- Browning’s Pygmalion and the Revenge of Galatea
I will make an Eve, be the artist that began her, Shaped her to his mind!—“Women and Roses,” 47–48 1
In Browning’s poetry, the creative act is epitomized by a male artist’s desire to immortalize his feminine ideal. For these male artists, the creation of woman represents the primal scene of aesthetic production: it is not simply the human but the feminine subject who is the image and end of creative endeavour: “I always see the garden and God there / Amaking man’s wife” (“Fra Lippo Lippi,” 266–67). Man, succeeding to the position of the anthropomorphic and masculine deity, becomes the maker of his own match. Woman, rather than being a subject in her own right, functions as the device that completes man’s lack, simultaneously reflecting him back to himself in a reassuring fullness. The poems’ male actors, whether genuine or aspirant artists, have constant recourse to a vocabulary that frames their female partners as art-objects, and the repetition of this pattern raises the question of whether Browning exposes or colludes with this identification.
U. C. Knoepflmacher opened this debate with the well-supported contention that Browning ironizes the Romantic epipsyche in his poetry, revealing the extent to which woman as other is narcissistically conceived as a prop, extension, or guarantor of male identity. 2 Carol Christ’s slightly later examination, “The Feminine Subject in Victorian Poetry,” adopts a more suspicious tone. Having made the entirely legitimate claim that, “like Tennyson, Browning associates woman with the poetical character,” she proceeds to assert the significance of woman in Browning’s poetry as the focus of the male and frequently murderous gaze—“Browning’s... male characters seek to appropriate a woman of their desire.” 3 She suggests, however, that this appropriation is part of the poet’s own larger project: “Fearful of the feminization of culture, the poet of the period strove to make the female subject bear his name.” 4 Thus she reads the struggle of Browning’s male protagonists to control, master, fix the women of their desire as a reflection of his own creative anxiety: “Browning reveals and obscures the erotic transgression of the artist by controlling [End Page 989] the looks of others.” 5 The taming of the woman’s own gaze, the control of her license to survey, is as much the preoccupation of the poet as it is that of his male monologuists. “The female subject satisfies the desire to look and be looked at, while it shields the creator from direct regard.” 6 This view, a more sophisticated version of that critical rationale which reads Browning’s dramatis personae as masks for his own desires, is problematic. Although Christ acknowledges Knoepflmacher, her perceptions seem to jar with his judgment of ironization. If Browning is in league with his male monologuists, to what extent can his project be ironic? And does he endorse the views of his male protagonists; does he really believe that the poetical character can be appropriated in this way? Christ’s alliance of poet with his monologuists makes her miss the fact that the strategies of appropriation pictured in the poems are severely flawed, fail even, that the poems stage the very impossibility of appropriation. Isn’t ‘poetical character’ something that exceeds man’s grasp? Surely the ironization that Knoepflmacher remarks is most powerfully in force when Browning yokes sexuality and art, and thus emphasizes the very fabrication of male fantasy and its constituent role in a masculine myth of creativity?
Although critics have spoken of Browning’s obsession with the myth of Andromeda’s rescue by Perseus, this story seems to me to be a reaction to a larger mythic influence and one in which the poet shows that preservation by the male is not necessarily synonymous with rescue and liberation. 7 For Browning’s real compulsion is Ovid’s story of Pygmalion who, disgusted by the women he sees about him, sculpts his ideal woman, and then falls hopelessly in love with the statue he has created. The goddess Venus at last takes pity on him and animates the statue so that it...