Magazine article The Spectator

Browning: A Private Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Browning: A Private Life

Article excerpt

BROWNING: A PRIVATE LIFE by Iain Finlayson HarperCollins, £30, pp. 758, ISBN 0002555077 By no means roses, roses all the way

Robert Browning, in life, was always immensely popular in a worldly way; he knew everyone not just in London but in Europe, and was almost universally loved over the dinner table. More than that, his shining, decent, boldly original mind leaps out from any biography, and it is easy to see how enchanting and charming he must have been in person. His poetry, on the other hand, is another matter; it has never been exactly popular. Even at the height of his success in 1870, just after the publication and immense acclamation of The Ring and the Book, he earned only £100 from his poetry, and his busy social life had to be funded by a legacy from a rich benefactor. That is roughly one-fiftieth of Tennyson's earned income at the time, and you wonder whether anyone outside Browning's substantial acquaintanceship bought and read his poetry, and whether he has ever managed to acquire a large readership since. The fact that, despite his small-to-nonexistent sales, he has always seemed like a substantial rival to Tennyson's greatness is a testament to the ardent, visionary spirit of the poetry itself.

It was a wonderful life, but a tremendously difficult one. His early poems either fell completely flat, or were ridiculed out of court. Notoriously, Sordello was long considered completely incomprehensible and still remains a very difficult poem. Tennyson said that he understood only the first line - 'Who will may hear Sordello's story told' - and the last - 'Who would has heard Sordello's story told' - and neither of them was true, since he couldn't understand anything in between. Jane Welsh Carlyle, a very intelligent woman, got to the end and had to inquire whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book.

These early poems are certainly hard going, and often faintly absurd - for me, a poem-drama like Paracelsus is killed stone dead by the memory of 'Savonarola Brown'; large stretches of it scan beautifully, saying nothing much at great length. Despite their sophistication, there is a curious naivety about them, summed up by a ludicrous feature at the end of Pippa Passes:

Then, owls and hats,

Cowls and twats,

Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods

Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning, with all his immense learning, was still under the impression that 'twat' was the name for an item of nun's headgear. When the OED, much later in his life, wrote to inquire why he thought that, he kindly sent them a passage from an old poem he'd found -'They'd talked of his having a cardinal's hat,/ They'd send him as soon an old nun's twat.' Which just goes to show - the awful story is passed over in silence by Iain Finlayson - that extreme cleverness is no safeguard.

Nevertheless, though none of these poems sold at all, and when read were never understood, there is something very powerful at work. Where most other poets of the time were in love with the luxuriating styles that Keats and Shelley had created, Browning was much more interested in pursuing a harsh, densely musical style which would create something baroque out of the rhythms of ordinary speech. Encrusted and glittering, his poems attain an extraordinary modernity, and can sound like Ezra Pound, or, with gnomic simplicity, like Wallace Stevens:

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt,

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!

Well, I forget the rest.

What saved Browning was his marriage. The wonderful story of Browning's courtship of Elizabeth Barrett has been told over and over again, and remains heartbreakingly moving: how she half-submitted to and half connived in her family's treatment of her as an invalid; how he penetrated her sick-room with letters of admiration for her poetry, then in person; their wooing, her terror and final brave flight to Italy; and the idyllically happy marriage which followed, as all her repressed energy burst out. …

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