Guardian poem of the week four hundred and something. Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister by Robert Browning.
commenting as gwionb,
One of Browning's poems was first here in July 2010, Two in the Campagna, pre-forum-format-change, when the Reader was presented first with Carol's critical perspective topping the poem.
Back in the day the Potw Blog was feted, privileged and lucky to have regular voluntary contributions from the voice of a superlative post-modern senior Dublin critic, the anonymous, anytimefrances.
Although the objects, subjects and targets of her killer rhetorical literary barbs may not agree, her post-modern yet plainly anciently sourced eloquence was untouchable in competitive conversation.
She could deconstruct the semiotic signs and signifiers of any text, re-tooling the language of any poem, and cleverly re-combine them as a shrewd and astute Reader into the wholly opposite map of their critical meaning, thru her uniquely hard-won and refined philosophical lens and perspectives created by and found from a deep familiarity with the tortuously recondite writings of Derrida, Freud, Foucault, Marx and Lacan.
Carol took the position on Browning's poem:
"Two in the Campagna" is one of the most sombrely honest of love poems, but its doubts and questions are so scrupulously recorded and so beautifully, coherently woven together that it reassures us. For most of the scientists of Browning's day, the designer of the universe was still "in his Heaven", and the poet, by analogy, still at the centre of his twisting, turning, but reassuringly symmetrical web of a poem. Random, meaningless and incoherent modernity is still many decades in the future.
That week atf was also on top form. She did not yield on any of the deliberately provocative points she made, with any attack on her position, of which there were many, responded to with a heightening of eloquence and deepening of thought communicating a rare mind.
Her anonymous voice had a superlative critical ability, that relied wholly on its own wit and inventiveness to stand out so exemplary on this blog during its formative (2007-10) early-years period.
That most of the time was naturally witty and wise. Tho she was a very divisive figure, who, in my mind, because we were firm and natural allies, could do no rhetorical wrong.
Of the few times I've attempted it, much to my shame, i've failed to fall in love with any of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues that I've tried to be enchanted by.
The texts and voices that take immense pleasure and delight in creating subtle witty excursions into well thought-out in-jokes and the self-referential, meticulously wrought metrical stanzas that tell very involved tales stretched over long and rhythmically plodding lines from which one can hear a tone of confident earnestness in Browning's voice at the birth of modernism.
Wholly civilised, educated, lyrically poetic, rational, well-intended, wise, and very witty, perhaps, but one which is clearly entombed in a state and point of English history, and the evolution of its class system, that will, one suspects, render this Victorian's voice eminently dull in the ear of most contemporary listeners reared on, and loving, as we do, our diets of rock n funk n roll, and the contemporary pop-pap poetic of the wholly synthetic and soulless electronically enhanced modified and manufactured voices lip-syncing banal meaningless gobbledygook and one-dimensional brainless messages that lyrically captivate the first world Anglophone social-media masses.
We hear the well-wrought lines, recognise even perhaps their authenticity, ingenuity, integrity, high degree of literary inventiveness, and unceasingly metrical polish; but, i suspect, no magic spark of the mesmeric 'it' is heard in the ear or continually spotted by a majority of eyes in today's audience without a classical education, and reared on a constant cultural diet of contemporary meta-action and living the hyper-reality of fast-moving events.
After four centuries of literary evolution this week's poem is situated at the very Victorian apex and pre-Edwardian peak of an ultra-metrical poetic; and cultural bubble within which a poem did not exist unless it was diligently composed, or dashed off, in the strict and straight forms that are immediately identifiable on the page to a contemporary eye.
An entirely metrical poetic and collectively uniform technical measuring standard, that, unchanging, and evolving within strict metrical boundaries, for fifteen generations of poets, had wove a merry way from the first self-styled regius orator and poet-laureate, John Skelton, to the perfected Victorian lyric form of rhymers such as Barret, Blake, Bronte, Byron, Cook, Dickinson, Keats, Rossetti, Shelly, Harper, Tennyson, and Yeats.
And one of my own lyrically overflowing favourite voices from this perfected poetic era, that, I think, when at his best, was one of the most experimentally inventive, and audaciously gifted linguistically innovative metrical practitioners of the formal Victorian lyric, whose best poems touch joint-close with the superlative language of Manley-Hopkins, in speaking the Divine tongue and imbas forosnai all the Victorian poets of all the schools and stripes of spirituality - from clearly Christian to the more secular transcendentalists - can be measured by, and, who, like this week's offering, is, for many readers an either/or love/hate poet: Algernon Charles Swinburne.
All but William Butler Yeats, and most of the women poets, by and large far more socially and politically enlightened and advanced than the men, were unknowingly bound up in the final two and three generations of poets defined for four hundred uninterrupted years by the metricality of their verse.
Most of the many Victorian poets, all but Yeats and a few others who wrote both sides of the literary shift, had the metrical foundations, basis, and four centuries ancient practice of modern English language poetry, rendered, if not obsolete, certainly supplanted culturally by the free-verse of American modernity.
All but a handful of the Victorian English poets were unaware that posterity was going to canonise, as a majority of these now long forgotten Victorian poets would've no doubt considered him, the imposter Whitman, as the revolutionary antecedent and American godfather of a new modern anti-formal-lyric poetic, that the majorty of English language poets and doggerelists publishing today have as the sole one in which to practice, create, possess and publish ditties, and the odd stray whisp of eloquence and beauty combined into that which cannot be edited.
Of a relative handful of contemporary readers who'll have read any of Browning's numerous monologue poems, a proportion will be of course life-long lovers of his dramatic and theatrical, lengthy epics, and experience this kind of densely metrical writing and reading material as the superlative poetic and literary bees knees.
Whilst others, with less knowledge of this fascinating man and his history, perhaps, may well place his plodding and originally worded stanzas anywhere from slightly less than inspiring to ear-numbingly tedious.
As any critic knows being praiseful in print is in the long-term far healthier for the human spirit, and easier to do well when it becomes a habit, than exhaustively spewing satirical invective and letting show how genuinely we (all) can cerebrally bleed and phantasmagorically hate something created wholly within our own imagination. The problem with which is that if the 'bitter prayer of satire' is all a voice works up to in print, as the unceasingly political writing of certain contemporary satirists prove, the one-sided creatively imbalanced and intellectually draining nature of it can and will tip the always satirically expressed voices into a visibly negative death spiral of the positive inner literary and humanly spiritual tongue.
That all situating ourselves within the Humanities profess some connection with and love for.
In this respect I wanted this week's poem to succeed and detain one's attention, and be able to positively respond to this classically canonised piece of Victorian verse, creating as formally a well-written reply, with as detached cool passion as the very best anonymous critics on the potw blog prove themselves capable of and do month in month out. But, alas what little Browning I have read left me cold.
Tho i am not as foolish to believe that one's unfamiliarity with all of his dramatic monologues and personae poems is in any way a reflection of the true quality of Browning's verse. Because i also understand that the effect a poem makes within a Reader's imagination, depends entirely on the state of mind s/he is in at the point poem and person collide and combine.
On one day, in a certain mood, we may read a Browning monologue, or any other poem, out loud, and fall into expressing it with pleasure and being led as we go by an unfurling surprise to the Frostean figure of the wisdom a poem makes and is when terminating on its final syllable at a poetically profound destination. Yet on a different day, in a different cerebral state, we may find ourselves not connecting at all with the exact same poem, and discover what delight we read, saw and heard previously, has spiritually vanished.
Listening to this recording of Browning's How they Brought the Good News From Ghent To Aix, it is clear that today's' ear tuned solely by Anglo-American free-verse hears with an eye seeing first this very metrically uniform, and, to our modern collective ear, incredibly dated novelty and all but extinct tradition of ploddingly predictable literary rhyme, that time and the contemporary cultural dumbing down process has dulled the sparkling originality of. What at the time were innovative word choices, from the very off to the very end.