Robert Browning 1812-1989

“All that I know
Of a certain star,
Is, it can throw
(like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue,
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too.
My star that dartles the red and the blue!

Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled.
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.” Men and Women

Born into a family that could offer him the best of everything: both parents versed in the arts, philosophy and literature. He was mostly home-schooled and never received a formal degree although he attended the University of London for a brief time, deeming it “stuffy and uninspiring.” He was an accomplished pianist, which many attribute to the music references within his verse. Interesting to some is that he lived with his parents until age 34. In 1846 he married the ailing poet Elizabeth Barrett and, against her father’s wishes, sailed for Italy. Italy was their home until her death in 1861. He declared in DeGustibus “Open my heart and you will see engraved inside of it ‘Italy’”. He was a bon-vivant, an intellectual favorite of in-groups , party-goers and host to those travelers who passed thru warm Italy .

Browning’s works fall into three phases. The first phase was drama: no accolades, many failures; with a small but loyal group of readers; comments were neutral or dismissive. But there was much competition in literature during the first half of the 18th century. Theology was no longer the big kid on the block. Church challenges were the result of the Industrial Revolution with Reformation cries for political and economic reform fueled by: Darwin and Huxley in Science; Spencer and Oliver Holmes in philosophy; William James, G. Stanley Hall and William Whewell in psychology; J. S. Mill published Logic; revolution was rampant throughout the world. In literature, Wordsworth was appointed Poet Laureate; Tennyson published Morte d’ Arthur and Locksley Hall; from America the psychological tales of Hawthorne and Thomas Hood’s social reform poem Song of the Shirt.

Supporters called it “blank verse” or “lightsomneness”: critics call it “anything goes construction” as in:

“...relieved of that firm foot
Had pinned to the fiery pavement else!”

Which yields a second phase called the “crowded notebook style”. This designation offered by Hutton as an explanation for Browning’s convoluted syntax “resembling shorthand notes.” Others countered with the more descriptive phrase “collocation of the words” which they attributed to Browning’s embrace of Latin where “words are independent of place”; interrupted with asides in parentheses. Good examples may be found throughout The Ring and the Book and elsewhere in his poetry. Browning did not take the criticism lightly and countered in the voluminous Browning Society Papers with: “I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand. I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my desserts, and something over - not a crowd, but a few I value more.” A bit of snobbery?

In the last phase and most valued of all Browning wrote the tour de force blank verse work The Ring and the Book, the most challenging in both reading and understanding..

As far as characteristics of poetry Browning offered a mechanical style with specific rules:

-use the smallest number of words without interfering with meaning;
-include Saxon words to add color;
- use monosyllabic words wherever possible; employ abbreviations to condense text “i” for ”in”, “o” for “of” or “on”;
-always use a meter appropriate to the subject. Ex. The Ring and the Book is in ten-syllable blank verse. La Salsiaz in fifteen syllables, grouped into trochees. Jocoseria alternates hexameter and pentameter. (Browning explained that in this instance he was trying to imitate the turning of the wheel that held King Ixion who had been bound to it by Zeus).

His content in poetry and plays chose themes of the soul of man and his uncertainty in life; embracing the role of fate in life; human behavior with a strain of stream of consciousness. “Browning influenced many modern poets, partly through his development of the dramatic monologue, with its emphasis on the psychology of the individual” Browning found in his monologues a way to study human behavior through storied portraiture. Proof of this is his dramatic monologue on the life of the painter Andrea Del Sarto, whose technique earned him the title of “the faultless painter” or “painter without feeling.” The poem speculates that there is a built-in mechanism that requires us to continued striving for that which is beyond our grasp i.e. perfection is not an attainable human behavior. He writes:

“I know both what I want and what might gain...”

Students ask: “Is there a word missing in the second half of the sentence?...” What about “How profitless to know, to sigh had I been two, another and myself ” ??? Is this what is meant by striving for something beyond our grasp? Is it profitless - pointless? Is Andrea a stand-in for Browning - with perfect technical skill but without intensity of feeling constantly striving for that missing component...thus endless discussion, endless questions, endless debate.

We are reminded that poetry is to be read aloud; Browning’s poetry is to be read aloud many times. However, no matter how many times one reads aloud such lines as

“(To be by him themselves made act,
Not watch Sordello acting each of them)”

have no meaning at least none that reveals itself. Is it stream of consciousness?? or merely “Le style c’est l’homme.”

By his supporters Browning has been deemed a genius, an enigmatic writer hopelessly obscure to mere mortals. Having taken in all wisdom available to man he can produce only a modicum of refined subtlety. To others he is an unfinished talent, “not clear in his own mind, as to the message he wished to deliver”. There is yet a third possibility he is a well-read mortal “full of inequalities in conception and expression, who has done many good things well and has made many grave failures.” Continued support of his work is on-going through the Browning Society.

Our first characteristic is strict following of technical rules of meter and form, harshness follows.

“Fancy the fabric...Ere mortar dab brick.”

“Who fails, through deeds howe’er diverse,
My purpose still, my task?”

“Every wound of man’s spirit in winter. I pour thee such by wine.
Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! The spirit by thine!
By the spirit, when age shall o’ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
More indeed, than at first when, inconscious, the life of a boy.” Saul

Comments from colleagues, critics, and himself.

“Rhymes often clash and jangle...Archaic and bizarre words are pressed into service to help out the rhyme and metre; instead of melodic rhythm there are harsh and jolting combinations; until the reader brought up in the traditions of Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson, is fain to cry out, This is not poetry.” F. T. Baker. Shorter Poems of Browning

“It seems to be admitted...that his verse is, in its general character, harsh and rugged.” Sharp

“He was Browning: the most profoundly subtle mind that has exercised itself in poetry since Shakespeare.” Sharp

Our second characteristic is “complexity of expression.”

“No, thy Guido is rough, heady, strong,
Dangerous to disquiet: let him bide!
He needs some bone to mumble, help amuse
The darkness of his den with: so, the fawn

Which limps up bleeding to my foot and lies,
Come to daughter! Thus I throw him back.” R and B

“Would we some prize might hold
To match whose manifold
Possessions of the brute. -gain most, as we did best!” Rabbi Ben Ezra

Ay, as a man would be inside the sun,
Delirious with the plentitude of light
Should interfuse him to the finger-ends...
You have the sunrise now, joins truth to truth.” The Pope

“A soul made weak by its pathetic want
Of just the first apprenticeship to sin,
Would thenceforth make the sinning soul secure
From all foes save itself, that’s truliest foe,” R and B

“Checking the song of praise in me, had else
Swelled to the full for God’s will done on earth.” R and B

“A star shall climb apace and culminate” The Other Half of Rome

Comments from colleagues, critics, and himself.

“The painted portrait of a man or woman is neither man not woman. It is so-called because it bears a relationship to a different sort ... our words represent forms.” Browning

“A people is but the attempt of many to rise to the completer life of one.” Soul’s Tragedy

“... for there he picked up, and put inside his breast, a mounted feather, an eagle-feather...the eagle-feather causes an isolated flash of association with the poet of the atmosphere, the winds, and the clouds.” Memorabilia

“Though he refreshes the heart he tires the brain.”

“ the work he has undertaken (Ring and Book) presents a greater complexity of construction what is to be met with anywhere else in his works;...Notwithstanding its complex structure and the freight of thought conveyed the a fine specimen of blank verse.”

“Was it ‘grammar’ wherein you would ‘coach’ me
You, pacing in even that paddock
Of language allotted you ad hoc,
With a clog at your fetlocks, you scorners
Of me free from all its four corners?
Was it ‘clearness of words which convey thought?’

Ay, if words never needed enswathe aught
But ignorance, impudence, envy
and malice what word-swathe would then vie
With yours for a clearness crystalline?
But had you to put in one small line
Some thought big and bouncing as noddle
Of goose, born to cackle and waddle
And bite at man’s heel as goose wont is,
Never felt plague its puny os frontis
You’d know, as you hissed, spat and sputtered,
Clear ‘quack-quack’ is easily uttered!” Pacchiarotto Browning

“The charge of obscurity so often made against Browning’s poetry must in part be admitted...often led off by his many-sided interests into irrelevancies and subtleties that interfere with simplicity and beauty. His compressed style and his fondness for unusual words often make an unwarranted demand upon the reader’s patience. Such passages are a challenge to his admirers and a repulse to the indifferent.” Browning’s Shorter Poems

Our third characteristic life is optimism or an “endless inspiration”; “divinely Christian.”

“Have you found your life distasteful?
My life did and does smack sweet.
Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
Mine I save and hold complete.
Do you joys with age diminish?
When mine fail me, I’ll complain.
Must in death your daylight finish?
My sun sets to rise again.
I find earth not gray but rosy,
Heaven not grim but fair of hue,
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
Do I stand and stare? All’s blue.” At the Mermaid

“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp.
Or what’s a heaven for?” Andrea Del Sarto

“Greet the unseen with a cheer!” Epilogue of Asolando

“God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” Pippa Passes
“The best is yet to be,
the last of life, for which the first was made...
So take and use thy work!
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!

Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same.” Rabbi Ben Ezra

“...a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
That after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
That what began best, can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed one, prove accurst.” Failure

Comments from colleagues, critics, and himself.

“Browning’s ideal of manhood in this world recognizes the fact that it is the ideal of a creature who never can be perfected on earth, a creature whom higher lives await in an endless hereafter...”

“...he gives expression to his hopeful philosophy, which recognizes ‘some soul of goodness, in things evil’... In this age of professed and often, no doubt, affected, agnosticism and pessimism, Browning is the foremost apostle of Hope...”

To Browning “The present life does not rise to its best and then decline to its worst; “the best is yet to be...”
We close with these words from Walter Landor:

“Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world’s,
Therefore, on him no speech! And brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale
No man has walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song. Appreciations

and from George Meredith:

“Now dumb is he who waked the world to speak,
And voiceless hangs the world beside his bier,
Our words are sobs, our cry or praise a tear:
We are the smitten mortal, we the weak.
We see a spirit on earth’s loftiest peak
Shine, and wing hence the way he makes more clear:
See a great Tree of Life that never sere
Dropped leaf for aught that age or storms might wreak;
Such ending is not death; such living shows

What wide illumination brightness sheds
From one big heart, to conquer man’s old foes:
The coward, and the tyrant, and the force
Of all those weedy monsters raising heads
When Song is muck from springs of turbid source.” George Meredith

Browning Abt Vogler wrote:

“My own hope is, a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
That what began best can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.”

Browning is buried next to Tennyson at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.