Robert Browning’s “Saul”: Strains through the Array
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Robert Browning’s “Saul”:
Strains through the Array

“Some people have God,” I said. “Quite a lot.” “He never worked very well with me.”

(Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, chap. 19)1

In 1 Samuel 16.23 David, anointed successor to wretched, deranged King Saul, plays a harp to soothe the demoniac. An exorcism is mentioned, but as if it were only an accident or a byproduct of peace, good will, and music’s charms. Perhaps “the evil spirit” finally answers to no man. A kindred spirit seems to take possession of Robert Browning and his readers who delve into causality, order, artistry, and theodicy. Browning amplifies the brief biblical event to make it an occasion for the two Hebrew Testament luminaries to meet not only each other but also their Maker again. Multi-talented David has to change the pitch when he understands what his auditor needs most in order to recover from a psychological breakdown probably caused by religious trauma. When David’s praise and sensual music “of this world’s life” (l. 51) do not suffice, Saul finally gets the divine Word: his God loves as well as legislates.2 Saul’s moral “error” (l. 213) calls for special treatment, another prescription of godhead: the omnipotent way “God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear” (l. 47); the truth that “all’s love, yet all’s law” (l. 242); and the life of love, “God’s ultimate gift” (l. 266), enforcing “the new law” (l. 331) that allays fear and trembling. Good shepherd David, compassionate toward a lost soul but also keeping watch over his new spiritual territory, is type to “the Christ” (l. 312). A strange religious experience compels David to become a material witness to the world’s sacredness.3 Recounting the previous day’s events to some companion(s), David’s dramatic oral testimony thus immediately confirms his new God-given authority to rule the Israelites. Saul, having offended Yahweh, is king in name only; the poem’s eponymous title analogously marks the start of a contest for authority applicable not only to these strong men and logocentric tenets but also to readers trying to command the poem. Its array of fixed text, mercurial subtext, and biblical sources uses various strains: musical and poetic, individual and generational, causal and [End Page 1] consequent, vestigial and superior, invigorating and debilitating, restrictive and productive. These invite scrutiny of ideological props, which deter as well as encourage growth. We do not have to be Muscular Christians anymore, or still be discovering “How very hard it is to be / A Christian” (Easter-Day, ll. 1–2), in order for reading to beget or conjure a “spirit strained true” (“Saul,” l. 88). A helping hand from Browning into the plenary, possible-world Bible directs us to check our attachment to what makes his Saul a sublime fumbler, his David a subtle beast of the field, and the Good Word as well as poetry stressful and reforming.

Browning’s historical supplements, exploiting interstitial time, are ways of “putting the infinite within the finite,” which he declares to John Ruskin is the soul of all poetry.4 Such assembly has the potential to confuse readers familiar with the biblical prototypes and irritate even a loyal, savvy Browning fan.5 In supervenient “Saul,” exemplifying “fiction which makes fact alive” (The Ring and the Book, 1.705), nested dramatic monologues discharge David’s sanction from a curt godhead. The midrash-like “Saul,” testing readers’ tolerance for Browning’s poetic and hermeneutic turns, leaves polyvalent space between it and the biblical record (before and after this momentous meeting). Browning’s “turning and adjustment of the harp,” like the practice of the novice harper-poet in “‘Transcendentalism: A Poem in Twelve Books’” (l. 7), runs the risk of being theologically unsound as well as artistically ineffectual. Percy Shelley’s strong, resourceful heir found the instrument left him by his Romantic predecessors needed to be restrung for his world-making. Furthermore, the Victorian poet had to finger it differently to have any chance of recording his contemporaries’ spiritual discord while also charming them with an arranged...


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