Robert Browning's Necropoetics

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I. Introduction: The Limits of Reanimation

When Robert Browning published his 1868-89 book-length "murder poem," The Ring and the Book, his reputation as a poet "with special gifts of intellect and originality" that were at the same time put in the service of a poetics of great "crudity" and "jolting violence" seemed once again confirmed. (1) "I felt ... like a creature with one leg and one wing, half hopping, half flying," Browning's friend William Allingham said after reading the poem's first volume, while others characterized the poem as "incongruous materials" incapable of forming a "harmonious whole," or as simultaneously "life-like" and a "morbid anatomy." (2) These friends and reviewers, torn as they were between awe at the poem's intellectual ambition and disgust at its aesthetic execution, envisioned their ambivalence as states of bodily transformation and incomplete states at that: halfway from legs to wings, from parts to a whole, from life to death. Without acknowledging directly the grotesque corporeality so prevalent in many of Browning's most well-known dramatic monologues, these readers nonetheless see the almost-changed body as a metaphor for Browning's poetic strangeness: a strangeness characterized by the formal tension, as the historian Thomas Carlyle would have it, between "an Old Bailey story that might have been told in ten lines" and a long dramatic monologue, or, as Browning himself wrote in his "Essay on Shelley," between poetry that "reproduces things external" and poetry that is the "radiance and aroma of [the poet's] personality." (3)

In Browning's dramatic monologues, as in the responses above, the changing body--specifically, in the monologues, the once-dead body, the almost-alive-again body--is a locus for aesthetic experimentation that both critiques poetry's inevitably subjective relation to facts--historical facts, observable facts, and the facts of literary influence--and uses that relationship as the basis for generic innovation. The reanimated body, whether appearing in poems like The Ring and the Book or in shorter dramatic monologues like "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess," becomes a figure through which Browning considers the fraught relation between unassailable historical materiality and original aesthetic practice--between the dictates of what has

come before and the desire to create something new out of it. The dramatic monologue, in its dual capacity functioning as a critical and always-ironic foil to the multiple projects of aesthetic "resurrection" so in vogue during the nineteenth century--the Arthurian revival in art and literature, the vogue for museum exhibitions that recreated ancient tombs, and phenomena like magic lantern shows and spirit photography--as a form becomes both a self- conscious vehicle for poems of reanimation and a mode of reanimation itself. While critics have argued that we can see the dramatic monologue as "a form of verbal resuscitation of the dead, a quasi-Spiritualist voicing of dead men and women," (4) and Victorian reviewers especially found in Tennyson's dramatic monologues "the secret of the transmigration of the soul," dramatic monologues in which the dead come to life in turn call our attention to the limits of the poet's reanimating power by exposing the inherent subjectivity of any resuscitative poetic project. (5) These monologues embody the fictive and necessarily inventive nature of aesthetic resuscitation: nothing can come back from the dead unless the poet reanimates it. Browning uses his dramatic monologues to draw an analogy between corporeal reanimation and poetic practice, and in doing so probes, critiques, and reinvents the process by which new, "living" poetry can emerge from the intransigent bodies of the past. His "necropoetics" bring long-dead voices back to life, but not with the expectation that his monologists will speak truth. Rather, the inalterable fact of their deaths creates the condition necessary for Browning to scrutinize and to relish the imaginative truths his own poetics of aesthetic resurrection could reveal. …