Friday, January 28, 2011
R. Browning--"Porphyria's Lover" (1834) Like most of my recent posts, this one has been slow going--at this rate I'll be lucky to get up 60 for the whole year. I don't want to skip Browning, but at the same time I don't want to be a pedant, in this instance an especially unneeded one, as Browning is one of those poets--of which the group is not a large one, especially in his age--who is widely respected even by the more exacting classes of critics for whom the demonstration of a high level of development of the faculty of intellection is a minimum requirement for works to have any value. That he ultimately falls short of the very highest levels of greatness, these schools--perhaps out of sympathy orignating in their own historical circumstances--attribute almost as much to the general, too-great-for-anyone-to-overcome intellectual poverty of the literary culture of his time as to glaring personal deficiencies. In English literature, especially since 1800, such intellect is nearly as rare a commodity as artistic talent. Dickens and Blake I think may qualify as creative geniuses but the works of both men are both generously populated with conclusions and incongruities that are unsettling to a rigorous and rational thinker. Wordsworth, Tennyson and Byron are often dismissed out of hand by severe thinkers, sometimes with a devastating disparagement of their inadequate cognitive capacities. Shelley, while cleverer than this trio, is not always convincing that he understands many or even most of the important implications that the ideas he puts forth might suggest. Browning, as far as I can make out, gives the impression that he has thought through, at a truly serious level of rigor, the significance of the words and images he has made his poems out of; that he understands what usages of language and problems of human thought and action are of interest to highly mentally advanced people; and also, that he never relapses into egregrious weakness. His is the sort of mental composition that tough thinkers can admire and appreciate even when finding fault in the result. I have never written about Browning before. I had read a few things of his previously, but for whatever reason had not gotten much into him. Perhaps I am growing into his style, since I was more impressed with him, as well as more easily transported by his work out of the mundanities and distractions that are increasingly having an effect even on me, and to rise above which is the main reason that I have not given up literature and reading altogether yet, than I was able to experience before. It seems to me that I probably was not reading, or perhaps I should say, scanning the poems properly. Browning's poems especially strike me as being like short popular musical compositions, with satisfying hooks and fluid, rapid movement from image to image and action to action, and if you pick up the rhythm and ride along with it, the poem will carry you along and penetrate your senses with remarkable clarity, but if you do not do this and try to break the meaning of the words down line by line you will feel as if you are stumbling or forever outrunning yourself. As I say, I think this was my problem with Browning before. A rare instance where my researches misled me. I thought that this location was Browning's birthplace site, but it turned out to be the site of a cottage he lived in as a youth. "Porphyria" is an early, gothic-inspired work. It is probably not as intellectually interesting as his more mature poems, but its poetic technique is fabulous. First of all, the poem is in tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, or feet) and has an ironclad ababb rhyme throughout its sixty lines. This makes for a brisk pace and tight little lines in which to fit the rhymes. This is achieved by using almost exclusively commonplace, one and two-syllable words, arranged, also almost exclusively, in commonplace, gramatically correct simple sentences which move the narrative. There are very few instances of poetic as opposed to ordinary diction in the whole of the poem. See the first five lines for example: "The rain set early in tonight, The sullen wind was soon awake, It tore the elm-tops down for spite, And did its worst to vex the lake: I listened with heart fit to break." Other than perhaps 'early in' and 'listened with heart fit to break', which may even have been expressions in regular English speech in the 1830s, the parts of this could be written out in a prose paragraph or spoken as if naturally. The fertile possibilities of the language are almost--when one thinks of the Bible, one is tempted to says always--more clearly illustrated by an exercise like this than in a more obviously strenuous and elevated effort that is clearly beyond the abilities of most people to comprehend, let alone attain to. I should add that the subject and resolution of the poem which I am praising so exuberantly are quite gruesome, and no doubt the bouncy tempo, blizzard of rhyme, and unaffected language of the poem are intentionally ironic given the persona of the narrator. I admit I am not certain what the greater intellectual or moral point of the poem's story was supposed to be. It may be a parody of certain gothic/romantic conventions that dominated the poetic scene which Browning came of age in and which he would move forward from though never entirely leave behind. It may be also be a carrying of that same romantic ethos to its furthest logical extreme, which his reputation suggests Browning would not be afraid to do. Browning's old neighborhood has gotten a little tough over the years. One of the minor themes of this site is my growing conviction that I am probably never going to go to Paris (or anywhere else in Europe, but Paris seems to be the stand-in for the entire continent) again, in the foreseeable future due to family responsibilites, and in late middle and old age because it seems there would be little point in it unless my mind can recover somewhat to what it was formerly. I had a dream the other day that I was there, just me and my four little boys, but of course I was not really there. A boardwalk such as one would find at the beach was the stand-in for the central area of the city, a street with manicured lawns and 1940s era houses that looked suspiciously like Pelham or Mamaroneck outside of New York I believed to be the Fauborg St Germain, a domed building in the distance that I excitedly identified as the Pantheon and exhorted the children to follow me to see turned out to be a fire station, and beyond the fire station was a train track overgrown by weeds and lined with piled of broken bricks and railroad ties and white plastic bags of unidentified agriculture product that looked like somewhere in the southern United States. This too I thought was still Paris, it was just that we had gotten lost and were on the outskirts of the town (this is what the unsuburbanized outskirts of the cities in Eastern Europe looked like). Eventually we went to a restaurant where of course no one was speaking French or where any remotely French food was being served and the waitress gave my son a Dover coloring book about three 19th century French composers I had never of (and who I don't think really exist) who worked in collaboration and were supposedly the most famous composing team in the history of classical music. It probably would have gone on, but at this point I was mercifully awakened. I attributed this dream to the combination of something I was reading about Paris the previous day and my disappointment at not being able to take my annual trip to Florida this year because my work won't give me the time off (I can only go during school winter vacation week, as is the case with pretty much anyone who has children, so this week is highly coveted). This is not the greatest year to have to stay home either. I like snow, but it is getting to the point now where outside of the tunnels that have been dug out to get to the cars, we're pretty much immobilized, not only at home, but in town. My older children have skiing lessons at their school and go snowtubing and all of that, but the little ones can't really do much when the entire world is covered with powder twice as high as they are.