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BROWNING THE SIMPLE-HEARTED CASUIST Hoxm N. FAIRCHILD H AS any English poet of comparable historical interest and intrinsic merit received so small an amount of respectable critical attention as Robert Browning? Now that the nineteenth-century spate of "inspirational " eulogy and exegesis has dwindled to the merest trickle, there is need and opportunity for disinterested re-examination of his work. One result of such a study will be our awareness of a paradox. Though by no 1neans a profound philosopher, Browning was a man of much intellectual subtlety. He was fascinated by the difficulties and ambiguities of thought, its sinuous twistings and turnings and casuistical rationalizations. But his deeply convoluted brain could never dismiss the obligation to satisfy the demands of his healthy and almost boyishly simple heart. On the one hand, the truth was many-sided, relative, shadowy; on the other hand, it was single, absolute, and plain as a pikestaff. Brain-truth was of man; heart-truth was of God. The poet, who must faithfully render all the tangled phenomena of mental life, must also apprehend God's truth and impart it to others. Several of Browning's most characteristic poems attempt to reconcile the complex brain and the simple heart. For all his dramatic subtlety, he seldom fails to make the speaker expose the "reaP' truth which underlies the surface play of intellectual sophistication. Although the assumption that the real is always more simple than the apparent is probably fallacious , one usually admires the skill with which Browning achieves his purpose. Sometimes, however, the speaker unmasks himself with excessively naive alacrity. And still more regrettably Browning, in his reluctance to bewilder or demoralize the reader and in hiS eagerness to satisfy the demands of his own wholesome nature, rather often adds a passage which tells the reader precisely what to think. Sometimes he does so within the framework of the poem, and .sometimes he frankly speaks in his own person; but in either case the passage is essentially extra-dramatic. Especially when some religious issue is at stake, this device is common enough to deserve a label: let us call it "the giveaway.n The earliest clear example of the giveaway occurs in Sordello-not of course a dramatic monologue, but an attempt to tell a story in terms of the infinitely tortuous thoughts and feelings of the characters, with a minimum didactic intrusion. In Book VI, just before the poet-patriofs death, Browning mercifully steps in with Ah my Sordello, I this once befriend And speak for you. ยท Both hero and reader stand in dire need of such intervention, for the preceding five hundred lines or so have described, in language of almost 234 BROWNING THE SIMPLE-HEARTED CASUIST 235 impenetrable difficulty, the groping of Sardella's mind toward some kind of suprapersonal value. Since the hero himself does not know what 'this value is, it is incumbent on Browning to inform us, quite unambiguously, that what Sordello really needs is God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Naturally, however, it is in the dramatic monologues that the problem of how to be interestingly subtle without placing a stumbling-block in the reader,s path becomes acute. Let us examine a few of these giveaways, arranging the examples in a descending order of blatancy. The more specious the case of the speaker, the greater the need of an explicit indication of his falsehood. Mr. Sludge, the medim:n, is caught barehanded in an outrageous piece of trickery. But Mrs. Browning's spiritualistic hankerings have given her husband as sharp a distaste for the patrons of. men like Daniel Home as for the tricksters themselv~. Hence the rascally little Yankee is given a good deal to say for himself. His nature has been warped by social and economic factors beyond his control. The normal fancifulness of his childhood has been perverted by the world's craving for marvels and by the vanity 'of superstitious gentry who develop a vested interest in the validity of his mediumship. "You see, sir, it's your own fault more than mine.... It's too bad, I say, Ruining a soul so!" His tricks, moreover, have served the cause of religion in this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 234-240
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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