Wednesday, May 09, 2012

`It Ought to Be Part of a Man'

Some books devoted to individual authors interest us more than their ostensible subjects. G.K. Chesterton, a journalist who transcended the customary limits of his trade, specialized in turning out such volumes. Think of his monographs on Dickens (1906), Blake (1910), Cobbett (1925), Stevenson (1927) and, best of all, Browning (1903), a poet who consistently thwarts my efforts to read him sympathetically. For Nige, reading Browning at his best is “a bracing, cheering and enriching experience.” The failure, of course, is mine.

As Nige notes, Monday was the bicentenary of Browning’s birth, and I pulled out an anthology and read again such war horses as “My Last Duchess,” “Rabbi Ben Ezra” and “Two in the Campagna.” I don’t deem this time wasted. Rather, it serves as a useful reminder that some writers, perhaps even some of the best, are beyond us and we will always remain immune to their charms. Then I reread Chesterton’s Robert Browning in one late-night sitting and wished it were, at 217 pages, a little longer. The book was commissioned by MacMillan for its “English Men of Letters” series, a line whose contributors already included Henry James (Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Anthony Trollope (Thackeray). It would be Chesterton’s first original volume, not a collection of previously published essays or verse. Near the end of his life, in his wonderful Autobiography, Chesterton claims the book was not about Browning at all. Rather it was

“…a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity.”

Chesterton’s retrospective review of a book he wrote while still in his twenties is fancifully self-deprecating but accurate. In the hands of most writers, such a strategy would result in self-indulgent incoherence, but through sheer imaginative exuberance and identification with his subject, Chesterton creates a small discursive masterpiece. In Chapter IV, “Browning in Italy,” he describes the poet’s devotion to painting, his dedication to “the obstetrics of art,” which enabled him to write poems about painters and their work:

“He was, in other words, what is called an amateur. The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. Browning was in this strict sense a strenuous amateur. He tried and practised in the course of his life half a hundred things at which he can never have even for a moment expected to succeed.”

I’m not qualified to judge whether this is a valid evaluation of Browning, but it certainly sounds true to Chesterton's experience and mine. In his recent biography of Chesterton, Ian Ker notes that the Browning volume was an immediate success with the public and remained in print throughout Chesterton’s life. When reviewers chastised him for misquoting some of Browning’s lines, Ker reports, Chesterton replied:

“I quote from memory both by temper and on principle. That is what literature is for; it ought to be part of a man.”

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