It’s true enough that Robert Browning’s enduring preoccupation was the perpetual fracturing of truth. But that preoccupation persists through poetry that both moves and exhausts, that springs to life and that lies inert; being everywhere, it cannot account for the nature of what moves most distinctly in his best verse. That answer, at some point, will depend on what the language does some places and not others; but with Browning, as with only some other great poets, that potency of language follows directly from subject matter. Browning’s great subject is not truth, but is instead desire in its broadest sense: desire that dissolves unity, that melts the arc of time into the tumult of moments, that sustains and is sustained by the particular, and that becomes itself only out of the span of a life that cannot be reduced to desire alone. In Browning, Shelley’s techniques for dissolution, self-reflexivity, and rapidity of metaphor rise, collapse, and congealment, are situated within lives; and the lives Browning writes from are intelligent as to the nature of desire. When the poems are private to Browning, or an intimately-familiar first-person speaker, the coherence of a life, which desire brings into focus and disarray at once, is established by the grounds of intimacy; in the historically-situated dramatic monologues, the recovery of the person, the recovery of their era, themselves provide the coherence. Though the techniques of Browning’s verse, the counter-weaving and knots of the syntax, are discernible nearly everywhere in the poetry, when the speaker is seeking fulfillment, consummation, possession, or some release from what cannot be satisfied, the dislocations of language and the tumble of images do not only dramatize passion but present the rendering of the world under the pressure of that passion; something unified always coming into itself, but also incomplete. Browning’s poetry inhabits, and apprehends, desire heightened to a pitch of self-awareness in its incapacity to find final fulfillment; his poetry is not only the action in character, but desire in action.
Here, from “Caliban Upon Setebos”:
There may be something quiet o’er His head,
Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,
Since both derive from weakness in some way.
I joy because the quails come; would not joy
Could I bring quails here when I have a mind:
This Quiet, all it hath a mind to, doth.
“This quiet” is quite other than the restless babbling, murmuring, grinding of words that is Browning’s verse; words that beget words, that “derive from weakness in some way.” But what sets Caliban apart from the usual Browning character is his simple, naïve relationship to “joy.” He can say as no other can “I joy.” “Cleon” is a poem entirely on the incapacity to inhabit joy; it is a desire not for the fulfillment of desire, but for a more conscious embrace and sensual realization of that fulfillment:
In this, that every day my sense of joy
Grows more acute, my soul (intensified
By power and insight) more enlarged, more keen;
While every day my hairs fall more and more,
My hand shakes, and the heavy years increase—
The horror quickening still from year to year,
The consummation coming past escape,
When I shall know most, and yet least enjoy—
When all my works wherein I prove my worth,
Being present still to mock me in men’s mouths,
Alive still, in the praise of such as thou,
I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man,
The man who loved his life so over-much,
Sleep in my urn. It is so horrible,
I dare at times imagine to my need
Some future state revealed to us by Zeus,
Unlimited in capability
For joy, as this is in desire for joy,
—To seek which, the joy-hunger forces us:
That, stung by straitness of our life, made strait
On purpose to make prized the life at large—
Freed by the throbbing impulse we call death,
We burst there as the worm into the fly,
Who, while a worm still, wants his wings.
The least convincing part of the poem is the appeal to Christianity as the solution to Cleon’s dilemma, since the afterlife and perfection of the Christian of God are no better than imaginary for the purposes of life as either know it; they represent not a fulfillment of desire or a realization of perfect joy but a hope, called Faith, in such fulfillment or realization.
Desire is for the happiness that Browning believes the world to offer, other people, at other times. Art is an alternative to joy for Cleon; his own art allows for him, and others, to appreciate what it is to live a life of enjoyment, a life of active receptivity and participation, but it is closed Cleon to do so: here there is a play on the Romantic notion of life-as-art, where art-as-life is offered as a lesser alternative, a promissory note on joy rather than joy itself. But there is also, in Browning, no life-as-art if art is conceived as harmonious, balanced, stable, since desire impels a life, and undoes its coherence as it comes into itself; here Browning’s style comes most into its own, the speed of its lines a measure of the voice catching at, but never quite catching up to, its object. The effect is beautiful in “Two in the Campagna,” which is about the collapse of time, the moments rolling in disarray across the landscape as the speaker fumbles for a minute of shared bliss. But same root gives rise to the terrifying effort at control in “My Last Duchess,” where the desire to possess a life becomes indistinguishable from the desire to possess art; desire that would exercise such control, that could be subsumed beneath a will, or so utterly submit a will to its ends, is pathological.
The difficulty of Browning’s syntax affords the fatigue and satisfaction of riddles—it is in the pressure to sort and solve that makes his poetry similar to Donne’s and Auden’s, rather than Shelley’s and Hardy’s—and the clue, if not the answer, to the syntax very often lies in what, and how intensely, the characters want something or someone, or want to know what it means to want, or what it means to be gratified in wanting; understand that, and the syntax springs into sense, and the sense finds voice.
The apprehension of desire cannot be separated from the more intellectualized preoccupation with truth, but that intellectual preoccupation is lessened when not leavened by yearning, since the need to account for the truth, and the impossibility of ultimately doing so from a single perspective, cannot be appreciated apart from eros; “truth,” once it is characterized as incomplete, partial, and in the process of becoming itself, is also characterized by the erotic life. In the other direction, the unity promised by eroticism, once the unity of Platonism or Christianity, is consigned to another world, beyond this one (as it is not, in Donne’s poetry), cannot be otherwise than incomplete and partial.