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BROWNING'S "THE STATUE AND THE BUST" IW. O. Raymond With the possible exception of Fifine at the Fair, there is no other poem of Browning whose ethics have provoked such controversy as "The Statue and the Bust." The two poems have frequently been linked both in hostile criticism and in eulogy. In the Scottish Art Review for December 1889, Mr. Mortimer asserted that Fifine at the Fair and "The Statue and the Bust" showed that Browning "prescribes action at any price, even that of defying the restrictions of the moral law." Swinburne, on the other hand, enthusiastically admired both works. Lord Bryce has recorded how at a meeting of the Old Mortality Society in Swinburne's rooms at Oxford in 1858, the Pre-Raphaelite poet "repeated, or rather chanted, to his friends, a few of Browning's poems, in particular 'The Statue and the Bust,' 'The Heretic's Tragedy,' and 'Bishop Blougram's Apology.' "1 Again, shortly after the publication of Fifine at the Fair, Swinburne said, "This is far better than anything Browning has yet written. Here is his true province."2 In one respect, at least, the ethical problem involved in "The Statue and the Bust" was more disquieting to many of Browning's Victorian readers than that in Fifine at the Fair. In Fifine, Don Juan is the speaker throughout, and his defence of his immoral delinquencies could be interpreted as the utterances of a libertine casuist rather than the poet's own sentiments. But in "The Statue and the Bust," although Browning is relating an old legend, "this story ... our townsmen tell," the comment is his own; and, moreover, in the last verses he defends his poem against the criticism which he foresees it will evoke and definitely states his personal convictions. This defence at once differentiates "The Statue and the Bust" from the so-called casuistical monologues of Browning, such as "Bishop Blougram's Apology," "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium,' " Fifine at the Fair, and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau. If there is casuistry in the ethical thesis of "The Statue and the Bust" it is 234 w. O. RAYMOND casuistry in which the poet himself is directly involved; it cannot be palmed off as the dramatic sentiments of any imaginary characters. What may be called the Epilogue to "The Statue and the Bust" is therefore of special importance. Although the dramatic disguise is very thin in many of Browning's monologues, it is seldom that he casts it off altogether and avowedly speaks in his own person. In the body of the poem, the two lovers are criticized for the procrastination and infirmity of will which prevented them from eloping and gratifying their unlawful love. Does the poet then maintain that adultery may be landable nnder certain circumstances? It is this charge which Browning strives to defend himself against in the Epilogue. At its outset he voices the foreseen adverse criticism. I hear you reproach. "But delay was best. For their end was a crime." The reference to adultery as a crime is in itself significant as an evidence that Browning does not condone it. He then proceeds with his defence. What he singles out and dwells upon is the weakness and cowardice of the lovers' procrastination and lack of resolution. Had they repented of their sinful passion and been deterred from eloping by moral considerations, he would have commended them. But they were deterred only through lack of courage and the fear of worldly consequences. Their sinful motives and desires, the lust of their hearts, remained unchanged . Consequently the poet holds that they simply added to their original sin the vice of procrastination. The method of Browning's argument in this poem may be illustrated by a comparison between it and the Biblical parable of the Unjust Steward. After his dismissal from his position, the steward set about making friends for himself by dishonestly reducing the bills owed by his master's clients. Then we read: "And the Lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely." Are we to assume that Christ's teaching was that the steward was to be praised on account of his dishonesty? It is clearly the energy, pains...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 233-249
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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