Saturday, November 26, 2005


Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.

- Robert Browning, 'Cristina'

In general, the Victorian age was not, I think, a good time for English poetry. The Rossettis and Arnold wrote a handful of good poems, but also wrote volumes of sentimental twaddle. Swinburne was all surface - his poems sounding glorious and magical, a wonder to read aloud, but not really standing up to closer scrutiny. Tennyson, on his good days, was a spectacular poet, but try going beyond the Selected Works and all you'll get is the semi-coherent rambling.

Browning alone stands out from among this crowd - not only because his poetry is far more consistent (relatively speaking - there's a lot of bad Browning as well - but it represents a much smaller proportion of his work than with the others) but also because Browning was the only one of these poets who was consciously pushing the envelope of poetry forward. What you chiefly hear in all the other Victorians is a nostalgia for the old masters, it is only in Browning that you find a premonition of the century of poetry to follow. As a dramatist, as a poet of conversations, Browning has few equals - he finds and exploits the hidden rhythm of human speech, its protean patterns, to perfection. And it is in Browning that we hear, after almost a decade of romanticism and sentiment, the aching sense of bitter-sweet irony that will become a hallmark of modern poetry. Browning's poems are complex constructions of idea and emotion, of sound and wit, and it is in their sophisticated casualness that we first find the voice that, in the years to come, we will hear faintly repeated in Auden and early Eliot, in Hughes and Day-Lewis and (perhaps) even in Larkin. As Browning himself put it : "Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees / (If our loves remain)"


Cheshire Cat said...

Have you ever read "Sordello" :)? You may have heard the story about it. Tennyson claimed that he understood only two lines of the poem - "Who will may hear Sordello's story told", "Who would has heard Sordello's story told" - and that both were false...

Worthy precursor of modernism, agreed. Thinking about it, there are hints and chimes of him in all the worthies - Frost, Eliot, Stevens... I wonder, though, why the Victorian era, such an important chapter in the development of the novel, was so improverished with regard to poetry. I'd say Carroll and Lear were the major figures, then Browning. Perhaps Beddoes, but the era is not his by rights, he lingered into it. Who else? Hollow the tongue, while across the Channel the Symbolists are pluming and preening.

Mrudula said...

The Victorian Age is know for the development of the novel and threw up many fine novelists, but hardly any poets worth their poetry. Browning is perhaps the only significant poet of that time.

Falstaff said...

cat: Yes, it's strange, isn't it? Interestingly, it wasn't just across the Channel that things were happening - on the other side of the Atlantic there was Whitman and Emerson and Poe. It almost feels like the imagination of English poetry burnt itself out with Keats and Shelley and had to wait an entire half century before finding the maturity to return.