- Gathering Sense from Song: Robert Browning and the Romantic Epistemology of Music
The place of music in nineteenth-century poetry and fiction has garnered much interest in recent criticism and has stimulated innovative work on the idea of music in nineteenth-century British literature, including the political, class, and gendered implications of music in fiction and poetry; yet the crucial fact that music provided poetry with a philosophic language is given less attention than it merits.1 Felicia Bonaparte argues that its philosophical significance is often missed because twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought has inherited an empirical concept of music. This is distinct from the Victorian idea of music that was influenced by German Romantic theory.2 While the predominant eighteenth-century empirical view of music argued that instrumental music was capable of stimulating the physical emotions but was unable to convey ideas, German Romantic writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), the Schlegel brothers, E. T. A Hoffman, Arthur Schopenhauer, and later Richard Wagner maintained that it was precisely its unmediated quality that allowed music to access Platonic ideas that transcend the sensory realm.3 Believing that music facilitated a perception of the ideal, the German Romantics conceived of music not only as a progression of numerical notes but as way to apprehend universal and transcendent ideas that could not be known through the intellect. It was this correlation between music and philosophy that gave music its crucial place in discussions of art and epistemology in the nineteenth century.4
That Robert Browning shared the Romantic view of music as the most transcendent of all the arts is well attested in criticism of his life and poetry, as is his virtuosity as a musician;5 yet despite insightful critical commentary elicited by his music monologues, the fact that Browning utilizes the German Romantic theory of music as a way to discuss epistemological issues has been largely overlooked.6 Browning refers to music hundreds of times in his poetry, and he refers to song many more times again; yet because these many allusions are often only glimpsed in single lines and briefly recurring metaphors, their [End Page 471] philosophical significance can easily be missed. Despite the widely held notion that Browning espoused an essentially Romantic view of music, many of the critical assumptions about Browning’s music poems are derived from an empirical concept of music; therefore, a philosophical paradigm shift is needed in order to see how Browning relies on the idealist view of music to provide his reader with an interpretive key for the complex epistemological questions that he raises throughout his poetry. To uncover this alternative philosophical framework, I examine Browning’s self-proclaimed affinity with the German idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, because an attention to the similarities that Browning found in his foundational philosophical premises reveals how music has a central symbolic significance in the poems that explicitly discuss music and also in important philosophical poems, such as La Saisiaz, that have not previously been associated with music philosophy.
The German Romantic idea that music precedes the notes that bring it forth is an enduring metaphor in Browning’s poetry for two different faculties of knowledge, which he refers to as “fancy” and “fact,” or reason. While fancy intuits the transcendent ideas expressed by music, the faculty of reason, the logical processes of the mind that make judgments based on sense experience, can only perceive the external numerical form of music. Romantic music philosophy also provides Browning with a symbolic language through which to express his theory of the objective poet. Browning’s conception of the objective poet, and its development in the dramatic monologue form, has typically been seen as a rejection of Romantic epistemology; yet the relationship between the inner realm of music and the outward expression of sound is symbolic for Browning of the connection between an ideal substrate and its manifestation in the real world and also of the connection between the idealism of the subjective poet and the realism of the objective poet. The music monologues “Master Hugues of Saxe Gotha,” “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” and “Abt Vogler” are an...