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Infinite Movement: Robert Browning and the Dramatic Travelogue

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 52, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 185-203 | 10.1353/vp.2014.0014

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The speaker of Robert Browning’s “Clive” (1880) is an old soldier who served with Robert Clive in India before witnessing the general’s decline into disgrace and suicide. Thinking over his memories of Clive, the speaker figures the act of remembering as a recapitulation of the military marches of his youth:

        thought grows busy, thrids each pathway of old years,
Notes this forthright, that meander, till the long-past life appears
Like an outspread map of country plodded through, each mile and rood,
Once, and well remembered still.

(ll. 11–14)

The speaker identifies his mental process as a form of motion: his thoughts journey down the pathways of memory, retracing the footsteps of his plodding through India. He also presents thought as visual, likening memory to the outspreading of a map, a chart which regulates the movements of the mind. This visual conception of thinking is present too in the speaker’s account of the ailing Clive, whom he recalls staring at a table-top “as though / Tracing, in the stains and streaks there, thoughts encrusted long ago” (ll. 87–88). The difference between the two men’s thoughts is that while the speaker’s memories are “busy,” Clive’s opium-addled brain is trapped in pathological stasis: his brooding thoughts are “encrusted,” stuck in one place. The speaker’s more dynamic thought processes encapsulate two recurring features of Browning’s representation of psychology in his dramatic monologues: the conviction that thought is (or should be) active and mobile, and the use of motifs of travel to evoke this mobility.

In this poem the speaker’s travels are in his head: he remains physically in the same place while taking a mental journey into the foreign country of his past. More commonly, though, Browning’s monologues are voiced by speakers who are physically on the move, traveling from place to place just as their minds shift from thought to thought. This essay will argue that Browning’s travel monologues (or dramatic travelogues) utilize the unfolding events of a journey to enact the relentless mutability of their speakers’ minds. These poems can be read to some extent as travel narratives, but the geographical and psychological voyages they recount rarely reach a definite conclusion: even as they are moving, the speakers of these poems seem to be going nowhere fast. Yopie Prins, discussing the importance of motion to the forms and narratives of Browning’s writing, has noted that “the rapid acceleration of Browning’s poetry is structured by interruption and disruption rather than continuous flow.” The journeys in Browning’s monologues, then, can be seen both as examinations of the movements of thought and travel and as reflections on the difficulty of fashioning a straightforward narrative from the accelerations and interruptions of verse form. This overlapping of psychological and formal concerns is intrinsic to the dramatic monologue, a genre which seeks to merge the lyric articulation of subjectivity with the presentation of a contextual narrative. Monique R. Morgan has argued that it is the narrative movement of the dramatic monologue which differentiates the form from the stasis of lyric, claiming that, while lyric verse seeks to represent “absolute simultaneity in a suspended moment,” the dramatic monologue “gives the [speaker’s] discourse the developing temporality of narrative, rather than aspiring to the seemingly simultaneous meaning of lyric.” I will argue, however, that Browning’s monologues of inexorable physical and psychological travel demonstrate just this aspiration to the “suspended” condition of lyric simultaneity. His speakers typically hope for an end to motion, to thought, and to narrative.

This aspiration remains, more often than not, unrealized, because Browning’s monologues persistently reiterate a conception of psychology as flux and motion, in which any pauses are temporary. A dramatic monologue, for Browning, comprises the expression of the changes and movements of its speaker’s mind as that mind reacts to external events (the response of an auditor, for example, or the incidents of a journey). This psychological stance, which bears comparison to the nineteenth-century associationist theories of psychology that identified the mind as a series of transient mental states founded on the data of sensory experience, was noted by some Victorian critics...

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