Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Number 10 Browning Street

Robert Browning has been my favourite poet since college, largely because he does all the things that good serious poets aren't supposed to do: gruesome trick rhymes, un-poetic diction, language that seems more suited to an essay than a poem ("[George] Meredith is a prose Browning," wrote Oscar Wilde, "and so is Browning"), and lines that seem more like doggerel than poetry: one serious Browning poem starts with the line: "Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!" But all that gives his poetry a fascination that prettier, more "poetic" poetry loses once you get used to the lovely vowel sounds.

Browning's most famous quirk was that he almost never wrote a poem in his own voice, or even anything resembling his own voice: almost all his poems are "dramatic monologues" written in the voice of a character, who may or may not be telling us the whole story. Any Browning poem requires us to figure out whether the speaker is telling the truth or not, or whether there's something going on that the speaker doesn't mention directly: he wants us to "read between the lines" at all times, and we can never be sure, at the end, what message we're supposed to take from the poem -- because Browning won't editorialize and tell us for certain.

One of the few poems he wrote in something like his own voice was a poem called "House" -- which is an apologia for his habitual insistence on not writing in his own voice. The poem mocks people who look through an author's writings for signs of what he was really thinking or what he was really like. He compares these proponents of literature-as-autobiography to people who gawk at the inside of a house that was torn apart by an earthquake:

The owner? Oh, be had been crushed, no doubt!
    “Odd tables and chairs for a man of wealth!
What a parcel of musty old books about!
    He smoked,—no wonder he lost his health!

“I doubt if he bathed before he dressed.
    A brasier?—the pagan, he burned perfumes!
You see it is proved, what the neighbors guessed:
    His wife and himself had separate rooms.”

He also mocks the statement of Wordsworth (in "Scorn Not the Sonnet") that poetry is the key to an author's inner life and that "With this key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart." Browning, who had earlier attacked Wordsworth as a sell-out, now attacks him for buying into the idea of poetry as autobiography:

“Hoity-toity! A street to explore,
    Your house the exception! ‘With this same key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart
,’ once more!”
    Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!

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