Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Visiting the Paris Morgue with Robert Browning

The subject at hand is not Robert Browning, but Browning’s 1864 book Dramatis Personae, a great book, his fourth great book in a row.  I looked at one of its less known poems yesterday, seldom collected elsewhere.  Today I will enjoy a better known poem, although not one of the book’s big anthology hits like “Rabbi ben Ezra” or “Caliban Upon Setebos”.  This one, “Apparent Failure,” is about suicide, and includes a fairly direct statement of Browning’s religious belief, assuming that the speaker of the poem is Robert Browning, and the real one at that.  Who knows.

The poem has an epigraph, from a “Paris newspaper”: “We shall soon lose a celebrated building.”  That building is the morgue on the Ile de la Cité, which I last visited with Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White (1860 - why did I not write about this?), and will soon see again (I am respecting chronology) in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867).  The building was not demolished, at least not then, as it appears again in an 1883 story by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.

This particular morgue (“The dead-house where you show your drowned”) was famous because it was open to the public, with the bodies, many pulled from the Seine and in horrible states of decay, on display in hopes of identification.  Zola is direct about the entertainment value of corpse-watching.  Why does Browning go in, as he did in 1856?

One pays  one’s debt in such a case;
        I plucked up heart and entered, - stalked,
Keeping a tolerable face
       Compared with some whose cheeks were chalked:
Let them!  No Briton’s to be baulked!

I see.  A demonstration of national fortitude.

Here are the corpses.  Browning has no interest in Zola’s evocation of disgust, but rather with the dignity of the undignified dead.

Poor men, God made, and all for that!
         The reverence struck me; o’er each head
Religiously was hung its hat,
          Each coat dripped by the owner’s bed,
Sacred from touch: each had his berth,
          His bounds, his proper place of rest,
Who last night tenanted on earth
        Some arch, where twelve such slept abreast, -
Unless the plain asphalte seemed best.

Browning puzzles over the causes of suicide: thwarted idealism, the world’s cruelty, plus the usual stuff, money and women.  He hopes for the best, for the suicides, for all of us.

It’s wiser being good than bad;
        It’s safer being meek than fierce:
It’s fitter being sane than mad.
        My own hope is a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
        That, after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
        That which began best, can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.


  1. "Religiously was hung its hat."

    That's a poet.

  2. I am thinking of writing something about Browning's obscurity, but that is a great example of a line where the multiple meanings of "religiously" are perfectly clear, the image is sharp; nothing obscure. The vaguely nauseated people whose "cheeks were chalked" works similarly.

    Such a poet!

  3. "Dramatis Personae" is a favorite of mine. For me, "Mr. Sludge" is one of the sleepers; I'll be curious to see if you have any thoughts on it...

  4. I just finished teaching Therese Raquin (look at my scientific experiment! Nothing up my left sleeve, nothing up my right...), so this makes a nice antidote. I haven't read much Browning, apart from Childe Roland, oddly enough.

  5. Good idea, Doug. Tomorrow I will say something. "Mr Sludge" is outstanding. Browning uses its length well - the poem seemed trivial to me at first, but then went in all sorts of fruitful directions.

    A cousin to "Caliban Upon Setebos," come to think of it, another natural theology.

    "'Childe Roland'" is stunning. Awesome in the older sense of the word (and in the newer). If you only read one Browning poem, read that one. It is actually a crushing counter-example to whatever attempt at an argument I made today about Browning's obscurity.

    And if you read two, "My Last Duchess," for cultural capital if nothing else. If three: I don't know.