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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Selected poems by Robert Browning



Browning is a lyrical poet who almost always employs a strict (and sometimes complex) metre and usually an even stricter rhyming pattern. This can sometimes lead to distortions in his verses where he chooses one word above another in order to fit. It can also lead to the rhythm running away with the sense; it is easy to get hypnotised by iambic pentameters especially when ploughing through some of the very long poems that Browning sometimes wrote.

Browning is quite distinctive in his love for narrative poems, especially told from a single person's point of view. These poems are almost like mini novels with an emphasis on exploring character. The best example is probably My Last Duchess, a short story with quite a twist.

Browning's third characteristic is his love of using poetry to explore philosophical and theological points as in Caliban on Setebos, Fra Lippo Lippi etc. There is very little in the nature of 'oh my gosh how beautiful that flower is' sort of poetry. From what I have read, he was a bit of a Epicurean, believing that it is natural and right to derive pleasure from such things as sex and alcohol etc, providing one does not over-indulge which causxes unpleasant consequences; he would have had little time for stiff-lipped Puritans.

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
This is a nice piece of dramatic verse; the protagonist is a monk who hates Brother Lawrence. It captures well the petty emnities and spites that must arise when a group of people live together for a long while in a confinded space, be they ever so holy.

Brother Lawrence is a gardener and never stops talking about it. The protagonist hints that he had committed one or two acts of sabotage: snapping a lily and 'close-nipping' buds to prevent fruit forming. He would sell his soul to Satan if he could blast a rose-acacia and get away with it (by ensuring redemption in the small print that Satan wouldn't bother to read).

The fourth verse hints that the narrator may slyly fancy "brown Dolores": he admires the hair she is washing but he ascribes the lustful feelings to an even slyer Brother Lawrence who, on the face of it, seems untouched by the woman's beauty.

It is written in verses of eight lines in length with an ABABCDCD rhyming pattern. Rhythmically the verses are divided into four pairs; the first of each pair being a trochaic tetrameter and the second of each pair a trochaic tetrameter with catalectic subtraction (the dropping of the unstressed last syllable); this is a sort of ballad form. I rather like the fifth line of the fifth verse "I the Trinity illustrate" where this rhythm is thrown out of the window, firstly for the important word Trinity and secondly for illustrate which would have the 'lust' stressed if the rhythm was followed; this seems a great way of hiding a deadly sin!

Love Among the Ruins
Shades of Ozymandias. The narrator stands among the ruins of a mighty empire, now a treeless waste; in these ruins a girl "with eager eyes" waits for him.

It is written in an interesting metre: each verse contains 6 pairs of lines which operate a little like a call-and-response. The first line of the pair is eleven syllables long, stressed on the 4th, 8th and 11th, thus: diddy dum di, diddy dum di, diddy dum. The second line of the pair echoes the end of the first line being three syllables: diddy dum. The second line often comments on the previous line:
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

The bits about the soldiers marching and the king commanding are a little like stock images from a MGM blockbuster but the bits about the girl and her anticipated love are beautiful.

A Toccata of Galuppi's has an unvarying metrical scheme of three line stanzas in which each line within the stanza rhymes and beats thus: diddy dum di, diddy dum di, diddy dum di, dum di dum.Addressed to a player of the clavichord, it considers the social butterflies in Venice dancing at their balls and making love. But death haunts them. And the narrator can still hear the ghostly toccatas of Galuppi:
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve

On the face of it this is a spooky poem: classic Gothic with death stalking the dancers at the party. But Browning turns it into a social commentary. Are the dancers doomed? Are butterflies too superficial to have a soul:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Because if you want to live forever you have to have a soul.
The soul, doubtless, is immortal - where a soul can be discerned

Wow. Just keeping that demanding rhythm and rhyme structure going demonstrates Browning's technical virtuosity. But also he uses perfectly selected words to prevent his structure becoming a strait jacket and suffocating the life out of the poem. And then he turns a beautifully described Gothic nightmare into a sneering commentary on superficiality. That is bloody brilliant.

Respectability has three stanzas, each of eight lines: the first seven lines are essentially iambic tetrameters, although there are some trochees at the start of the first verse, followed by a last line which is an iambic trimeter. It has an ABBACDDC rhyming scheme. In the first two stanzas the sixth line also has an internal rhyme.

The poem seems to be about respectability. Browning seems to say that he and his lover have wasted too much time conforming to societal expectations of respectable courtship rather than enjoying elemental passion:
How much of priceless life were spent ...
Ere we dare wander, nights like this, 
Thro' wind and rain, and watch the Seine,

I find the final verse difficult. It starts with the nice image: he is allowed to caress her lips with his finger ... providing he wears a glove. But then he talks about Guizot (according to wikipedia he was an important conservative politician under Louis Phillipe, rising to become Prime Minister of France) and Montalembert (presumably the French historian and politician) which mean absolutely nothing to me. The last line is terribly disappointing. Not only is it the worst rhyme in the poem (foot with Institute) which might be OK if it looked like a deliberate false rhyme but also it the rhyme, such as it is, is contrived by mangling the word order of the expression 'Put you best foot forward'. I hate it when poets change natural English just so they can achieve a rhyme.

Love in a Life has a complicated metrical structure and a rhyming pattern of ABCDDABC. There are only two verses.

The narrator is searching through a house for the signs his love has left behind: a breath of her perfume, the mirror which saw her feather. Is she dead? He talks of the two of them inhabiting the house in the present tense and yet he never seems to find her: "she goes out as I enter". But he sticks to his task: there is so much to search.

Life in a Love has an even more complicated structure. There are three very short lines at the start which rhyme with the three short lines at the end: ABCABC. In between there are three sets of four tetrameter lines with an ABBA rhyme structure.

It seems to be about a man chasing the woman he loves, who is not so keen to be caught. He suffers momentary self-doubt in the best section of the poem:
My life is a fault at last, I fear: 
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
But he ends with the certainty that even if he fails he will persevere.

Memorabilia is made of verses of 4 lines with an ABAB rhyming pattern. The metre is iambic tetrameter for the first three lines with a fourth iambic trimeter though there are a number of feminine endings and the third verse has anapests.

I hated the first line
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain
which mangles the standard 'did you plainly see Shelley' for the sake of the rhyming scheme.

The poem tells of a meeting with the great Shelley and how live seemed to revolve around that point. The narrator can't remember the moor he was walking across except for the moment he encountered greatness. Perhaps the moor with its aporiatic hint of wilderness is a metaphor for life.

My Last Duchess is one of Browning's best known (and perhaps best) poems. Written in heroic couplets, a Duke talks to a visitor about the portrait of his dead wife. It is a remarkable likeness:
Looking as if she were alive ...
As he talks we find that she enjoyed compliments and this aroused his jealousy (although he never says this directly; the especial charm of the poem is that he never says anything directly; we read between the lines). She was grateful to all for everything and he felt that she treated his gift of his title in the same way as any other gift, eg

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her...
But what could he do? He feels that even to have protested or to have reprimanded her was beneath his dignity. So
...I gave commands
Then all smiles stopped together ...

This is immediately followed by a caesura, slicing the line in half:
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive ...
and the echo of the word alive from the start of the poem suddenly takes on a sinister meaning.

And immediately he turns to the business he has with his visitor whose master, the Count, has a daughter whom the narrator wishes to marry.

I as the reader want to shout out: go back to the Count and tell him to take his daughter as far away as possible and fast because this man has killed his last Duchess and may well kill again!

But no one has ever mentioned killing. The poem starts by celebrating how generous the Duchess was with her smiles. It is only our imagination that has created the scenario of jealousy and murder.

This is a wonderful poem.

Porphyria's Lover is constructed in iambic tetrameters with a five  line rhyming scheme ABABB though these do not really constitute verses for there is frequent enjambment between verses.

Porphyria  comes in out of the cold and makes the fire to warm the cottage up and then calls me, her lover. I don't reply. And she snuggles up to me, although she is
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But she has come tonight.
...at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
So he strangles her with her hair.
Porphyria's love: she knew not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

So what happened. Was her lover waiting for her in the cold cottage? Why did he not speak when she called to him? I think her lover was her death, lying ready for her in the cold cottage, and she came there to seek her own death. I think being strangled by her own hair is a metaphor for hanging herself.

On the other hand, the lover may be some sort of invalid who cannot make up his (or her?) own fire or answer Porphyria when she calls to him (or her!). He (or she) may be a psychopath or a Schizophrenic (listening for God's voice inside his head in the final line) or a fetishist obsessed by Porphyria's hair. Madness is indicated by the title (which was originally just Porphyria); the disease porphyria was described shortly before Browning wrote the poem and one of its symptoms is acute photosensitivity which would explain why the lover was hiding in the cottage; sufferers from porphyria may suffer from mental delusions.

But I think she killed herself.

A Likeness
This poem is very free with the rhythm and the rhyming scheme is complex and chaotic.

Some people hang portraits up
In a room where they dine or sup
it starts, and from there Browning imagines conversations around the portrait and how people react to it.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is written in 6-line verses of iambic pentameter with a rhyming scheme of ABBAAB.

It takes its immediate inspiration from Edgar in King Lear who, in the disguise as Tom o'Bedlam, sings:
Childe Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still: Fie, foh and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
which last bit is, of course, the cry of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Moreover Rowland (also called Orlando) is the eponymous hero of The Song of Roland, the epic poem about the champion of Charlemagne who is killed fighting overwhelming odds at the Battle of Roncesvalles when he refuses to blow his horn to summon help until it is too late. So this is in Browning's poem too.

The Dark Tower seems to be a place both dreaded and desired so that the poem seems to describe a quest like that for the grail.

At the start, the narrator doubts that the man who told him the way to go spoke honestly; he thinks perhaps the "hoary cripple" was posted at the junction to mislead travellers and send them
Into the ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower.
But the traveller is weary after years of travel and has come to prefer failure because hope has
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring

As soon as he goes on the path to the tower he looks behind (always fatal in myth, eg Orpheus and Eurydice and Lot's wife) and the road has vanished leaving just a "grey plain", a desert in which nothing grew. This sounds very like the blasted land of the Fisher King in the Grail romances:
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy
and a horse, stiff and blind, not dead but might as well be dead
Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
like the visual shorthand used in films for deserts in which everything will die.

Now the traveller things of his old comrades: disgraced Cuthbert and Giles, hanged as a traitor.

He comes across a river and he fords it, frightened of stepping on a drowned corpse. A little further and he comes across ruined tools which, he speculates, were used to kill:
that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk
One of these engines is "Tophet's tool"; Tophet being the place near Jerusalem where the worshippers of Baal carried out child sacrifice.

He continues through the ruined landscape until he realises that there is nothing to aim for:
And just as far as ever from the end!
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footsteps further!
This seems a despairing acknowledgement of the futility of life. And at this thought a devil's bird flaps past.

And suddenly the plain has turned into a mountainscape; there are mountains all around him and he realises that he is trapped.

Then he recognises that this is the place he has been searching for. The Tower:
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world.

And around him the hills are thronged with the lost companions of his quest.
There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'

Browning has mixed myth and dream to create a liminal landscape, He has used the details of the landscape to make the dreamscape seem more real, so that we accept the magic at the end. And from this nightmare he has fashioned a poem which seems to say that life is pointless and all we can do in the face of its futility and of the friends that we will lose is to blow our trumpets.

In How it Strikes a Contemporary a man wanders around the town observing everything, recording everything and reporting everything to the King. This makes this man more powerful than the governor. Yet he lives in a smart modern house playing cribbage with his maid. It is written, more or less, in unrhymed iambic pentameters.

Confessions is nine verses, each four lines long alternating tetrameter and trimeter with a rhyming scheme of ABAB in each verse. A man dying, annoyed by the "buzzing" of a priest, is reflecting on his life:
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?
Ah, reverend sir, not I!
His last memories are of a suburb lane and a girl he used to meet:
We loved sir, - used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was - 
But then, how it was sweet!
Love triumphs over religion.

In Apparent Failure, a poem of seven verses, each of nine lines rhyming ABABCDCDD, the narrator, a British tourist in Paris, goes to the Morgue where the bodies drowned in the Seine are exhibited. After looking at the spectators, he views the body of three male suicides and speculates on what made them kill themselves.
The three men who did most abhor 
Their life in Paris yesterday, 
So killed themselves; and now, enthroned, 
Each on his copper couch, they lay 
Fronting me, waiting to be owned.
I thought, and think, their sin's atoned.

Poor men, God made, and all for that!

One he thinks was a tramp
Who last night tenanted on earth, 
Some arch, where twelve such slept abreast
One he thinks was a revolutionary and one a womaniser and gambler.

Cue a fit of Victorian moralising. But Browning has too much empathy for that. He hopes
That what began best, can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.

It is a nice poem.

Fra Lippo Lippi is a long poem (14.5 columns in my book; that must be about 400 lines) of iambic pentameter. The eponymous narrator has been caught by the Florentine watch in a compromising situation near some young girls; this is bad because he is, of course, a priest. He explains how he entered the monastery when he was a little boy starving on the streets and entered his vows at the age of eight. And now he is a painter, not as celebrated as Fra Angelico perhaps, but one who is particularly good at rendering people so that they recognise themselves. Which isn't always what the monks want but he has a pagtron in the Medicis. The priests say:
Give us no more of the body than shows soul!
but
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh
This is Browning praising real everyday human beings. Fra Lippo Lippi says to the watchman:
you've seen the world
- The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, - and God made it all!
Fra Lippo Lippi is a gossipy poem from a garrulous old man but it encapsulates the philosophy that God made the world and so the world, and life, in all its naughtiness and sometimes its grief, is good.

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.
Or what's a heaven for?
asks Browning in the character of another painter, Andrea del Sarto. This puts him, of course, at loggerheads with Descartes and others who proved God by Anselm's Ontological argument: God is the greatest thing that can be imagined. Since something real is greater than something imaginary, if you can imagine God then there must be an even greater God in reality. Not sure I agree. Think I go with Andrea.

I am finding Browning's longer poems rather tedious; they are not so much poems as philosophical and theological treatises in (usually) unrhymed iambic pentameters. One of the problems is that the monotony of the rhythm hypnotises me and makes me less able to appreciate the argument than if it were an essay in philosophy (and they are hard enough!). Another problem  is that in order to get the rhythm going and to stay in character and creates what is essentially a monologue masquerading as a dialogue, Browning puts in paleologisms such as "thinketh" or interjections such as "Zooks!" Which is kinda cheating.

So I skipped Bishop Blougram's Apology.

Rabbi Ben Ezra has an AABCCB rhyming scheme and a rhythm structure which is trimeter, trimeter, pentameter. trimeter, trimeter, hexameter, all more or less iambic; the pentameter variation works beautifully but the final haxameter line really jars against the rhythm of the poem which makes that line stand out as a sort of summation of the argument of the verse. Unfortunately, such lines as:
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
just make it stand out as: you what?

As for the unrhymed iambic pentameters of Caliban on Setebos, I found it very difficult to concentrate. Setebos is not the name of an island as I had assumed; it is the name of the deity which Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax, worships in the Tempest. So this poem is Caliban musing about Setebos. This is theology. I noticed it particularly because Browning uses it to refutes St Anselms's ontological argument which states, in crude summary, that we can imagine a God; we, as lesser beings, could not imagine something greater than ourselves unless it existed; therefore there is a God. Browning points out that Caliban can make a reed pipe which can make sounds that Caliban himself cannot make. Therefore God can make "things worthier than himself". Actually this happens all the time. Groups of atoms make molecules which, if not exactly worthier, operate on a different level than the atoms can; molecules make up cells; cells make organs; organs make organisms; organisms make ecosystems: nature has a way in which groups of interacting units make an organisation which operates upon a different level. On this basis it is more likely that men made God than that God made man; the ontological argument is effectively back to front.

Wanting is - What?
This poem has a first section of four short lines with an ABBA rhyme pattern followed by a middle section of 6 longer lines in rhyming couplets followed by a last section which echoes the first except that the last two syllables of the last line are repeated in a final, fifteenth line. It seems to be saying that the world is pretty damn perfect and that wanting, desire, is an attempt to frame the picture or to gild the lily. But I might have got that all the wrong way round.











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