BooksLiteraturePoemsThe Norton AnthologyWriting

August 3, 2013

Rapturous, Boisterous Robert Browning

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Disclosure statement: I used Grammarly.com to grammar check this post because I wanted to see what it thought of Robert Browning’s 19th century English usage: not much. Actually I took the bait of using Grammarly to enter a contest. So here we go:

In Victorian Lit class I was told that Robert Browning was set apart from his contemporaries because he wrote “dramatic monologues.” There I sat, in a confused fog of being 20 years old, hungry because I was always on a diet, unsure of my worth as a human being, scared because my parents were divorcing, depressed and dutifully writing in my notes, “dramatic monologue.” What did I care? It comes back to me now as I am reading the Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 2 just for fun, because now I think, “Oh how interesting!” Such is one person’s on-going experience with a Liberal Arts education.

In his dramatic monologues Browning communicated what he thought through the words of the characters he created, often using historical figures as a starting point. More than just historical fiction in verse, Browning was satirical. Nothing endears me to him more than his wicked, irreverent sense of humor, especially when he gets going on religion. Exhibit A is a poem called “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed Church.” Here we have a dying bishop who is apparently lying on the tomb where he will be buried once he kicks off. He is “in this state chamber, dying by degrees.” Around him stand a group of young men who he calls his nephews but then lets it slip that they are his sons, his favorite being named Anselm. (For those Protestants among us who might have forgotten, all Catholic bishops are celibate and single. All of them.) We learn that “Old Gandolf,” the bishop’s predecessor envied him because his paramour, the mother of all these young men, was beautiful (“fair.”)

So here is the Man of God in his last hours: He ruminates about the placement of his tomb in relation to that of Old Gandolf’s. Saint Praxed was “ever the church for peace” yet the bishop “fought with tooth and nail to save my niche” but “Old Gandolf cozened me” and snatched the spot the bishop wanted in the south corner. As the bishop describes the once coveted spot in the south corner where Old Gandolf now lies, he makes it sound less and less desirable. He describes his own tomb placement as he actually lies there, surrounded by his sons, that is to say nephews, who are standing in his line of sight:

. . . neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands. . .

Then he starts in on the relative quality of the actual tombs. Old Gandolf’s tomb is of an inferior marble that peels– “paltry onion stone”– whereas the bishop has ordered “peach blossom marble” for his own tomb. As he mutters aloud, reviewing his grudges against Old Gandolf, he upps the quality of stone he wants for his tomb:

Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black—
‘Twas ever antique black. . .
The bas relief in bronze ye promised me. . .

As the poem proceeds and his dudgeon increases he declares “all of jasper,” and finally “all lapis, all” for his tomb. Similarly he goes on about the tomb’s inscription: “Choice Latin, picked phrase, no gaudy ware like Gandolf. . .

Finally he lapses into self-pity as his sons appear to have had enough of his ramblings:

There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude. . .
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through—
And no more lapis to delight the world!”

The Man of God is left alone with his final thoughts:

And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers—
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair was she!

Robert Browning is one of the many surprises I have found in my perusal of the Norton Anthology. A gregarious and very loud social creature, he guarded his private self. Similarly the characters in his dramatic monologues are colorful and outspoken. Between the lines are the characters’ unconscious motivations. Further back, beyond the characters and their secrets, is Browning himself, his boisterous opinions distilled into drops that intoxicate the readers who love him.

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