Author: Bailey, Suzanne
Date published: October 1, 2011
This year's entry rounds out the year 2010 which, as Britta Martens noted last fall, began as a productive period in Browning scholarship, including the publication of the Selected Poems (Longman, 2010) and volume 17 of The Brownings' Correspondence, edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, and Edward Hagan (Wedgestone Press, 2010). Like the two other major ongoing editorial projects on Browning, the Oxford edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning and The Complete Works of Robert Browning from Ohio Univ. Press, Kelley's work combines meticulous textual scholarship with extensive annotations and research materials. It is also a labor of love and a gift to scholars interested in the complex texture of Browning's life, in the genesis of the poems, in Browning as a writer of prose (a lifetime of letter writing constitutes a substantial body of work)-and in the intricate literary and cultural relations he was part of in British and international contexts. Researchers who have had to travel to archives on numerous continents to read unpublished correspondence will appreciate Kelley and his colleagues' careful assembling of this important Browning archive. As humanities research takes a digital turn, one wonders what additional possibilities new media may offer in terms of editorial projects on Browning and in supporting and promoting collaborations among Browning scholars involved in this foundational but often unrecognized work. The world of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines and computer mark-up languages may in fact make the field of textual editing one of the most exciting "new" areas of study. One wonders, too, what guises a future "digital Browning" may assume.
Browning figures in a number of book chapters and entries in new reference texts in 2010. In The Cambridge History of English Poetry (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010), Richard Cronin weaves Browning into his survey of the world of Victorian poetry, taking Browning's Sordello, character and poem, as as emblematic of the need on the part of Victorian poets "to find a style of their own" (p. 576). He reviews "Fra Lippo Lippi" as emblematic not just of the dramatic monologue, but also of the marketplace for publishing poetry in the Victorian era, as well as the question of relationships between artistic freedom and economics. Herbert Tucker contributes a chapter "Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning" to this volume (pp. 617-635), in which he considers the creative and intellectual synergy between the two poets in the context of what he terms the cultural formation of evangelical dissent. Musing that class-based interests inform what Victorians found uncouth about Browning's language-including the poems' evocation of "bodily sensation [with] strenuous thought"-Tucker traces Browning's poetic career as one half of this duo of "poised, self-critically self-confident children of poetic Romanticism and evangelical dissent" (p. 623). In his overview of Browning's work, Tucker suggests that Browning's volumes of poems, like his career, have their own distinctive rhythms. In Men and Women, for instance, Browning "tempers metres to temperaments" with "the prosodic equivalent of biorhythmic voiceprints" (p. 627). Browning's memory of Elizabeth Barrett after her death also forms part of that creative rhythm, as Barrett appears as "ghostly collaborator" in the imagery of the later works (p. 633).
Rhythm and pattern are at issue in several other book chapters on Browning. Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature (ed. Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn [Palgrave, 2010] ) is an essay collection focusing on "patterns of engagement with concepts of 'difference' and 'conflict'" (p. 1) and includes the essay "'Ever a Fighter': Browning's Struggle with Conflict" (pp. 33-51), also by Herbert Tucker. Tucker takes Hegel's dialectic as a starting point for his consideration of conflict and its resolution in Browning. Browning's pugnaciousness, together with the "skitter, careen, and lurch of his muscle-bound metric," Tucker contends, demands an equally energized response from his readers, a "state of artificially induced vigilance" (p. 37). Once Browning had his readers "forward deployed at the edge of the chair," Tucker asks to what end, speculating that it in is the service of a mode of arousal appropriate to resisting "the circumstances of modernity," which include a complacent acceptance of the teleological, or what Tucker terms "a progressivist literary-political history" (p. 38). Tucker surveys Dramatic Lyrics (1842), as well as major monologues from Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). He suggests that Browning's "refinement of the dramatic monologue" (teleological metaphors are hard to avoid) gives increasing emphasis to internal conflict as being valuable in itself. Phases in Browning's work with the dramatic monologue expose "the indwelling demerit of the tradition's very success, namely the cultural automation of its premises" (p. 45). To extrapolate from Tucker's intriguing argument, one might see in this essay a glimmer of a shift in critical conceptualizations of Browning's work, including the poet's often cited "causistry," toward a poetics of resistance and arousal. Tucker concludes with a reference to our own contemporary politics and present-day responses to conflict, noting that the "truth about reconciliation is that it has to keep happening" and that "the forensicism of contentious debate was Browning's way of sustaining the spirit of Reform" (p. 47).
In Narrative Means, Lyric Ends: Temporality in the Nineteenth-Century British Long Poem (Ohio State Univ. Press, 2009), Monique Morgan turns to formal patterns in the nineteenth-century long poem and considers the temporalities of lyric and narrative in four canonical works. Arguing that Don Juan is primarily narrative and The Prelude primarily lyrical, she sees Browning's The Ring and the Book as "fusing" both modes. In her chapter "Temporal Hybridity in the Dramatic Monologue and The Ring and the Book," Morgan situates her work within critical discussions of the dramatic monologue, focusing on the narratives of Arcangeli, Caponsacchi, and Pompilia. The shock of new information creates distance between speaker and reader, thereby drawing attention to the nature of discourse as something which unfolds in time (p. 172). It would be interesting to see Morgan extend her fine readings of temporal longing and orientations toward time in the monologues by considering additional work on The Ring and the Book: for instance, Mary Ellis Gibson's History and the Prism of Art: Browning's Poetic Experiments (1987), which works with the category of "simultaneity" in Browning's longer poems, and reviews "the lyric impulse" in The Ring and the Book in the chapter "The Ambiguous Present and the Language of Poetry."
It is good to see new attention directed to The Ring and the Book as a canonical Victorian text in Morgan and in Clinton Machann's Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading (Ashgate, 2010). Machann treats the Victorian long poem, examining representations of masculinity in Idylls of the King, Aurora Leigh, Amours de Voyage and The Ring and the Book. He argues for "a serious consideration of literary Darwinism" in work on masculinity in Victorian culture and presents a lucid overview of some of this theory in his introduction. Machann contends that "the ancient problem of male violence" is "related to real-world phenomena far beyond the industrialization of nineteenth-century Britain and the growth of capitalism" (p. 18) and draws on work in evolutionary psychology to support this claim. It is an interesting argument, raising the possibility of Browning's analysis of violence as saying something about power in our own time. In practice, it can be a challenging kind of critical operation to perform without slipping into essentialist claims about the human. In his chapter on Browning, "Browning's Chivalrous Christianity," Machann reviews Browning's biography and critical work on gender in The Ring and the Book, and surveys the behaviors and motivations of male figures in the poem. Machann argues, for instance, that "Browning's poetic voice . . . affirms an idealized feminine as a key to fundamental human values" and "judges other masculine voices . . . in terms of male-male competition" (p. 136). Highlighting these specific claims about the poem earlier in the chapter would help crystallize some of the points Machann wishes to make. Machann's approach does suggest new ways of thinking about patterns of conflict and power in Browning, in this well-written study.
Among new articles for 2010, Tyler Efird's "'Anamorphosizing': Male Sexual Fantasy in Browning's Monologue" (Mosaic 43 : 151-166) presents a sophisticated reading of "My Last Duchess" in Lacanian terms, engaging with specific critical positions (Sussman's "ethics of control" and Knoepflmacher on irony), offering readers an overview of Lacan on "anamorphic" images, and arriving at some original critical formulations through these proceedings. Efird defines anamorphosis as "a view from which an object appears to be something entirely different than when seen from another visual perspective" and contends that Browning works subtly with "an anamorphic view of male fantasy" in "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess." According to Efird, "Browning makes the case for the 'pathology' of both male art and romantic desire as . . . essentially 'normal' in that these tendencies belong to nearly all men under Victorian patriarchal social formations" (p. 154). The second half of the essay is densely theoretical, but the concept of "the anamorphic view" offers the potential for a distinctive conceptualizing of perception and perspective in Browning.
Britta Martens makes a significant contribution to the understanding of Browning's negotiations of his Romantic literary heritage in "Look Back with Confidence: Browning's Hidden Review of his Early Romanticism" (Victorians Institute Journal 38 : 149-170). Martens begins with "two critical commonplaces" regarding Browning's relationship to Romanticism: the turn from Romantic self-expression to an impersonal poetics, and the notion that the mature Browning "fashioned his engagement with Romanticism primarily through a preoccupation with Shelley" (p. 149). Martens argues that "Time's Revenges" (1845) functions as a vehicle for "a review of Browning's early Romantic egotism" and that "James Lee's Wife" (1864) also attests "to a private concern with . . . poetic identity" (p. 150). In the former, she traces Browning's incorporation of various Romantic tropes (the "unrecognized genius," the "bohemian poet in his garret"), focusing on the shift at the end of the first stanza which marks a "transition from a credible speaker to a parody" (p. 157). The movement away "from hidden autobiography in the Romantic vein" (p. 158), she contends, parallels Browning's own "reshaping of artistic identity" in the 1830s.
Martens also outlines the fascinating textual history of "James Lee's Wife," which incorporates material from Browning's earlier writing. She notes that section VIII "Beside the Drawing-Board" includes the poem "Study of a Hand, by Lionardo," submitted to The Keepsake in 1857 but never published; Section VI contains thirty lines published anonymously in May 1836 in the Monthly Repository as a work by "Z." Martens notes the implications of this formal refashioning which allows Browning to "assert the superiority of his mature over his early poetics" (p. 167). She concludes by identifying two alternate views of Browning's poetic career which she sees as existing in tension. One is a "conversion narrative," "its starting point the familiar, simplified Romantic concept of poetry as confessional and [pivoting] on a conversion to . . . impersonal poetry" (p. 167). The second involves a self which "revises its poetics," and as this narrative "carries the potential for public embarrassment," self-reference in the poems must be disguised. It is a fascinating argument, which leads Martens to original readings of the poems.
Jonathan Loesberg's "Browning Believing: "A Death in the Desert" and the Status of Belief" (Victorian Literature and Culture 38 : 209-238) is a substantial and welcome addition to investigations of the relationship of Browning's work to biblical hermeneutics or the Higher Criticism. Loesberg suggests that in the wake of the German Higher Criticism, Browning tries both "to propose how his contemporaries might believe," and, as a consequence, "how to look at the beliefs of others as expressions of one's condition and situation rather than as assertions whose accuracy it is in our interests to measure" (p. 209). Loesberg begins by distinguishing the epistemology of belief from the justification of religious belief, touching on the work of Victorian intellectuals from Herbert Spencer, John Henry Newman, and J. S. Mill to H. L. Mansell and G. H. Lewes.
Loesberg asks how belief operates and how it may be justified in the absence of of "evidence of the one's existence and the other's accuracy" and "in the presence of good reasons to doubt both" (p. 211). He also provides a useful analysis of distinctions between the positions of Strauss and Renan, Strauss being concerned to account for the existence of various versions of the life of Christ; Renan, with "recover[ing] an actual life of Jesus (p. 215).
Loesberg argues that "Bishop Blougram's Apology" and "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'" demonstrate Browning's understanding of how the epistemology of belief and the rationale for religious belief are linked; "A Death in the Desert," he contends, represents the "fullest" articulation of this understanding. John "confronts directly" the conclusions of the Higher Critics, rather than making the case for why "one should accept Christianity" (p. 210). In doing so, Browning ultimately offers readers a kind of pragmatic exploration of how beliefs "allow us to live lives" (p. 210). In making his case, Loesberg takes readers through some of the labyrinthine arguments of Browning's Blougram and Sludge, before turning to the main focus of the essay, "A Death in the Desert." He does superb work in tracing some of the complexities in Browning's fictional John's responses to his critics, noting that the poem "continually asks us to see John, not precisely as offering us a recovered eyewitness account, but as an allegory of eyewitness" and that John "sees the mythic significance and not the material reality as primary in the original event" (p. 230). John in effect "show[s] us one way consciously held and chosen beliefs need be neither hypocritical nor epistemologically incoherent" (p. 233).
In reflecting on the issue of "how to believe" in Browning, Loesberg contends that critics have become increasingly aware of the legacy of the higher criticism and yet "have refused to accept how completely this meant that his justification for belief wound up reproducing the Higher Critical position about the historical reality of Christianity, with the addition of an epistemologically daring and dangerous justification of willed belief in an object accepted as possibly fictional" (p. 209). The question of Browning and belief is rich terrain, and Loesberg's larger project will benefit by establishing further intersections with debates in Browning criticism on epistemology and theories of knowledge and representation. W. David Shaw, for instance, traverses some of this intellectual in Victorians and Mystery (1990) and The Lucid Veil (1987), with his enviable command of Victorian intellectual history. Warwick Slinn has much to say about linguistic indeterminacy in Browning (see also Bailey "Somatic Wisdom," 1998). Loesberg's work will most certainly bring new attention to this area in Browning studies.
In other Browning notes, Linda M. Shires' Perspectives: Modes of Viewing and Knowing in Nineteenth-Century England (Ohio State Univ. Press, 2009), newly received, contains a brief section on "Pippa Passes" in the chapter "Points of View in 'Pippa Passes,' The Woman in White, and Silas Marner." Shires examines connections between the visual and verbal arts, examining the persistence of Renaissance linear perspective in nineteenth-century culture as a paradigm for a "stable, reassuring, single-point perspective" (p. 4). She argues that it is also "too often . . . taken as a method of mimetic resemblance and copy, rather than as a self-reflexive representation addressed to a spectator" (p. 8). Shires is interested in countering "rupture" narratives in histories of modernity and draws on Browning's experiments with perspective in "Pippa Passes" as an early example of formal experimentation in reworking perspective and point of view. Shires touches on The Ring and the Book but focuses on the former poem, arguing that "Pippa Passes" "redefines Alberti's window frame motif for perspective, based in Cartesian subjectivity, by providing a mobile Pippa, not an immobile gazer" (p. 95). Browning "ironized" Pippa as "elect, but unseeing and unknowing," also reshaping the "the notion of a journey" through this poem (p. 95). Shires contends that "despite the motif of the linear journey through space, the Cartesian coordinate system of space is altered here to a series of parallel universes (houses) that the reader experiences as juxtaposed in a montage construct" (p. 96).
Linda K. Hughes' The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010) includes material on Browning in the chapter "Victorian Experimentalism" under the categories "Dramatic Monologue" and "Experiments in Language, Image, Symbol." Hughes notes that "Browning's bold expansion of the lexicon was a key contribution to modern poetic tradition"; his "experiments with compressed syntax, eliminating conventional bridges between thoughts, even parts of speech" were taken further by Hopkins and Emily Dickinson (pp. 32-33). Browning's lesser-known "Pan and Luna" (1880) is included in the chapter "Victorian Dialogues with Poetic Tradition" under "Classical Forms," as is The Ring and the Book as "complex psychological epic" (p. 63). The latter also figures briefly in the chapter "The Impress of Print: Poems, Periodicals, Novels" in terms of debates about the genre of this work in the Victorian periodicals press (p. 107). The most extensive discussions of Browning's work in the collection comprise "Caliban upon Setebos" in the chapter "Poetry, Technology, Science" (pp. 131-133); Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day under "Poetry and Religion" (as poems which Hughes argues "are unified by . . . consistently approaching religion as a question, not a source of certain answers" [p. 161]); and finally, "Love Among the Ruins" and "The Statue and the Bust" in the chapter "Poetry and the Heart's Affection" (pp. 185-186).
Two brief articles also touch on Browning. Shosuke Kinugawa's "'The Ring and the Gaze: Robert Browning's "Love among the Ruins'" (The Explicator 68 : 235-238) is a crisp close reading of the dance of gender and power in this poem, tracing the "dissolution of patriarchal civilization into feminine nature" (p. 235). Nature has the last word, as Kinugawa notes, "watch[ing] patiently" the masculine "rings" of ruin before folding the male actors "back into her arms, incorporating the temporal rings of men within her omnipotent ring" (p. 238). Kevin Gardner's "Was the Duke of Ferrara Impotent?" (ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 23 : 166-171) has some fun tracing the etymological and cultural resonances of cherries and other imagery in "My Last Duchess."
H. Wendell Howard's "Browning, Blougram, and Belief" (Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 13 : 79-93) speaks to an ongoing interest in Browning in a religious context, as does the chapter "To Be Pompilia, Not the Fisc: Browning and the Irony of Humility" in Anthony Esolen's Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (ISI Books, , pp. 1-9). Howard tackles G. K. Chesterton on Bishop Blougram and argues "one may reasonably conclude that then-current prejudices about Cardinal Wiseman were transferred to the poetical prelate," including "the centuries-old fear of Catholic oppression" (p. 84). Howard surveys reaction in the periodicals press to Wiseman's appointment as cardinal and archbishop of Westminster in 1850. He argues that Blougram's "'I who you doubt to prove that faith exists'" is "intellectually . . . one with Browning's habit [of] seeing imperfection as an implication of perception (p. 89).
Browning continues to attract interest in non-English speaking contexts. Anglistica Pisana 6 (2009), a journal published out of the University of Pisa, includes three articles on Browning: Elsa Linguanti, "Count Guido Franceschini, Etruscan, Aretine" (pp. 175-183); Joseph Phelan, "'The Forest Sanctuary': Robert Browning's 'By the Fire-Side' and Bagni di Lucca" (pp. 167-173); and in Italian, Mario Curelli's "I Browning a Pisa (per non parlar del cane)" (185-196), (roughly "The Brownings in Pisa [not to mention the dog] )." I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this journal. A new Italian edition of the Barrett/Browning courtship correspondence has also recently crossed the Browning desk: D'amore e di poesia: Lettere scelte 1845-1846, translated by Ilaria Rizzato (Archinto, 2007). Donguk Kim of the University of Korea writes on "The Mechanics of the Victorian Dramatic Monologue and its Theoretical Implications for the Novel" (English Language and Literature 56 : 519-541), including interesting reflections on how, in contrast to the Romantic lyric, "'subjectivity' and 'objectivity' pass into each other" in the dramatic monologue, "by imperceptible degrees" (p. 523).
My thanks to Cynthia Burgess of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University for sharing her work in keeping track of new Browning publications.
SUZANNE BAILEY is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. She is the author of Cognitive Style and Perceptual Difference in Browning's Poetry (2010) and has published on Browning in Victorian Studies, Studies in Browning and his Circle, and in Jude V. Nixon's Victorian Religious Discourse (2004).