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Browning’s Bodies and the Body of Criticism

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 415-429 | 10.1353/vp.2012.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

That’s my last duchess painted on the wall
Gr-r-r—there go, my heart’s abhorence!
Just for a handful of silver he left us
Vanity, saith the Preacher, vanity!
That second time they hunted me
No more wine? Then we’ll push back chairs and talk.
My first thought was, he lied in every word
Oh, Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
But do not let us quarrel any more
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave
Karshish, the picker-up of learning’s crumbs
Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!
Let us begin and carry up this corpse
[’Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best
Stop, let me have the truth of that!
Now, don’t sir! Don’t expose me! Just this once!1

Gentle readers, you’ve by now caught my drift. This issue of Victorian Poetry celebrates the bicentenary of Robert Browning’s birth. What better way to commemorate Browning’s beginning than with the beginnings of his poems?

The list above, first lines that might emerge easily from memory, creates a panoply of voices—abrupt, colloquial, direct or seemingly so, demanding. Most of these lines begin monologues published in Men and Women. Though familiarity might dull their freshness, since a seasoned reader almost always recalls the next line, taken as the group they still have the power to arrest. To amuse. To baffle.

Who would begin a poem with a bracket and an apostrophe? With a line stopped by three exclamation marks? With an unknown person enjoining us to “carry up this corpse”? The examples multiply. How strange to commence a poetic career with a long passage from Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia, the first two words of which are “Non dubito.”How strange to begin an epic with a question.

And yet Browning’s beginnings often have a brilliance beyond the arresting and the strange, since they commonly arrive in a syntactic rush, compelling us forward into the next line, the next idea. “But do not let us quarrel anymore” impels us directly into the next negative, “No, my Lucrezia,” which in turn compels us toward the further negative, our later recognition that Lucrezia is both too much Andrea’s “my Lucrezia” and not his at all. The liar—or was he in “Childe Roland”?—fast becomes “that hoary cripple with malicious eye.” Karshish, who’s already filled our mouth or minds with coinages, plunges on to call himself, in a negative mouthful, “the not incurious in God’s handiwork.”

Or take the beginning of The Ring and the Book: “Do you see this Ring?”2 We are supposed of course to answer “yes,” but, of course, our answer is no. We don’t see the ring, not really. It isn’t described directly, appearing only through a historical narrative of its pedigree (and the pedigree of its pedigree and the possible circumstances of its manufacture). The poet follows his question with an onslaught of qualifiers and the famous—or infamous—knotty metaphor of “repristination,” with its barely concealed baggage of religious controversy. The verse paragraph that begins, “Do you see this Ring,” ends with a second question, almost offhand: “What of it? ’Tis a figure, a symbol, say; / A thing’s sign: now for the thing signified.” In the next verse paragraph, the “thing” signified actually comes as a question too: “Do you see this square old yellow Book”?

Editorial Edifices

Browning’s poetry, as Herbert Tucker remarked years ago, is “radically introductory.” It carries with it almost always a “sense of inauguration.”3 Or as Tucker more recently said of The Ring and the Book, it makes “multiple fresh starts.”4 On the original publication of Men and Women, John Ruskin called Browning’s multiple beginnings “ellipses,” alluding to semantic gaps, and to meter, rhyme, syntax and punctuation all at once. In his famous letter to the poet about a volume that caused him considerable struggle, he pronounced Browning’s ellipses “quite Unconscionable.” “Before one can get through ten lines, one has to patch you up in twenty places” (Selected Poems, p. 880).

If we turn to other readers of Browning—those...

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