Friday, March 2, 2012

I am not interested in art. I am interested in the obstacles to art. - Richard Howard's Robert Browning

A swerve:  Richard Howard’s poem “November 1889,” found in Findings (1971).  The Howard poem is an imagined monologue by an elderly Browning, speaking to his son in Venice about – oh, everything.  Browning died on December 12, 1889.  That should frame the poem.  Hey, look, Browning was born on May 7, 1812, so this is his bicentenary year, too, just like Dickens.

Browning, knowing death is near, is delivering to his son Pen the box of his and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters, “five-hundred letters, by my count” for posthumous publication:

      Some twenty years since I looked
          at what is in the box.
          Cowardice, call it that;
    I do not know the name.  Sufficient
for me, knowing they are there.

Browning has been thinking about his and Elizabeth’s reputation:  “I dread but one thing: biography.”  His typically optimistic solution is openness:

                                       It should be two volumes…
          Nothing but ourselves then,
          though that be too much now
      for me.  Put the box away,
      high and dry.  I am still here.

Those ellipses belong to Howard; the complete correspondence of the Brownings with each other and everyone else has now been published in eighteen volumes.  Browning was so rarely himself in his poems that I take Howard’s line as a curious inversion of death, a surrender not of but into Browning’s own self.

That is the plot, so to speak.  The rest of the poem is commentary:  Browning on Venice through the years (“the marble blacker / the patience of ruin deeper”), comments on Wilkie Collins, who had died in September (“Well, we are all stewing-pans, and can cook only what we can hold”).  Browning is having trouble writing because of “the torment of starch / in my new shirts,” and also because he fears he is wasting his time at idiotic parties, including one at which a woman “with queenly airs / and a snake, I vow, tattooed on her ankle” tries to seduce him.

I am not sure how much later Browning I really plan to read.  His critical reputation after The Ring and the Book is not so hot, but I can admire the man that Howard depicts.  What relationship this character has to the real Browning I cannot say, but I see what Howard, or Browning, or “Browning," means in this passage, a potential motto for Wuthering Expectations:

                      They seem
to care so deeply
for what they call art:
          I suppose it is like one
          of those indelicate subjects
                  which always sounds better
                   in a foreign language.
    I am not interested in art.
I am interested in the obstacles
    to art.


Richard Howard is a master of Browning-like dramatic monologues.  The book before Findings, the 1969 Untitled Subjects is full of nothing but – poems spoken by or about Richard Strauss , Walter Scott, John Ruskin, Thackeray (“probably Thackeray,” Howard notes).  Howard is probably best known as a translator from the French: Baudelaire and Stendhal and a shelf of Roland Barthes.  But anyone with sympathy for Browning and his century should try Howard’s poems.


  1. Any chance you can explain the Wilkie Collins allusion, which out of context is a bit unclear to me? Also: your deft touch with poetry posts are causing me to rethink my aversion to blogging about poetry, but I'm not sure whether I should/will/might start with Les fleurs du mal, some Nicanor Parra anti-poésie, or--continuing in inverse order of what I imagine people might want to read about--some Old Occitan troubadour poetry. Hmm...

  2. I want the troubadour poetry, but I should probably be ignored.

    "[F]its and starts are the best of what he left us," that's how "Browning" first sums up Collins. But since this is a monologue and he can overhear himself, he decides he has been ungenerous and corrects himself with the stewing-pans metaphor, a "we do the best we can with what we've got" variation.

    The poignancy of Browning's comparison is that both men shared a simultaneous twenty-year falling off of their creative powers, Browning after the 1868-9 Ring and the Book, Collins after the 1869 Moonstone. They both wrote and wrote and wrote, to less and less effect. Browning, the Browning in the poem, at least, knows it.

    "One only does not call / a labor like The Woman in White / Herculean because Hercules could not / have done it!" That's Browning's final, generous, word on Collins.