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  • Gender and Sexual Anxiety in Browning's “Waring” and “The Guardian-Angel”
  • Ernest Fontana (bio)

Browning's "Waring" emerged as "a fancy portrait of a very dear friend" Alfred Domett,1 "who left England on April 30, 1842 for New Zealand (where he was later briefly Prime Minister)."2 First published in Dramatic Lyrics (1842), it was republished in 1849 with minor additions (ll. 153-157). John F. McCarthy in the most sustained examination of the poem argues that within it there is "a close identification between [Browning] and Domett" and that the poem is an "ironic self-analysis," marking "a low point in Browning's view of his own prospects.3 It mocks the pretensions of the inarticulate poet and exposes the strategy of a partial retirement of the artist as a delusion" (p. 382). Suggestively, Donald Hair compares Waring's "escape from the formal social life of London" to the withdrawal from modernity expressed in Arnold's "Scholar-Gipsy."4 Analogously, Philip Drew sees the poem as "like a brilliant sketch for a novel by Conrad."5

What both Hair and Drew touch on is the enigmatic suggestiveness of Browning's two-voiced presentation of the frustrated poet/artist and his subsequent disappearance abroad. In this essay, I shall pursue this enigma further, drawing on certain slippages and allusions in the poem that suggest a possible sexual significance to Waring's withdrawal. I shall also argue that such slippages are to be found in Browning's other, later Domett poem, "The Guardian-Angel," which dramatizes, surprisingly, a conflict between competing sexual/emotional impulses.

What strikes one as a significant slippage in "Waring" is the first speaker's portrayal of his beloved Waring—"how much I loved him, / I find out now I've lost him" (ll. 42-43)—through two extended female similitudes. First, he likens the reaction of Waring to the thoughtless praise of the poetic achievement of others to the reaction of "Some lost lady of old years / With her beauteous vain endeavour" (ll. 61-62) to the insensitive, but unexaggerated praise in her presence of the "grace and sweetness" (l. 70) of a younger woman. The older woman's consequent withdrawal "Past our reach" (l. 78) is offered by the first speaker as the primary figure (ll. 42-79) for Waring's sudden, unexpected disappearance. [End Page 183]

Later, the first speaker imagines Waring in Russia as Iphigenia, spared from her father Agamemnon's sacrifice of her by Artemis, "who bore her off to Tauris (the Crimea and Scythian strands) to become a priestess at the goddess's (Diana's) shrine" (Collins, 1082 n.):

Waring in Moscow, to those rough Cold northern natures born perhaps, Like the lambwhite maiden dear From the circle of mute kings Unable to repress the tear, Each as his sceptre down he flings, To Dian's fane at Taurica, Where now a captive priestess, she alway Mingles her tender grave Hellenic speech With theirs, tuned to the hailstone-beaten beach As pours some pigeon, from the myrrhy lands Rapt by the whirl-blast to fierce Scythian strands Where breed the swallows, her melodious cry Amid their barbarous twitter!

(ll. 120-133)

This extended simile radically feminizes Waring in his imagined exile. He is likened to a "lambwhite maiden," to a "captive princess" with "tender . . . speech," to a "pigeon, from the myrrhy lands." Innocence, virginity, tenderness, sweet scents, fragility gender Waring, for a Victorian reader, with markedly feminine qualities. The captivity motif had been introduced earlier in the first speaker's fantasy of how he would feast Waring with praise, if he reappeared in London, for his unrealized arts, as one feasts a rare, captured zoological specimen:

               unreconciled To capture; and completely gives Its pettish humours licence, barely Requiring that it lives.

(ll. 95-98)

This feminizing of Waring is paralleled not only by Browning's curious reference to the poem as a "fancy portrait," but by his reference to Waring, seen before his sudden disappearance, as never looking "half so gay" (l. 21). Both adjectives had in the mid-nineteenth century, in British English, strong gender connotations. According to the O.E.D., "fancy" signified not only its current meanings...


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