Thursday, March 1, 2012

Don’t it want trimming, turning, furbishing up and polishing over? - Robert Browning the Medium

I have been reading Robert Browning’s poems not in some Selected Poems of but in replicas of the original published volumes.  Ugly and unsatisfying replicas, such as The Complete Works of Robert Browning Volume VI, Ohio University Press, 1996, where I read Dramatis Personae and part II of Men and Women, simply ignoring the fifth or third of the page describing the manuscript variants.

I wish I could read Browning’s four great collections – Dramatic Lyrics (1841), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), and Dramatis Personae (1864) – as four separate objects, as books.  I guess I could edit an electronic text, pick a cover, and send it to a print-on-demand joint.  If I ever need another hobby, I’ll do that.

Selected Poem volumes and anthologies pull almost all of their Robert Browning from these four books.  My Norton Anthology of English Literature gives Browning about 90 pages, a huge amount of space.  Three poems in two pages are from his later work.  The Penguin Classics Selected Poems is more generous to Late Browning, giving only 240 of 290 pages to his four major books.  In both cases, the enormous 1868-9 The Ring and the Book is omitted.  I have not read it, but I will, I hope.

Dramatis Personae was published after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although many of the poems were written earlier.  It is, and this is one good reason to read the collection as a book, suffused with EBB, even though only one poem, “Prospice,” a challenge to Death, is actually about her:

And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
                Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
                Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul!  I shall clasp thee again,
                 And with God be the rest!  (23-28)

If I am mistaking the speaker, as is likely, then the poem is not about EBB, at least not directly.

About a third of Dramatis Personae is given to a single long monologue, “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’.”  The medium’s name tells me what I need to know about Browning’s attitude towards spiritualism.  Elizabeth was a believer, Robert was not, although he apparently kept his frustration at what he saw as his wife’s gullibility to himself.  Or he directed it into this poem, which I doubt he would have published while Elizabeth lived.  Mr. Sludge is simply a fraud, a con man,  and the poem is his long, drunken confession.

At least that is how it begins.  The confession, including details about the magician’s tricks of floating tables and ghostly presences, somehow turns into a justification (“As for religion – why, I served it, sir! \ I’ll stick to that!”, 664-5), and the justification becomes a metaphysics (“I live by signs and omens,” 971), imposture as a system of belief:

Well, when you hear, you’ll answer them [genuine spiritual signs], start up
And stride into the presence, top of toe,
And there find Sludge beforehand, Sludge that sprang
At noise o’ the knuckle on the partition-wall!
I think myself the more religious man.  (1001-5)

Like all great con men, Sludge is able to bring himself to believe whatever nonsense he spouts, at least for the moment, so there is no stable position for the reader.  The audience, the “you,” is not merely a Browning-like skeptic, but a blackmailer, so that he is not much help either.  Sludge’s system inevitably (with the help of the booze) collapses into self-interest:

What need I care?  I cheat in self-defence,
And there’s my answer to a world of cheats!
Cheat?  To be sure, sir!  What’s the world worth else?
Who takes it as he finds, and thanks his stars?
Don’t it want trimming, turning, furbishing up
And polishing over?  (1346-51)

A line has been crossed here.  Is Sludge a spiritualist, or an artist, a poet?  Browning and the fraud converge.  Both are magicians.  One is rather more skilled than the other.

Such good books.


  1. Lovely! Or, perhaps, Browning and Sludge are both mediums, who make possibly fictional spirits speak.

    Spiritualism seems like such a complicated social movement, filled with unreliable narrators and ambiguous motives on all sides. I'm surprised more writers didn't take it on. Maybe they did, and I just don't know them...

  2. I know Mr Sludge. Antonia Byatt excerpted a chunk of this poem to introduce her novel Possession, which book has themes of resurrecting the dead via their poetry and letters, sort of, and also references the Victorian spiritualist craze.

  3. "Sludge" introduces Possession, really? Of course it does. It has been at least 20 years since I read that book. It must be absolutely stuffed with Browning - the poet character is more or less mock-Browning, isn't he? I would have had no idea then, or almost none.

    One angle I did not pursue here, along Doug's suggestion, is that Hawthorne in his Italian Notebooks writes about his discussions of spiritualism with the Brownings (they're all in Florence, I think). Hawthorne would have been an obvious candidate to take on spiritualism one way or the other, but there was something about the subject that kept him at a distance despite a strong if skeptical interest. I am not sure what.

    Why am I not surprised to find a half-baked Wiki Spiritualism in Fiction page. The Bostonians looks like the prize.