False testimony: a twenty-first century introduction to Robert Browning

15075155395_900c2d0ed5_bRobert Browning by Michele Gordigiani. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Philip Coales, a 2009 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, discusses the poetry of Robert Browning.

Robert Browning, son of Robert Browning, son of Robert Browning, was born in Camberwell in 1812. It was then on the outskirts of London, with a village green, and a church tower you could see from three miles away. Some things have clearly changed. The middle Robert Browning gave the youngest access to, and an education in, a library of six thousand books. The result was a poet viewed by some as one of the best minds of his generation, and by others as too troublesome to be worth reading. This hasn’t changed – a 2012 article in The Daily Telegraph, asking why Browning is less popular than Charles Dickens, glosses over several of his major poems as “vast, alienating screeds of verse as linguistically opaque as they were historically obscure”. Browning did attempt to deal with complicated questions about the nature and value of art, and some of his reference points require looking up – but putting aside any preconceptions and delving into his work will reveal a brilliant mind, and a writer who has some important lessons for poets today.

In some ways is easy to summarise Browning’s life. He married, and nursed, fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett; they spent a lot of time in Italy, becoming passionate about the movement for unification; he developed the form of the lengthy ‘dramatic monologue’, in which a speaker reveals the – often bizarre, often paradoxical – struggles of their inner life to an implied listener.

And yet, Browning’s poetry is full of warnings about quick and easy absorption. Reading like this doesn’t work. And it is dangerously limiting. He is a considered writer, who demands considerable reading, and yields considerable rewards, even now. Browning is interested in the timeless issues of exploring the self and the problems of translating personal experience.

Browning and the slippery idea of the ‘self’

Some of Browning’s most extraordinary poems are those hiding behind huge signs, with ‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE’ emblazoned upon them. His characters justify their actions – murders, hypocrisy, incredible narcissism – by taking on a poetic voice, lulling us with rhyme and imagery into accepting them as normal people, and presenting us with their version of events. Through highlighting the imbalance between what is happening in the poem, and how the speaker narrates it, his poems noisily point out that what we are doing, when we present ourselves, or other people, is presenting just one version of events.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ tells of a man’s obsession, and how, unchecked, it leads to a very sinister form of possession: his beloved, lifeless by his own hand. Reading it, we have to ask, where are the boundaries? They’ve clearly, massively, been transgressed: what was apparently love has become murder – but when, where, and why? Porphyria seems to be reciprocating his love – she comes to the speaker, “murmuring how she loved me” – yet he decides, in the first clear sign of his controlling nature, that she is “too weak” to fully commit to their relationship. Is this the first warning sign? When at first we are told he “debated what to do”, it is just after he seems contented by her love. And then, “I found / A thing to do” comes out, lines that could precede him suggesting anything – that they run away together, or something similarly romantic and spontaneous. Instead, he kills her. The access we have to the ‘real’ speaker is troubling: he is totally nonchalant as he strangles her.

The rest of the poem is almost too much, Browning’s description of a fresh murder victim whose blue eyes “laugh’d…without a stain” and who has a “smiling rosy little head”, approaches an out-of-this-world level of creepiness. The ‘lover’ of the title is clearly completely in control of her, with a desire completely out of control. But he’s also the one telling the story. Which begs the question: if, in perceiving other people, we are constructing our own version of them, how can they ever really be their own? The speaker in the poem tells us, “I am quite certain she felt no pain”, assuring us that this is what she would have wanted. His action is extreme, and Browning’s poem is challenging, but it is more than just him showing off that he can write the creepiest possible version of a ‘love poem’. For if it is possible to distort someone  “murmuring” their love into them consenting to be murdered – and if we’re sure that’s definitely not okay – how much more possible is it for us to misinterpret something little, that could easily mean a variety of things? Browning’s speaker kills his lover, and then tells the story of her death, entirely from his own viewpoint. Again, this is obviously hyper-controlling behaviour, and definitely not okay. But then, when we write other people into our poems – whoever they be, whether they exist or not – how do we know we’re not completely distorting who they are (or might be), and what they would do in the scenario we’re imagining? For example, your poetic muse probably wouldn’t describe their own eyes as being “azure”…

Robert Browning plaque by Steve Hunnisett

The blue plaque at 29 De Vere Gardens, London. Photo by Steve Hunnisett

‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’ sends up how we try to live outside of ourselves, by securing our own place in history. We listen as a dying bishop seeks to cement his reputation, and we can’t help but pick up on the contradiction of this dying churchman, having begun the poem recounting a sermon – “Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!” – which rails against sensual indulgences, going on to insist that his tomb be made exactly to his expensive tastes:

Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black –
’Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me
(The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church, ll. 54-56)

The monument we’re left with – this, Browning’s poem – shows the irony of the Bishop’s success. He does live on, and is remembered now. But, through Browning, we know him by his appearance as a self-absorbed character in this poem, rather than by his own choice of expensive stone ornaments, or epitaph of “choice Latin, picked phrase.” The monologue makes clear the hypocrisy of teaching others not to be materialistic, whilst indulging in the finest materials oneself, and by making this almost ridiculously clear, Browning is able to criticise what he saw as the unnecessarily luxurious aspects of the Church cleverly, and effectively, from within.

These examples of the destructive nature of misplaced desire teach us not to get wrapped up in the seeming all-importance of the image, whether it be the beauty of Porphyria, or the jade memorial in the corner of the church. Browning deliberately draws forth a striking flow of ideas from his speakers, in order to highlight the oddities, and follies, of the human mindset. ‘My Last Duchess’ sees another lover acting inappropriately, telling the tale of his wife’s death as he incorporates a portrait of her into his picture gallery. His visitor is asked to “sit and look at her”; she is an object in his possession, like the statue of “Neptune… Taming a sea-horse.” He twists the ‘story’ of his wife’s glance (without his companion actually asking), into a reflection upon himself, criticising her for devaluing his “gift of nine-hundred-years-old name”, simply by liking other things. Browning ends his poem with the Duke pointing out the statue – “Notice Neptune, though?” – with a question that hangs over the poem’s end, never responded to, like it is a superior object, something that might be more fitting for the end of a poem than a painting of his wife. The Duke is in control of his little gallery, and could reflect upon his wife’s likeness in any way. Yet, he chooses to stress how she was inadequate. He reduces her, through his possession, to an object, with the poem’s title perfectly capturing his view. All she was, to him, was his. The Duke says that she had “my favour at her breast” – however, like the love in Porphyria’s eyes, or the ‘vanity’ sermon, this is, again, a controlling narrator, whose black hole of self-absorption can suck in planets, let alone lives. Just as Porphyria’s death and the painting of the Duchess could have been described in completely different poems, the way we write about anyone is always going to be tainted by how we think about them – and that includes ourselves.

Browning makes it clear that no form of representation is ever neutral, and that each word we write, we choose for a reason. Which may seem like a simple statement – it’s only one great thing to take away from three amazing poems – but keep it in mind when writing, and you will find yourself a clearer, more effective poet.

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning commemorative window

Window commemorating the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Photo by Esther Simpson.


Browning and the problem of absolute truth

Browning refuses to allow to us to hold to a firm belief in any one truth. Despite his mother’s piety, aged 14, he asked her to buy ‘Queen Mab’, a strongly atheist poem written by his then-idol, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Amongst Browning’s earliest admirers were the Flower sisters, through whom he secured his first publication. This relationship was another in which the young Browning refused to sacrifice his probing, analytical mind for comfort. Sarah Flower, who later went on to write the hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee, found that, in answering Browning’s letters, her “firm belief in the genuineness of the Scriptures” had ceded to a “gloomy state” of constant doubt.

This inability to let anyone’s mind rest stemmed from a personal conviction, that truth and meaning are always developing, and that there is no end to the amount of questions that can be asked to increase our understanding of the world. Such a questioning approach is what gives Browning’s art its distinctive vitality and complexity. Rather than linear narratives, Browning’s longest poems, such as The Ring and the Book, show us, like a great director, scenes from shifting perspectives. Published in 1868-9, its final section urges us to remember:

This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least.
(The Ring and the Book, XIII, ll. 834-849)

Browning challenges us to see that, in our reading and our own writing, we need to continually contemplate the use, and the meaning, of what we are doing.

Browning and the role of art

Browning believes that art ought to continually challenge us to take on new perspectives. The monk in ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, challenged by policemen for being in a disreputable area of the city, gives his reason for painting:

For, don’t you mark? We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see
(ll. 301-303)

Delving into Browning’s poetry forces us to question the lens through which we interpret the world, the ways in which we present ourselves to the world, and the role of art in society. These are crucial questions in the development of the poetic imagination, and they resonate now, when we attempt to understand our own culture. W. David Shaw described Browning in The Dialectical Temper: The Rhetorical Art of Robert Browning (1968) as “a comic philosopher who, in laying siege to many points of view, can educate his readers at the same time he entertains them”. Even though his cultural landscape was radically different, populated by Romantic poets and Renaissance Italians, the value and appeal of Browning’s approach to our minds and our art endures. In a world in which so much of our experience is mediated through forms which constantly encourage us to ‘Share’, ‘Comment’, and take ‘vintage’ photographs of everything, thinking hard about what, and why, we produce, is surely more important than ever.

Phil Coales

Philip Coales has nearly finished studying English at Oxford. Afterwards, he plans to reboot in Windows’ safe mode. He was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2009, and commended in 2008.






Published May, 2013

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