, / person, however, can see that bodies show

stantial bodies,

ceptive

The

which hide

far

.

grace That, through the outward sign, the inward sparks

from

heaven

transpierce

earth’s

.

.

allures, /

coarsest

And

covertures’

Each creature has its own excellence, could men apprehend the truth perceive it. Only he of “quick sense” can

but

(xxviii).

the creature (xxix) glass

just as

it

requires the sun to strike a piece of

:

on a dunghill to show that

monds (xxx),

of

glass shines as bright as dia-

so only the quick sense of

Don Juan can

perceive

Fifine in pretty much the seems that Don Juan uses Elvire and the Head Servant and same way that Hohenstiel-Schwangau employs 8.

It

Sagacity.

70

Browning’s Later Poetry

the worth of Fifine. It

him: “So absolutely good

fascinates

The (

he claims, her utter truthfulness that

is,

whose worst crime

teller,

is

truth, truth never hurts /

somehow

gets

avowed”

grace,

XXXII ).

With

xxxv

section

the

Don

introduces the subject of art to ex-

emplify his desire for freedom and novelty and to explore further this desire’s relation to the

world of

illusions.

Occasionally pre-

Dore picture book, he momentarily forsakes his Raphael, though if a fire broke out he would of course rush, even

ferring to relish a

at risk of is

life,

human

to save the Raphael. In the

his prized artifact,

but created, as

were, by himself. She

it

his

“new-created shape, without or touch or

life

and worldliness and

sin”

much

taint, / Inviolate of

in herself as “in the sense /

me, the judge of Art.” Art

soul of

is

(xxxvm). The beauty and wonder

of this gracious lady reside not so

And

realm Elvire

is,

he goes on to

say, his

“evidence / That thing was, is, might be but no more thing itself, / Than flame is fuel” (xli). For ait touches and illuminates ;

the essence of things, that unique but elusive quality that

nomena Art

all

phe-

possess behind a veil of semblances.

is,

in effect, a

flesh there

is

kind of love. In every human, beneath the

a soul, more or

tempting to free and perfect

less

imprisoned by the body. At-

itself,

the soul seeks a complement,

“goes striving to combine / With what shall right the wrong, supplement unloveliness by love” (xlfv). Art likewise searches in .

the parts to find the whole. In other words, art lighten

and

Plato said

activate the soul of things.

it is:

the love of loving

So understood,

and rage

for

and feeling the absolute truth of things for any good it may bring the perceiver. Hence, tiful to

his

is

.

alike en-

art

is

what

knowing, seeing,

truth’s sake, not for

Elvire

is

her loving husband’s eyes than to the eyes of

hence, she

but

and love

.

more beauothers, and

not her husband’s Raphael, a perfect masterpiece,

Michelangelo, an incomplete work that he struggles to

perfect.

Like an

artist

the lover has only the covering of truth to

work

with: in a sense he must manipulate imperfectly formed matter.

He must

not allow himself to be limited by the tangible.

physical eye of both artist

and

lover sees

is

WTat

the

mere appearance, an

Fifine at the Fair

71

imperfect image half concealing and half revealing the soul within.

Each must be

free to pass

beyond exterior semblances and

hindrances to catch the quintessence of the object regarded. In to this manner Don Juan discerns the beauty of his wife, who ordinary eyes

is

only a “tall thin personage, with paled eyes,

pensive face.” “See yourself in

my

soul!” he admonishes (liii).

speaker moves from discussion of the body’s world to the realm of the soul. The seat and center of value, the

At

this point the

he had previously suggested, activates the physical world and informs it with meaning, matter being but “stuff for transmutine, null / And void until man’s breath evoke the beautiful” (lv). Each soul makes a world for itself from its encounters with

soul, as



matter, and consequently the material world

making.

When raw

matter

is

is

a vale of soul-

thus transformed by the soul, the

creation remains forever an achievement of soul, a permanent gain and advancement for it. Because the soul can create beauty

and truth from roughness, because

it

can remove

all

achievement

realm of the imagination where it will be protected from wrong, because it is arduous to perfect and help perfect, because, in sum, it can discern pattern in complete chaos because it can do these things, the soul redeems an imperfect world,

to the safe

although, to speak truly,

its

actualization can be only in the flesh.

sharing of the treasures gained by the soul is the meaning will mean of love; at least, says Don Juan, this is what “to love” power to hereafter, when the desire to share will have become the

The

share.

Love

will

come

in aid of truth, one’s grasp of truth being

an shared with the beloved. Regarded in this light, love marks for “eternal progress” toward truth, is characterized by the desire perfection. Disregarding his previous consideration of “law,”

Don

works / Juan formulates “love’s law” “Each soul lives, longs and itFor itself, by itself, because a lodestar lurks, / An other than “or it, or he, or she” or “God, man, self.” Whatever this soul be it is guessed at through the veil of or both together mixed” (lix). At flesh by parts which prove the whole, “Elvire, by me” :

— —

last

what he seems to have arrived at a satisfactory statement of

law

is.

But as before (xxxiii), Juan

is

unable to leave off at the point

72

Browning’s Later Poetry

where

his

argument

most compelling,

is

for

no matter how high

he soars in

his

he always returns to earth

or,

to use the

metaphor of the Prologue, the swimmer returns

to

metaphysical

flights

as soon as he reaches the pinnacle of loving praise for

land:

he reverts almost immediately to

Elvire,

begin to understand further the use Juan

They

ladies.

At this point we making of these two

Fifine. is

are representative of the opposing thrusts within

him and, by implication, every man the yearning for constancy (“law”) and spiritual perfection on the one hand, the need for change (“lawlessness”) and sensual satisfaction on the other. Juan is thoroughly cognizant of what he is doing. He fancies :

Elvire saying:

you get is

about soul

all this talk

to Fifine’s soul

is

deceptive, because before

you must penetrate her

flesh.

And

his reply

that he will further try to explain, although to do so he must

employ the unreliable medium of words the soul

is

forced to express

must consequently range far

itself

lv)

just as (in section

with inadequate material.

He

the flag flapping far and

afield, like

wide; he must again resort to metaphysics and “lawlessness.”

The evening landscape ceed

offers

an example of how one must pro-

one can divine what the landscape

:

though one cannot actually whole by examining the

see

it

—that

parts, or, to

put

is

one can guess at the

is,

it

like in certain places

another way, one

rise into

truth out of the falseness of things (lxiii)

To

means by

false,

explain what he the

Don

offers as

example

—that

is,

to

“law”;

if

.

rising into the true out of the

his

morning swim

swimmer breathes only by submitting water

may

in the bay.

A

to the limitations of the

he attempts to

rise

too far out of the

water, he nearly drowns: “Fruitless strife / To slip the sea and hold the heaven.” Comparably, the soul cannot live apart from the body; hence the break,

and

would

reside in

true,

spirit’s life is

where

it

betwixt “false, whence

it

would

would bide” (lxv). The human being

“an element too

soul inhale the air of truth

gross /

To

live in,”

above and thus capture

did not the

just

enough of

some day the obstructing medium will be transcended and the swimmer fly. At the moment of aspiration, when the soul would leave the body, just as the swim-

truth to give the illusion that

73

Fifine at the Fair

body ceases to support her and upward she begins to sink deeper into falsehood. Yet each soar and each resulting plunge beneath the water causes the soul more

mer would

rise into

the air, the

intensely to dislike the briny taste of falsehood.

And

yet our

the water, business with the sea / Is not with air, but just o watery” we must endure the false, hoping that “our head reach :

hands explore / The false below” (lxv). So he beMay bear to gins “to understand the law whereby each limb / Childe keep immersed” (lxvi). To howl at the sea, as Byrons truth, while

Harold

did,

childish indeed (lxvii)

is

.

Carlyle s In this magnificant passage in which Don Juan, like as Teufelsdrockh, closes his Byron, Browning again takes issue,^ metaphysics, he had in Sordello years earlier, with Romantic of which sought for the ideal untethered to the real. Few passages

Although he poetry deal so brilliantly with man’s dual nature. the water, yearns for the sky, man is of the earth, earthy or o

eatery”— and save accept

there

is

nothing he can do, or should do, about

it

it.

Don Juan

in argues that by using the false wisely the soul can

illusive close to the true; indeed, the sea’s waters,

fact

come

ter,

can be made nought by the

fire of

the soul. In such

mat-

manner

above, and in such does he seize Elvire the very fact by catching at Fifine. This can be demonstrated by on life s meaning, that consideration of Fifine has led to thinking does Juan

rise into the air

from the palpably real to the metaphysical. of Again the argument returns to the sexual level and its point convince departure— Fifine. Elvire and Fifine, says Don Juan, though all him of the reality of himself: “I am, anyhow, a truth, love gives a man a sense of else seem / And be not.” A woman’s flux of seeming, being, assists him to remain fixed amidst the the shows of things causes his soul to become disengaged from can do this, and so makes him believe his soul is a fact. If Fifine how much more can Elvire (lxxx). purpose? Or, But is not one woman, the wife, sufficient for the cannot one detranslate the question into metaphysical terms, to

vote oneself directly

and

exclusively to the

ideal— to the develop-

74

Browning’s Later Poetry

ment

of soul without consideration

of

the body? Life,

Juan

for this experi“Our life is lent ment / Of proving that we ourselves are true!” (lxxxh). Accordingly, on the sea of life we accept difficult courses to steer in order to test our seamanship; hence we occasionally journey in small boats in preference to large ships. And when aboard a feeble craft we arrive at our destination, we prove that life is not a

a series of

replies, is

tests:

.

dream in the

.

the “false” proves to be “true.” Suddenly, there

:

me

forced to try

the

phenomenal world)

Don

my

sailing,

seamanship

Juan,

fleeting. Life

even

is



am

Yes, says

“Earth

:

is

not

a

shift

one

lie,

this

continues,

if I

all

Don

true” (lxxxiii). Hence, the

use the ship Elvire there

but with the boat Fifine

in short to

I

prove myself (and

true.

we

live as if in

means learning

to

a dream where

all is false

abhor the exterior

The charm

to love the true essence.

falseness

of both the fair

and

that in frankly professing falsity they are so completely

is

“The means that

Elvire

becomes the danger on the voyage of

“true”

much

a

true:

as

is

Aware struser

is

Don’s use of words (and Browning’s real thought comes

truth attests

Fifine

.

.

into focus with unexpected force)

and and

.

.

histrionic truth

lie

is

in the natural lie”

as the “lie”

is

(lxxxv), which

Don

proved a philosophical disquisition.

morning which impelled him

The

the truth.

that discussion of marital fidelity has led

themes” (lxxxvii), the

life.

him

into “ab-

what has was a dream he had that

half apologizes for It

to speak at

such length, the kind of

was a dream about constancy and change and about appearance and reality. Being in a speculative frame of mind as a result of his noonday swim (spoken of in the Prologue), and thinking on the metamorphosis of the fair from grub to butterfly, and being overcome

waking dream that he

is

frequently subject

with fancies he could not articulate, he sat

mann’s Carnaval. As he played, the

fair

to.

It

down

expanded

to play Schuto the Carni-

and the Carnival into the world: “With music, the arts, change is there / The law” (xcn). In each musical theme caused him to realize that truth is

val at Venice

most of

all

this reverie

.

.

.

always the same, change coming in the seasoning or sauce, not truth but

its

expression being evanescent.

75

Fifine at the Fair

In sections xcv through cxxv,

mann,

also plays a variation

how men’s apprehension

Juan, while playing Schu-

his central

of truth

theme by

earthly institutions are transient,

“Truth builds upon the sands,

/

reflecting

on

Domes

of

always changing.

is

science, halls of philosophy

learning, seats of all

on

Don

all

Though



all rise

standards

and

fall;

relativistic:

stationed on a rock:

and

work decays, / And so she builds afresh, with like result” (cxiii) “Die Wahrheit immer wird, nie ist” it is the very nature reof existence that truth does not and cannot stand nakedly

so her

:

.

Throughout histoiy all mythologies have taught that they alone are true and permanent, yet each has yielded to other exof pressions of truth. Only at the end of time will the vesture

vealed.

truth

become permanent, only then

will

there be “the great

clearing-up” (lxxxvi).

From

his

dream Don Juan

much

also learns that

of a

man’s

determined by his angle of vision. He tower points out, for example, that when he descended from the overlooking St. Mark’s Square he discovered that what, from

apprehension of truth

is

be high up, had seemed defective in man was, on a lower level, to what men discerned as purposeful: he “attained / To truth by

... one

seemed, not said:

of noisy utterance” (c).

Was worth whole histories through Don Juan, makes a

glance /

Browning,

a commonplace: acting on his firmly grounded close descendentalism, he insists that it is not the distant but the perception— the thrust into the world, not out of it— that reveals

telling reversal of

purposefulness.

the This perception of the significance of point of view leads thrust in speaker to a further understanding of the descendental hard man’s nature. Because he finds that what from afar seems

and repellent

on

is

“one must abate

closer

view a

he apprehends that case, distinct from the

necessity,

One’s scorn of the soul’s Secondly, because he gains in

/

soul’s self” (cii).

human sympathy

importance of point of view, he learns ground / from his dream that “the proper goal for wisdom was the And not the sky” (cviii). Thirdly, he learns that the discovery

from

hrs discovery of the

that “there

was

greed and lust”

just / is

Enough and not

“the lesson of a

too

much

life” (cviii)

.

of hate, love,

Finally,

Don Juan

76

Browning’s Later Poetry

sums up the

lessons of his

world, “its Carnival

—the

dream

state of

long permanence” (cviii).

To

“bid a frank farewell to what as

in

which Venice became the

mankind, masquerade in

we must

understand the world

—we think—should

good a grace, welcome what

With the

(cix).

is”

be, /

life-

And, with

possible ex-

ception of the final lines of Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas on Peele Castle,” which

echoes, this passage

it

is

perhaps the most

succinct statement in English verse of the descendental principle.

Eventually, in his

dream the

diverse buildings of the square in

common

shape, multiformity yielding to

Venice blend into a unity.

Elvire

The new shape now stand. The

is

monument where Juan and and function of the monument are

the Druid

origin

unknown, and erudition

is

as helpless as folklore to explain either.

Tradition says that earth’s earliest inhabitants built this edifice to

remind men that earth was made by Somebody and did not make itself;

that, while earth

stays; that

man

he was meant

body tive

/

should

and

make

the most of

Become,” since he

life,

lives in

“live

most

is

what Some-

like

presence of this

Thus, even in folk tradition

(cxxiii).

manifest the intui-

awareness of the transcendental part of man.

At the same

time, the descendental thrust of his nature

evident. Consider, says

the grass.

Once

The Church,

it

Don

also

women danced

about

it.

in the person of the Cure, preached against the

show

longer valid. Yet, in spite of

enacted their

rites,

pagan meaning was no the Church taught, the people

that

all

its

until at last the

Church ordered that

Even to this day, however, the people member the stone and its significance, seeing in it

stone be leveled.

No

is

Juan, the great stone pillar lying in

stood upright, and the

phallic worship, tried to

still

people change, the Somebody

its

still

the re-

and frothy draught, but liquor on the lees, Strong, savage, and sincere first bleedings from a vine Whereof the product now do Cures so refine fresh

:

To insipidity, that, when heart sinks, we strive And strike from the old stone the old restorative. So

there, laid flat, the pillar rests, “bides / Its time to rise again”

(cxxiii).

No

matter

how much

a

man may

try to suppress his

.

77

Fifine at the Fair

biological

(and descendental) nature,

to exert

claims.

its

Returning to

his

dream,

always there waiting

it is

Don Juan

how

tells

the

monument

fact of aspects of his reverie. It betokens this central (cxxiv). Each existence: “All’s change, but permanence as well” falsehood, to find the soul works through this change, which is truth. The soul penetrates the shows of

sums up

all

permanent, which is sense to find a complementary

soul,

which

itself” referred to in section

“other than

lix

is

the lodestar, the

— “God, man, or both

not hate, it together mixed.” If the soul will only look up, love, and this continually new will find the latest presentment of truth soul embodiment of truth under different guises tempts the^ likely to believe it has farther upward. In each instance the soul is eventually, after succesfinally arrived at the ultimate truth, but ;

sive failures,

learns that “truth

it

is

through falsehood.” Recognition of

abhor the the

false.

and

false

prize the true,

So, says the

having served

its

forced /

To

manifest

this fact causes the soul to

which

is

obtainable through

Don, “we understand the value

purpose,

it

itself

of a he”:

disappears, leaving instead of the

personage the Zeitgeist. singer the song, instead of the historic

So

“God, man, or both

to-

far does this other, this ideal of love, this

gether mixed” lead us (cxxrv) (xxxiii and As with the other movements of his monologue the highest level belix), Juan cannot leave his argument on of Fifine. What, asks cause always, at his back, he hears the call man, or Don Juan, did Aeschylus mean by the locution “God, Prometheus Bound? mixture,” which I have borrowed from his Prometheus Did he mean what I mean? Did he mean that nymphs, Ultimate Truth by lifting the veil from the

learned the

just as I learn of the soul

through the body of Fifine?

dreaming does inBut enough of the dream, says Don Juan; him in dream, the deed disappoint. The higher man’s pride lifts farther he

falls.

What

seems fresh and strange in

flights of

fancy

and tame. The Druid monument long ago said upon it in dream is simply to emall it had to say, and to dwell where we began, says broider upon the commonplace. “We end

soon wears to

trite

78

Browning’s Later Poetry

the husband to his wife, referring explicitly to their walk but, on

another

level, also to his

monologue with

argument (cxxvii).

Fifine and, in spite of all

He commenced

he could do to philoso-

phize sexual urge into creative oversoul, he ends with Fifine. is

flesh after all,

perhaps more

animal than God. The truth

flesh

than

the soul

is,

is

his

Man

more mercy of

spirit, certainly

always at the

the flesh.

Don Juan

Half in dejection,

admits the error of his previous

discourse. In his defense of the evolutionary nature of the soul

was presented as redounding to the praise of man because man was shown as gaining victory over it, conquering the false and base. As previously demonstrated, the false did not imply

each

lie

“submission to the reign /

other quite as real a nature, that

way with man, not man his way with it.” But now comes a new understanding: man rises only to fall,

saw

fit

/

To

Of

have

its

“promotion proves as well / Defeat,” “acknowledgment and acquiesence quell / Their contrary in man” (cxxviii). At the last,

we admit

that in this

sense does indeed conquer soul.

life

Finally, says the speaker,

truth

is

no cause

for pride.

we

arrive at the truth, but

now

Only sense can be proud because,

logical evolution proves, reality responds to physical needs as

not to spiritual aspiration

:

this

as bioit

“Soul finds no triumph, here, to

does

regis-

Sense / With whom ’tis ask and have” (cxxviii). Man is, therefore, not the lord of nature but its servant: he merely reter like

ceives,

he does not demand.

Here ends the quest begun in the first section. From the fair the wanderer returns home with “the sad surmise that keeping house were best,” with the understanding that

go questing after ending looks

like

it is

better not to

For “love ends where love began. / Such law” (cxxxix). America is here or nowhere. all.

announced at the beginning of the poem he was seeking. Although the natural man feels lordlier free than bound, the only real freedom comes in remaining housebound: “Each step aside just proves divergency in vain.” The disquisition on “abstruser themes” of the previous 128 sections This

was

is

the “law” that he

ill-begun.

The

subject should have been

“From

the given

Fifine

(it

79

the Fair

in space, endeavorpoint evolve the infinite”; not “Spend thyself Fifines” (cxxix). ing to ... / Fix into one Elvire a Fair-ful of

what he

accept No, says the Don, a man should act on the given, and phantoms, follow has. Otherwise he will merely chase ghosts wandering fires through quagmires.® allows Reverting to the marine imagery of the Prologue, Juan he is better ofif as a that, though man is indeed an amphibian, foam-flake, while landlubber than as a swimmer. Fifine is a mere many foam-flakes. AlElvire is a whole sea which could contain realizes he has though he left her calm profundity, now wiser, he live and die had “enough of foam and roar” “Land-locked, we :

speak hereafter in different imagfickle element! Elvire is land ery: “Discard that simile / O’ the is the land which the not sea— / The solid land, the safe!” She long the Prologue finds pleasant to return to after a henceforth” (cxxix).

He

shall

amphibian of swim.

All these word-bubbles

O’ the I

sea,

and

bite like salt.

came

The unlucky bath s to blame. ... no more the bay

beat, nor bask beneath the blue!

Instead of

swimming and being

“o’ the water, watery,”

he

will

where there are “no confine himself to the “honest civic house” The nearest he fancies to delude” and “of the earth be earthy.” seaweed branch, will wonder why on of former associations with it. So housed, he his resiearth he was ever tempted “forth to swim. Furthermore, will

approach the sea

will

be some token,

shell or

be not a “tower apart” but a house in town (cxxxi). Forswearing the “passion and thought of the Prologue and the

dence

will

early part “passionate stretch” and desire for “lawlessness of the down into a of the monologue (vi), Don Juan prepares to settle 9.

Compare

this

passage from Carlyle, in which the

“must wander on God

man who

eschews

verdant earth, like draw up only the Unblest on burning deserts; passionately dig wells, and only wrestle among the dry quicksand; believe that he is seeking Truth, yet the real in seeking for the ideal

s

and die endless Sophisms, doing desperate battle as with spectre-hosts; [London, and make no sign!” (“Characteristics,” in Works, ed. II. D. Traill 1897-1901],

XXVIII,

32).



!

80

,

Browning’s Later Poetry

life

model bourgeois husband. Yet he does so account who he is. For in spite of his best

of domesticity as a

without taking into resolutions he

after

is,

mits “to the reign /

To have This

is

Don Juan

all,

Of

—the man who always sub-

other quite as real a nature, that saw

way with man, not man

its

exemplified in the

last section

his

way with

by

his stealing off to

it”

fit

/

(cxxvm). a

tryst

with Fifine.

and in a trice Return; five minutes past, expect me! If in vain Why, slip from flesh and blood, and play the ghost again! I go,

In the end, the

quondam

quester cannot be domesticated. “Sense”

(in the figure of Fifine) has the final victory over “soul” (Elvire) just as “soul”

(the desire for complete freedom) triumphs over

The monologue ends with marvelous ghost both Elvire and Fifine? And who

“sense” (quotidian reality) ambiguities: is

flesh

who

and blood

is

the

.



—again both? This

restoration of tension in the

end underscores the metaphysical complexity of the poem. In the Epilogue (“The Householder”) the former amphibian has indeed become a householder, and he

house than

we had

but

loss of

him undomiciled. Too

sit

no happier

reason to suspect he would be.^°

he has experienced a kept

is

Grown

in the

aged,

potency, “sense,” which previously

old for

swimming, he can do nothing

wearily in his house waiting for death. Householding

is

so

boring time has dragged, days, nights! All the neighbor-talk with man and maid such men! All the fuss and trouble of street-sounds, window-sights: All the worry of flapping door and echoing roof.



Quite unexpectedly

Many

his wife returns

during a kind of waking

Browning. For example, DeVane in his Handbook, p. 369. As I shall try to show, the speaker here is not the poet but the speaker in the Prologue and main monologue, the speaker I have been calling Don Juan. He is even linked through imagery with the speaker of the main body of the poem, wherein “householding” is frequently used to suggest permanence. 10.

critics

claim that the speaker in the Epilogue

is

Fifine at the Fair

81

and blood again. He tells her all he has suffered, not only from the boredom of householding but also from “all the fancies.” Doubtless one of them was the “fancy which turned a fear” in the Prologue, where the speaker was concerned to know whether the lady looked down on him with sympathy and pity from above. “If you knew but how I dwelt down here!” he says to her. Whereupon she replies: “And was I so dream, the ghost becomes

better off

up

there?”

flesh

The

implication of her question

Can heaven do without

the answer

is

more At

than earth without heaven?

last

ea.sily

last,

in the negative.

is

clear:

earth any

the speaker has his answer to the question posed in the

stanza of the Prologue. Yes, the lady does

still

follow from an-

other sphere his earthy pilgrimage, his “swimming,” and as she is

mindful she

is

also forgiving. It does not

mer-become-householder flesh occasionally (or will.

What

Don

is

matter that the swim-

Juan, nor that the claims of the

perhaps frequently) predominate over the

alone counts

is

love,

which having been must ever

be.

Love not only transcends the flesh, it even triumphs over death. In the epitaph which she helps to compose, the wife, echoing the last three lines of the epigraph from Moliere in which Donna Elvira says that nothing can separate her from Don Juan save death, ends with “Love is all, and Death is nought!” The heavenly soul

is

mindful of the amphibian, Elvire forgives

the erring husband

is

soon to be reunited with

the fair has vanished, the vincit

comedy

is

finished.

his

Don

Juan,

departed wife,

In the end, “amor

omnia.”

Ultimately, love

With Browning

is

it is

the law that affirms the reality of the

not a case of “cogito, ergo

“amo, ergo sum.” Love, the one constant

me

in

sum” but

rather

a world of change.

remain self-centred, fixed amid All on the move. Believe in me, at once you bid Myself believe that, since one soul has disengaged Mine from the shows of things, so much is fact: I waged No foolish warfare, then, with shades, myself a shade. Assists

Here

to

in the world.

.

.

.

[lxxx]

self.

:

Browning’s Later Poetry

82

Although somewhat mockingly, Juan had fancied Elvire saying that time

and

its

changes serve to increase love love defied

Chance, the wind, change, the rain:

love, strenuous all the

more For storm, struck deeper root and choicer fruitage bore. Despite the rocking world,

He

words are

learns that the

[xxxiii]

true.

Love

is

the one reality amidst

and to abandon constancy in love is to leave oneself in a void with no certainty. Yet such is Don Juan (and mankind in general) “one who loves and grasps and spoils and speculates,” one who keeps “open house” (lxxxix) that he cannot always act on this truth. Alearth’s

myriad

falsities,





though

him

his better self attests to

to ignore

to “sense”

it.

and

prompts

“lawlessness.”

he aspires. Because he '/

validity, his lesser self

“Soul” and “law,” consequently, often succumb

His protean nature prevents very brink

its

Of

is

flesh

man from

attaining that to which

he cannot reach “those heights, at

heaven, whereto one least of

(cxxvi). Indeed, Grail!” (iv). But

it

is

still

and urges man on

would lead” gaze upon the

lifts

“not for every Gawain to

the Grail beckons “through the fleeting”

man, or both together mixed’ ” (cxxiv), the ultimate fixed point where the contradictory thrusts are finally resolved. A man gains this state, however, only when he ceases to be man. For as the progression of the poem from Prologue to Epilogue suggests, permanence comes only when the swimmer is metamorphosed into a butterfly, when “sense” totally yields to “soul,” when the amphibian is transformed into a householder. In the meantime man is merely (and happily)

to “reach at length ‘God,

“Don Juan.”

4

Night'Cap Country

RecJ Cotton

One

of the

most compelling

qualities of

Browning’s

later poetry

persuasive force, stemming from the poet’s vigorous, insistent drive to argue each perception to a conclusion, impatiently and

is its

frequently with scorn for the timidity

Each

of his

poems

is,

as

it

and slowness

of others.

were, a record of a quest, a distance

and a goal reached. A great deal of the energy of his work derives from his pleasure in the process of arriving at a conclusion, from, that is, his enjoyment of his own talents, his soph-

traveled

istries as

well as his sincere passions. Finally, however,

it

is

the

formal enclosure of this process, the containment of seemingly uncontrollable energy within artistic bounds, that provides the main

appeal of his later work. Nowhere, tion about Browning’s poetry be at the Fair

and

to the

poem

I believe,

more

can

this generaliza-

aptly applied than to Fi/ine

that followed.

Country or Turf and Towers, published

in

Red Cotton Night-Cap

May

1873.

Domett records: “Browning tells me he has just finished a poem, the most metavery physical and boldest’ he has written since Sordello, and was doubtful as to its reception by the public.”" He was right in doubting its reception, for it was generally misunderstood and Regarding

Fifine, the poet’s friend Alfred

Browning wrote two passages in Greek, from Aeschylus and Aristophanes, on the manuscript. DeVane translates {Handbook, p. 370) the Aeschynight lean passage: “And reading this doubtful word he has dark

deprecated. Several months after

1.

The Diary

of Alfred

don: Oxford Press, 1953),

its

publication

Domett, 1872-1885,

ed. E. A.

p. 5; hereafter cited as

Horsman (Lon-

Domett, Diary.

84

Browning’s Later Poetry

before his eyes,

and he

is

ing added in English: “

nothing clearer by day.”



if

any of

my

critics

To

this

Brown-

had Greek enough

him to make the application!” The second quotation is dated 5 November 1872: “To what words are you turned, for a barbarian nature would not receive them. For bearing new words to the Scaeans you would spend them in vain.” The point to be noted is that Browning did not doubt his own powers or the value of his work; rather, he was contemptuous of those who could not or would not understand the work. Furthermore, he was unwilling to accommodate those friends and critics who asked that he make his poetry more accessible. He insisted that what proceeds from a genuine inspiration is justified by it. He was disinclined to depart from the bold and metaphysical vein exploited in Fijine. During a summer holiday in Normandy, in

he

later wrote, “I

who had filially

heard” the story of a

man

in the

neighborhood

“destroyed himself from remorse at having behaved un-

to his mother. In a subsequent visit

...

I

[learned]

.

.

.

and they at once struck me as Hkely to have been occasioned by religious considerations as well as passionate woman-love, and I concluded that there was no intention of committing suicide; and I said at once that I would myself treat the subject just so” (Hood, Letters, p. 309). Here was a tale after Browning’s own heart, involving love, sex, religion, and social conformity intermixed to the extent that they focused on a

some other

particulars,



central question of self-identity; in other words, the story touched

on the

chief topics of Fifine at the Fair.

In Fifine Browning had probed by means of the interior method of the dramatic monologue, his speaker trying to find within himself

the answer that would reconcile the polar thrusts of person-

ality.

Perhaps

now he would

subject the problem of selfhood to

an exterior method, a narrative proceeding by a spiraling motion

downward from

the surface to the heart of the matter. In such a

would become the and the molder of its

narrative the narrator, as in Conrad’s novels,

focusing figure, the

maker

of the fiction

meaning. Some subjects, the poet apparently

felt,

simply will not

— Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

85

approach and consequently must be caressed or

yield to a direct

pulled or crushed before revealing their significance.



Along with every act and speech is act There go, a multitude impalpable ordinary human faculty, The thoughts which give the act significance. Who is a poet needs must apprehend Alike both speech and thoughts which prompt to speak. [iv. 24-9]

To

begins in a deceptively unas-

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country suming fashion: so casual tially believes idyll.

The

that he

is

thousand

first

the

is

of exposition,

one

ini-

reading a loosely constructed descriptive lines or so

however, that the speaker

seem,

Norman

ramble on about the

selves, to

manner

busily

is

them-

like the strollers

The

countryside.

and ingeniously

fact

is,

establishing

the themes that will inform his narrative.

The manner beginning

which the story

in

lines

by a

will

develop

series of diverse

is

suggested in the

images, which also give

metaphorical support to the poet-narrator’s underlying philosophical beliefs. Things are not necessarily what they look to be,

he

says.

false

The

creative soul can, nevertheless, pierce through the

appearances of the phenomenal world to arrive at the truth

hidden behind them, can at

least

gain intimations of the truth.

This idea

is first

implied in the speaker’s descripton of walking

through a

field of

v/ild-mustard flowers on his

Of

that,

my

naked

sole

makes lawful

way

to the sea:

prize.

Bruising the acrid aromatics out. Till,

And

what they

then the idea

preface,

is

expounded

countryside the strolling pair yet the speaker likes

good

salt

in

savors sting

more

now view

is

.

[i.

29-31]

totally unexceptional,

it

prominently likable To vulgar eye without a soul behind. Which, breaking surface, brings before the ball is

.

forthright terms: the

just because

Nothing

.

86

Browning’s Later Poetry

Of sight, a beauty buried everywhere. If we have souls, know how to see and use. One place performs, like any other place. The proper serv'ice every place on earth Was framed to furnish man with: serves alike

To

him note

through the place he sees, A place is signified he never saw. [i. 53-64] But, if he lack not soul, may learn to know. give

that,

an echo of Don Juan’s contention that the soul, appropriately oriented and employed, can penetrate the falseness and see the truth of things.

This

is,

of course,

In developing this idea, the speaker touches on the Carlylean philosophy of worn-out clothes.^

He

alludes to a notice

on a

bam

which “repeats / For truth what two years’ passage made a lie” and to signs proclaiming the Emperor’s confidence in a war that

What

needed

removal of these vestiges from the past: “Rain and wind must rub the rags away” (i. 129has already been

lost.

is

is

37). Quite beguilingly, then, does the narrator establish the pri-

mary

motifs of the poem.

Structurally,

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

four parts and a coda. eled first

It is

is

divided into

perhaps helpful to think of

it

as

mod-

on the sonata form. Beginning with a slow introduction, the movement, with its interplay between “white” and “red”

and intricately setting forth the major themes. The second movement, telling the love story, is andante, lyrical and melodic. The third, developing the conflict between “turf” and “tower,” is scherzo vivace in character, speedily and relentlessly leading to the tragedy. The fourth movement, which reviews, elaborates on, and comments on the story previously told, is a triumphal’ climax, resolving the aspiration and leading to the story,

is

allegro, rapidly

struggle of the earlier parts, “white” at last proved “red.” Lastly,

the coda, alluding to the

initial

point of departure in the speaker’s

conversation, reaffirms the tonic.

In Part

I

the narrator considers the appellation

“White Cotton

See Charlotte Crawford Watkins, “Browning’s ‘Red Cotton NightCap Country’ and Carlyle,” Victorian Studies, 7 (1964), 359-74, for a study of some Carlylean echoes in the poem. 2.

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country Night-Cap Country,” which France the two are fitting

87

his friend applies to the section of

visiting for the

head covering for those

summer. The nightcap

in this lazy,

is

a

untroubled land, for

it

symbolizes not only the idleness of the inhabitants but also their insulation from the modern world. Suspicious of the light, the

people cover their heads and retreat into the darkness. So, though the use of nightcaps, like dying religious faith, obsolete, /

in the

Still,

main, the institution stays” (233-4).

As the narrator ponders caps, he asks,

is

this

“may be growing

further the use

and meaning

of night-

land properly white cotton night-cap coun-

Behind the seemingly innocent drowsiness of the inhabitants

try?

some horror? Might not the land red cotton night-cap country? Aroused by his own

might there not be called

also

lie

some

evil or

suggestion, he seeks with fervor to prove that the color red

the

“You put me on my mettle,” he says to companion, who reasonably accuses him of being argumenta-

more appropriate his

is

tive;

epithet.

out / Here in the fields, decide the without awaiting her reply, he urges, “Quick to

“Suppose we have

question so.”

And

the quest, then

it

—forward, the firm foot”

(381-3, 399).

walk, as in Fifine at the Fair, thus becomes a quest, an

The

exploration into history,

human

psychology, and phenomenal ex-

Although the speaker puts words into the mouth of his companion, essentially his is, like Don Juan’s, a dialogue with istence.

an accompanied sonata (to use an analogy previously offered) designed primarily for one instrument: it is a disquisition undertaken not only from a perverse wish to argue but also from a desire to penetrate appearances and explain why things himself,

appear as they do.

As they begin their stroll, the two rise to an elevated place and survey the whole countryside with its many churches and spires. The narrator’s eye lights on the spire of the famous shrine La “There now is something like a Night-cap spire (433) Only recently the church had received gifts of gold crowns for its Virgin and Child, the Virgin’s topped with an extremely

Ravissante: .

precious stone.

A

week

earlier

a festive celebration of the event

had drawn people from miles around. The nanator had, how-



:

88

Browning’s Later Poetry

and disdained to join the crowd. Yet why should he be contemptuous of the multitude’s belief in miracles? For, though “sceptical in every inch of me,” ever, “struck to [his] devotions at high-tide”

suddenly, “even for

me

is

miracle vouchsafed.” In thinking of the

and the name of the donor of the Virgin’s jeweled crown, he receives an illumination, a possible answer as to why this should be Red Cotton Night-Cap Country. “Did I deserve that ... a

shrine

me

Red is reached, / And yonder lies in luminosity!” (532-47). The rest of the poem is an amplification of this flashing moment when the

shaft should shine, / Bear

along

.

.

.

the

lo,

till,

poet penetrates to the heart of the story and perceives

all

the sur-

rounding circumstances in relation to that center.

As they continue their walk, the strollers see in the distance the edifice Clairvaux, which had been the residence and architectural plaything of the jeweler Miranda, who died two years previously. Originally the building had been a priory, but since “nothing lasts below” (621 ) it had been taken over by the state at the time of the Revolution and later sold to private owners. Miranda had utterly transformed it, and, upon closer inspection, the narrator finds it entirely different from what it seemed to be from a distance

Those lucarnes which I called conventual, Those are the outlets in the mansarde-roo^

And now the tower a-top, Or bell’s abode, turns out

I

late, ;

.

.

.

took for clock’s

a quaint device, Pillared and temple-treated Belvedere Pavilion safe within its railed-about Sublimity of area. [671-81] .

The

point

is

.

.

that Clairvaux, a religious edifice

decorated to appear as what

it

now

secularized,

is

had been. And in still deceptive: renovated and made originally

another

way Clairvaux

regal,

represents the owner’s attempt to carry Paris, the city

it

from which he escaped,

ment the narrator thing

is

says:

is

also

to the country.

“A

Regarding

sense that something

is

this establish-

amiss, /

Some-

out of sorts in the display, / Affects us, past denial,

everywhere” (710-12).

What

is

right for Paris

is

perhaps wrong

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country for

Normandy. The narrator has by now thrown us

89

into a kind

paysage moralise with ominous shadows.

The owners of the place were a “happy husband and as happy wife.” The man was both generous and devout, the wife was likewise. Where then lies the “red”? Going on to describe the wife

whom

he had seen the day before, the speaker tantalizingly enu-

merates only “white” facts about the pair

who

lived at Clairvaux.

he reveals the “red” in his story: Miranda had met a tragic death two years earlier, “and not one grace / Outspread before you but is registered / In that sinistrous Finally, at the

end of Part

I,

two years / Were occupied in winding smooth again” ( 1023-6) At last the narrator is ready to prove by example that things are not what they seem. The story of Leonce Miranda recounted in the poem’s second these last

coil

.

movement

is

a tale of a divided

From

life.

his father

he inherited

mother a French spirit, critical and cold. It was an unfortunate mixture, making “a battle in the brain, / Ending as faith or doubt gets uppermost” (n. 125-6). Trained in strict religious principles, he gave full assent to Christianity as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church: he passionate Castilian blood

believed in miracles

and from

and an earthly

his

life

of pietistic purity. This

the side of his nature symbolized in the

poem by

is

“towers.” Yet

was not long to predominate. At the age of twenty-two the young man, stimulated by his French blood, found that “there spread a standing-space / Flowery and comfortable” (ii. 210this part

11); in short, he discovered the “turf” of the poem’s subtitle. Should he then forsake the towers for the turf? Believing that his life

should properly be lived

unwilling to forgo the

anda

is

seduced by the

to accept a

all

is

He

Moliere’s pusillanimous Sganarelle

decides to remain on the turf but to

battlement, one bold leap lands you by.”

“keep in sight

/

The

Sganarelle urges,

voice of

the towers, he nevertheless

too earthy turf. So at this point Mir-

spirit of

compromise.

The

among

somewhat

in

the

Sagacity in Hohenstiel-Schwangau:

“ResoK^e not desperately ‘Wall or turf, Choose this, choose that, but no alternative!’

manner

of

90

Browning’s Later Poetry

No! Earth left once were left for good and all: ” ‘With Heaven you may accommodate yourself.’ 238-43]

[ii.

Heeding with the

this advice,

spirit of the

He

downfall.

Miranda

gives blind assent to the tower, never stopping to

merely a ruin

it is

La Ravissante

boulevard, thereby planting the seed of his

inquire whether the tower fact,

joins the spirit of

still

damaged

partially

is

standing as a

former age. Moreover, he does not be disregarded,” which said:

or whether, in

monument from some

“Man worked

Not to Once on a

“voice /

listen to the

here /

time; here needs again to work; / Ruins obstruct, which man must remedy” (ii. 22-5). Instead, he simply accepts the tower for

what

Settled

and

is

seemed

it

to be or for

what

it

might once have been.

on compromise, he works hard

in his jewelry business

a model of what pious bourgeois parents wish their child

to be, but

on holidays he

women:

seeks occasional pleasure with

nothing serious, nothing indiscreet, only “sport: / Sport transitive such earth’s amusements are” (ii. 362-3). Thus “realistic”



and

“illusion-proof,” he sees

who

captivates

for hell, her his “sport”

him and makes him “for

own”

(ii.

421

and devotes

the narrator,

one night



)

.

his

at a playhouse life,

Ceasing to be

a

woman

for death, for heaven,

“realistic,”

he gives up

energy to gaining her love. For, says

To

’Tis the nature of the soul /

durability, / Nor, changing, plainly

seek a

show

be the slave of change”

of (ii.

338-40).

More than true,”

on the

once, the speaker guarantees that “this love lady’s part as well as her lover’s. Clara

is

was

a beautiful

grown in inferior soil. Reared in poverty, exposed to sordidness and humiliation, married to an unsuccessful tailor, she flower

nevertheless retains her youthful innocence. of her divorce, she can never like

And

wed Miranda,

though, because

she

is

to

him very

a wife.

Superficially regarded, likely.

A son

of the

Miranda’s alliance with Clara

Church, he chooses to

live

of the Church’s teaching.

A

which

cannot approve

his pious parents

is

un-

with her in defiance

dutiful child, he elects a of.

A

way

of

life

believer in the



:

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country transiency of

which he

all

fears

is

91

things terrestrial, he opts for an earthly love

opposed to

his love of

God. In

he seems

brief,

in

every case to choose the turf in preference to the tower. Yet in actuality he refuses to

make any

choice at

all:

he will both have

Moreover, both Church and parent join with his own “Saint Sganarelle” to countenance, somewhat grudgingly and halfheartedly to be sure, his relationship with Clara. his

cake and eat

it.

social ostracism of Paris, the couple retires to

Avoiding the

Normandy. Miranda knows, deep within act just

is

“provisionary” but

how temporary

offered

its

tries to blot

is all

himself, that his every

out from his conscious

of man’s earthly existence.

mind

The world

ad\dce

“Entrench Monsieur Leonce Miranda, on

yourself, this turf,

About this flower, so firmly that, as tent Rises on every side around you both, question shall become,— Which arrogates Stability, this tent or those far towers?

The

May The

not the temporary structure suit stable circuit, co-exist in peace?

Always ‘Lay

until the proper time,

flat

your

tent!’

is

no

fear!

easier said than done.”

[ii.

935-44]

Normandy to This counsel he receives favorably, and so repairs to Earthly make his pavilion on the turf. Clairvaux becomes the “Permanency,— life and death / its owners crying out: Paradise,

(n. 975-6). Here, here, not elsewhere, change is all we dread!” necessarily proviBut \Iiranda and his lady do not accept the themselves that they are sional nature of their Eden, deluding

proprietors, not tenants for a term. to underUnlike the truly perceptive, the pair did not want man, who was instand that all material building only harbors

Some time, deed meant to build, but “with quite a difference, /

we dream about, / Where every man is his own 990-92). The building Leonce and Clara under-

in that far land

architect”

take in

is

(ii.

mere mimetic reconstruction,

Normandy

the

life

of Paris.

their impulse being to live

.

Browning’s Later Poetry

92

The tive, is

imitative nature of their building, both literal

exemplified in Leonce’s taste in

to recognize that

genuine

enormous expenditure

and

art. Sufficiently

figura-

discerning

endeavor requires of the

artistic

of physical

and

spiritual

artist

energy to combat

outmoded forms, Miranda did not care to be creative. In dilettante fashion he played at art and life, blotting out of his mind the fact that sooner or later his pavilion would collapse: “Wrong to the towers, which, pillowed on the turf, /

He

thus shut eyes to”

1112-13).

(n.

For

Leonce and Clara

five years

recounted in the

lyrical

kept the world far

off.

lived the “Paradisiac

dream”

second movement, and self-entrenched,

In the frenetic third movement, the world

wake when Leonce’s mother summons him to Paris, berating him for his extravagant and sinful life. The return is disorienting. When confronted by “Madame-mother” and “Monsieur Cure This” and “Sister That,” everything in short intrudes

and the

sleepers

that represents the towers, he

is

forced to acknowledge that his

with Clara at Clairvaux had been in clear violation of what

life

he was reared to accept as good and

what means like

this

true.



‘Clairvaux Restored

’ :

Belvedere?” the mother asks. “This Tower, stuck



a fool’s-cap on the roof

from thence? /Tower,

/

Do

you intend to soar to heaven

truly! Better

had you planted

turf” (m.

64-7 )

The anxiety occasioned by his return to Paris resulted not much from a conviction of sinfulness as from an unwillingness choose either the tower or the

turf. If, says

so to

the narrator, he had

been called upon to make a decision in favor of one or the other, then he might have done so and lived happily. But he was told to

keep both halves, doing detriment to neither but prizing each opin

posite

turn.

Believing that he has

wronged both, Leonce

plunges into the Seine, seeking thereby to avoid the problem of choice.

No his

He

is

rescued, however,

and returns

sooner does he recover than he

mother dead.

cides to give

the pavilion

Made

is

to Clairvaux.

recalled to Paris to find

to feel responsible for her death,

up Clara and name his heirs. And built for permanency collapses:

so, in

he de-

an instant,

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country down The tawdry

fell

at

93

once

tent, pictorial, musical.

Poetical, besprent with hearts

and

darts;

cobweb-work, betinselled stitchery. Lay dust about our sleeper on the turf. And showed the outer towers distinct and dread, Its

But before the

and

his

269-74]

arrangements are completed, he reads over and in a paroxysm of guilt bums both the let-

final

Clara’s love letters ters

[iii.

hands so that he

may be

purified.

But the

result

is

once again the same: in time he returns to Clara and Clairvaux. The contrapuntal effect of the architectural imagery is beautifully

worked

out.

Having

Miranda now admits

vacillated

between tower and

the validity of each

:

“Don’t

tell

turf,

me that my

sham, / My heavenly fear a clever counterfeit / Each may oppose each, yet be tme alike!” (in. 678-80). He realizes that it had been a mistake to attempt to build, independent of the towers, a durable pavilion on the turf. He now must earthly love

is

!

harmonize the two, uniting the opposites and holding both in this land perfect balance. As to how this is to be done he seeks, in of miracle, guidance of

The

Ravissante.

The narrator does not hesitate move in looking to the reputedly

to point out

Miranda s

miraculous for aid. In

false

all re-

corded time, he claims, no miracle was ever wrought to help whoever wanted help. To resort to the miraculous for direction is, in effect, to ask that

tmth stand

fully revealed.

In the phenomenal

world, however, the truth can never be completely disengaged from the false. To be sure, certain aspects of truth may be grasped,

but the achievement false covering.

One

results

from occasional penetrations of

must, therefore, deal with

truth’s

phenomena

that

Enunciating Browning’s firmly held descendental and not principle, the narrator says: “When water’s in the cup, 853-4). the cloud, / Then is the proper time for chemic test (iii. The world is a vale of soul-making, and one becomes a living lie

at hand.

soul,

sharing some aspects of truth with the Divine, only through

experience with the phenomenal.

To

the narrator “our vaporous Ravissante”

is

water in the

:

94

Browning’s Later Poetry

cloud.

He

faith,” but

“fable

precipitated

first

he does say that the faith represented by the shrine

belongs to the past. fact,

how

about

refuses to speculate

who go

the nun, the parish priest

La Ravissante

to

but “practise

The monk,

in the

distillery of faith”



all,

in

“for the cure of soul-disease” do

second state of things,” bringing “no fresh

“dogma

but only

old.” For Browning, theirs

in the bottle, bright

an outmoded

is

faith,

and

one inherited

and therefore hardly worthy of the name. Miranda, however, “trusts them, and they surely trust themselves. / I ask no better” which is to say that, if accepted, faith must be embraced wholeheartedly: “Apply the drug with rather than proved on the pulses



courage!”

(iii.

861-76)'.

For two years Miranda deludes himself with the notion that by presenting gifts to

God and

to the

poor he might stay in

sin

and

Then Leonce one spring day climbs Belvedere and, gazing at La Ravissante, begins,

yet stave off sin’s punishment.

to the top of the

in Part IV, the magnificent meditation that ends with his death.

Stepping off the Belvedere, he believes he will be miraculously

La Ravissante. Instead, he lands on the turf. The world judges Miranda insane for putting his faith in the Virgin to the test. The narrator, however, considers him sane, because, transported to

given his premises, he has at

last

acted on what he believes

Put faith to proof, be cured or

killed at once!

In Better

lie

prostrate

as

Bust”:

Browning had

“Do your

finally settles his

estimate,

on his turf at peace, from out the tent, the tower.

Than, wistful, eye, Racked with a doubt,

Or

my

[iv.

356-62]

“The Statue and the you choose to play!” Miranda

said years earlier in

best

.

.

.

/ If

wavering between turf and tower.

In the opinion of the narrator, Leonce should be condemned only for having waited so long to choose.

The wish

to reach the

tower was thoroughly vain, one worthy of the Middle Ages, perhaps, but not of the nineteenth century.

man would have

found love enough, which

is

A

more enlightened the means by which

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

God

95

permanency the But Miranda never properly compre-

“participant” in time. In

is

it

lies

that

had been seeking. hended what it means to love. In the beginning he came close to realizing its full power because in his relationship with Clara he arrived at a profounder understanding of life than would have

jeweler

otherwise been possible. Only at the

phe

last,

however, in

to the Virgin, does he perceive that his

his apostro-

was a “mock

love, /

That gives— while whispering ‘Would I dared refuse!’” (iv. 210 - 11 ). Clara, on the other hand, is more worthy of respect, although she too is not free from blame. Her fault was that she regarded she love as an end in itself, not as a means to truth. No doubt of loved Miranda, no doubt she was to be preferred to the statue mother the Virgin at La Ravissante. She was both the nurturing

and the doting wife to Miranda. Yet, says the narrator, “I do not truth, praise her love.” For properly conceived, “Love bids touch endure truth, and embrace / Truth, though, embracing truth, butterfly, love crush itself.” Like the grub that is to become a Clara fed on her leaf, Miranda, and did not stop till she had consumed him. She did not urge, “Worship not me, but God,” which is

though the expression of “love’s grandeur” (iv. 861-7). So,

must be judged morally did a failure. She simply accepted what was given. In no instance she attempt to “aspire, break bounds” (iv. 764). At the end of his story the narrator leaves his listener with no Clara

is

“the happier specimen,” she

still

of uncertainty as to the causes of the tragedy. First, the spirit

—that

an unwillingness to commit oneself fully Miranda s infected the personality and ended by poisoning all of parents, relationships. He was encouraged in his indecision by was no less mistress, and representatives of the Church, but he

compromise

wrong not

is,

to choose

and thenceforth

to act.

Thus, what the world

madness was, correctly viewed, the moment of his rate it triumph. Perhaps the choice was a poor one, but at any

sees as his

was consonant with his belief. Secondly, Miranda did not use what intelligence had been granted him. He simply accepted an and doginherited faith, its superstitions as well as its doctrines

96

Browning’s Later Poetiy

mas.

If

he had put his mind to work, he would have seen that the

religious faith signified

by La Ravissante belongs

should remain buried with the past.

to history

The attempt

and

to “bring the

was the vainest kind of activity. Thirdly, neither Leonce nor Clara ever comprehended the meaning of love. For them it was a means by which “self-entrenched / They kept

early ages back again”

the world off.” Seeking for constancy amidst the flux of built a pavilion

life,

they

on the turf which had the “show of durability”

but which they mistook for permanency

itself,

forgetting that

drop / Pavilion, soon or late you needs must march.” Love for them, in other words, was the end-in-itself in“soon or

late will

means by which the

stead of the

soul conquers the false

journey toward perfection. In the facts of life

on

its

the “white”

last analysis, all

proved the “red” of Miranda’s undoing.

At the end

of the quest that

began with the walk

the speaker has attained his goal

:

in the fields

ingeniously, he has

shown

that

what they appear. He has proved that it is regard an object or an incident as “normal, typical,

things are not always

not enough to

Quod its own

in cleric phrase /

semel, semper, et ubique’^

Everything has

special truth.

nightcap any more than a fiddle

is

A

just

(i.

336-7).

not just a

nightcap

is

a

A man

fiddle.

must

“recognize / Distinctions,”examine thoroughly the nightcap, and, if needs be, “rub to threads what rag / Shall flutter snowily in sight”

(i.

This

256,411-12).

is,

of course, the business of the creative imagination, es-

The

imagination deals with the

phenomena by

piercing through the false

pecially as exercised in poetry.

multitudinousness of

covering of reality to see the thing-in-itself, reducing multiplicity to unity,

and turning thought and action

into language. In the

coda Browning, identifying himself as narrator, reveals that such indeed has been the aim of his poem. Moreover, he suggests that

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country try

and what

it

Speaking in of

making the

means

to

is

ultimately a

poem about

poe-

be a poet.

own voice, the poet explains that the endeavor poem out of his few sordid facts has meant a step his

forward in self-articulation and, thus, a triumph of personality

:

:

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

The moment

over seemingly meaningless data.

he says in the postscript addressed to

came “months ago and

miles

away”

97

of insight which,

walking companion,

his

—“that moment’s

flashing”

has been “amplified” and “impalpability reduced to speech”: “Such ought to be whatever dares precede, / Play ruddy heraldstar to

The

your white blaze / About to bring us day.” overcoming of the false outer appearance of things and

meaning of poetry. Just as, in the beginning, the narrator spoke of making “lawful prize” of the wild mustard flower from which he had forced “the acrid aromatics out,” so his extraction of meaning

the subsequent advance toward ultimate Truth

from the Miranda Part

I to

is

also

the

a personal victory. Referring in

Clara, the narrator asks there not conceivably a face, set of wax-like features, blank at

Yet

A

story

is

is

first.

you bendingly grow warm above, Begins to take impressment from your breath? Which, as your will itself were plastic here Nor needed exercise of handicraft, From formless moulds itself to correspond With all you think and feel and are in fine

Which,

as



Grows a new revelation of yourself, Who know now for the first time what you want? Indeed the poem

itself

becomes

for

its

maker a new

[i.

850-59]

revelation of

himself, for in penetrating to the truth of another’s personality he

adds a new dimension of truth to derstanding of the

self

his

own and

thus gains an un-

otherwise unrealized.

Yet because the poet’s apprehension of truth is always and necessarily in advance of any accepted formulation of truth, he finds himself set apart

from

his fellows.

The

“life-exercise” of

poetry means, then, that the poet assumes an almost intolerable

burden such exercise begins too soon.

Concludes too late, demands life whole and Artistry being battle with the age It lives in!

sole.

98

Browning’s Later Poetry

To

be the very breath tliat moves the age, Means not, to have breath drive you bubble-like Before it but yourself to blow: that’s strain; Strain’s worry through the life-time, till there’s peace; We know where peace expects the artist-soul.



because he recognized the “strain” of art that Mir-

It is precisely

anda did not wish to be a quiet life and easy death”

man” (ii. 1049-75). The artist-soul, on

creative artist, choosing instead “the

of “Art’s seigneur, not Art’s serving

work with other men’s formulae. In art as in religion, nothing is so damning in Browning’s eyes as acceptance of inherited beliefs and practices. To work in traditional modes is to submit to the world with all its falseness. Being an artist means breaking rules and bounds; being an artist means attempting the impossible. What matter whether the result

is,

endeavor’s

the other hand, refuses to

in the world’s opinion, a success? “Success

all.” Art’s

value

lies in its

is

naught,

revelation of truth hitherto

Whether the world judge it incomplete and unpolished, if it gains a grasp on the truth then “there the incomplete, / More than completion” (iv. 766-79) should stand

undisclosed.

respected.

Undoubtedly, Browning was speaking out of ence

when he

referred to the

standing to which the

burden of

modem

poet

is

his

own

experi-

and misunderMindful of the

loneliness subject.^

kind of criticism leveled against him. Browning nevertheless refused to heed the

demands

complete, inferiorly proposed, / aright” (iv. 762-3). No, a poet sible to finish 3.

:

submitting

who would

“work To incompletion, though it aim

of his critics,

is

life itself

prefer

ever attempting a task imposto the control of langauge.

Red Cotton NightAnnie Thackeray, to whom the poem is

After publication of the unfavorable reviews of

Cap Country Browning wrote

to

dedicated: “Indeed the only sort of pain that any sort of criticism could give me would be by the reflection of any particle it managed to give you.

dare say that, by long use, I don’t feel or attempt to feel criticisms of this kind, as most people might. Remember that everybody this thirty years .” (Annie Thackeray Ritchie, has given me his kick and gone his way I

.

.

Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, Browning [New York: p. 181).

Harper’s,

1892],

99

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

Who

a poet needs must apprehend Alike both speech and thoughts which prompt to speak. Part these, and thought withdraws to poetr>^: Speech is reported in the newspaper, [iv. 28-31] is

The triumph Art and

endeavor to “break through

lies in his

of the artist

poetry.” If he succeeds, “Then, Michelagnolo

rise to

against the world!” (iv. 780).

To

ascribe either lack of geniality or bitterness to

Night-Cap Country,

wrong

tone.

No

as critics so frequently do,^

bitterness

On

loneliness of the artist.

that

is

to catch the

reflected in the observations

on the

the contrary, the narrator maintains

more than a compensatory joy

artistic exercise.

is

Red Cotton

Furthermore, there

is

is

to be derived

from the

nothing harsh about the

by Miranda. Although written soon after the first Vatican Council and under the shadow of the ultramontanism of Pius IX, Red Cotton NightCap Country expresses Browning’s belief that even the superstitious faith embraced by Leonce, benighted though it be, is preferable to doctrinaire materialism, which affirms the body while

on

narrator’s reflections

denying the

soul.

The

religion as practiced

only sardonic note in the entire

poem

is

to

be found in the narrator’s description of the anticlerical doctor "" with his “new Religio Medici, which refuses to admit the existence of spirit (ill. 491-510). Far from being acerb. Red Cotton

Night-Cap Country

mocking



it

— “ready

is

gay

in tone. Friendly, playful,

to hear the rest?

disguises a profundity of ideas

How

even

good you are!”

self-

(iv. 1)

under a surface of conversa-

tional banter.

might be helpful to think of the poem terms of a musical structure. The closest analogue would be a

Earlier, I suggested that in

it

For example, Mrs. Orr calls it a “manifestation of an ungenial mood that it of Mr. Browning’s mind” {Life, p. 286). G. K. Chesterton agreed 124). reflects “one of the bitter moods of Browning” {Robert Browning, p. John M. Hitner, “Browning’s Grotesque Period,” 1-13, refers to it as “another morbid newspaper story, dealing with mental disease and abnormal sex, culminating in suicide” (p. 5). Arthur Symons s An Introduction 4.

to the

(London: Cassell, 1906), pp. 161-3, praising the poem and in detecting its humor.

Study of Browning,

a notable exception in

rev. ed.

is

100

Browning’s Later Poetry

work by

Berlioz, a sonate fantastique (if

he had written such),

cast basically in a classical pattern but distorted to the point

where the structure

barely recognizable. Hillis Miller describes

is

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country ity,

with

its

undulating

parts

blown

all

as

out of

“a huge, awkward monstros-

size. It

has a wild, disordered,

the buildings of the Spanish architect

vitality, like

Gaudi.”® In any case, the manner in which the tale

—the constant expansion the blending of casual

to periphery

humor and

emblematic of Browning’s

is

and contraction

recounted to center,

philosophical observation

belief that the universal

is

to



is

be found

Even in the distasteful and seemingly unpromising story of Leonce Miranda the poet beheld the illuminating “flash” which enabled him to “imbibe / Some foretaste of effulgence” (iv. 990-91 ). It is a mark of Browning’s genius that he could make out of this material, which basically is that of a naturalistic novel,® an intriguing and ultimately delightful philosophical poem. in the particular, the ideal in the real.

5.

The Disappearance

of

God,

p. 132.

For a consideration of Browning’s use of novelistic techniques see Hugh Sykes Davies, Browning and the Modern Novel (Hull: University of Hull Publications, 1962). Drew, The Poetry of Browning, pp. 321-31, has interesting and kind remarks about Browning’s narrative technique. Roy E. Gridley, Browjiing (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), makes interesting comparisons between Browning and the French realists, especially Balzac and Flaubert. 6.

5