12. (Robert Browning)

Something happens to attention in works of literature during the early stages of the Victorian era—I had wanted to say that it becomes not only the means but the object of literary scrutiny, but this is not quite right because it is not taken as an explicit object, as something discussed or held up to discursive examination by many authors a great deal of the time. But for a handful of major, and innovative, authors, the movements of attention shape works as they had not before–and this because the movements and intensity of attention are made, on the page, in the works, to seem to defy mastery; works take shape by registering the strains required to pay attention, sustain attention, and gain and maintain the attention of others; without always talking about it, a cluster of Victorian literary works pay attention, with new concentration and focus, to the effort demanded by, of and for attending. The effort itself can come to define the shape of a work; and even when it is not reflected upon, the works are very much about the effort required.

Nowhere truer (though other places as true as) in the poetry of Robert Browning, and the dramatic monologues of Browning especially (not only). To take, somewhat arbitrarily, a justifiably common favorite: “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”–the poem can be accounted for in terms of the attention of the Bishop himself, who first turns to his sons, and then his attention is fixed upon the place of the tomb, the tomb itself, the prospect of attending, for all eternity, to the mass…All this does of course is to prove that the poem’s movement of attention can be described, that attention serves as one more way of tracing out how a poem fits together. It hardly gets into the mystery of communication.

Browning, in the poem, is telling us about all of the things that Ruskin mentions–the curious compound of Renaissance learning and sensuality, idealism and worldliness–but he communicates by means of the wandering, half-willed, half-willing, attention of the dying Bishop: all of these wonders of the Renaissance are shown to have such extraordinary power over his attention, that his attention itself is compromised by their grandeur.

We are meant to see that the Bishop’s faculty of attention, like the Renaissance culture that conditioned it, is corrupt; here again the dualism problem–am I not saying that the attention is corrupt because it fastens onto the wrong objects? Not exactly. Instead, I want to say that the Bishop’s helpless and repeated enthrallment by what is not before him, engrossment in his attentive engagement after death, when he will “lie through the centuries | Hear the blessed mutter of the mass, | And see God made and eaten all day long,| And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste | Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke” is itself a corruption of attention; as is his obsession with the attention of others—with a tomb that will draw the attention away from Gandolf’s tomb, that will be a focus of the church—and this is corrupt because the church is a place of ritual that depends, as most rituals do, on the movement and orientation of attention: the Bishop yearns to reorient the ritual of religion.

What have I run into (within myself) again and again in this discussion is an anxiety about dualism–I find myself wanting to talk about attention as a thing apart from the object of attention (or even subject of attention), as if that were possible. I worry that I will end up coming, through a more circuitous route, at the same points about the poem that are too obvious to deserve mentioning, or too well-mentioned and well-described to need discussing further. But the anxiety can be assuaged: rather than worry about separating the attention itself from the objects of attention, I can understand those objects as objects-of-attention, as objects that are necessarily focal points of attention in diverse rituals in the world of the poem–and then speak of the Bishop’s attention (or the attention of whatever speaker) as participating in, disrupting, rejecting (and so on) those larger rituals.  (I should say that all of this can be developed especially in terms of the sociological theories of Randall Collins, though I think it has a common sense appeal too, as sociology often does).

What would be said then is that Browning is not just interested in the stuff of the Renaissance, but he is also (and not only, and not “really”) drawn to the sorts of rituals of attention surrounding, consisting of that stuff—the different rituals of attention that the past offered. The poem is a record of a corrupt will to reorient attention–a pathetic desire to remain harnessed to the rituals, even after death–and a record also of a mind concerned with the proper objects and routes of attention, in pettiness and grandeur. “Vanity” is the first word of the poem, and Vanity is not only an over-valuation of oneself, but an addiction of attending to oneself, of attending to how others are attending to oneself.

Another anxiety (of mine, not Browning’s, or the Bishop’s) is that the critical approach I am taking is only re-description; not as bad as airy interpretation, it comes close to it. What I’d like to say is that Browning’s poem not only is very much about attention, but says something about it–and this might be too much to ask, except in the sense that it says many things about many things that can in turn be re-described in terms of attention. And this is not satisfying; it is tracing shapes in the clouds, rather than in asking what the clouds are made of, and how they move—which is what I think criticism should do.

Why, in other words, could I not describe any work of literature in terms of attention? And if I did so, what would be the gain to understanding it? What I want to ask is how attention itself posed, or became a part of, a technical problem for Browning—and asking it is one thing, but whether there is a justification for the question in the first place is another. Dissatisfaction that comes with the instinct, impossible to shake, that criticism should be an account of the struggle with the medium and means, or else an account of something extraordinary that happens to or with words in a work.


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