Robert Browning was Victorian Britain’s greatest poet, argues Stuart Kelly – yet who’s celebrating his bicentenary on Monday?
This year began with a profusion of celebrations about the bicentenary of Charles Dickens: new biographies, critical studies, television adaptations and a whole afternoon of film versions. As part of the Cultural Olympiad, the summer is given over to Shakespeare, with a 20-part series, Shakespeare Unlocked, on Radio 4, a number of productions from the Globe on Sky Arts and culminating in the Globe to Globe Festival, with 37 works in 37 languages, including Hamlet in Lithuanian, a hip-hop Othello and even Henry V in English.
Between these two titans, another anniversary has been overlooked. Born in the same year as Dickens, Robert Browning was one of the greatest poets of Victorian Britain – and to my mind, the greatest (whether one gives that position to Browning or Tennyson is a litmus-test among poetry readers). Every reader will be familiar with one of his works, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, even if they haven’t actually read it, and most readers will probably have an inkling that Browning is “difficult”. In his book on Browning, GK Chesterton records the anecdote of an admirer of Browning writing to ask him to elucidate a poem. His reply, which is more than likely apocryphal, was, “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant – God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” What is definitely true is Tennyson’s exasperation at Browning’s long poem “Sordello”: the laureate wrote “There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.’”
Browning is not “difficult” in the way that JH Prynne or even Emily Dickinson are difficult. He is complicated, oblique and the speakers of his poems contradict and delude themselves. Any reader who can appreciate Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads will understand the dramatic monologue, the form in which Browning excelled: the speaker reveals more about themselves than they realise. In his most famous example, “My Last Duchess”, the Duke gradually shows that he is not just vain, and bullying, but psychopathic – “Oh sir, she smiled no doubt / Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without / Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together”. Compounding the irony, we gather than the Duke is speaking to an envoy from another aristocrat, and is attempting to negotiate a dowry to marry his daughter. Similarly, the wonderful poem “The Bishop Orders His Tomb At St Praxed’s Church” begins with conventional pieties and slowly, horrifically, becomes a masterpiece portrait of greed, envy, hypocrisy and impiety.
Browning’s father was the abolitionist son of a slave-owning landowner, and his paternal grandmother may have been of mixed race; his mother was the daughter of a German shipowner who settled in Dundee and married a local girl. He himself spent much of his life in Italy, and married Elizabeth Barrett, herself a fine poet and contender for the laureateship. Elizabeth lost her inheritance for secretly marrying Browning – and all these factors put him in an askance relationship with conventional Victorian society. The topics he chose for his poems were often recondite – minor Renaissance painters, 18th-century Venetian composers, 1st-century Syrian physicians and medieval grammarians. In each case, however, the poem tells you all you need to know about the characters; often their very obscurity is the pre-condition for Browning’s imaginative leap into their psychologies.
What, to me, makes Browning the most significant and exciting poet of the period is the manner in which he linguistically reinvigorated English poetry in the wake of the Romantic Revolution. Wordsworth, in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, had written that the poems “were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure”.
Browning went a step further with this, capturing the idioms, elisions and eccentricities of the human speaking voice. His characters growl and squeak and harrumph: Mr Sludge, the Medium, says “aie – aie – aie! / Please sir! your thumbs are through my windpipe, sir! / Ch- ch!”; Bishop Bloughram’s monologue begins “No more wine? Then we’ll push back chairs and talk. / A final glass for me, though: cool, i’faith!”. The roguish Fra Lippo Lippi even ends on a “Zooks!” He invented an eerie, grammatically twisted style for his astonishing poem narrated by Caliban, the “monster” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where he explains his autodidact theology. The speakers of Browning’s poems use words that had never been in poetry before.
Browning defines his own preoccupations in “Bishop Bloughram’s Apology”, where the trimming, half-disbelieving bishop is confronted by an agnostic idealist. The worldly bishop says “Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things. / The honest thief, the tender murderer, / The superstitious atheist, demirep / That loves and saves her soul in new French books – / We watch while these in equilibrium keep / The giddy line midway: one step aside, / They’re classed and done with. I, then, keep the line”. Browning has the staggering capacity to keep the reader constantly unsettled; every judgement we make about the characters is provisional and open to reinterpretation. It is a deeply humanist endeavour, and although Browning is sometimes criticised for a naive optimism (his lines “God’s in his Heaven – / All’s right with the world!” are routinely taken out of context and used against him) there is something uplifting about his sense that even our imperfections point to possible, yet-to-be-attained completeness. Chesterton expressed it perfectly: “He is called an optimist; but the word suggests a calculated contentment which was not in the least one of his vices. What he really was was a romantic. He offered the cosmos as an adventure rather than a scheme”.
Browning not only revitalised the diction of English poetry and extended its range of ethical and moral subtlety, he also transformed the narrative potential of poetry. The infamous “God’s in his Heaven” quote comes from “Pippa Passes”, a poem where the innocent Pippa walks singing through the village, thinking about those she sees and subconsciously affecting their actions. Even more ambitious was “The Ring And The Book” of 1868-9, concerning a murder trial in late 17th-century Rome, where the same story is told from nine different points of view. Although epistolary novels – Richardson’s Clarissa, Collins’ The Moonstone and Stoker’s Dracula – had experimented with “perspectivism”, Browning’s is the most thorough-going and intricate version. It would only be in the 20th century, with works like Akutagawa’s “In A Grove” (filmed as Rashomon by Kurosawa), Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury or Ali Smith’s The Accidental that the potential of this form was fully exploited.
Browning, with his ambiguities and polyphonic style, is easily the most “modern” of the Victorian poets. As such, it was only Browning that Ezra Pound considered worthy of study in his provocative the ABC Of Reading. More than any other poet of the period, Browning’s lines stick with me. No-one else could pen such lines as “What of soul was left I wonder when the kissing had to stop?”, “What Youth deemed crystal / Age found out was dew” or “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”