Robert Browning deserves a little fuss

Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud c1888

A long poem, The Ring and the Book, was published in the winter of 1868/9, little more than a year, as it happens, before the death of Charles Dickens, the bicentenary of whose birth was celebrated so enthusiastically in 2012. The author of the poem, Robert Browning, was the same age as Dickens. So his bicentenary fell in the same year. It was bound to receive much less attention. Yet when The Ring and the Book appeared, one critic, writing in The Athenaeum, declared it “not merely… the supremest poetical achievement of our time, but… the most precious and profound spiritual treasure that England has produced since the days of Shakespeare”. Now, it must be doubtful if there is one reader of The Ring and the Book for every hundred of Bleak House or Great Expectations.

At school we used to read quite a few Browning poems – the more accessible ones, as last year’s Man Booker chairman might have put it. “Oh to be in England now that April’s there”; “Home Thoughts, from the Sea“, with its magnificent line, “Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay” (I love that “reeking”); or “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” with the rat “stout as Julius Caesar” that swam across the River Weser; or “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” – “boot, saddle, to horse and away”, even if we never found out what the Good News was.

For many, however, Browning – who died on December 12 1889 – was probably best known for his love affair and elopement with his fellow-poet, Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid confined to bed and sofa by command of her doctors and tyrannical father. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Besier’s 1931 play, was a West End success and became a staple of repertory companies. It was twice filmed, both times by Sidney Franklin, and the 1957 film was distinguished by a riveting performance from John Gielgud, who made Mr Barrett’s quasi-incestuous possessive love decidedly disturbing. Browning himself was somewhat incongruously played by Bill Travers, a handsome hunk, better known for his role in Geordie as a village lad from the Highlands who becomes an Olympic hammer-thrower.

All this rather distracted one from Browning’s work and his remarkable originality, as indeed did the discovery that, for years after his return to London from Italy following his wife’s death in 1861, he dined out every single evening, and was known for being relentlessly talkative and sociable.

Two things revived my interest in him. The first was G K Chesterton’s critical study. Chesterton himself said it was really a book about his own ideas “in which the name of Browning is introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art”. This was a piece of Chestertonian persiflage. It’s a very good book which anyone interested in Browning will profit from reading.

he second was the attention paid him by Modernist poets, especially Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. They grasped the fact that, though Browning was commonly bracketed with Tennyson as one of the two great Victorian poets, his manner of writing anticipated Modernist developments.

Browning’s best poetry, found especially in his dramatic monologues, such as “My Last Duchess”, “Mr Sludge, 'The Medium’ ”, and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” is never what is called “poetical”. Owing something to Byron – the Byron of Don Juan, for like Byron he is a great comic writer – Browning’s language is conversational. He strove to catch the trick and rhythm of speech – just as Eliot was to do in The Waste Land. That speech is often awkward, jagged, broken-up, allusive, given to digressions and second thoughts which correct, or seem to correct, what has previously been said. It is sometimes obscure and sometimes grotesque, as speech may be when it reflects or discloses character.

Browning often demands a lot of his readers; his early poem Sordello left Jane Welsh Carlyle unsure whether Sordello was “a man, or a city, or a book”. Asked years later about the meaning of a particular line, Browning replied that when he wrote it only God and he knew what it meant, and now – alas – only God did. Nevertheless, whatever the difficulties, there is always meat in Browning.

Which brings me back to his masterpiece, The Ring and the Book. One day in 1860 he picked up an old book on a market stall in the Piazza Lorenzo in Florence. It told the story of a Roman murder in 1698, and a trial which turned on a dispute whether a husband might kill his adulterous wife without incurring penalty. The cruel and violent story fascinated him. It has incidentally been very well told in prose by Derek Parker in Roman Murder Mystery (Sutton Books, 2001), and anyone embarking on the poem might do well to read this. For Browning’s poem is not easy.

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