By Gregory Tate
This year marked the bicentenary of the birth of the Victorian poet Robert Browning in 1812, although this news might come as something of a surprise. The bicentenary of Browning’s contemporary Charles Dickens was celebrated with so many exhibitions, festivals, and other events that an official Dickens 2012 group was set up to co-ordinate and keep track of them all. The writings of Alfred Tennyson, Browning’s (consistently more popular) rival, also cropped up in some high-profile places throughout the year. But although academic specialists and other Browning enthusiasts organised conferences and special publications in 2012, media commentators and cultural institutions remained almost wholly silent about the Browning anniversary.
There are many possible reasons for this silence. There’s the issue of religion: Browning’s robust Christian faith, and his love of abstruse theological speculation, are perhaps less congenial to twenty-first-century tastes than the yearning doubt of Tennyson or the pious sentimentality of Dickens. Browning’s habit of writing poems about arcane subjects (such as the thirteenth-century troubadour Sordello or the sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus) might also alienate readers. The reason might, however, be something even more fundamental: Browning’s poetry is difficult, and discomfiting, to read. When Browning was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on 31 December 1889, Henry James wrote that “a good many oddities and a good many great writers have been entombed in the Abbey; but none of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd.” For James, Browning’s oddness was an essential part of his poetic achievement. Today, it seems, the general view (if there is a general view on him at all) is that his oddness precludes greatness.
For most of his life, Browning’s oddness was seen by his Victorian contemporaries as the key characteristic of his writing. John Ruskin, for example, wrote to the poet in 1855 to describe the poems in his new book Men and Women as “absolutely and literally a set of the most amazing Conundrums that ever were proposed to me.” Browning’s reply to Ruskin is significant, because it suggests that his difficult style is central to the goals of his poetry: “I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language; all poetry being a putting the infinite within the finite.” This definition of poetry was closely tied to Browning’s views on psychology: throughout his career he was preoccupied with the question of how to fit what he saw as the infinite capacities of the human mind into the finite media of language and poetic form. His answer was to adopt a knotty, convoluted, and tortuous syntax which articulated the difficulty, but also the necessity, of conveying the workings of the mind through the more or less inadequate tools of language.
Browning’s approach is exemplified in what is arguably his greatest poem, The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), a psychological epic which recounts the events of a seventeenth-century murder case from nine different perspectives. Browning sets out to integrate these conflicting perspectives into an authoritative and morally educational account of the murder, describing them as:
The variance now, the eventual unity,
Which make the miracle. See it for yourselves,
This man’s act, changeable because alive!
Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought.
The poem’s concern is not with the murder itself, “this man’s act”, but with tracing “the informing thought,” the motive behind the act. This poetic analysis of thought, Browning argues, enables the synthesis of conflicting accounts into an “eventual unity,” and the dense style of his verse is a key element of this process. “Art,” he states “may tell a truth / Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought.” By testing and confounding his readers, Browning’s difficult (and odd) poetry invites them to think carefully about the minds of other people, breeding new thoughts and telling oblique truths.
In The Ring and the Book Browning addresses the “British Public, ye who like me not.” The publication of this poem, however, marked a sea change in Victorian opinions of the poet. In the 1870s and 1880s his writing was admired simultaneously for its evident Christianity and its intellectual richness, and he was venerated as a sage and a moral teacher by the Browning Society which was founded in 1881 to study and champion his work. He was also celebrated, by Henry James and by Modernists such as Ezra Pound, as (in James’s words) “a tremendous and incomparable modern.” In 2012, though, Browning’s modernity and relevance have not been sufficiently emphasised. This is a shame, because, in his psychological sophistication and in his awareness of the complexities and limitations of language, he still has truths to tell to the British public, who like him not. Those truths, and Browning’s poems, might be oblique and difficult, but they’re worth the effort.
Gregory Tate is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey. His book, The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870, was published by OUP in November 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @drgregorytate.
Image credit: Robert Browning. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.