Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

24
Browning and Modernism

The Poems of Browning. Vol. I: 1826-1840, Vol. II: 1841-1846, edited by John Woolford and Daniel Karlin ( Harlow, 1991)

Browning is in high favour once again, or promises to be. Has not A. S. Byatt, CBE, declared him 'one of the very greatest English poets'? In a switch to fighting talk, she adds that 'his greatness has never been fully acknowledged or described . . . in part because he is difficult to docket in terms of the usual literary discussions of Victorian poetry.'1 We are given no example of the literary discussions allegedly 'usual'. However, the author of Possession (Booker Prize 1990) speaks on these matters with authority, being herself a Victorian poet, industrious and prolific:

These things are there. The garden and the tree
The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
The woman in the shadow of the boughs
The running water and the grassy space.
They are and were there. At the old world's rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
And dozed and waited through eternity . . .

These verses stand at the head of the first chapter of Possession, fathered on Byatt's alter ego in the novel as an excerpt from his supposed poem dated 1860, "The Garden of Proserpine". David West in the Times Saturday Review for 24 August 1991, show-casing the piece in a panel headed "Reading a Poem", invited us to see here 'many of the characteristics of the best Victorian verse: the vivid and disturbing pictures, the rich organ music . . .', and 'the learning'. Byatt, he says, 'wrote this Victorian poetry because she needed it'. Very true, no doubt. But what sort of curious need is this, that impels an English novelist in 1990 to revel in the verse-idiom of 130 years before? Are those intervening years a nightmare from which

____________________
1
A. S. Byatt, Passions of the Mind ( London, 1991) p. 29.

-315-

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