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Robert Browning’s Debut: Ambition Expressed, Ambition Denied

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 451-468 | 10.1353/vp.2012.0032

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When Robert Browning published Pauline in 1833, he both made—and avoided making—his poetic debut. The poem was launched into the literary world in a slender volume, between drab paper-covered boards, with a simple title: Pauline; A Fragment of a Confession. The poet’s name is notably absent from the title page. Anonymous publication was, of course, common in the early nineteenth century for first volumes of verse. Most famously, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) appeared without authorial signature, and other nineteenth-century poets used pseudonyms or generic names as they launched their careers: “by a lady” for Felicia Hemans’s The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816); “by two brothers” for the adolescent Poems (1829) of Alfred, Frederick, and Charles Tennyson; and “by A” for Matthew Arnold’s The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849). In publishing Pauline anonymously, though, Browning was not just modestly following convention, but allowing himself the possibility of making, revoking, and multiplying his poetic debuts. As he acknowledged to W. J. Fox, when asking for a review in the Westminster, by keeping his authorship of Pauline a secret, he kept “a loophole . . . for backing out of the thing if necessary.”1

Browning’s anonymity registers both his anxiety and his ambition at the start of his literary career. This essay will emphasize ambition, especially as expressed in the paratexts of Pauline—those “fringe[s] of the printed text which in reality control one’s whole reading of the text,” as Gérard Genette explains in his seminal Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Paratexts work “to put a high value on the text without antagonizing the reader by too immodestly, or simply too obviously, putting a high value on the text’s author.” 2 Browning, like other young authors, used the paratexts of Pauline to signal its value and subtly raise the as-yet-unknown poet’s status. In lieu of his authorial signature, another poet’s name appears on the title page: Clément “Marot,” the early Renaissance poet whose lines supply its epigraph:

Plus ne suis ce que j’ai été,
Et ne le sçaurois jamais être.3
[What once I was I am no more,
And nevermore shall find it.4 ]

Marot’s name, I will argue, substitutes for Browning’s and signals the reach of his ambition, offering a model from literary history to express what Browning hoped to achieve. The other names that appear in the paratexts—Cornelius Agrippa, Pauline, and the volume’s publisher, Saunders and Otley—represent checks on that ambition. Browning builds into the poem, by means of text and paratexts, a pendulum of self-assertion and self-denial, a pattern of claiming large and fearing the results.

Over all of these names but one Browning exercised control—that is, he chose to quote Marot and Agrippa and to call his addressee ‘Pauline,’ but he had little control over the publisher’s name. Although he may not have realized it in 1833, he soon learned that this name was more important than he had anticipated and perhaps represented the strongest check on his ambition. Pauline’s paratexts—its epigraph from Marot, its Latin preface from Cornelius Agrippa, its interruptive French commentary by Pauline, its closing signature, and its bibliographic code—provide frames through which to read Browning’s early career. They signal, I believe, a poet less guilty about a Shelleyan defection or overwhelmed by his predecessor’s achievement, than someone ambitious to inaugurate a modern renaissance in poetic art.

Ambition Expressed: The Epigraph from Marot

Browning scholars have long read Pauline as a psychological account of Browning’s devotion to Shelleyan ideology, his falling away from its high ideals, his attempt to restore himself with the help of Pauline’s love, and his hope that he might regain his place as “priest and prophet as of old” (l. 1019).5 For Harold Bloom, Shelley is the “spirit of imaginative reproach” in Pauline; for Michael Yetman, only with Sordello (1840) does Browning manage “a radical shift away from his earlier conceptions of poetry” and an achievement of “his own identity as a poet.”6 Taking this view, one might argue...



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