Thursday, August 21, 2014

Oh there’s repristination! - or, Robert Browning roasts a porcupine

Here is where I lean on quotations I pulled from The Ring and the Book for various reasons.  It’s an instructive exercise!   I hope.

First, one example of one reason Robert Browning is difficult.  He is describing the ring in the poem’s title, how it was made:

That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works:
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh there’s repristination!  Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume…  (I, ll. 17-24)

Word-power builders like “repristination” are regular features of Browning’s poems.  “A coinage of B’s, meaning a return to an earlier, purer state,” note on p. 263, emphasis added to make me feel better about not knowing the meaning of “repristination.”

Please review the last two lines above.  Goal #1 is to follow the rules of blank verse, to count syllables and stresses.  Goal #2 is to make the blank verse natural enough to credibly fit the character speaking the lines.  Goal # 3 is cranking up the poetic effects, like the long string of “f” words in those two lines. 

Granite, time’s tooth should grate against, not graze, -
Why, this proved sandstone, friable, fast to fly  (I, 660-1)

Or even better:

Come, here’s the last drop does its worst to wound,
Here’s Guido poisoned to the bone, you say,
Your boasted still’s full strain and strength: not so!
One master-squeeze from screw shall bring to birth
The hoard i’ the heart o’ the toad, hell’s quintessence.  (II, 1364-8)

It is possible that the more the poetic effects are laid on, the more obscure the verse becomes and the more damage is done to Goal #2, naturalness.  An entire poem or this length written this way – well, Browning could never have finished it.  Algernon Swinburne even in quite long poems is attracted to the idea that every single line must be puffed and polished to peaks of poetic perfection, and as a result he is even more obscure than Browning, at times a poet of songful gibberish, lovely, sonorous gibberish.

As interesting as the story is and as cleverly designed as the multiple perspectives are, the reader of The Ring and the Book has to enjoy the poetry, or else the enterprise if pointless.  That is what I am trying to say.

Or, if not the poetry, the recipes (Gigia is the cook):

(There is a porcupine to barbacue;
Gigia can jug a rabbit well enough,
With sour-sweet sauce and pine-pips; but, good Lord,
Suppose the devil instigate the wench
To stew, not roast him? Stew my porcupine?
If she does, I know where his quills shall stick!
Come, I must go myself and see to things:
I cannot stay much longer stewing here)  (VIII, 1368-75)

The old Joy of Cooking is with Gigia – porcupines are for stewing.  A bit earlier (ll. 535-41) there is a recipe for liver with parsley and fennel – “nothing stings / Fried liver out of its monotony / Of richness, like a root of fennel, chopped.”  How I would like this to be Browning’s comment on his poetry.  He must constantly sting his blank verse out of its monotony.  He uses every trick he’s got.


  1. Browning clearly loved the sounds of words as much as anything else when writing poetry. You almost persuade me to plunge into The Ring and the Book. Well, almost. I will for now, though, stick with his dramatic monologues. They are always wonderful romps.

  2. This book is the preposterously long, exhausting culmination of Browning's perfection of the dramatic monologue.

  3. I waited all night for this porcupine recipe you promised yesterday. I have a copy of the old Joy of Cooking, sought out specifically for this section. A colleague from upper Michigan claims to have eaten most of the game mentioned in it when she was a kid; I'll have to ask her about the porcupine.

    "…its monotony/Of Richness…" is terrific.

  4. Joy of Cooking is actually a book of poetry; most people don't know that. The illustrated instructions in the older editions of how to skin a squirrel are sublime.

    I am trying to remember other books that tell the same story multiple times via different narrators. I have come up with the Gospels and An Instance of the Fingerpost. Those can't be the only examples, right? And the Gospels don't really count, because they were not written together by a single author to illustrate one story from different perspectives. But there must be others.

    1. Akutagawa's "In a Grove" as perhaps the more frequently referenced example, at least by way of Kurosawa's film Rashomon?

    2. I've never seen Rashomon. Apparently (I see after 10 minutes with Google) it's pretty influential. I've never heard of "the Rashomon effect" until this morning. Huh.

    3. Apropos of nothing -- except my own indulgence in recollections -- you remind of the fact that I portrayed the rapist-bandit in a stage production of Rashomon when I was in college. I now remember little of the play, but I remember being quite smitten with the young woman who was my "victim" in the play. And what does this have to do with Browning and porcupines? Absolutely nothing.

    4. I've seen The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. I don't remember any porcupines in those. Echo and the Bunneymen had a great album in the 80s called "Porcupine." We are derailing Tom's post about what looks like a good piece of literature. Shame on us.

    5. I suppose you could add "As I Lay Dying" to the list, sort of. Parts of the story are retold throughout by multiple narrators, but not the whole thing. And I'm happy to say that I never saw "Rashomon" either.

    6. As I Lay Dying is not as pure as Browning - it is in no way repetitive - but it is a good one for this list. I think I'm going to turn to The Moonstone next, which is another candidate.

  5. Scott, never heard people refer to Rashomon, really? You are so lucky. It is a hideous cliche that has is always misused. The characters in the movie do not tell different versions of the same story because they have different perceptions or memories of the events, but because they are lying.

    This is more or less what Browning does. Characters tell distorted versions of the truth out of ignorance, maliciousness, self-interest or lawyering.

    The Good Soldier is a book where the same story is told multiple times by the same narrator, which is a funnier trick.

    I hope never to eat a porcupine or any part thereof. The old Joy also has cocktail recipes, which were dropped in the 1990s for some reason.

  6. "The characters in the movie do not tell different versions of the same story because they have different perceptions or memories of the events, but because they are lying."
    ...but the interesting question is, how far are they lying to themselves? In fact, having the bandit played by Toshirô Mifune is a kind of inadvertent retrospective lie. We perceive the character through Mifune's own distinctive acting style and through the characters and the kinds of characters he later played- something the film's first audience didn't do.

  7. Roger, point granted, with enthusiasm. I love the point about Mifune's retroactive persona.