Saturday, 7 April 2012

Robert Browning 1812-2012


I do not much love Browning but am sorry his anniversary is being ignored while that of Dickens is in all the papers. I agreed when a boy with whoever it was who said that his poetry sounded like coal being delivered next door. He begat T.S. Eliot which does not particularly endear him to me but in memoriam I shall reread him.

Hilaire Belloc said he had 

'not read much but I have read Blougram. Bishop Blougram is supposed to have been Wiseman but I am sure Wiseman could not read Euripides.'

These words run through my head from Blougram:

And now what are we? unbelievers both,
Calm and complete, determinately fixed
To-day, to-morrow and for ever, pray?
You'll guarantee me that? Not so, I think!
In no wise! all we've gained is, that belief,
As unbelief before, shakes us by fits,
Confounds us like its predecessor. Where's
The gain? how can we guard our unbelief,
Make it bear fruit to us?--the problem here.
Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,--
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again,--
The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly.
There the old misgivings, crooked questions are--
This good God,--what he could do, if he would,
Would, if he could--then must have done long since:
If so, when, where and how? some way must be,--
Once feel about, and soon or late you hit
Some sense, in which it might be, after all.
Why not, "The Way, the Truth, the Life?" --That way
Over the mountain, which who stands upon
Is apt to doubt if it be meant for a road;
While, if he views it from the waste itself,
Up goes the line there, plain from base to brow,
Not vague, mistakeable! what's a break or two
Seen from the unbroken desert either side?
And then (to bring in fresh philosophy)
What if the breaks themselves should prove at last
The most consummate of contrivances
To train a man's eye, teach him what is faith?
And so we stumble at truth's very test!
All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt.

As a fifteen year old this line from another poem about a bishop, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”, moved me deeply as is natural at that age:

And have I not St Praxed’s ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?

Actually, they still move me deeply, combining succinctly the three most interesting things in life, Catholicism, old books and Amazonian women. 


  1. Rather perfunctory choice of a quote from “The Tomb at St. Praxed’s” (initial title), in my view - since it fails to highlight the poem’s entire point. The fundamental question as put by the Bishop is: “Life, how and what is it?” The answer implied is that life is language. The power of language alone can order the Bishop’s reality, carry him comfortably from this life to the unknown beyond it resp. bridge the gap between life and death. Given your writing ambitions, you might as well give this viewpoint some serious thought.

    Browning, just like T. S. Eliot, poses a lot of questions, but doesn’t offer readers the comfort of safe, emotional answers. Probably that’s why you dislike both of them.

    Happy Easter/Frohe Oster


  2. Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
    Or what's a heaven for?

    Harry Corrin