Monday, June 11, 2018

Browning’s broken arcs

Am I the only English major on the planet who never really examined the work of Robert Browning? I mean, yes, sure, sure, everyone knows about his flaming love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the romantic trauma that shook Victorian England when he essentially scooped up this wan, invalid poetess and took her off to Italy where they wrote passionate sonnets to each other, right? But what I didn’t know (and now do, thanks to the CLSC reading list!) is that Robert B was a downright Christian poet! I mean, really and truly—much of his poetic outpourings center around his deep, thoughtful, exultant faith in Christ and how he can live it out in this world. Who knew?

Browning views his world with the slightly foggy gaze of the true poet and he never met a lonely dandelion or a city-dweller he didn’t want to immortalize. He’s known for his lengthy poetic portraits of folks like a Syrian, Bible-era traveling salesman, the fishmonger on the street or his pale-but-beautiful beloved. In this “greatest hits” volume, I keep stumbling across poetic snippets I’ve read in other books, like the romances of Christian author Grace Livingston Hill. One of her heroes will start spouting “All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue…” and the well-read heroine will rapturously finish with the remainder of the stanza. Who knew that was Browning? And “the first fine careless rapture”—(Lord Peter Whimsey fans will recognize that..). And “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there..” Yep, all Browning. If you haven’t come across a Browning poem since your English teacher tried to pound “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” into your junior high noggin, you might want to give him a go.

Our burly poet often goes off in raptures about single phenomena, like a lunar rainbow, dragging out the metaphor for ages, belaboring it to the point where the editor of this slim volume is finally forced to cut out chunks, give us the missing gist in italics, and then throw us into the maelstrom again in stanza IIX. Because Browning is such a towering figure in English poetry, there’s nothing original I could possible say to praise or pan him. I can add this—I like him.

Browning takes his status as a poet very, very seriously (now, remember, this was the era when the quality and tenor of poetry was argued at parties, critiqued in the newspaper, and used as maiden-bait by mustachioed-and-mutton-chopped chaps). Poetically defending his oeuvre and his life-choices, Browning occasionally has his lyrical dukes up when critics knock his latest ballad. This compilation’s editor pegs Browning aright when he quotes Browning protests that he’s not TRYING to be difficult (something he apparently had to do a lot because of his oddball word choices and blunt rhymes) “Nor do I apprehend any more charges of being willfully obscure, unconscientiously careless or perversely harsh.” (Browning).

Our the editor gently suggests: “The true explanation of it (Browning’s obscurity) seems to be…that he does not think of his audience as he writes, his only care being to express the thought in the way that comes most natural to him….the reader is brought face to face with some soul; the poet has stepped aside…” (pg ii, iii).  

The book’s final poem (Christmas Eve and Easter Day) addresses modern German criticism (a frequent topic in Isabella Alden’s time—German higher criticism claimed that the Scriptures were not Truth, but contained truth and that the Bible was basically out-of-date and can’t be looked at as historically reliable, etc. Our generation’s weekly mainline denomination church closing are part of that harvest.). Listen to Browning dismiss higher criticism with a poetic glove-slapping: “Say rather, such truths looked false to your eyes, with his provings and parallels twisted and twined, till how could you know them, grown double their size in the natural fog of the good man’s mind…” (Christmas Eve, IV).

Browning’s faith speaks with elegance and passion, as when he extols a forgotten musician, Abt Vogler, citing that the music Abt makes is only a necessarily weaker earthly version of the divine music of the spheres. In Browning’s lyrical celebration of these ethereal echoes, is he also making a few claims for his poems?

Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that they power can fill the heart that thy power expands? 
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before: 
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sounds;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
(Abt Vogler, stanza IX)

And BTW, what’s with the pomegranates in the book’s title? They’re a fruit that’s famously difficult to eat—you’ve got to patiently score, section and segment the leathery peel to obtain the sweet, succulent, tartly delicious seeds. Like Browning’s poetry; you’ve got to do some digging, but oh, the luscious rewards. 
“My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King;
My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” Psalm 45:1

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