The Development of Robert Browning’s Coarse Beauty

April 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m reading through an anthology of Robert Browning’s “Selected Poetry” and I’m doing something I don’t usually do: I’m reading everything in it start to finish, not just the highlights (the dramatic monologues) I was looking for. It’s let me see both the good and bad of his work, and it shows how his strengths and weaknesses developed. Browning was never a fine or elegant poet — that wasn’t his style — so it’s fascinating to see him develop his coarse style, of interruptions and exclamations and pauses for thought and crude impatience, into a thing of richness.

Browning, I learned, actually wanted to be a playwright, and published several plays in the attempt. This makes sense, since his most famous poems are monologues. The anthology includes a bit of one of his plays, “Pippa Passes”. A couple quotes:

THIRD GIRL: Look there — by the nails!

SECOND GIRL: What makes your fingers red?

THIRD GIRL: Dipping them into wine to write bad words with
On the bright table: how he laughed!

FIRST GIRL: My turn.
Spring’s come and summer’s coming. I would wear
A long loose gown, down to the feet and hands,
With plaits here, close about the throat, all day.

FIRST GIRL: They, destroy
My garden since I left them? well — perhaps!
I would have done so: so I hope they have!
A fig-tree curled out of our cottage wall;
They called it mine, I have forgotten why,
It must have been there long ere I was born:
Cric — cric — I think I hear the wasps o’erhead
Pricking the papers strung to flutter there
And keep off birds in fruit-time.

There are a few interesting features of this writing, both consistent and surprising, given what I thought of Browning prior:

  • His famous stop-and-start style of self-interruptions is all there.
  • Like his dramatic monologues (“My Last Duchess”, for example, is only a year older than this play) his characters are always distracted, e.g. “My turn.” or “Cric — cric — I think I hear the wasps”.
  • There’s a real cacophony of images in the writing. Red fingers, bright table, spring and summer. A garden, a fig tree, a cottage, wasps, papers, birds. How can the characters move so quickly through these images? It’s hard for me to even imagine this being performed with a coherent delivery on stage.

About that last point, I think we’re seeing Browning’s famous style and temperament in unfocused form. The overall idea of back-and-forth and struggling conversation is there, but the characters’ distractions and thoughts are loose strands rather than living, breathing poetry.

Seeing a weaker passage like this, it’s now miraculous to me that Browning found a way to organize his distracted style into real poetry, but when we see him turn such an approach into focused shifts of imagery, as in “My Last Duchess”:

She liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West.

…well, then it’s a full-blooded kind of poetry like none other. (More specifically, see how “whate’er” hangs with ominous openness at the end of the line. How “She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” doubles the word “look” to shift its meaning. How “breast” and “West” rhyme in a mismatch of attentions.)

My point is that even though Browning had a coarse style, he worked it through the same development as any great writer, honing it into a focused and richly expressive medium for his personal imagination, until it was, without a doubt, beautiful.

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