ELH 73.2 (2006) 409-435
Robert Browning's Optical Unconscious
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor." Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
. . . And the memory I started at —
My starting moves your laughter.
. . . Well, I forget the rest.
When we think of Robert Browning and visual culture, we probably think first of painting. "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," and several other of his best-known poems, for example, are dramatic monologues in the voice of Renaissance painters. The unnamed early sixteenth-century Florentine, the "unknown painter" of "Pictor Ignotus," bemoans a shift in tastes, manners, and expectations among the painters and patrons of his era: "This world seemed not the world it was before," he laments, describing those who "buy and sell our pictures, take and give, / Count them for garniture and household-stuff." So Browning evokes an artist's bewildered reaction to an early capitalist commodification of the image, as the Renaissance painter witnesses his "pictures" turned into "household stuff." Browning wrote this poem in the 1840s, which happened to be a time, like the early sixteenth-century, of a momentous transformation in the practice of image-making and consuming, one that rendered portraits and other images into "household stuff" much more thoroughly than Browning's unknown painter could have imagined. It would seem an obvious question to wonder how we might begin to consider Browning's work within a broader mid-Victorian visual culture containing not only painting but also photography—swiftly becoming the culture's dominant means of creating images. How might it change our understanding of this poet to situate his work not only in relation to the visual culture he so often wrote about—that of Italian Renaissance painting—but also to a contemporary Victorian culture recently revolutionized by new methods and technologies of image-making?
We might begin such an inquiry in an empirical fashion by looking for Browning's personal experiences with photography and as a photographic subject—although this evidence is not plentiful. Several years ago a lost photograph of Browning at age 44 surfaced—taken 2 June 1856 in Paris and described by Herbert Tucker as "not the most convincing likeness of Robert Browning" but "the only convincing likeness of Robert Browning" he had ever seen. So Browning was photographed, if infrequently. According to Grace Elizabeth Wilson, Browning also apparently sponsored a professional photographer named William Grove:
Grove's association with Browning came while the former was still a young man. The poet saw some amateur photographs taken by his young acquaintance and gave him the encouragement necessary for entrance into such a young field as photography at that time. It was due to Browning's advice that the spare time hobby became a means of livelihood to William Grove. Browning not only suggested the establishment of the business, but also took a real personal interest in it. He often came to the studio on Brompton Road to sit and chat for an hour. It is hard to overestimate how much this must have meant to the young proprietor.
At least late in his life, then, Browning "took a real personal interest" in photography and was drawn to the space of a photographic studio—perhaps, we could surmise, as a rival space of creation and image-making.
Having now come close to exhausting the direct biographical links between Browning and photography, however, we must turn to a reading of his work in order to consider more deeply whether and how photography mattered to Browning, and how his poetry may...