- Men and Women and the Arts of Love
The two most prominent topics of Robert Browning’s Men and Women (1855) are love and art. The former receives less critical attention, even though, as Wendell Stacy Johnson notes, “the specific subject of love between men and women is the major one of this collection. Of the fifty-one pieces in the two volumes of Men and Women, more than half are about love and marriage.”1 The conspicuous role of art and artists, on the other hand, has always attracted comment; while the volumes were still in preparation, Browning wrote to a friend, “I am writing … ‘Lyrics,’ with more music & painting than before,” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning informed her sister Arabella that “there will be in them a good deal of Italian art . . pictures, music.”2 The two topics are explicitly brought together in the final poem of the collection, “One Word More,” which serves as epilogue. Here Browning, speaking in propria persona, directly addresses the relation between art and love, and in particular he considers which of the arts is best capable of expressing human passion.
Yet the question of the differing relations between love and the different forms of art is not restricted to “One Word More” but has implicitly been at the center of the collection all along. Men and Women thus constitutes a type of paragone.3 The paragone was a genre of Renaissance aesthetic philosophy in which one form of art was compared to others and declared superior; notable examples include Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting (pub. 1651) and, in English, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (pub. 1595). Very few of Browning’s poems follow this model of explicitly arguing for the superiority of one art form—the exception being “Abt Vogler,” from the 1864 collection Dramatis Personae, to which I return at the end of this essay. But the paragone developed in later centuries so that, without declaring a single winner, the author evaluated the advantages and limitations of different arts, as G. E. Lessing does in his landmark Laocoon: On the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766).4 This is the pattern followed by “One Word More” and several other poems in Men and Women, as well as by the collection as a whole, which constantly considers and distinguishes between painting, music, and poetry as expressions of love. In this way Men and Women forms one of the nineteenth century’s most important investigations into the relation between aesthetic and erotic feeling.5 [End Page 521]
The attitudes of the speakers follow an irregular yet recognizable development over the course of the collection, and in what follows I trace their shifting perceptions of the relationship between love and art.6 At the beginning of Men and Women, perhaps surprisingly, the two are set in stark opposition: many of the earliest speakers lump all the arts together, considering them as divorced from, even antithetical to, the experience of erotic love. Gradually, however, love and art come to be seen as naturally affiliated. Notably, both are shown to be forever alternating between objective (self-conscious) and subjective (unself-conscious) modes, and both thus participate in the Browningesque paradox of success-through-failure. Various poems then highlight individual art forms, portraying the advantages and disadvantages of each for expressing different aspects of romantic love, culminating in “One Word More” and Browning’s own decision to embody his love in verse. But Browning is, typically, less intent on reaching a single conclusion than on exploring how the varieties of art enrich our understanding of the complexities of human love.
The first poem in Men and Women, “Love Among the Ruins,” concludes with a curt declaration: “Love is best.”7 Taken out of context, as it often is, this line can be misleading. In the poem love is not being placed in a hierarchy, at the top of a scale of good things, but is rather being set in opposition to all other human achievements. “Love Among the Ruins,” in its form and its rhetoric, depends upon a series of strict binaries: long lines (11 syllables) alternate with short (3...