As we have seen, "Pauline," "Paracelsus," and "Sordello" are thematically interrelated by a like conflict; and each leads to the same conclusion: namely, that the artist can only achieve full self-realization through getting into productive communication with the external world. For Browning to embrace this theory, however, was one thing; to illustrate its operation through his own poetry was quite another. The choice presented to Pauline's lover, Paracelsus, and Sordello is clearly a projection of their creator's own dilemma in the erratic early years of his poetic career. John Stuart Mill's comment on Pauline is well-known: "With considerable poetic powers, the writer seems to me possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being." This searching criticism made an enormous impression on the youthful Browning, and was perhaps as much as any other single influence instrumental in starting the poet on a succession of technical experiments expressly directed to the formation of a more objective manner.[82/83]
The attempt to present Paracelsus' spiritual biography in dramatic form was a first step towards externalizing the author's inner perceptions. Fearful, however, that his audience would fail to understand what he was about, and perhaps somewhat suspicious as well of the perfect purity of his artistic motive, the poet took opportunity in the dedication to the original edition to explain the general purpose and method of the poem:
I therefore anticipate his [the reader's] discovery, that it is an attempt, probably more novel than happy, to reverse the method usually adopted by writers whose aim it is to set forth any phenomena of the mind or the passions, by the operation of persons and events; and that, instead of having recourse to an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis I desire to produce, I have ventured to display somewhat minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress, and have suffered the agency by which it is influenced and determined, to be generally discernible in its effects alone, and subordinate throughout, if not altogether excluded: and this for a reason. I have endeavored to write a poem, not a drama....
In "Sordello," where the mode is narrative rather than dramatic, there is evident, beneath the incrustations of repeated revisions, the author's original intent to employ "an external machinery of incidents to create and evolve the crisis." Yet the principal difficulty which "Sordello" offers the reader is the labyrinthine complexity of the historical events which determine the hero's actions. In after years, with a better comprehension of where his true talent and interests lay, Browning tended to play down this element in "Sordello" on which he had originally lavished so much care. In dedicating the work to his friend Milsand in 1863, the poet wrote: "The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study."
Browning met Macready in 1835, and two years later[83/84] Strafford inaugurated a decade's apprenticeship to the stage. Although Browning's plays were among his earliest productions, while Tennyson did not try his hand at writing for the theatre until the latter part of his life, both men may be said to have turned to dramatic writing out of a desire to reach a wider public. A distinction should be made, however, between the impulses which led Tennyson and Browning to the drama. The former, secure in his contemporary fame, was looking for new subject-matter of a dignity appropriate to the author of Idylls of the King. Browning, on the other hand, his head crammed with ideas but his reputation all to make, was seeking a manner which would put him into closer correspondence with his age. Even the most superficial consideration of Browning's relationship with Macready indicates how conscientiously the poet was bent on wooing public favor by means of his playwriting efforts. A "Blot in the 'Scutcheon" was announced to the great producer in the following hopeful way:
"The luck of the third adventure" is proverbial. I have written a spick and span new Tragedy (a sort of compromise between my own notion and yours-as I understand it, at least) and will send it to you if you care to be bothered so far. There is "action" in it, drabbing, stabbing, et autres gentillesses,-who knows but the Gods may make me good even yet?
Despite this readiness to compromise, however, Browning was no dramatist for the stage, as anyone who has looked into his plays knows. Of interior or psychological action there is plenty and to spare; but the poet simply could not translate states of mind into the language of external conflict. From the first Macready sensed what was wrong. After rereading Strafford, he wrote in his diary: "I find more grounds for exception than I had anticipated. I had been too much carried away by the truth of character to observe the meanness of plot, and occasional obscurity." As if in tacit acknowledgment that this play invited such objections, Browning echoed his estimate of "Paracelsus" in the dedication to "Strafford,"[84/85]where he described the drama as "one of Action in Character, rather than Character in Action."
In fact, one cannot escape the conclusion that, real as was his concern to gain an audience for his work, Browning quite early realized that he had no real talent for the theatre, and as a result inclined increasingly to use the dramatic form as a means for working out problems of artistic expression inherent in his own genius. In the choice and development of dramatic themes he exercised greater and greater originality out of seeming indifference to the conventions of theatrical representation; and after the completion of "Colombe's Birthday" in 1844, he sent a letter to Domett which announced, in effect, his decision no longer to write for production: "I feel myself so much stronger, if flattery not deceive, that I shall stop some things that were meant to follow, and begin again. I really seem to have something fresh to say." The later dramas, furthermore, are strongly characterized by the reemergence of certain themes which were announced in "Pauline," "Paracelsus," and "Sordello." It might even be argued that all of Browning's plays exploit a single situation. A choice confronts the protagonist between two lines of action, one dictated by innate idealism, the other by selfish calculation. The resulting internal conflict supplies the "dramatic" tension of the piece. Like Sordello, Anael, Djabal's lover in "The Return of the Druses," and Mildred Tresham, the heroine of "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon," both die of emotional exhaustion attributable to the clash between their material and spiritual interests. In "Colombe's Birthday," "Luria," and "A Soul's Tragedy," external action has become almost non-existent, while the speeches of the characters, approximating dramatic monologues, expound with increasing definiteness that master concern in Browning's thinking-the conflict between the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the world.
It is too often forgotten that "Bells" and "Pomegranates" included, in addition to the five series devoted entirely to plays, three additional numbers containing dramatic experiments of a very different and much more original kind. These were: "Pippa Passes" (1841), "Dramatic Lyrics" (1842), and "Dramatic[85/86]Romances and Lyrics "(1845). In explanation of the symbolic title, "Bells and Pomegranates," the poet wrote: "I only meant by that title to indicate an endeavor towards something like an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought." Towards this blending "Paracelsus" and "Sordello" contributed as much as the plays. The discipline of playwriting sharpened Browning's dramatic sense; but the kinds of dramatic struggle which excited his imagination, as we have seen, were those enacted within the minds of individual characters. In the dramatic lyric and its more sophisticated variation, the dramatic monologue, the poet discovered means for dressing his insights in a guise that would pass muster with a public which had been mystified by "Sordello" and bored by "Strafford."
Although definitely transitional in character, "Pippa Passes" is the first poem which allows us clearly to identify the thematic motifs and technical methods which characterize Browning's mature manner. The lyric interludes of "Paracelsus" survive in Pippa's songs, but they are now keyed into the story in such a way as to influence its course at climactic moments. Likewise, while the poet still uses dialogue, dramatic effect is largely engendered through tensions antecedent to action. The subject-matter of the four episodes suggests a striving to fuse the subjective and objective strains in Browning's previous work. A wealth of incident is present by implication; yet the emphasis does not fall directly on the actions of the characters, but rather on the motives out of which action grows. The psychological analysis of motivation, furthermore, provides Browning with an opportunity for the kind of special pleading at which he was to become so adept. By this means he could endow the creatures of imagination with his own highly individualistic perceptions while seeming to present them as independent beings fully responsible for their own values.
Pippa's refrain, "God's in his heaven-/ All's right with the world!" is often cited as the "reductio ad absurdum" of Victorian optimism. This sentiment, however, is clearly meant to characterize the girl's naïveté and childlike faith,[86/87]and not the milieu in which she lives. For Pippa's world is given over to the tyranny of church and state, to corrupt officialdom, to envy and malice and wanton cruelty, to adultery and blackmail and murder. The society which environs the girl from the silk mills of Asolo makes a mockery of lawful love, patriotism, the familial relationships, and art. As she wanders the streets on her annual holiday, she brushes shoulders with pimps, prostitutes, debauched students, informers, hired assassins, and parasites of every variety. Her immunity to worldly degradation lies in her very unworldliness. She is a child of nature, unlettered, inexperienced, guileless, endowed only with a happy disposition, innocence, and the wisdom of her intuitions. Like Aprile and Eglamor, with whom her kinship is evident, her only means of selfexpression is lyric song. It is through the impact of these songs, so alien to the habits of mind of her auditors, that the theme of the poem comes out. They are heard by "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones" at critical moments in their lives; and they wholly alter the direction of the lives in question by forcing a choice on the hearers. Pippa's passing awakens the conscience of individuals hitherto enslaved by self-interest, and provokes conduct contrary to the courses of action mapped out by the conscious will. In each case the ultimate decision negates personal inclination and so discredits the materialistic values endorsed by society. Thus, Ottima and Sebald, having discovered a sense oi guilt, will commit suicide; Jules and Phene will go away together without exacting revenge; Luigi will die in the cause of Italian liberation; and Monsignor will restore her rightful inheritance to Pippa.
Each of the four situations which Pippa influences by her celebration of intuitive feeling hinges on a conflict between individuals and some form of authority. Browning's poems, as we shall see, may be classified into three groups, conforming to the three aspects under which he saw the drama of solitary souls in their strife with the forces of organized society. One division poses the problem of intellectual assent to established institutions and involves a concept of[87/88]power: a second poses the problem of emotional assent to conventional morality and involves a concept of love; and third poses the problem of aesthetic assent to artistic traditions and involves a concept of the creative impulse. All three themes occur in "Pippa Passes," which thus marks out the principal issues with which Browning was henceforth to be concerned.
In the two contrasting panels devoted to the pairs of lovers, Ottima and Sebald and Jules and Phene, Browning advances some of his most characteristic notions about sexual behavior, and in so doing raises issues little in accord with Victorian thinking about such matters. Confronted by a society which condones loveless marriages, we side with Ottima and Sebald in their splendidly reckless passion, and feel revulsion only after discovering that adultery has led to cold-blooded murder. Pippa's song awakens the lovers to their guilt; but the guilt, be it noted, is for the murder and not for the adultery. And the act of suicide which follows does not seem an additional crime, but rather a confirmation of love's intensity issued in repudiation of society and its usages. Jules is equally insubordinate to accepted norms of social conduct in his reaction to the cruel practical joke perpetrated by his fellow art students. To have cast off Phene and then avenged his legitimate grievance was obviously the course sanctioned by custom, and the one to which Jules inclined before Pippa's song educed a nobler impulse. In turning from hatred of the students to selfless love for Phene, who shares Pippa's natural innocence, Jules flies directly in the face of convention and thereby attains salvation. His escape to the Greek Isles is the traditional romantic comment on the corrupting ways of the world.
The two concluding episodes present individuals under the shadow of institutionalized authority, in the one case governmental repression represented by the Austrian rule in northern Italy, in the other religious formalism represented by the prestige of the Catholic Church. For Luigi, the champion of liberty, it would be easier to remain with his Chiara in Asolo. Pippa's song sends him on his mission to[88/89]Austria, and through averting immediate arrest, reserves him for a patriot's death. It is only on second thought that we realize that in order to establish his point the poet is countenancing political assassination. Monsignor in the last episode is a preliminary study for a whole family of cynical worldlings who choose the Church as the surest means of satisfying their thirst for power. In listening to Pippa's rhapsody rather than to the insidious arguments of the Intendant, Monsignor abandons the riches which would have smoothed his chosen career.
Finally, Jules' calling as a sculptor gives Browning an opportunity to introduce into "Pippa Passes" some of his theories about the rôle of the artist. Overly fastidious by temperament and fearful of exposure to the exacting touch of actuality, Jules has made an ivory tower for himself. Dreaming of ideal beauty, he has fallen into lifeless traditionalism. He describes for Phene a group of statuary on which he has been at work, the central figure of which reflects his concept of himself as the withdrawn and self-immersed votary of art for art's sake:
Quite round, a cluster of mere hands and arms
(Thrust in all senses all ways, from all sides,
Only consenting at the branch's end
They strain toward) serves for frame to a sole face,
The Praiser's in the center: who with eyes
Sightless, so bend they back to light inside
His brain where visionary forms throng up,
Sings, minding not the palpitating arch
Of hands and arms...
In Phene, however, Jules encounters the higher beauty of living reality which shows up his past work in its true light. The resulting break with the dead weight of inherited practice is exemplified in Jules' flight from his studio, and in his determination to find a new mode of artistic expression. We learn of the motives responsible for this decision through the letter which Monsignor quotes in the fourth episode:[89/90]
He never had a clearly conceived Ideal within his brain till to-day. Yet since his hand could manage a chisel, he has practised expressing other men's Ideals; and, in the very perfection he has attained to, he foresees an ultimate failure: his unconscious hand will pursue its prescribed course of old years, and will reproduce with a fatal expertness the ancient types, let the novel one appear never so palpably to his spirit. There is but one method of escape: confiding the virgin type to as chaste a hand, he will turn painter instead of sculptor, and paint, not carve, its characteristics . . .
Monsignor is sceptical of Jules' success in a career undertaken after so many years of discipleship to a false vision; but his remarks on the artist's change of heart reflect the value which Browning placed on originality, as over against a sterile traditionalism:
He may-probably will-fail egregiously; but if there should arise a new painter, will it not be in some-such way, by a poet now, or a musician (spirits who have conceived and perfected an Ideal through some other channel), transferring it to this, and escaping our conventional roads by pure ignorance of them. . .
From "Pippa Passes" to "Dramatic Lyrics" and "Dramatic Romances and Lyrics" is only a short step. In progressing from "Paracelsus" and "Sordello" to plays written expressly for the theatre, Browning had been following a blind alley. Now he had reversed his direction, and by so doing, had come in sight of his true destination, the dramatic monologue. In the dedication to "Strafford" he had correctly analyzed the bent of his genius; it was to treat "Action in Character, rather than Character in Action." But the murky and self-conscious involutions of "Pauline" had shown that the proper field for such action was not the artist's own character. Through his dramatic experiments Browning had learned to project his insights outward and to give them objective embodiment in imaginary characterizations. Henceforth he would drop the pretense of [90/91]external action and confine his attention to the portrayal of individuals under the stress of such interior, psychological conflicts as characterized the play of his own complex and boldly original mind. Seemingly so remote from their creator in time and place and circumstance, these figures would thus become Browning's agents for delivering to his age the messages which be had failed to get across in other ways.
Last modified 2000