Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Blended Selves and the Spectacle of Subjection in Browning's "Andrea del Sarto"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Blended Selves and the Spectacle of Subjection in Browning's "Andrea del Sarto"

Article excerpt

Despite uttering not one of the 267 lines in Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto" (1855), (1) Lucrezia plays a powerful role in the poem and represents a dense field of textual meanings. The Lucrezia of this poem is not only an historical person Browning inherits from the biographical fact of Andrea's marriage to Lucrezia del Fede, but also the poet's invention as an adulterous wife, silenced victim, and economic agent. In these respects Browning summons a range of intertextual Lucrezias, from the raped Roman Lucretia (Livy and Shakespeare) to the Renaissance Italian pawn of political/matrimonial expedience Lucrezia Borgia. Without any overt pointers toward these other figures, Browning takes advantage of the subtle resonances generated by her namesakes to give complexity to his silent character and, more broadly, to invite comparisons among them. The historical sedimentation that results from overlaying ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy with Victorian Britain enables Browning to make an oblique commentary on contemporary wranglings over the status of women's sexuality and position in marriage and the public sphere. More specifically, one of the concerns of his poem is the situation of women as subject to and shaped by highly regulated, dependent, relational lives spent facilitating a range of male ambitions, from wealth and power to great artworks to new nations.

Such unpropitious conditions for women do not produce uniformly charming results: though unusually, even refreshingly self-pleasuring, the masculinized Lucrezia seems self-absorbed and avaricious, as well as faithless. But reflecting on how Andrea, too, is unprepossessing, and rendered female (through his absorbing romantic attachment and unrealized potential, for instance), one begins to perceive how husband and wife are alike. By moving these two characters toward greater identification with each other--especially in their shared femininity--the poem reveals how the kinds of disabilities usually imposed on women can push people to clutch at some sense of control and self-esteem through unsavory means. He endeavors to detain her at home, stifle her speech, and make her the cause of his artistic underachievement, for example, while she ignores him, craves money, and openly takes another lover. But their mutual movement across porous gender norms and the temporary placement of each one's words in the other's mouth indicate a surprising overlap in their experiences of how disempowered femininity can warp the self. Ultimately, then, the monologue forgives and sympathizes with its unlikeable characters more than most readers are inclined to do.

This essay argues that "Andrea del Sarto" shows Browning thinking about the issues of social control over women's movements, voice, and sexuality that occupied his contemporaries in Italy and Britain in the 1850s, and that the poem demonstrates how the disempowerments of womanhood generate the distasteful traits of Andrea as well as of Lucrezia. The couple's mutual efforts to assert themselves and exercise control lead them not only to contend against each other, but also to identify with one another, as each recognizes in the other the personality-distorting maneuvers of a desperate individual suffering the restrictions and resentments usually attendant on Renaissance and Victorian womanhood. This gender- and identity-blending matters in part because it represents a key innovation of the distinctively Victorian genre of dramatic monologue, whose emergent poetics I briefly historicize by means of cognitive theory. The article will situate the poem in its immediate context, where the policing of women's sexual selves had surprisingly far-reaching social and political consequences, and then touch on the gender fluidity of the poem's main characters before moving to a detailed assessment of Andrea's endeavors to control Lucrezia's speech. It concludes by considering how speech in the poem blurs identities--finally giving way to a moment of insight without speech--and I gesture toward the implications of my argument for an understanding of genre and cognition. …

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