Bagehot, a man in the know, confides to his readership: “One of his greatest admirers once owned to us that he seldom or never began a new poem without looking on in advance, and foreseeing with caution what length of intellectual advance he was about to commence.” Does any other major poet have a posse of admirers so willing, even eager, to exonerate admiration by confessing, in the same breath that had issued forth as a sigh of awe and respect, all that exasperates in the works they love? Allying praise with frustration, Bagehot’s contemporary Richard Holt Horne kneels before, in worship but also in exhaustion, Sordello, “a modern hieroglyphic” that “should be carved on stone for the use of schools and colleges.” Has this hieroglyphic yet found its Champollion? Browning’s verses, for Horne, are “full of gems set in puzzles.” But at what cost for such gems, and what guide to such puzzles? Frederick Tennyson, a detractor, expresses disapprobation in terms oddly approximate to those lauditudinously launched by the opposing camp: “I verily believe his school of poetry to be the most grotesque conceivable. With the exception of the Blot on the Scutcheon, through which you may possibly grope your way without the aid of an Ariadne, the rest appear to me to be Chinese puzzles, trackless labyrinths, unapproachable nebulosities.”
The obvious, and initial, difficulty for readers of Browning is the range of reference; the erudition. Browning writes as a learned poet—a poeta doctus—differently learned from his contemporary Tennyson, whose verse translates and sublimates Latin and Greek meters to English; Browning is a poet of learned reference, citation, and non-literary as well as literary allusion; he is the product of his father’s eccentric library penetrated by a mind like flypaper. But these are, and were, overcome; then by diligent annotation, Browning Societies, and circulars; now by smart phones and Google. Yet the nature of Browning’s learning is continuous with the greater, and enduring, difficulty for readers of Browning, even when they are armed with the facts themselves: the tremendous strain they put on the various faculties of the mind. Among these, essential to Browning’s art, and an essential object of his art, is the faculty of attention. Hence Bagehot’s anecdote: even the admirers ask how long their attention will have to hold? The trouble, for them is not whether they will have something to hold their attention onto, but whether they will have to remain clinging to it for the span of pages, or pages and pages, or pages and pages and pages.
The learnedness is related to attention because of the nature of the learning that Browning summons before us: they are facts that seem to exist as tactile realities for him, and for his speakers. Browning’s ideas are as uninteresting as Tennyson’s; but both poets do think, and they think through, with, and on feelings, which their poems scrape out of experience by entirely different tools. Browning’s speakers, and Browning, exists in a world of encounters with the visual, the sensory, and the immediate particular thing; in the particularity of stuff in the poems, the at-handedness of the world to whomever speaks, he resembles a novelist, with a diligent awareness, even when it is not called upon, of all of the knick-knackery of space that surrounds the speakers. To achieve the illusion that a world of matter is present and about the speakers, even when the poems do not present the matter, even when the poems are not about that matter, demands from Browning an a selective (being selective he is more convincing; bad historical fiction, and bad fiction in general, bombards us with details of the physical reality of a world, but this is not how the world is encountered in daily practices and uses; Ulysses doesn’t work because it is an encyclopedia of stuff, but because the inclusion of the stuff is somehow made to seem warranted by Bloom’s habits, functioning, and movement, as he actually interacts with all of it; Bloom is made to seem more complex as a consequence) and exacting recall of occasional, precise, and concrete realities–which he has gleaned from his learning. Hence it was Ruskin, as perceptive of particulars and concerned with perceiving particulars as any Victorian, who responds most generously to “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,” where the knowledge of stones, where the feel of grapes, where the architecture of matter and the qualia of contact with matter, is inseparable from the social, and spiritual, reality of life at that time, in that place: “I know of no other piece of modern English prose or poetry, in which there is so much told, as in these lines, of the Renaissance spirit,–its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of Luxury, and of good Latin. it is nearly all that I have said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of the Stones of Venice, put into as many lines, Browning’s also being the antecedent work.” Though Ruskin, predictably, goes on: “The worst of it is, that this kind of concentrated writing needs so much solution before the reader can fairly get the good of it, that people’s patience fails them, and they give them thing up as insoluble.”
The density of allusion, reference, particularity is not separable, for Browning, from the allusion and reference to what is dense, from the particular density of the world. These are the things to which one can attend, as one cannot attend so easily to what is immaterial, closed to the senses, or not directly before oneself; attention presumes immediacy. One reason that the poetry of Browning taxes the attention is that the quantity of references, and their specificity, requires a constant imaginative conjuring of immediacy. Perhaps I have given too much emphasis to the concrete–but I’ve done so because the concrete is what predominates in Browning’s verse; the abstract can of course be made immediate too–and this can place even greater strain on the attention, since we are less likely to have much practice attending to what is abstract. Horne is right to say that of Browning that
He must have a creed that will take, which wins and holds the miscellaneous world, which stout men will heed, which nice women will adore. The spare moments of solitary religion—the ‘obdurate questionings,’ the ‘high instincts’, the ‘first affections’, the ‘shadowy recollections’—the great but vague faith—the ununtterable tents—seem to him worthless, visionary; they are not enough ‘immersed in matter’; they move about ‘in worlds not realized’.
But to say that he is averse to the visionary is not right; Wordsworth’s Ode would describe, or account for, what the visionary can no longer attend to; but Browning loved the most visionary of them all: Shelley. And Shelley’s poetry moves about in world’s of dense abstraction–which he nonetheless summons forth to an immediacy that beleaguers the imagination of those lacking the gift of geometry, or whose gifts of geometry cannot be reconciled to Heraclitus’ flux, as Shelley’s could. Shelley asks us to pay attention to Mont Blanc not as he saw it, but as he envisioned it, and the poem is his effort at paying scrupulous attention to that vision. Accepting the anecdote as true, it is not so strange that Oxford don Jonathan Wordsworth would reputedly, when interviewing students,ask that they draw the opening lines of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” on the board; not only an exercise in peevish domination of young minds, the point was that Shelley was attending to actual contours, and that we should be able to attend with him, and that such attention can take the form of summoning into immediate, particular, chalky reality. It is no wonder that Shelley preferred Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso to Inferno; Dante is paying great attention to proportions, shapes, and figures of what many mortal cannot even imagine, let alone focus into concrete abstraction, or abstract concrete, presence. Even attending to Dante’s attention proves too much for many: “It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him.”
Browning places excruciating demands upon his reader’s attentions like Shelley and Dante–and, because his realm is not an abstract one, unlike them. And the demands cannot always be met; the attention comes to feel insufficient, or inadequate. Horne again: ““To some it will appear to be a work addressed to the perception of a seventh sense, or of a class of faculties which we do not at present know we possess.”
The trouble must extend–and does extend–beyond holding before one’s reading mind that astonishing range and specificity of facts and things. When Ruskin, who modestly boasts in Praeterita of his own “faculty of attention,” calls Browning’s a “concentrated writing,” he acknowledges that it is a writing that demands and demonstrates intense concentration, where such concentration is largely a function of attention. The concentration is not so much a matter of allusiveness–though Browning did have to provide Ruskin with the Italian origin of one English coinage, “Onion stone”–but instead of syntax, that region of Browning’s most audacious innovation and experimentation, where he would occasionally (and, into later years, increasingly) become ensnared in his own Browning-ese (see the parodies by C.S. Calverley). Strangely, Donald Davie offers few remarks on Browning’s syntax in the great book on the subject, Articulate Energy–at one time suggesting that Browning is not relevant for the aims of this study, and at another time warily doubting whether Browning’s syntactical exertion in “By the Fire-Side” “acts out a train of feeling significant to the burden of the whole.” In that poem, explains Davie, “the toadstools, the mushrooms, the moss, the shield, the creeper grow each out of the one before…long after the main verb of the sentence ought to have spent its force.” Our attention, as a consequence, is tried, forced beyond what seems natural or just.
What Browning’s poetry sounds out—what readers and speakers of the poetry alike often run against—are the inadequacies not only of attention, but of willing the attention: the inadequacy of will to attention, the inadequacy of the attention as we will it; the inadequacy of willing others or ourselves to sustain and maintain the attention upon an object, in a direction, for a given time, on ourselves. The inadequacy impinges painfully, because the attention is often willed out of desire and need, or out of one of Browning’s recurrent themes–love (another, painting, and the visual arts, is also bound tightly with what it means to will the attention, to how such willing my prove inadequate).
I plan to explore all of this–attention in Browning, Browning and attention–in a longer piece of writing, or one part of a long piece of writing; I’ll be exploring it here in the meantime.