Philip Hensher

By no means roses, roses all the way

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Browning: A Private Life

Iain Finlayson

HarperCollins, pp. 758, £

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 bats,

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. Browning emerges as selflessly heroic from the story, generous, considerate and daring. But what is easy to forget is that we wouldn’t be moved to such a degree by the story if it weren’t for the supreme beauty of the letters which passed between them; published by their son Pen, they are works of art by two great writers at the heights of their command, and some cannot be read without tears.

Elizabeth blossomed in Florence, and became the great poet of the Risorgimento; Robert, in a flood of happiness, became quite a different sort of poet, and began to communicate in an incomparable way. The great creations of these years are his ‘dramatic monologues’; something foreshadowed in earlier poems like ‘My Last Duchess’, but now brought to a pitch of massive mastery. In particular, Men and Women seems like the great statement of mid-century poetry, with only one rival; it came out in 1855, almost simultaneously with Tennyson’s Maud, and there was an extraordinary evening when Tennyson read Maud and Browning read ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. They are hard poems to describe, relying on their whole musical effect rather than exquisite refinements, and powerful principally in their psychology and intellectual analysis. Vernon Lee said that every line in ‘The Grammarian’s Funeral’ was ‘atrocious, an ear-sore, but the whole was incomparable’. That is true for many of the poems, even the delirious flood of grotesque imagery in ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, with its amazing, Dickensian visual virtuosity — ‘The grass, it grew as scant as hair in leprosy.’

The great monologues in this book, and his next, Dramatis Personae, must be taken as a whole, and cannot be excerpted. The greatest and strangest of them, ‘Mr Sludge, “the Medium”’, a mélange of ideas about Elizabeth’s beloved spiritualism, faith, poetry and charlatanism, settles on a bizarre and ludicrous figure, and produces a voice of compelling force; it is funny, profound, poetic and energetically visual all at once.

Elizabeth died in 1861, and afterwards Browning, with their spoilt son Pen, returned to England. The years of exile had turned him into a legendary figure, and ever afterwards he lived a public life, dining out incessantly, never opening up again. It’s not true to say that the quality of his poetry declined. Although some of the late poetry, such as Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is not very good, and other poems, like Fifine at the Fair, return to the old baffling manner at imponderable length, there are some wonderful gems; indeed, his last book, Asolando, published on the day he died in Pen’s palace, the Rezzonico, in Venice, is a delight from beginning to end.

For his contemporaries, he was above all the author of that vast work The Ring and the Book. I’m not so sure. It is an extraordinary piece of work, calling on voice after voice to tell and retell a hideous and sensational 17th-century murder, full of learning and colour and energy; a completely original and no doubt admirable idea of the epic, and much more alive than, say, George Eliot’s Romola in its portrait of antique Italy. Despite some wonderful passages, especially in the Pompilia book, I find it brilliant but exhausting. To steal a line from Woody Allen, if I could live my life all over again, I’d do everything exactly the same; but this time I don’t think I’d bother to read The Ring and the Book.

Browning has been fortunate in his biographies, and this long new one by Iain Finlayson can be recommended. It has been a while since he has been done, which is rather surprising since, whatever the difficulties and dem ands of his poetry, the story of his life is a dramatic one and he himself enchantingly likeable. Even at this great length, the interest does not flag, and you finish it with mild regret. Finlayson has taken an unusual route, and has stressed Browning’s private and family life rather than his later existence as a celebrated public figure; nor does he make much investigation of Browning’s intellectual range, which is daunting and vast.

The result is a biography where the Victorian giants who Browning knew and befriended, such as Tennyson, the Carlyles, and so on, appear as walk-on parts, and people like the Brownings’ domestic staff in Florence, and Browning’s housekeeping sister Sarianna are major figures. It’s a curious perspective, and it plays down Browning’s acutely rivalrous disposition, but it’s an entirely valid one. Browning is too big to be contained in a single biography, and this intimate, trusting approach is immensely appealing. Personally, I would like to supplement this tender, unworldly biography with one full of funny stories about Browning’s dining-out years, but to try to do both things in one work would lead to something unmanageably vast.

The one tiresome feature of the biography, which produces many paragraphs easily skipped, is that Finlayson has rather fallen in love with the secondary bibliography, and many previous biographers find themselves extensively credited and substantially quoted. Certainly, major figures have said some interesting things about Browning and deserve to be cited, notably Henry James and Chesterton; but Finlayson goes too far in quoting various biographising nonentities and telling us who surmised what first; the book could lose a good 50 pages of this to be summarised in the footnotes with benefit. Most of these authors are the spiritual descendants of that notoriously dreary bunch, the Browning Society, and their views could be pillaged without causing anyone serious offence.

All the same, apart from this elementary blunder, Finlayson gives us Browning in his overwhelming presence. As Henry James said, ‘Browning is “upon” us, straighter upon us always, somehow, than anyone else of his race; and thus we recoil, we push our chair back, from the table he so tremendously spreads, just to see a little better what is on it.’ I began reading this biography thinking with certitude that Browning was fascinating, but not so magnificent a poet as his contemporary Tennyson. By the time I finished, and had gone back to the collected poems just to read some item with great pleasure, it had succeeded in thoroughly changing my mind. James was right: Browning is tremendous.