Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Browning's Necromancer Poetics

Browning’s dramatic monologues are aesthetic attempts to call forth particular dead individuals and hear what they have to say to us. To say so is to figure ‘the dramatic monologue’ as a form of verbal resuscitation of the dead, a quasi-spiritualist voicing of dead men and women. It's a little odd to position Browning in this way, given that he has traditionally been seen as implacably hostile to the developing discourses of nineteenth-century Spiritualism (as in 'Mr Sludge "The Medium"'), in sharp contradistinction to his wife Elizabeth Barrett who was energetically enthusiastic about seances, table-rapping, hauntings and the whole bag-and-baggage of the Victorian supernatural. Browning (according to this particular interpretative narrative) is materialist in contrast to his wife’s spiritualist biases, conventionally religious where she was interested in the unconventional.

Nevertheless, when Browning writes his masterpiece, The Ring and the Book (1868-9) he includes at the centre of its first book a powerful self-characterisation of himself as poet as Resurrectionist. This passage explicitly identifies Browning’s epic project, and by extension the form of the dramatic monologue itself, as a ‘resuscitation of the dead’, in which Browning connects spiritually (by sending forth ‘half his soul’) with long dead individuals, and allows them to speak through his poetry. This way, ‘something dead may get to live again’ and the poet ‘makes new beginning, starts the dead alive’ [R & B, 1:722, 726]. The Ring and the Book is a poem explicitly figured as a seance, a ghostly haunting, ten speakers called back from the dead by Browning’s occult power to tell their tales. As such it becomes a poem precisely about the passage from life to death (and back); about the borderline state ambiguous between death-in-life and life-in-death. It is a text haunted by the brutality of the point of death, the ontological wrenching figured as physical pain. It is haunted by spectres -- of Pompilia, of Elizabeth Barrett, of ‘honour’ and ‘truth’. It is Browning’s masterwork because it embraces these themes so expertly: the dead returning to life, life haunted by death, the same themes that characterise Browning’s poetry throughout his career.

Death has traditionally been seen in criticism as the ultimate point of resistance to discourse. According to Garrett Stewart, ‘death necessitates a mastery of “the Impossible” by style. When the linguistic forms death, dead and die are extrapolated from their own referential vacuum into anything like a subjective episode of narrated dying, language unfolds a definitive instance of pure story, unapproachable by report ... As narrative event, death is the ultimate form of closure plotted within the closure of form.’ [Garrett Stewart, Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press 1984), 5-6] Stewart’s concern is with deathbed scenes in the novel rather than with a supernatural ‘resuscitation of the dead’, but his observation pinpoints two key features of this poetics of the resuscitated dead. The first is that death obviates the third-person report: once we speak of somebody else dying there comes a point when they pass beyond our ability to say anything. Only a first person narrative, only the testimony of a spirit called back by a Sludge-like Spiritualist -- or only a device such as the Browning-invented dramatic monologue -- allows us imaginative access to this state. The second is that giving voice to the dead radically problematises closure: it unpicks the closure of form by reversing a form of closure.

So many of Browning’s poems are positioned on this troubled boundary that it might almost be identified as the key defining feature of his verse. He writes a great many death-bed poems: ‘The Bishop Orders his Tomb’, ‘Prospice’, ‘Confessions’, ‘Holy Cross Day’, ‘A Death in the Desert’, ‘Doctor ---‘ and many others. More than this, several of his most famous poems are point-of-death works, where the speaker actually dies in the process of voicing his or her monologue, or where another speaker describes the process of actually dying. ‘Pompilia’ from The Ring and the Book is a kind of large-scale representation of this situation, but poetry that ‘starts the dead alive’ is central to Browning’s corpus from his invention of the dramatic monologue in . His first collection of dramatic monologues, Dramatic Lyrics (1842) is full of poems that give voice to the dead. This is to say more than the fact that Browning’s poems of necessity give voice to historical speakers, like the fifteenth-century Duke of Ferrara in ‘My Last Duchess’ or the English Civil warrior of the ‘Cavalier Tunes’. It is to observe the way these poems (which are formally about resurrecting the dead to speak) are so frequently plotted against content that expresses the passing from life to death and back again; poems that deliberately straddle the death-life border.

So many dead people in Browning’s poetry; so close a proximity of life and death, to the point almost of a continual exchange between the two states: this elaborates and explains both subject and form in Browning’s work. His necromancer, resurrectionist poetics mark him out from the mainstream of Victorian poetics. Tennyson, by contrast, writes no poems about the resuscitation of the dead: he has no deathbed monologues. His key figures either cannot die – like King Arthur in the Idylls of the King – or have moved from this world in a way that denies the possibility of return – like Arthur Hallam. In Memoriam is precisely about the ways Hallam does not haunt the present, the ways in which Tennyson’s narrator has to come to terms with his absence. Tennyson’s wizard-figure for the poet (Merlin) is a bard, where Browning’s (Cornelius Agrippa) is a necromancer. This is presumably why so many of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue speakers are contemporaries, where so many of Browning’s – the overwhelming majority – are long-dead historical figures. Matthew Arnold is another contrary figure: his invocation of the dead, as in ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, is designed to mark out how far the modern world has fallen away from the idyllic past. In other words, his Scholar Gipsy disappears into an unrecoverable past before our eyes as we read the poem. Only Browning’s explores the presence of the dead to the living, the way mourning an individual or a past time is an ontological activity focused on the material particulars. His haunted poetry works at giving voice to the dead by way of situating the dead as always already with us, as simultaneously sinister and uncanny (occult) and as promises of divine resurrection (Christian). This is why so many of his poems concern dying people, or dead people, concern death and the processes of death.

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