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  • The Genesis of Balaustion’s Adventure
  • John Woolford (bio)

To the Countess Comper

If I mention the simple truth: that this poem absolutely owes its existence to you,—who not only suggested, but imposed on me as a task, what has proved the most delightful of May-month amusements—I shall seem honest, indeed, but hardly prudent; for, how good and beautiful ought such a poem to be!

Euripides might fear little; but I, also, have an interest in the performance: and what wonder if I beg you to suffer that it make, in another and far easier sense, its nearest possible approach to those Greek qualities of goodness and beauty, by laying itself gratefully at your feet?

R. B.

London, JULY 23, 18711

What led Robert Browning to write Balaustion’s Adventure? It appears in his work as a kind of bufer between two much darker long poems, The Ring and the Book (1868–69) and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871), respectively his most comprehensive venture into traditional history/historiography and his largest and most detailed treatment of contemporary events.2

Beside these, Balaustion’s Adventure can seem a bit slight, as Browning himself seems to have feared, describing it in the Preface as “the most delightful of May-month amusements,” but dismissing it, in a letter to Isa Blagden, as “a trifle indeed.”3 Alfred Domett records hearing from Browning’s sister Sarianna that “they considered Balaustion’s Adventure the most popular of his works.” Domett’s reaction, “A curious notion & fact if true,”4 suggests that he shared Browning’s apparently dismissive view of the poem. So why did Browning write and publish it?

This question may be addressed either externally—Balaustion’s origins in immediate circumstance, and participation in the historical array of treatments of its central theme, or internally—the position of the poem in the sequence of [End Page 563] Browning’s works. It will be my contention that far from the slight production it is usually presumed to be, Balaustion’s Adventure not only responds to his contemporaries’ readings (and writings) of the classical drama on which it is based, but also plays a critical role in the evolution of Browning’s aesthetics, and makes a significant contribution to nineteenth-century debates over the value of Euripides and of classical drama.

I. Personal elements

i) The contribution of Lady Cowper

In an important sense, Balaustion’s Adventure may be regarded as what its preface in effect claims it to be, a strictly occasional poem. Unpublished correspondence between Browning and Lady Cowper confirms Browning’s claim that Balaustion’s Adventure was indeed in a sense commissioned by her:

Wed: 17th [sic, for 16] Aug [1871]

Dear Mr Browning. My husband has just finished reading your poem to me & I must write at once & tell you how beautiful we both think it & what great pleasure it has been to us both reading it– I shall like it more & more the oftener I read it, I know; & meanwhile it has left all sorts of beautiful pictures in my mind to feast upon. There are such beautiful bits & lines through it all, & what a beautiful character you have given Alcestis— She is my perfect idea of what a wife shd be—only one has not to die for one’s husband in these days— Your description of Leighton’s picture too, is beautiful; much more beautiful than the picture which never half satisfied me. I long to be able to read the original; & yet I do not really care I think, for from what I make out the original was not a good play; had only the making of a beautiful poem in it, which you have done as no one else could.

Thank you 1000 times for all the pleasure I have derived from your great kindness in having taken me at my word when I so impertinently asked you to translate the play into English for me[.]

Believe me     Yours very Sincerely       Katie Cowper

(Yale MS)

The final paragraph confirms that at some unspecified time “Katie Cowper” requested Browning “to translate the play into English,” and in one sense that is what...


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