“He was a poet of misconceptions (the title of one of his poems), of failures, of abortive lives and loves, of the just-missed and the nearly fulfilled: a poet, in other words, of desire, perhaps the greatest in our language.”
Daniel Karlin’s words on Robert Browning from the introduction to the Penguin Classics selection are superb. Nonetheless, the claim that Browning is a poet of desire is a starting point, especially as desire itself soon turns, as it is turned over, unwieldy in its capaciousness and ramified implications. Similarly diffuse is the notion of the “modern” that Henry James perceptively affixed to Browning. Setting aside what James meant by that word, the two seem worth bringing together, with the immediate caveat that the “modern” cannot, in what James means or in what follows, be taken to refer to the chronological era of the represented, so much as the vantage point that allowed Browning to take as an axis for his poems an experience of desire that, by the lights of his own historical visions, has always been active, if not recognized. It is maybe the various ways in which it is brought to the consciousness of his speakers, and to their worlds, that distinguishes them from one another, and places them in history.
The additional element can be helpfully drawn out by a comparison between Browning and Tennyson—no pairing since Donne and Jonson are as mutually illuminating. Tennyson’s has been called the “art of the penultimate,” his poems themselves achieving a brilliant finish and polish of form and surface (to detractors, as manicured as a lawn), even as they themselves hang on a moment that refuses to come to an end, or that is the harbinger of an end that will not quite, at least not within the poem, arrive. Browning (who preferred the wild-flowered fields of Italy to the lawns of English manors) stands on, as it were, the opposite side of finish and shapes and forms settled into completion: these, in Browning’s poems, are not, first and foremost, sought out, so much as objects of retrospection. Browning’s poems are not so much about the “nearly fulfilled” as they are about the “already fulfilled,” with the poems looking back on the fulfillment itself and finding it inadequate, or in need of scuttling, or restlessly losing itself in light of something new, something more. Browning is the poet of the ephemeral, but not because everything is unsettled, each form breaking away into another even as it comes into being, but because the forms do find completion, perfection even, only to provoke, from that completion, and perfection, the desire for something more, something other. Other, in Browning, does not mean worse; his pluralism is such that alternative perfections, completions are possible, and become the objects of desire. Sometimes, too, his poems are animated by an aversion for perfection, for finish already completed.
That, I take to be the animating spirit of “Soliloquy of a Spanish Friar,” where the speaker is possessed by the desire to utterly disorder Brother Lawrence’s outward presentation; the poem is exuberantly, destructively, gleefully parasitic upon that finish it would disrupt and deny. The scheming opposition to Lawrence is a prideful expression of mastery at one with the preening speaker’s projection of unruffled sanctimony and at the same time fervidly self-discomposing:
Or, there’s Satan! –one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine…
‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo! G-r-r-r—you swine!
The virtuosic rhyme of “swine” and “Hine” is both expression of control and finish and also a jarring of the incomplete and unrefined, and that rhyme marks the culmination of two lines of cutbacks in the register, beginning with the interjection ‘ ‘St ,’ that is voided of the significance of the abbreviation of Saint, and then the “Plena Gratia,” interrupted by the line-end sputtered as an exclamation, is emptied of the graceful even before the “gr” degrades into the snarling “G-r-r-r.” The fantasy of the stanza is itself apt and revealing: that the self-damnation risked by courting Satan would itself be evaded by a “flaw in the indenture” that would be detected only after Lawrence’s beloved “rose-acacia” could be blasted.
Browning’s three best blank verse dramatic monologues, “My Last Duchess,” “Andrea del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” all turn, in different ways on a perfection that, looked back upon, contains within itself the desire for something otherwise perfect. The Bishop is almost eager to die, to finish his life, in anticipation of the beauty that will be completed in its honor, of the tomb itself; the completion of the former begets the shape of the latter; and this vain desire is born out of a recollection of what he has enjoyed and possessed, which, however unsavory the morality of his life, savored richly of gratification and refinement. Andrea del Sarto yearns for an imperfection that would transcend the perfection and ease of his art, while beseeching his wife to remain, holding fast to a conjugal happiness the sustaining satisfactions of which have been outlasted.
In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” art depends upon the consummate beauty of the world in all its forms and aspects, only coming into being after the world has been seen, so that it might be seen; but the hunger for art is itself at one for the hunger for sensory fulfillment, the appetite that would consume the world because it is already ripe; and that, in the poem, consumes itself, making the appetite for art that feeds on the world and a world that feeds on art alike its subject. Browning’s “Fra Lippo” is a poet of abundance, where desire is not predicated on absence, as in Browning, but on already realized presence, which in its realization, begets the desire for more. The self-sufficiency and completion of what is begets a sense of incompletion in the artist. More is possible, and not because the arc is broken, but because it is already whole; seeing the world’s perfection, its completion, he wants to add to it, devour it, change it, digest it, and touch it, regardless of the change that will bring—and this because for Browning, more perfection is possible and promised. This is the root of his occasionally cloying, but more often mistaken, optimism, contrasted so sharply against Tennyson’s fatalism; it is an opposing sense not only of waste but of the capacity to arrive at a finished form. And yet, whereas for Tennyson, art (perhaps alone) can accomplish such a form, in and of itself, for Browning, the same generative sap of the world is what forbids his poetry from settling into a shape that resolves as final, even if it is finished and right. He wants a poetry that is both complete and provisional, complete not only despite but within incompletion, the contingency in the world finding itself in a momentarily necessary design that contains within itself a recognition (representing and registering) that will force it open again, later. The tension and balance is felt in the poems at the level of diction, syntax, and rhythm, time and again, in what can feel like Browning’s “house style,” because the tension is the condition of almost all of his poetry—which is also, maybe, why the dramatic monologue takes new life for him: the speakers are pressed on by the presence of another, the possibility of interruption or dissent, but also are not entirely elevated from their vantage point in time and action; they are barraged by the contingency that it is poetry’s usual power to judiciously select from. Browning selects judiciously but does so in order to dramatize an attachment to the moment that perforce admits more than judgment could coolly weigh, and the heat and speed of the verse is a consequence of that attachment and investment in what is happening just then, in mind and world. From “Fra Lippo Lippi”:
Don’t object, ‘His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her’—(which you can’t)
‘There’s no advantage! You must beat her, then.”’
For, don’t you mark? We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times or cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
“Oh, oh,” a characteristic interjection, does real work in the verse, where “you” and “do” complete the aural rhyme, “oh” and “do” only the visual rhyme, so that the eye and ear cross ways but do not align in the form of the poem. But it also dramatizes in its off-meter exact rhyme and on-meter visual rhyme what the last three lines describe: it is Browning’s art to bring together the “blot” the interjection and the “blank” of the verse, to draw out what “means intensely” and in so drawing it out, to find its meaning by giving it form upon which to feed. When Lippo says that “to find its meaning is my meat and drink” he speaks to both the pecuniary reward he obtains from his art, his art a commodity that, when complete, yields further satisfaction and gratification, but he also conflates the act of devouring with the act of creating, so that making shape and finding meaning and eating meat and drink are one and the same; latent in the words of the line is a chiasmus where “find” and “drink” and “meaning” and “meat” mirror, reflections of one another. Earlier, Lippo has invited us to see: “For, don’t you mark” draws attention not only to the general phenomenon of which he speaks, but the words by which he speaks about it, with “mark” taking aim, remarking, and also inscribing a mark, all of which he, as artist does, setting an end, speaking in the poem, and applying paint. “We’re made so that we love” could also be “we make so that we love,” but Lippo and Browning want to emphasize instead our place in the sequence of shapings; we give shape and form to something from what already has shape and form, ourselves having been given shape and form. “We’re made so that we love” is left open because the “love” is itself both open-ended and aimed: it is our capacity to love that dictates the further creation of which we are capable also, not reproducing, but producing anew. The word order in the next line follows what we see: “First when we see them painted” does not give its object, but instead puts first before our eyes the “them” that will only later come into view as “the things,” unspecified, but solid, unlovely, but capable of love if them become seen aright. The syntax is itself a microcosm of Browning’s post-perfect art, which asks us to experience a poem whose reason, subject, and form follow on from another (his parasitic imagination makes new art at a remove from novelty). When the word “thing” repeats, “which amounts to the same thing,” it is both the “same thing” and something different from the first, since the “thing” here is whether those first things are better or better to us after being seen through art; they are seen as themselves by being seen as something different; the perfection of the world is known by being supplemented, but not supplanted. But it is a different thing since it is here a casual turn of phrase, dramatized laziness, that has, as it were, stumbled into the wording it has, and which here refers not to anything solid or unlovely, but instead to a thought. What is “modern” in all of this is the thought that everything is potentially exchangeable or adaptable for purposes beyond itself which themselves serve no final end, however complete they might be. The faith and optimism of “God uses us to help each other so” curdles, the word “uses” sullied slightly, when the phrase meets, around the turn of the line, “lending our minds out”: this is mercenary and disposes of us, and reveals a crack in the grammar. God cannot be said to “use something to help each other,” since God is not himself being helped (he is not contained in the “each other”), so much as helping himself too. It raises the question out also to whom or what are the minds lent out? To the work of art? And why then, only lent? Is it Lippo who is being selfish here, refusing to yield himself entirely to what is not his or himself? “Have you noticed, now” asks both whether he has made his point and then, into the next line, refocuses not only what he has said, but on what he sees, the “cullion’s hanging face.” But the fascinating syntax is “And trust me but you should, though” where we can imagine the reversal of “And” and “but” with an apparent clarification of sense: “but trust me and you should, though.” As it is, the “but you should” rushes to meet a doubt that even trusting, his art would not reveal what it says; it is a peculiar thought because having said it, we might thought the noticing to be done, but it is the right thought because if words could suffice, then the art would not serve and we are reminded of the limit of Browning’s art, which cannot make us see the “cullion’s hanging face” both because, within the world of the poem, words do not suffice to make present what is otherwise looked at but not seen, and because, as we read the poem, the “cullion’s hanging face” draws attention to only an implied presence, a creation that we must trust in but cannot see. “But you should though” could also be heard as an argument that the trust is warranted, and there is in Browning’s monologues the persistent reminder that language is a social bond, part promise, part payment, its incompleteness a part of what it is; as a poem, the incompleteness is held in place, even as it drives the poem on its course.
“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is Browning’s great contribution to the tradition of nineteenth-century narrative poems that I’ve recently traced in Coleridge and Keats. Because of Browning’s distinct relationship to perfection, finish, and form, which I’ve only roughly outlined so far, it takes a narrative shape, and implication, unlike any other. For although it is a quest-poem, it is a quest-poem in a landscape that has, we are repeatedly reminded, lost what shape it had, and that is the site of something that has already happened. Without the speaker dwelling on the apocalyptic end that came before, the speaker’s search for the end of the journey is circumscribed by the end already having happened, by the poem being finished even before it began, and the landscape being proof of a finish that cannot be overcome. From the speaker’s perspective, his is a journey that cannot finish; but in fact, his is an end that he cannot move beyond. The end has always already arrived in the poem, as he makes the round of the poem’s circular structure, the recounting of the past repeated in a perennially retrospective present. Whereas Coleridge’s mariner looks back knowing he has a burden that cannot be permanently lifted unless the completed ordeal is retold, Browning’s speaker is always finished with the journey, even when setting out. The landscape testifies to a chaotic fury, but one that was controlled and directed, born perhaps out of a zeal capable of higher deed:
Glad was I when I reached the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage,
Whose savage trample thus could pad down the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poisoned tank
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage—
The fight must have so seemed in that fell cirque.
What penned them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews,
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Puts for his pastime, Christians against Jews.
The scene is grotesque, but the horror is that it was intended to become grotesque, and that it has been used up. The nightmare of the poem—the nightmare for Browning—is that a landscape might exist that is capable of being created only for its own destruction, and for the loss of life, and that exists only to be cast aside, not lent out, not digested and renewed as something else; not used, but used up:
Then came a bit of stubbed ground, once a wood,
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood—
Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.
At the end of the poem, the speaker would seem to face his own end in death, defeated by the snare of the object he had sought; as the vision of past companions blazes to life before him, not in sympathy, we presume, but to watch his doom and invite him to a final companionship, he rejects them by returning himself, with the blow of a slug-horn, to the start of the poem, so that the speaker’s end is evaded by a return to the start of a journey over what has already ended, to a place he has already been and a life that has already finished:
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’
Dante echoes through the stanza, which itself will reverberate in T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” but the most striking phrase, because so strange, is “For one more picture,” the speaker acknowledging what Browning, in setting each stanza apart with roman numerals has acknowledge in the setting on the page, that the journey has been a series of frames, a series of pictures, each finished like a work of art. We can read the words here in two ways: the living frame might consist of those “lost adventurers my peers,” or it might be the speaker himself; he might be the picture that is at least framed, and subsumed by that frame, find himself at the point of death, completion, perfection; or he might be the frame itself, the arbiter of the vision, the only source of life in the landscape who, by traversing it repeatedly, denies its negating force, discovering its generative intent in the poem that is his repeated crossing of its terrain, and that, by its circular nature, is always at once finished and incomplete. This is Browning’s hell, but also his hope of redemption for what falls and falls away.