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Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 249-268

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The Promise of Converting Poets in Robert Browning's "Cleon"

Joseph A. Dupras

It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine; Without this accomplishment the naturall expectation and desire of such state, were but a fallacy in nature, unsatisfied Considerators; would quarrell the justice of their constitutions, and rest content that Adam had fallen lower, whereby by knowing no other Originall, and deeper ignorance of themselves, they might have enjoyed the happinesse of inferiour creatures, who in tranquillity possesse their Constitutions, as having not the apprehension to deplore their own natures.

(Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Burial, chap. 4) 1

Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.

(Hebrews 4.11)

Cleon" portrays a disillusioned writer whose achievements and renown do not allay his sense of mortality or his spiritual disappointment. Dour Cleon thinks that "the soul craves all" (l. 241) but it meets resistance from a dying body, and that his artistic success is hollow because "vulgar souls" (l. 25) cannot appreciate either his sensibility or his work. 2 Robert Browning revisited these issues often throughout his career, but "'Cleon' is important as an ars poetica partly because it combines the problems of the Victorian artist with the difficulties of the Victorian Christian." 3 When the poem appeared in Men and Women (1855), Browning had not achieved the stature of his fictional persona; he was still reforming his Christian faith along with a poetics that allowed self-effacement and that linked his creed of divine love with human relationships and artistic resources. Notwithstanding the poem's epigraph, "As certain also of your own poets have said," from Acts 17.28, only a few critics have emphasized, besides Cleon's theological boundaries, the "artist-gifts" (l. 275) that both dignify and frustrate a proud, yet despondent, Greek artist living in Christianity's first century. [End Page 249] Cleon's fame (which, besides "hearing," and "closing," his name denotes) apparently includes him among "the Makers-see on the alert," who can "Impart the gift of seeing to the rest" (Sordello, 3.928, 868). Nevertheless, he cannot be a "true poet" in Browning's moral-aesthetic program without grasping God's "loving hand" and trusting that God "needs you [true poet], / Just saves your light to spend" ("Popularity," ll. 7, 9-10). Browning knows poets' personal as well as artistic pain and what they have said: for instance, when Milton considers how his light is spent, or when Keats has fears that he may cease to be. Cleon, misinterpreting "the rest," gifts, and his place, despairs of reaching spiritual tranquillity. His bigotry, conditioned by his sense of an ending, precludes his conversion to a new faith. Reading more than gospel, however, concerns Browning; his "poetry is heuristic rather than didactic." 4 Browning's contemporaries from the British Isles whose faith was shaken by Higher Criticism from the East could relate to Cleon's defensive Hellenism in "the sprinkled isles" (l. 1) of the Sporades. 5 "Cleon" suggests that readers who embrace "life's adaptabilities" (l. 218) surpass even (some) poets in loving their unfinished work. "Cleon" tests whether Browning ever "findeth scholars" (l. 350) worthy of his allusive, stereophonic craft, whose minds are not put to rest--even by Christianity--but rather are prepared for the enduring challenges of cultural and literary revisionism.

Answering Protus, who has asked whether artistic celebrity provides enough joy to compensate for an aching consciousness of life's brevity, uncertainties, futility, and finality, Cleon doubts the efficacy of creative work, rejects his own dream of a theophany, and finally dismisses Christian kerygma as uninteresting and irrational. By "ruling and the rest" (l. 25), Protus impresses Cleon, who, implacable despite his spiritual distress, turns an almost deaf ear toward Judeo-Christianity--an unruly doctrinal cetera which...


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