Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I joy because the quails come - obscure Browning, difficult Browning

Robert Browning was, for a time, best known – well, first he was best known as the husband of a famous and beloved poet, so I mean aside from the sheen of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – he was best known as the author of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
     And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
    And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles…

This first-rate children’s poem has been replaced by “My Last Duchess,” now the representative* Browning anthology piece.  “My Last Duchess” is a perfect textbook on how to read the dramatic monologue.  The narrator is a character, certainly not Robert Browning, who was not an Italian duke.  He tells us a story but skips crucial juicy bits (“This grew; I gave commands; \ Then all smiles stopped together”) but I can sleuth out the gaps without much trouble.  Maybe I have to read the short poem twice.

My point is that these two famous Robert Browning poems are clear.  Reading Browning in bulk, though, I cannot escape the fact that much of his work is defiantly obscure.  His earliest works, the long Shelleyan closet dramas Pauline (1833) and Paracelsus (1835) are close to incomprehensible; Sordello (1840) was more than close, and defeated me after a few pages.   As if I remember a thing about the first two, which I read!

Young Browning was allusive and learned, but he also left out too much.  His leaps in argument are too great.  Perhaps we see a reason I like Browning so much; the same charges could be brought against Wuthering Expectations.

In Browning’s mature poems, obscurity transforms into difficulty.  “Caliban Upon Setebos; Or Natural Theology in the Island,” one of the masterpieces from Dramatis Personae (1864) will show what I mean.  Caliban leads me to The Tempest, but what is Setebos, a person, a place?  The name is from the play, invoked twice by Caliban, “my dam’s god Setebos,” so a god, or God.

Caliban is the speaker or thinker in the poem, but he refers to himself in both the third and the first person, sometimes hiding the “I” behind an apostrophe:

‘Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
Flat on his belly in the pit’s much mire,  (1-2)

Only in the pit can Caliban safely speculate on the purpose and nature of Setebos (“Because to talk about Him, vexes”).  God cannot see into the cave, it seems.

All of this is clear enough upon re-reading, but is baffling at first.  Early references to Miranda and Prospero at least assure me that I have picked the right Caliban, but the where and how and why require work, and of course Caliban does not develop his ideas in a coherent order.  Of course there are huge gaps in his natural theology.  For whom is that not true?

It is only looking back, for example, that I see that Caliban is worried about first causes, “the something over Setebos \ That made Him” (129-30).  The monster speculates that Setebos may have driven off an earlier god, who still exists somewhere, perhaps in the stars, the part of the universe Setebos did not create (27).  Setebos himself lives in the moon.  Caliban has a really fine imagination.

But now the leap, after the invocation of the absent god:

I joy because the quails come; would not joy
Could I bring  quails here when I have a mind (135-6)

The mysterious actions of the absent or arbitrary or incomprehensible god is a source of joy to Setebos, just as the quails are to Caliban, and the joy comes from Caliban’s (and thus God’s) lack of control over them.  Caliban always makes Setebos in his image, but then models his own behavior after his God:

‘Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea;
‘Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.

A storm approaches as the poem ends, sent by Setebos, who after all can see into the cave, to chastise Caliban.  “Fool to gibe at Him!”  The Tempest is about to begin.

*  Or maybe “’Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’”?  No, surely “My Last Duchess.”


  1. Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
    Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
    And even spoiled the women's chats,
    By drowning their speaking
    With shrieking and squeaking
    In fifty different sharps and flats.

    That's about my speed for poetry. I'll have to see if we have any Robert Browning on the shelf at home. Likely we do, at least anthologized. He's still undiscovered country for me, aside from these scraps of maps you've been offering here.

  2. You'll appreciate this, then. or not:

    "You have to saturate yourself with English poetry in order to compose English prose. You must know your tool... Suggestion: Read: Milton, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth."

    Prof. Nabokov's advice to a young Cornell fiction writer, found on pp. 316-7 of Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

    VN loved Browning, too. Browning might be particularly interesting to a fiction writer because so much of it is character work.

  3. I do appreciate VN's advice. God knows I'll never regret reading Milton. Coleridge and Keats are old friends, though distant now. Wordsworth I barely know.

    There are 15 pages of Mr Browning in my "Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd Ed." I think only Wordsworth and Shakespeare get more space in the book. Likely I should look for a better book.

  4. I would rank Browning close to Wordsworth and Shakespeare-the-poet. That seems about right.