34. (Robert Browning)

Apt that an Italian would assist with placing Browning plain before the eyes. Franco Moretti (once again), but this time on realist prose in The Bourgeois: Between Literature and History (Browning, a poet between literature and history, suits the title too):

It is at once the most ‘natural’ and most ‘un-natural’ way of observing the world, this unfaltering attention to what is: natural, in that it seems to require no imagination, but only that ‘plainess’ that has for Defoe ‘both in style and method, some suitable analogy to the subject, honesty’. But, also, unnatural: because a page like the one we have read has so many foci of ‘local’ precision that its overall meaning becomes rapidly hazy. There is a price to pay for precision.

And, leaping from the shoulders of Lukacs on “totality”:

The wealth cancels out the totality…the point of that page from Robinson Crusoe ought to be his sudden terror: he has never been so close to death since the day of the shipwreck. But the elements of the world are so varied, and their accurate mention so demanding, that the general meaning of the episode is constantly deflected and weakened: as soon as our expectations have settled on something, something else emerges, in a centrifugal surplus of materials–the corners rich in gifts and dangers–that frustrates all synthesis.

Then a quotation from Lukacs:

We have invented the productivity of the spirit: that is why the primeval images have irrevocably lost their objective self-evidence for us, and our thinking follows the endless path of an approximation that is never fully accomplished. We have invented the creation of forms: and that is why everything that falls from our weary and despairing hands must always be incomplete.

And, drawing on Weber now, Moretti again, who notes, in a note, that “productivity” is perhaps better translated, for our ears, as “creativity”:

Should modern culture celebrate its ‘productivity,’ or lament its ‘approximation’? It’s the same question raised by Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ (and Lukacs and Weber were very close, in the years of Theory of the Novel); what matters more, in the process of Entzauberung: the fact that ‘one can, in principle, master all things by calculation’–or that finding the calculation can no longer ‘teach us anything about the meaning of the world’?

What matters more? it’s impossible to say, because ‘calculation’ and ‘meaning’ are for Weber incomparable values, like ‘productivity’ and ‘totality’ for Lukacs. It’s the same fundamental ‘irrationality’ that we encountered int he bourgeois culture of work a few pages ago: the better prose becomes at multiplying the concrete details that enrich our perception of the world–the better it becomes a doing its work–the more elusive is the reason for doing so. Productivity, or meaning. In the following century, the course of bourgeois literature would bifurcate between those who wanted to do the work even better, cost what it may–and those who, faced with the choice between productivity and meaning, decided to choose meaning instead.

Excellent criticism because it does more than interpret, more even than describe effects–because it places us in the creative situation of the authors, albeit in terms that are foreign, necessarily, to them; because it describes the dilemma that they faced as they set to write, and to set something right.

And as I read these words, the author that sprung to mind was, before all others—before the novelists who are the heroes of Moretti’s work—Robert Browning, and especially Browning as opposed to Tennsyon. The latter features in The Bourgeois; Browning does not. Which is peculiar in so far as Browning is the bourgeois poet of the century: his optimism, his person as it is recounted, in disappointment, by those who met him, seem so very middling, so very at odds with the eccentric force of the materials he worked upon, that he brought to life and gave him life. Until or unless we realize that Browning was writing the Bourgeois through history, a historical imagination that finds everywhere the virtues and vices his Victorian era (compromise, diligence, professionalism, domesticity; prurience, hatred, pettiness, avidity, cold calculation); maybe these traits are found everywhere, in varying degrees, but it seems likely too that an achievement of the nineteenth-century historical imagination was in recovering them in so many diverse and varied settings—they come to seem the inevitable consequences of civilization.

But this is not the point: which is instead that the old truism about Browning getting the stuff of prose into poetry is exactly to the point, and that Moretti’s account of what is happening in this is helpful because it shows what consequence Browning faces when he attempts to do so: what is the meaning, or the reason for doing so? The occasion for the dramatic monologues is always apparent; their immediate reason never difficult to discern; but the reason for anyone, beyond the world of the dramatic monologue, writing those monologues, less clear—it does not take a devote Coleridgean to ask whether the poems encourage or permit us to posit justifications for what has been included and what has not been included, for why one thing has been chosen rather than another. Oddly enough, the problem is that the opportunity cost of the poet’s choices do not seem to have been reckoned; prose, with the burden of modern rational accounting, the desire to account for more and all, fails at times to account for its own accounting. In the terms of Weber’s sociology, the formal rationality of prosaic accounting of acquisition is at odds with substantive rationality of literary work, wherein there is a larger set of values, which cannot be reduced to acquisition: authors driven by acquisition of details, and further precision, must weigh these against a larger set of values or meaning, which the work as a whole sustains or contributes.  A variation on the old problem of the universal and particular, but a variation that has specificity in literary and social history, since the particular becomes replaced by a term with greater authority, “the precise.”

Moretti writes that the bifurcation between productivity (creativity, inventiveness) and meaning takes shape in the next century…and this bifurcation maps surprisingly well onto the well-known oppositions in the canon:

Wordsworth (productivity) against Coleridge (meaning); late Byron (productivity) against Keats and Shelley (meaning); Browning (productivity) against Tennyson (meaning).

If there is a single English language poet that straddles the divide, he is not found in Britain at all–his name is Walt Whitman.

Any such binaries give rise to thoughts of exceptions, and to awareness of the inevitable tensions that exist within any poet’s work: but the tensions are inevitable given the intelligence of the poets, as they confront the challenge of prioritizing–and there is, except possibly for Whitman, priority.

Which is why the absence of Robert Browning from the index of Moretti’s study is strange–though not baffling (the argument does not aim to be entire; the meaning is clear enough and can encompass others).

But I’ve said that Moretti’s discussion helps to see Browning’s creative dilemma: the fight over form, within formal choices, that he had to make as a poet (a persistent strength of Moretti’s criticism is that the agency of the author, or artist, and the formal ingenuity, is concomitant with his historicism; the implications are always formal, in the sense that history conditions and limits formal choice, or at least formal possibility, which might be better or worse, according to intelligence, subtlety, nuance, or sophistication of the work; the general criteria for artistic success—those recognized dispassionately by, say, Nelson Goodman—persevere).  He does so by reorienting the old division between Tennyson and Browning, wherein Tennyson appeals to myth, Browning to historical personage, and asks us to see instead formally how productivity (or creativity) in Browning must encounter meaning, not on the level of subject-matter, but within the chosen subject-matter (there was nothing stopping Browning from proclaiming his personages “Great Men and Great Women” or “Heroic Men and Heroic Women”–even if they didn’t seem so to the eye). What “meaning” is Browning after and how can it emerge from the prosaic swamp of the verse?

It is not, as in Tennyson, in the shape as a whole; not the well-wrought urn (which, necessarily cracks and chips–but these are reminders of completion, even in In Memoriam, where the utter mastery of each part does not dissolve within the mess of the whole, but instead bears witness to a faith in an ideal whole that cannot come into shape yet, that is beyond the horizon of this world). And nor is it the same “meaning” that Tennyson seeks.

With a further gross over-simplification, it can be helpful I think to read Tennyson and Browning through their two greatest Modernist heirs: Eliot and Pound. Eliot, Ron Bush has remarked, is a great poet of romantic desire—Pound, a great poet of beauty. Oversimplified, no doubt. In the Cantos Pound yearns for a civilization, another critic has said, with “good art, good sex,” and a third term that eludes my memory (“good laws?”–who doesn’t want that? But not all poets write so much about wanting it). Not quite the same as beauty: but beauty of the body, beauty of art, and beauty of the judicial order.

Nonetheless, Pound, touting himself as Browning’s heir, on account first and foremost of Sordello, of the recovery of the past, is also his heir in so far as Browning is a poet of beauty (calling him a poet of love has always seemed to be wrong-headed, confusing biography with poetry, and taking out of proportion the weight of a few lyrics; as for calling him a poet of faith, his faith is the most self-satisfied, and dull, of any major poet who has ever professed a belief in verse)….But Browning’s devotion to, and what’s more his belief in, beauty (and it was this that made him so fervent an admirer of Shelley, who really believed in the beautiful) was trumped by the devotion to all of the stuff that he could collect, could include, that he felt so keenly men and women throughout history had sought to collect, include, with precision, with more than acquisition, with a hope that they would prove useful, without knowing for what (Pound obviously collects history too; the museum, that nineteenth-century bourgeois institution, was Pound’s: the museum of the imagination, the artist in the imaginary museum becoming guiding principles of his modernist art).

“Trumped” is perhaps misleading: it is rather that Browning takes as the ground of all the verse this spirit of inclusion, the multiplicity of perceptions and details, as something to be celebrated in itself—and then, caring deeply for the possibility of the beautiful also—asks where it can emerge: and then tries to show its emergence, which will mean it not emerging as the poem-as-a-whole, or even as its consequence or end-point, but somewhere within it, somewhere unexpected, most likely.

A especially relevant commentary on Browning’s work is found in the most celebrated single line in Pound’s Cantos: “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.”

The relentless observation is not gloom, but it darkens and obscures, and yet there is something there by which a promise of beauty is revealed.

In an earlier post, I wrote on “An Epistle Concerning the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician.” The poem is remarkable in many ways, of course, but the lines that struck out against the backdrop were, strangely to me, those incidental words:

And falling-sickness hath a happier cure

Than our school wots of: there’s a spider here

Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,

Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back;

These words are very much in the spirit of what Moretti says: the relentless curiosity of the physician seeking precision for utility, for the sake of his profession, for the spirit of learning, for the vocation of science. But also, somehow, these lines seem to me not only beautiful in themselves, but intended as a sort of aesthetic burst despite, without, Karshish’s knowing it. Browning can write so that it feels coincidental, happenstance, that the rhythms of Karshish’s words, the play of sounds within them, transform the prosaic into something that sets itself apart…but to what end? Rather than go through an interpretive acrobatic routine to fit these words into some coherence of the poem as a whole, some meaning, the suggestion would be instead, sustained by that critically irreducible measure of rhythm and sound, that beauty arises without our knowing when or where, that it cannot, in the flood of further enumeration, further description, be the goal itself–but that this does not mean that it disappears as an ideal, as something that might give unexpected meaning or value, even if divorced from the immediate utility of the words themselves: a faith in the beauty of the things of the world, that they can be so ordered by words as to spring forth with novelty and freshness. Something to which many poets and novelists pay lip-service: but to accomplish it takes the capacity to find something like music and the suggestiveness of music, in words and circumstances that offer none: Browning has the capacity. A pleasure of his poetry is watching as shows the gold gathering in the darkness.

The darkness is at times moral as well as material—though the immorality of Browning’s voices is often an immorality corrupted by materialism. Here the great example would be “The Bishop Orders His Tomb.”  Though Browning’s own defense of his art (to Julia Wedgwood, for instance, when she complains vigorously against portions of The Ring and The Book) rests upon there being something of genuine interest and truth revealed in the exploration of the most debased souls, another defense would be that those corrupt souls are capable, as they turn their minds to enumerate the stuff of the world, to revealing—in the turns of their phrases, in the rhythms he ascribes to them—the beauty that can coincide, as if by miracle (and here perhaps is a sign of Browning’s faith that makes it more interesting than it otherwise would be), with the urge to describe for the sake of including and accounting how much there is.

The defense could go further yet.  For those of us who struggle with Browning’s work, the complaint is often that he is so garrulous: but the words themselves, especially in an era when words were spit forth on paper not only faster than before, but with an acceleration acceleration, and a collusion of forces (technology of the press; the altering of stamp laws), were everywhere around him.  What’s more, in his practice as a poet, Browning was a collector of words: the strange, the invented, the mis-used (“twat” in Pippa Passes famously), the translated and foreign. Browning was among the earliest poets to perceive that the words of the world not only could be herded to describe the freight of the world, but that those words were among its freight. The darkness of the verse is the sheer ink on the page–often wasteful-seeming—and then, suddenly, as if by chance once again, gathering in force something that redeems the waste, a few lines striking out, Browning not satisfied with those lines, but seeking also to record the condition of their emergence, to set them in their place among the other sorts of lines that do not do what they do, against which they serve as a reminder of a greater meaning, aesthetic, that is not equatable to the paraphraseable content that Browning seems to be compulsively, recklessly repeating…or flogging.


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