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  • Browning’s Critique of Organic Form in The Ring and the Book
  • Michelle Niemann (bio)

Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book seems an unlikely candidate for an exploration of organic form. The poem defies basic rules about unity and proportion—rules articulated long before Romantic concepts of organic form reshaped literary criticism. In the Poetics, Aristotle asserted that, as “bodies and animals” must be the right length to “easily be perceived at a glance,” so plots must be the right length to be “easily taken in by the memory.” While a “very small animal” is not “beautiful” because “one’s view of the animal is not clear, taking place, as it does, in an almost unperceived length of time,” “a very large animal” is not beautiful either, because “one’s view does not occur all at once, but, rather, the unity and wholeness of the animal are lost to the viewer’s sight as would happen, for example, if we should come across an animal a thousand miles in length.”1 O. B. Hardison Jr., in his commentary on Leon Golden’s translation of the Poetics, offers The Ring and the Book as an example of disobedience to the dictum of “proper magnitude”: Hardison calls Browning’s poem a work “many readers … are unable to appreciate” because it “requires holding so much in the mind at one time” (143). The Ring and the Book is Aristotle’s fantastic animal, a thousand miles long, which is not visible at a glance.

However, I argue that Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, long and ungainly as it is, critiques Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of organic form in ways that literary critics should attend to. Organic form is, of course, considered the province of Romanticists rather than of Victorianists. However, this state of affairs is not due to any inherent irrelevance of the category to Victorian poetry, but rather to the history of organic form’s constitution as an object of inquiry. M. H. Abrams’s classic study, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), which is perhaps still the most thorough and illuminating genealogy of organicist literary criticism, focuses on work from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When Abrams does turn to Victorian critics and poets, he represents them as overzealous exponents of Romantic theories, peddling exaggerated versions of an expressive understanding of poetry, of psychological approaches to genius, and of biographical reading. In his analysis of the work of J. S. Mill, Thomas Carlyle, John Keble, [End Page 445] and Matthew Arnold, Abrams depicts these critics as pushing Romantic ideas to their logical extreme: Carlyle is the “king” of biographical reading, for example, while Mill, by defining poetry as soliloquy, eliminates the audience from critical consideration.2 Because of both the way Abrams positioned Victorian criticism and the way organicism has fared in the decades since the publication of The Mirror and the Lamp, Victorian poets’ responses to and revisions of organic form have not been thoroughly examined. I argue that The Ring and the Book critiques Coleridge’s organicism on political and social grounds and suggests that active reading offers an alternative form of literary vitality.

Browning reveals the ways in which organic metaphors can erase agency, spelling out the problematic moral and political consequences of organic form. The presence of a conscious agent is, from the beginning, key to Coleridge’s distinction between mechanic form, which is the result of a creator’s shaping action, and organic form, in which the work develops itself according to internal principles. The clearest, most succinct formulation of this distinction is the one Coleridge borrowed from A. W. Schlegel and used in his lectures on Shakespeare:

The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material; as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes, as it develops, itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such as the life...