Monday, January 04, 2016

`A Certain Bouncing Abruptness'

We plaster over the gaps in our reading, repaint the wall and hang a picture to hide the shameful absence. Pride does the work industriousness never could. One such for me is Robert Browning. I read him in a Victorian poetry class and essentially put him away. I remember the class best because on Friday, Jan. 7, 1972, the professor announced the suicide of John Berryman. I remember reading Arnold and Tennyson, and regularly return to them, but Browning is gone, another failure. I’m grateful to Norm Sibum for writing me on Saturday: “Well, Patrick, I guess the thing to remember is that so much of Browning is unreadable now, if it ever was; but that what's fine is as fine as anything in the language, including Shakespeare. I could go on with this but I won't.” 

I don’t make resolutions but have resolved to give Browning his due. I’m encouraged by V.S. Pritchett (“Pioneer,” Complete Collected Essays, 1991), who observed that Browning’s gifts were “those of the novelist or the poet of monologue. There is a profusion of brilliant detail, so that the small things and psychological dilemmas become more dramatic than the main drama. He adopts the point of view of characters unlike himself, and this putting on of another’s voice and life depends on a certain bouncing abruptness and on an acute sense of the mind’s sensations.” That’s all attractive – narrative, “brilliant detail,” speakers other than the poet’s precious self. I have a precedent for such an undertaking. I detested Thomas Hardy’s novels, and dismissively shelved his poems alongside them. Several friends and Philip Larkin pointed out my foolishness. Now Hardy is in regular rotation. One of the poems I most admire in the language is “The Going,” written after the death of his wife in 1912. There’s a desolate melancholy about the poem: “All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go. / I seem but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon.” 

Writing to Daniel Albright on this date, Jan. 4, in 1994 (The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2012), Hecht says of Hardy that “the idea of the debonair, of the insouciant, is just what he is at pains to puncture in a number of his poems, and against which his satire and irony is often directed. Nearly everyone is unwitting in Hardy, and this is not only part of the poignanc[y] of existence, but he often persuades us that the unwittingness is virtually essential to our existence, allowing us the little poise and assurance we have and without which we would instantly expire.” Then Hecht refers directly to the saddest, most evocative line in “The Going”: 

“In `The Going’ he writes directly of the moment at which, unbeknownst to him, his wife was dying, which he `saw morning harden upon the wall.’ That line has always had a singular power for me.”  

1 comment:

Brian said...

Yes to Browning's dramatic monologues, "Andrea del Sarto", "Fra Lippo Lippi", and "My Last Duchess". Richard Howard's tribute to the Duchess poem, "Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565" is a further delight.