- Reading Browning Intertextually:“A Toccata of Galuppi’s” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
The importance of Shelley to the teenage Robert Browning, his period of radicalism, vegetarianism, and atheism under Shelley’s influence—Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later call it the young Browning’s “fit of scepticism”1—was a story well known to his circle of friends in later life and is clearly described in the earliest full biographies. Given Shelley’s prominence in Pauline (1833) and elsewhere, twentieth-century scholarship quickly established the Shelley-Browning nexus as an important route of investigation.2 This went on, culminating we might say in the 1960s in Harold Bloom’s appropriation of this line of thinking into his own aggressively Freudian model of influence. Within Bloom’s conflictual model, Shelley seemed Browning’s important, indeed his sole, “precursor” (or father), the poet he struggled anxiously against, and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came” was declared the crucial poem that showed him to be Shelley’s “ephebe” (or son).3 While it is true that a lot of creative and illuminating comment resulted from this, in Bloom’s work and elsewhere, it was always going to be likely that the paradigm would prove too exclusive and absolute.4 Alexandra Sutherland Orr, Browning’s friend in old age and his first significant biographer, whilst acknowledging the importance of Shelley to him, balances this by her references to Keats, emphasizing that Browning discovered both poets’ work at the same time. In Sutherland Orr’s telling of the story, which is probably slightly inaccurate (see below), Browning’s mother bought for her teenage son, on the same day, “most of Shelley’s writings” and also “three volumes of the still less known John Keats.” She then relates an anecdote, which I am not aware of from another source, and which is, curiously, rarely referred to, though it is obviously genuine:
They [Shelley and Keats] indeed came to him as the two nightingales which, he told some friends, sang together in the May-night which closed [End Page 263] this eventful day: one in the laburnum in his father’s garden, the other in a copper beech which stood on adjoining ground.5
Sutherland Orr was concerned, in other words, with a more nuanced weighting: “no one who has ever heard him read Ode to a Nightingale, and repeat in the same subdued tones, as if continuing his own thoughts, some line from Epipsychidion, can doubt that [Shelley and Keats] retained a lasting and almost equal place in the poet’s heart” (pp. 40–41). This is a perspective, I would argue, that we should take more seriously. While the imprint of Keats on the young Browning is less obvious than that of Shelley, it is clearly something significant through the 1830s and 1840s, before it becomes explicit and important in the early 1850s.
Browning was the first of the major Victorian poets to read intensively in Keats.6 It was probably in 1827, at the age of fourteen, that he came into possession of Endymion and of the Lamia volume—both still available in first editions at the booksellers—and had a strong and positive reaction to them.7 Sometime later—we do not know exactly when, but clearly many years before he reports it to EBB—he was lent Keats’s Poems (1817) by Leigh Hunt himself, its dedicatee, one of several small connections between the young poet and the circles of people who had known Keats.8 Unconscious allusions and echoes to Keats are dotted through the early poetry, not pervasively, but sufficiently to establish the extent to which Browning had absorbed the work.9 In the love correspondence, in February 1845, Keats arose in discussion between him and Barrett (who also knew the work well) in the context, interestingly, of the issue of the relationship between the poet and his audience and the literary marketplace (BC, 10: 52, 71). In May 1846 he also tells her about a meeting with George Severn—whom he calls excitedly “Keats’ Severn”—at a dinner, and of seeing the posthumous portrait of Keats that Severn had brought with him for viewing...