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432px-Robert_Browning_by_Herbert_Rose_Barraud_c1888Browning was long twinned with Tennyson as the other great Victorian poet, which is understandable given both his range and his talent. His popularity was also perhaps assisted by his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, which was in itself a romance with public appeal, while the fact that she was a distinguished poet herself added to his prestige. The very different romantic appeal of Tennyson marrying the sister of his adored best friend was not in those days the stuff of which romance was made.

Yet there can be no question at all about him being in Tennyson’s league, and even in Victorian times he was much less accessible. His great epic, The Ring and the Book, was not widely read then, and is almost unreadable now. Its elaborate plot, and the subtle characterization, based on an old Italian tale of intrigue, has little resonance in the modern world.

Browning’s subtlety of characterization is more accessible (albeit at sometimes excessive length) in the monologues he wrote, in particular in Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which presents a prince of a church in intellectual turmoil, who nevertheless understands the social role he must continue to play. That this justification of his continuing authority is also convenient, given the pleasures of his position, is also superbly brought out.

The common problem, yours, mine, every one’s,

Is–not to fancy what were fair in life

Provided it could be,–but, finding first

What may be, then find how to make it fair

Up to our means: a very different thing!

No abstract intellectual plan of life

Quite irrespective of life’s plainest laws, ….

 

Now wait, my friend: well, I do not believe–

If you’ll accept no faith that is not fixed,

Absolute and exclusive, as you say.

You’re wrong–I mean to prove it in due time.

Meanwhile, I know where difficulties lie

I could not, cannot solve, nor ever shall,

So give up hope accordingly to solve– …..

 

–That way

Over the mountain, which who stands upon

Is apt to doubt if it be meant for a road;

While, if he views it from the waste itself,

Up goes the line there, plain from base to brow,

Not vague, mistakeable! what’s a break or two

Seen from the unbroken desert either side?

And then (to bring in fresh philosophy)

What if the breaks themselves should prove at last

The most consummate of contrivances

To train a man’s eye, teach him what is faith?

And so we stumble at truth’s very test!

All we have gained then by our unbelief

Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,

For one of faith diversified by doubt:

We called the chess-board white,–we call it black. ….

 

I act for, talk for, live for this world now,

As this world prizes action, life and talk:

No prejudice to what next world may prove,

Whose new laws and requirements, my best pledge

To observe then, is that I observe these now,

Shall do hereafter what I do meanwhile.

Let us concede (gratuitously though)

Next life relieves the soul of body, yields

Pure spiritual enjoyment: well, my friend,

Why lose this life i’ the meantime, since its use

May be to make the next life more intense?

 

One of my fondest if saddest memories is of Richard de Zoysa reading the monologue, or rather an edited version, in the last public performance we put on, the last in a list that stretched from our first tentative readings through the wonderful one-man performances of Dickens and Kipling, his brilliant production of The Merchant of Venice, and the launches of many books and journals, from the first New Lankan Review to Yasmine Gooneratne’s Relative Merits. Browning was difficult, given his subtlety, and Regi Siriwardena who presented the programme had suggested texts that were incredibly difficult to read aloud. We worked therefore in terms of characters we knew, and for Bishop Blougram found someone with the right mixture of gravitas and whimsicality to convey the character of a churchman with an understanding in advance of his times and sentimentalities stuck in the past.

I should add that the rehearsals we held, more than for most of our presentations, were hilarious, especially after we sent Regi away and then went over the top in establishing character, which I like to think helped in getting the emphases right in actual performance. It certainly helped in reducing tension in those desperate days when Richard was being hunted. After the performance, having noted a suspicious figure in the audience, who must have found Browning very difficult, he spent a couple of nights at home, because he thought he might otherwise be picked up. In fact they reduced pressure for a couple of months, and then took him away one night in February, and killed him.

I suppose that is one reason why Browning and the passages we performed continue fixed in my mind. But there were other reasons too, as evinced by the enjoyment of the audience, one of the smallest we had, but deeply appreciative. It was their joy I recall with regard to How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and Richard’s energetic rendering of the anapaests, the ta-ta-tum of this quickest of metres conveying splendidly the galloping of horses.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,

Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,

Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,

Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;

Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,

Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is, friends flocking round

As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;

And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,

As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,

Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)

Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

Popular too was Home thoughts from abroad, which shows a lyric skill the most evocative lines of Shelley or Keats. I have sometimes worried about the Orientalist tinge of the ‘gaudy melon flower’, but I suspect that is excessive 20th century sensitivity, whereas using comparisons to emphasize the attractions of one’s own is fair enough in any context.

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower

In the collection Men and Women, in which Bishop Blougram also appeared, Browning included what I would call a set of elegiac lyrics. The volume ended with a poem to Elizabeth, who died of consumption in Rome, like Keats half a century earlier. I have no idea whether my favourite among the lyrics, two in the Campagna, related to Elizabeth or not, but its reflections on the limited nature of love, the thirst for something deeper, accord with their storybook romance

How is it under our control

To love or not to love?

I would that you were all to me,

You that are just so much, no more.

Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!

Where does the fault lie? What the core

O’ the wound, since wound must be?

My own favourite amongst Browning’s poems however, ever since I first read it together with Sonali Deraniyagala when I was coaching her for her Cambridge entrance, remains My Last Duchess. She had looked at it for an exercise in practical criticism, and found it difficult, so we went through it together, and gradually worked out how truly horrible was the Duke who was describing his late wife, after showing her portrait to a visitor who, it transpires, has come to discuss another marriage.

It takes close reading to understand how proud the Duke was of his lineage, how ashamed of a wife who was courteous to those he thought beneath him – including the painter who was able to evoke from her a warm response the Duke never could. Then we realize how this pride combines with jealousy, with fatal consequences for the young Duchess. Before we can recover from the shock, the Duke goes on to talk of his demands in connection with the new proposal, while continuing his chilling celebration of the artworks he possesses.

As we worked out what was happening and the skill with which Browning had presented the character and the story, Sonali’s eyes shone, in a way I have seen in few people. Her mother’s eyes shone like that, in 2004, when she told me that Sonali and her family were coming for Christmas and they would be going to Yala, which they all loved so much. What happened then I knew soon enough, but I only read Sonali’s melancholy account a couple of weeks ago, when once again I thought back to that day, a third of a century ago, when we explored together that stunning poem.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive. I call

That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said

‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps

Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps

Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy. She had

A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace — all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked

Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,

Or there exceed the mark’ — and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,

— E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet

The company below then. I repeat,

The Count your master’s known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

I realize I have written much here about my own reactions, not to Browning but to work I did with regard to Browning. I had not before thought about the fact that for me he is associated more than any other writer with a sense of loss, or rather with retrospection over loss. But that is fitting, given the reflective nature of so much of his work, and the fact that he explores our responses to the world around us so sensitively, to ideas as well as to people. And perhaps most importantly, he also understands and expounds what we ourselves bring to those responses, the internalization of not just emotions, but of physical pleasures that also contribute to character and to interactions.

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