Browning’s 3 favorite poets were Homer, Elizabeth Barrett, and Shelley.
“My Last Duchess” is a miracle; despite its rhyming couplets, this famous poem sounds more naturally spoken than any of the Moderns: Eliot, Pound, Williams, or Frost.
Browning has always been well-represented in anthologies, but his reputation seems to have been slipping profoundly of late. We know him from a handful of poems: “My Last Duchess,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” “Meeting at Night,” “Home Thoughts, From Abroad,” “A Woman’s Last Word,” “Women and Roses,” “The Lost Leader,” “Youth and Art,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” and “Fra Lippo Lippi.”
He was a liberal, but also a Christian, and thus the modern taste for him is definitely on the wane; but he was an acute dramatist and a source of literary Modernism, so he’ll be populating anthologies for a long time to come; but the problem with Browning is that few bother with him anymore.
His influence on the leading pack of 20th century Modernists is profound. “A Light Woman” for instance, is all Yeats:
So far as our story approaches the end,
Which do you pity the most of us three? —
My friend, the mistress of my friend
With her wanton eyes, or me?
Browning was a dramatist most of all, very unlike Byron or Shakespeare, however, without their levity; in his poems Browning is always pursuing an argument, and this spoils a great deal of his lyric work; the immediate pleasure (which Byron and Shakespeare, for instance, always considered) is deferred in Browning, as he rebuts himself and muses over this claim and that suggestion at great length. The result is often tedium. “My Last Duchess” is a triumph precisely because Browning’s tendency to unravel a long debate with himself is held in check: the narrator (the cruel Duke) has the last word throughout the poem, and both the singular event and the curtained portrait lend the whole a dramatic focus.
Very little attention has been paid to Browning’s prose, his philosophy, his criticism, and here’s a sample of it all at once, on a figure it has been our modern habit to overlook in connection with Browning—Shelley:
An ordinary youth…discovers falsities, incongruities, and various points for amendment, and, in natural advance of the purely critical spirit unchecked by considerations of remedy, keeps up before his young eyes so many instances of the same error and wrong, that he finds himself unawares arrived at the startling conclusion that all must be changed—or nothing: in the face of which plainly impossible achievement, he is apt to feel, either carelessly or considerately, that his own attempting a single piece of service would be worse than useless even, and to refer the whole task to another age or person—safe in proportion to his incapacity. Wanting words to speak, he has never made a fool of himself by speaking. But, in Shelley’s case, the early fervour and power to see, was accompanied by as precocious a fertility to contrive: he endeavoured to realize as he went on idealizing; every wrong had simultaneously its remedy, and, out of the strength of his hatred for the former, he took the strength of his confidence in the latter—till suddenly he stood pledged to the defense of a set of miserable little expedients, just as if they represented great principles, and to an attack upon various great principles, really so, without leaving himself time to examine whether, because they were antagonistical to the remedy he had suggested, they must therefore be identical or even essentially connected with the wrong he sought to cure,—playing with blind passion into the hands of his enemies, and dashing at whatever red cloak was held forth to him, as the cause of the fireball he had last been stung with—mistaking Churchdom for Christianity, and, for marriage, ‘the sale of love’ and the law of sexual oppression.
Gradually, however, he was leaving behind him this low practical dexterity, unable to keep up with his widening intellectual perception; and, in exact proportion as he did so, his true power strengthened and proved itself. Gradually he was raised above the contemplation of spots and the attempt at defacing them, to the great Abstract Light, and through the discrepancy of the creation, to the sufficieny of the First Cause. Gradually he was learning that the best way of removing abuses is to stand fast by truth. Truth is one, as they are manifold; and innumerable negative effects are produced by the upholding of one positive principle. I shall say what I think,—had Shelley lived, he would have finally ranged himself with the Christians…
Browning’s highly articulate, well-argued sympathy for Shelley contrasts with T.S. Eliot’s less than Christian position; Eliot had no patience for Shelley’s youthful errors or his poetry, dismissing him as a “blackguard” and leaving it pretty much at that; Eliot’s general distaste for the Romantics colored the Moderns’ attitude generally, who rejected a great deal in revolutionary haste.
Browning, the Shelleyan poet, does exist, though few know it; the mature poem, “Reverie,” a 220 line lyric is a wonderful example; here are the concluding two stanzas:
I have faith such end shall be:
From the first, Power was—I knew,
Life has made clear to me
That, strive but for closer view,
Love were as plain to see.
When see? When there dawns a day,
If not on the homely earth,
Then yonder, worlds away,
Where the strange and new have birth,
And Power comes full in play.
There it is, that Platonic rapture that dares to call the earth “homely.” I not only hear Shelley in these lines, but Emily Dickinson, as well, though she’s better at metaphor than Browning, and more in love with the “homely earth.” Still, I hear her voice here. It’s easy to forget Browning’s influence, but it is immense. In an age when every philosopher and poet is lost in the trees, and dares not even think of the woods, can a renewed interest in Browning and his Platonism be that bad?
If “Reverie” needs to become a new Browning classic, “Development,” another mature poem, should, too. Here’s the charming opening:
My father was a scholar and knew Greek.
When I was five years old, I asked him once
‘What do you read about?’
‘The siege of Troy.’
‘What is the siege of Troy?’ Whereat
He piled up chairs and tables for a town,
Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat
—Helen, enticed away from home (he said)
By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close
Under the footstool, being cowardly,
But whom—since she was worth the pains, poor puss—
Towzer and Tray,—our dogs, the Atreidai,—sought
By taking Troy to get possession of
—Always when great Achilles ceased to sulk,
(My pony in the stable)—forth would prance
And put to flight Hector—our page-boy’s self.
Browning was a couple years younger than Poe—“The Raven” entered the world (January, 1845) just when Robert wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, who right around that time, was corresponding with the American poet. Poe dedicated his Poems (1845) to her; Barrett’s fame preceded her husband’s, who was an obscure figure when he began his famous courtship. Elizabeth and Robert’s son, ‘Pen,’ was born in 1849, the year Poe met his end. Elizabeth survived only another 10 years, and 20 years after that, the Browning Society was born.