1. According to Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom, Browning's persona, Abt Vogler, was "an extraordinary extemporizer, particularly upon the organ" (565). How has Browning attempted to communicate this quality in the syntax, diction, and verse form itself?
2. Among the characteristics of Browning's monologues, Roma King has found that many of them are
Dramatic, presenting a fully developed speaker compelled to communicate to a listener . . . ; the tone, structure, and cadence are colloquial; the unity is a tension produced by the interplay of opposing intellectual and emotional forces. (139-40)
To what extent is each of the above characteristics present in "Abt Vogler"?
Abt Vogler is the richest, deepest, fullest poem on music in the language. It is not the theories of the poet, but the instincts of the musician, that it speaks. . . . . A Toccata of Galuppi's is as rare a rendering as can anywhere be found of the impressions and sensations caused by a musical piece; but Abt Vogler is a very glimpse into the heaven where music is born. (Symons 23)
With several references to the poems that Symons mentions, consider how the subject of both is music rather than the musician.
Abt Vogler says that the philosophers may each make his [sic] guess at the meaning of this earthly scheme of weal and woe: but the musicians, the musicians who have felt in their own bosoms the presence of Divine Power and heard its marvellous voice,--why, the philosophers may reason and welcome: 'tis we musicians know! [Phelps 352]
According to the poem, what is the special connection between God and the musician? Why are those who built in solid forms, such as sculptors and architects, both more and less fortunate than musicians in the divine calling?
5. Note Browning's parenthetical epic simile, lines 21 to 23:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night —
Outlined round and round Rome's dome from space to spire)
Why is it appropriate for Vogler to describe the building of his "structure" in terms of a night-time fireworks display? The fireworks display rises in the sky: where does Vogler's structure rise? Why has Vogler chosen to allude to the surmounting spire and great dome of St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican, Rome, in constructing his simile?
Note: The cathedral, constructed over the burial ground of the Roman circus in which Saint Peter was executed, took over a century complete, and was the combined work of such gifted architects as Bramante and Michelangelo.
6. Note the paradox in the biblical allusion in lines 65-66:
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
In "The Epistle to the Hebrews" (11:10) in the New Testament, Abraham is described as looking "for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." In "2 Corinthians," 5:1, the "earthly houses" are not merely human dwellings, but human bodies; even if these "were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Even though Vogler constructs his musical building "with his hands" upon an organ of his own invention and construction, the orchestrion, how is his construction related to faith in that which is unseen and unknowable? What are the implications in these lines about Vogler's perception of himself and his work?
7. Jerome Hamilton Buckley and George Benjamin Woods provide the following commentary for lines 91-96:
common chord, etc. As the musician had mounted to supreme heights of thought through the medium of his art, so he now descends to level ground. He strikes different chords — plaintive and poignant minors, then reassuring harmonies that lead at last to C major, the natural scale without variations of sharps and flats, hence symbolic of the common level of everyday life. [p. 302]
Why in line 93 does Vogler describe the "ground" whereon he stands as "alien"? Why has Browning chosen to couch this concluding speech in musical terms only one highly cognizant of musical terminology would fully comprehend?
8. The poem is dated 1864, almost twenty years after his work on the series Bells and Pomegranates No. I through VIII (London: Edward Moxon, 1841-6) which introduced the dramatic monologue as a distinct form. By the time of the composition of "Abt Vogler" for Dramatis Personae (1864), Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died (in 1861) and he had returned to England to begin work on what would ultimately one of his major works, The Ring and the Book (London: Smith, Elder: 1868-9). How do these and other biographical background details shed light on the nature of the poem?
9. Most of the poems in Dramatis Personae (London: Chapman and Hall, 1864) are dramatic monologues which are in essence soliloquies rather than overheard speeches; only three of the poems are in blank verse, the majority being "in varied lyric measures" (Symons 136). Explain whether "Abt Vogler" should be classified as overheard speech or soliloquy, describing why Browning has chosen Blank Verse as his medium.
10. Symons describes Browning's method in Dramatis Personae (1864) in this manner:
Dramatis Personae, like Men and Women (which it followed after an interval of nine years) is a collection of dramatic monologues, in each of which it is attempted to delineate a single character or a single mood by setting the "imaginary person" in some revealing situation. (135)
Why has Browning in "Abt Vogler" chosen to break from this pattern by penning the reflections of an actual personage, George Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) the German composer and organist?
11. J. W. Harper in the essay "'Eternity our Due': Time in the Poetry of Robert Browning" feels that "Music for Browning was the highest of the arts because its appeal was to the fundamental human emotions rather than to the intellect" (80). Harper suggests that during the course of his musical improvisation Browning's Vogler achieves what James Joyce would have termed an "epiphany," namely "a sudden revelation of an absolute truth" (80). If Harper is correct, where in the poem does Vogler make this aesthetic/spiritual discovery, and what is the nature of this "revelation"?
12. J. W. Harper describes the poem as rising from melancholy and despair "to its second climax, as the musician affirms that the world of time must be succeeded by a world of eternity because otherwise its deprivations are too horrible to be borne" (81). Explicate Harper's analysis with respect to the cause of Vogler's despair (and where it is expressed), the location and nature of the "second climax," and the nature of the "deprivations" of the world governed by time.
13. Although, as a number of critics have noted, effective characterisation is "the first criterion by which to judge a Browning monologue" (King 145), as Park Honan points out, this criterion "would seem manifestly unfair to monologues such as Rabbi Ben Ezra and Abt Vogler" (118). Explain what during the course of the poem we learn about the character of Abt Vogler, and then explain what should replace characterisation as the central feature of this poem.
Blackburn, Thomas. Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton, and George Benjamin Woods, eds. Poetry of the Victorian Period. Third edition. New York: Longman, 1955.
De Vance, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955.
Harper, J. W. "'Eternity our Due': Time in the Poetry of Robert Browning." Victorian Poetry, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 15. London: Edward Arnold, 1972. Pp. 59-88.
Honan, Park. Browning's Characters: A Study in Poetic Technique. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 1961.
Jack, Ian. Browning's Major Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
King, Roma A., Jr. The Bow and the Lyre: The Art of Robert Browning Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1957.
Palmer, George H. "The Monologue of Browning." Harvard Theological Review, XI, 2 (April 1918): 121-144.
Phelps, William Lyon. Robert Browning. New York: Archon, 1912. Rpt. 1968.
Robert Browning, The Poems, Volume One. Ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981. Pp. 349-350.
Symons, Arthur. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning. London: J. M. Dent, 1906.
Trilling, Lionel, and Harold Bloom, eds. Victorian Prose and Poetry. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. New York, Toronto, and London: Oxford U. P., 1973.
Tucker, F. Herbert, Jr. Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure. Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1980.
Last modified 13 December 2004