Thursday, October 15, 2009

Robert Browning: Obscurity

uch ink has been spilt in proving and disproving that Browning is an obscure poet. It is hard to absolve Browning of the charge of unintelligibility and difficulty. In his own age, he was considered very difficult and obscure and hence could not achieved popularity and recognition like his contemporary Tennyson. "Sordellow" was regarded as more obscure than any other poem in the English language. Mrs. Carlyle read the poem and could not judge whether 'Sordellow' was a man, or a city, or a book. Douglas Jerrold, after reading it said:


My God! I am an idiot. My health is restored, but my mind is gone.



Browning certainly is a very difficult poet. Dawson calls him "the Carlyle of poetry". Various reasons are given for the obscurity and difficulty of his poetry. According to some critics, obscurity of Browning's poetry is

… a piece of intellectual vanity indulged in more and more insolently as his years and fame increased".



But as Chesterton points out:


All the records of Browning's long life and caret show that he was at all vain. All his contemporaries agree that he never talked cleverly or tried to talk cleverly which is always the case with a man who is intellectually vain. It is psychologically improbable that the poet, made his poems, complicated from mere pride of his powers and contempt of his readers.



According to the learned critic:


Browning was not unintelligible because he was proud, but unintelligible because he was humble.



He was humble enough to think that what he knew was quite commonplace and was known even to the man in the street. His own concepts were quite clear to him that he found nothing difficult or profound in them.


It is fantastic, it is grotesque, and it is enigmatic but there is nothing philosophical about it. Browning is not obscure because he is philosophical poet; the real reasons of his obscurity lie elsewhere. In the passage in question, the obscurity arises from Browning's use of the unfamiliar and unusual 'Murex', the key-word in the passage and essential for its understanding. More other than not, the key-word in a passage is missing and so it becomes dark and obscure.


Obscurity in Browning's poetry results not from any one reason but from a number of reasons.


Browning had a very high conception of his own calling. He once wrote to a friend:

I never designedly tried to puzzle people as some of my critics have supposed.



He believed that a poet should try to put "the infinite within the finite". It is not a kind of poetry to be read merely to while way a leisure hour.


Browning was a highly original genius and his poetry was entirely different from contemporaries.


Browning's dramatic monologues are soul studies; they study the shifting moods and changing thoughts of a developing soul. It is always soul dissection, it is thought, thought and thought; and thought all the way. It is always "interior landscape" with no chronology or background. Obviously such poetry is bound to be difficult. Browning's long, argumentative and philosophical poems are tiresome and boring.


This difficulty of comprehension is further increased by the fact that he was interested in the queerest human soul, and tried to probe the odd and the abnormal in human psychology. "He sought the sinners whom even the sinners had cast out", and tried to show that even they might be generous and humane. He tried to reveal the essential nobility and humanity even of a mean impostor.


Browning was a very learned poet. His schooling was mostly private and so his learning was more profound and thorough than of those who have been educated at school. He knew in detail the history and geography not of one country, but of a number of countries. Many of his poems require knowledge of medieval history and of Italian history.


There is frequent use of Latin expressions and quotations; there are illusions to little known literary, mythological, historical sources and information of Medieval and Renaissance art and culture of Europe. Browning sought his object in many lands.


Often Browning's metaphors, similes and illustrations are far-fetched and recondite as in "Two in the Campagna" and in "Memorabilia".


Often Browning's writes a telegraphic style. Relative, prepositions, articles, even pronouns are left out. It might be that his pen failed to keep pace with the rush of his ideas, but such telegraphic style is certainly confusing and bewildering for his readers.


Browning's frequent inversions and the use of long, involved sentences, heavily overloaded with parentheses, create almost insurmountable difficulties in the way of his readers. In poems like "The Grammarian's Funeral", he not only buries the grammarian but also grammar.


Frequently, he coins new words, uses unusual compounds and expressions and is too colloquial, jerky, abrupt and rugged.


When his "Sordellow" first appeared, he was accused of verbosity and since then he made it his rule to use only two words where ten were needed. He admits this complexity of his poetry in "Rabbi Ben Ezra".


Thoughts hardly, to be packed

Into a narrow act,

Fancies that broke through language and escaped;



However, the obscurity of Browning's poetry must not be exaggerated. As Duffin, points out, the majority of Browning's shorter poems are read as easily as the verse of Tennyson. Poems like "Evelyn Hope", "The Last Rise Together", "The Patriot", "Prophyria's Lover", "Prospice", "My Last Duchess", "Home Thoughts, from Abroad" etc are perfectly lucid and simple. The intelligent reader can enjoy most of his lyrics and longer poems in blank verse after a little mental adjustment. Even in these thorniest poems there are passages of great originality and eloquence of classical beauty and easy comprehension.


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