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Becoming Browning

The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning, 1833–1846

Clyde de L. Ryals

In his earlier book, Browning’s Later Poetry (Cornell University Press, 1975), Professor Ryals “attempted to chart the terra incognita” of the poet’ mature work. In the present volume, he undertakes “to explore land slightly better known but still . . . inadequately mapped”: the poems and plays of Browning’s earlier years.

It is Browning’s growth as an ironist that Dr. Ryals endeavors to trace. He identifies the principle of becoming that lies at the very heart of Browning’s thought and practice as a poet, and sees it as marking him as one who has embraced philosophical irony, with its denial of any absolute order in natural and human events as they occur in the bewildering abundance of the phenomenal world. Browning’s belief in dynamism and change is, in Dr. Ryal’s view, a part of his inheritance from his Romantic predecessors; but where they envisioned change as a component of a revolutionary process leading eventually to a new earth and a new heaven, Browning held change to be a process without purpose. And it is this ironic notion of nonteleological becoming that sets Browning apart from Shelley and other Romantics from whom he is traditionally said to be descended, first as an eager son and then as a rebellious heir.

Like the Romantics, Browning’s earlier work is always concerned with moral problems; but they are not rendered as such. He does not, like Shelley, present us with a world of perfect order where nature is redeemed; rather, it is the moral drama itself—the dialogue—that he invites us to witness and enjoy. For in Browning there is nothing of the apocalyptic imagination that is unleashed in visions, dreams, trance, or madness as it is, let us say, in his contemporary Tennyson. The young Browning is, in Dr. Ryal’s analysis, more like Balzac in that he pressures the phenomena that are the stuff of his poetry to make them yield meaning. His historical characters, for example, are nothing—or almost nothing—until, as he says in Sordello, he resuscitates them, molds them anew.

What the young Browning aims to do is to deal with fact—to turn, twist, and contort it, if need be, and to make it yield up the vision—and to persuade us thereby that fact and vision are so interconnected that they cannot be distinguished. This is the very essence of Browning’s drama—the drama of the body and the soul—and it is ultimately a moral drama. All life, the young Browning would have us see—all life is significant. And it is the function of the maker-see to uncover its significance, to cause us to experience the becoming of an object, and to defamiliarize the object dulled for us by habituation by lifting it out of the field of ordinary perception and placing it within a network of relationships that constitutes the work of art.

Browning’s instruction to us is that which Henry James offered to young novelists: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” And he does this by being both “subjective” and “objective,” by being “a whole poet,” and by being, in a word, an ironist.

Clyde de L. Ryals is professor of English at Duke University.

1983  292 pp. This title is no longer available in a traditional print edition. Click here for free access to the book's full text.