Decomposing but to Recompose: Browning, Biblical Hermeneutics, and the Dramatic Monologue

By Nerstad, Erin | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Decomposing but to Recompose: Browning, Biblical Hermeneutics, and the Dramatic Monologue


Nerstad, Erin, Victorian Poetry


Benjamin Jowett wrote in his contribution to Essays and Reviews (1860) about the proper way to interpret the Scriptures. The reader of Scripture, he said, must overcome difficulties posed by temporal distance and linguistic and cultural difference:

   He [the interpreter] has to transfer himself to another age; to
   imagine that he is a disciple of Christ or Paul; to disengage
   himself from all that follows....[I]t is an inner not an outer
   world that he is striving to restore.... [His] business is to place
   himself as nearly as possible in the position of the sacred
   writer.... To get inside that world is an effort of thought and
   imagination, requiring the sense of a poet as well as a
   critic,--demanding, much more than learning[,] a degree of original
   power, and intensity of mind. (1)

Though Jowett is outlining principles for scriptural hermeneutics, his technique calls for a "poetic" imaginative power in order to perform the interpretive feat. While one may simply read this as a rhetorical flourish, it is striking how similar Jowett's hermeneutics are to the methodology of a particular contemporary poetic form. For dramatic monologues, especially those by the form's preeminent practitioner Robert Browning, are indeed "effort[s] of thought and imagination to create or restore the "inner world of another person who is often a figure from the past, with whose "position" or point of view the reader is compelled to identify.

Why do we find such similarities between Browning's poetic form and the hermeneutics of the Broad Churchman and Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893)? Browning and Jowett knew of each other's work and became very close friends, but their friendship did not begin until 1865, when Jowett had already published his essay and twenty-nine years after Browning had published his first dramatic monologues. (2) I will argue that both men are drawing on a common source, and Jowett's essay On the Interpretation of Scripture points us to the contemporary religious, interpretive, and epistemological techniques that also shaped the dramatic monologue. (3) I argue that the roots of Browning's poetics will be found in an ultimately religious hermeneutics, which came to Browning, as to Jowett, from German and English religious and literary paradigms of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though a few scholars have noted a similarity between the work of Browning and the Christian hermeneuticists Friedrich Schleiermacher and Jowett, (4) I am going to argue for a much more pervasive link between Browning, the dramatic monologue, and contemporary Christian hermeneutics. Out of a nexus of aesthetics and Christian interpretive practices emerged a type of sympathetic seeing that both poets and Christian hermeneuticists developed as an essential supplement to the new historical criticism of the Bible. My approach departs from that of scholars who have acknowledged Browning's indebtedness to higher critical thought but view him as inhabiting the skeptical stance of critics like Ernest Renan. (5) Rather, Browning, like Jowett and Schleiermacher, acknowledges the difficulties and limitations inherent within the attempt to recover past truth properly while viewing a certain "effort of thought and imagination" as a necessary complement to textual and historical reconstruction.

To place Jowett's hermeneutics in dialogue with the dramatic monologue, one can begin with Browning's Essay on Shelley, written in late 1851. (6) In the essay Browning gives an account of two opposed types of poet, the "subjective" and the "objective." The "objective poet, as the phrase now goes," is concerned "to reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the scenic universe, or the manifested action of the human heart and brain)." We learn from this poet about "the fact itself" (p. 137). Conversely, the "subjective" poet is "a seer" (p. 139) who "is impelled to embody the thing he perceives, not so much with reference to the many below as to the one above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth" (p. …

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Decomposing but to Recompose: Browning, Biblical Hermeneutics, and the Dramatic Monologue
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