The different points of view exemplified in the series of dramatic monologues which makes up The Ring and the Book gave Browning an opportunity to synthesize all the dominant tendencies in his thinking. His later work introduces no new themes, although the reader who is principally interested in the poet's ideas will here find them reaffirmed with increasing conviction and specificity. Thus, "La Saiziaz," "A Pillar at Sebzevar" from "Ferishtah's Fancies," and the Parleying "With Bernard de Mandeville" extend the intuitional foundations of the poet's religious faith; and the Parleying "With Charles Avison" is his strongest statement of the supremacy of instinct over intellect in the creative act. The loss of individual integrity through submission to the tyranny of institutions continues to elicit his anti-social bias. "Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau," "Saviour of Society" and the Parleying "With George Bubb Dodington" are mordant studies of political temporizers, while Léonce Miranda, the protagonist of "Red Cotton Night-Cap Country"; or "Turf and Towers," is destroyed by religious superstition. Browning's unorthodox theories about love and the relations between the sexes are set forth in such poems as "Fifine at the Fair," The Inn Album, "A Forgiveness," and the Parleying "With Daniel Bartoli." And a very large number of poems touch on one or another aspect of his aesthetic theories. The interpenetration of reality by imaginative insight informs the important critical pronouncements in the two works constructed around translations of Euripidean tragedies, and in the Parleyings "With Francis Furini" and "With Gerard de Lairesse." The concept of the poet-seer, directly inspired by and owing primary allegiance to God, accounts for the treatment of René Gentilhomme in "The Two Poets of Croisic" and also for the Parleying "With Christopher Smart." [137/138]

If, however, Browning was content in his later poetry to reformulate themes which we have already sufficiently explored in his better-known work, he continued to the end of his career to invent new forms for the projection of those themes. This constant technical experimentation is the most interesting and suggestive critical problem relating to his final literary period. Tennyson's last poems reflect a divided intent; part are transparently popular in tone, while others have the quality of private utterance. Browning, on the other hand, continued to try to resolve the artistic dilemma posed by a double awareness, through his search for poetic forms responsive to both conditions of sensibility.

In the dramatic monologue, as practised in his period of greatest achievement, the poet might be supposed to have found his rightful manner; and the wonder is that after The Ring and the Book his writing in this vein shows such a falling off. The explanation lies in a failure in dramatic sense, disastrous for a poet who saw all life as conflict. Just as Browning's dramas are deficient in external action, so the later monologues lack internal action of the kind produced by emotional intensity. Ironically enough in one who so distrusted the theorizing faculty, intellect comes to preponderate over feeling. What these poems offer is not the throb of passion, but the psychoanalytic investigation of motives behind impulses which never themselves get actualized. Having previously dispensed with incident, Browning now tends at one further remove to refuse emotional involvement in the situations he evokes. And, correspondingly, the reader finds it more and more difficult to care very greatly why a character acts in a given way when the act itself, anticipated or retrospective, has not been made to seem interesting or significant.

"Fifine at the Fair" is a case in point. After reading it (and the other long and intricate monologues of the period), one cannot help thinking that had Browning seen fit to take up the writing of novels he might have foreshadowed the accomplishments of Meredith, Conrad, and James. But for all the fascination of its protagonist, a latter-day Don Juan, [138/139] and the subtle relevance of his arguments to modern habits of mind, the dialectics of "Fifine at the Fair" are too diffuse and centrifugal to answer the demands of poetic form. The emotional conflict created in the hero by the rival attractions of the spiritual Elvire and the fleshly Fifine is a valid one; but long before the final choice is made, the initial tension has become slack, weighted down under an excessive burden of intellectual speculation. Browning has perfected his skill in special pleading to the point of over-sophistication, and the reader finds himself wondering whether the Don's ambiguous nature may not after all reflect his creator's own inability to make up his mind. Browning clearly sympathizes with the libertine's restiveness under a system of individually repressive social conventions, for he puts into his character's mouth many of his own opinions about love and society and art. Like Bishop Blougram, the Don has a faculty for calling true things by false names; only in "Fifine at the Fair" Browning overreaches himself and so loses control over his argument. For such appeal as the poem makes rests in the very skill with which the protagonist rationalizes his selfish desires and thereby reduces morality to conform to private convenience. Deprived of any ethical sanction, the emotions become the plaything of intellectual casuistry; and this too often seems to be the case in those later monologues where the dramatic conflict enacts itself on a level of abstract ideas.

The obscurity in which Browning's sophistries too often involved him in such poems as "Fifine at the Fair" was in the nature of a return to the manner of Pauline and Sordello; and his reputation suffered accordingly. It was clearly in an effort to free himself from this subjective vein that the poet turned to straight narrative in the two series of "Dramatic Idyls." As the use of the term Idyls indicates, Browning was here following Tennyson's lead, although with the intention of showing up the laureate's timid avoidance of actuality. The handling of realistic details in these poems does not, however, compensate for the author's technical inferiority to Tennyson as a story-teller. If the springs of motivation in "Fifine at the Fair" and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country are unduly complex[139/140], many of the Dramatic Idyls suffer from the opposite failing of inadequate motivation. The climactic events of "Ivàn Ivànovitch," "Clive," and "Muléykeh," for example, seem arbitrary to the point of improbability. Whereas the resolution of a poem like "The Glove" arouses the reader to self-recognition, the Browning of the later monologues often seems content with the short-lived shock produced by a surprise ending.

Other groups of poems show that Browning was continuing his search for ways of enlivening recondite material. "Ferishtah's Fancies" is a variation on the formula of "Pippa Passes." Indeed, as early as Paracelsus he had inserted lyric interludes into other types of poetry as a kind of emotional leitmotiv. The use of lyrics to comment on philosophic discourse in "Ferishtah's Fancies," however, is a good deal less effective than the handling of this device in the more dramatic circumstances of Paracelsus and "Pippa Passes." In Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, Browning had recourse to another early method for the projection of his ideas: namely, the study of historical individuals in the context of cultural movements. As W. C. DeVane has conclusively demonstrated, the Parleyings are of unparalleled value in analyzing the origin and development of Browning's characteristic theories; but their appeal is limited to those whose interest is in the man rather than the artist.

The peevish and spiteful treatment of his critics in Pacchiarotto, with Other Poems evidences the poet's anxiety about his erratic bold on the reading public. In defense of his later work he constantly makes two assertions which have the appearance of special pleading in his own behalf. If his poetry seems difficult, that is because his audience, expecting cowslip-wine, gets nettle-broth instead. To express this concept he employs the further metaphors of the nut in "Jochanan Hakkadosh" and of the ortolan in the "Prologue to Ferishtah's Fancies." The external appearance of neither is inviting; he who would savor their true flavor must bite through a resistant covering. Browning offers a more elevated version of his artistic intent at this time in the Epilogue to [140/141] the second series of Dramatic Idyls, in which the lyric poet of the first stanza harks back to Aprile and Eglamor:

"Touch him ne'er so lightly, into song he broke
Soil so quick-receptive-not one feather-seed,
Not one flower-dust fell but straight its fall awoke
Vitalizing virtue: song would song succeed
Sudden as spontaneous-prove a poet-soul!"


Rock's the song-soil rather, surface hard and bare:
Sun and dew their mildness, storm and frost their rage
Vainly both expend,-few flowers awaken there:
Quiet in its cleft broods-what the after-age
Knows and names a pine, a nation's heritage.

Concurrently, the poet makes much of the fact that his writing is founded in actuality. Its life-principle is the "sap of prose experience"; his "fancy wells up through corrective fact." So, in his later poems, such as the Prologue to Asolando, the author constantly affirms the all-importance of seeing things as they are:

Friend, did you need an optic glass,
Which were your choice? A lens to drape
In ruby, emerald, chrysopras,
Each object-or reveal its shape
Clear outlined, past escape,

The naked very thing?-so clear
That, when you had the chance to gaze,
You found its inmost self appear
Through outer seeming-truth ablaze,
Not falsehood's fancy-haze?

And here once again the concept of a double awareness enters in. With Browning's emphasis on fact the Victorian age could take no issue; however, it might well do so with his undisguised "sense" of fact. In "Pacchiarotto, with Other Poems" the poet had insisted on the rigorous objectivity of his attitude; but coupled with an admission of the difficulties offered by his work, this defense stands self-convicted of [141/142] disingenuousness. Fact may be, indeed usually is, Browning's starting-point; but when submitted to analysis by his inquiring and subtle mind and interpreted in the light of this process, the original fact acquires highly subjective meanings and becomes principally significant as an index to the poet's individual consciousness.

It is all very well for Don Juan to say in "Fifine at the Fair":

And-consequent upon the learning how from strife
Grew peace-from evil, good-came knowledge that, to get
Acquaintance with the way o'the world, we must not fret
Nor fume, on altitudes of self-sufficiency,
But bid a frank farewell to what-we think-should be,
And, with as good a grace, welcome what is-we find.

But how is this statement to be squared with the Don's earlier confession of intense self-consciousness: "My hunger both to be and know the thing I am," a statement which might stand as the epigraph to the history of Browning's mind? For the poet, while professing dependence on the outer world, could never accept its evidences until they had first passed through the filter of his imagination. Thus, he addresses Gerard de Lairesse as follows:

. . . for sense, my De Lairesse,
Cannot content itself with outward things,
Mere beauty: soul must needs know whence there springs
How, when and why-what sense but loves, nor lists
To know at all.

And again, further elaborating the necessity for the artist to probe beneath the surface of outward seeming, the poet has the protagonist of "Red Cotton Night-Cap Country" say:

Along with every act-and speech is act-
There go, a multitude impalpable
To ordinary human faculty,
The thoughts which give the act significance.
Who is a poet needs must apprehend
Alike both speech and thoughts which prompt to speak.
Part these, and thought withdraws to poetry:
Speech is reported in the newspaper. [137/138]

Browning, as we have seen, asserted that intuition is the ultimate means of knowledge, and that the faculty which enables the artist to approach truth is imaginative insight. In his own case these faculties operated most successfully through a form of dramatic perception in which the fact and its ulterior meaning become fused into unity by a single act of apprehension. But with the decline of dramatic sensibility in his later work, fact and meaning draw apart, so that he depends increasingly on the rationalizing intellect to set up correspondence between them. Whether the successes of his middle period are attributable to the glow of emotional maturity, or to the perfecting of a suitable form, or to both, it is only in the poems of these years (and perhaps occasionally in the Indian summer of Asolando) that we find the inner and outer consciousness held in equipoise. In the later poetry as in the early efforts, the split in awareness is manifest. Into the character of Euripides, as conceived in "Balaustion's Adventure" and "The Last Adventure of Balaustion," Browning incorporated his reading of the dilemma which tormented the Victorian artist. The evidence is contained not only in the partisan words of Balaustion, but also, with surprising impartiality, in Aristophanes' criticism of his rival. Euripides, coming in the wake of Sophocles, is made to say: "I, his successor, . . ./ Incline to poetize philosophy,/ Extend it rather than restrain." And Aristophanes then proceeds to describe Euripides' introspective habit of mind in terms that clearly echo Browning's own rueful recognition of the unpredictable and alienating ways of his imagination:

His task is to refine, refine,
Divide, distinguish, subtilize away
Whatever seemed a solid planting-place
For footfall,-not in that phantasmal sphere
Proper to poet, but on vulgar earth
Where people used to tread with confidence.
There's left no longer one plain positive
Enunciation incontestable
Of what is good, right, decent here on earth.

Victorian Website Overview Robert Browning Contents Next

Last modified 2000