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A Note on Meter, Music, and Meaning in Robert Browning's Fifine at the Fair
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Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 25-35

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A Note on Meter, Music, and Meaning in Robert Browning's Fifine at the Fair

Donald S. Hair

While music is not entirely a neglected aspect of Fifine at the Fair--the dream vision is, after all, inspired by Juan's playing of Schumann's "Carnival"--the meter is little discussed. The link between music and meter, and the relation of both to the meaning, is the subject of this note. The meaning may be summed up in the two lines which are repeated often enough to become mottoes, both of which appear in the climactic section 124: "All's change, but permanence as well," and "God, man, or both together mixed." The latter is Browning's translation of line 116 of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; the former, I will argue, is his translation of the Tetragrammaton, the mysterious name of God which Moses hears out of the burning bush. Readers often distrust meaning which can be summed up in a motto, but Browning, with his thorough knowledge of the emblem tradition, was not averse to providing mottoes. He also knew, however, that the motto had to be integral to one's experience of the emblem itself, and that a motto not grounded in the poem as a whole would ring hollow. Browning's mottoes, as I will attempt to show, are grounded in his prosody, which is to be understood in two ways, one familiar, one largely ignored by prosodists of our own day (though not by Browning's contemporaries). The familiar way is scansion syllable by syllable, the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables (and particularly the variations from it) constituting a meter appropriate to the meaning of the lines; as Pope said when he was demonstrating the effects of such accentual-syllabic verse in An Essay on Criticism, "The sound must seem an echo to the sense." The unfamiliar way is division of the words into isochronous units analogous to bars in music, each unit beginning with a strong beat, and each having not a fixed but a varying number of syllables; pauses or rests are as important as articulated sounds, and rhyme words mark some, but not all, of the divisions or bars. In verse of this kind, the link of sound and sense is much more problematic, but [End Page 25] Browning, who makes music a theme in Fifine, also makes its meaning feed back into the prosody itself, so that, while music as theme presents itself to the reader's understanding, music as prosody appeals to the reader's actual sensory experience of the lines: their movement, their rhythm, their stimulating of a kinesthetic reponse in us--a response Browning will daringly link with the primal (and phallic) energy of the menhir Juan and Elvire see, and which Browning will link, even more daringly, with the Word which is God. In this poem, prosody has momentous implications.

Let's begin, however, by considering the verse as accentual-syllabic, and analyze the hexameter couplets. The base pattern is one which Browning establishes in the very first line: "O trip and skip, Elvire! Link arm in arm with me!" 1 The iamb is the basic metrical foot, and there is a strong medial caesura. The Greeks thought that the iamb was the meter closest to ordinary speech, and, in its six-foot form (which the Greeks, pairing the iambic feet, called "trimeter"), it was "the usual meter for invective and for dialogue in Greek drama." 2 Browning makes his accentual-syllabic meter approximate the Greek quantitative measure, and he reminds us that he is doing so when he fits into his own verses a line which, Englished, becomes one of the mottoes of the poem, but which Browning twice gives in Greek, line 116 of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound: "Theosutos e broteios eper kekramene" (l. 905; the repetition in l. 2210 uses neuter forms). 3 Browning, with his thorough knowledge of Greek drama, thus chose a meter associated with speech and then, in his usual...