Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Blougram's Wager, Guido's Odds: Browning, Chance, and Probability

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Blougram's Wager, Guido's Odds: Browning, Chance, and Probability

Article excerpt

Then add there's still that plaguy hundredth chance
Strauss may be wrong. And so a risk is run --
For what gain?
       (Bishop Blougram's Apology, 11. 587-589)

For Guido had so nearly nicked the nine
And ninety and one over.
      (The Ring and the Book, 12.222-223) (1)

BROWNING'S IS AN ESSENTIALLY ALEATORY POETRY, DERIVING ITS DRAMATIC life from the clashing and balancing of probabilities. His self-construction as man and writer, the style and language of his poems and his relation with his audience, embody an ethics and poetics of risk. Browning was numerate and financially astute; although his language has famously been characterized as tactile, even visceral, (2) his imagination runs equally to the spatial, the geometric, and the numerical. Like those other poets of quasi-mathematical self-consciousness, Keats and Hopkins, (3) Browning articulated his sense of "inspired randomness" in a language of odds, lots, hazards, and games of chance. Drawing on older understandings of chance, especially classical probability calculus and Bayesian inference, he weighed them against more recent notions of probability and against the forensic, actuarial, and theological implications of Victorian statistical science. As John Schad has shown in his study of Dickens and mathematics, the individual writer can absorb and transform the encroachments of an increasingly quantitative universe by restoring numbers to the realm of the imagination. (4) My reading of Browning traces the ways in which he dramatizes the impact of probabilistic thinking on poetic form.

The current debate on the intellectual origins and literary implications of probability theory focuses on a moment in European thought when a shift has been perceived in the way uncertainty can be conceptualized and quantified. The influential Foucault-Hacking hypothesis posits a sharp discontinuity between all earlier ideas of probability and the ways of thinking made possible by the emergence of modern theories of probability in the late seventeenth century. (5) Whatever the causes of this shift, and whatever the survival and continuing prestige of earlier concepts, especially in literature, (6) it is agreed that in the period between 1657 and 1712, Huygens, Pascal, Jacques Bernoulli, and others laid the foundations of a mathematical theory of probability. Bayes published his "Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" in 1763. Meanwhile, from Graunt's bills of mortality of 1662 and into Browning's own lifetime, empirical work on vital statistics, including actuarial tables, registration da ta, and censuses, together with the theoretical advances of Poisson (the law of large numbers) and Quetelet (the bell-shaped curve), established the modern "science of the state." (7)

The implications of probability theory for the shape and status of literary texts have been discussed in the context of works as diverse as Roderick Random and The Music of Chance, though most commentators have concentrated on the nineteenth-century novel in Britain and France. They have been concerned not only with chance as thematized in fiction (as in Conrad's Chance or in the novels of Wilkie Collins) (8) but with its role in the inception and construction of texts: with changes from Aristotelian to modern concepts of the "probable" in character or plot, with spatial and formal metaphors (the "bounds" of probability), (9) and with notions of agency and causality and their relation to fictional coincidences or chance encounters. (10) The realist novel, David F. Bell argues, belongs to a time of faith in the interpretative power of causal explanation, and especially to the reader's sense of inevitability--of the likelihood, after the fact, of an event's having happened. (11) Particularly interesting are re cent critical explorations of the reader's sense of the probable, and of the process whereby he or she may be drawn into calculating likelihoods and outcomes. …

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