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I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds—Robert Browning Crossing the Limits of Poetry

Jean-Charles Perquin


Cette communication porte sur la poésie de Robert Browning, et notamment la façon dont ses œuvres s’apparentent sans cesse à des carrefours formels, et ce depuis ses tout premiers poèmes jusqu’à son œuvre ultime. Il essaya et mit à l’épreuve chaque forme, chaque genre et chaque mode. À n’en point douter, sa poésie est une constante traversée. Jamais il ne choisit la stabilité, comme s’il était incapable de créer la forme idéale : il ne cessa de passer de forme en forme, traversant, explorant et combinant les genres et les modes poétiques. N’était-ce pas l’une des raisons pour lesquelles Oscar Wilde le traitait ironiquement de « Browning en prose » ?

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1One just needs to leaf through the seventeen thick volumes of the recently completed Ohio University Press edition of the poetical works by Robert Browning to understand how much he dedicated his poetry to crossing genres, forms, types, and categories. It is even more obvious, if not destabilizing, if one focuses on the speakers in his poems, who eventually cross another boundary, that of enunciation through the vertiginous process and influence of metalepsis. Robert Browning was and is still famous for the difficulty apparently inherent in his verse, whereas he pretended to do his best in order not to be misunderstood by his potential readers. As he wrote to one of his good friends, William G. Kingsland, in a letter written on the 27th November 1868, to defend himself against the usual accusation of obscurity that had plagued his literary career since its very inception, thirty-five years before,

I can have little doubt that my writing has been in the main too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar or a game at dominoes to an idle man. So, perhaps, on the whole I get my desserts, and something over—not a crowd, but a few I value more.

2After crossing boundaries and limits between genres and forms, the poet, who was considered by Oscar Wilde as a ‘prose Browning’, realised his poetical works had been made of blending, mixing, articulating, and crossing. For once and without the shade of a doubt, we should trust one of his most celebrated speakers, Fra Lippo Lippi, the rebellious and sensuous Italian Renaissance painter, when he claims, in the long dramatic monologue entitled after his name and published in the collection entitled Men and Women:

I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds:
You should not take a fellow eight years old
And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
I’m my own master, paint now as I please

(l. 223–26)

3In this monologue, the speaker ironically summarized and defended his scandalous way of life, since the monk he was had just been taken red-handed in an ill-famed district of the city by the night-watch, and his unorthodox way of understanding and practising painting and art. Robert Browning had no doubt designed Fra Lippo Lippi as an imaginary mouthpiece of his own philosophy of composition, a breaking of bounds and crossings he would stubbornly exemplify for the rest of his long literary career. Towards the end of his life, he would even be so much disappointed when he saw the nude female bodies of the sculptures by the hand of his son Pen, sternly rejected by the British Academy when John Callcott Horsley was its rector and treasurer, from 1875 to 1890. This academic painter had been nicknamed ‘clothes-Horsley’, due to his systematic rejection of nude models in painting. The son of the poet whose famous speaker had ‘broken bounds’ was now at a crossing his own father had been ironically faced with decades before.

4The example of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is all the more interesting and relevant as the very speaker in the poem reinvents the painting, finished centuries before Browning’s poem and entitled The Coronation of the Virgin, by introducing his own character and face within the audience of the religious ceremony:

                        […] Well, all these
Secured at their devotion, up shall come
Out of a corner when you least expect,
As one by a dark stair into a great light,
Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!―

Mazed, motionless and moonstruck―I’m the man!
(l. 359–64)

5Once more, not only had Robert Browning subtly and ironically reinvented the story of the religious picture entitled The Coronation of the Virgin, but he also had made ‘poor Brother Lippo’ comically enter the painting in a very interesting and imaginary metaleptical twist, thanks to which the imaginary speech of the real speaker reinvented the very painting in an absurd act of artistic blasphemy. To quote again the Victorian monologue by Robert Browning, ‘I’m my own master, paint now as I please’. By entering his painting, the ‘dramatic monologue’ painter, both totally imaginary through his words and undoubtedly real through his actual painting, becomes the (re)creator of an artistic illusion he is the prisoner and the victim of, and which he had nevertheless unquestionably and generously generated.

6This ‘Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There’ situation was rather common with Robert Browning, who had already borrowed the Latin expression ‘de te fabula narratur’, which closed the poem entitled ‘The Statue and the Bust’, also published in Men and Women. Such a final twist inviting the reader to go through the mirror of poetic creation was itself adapted to the repetition of all the artists, writers, musicians, composers and painters who peopled his innumerable poems from 1833 to 1889. In other words, the reality Robert Browning was interested in, with a vengeance, was artistic reality, and not only the factual reality of the world. Such a fascination for the reality of art and literature, artifice and poetry, would undoubtedly find an immensely famous echo across the Channel, with Marcel Proust: ‘Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature’. Clearly, both for Robert Browning and Marcel Proust, two passionate readers for whom reading was very probably the best part of life, if not the life beyond, before and after, literature was first and foremost a crossroads, as much as prince Hamlet, the eponymous hero of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedy, who claimed: ‘. . . for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’. Hamlet wanted the usurper to collapse in front of a play, aptly entitled the ‘mousetrap’, and supposed to stage the treacherous poisoning of Hamlet’s father by his own brother Claudius, in order to pocket both the crown and the queen.

7Literature and poetry were for Robert Browning a way of going across the artistic mirror of representation, and poetry was itself and by definition a crossing. Once more, if one takes a look at his complete works, we cannot but be amazed by the variety of styles, lines, forms, shapes, rhymes, genres and sub-genres he relentlessly composed over five decades, little by little appreciated by a readership he unexpectedly and unconsciously trained to read his most difficult verse, instead of simply borrowing freely from the popular melodies and rhymes of his celebrated predecessors. It is precisely by this patient practise of grafting forms and verse that he had early come up with a new poetic form, which he himself bluntly refused to call the ‘dramatic monologue’, as if he himself failed to understand what the expression exactly meant, and which ironically outlived the rest of his works and the very name of its creator as the now illustrious, if not historical ‘Victorian monologue’. Once more, and as Fra Lippo Lippi himself claimed in his dramatic monologue, ‘I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds’. By going beyond limits and traditions, Robert Browning managed to make himself misunderstood, which culminated in Sordello, certainly the least read poem of the whole century, a poem Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a great poet herself, commented upon in these words: ‘You have made even the Darkness of it’.

8Robert Browning regularly changed roles with his readers, whom he invented and injected into his own poems, the speaker and the listener/the audience being by definition prerequisites within the dramatic monologue. The poet thus imagined both speakers, often real characters who had played parts in history, and listeners whose presence was necessary to create the tension at work in the poems, that is the verbal confrontations between garrulous unreliable speakers and naïve silent listeners. In such a context, the reader just had to de-construct the speech of the speaker in order to shed light on the dark spots of their discourses. Once more, one of Robert Browning’s famous speakers will show us the way to his understanding of life, art, religion, and poetry, bishop Blougram himself:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books—
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway: one step aside,
They’re classed and done with. I, then, keep the line
Before your sages,―just the men to shrink

From the gross weights, coarse scales and labels broad
You offer their refinement. Fool or knave?
(l. 395–404)

9This poem is all the more telling as the very speaker ends up perverting the traditional metaphor of life as a journey, especially a voyage across the sea, which the bishop does not intend to make in uncomfortable conditions. As he says, ‘We mortals cross the ocean of this world / Each in his average cabin of a life’. Instead of understanding life as a spiritual journey towards the Celestial City that had been already imagined in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the imaginary bishop only insisted on the necessity for him to travel comfortably, as if the crossing itself were just some sort of ritual passage to be dispatched in the least painful conditions. In other words, the bishop himself, the speaker in his monologue, only paid attention to the cabin he assimilated life with, whereas the world was assimilated with an ocean. Beyond the obvious meaning of his statement, Blougram precisely and obliquely deconstructed the discourse and the faith he was nevertheless supposed to embody, thus being a perfect living example of what he meant with the expression ‘the dangerous edge of things’.

10By going across the traditional discourse of Christian faith, Blougram was actually another poet of a bishop, going through words in order to give them other meaning, if not new meanings. Such a poetic ability had already been explored by Robert Browning in his first long poems, especially the ambitious Sordello, in which the protagonist, a hero of a poet, is confronted with another poet in a duel of poetry, in which he understands that his language is his armour and that words are beyond what they look and sound like:

The first trial was enough:
He left imagining, to try the stuff
That held the imaged thing and, let it writhe
Never so fiercely, scarce allowed a tithe
To reach the light—his Language.
(II, 569–73)

11The armour metaphor is one of the great metaphors of the poem, turning the duelling poet, Sordello, into some sort of verbal blacksmith, along with the image of the spider in the first book of the poem, the insect itself being turned into ‘our architect’, Robert Browning thus subtly confusing and transgressing enunciative and narrative levels within the poem, not even mentioning the subtle use of runs on lines so as to transgress the very limits of lines and to impose verse paragraphs where there should just be heroic couplets:

He o’er-festooning every interval
As the adventurous spider, making light
Of distance, shoots her threads from depth to height.
From barbican to battlement; so flung
Fantasies forth and in their centre swung
Our architect . . .
(I, 664–69)

12By breaking through the very structure of the poem, assimilated with a spider web, the speaker within the poem not only explored but also de-constructed the very stage of the text, inviting readers backstage in order to let them contemplate the setting and the ropes of the verbal theatre he was nevertheless putting up, ironically introducing himself as such from the very beginning of the long poem:

Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told:
His story? Who believes me shall behold
The man, pursue his fortunes to the end
Like me; for as the friendless people’s friend
Spied from his hill-top once, despite the din
And dust of multitudes, Pentapolin
Named o* the Naked Arm, I single out
Sordello, compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years:
Only believe me. Ye believe?
(I, 1–9)

13Once more, the speaker is a poet himself, but not Robert Browning, as he insisted so often in order never to be mistaken with his numerous speakers. As he again explained at the beginning of Sordello,

A story I could body forth so well
By making speak, myself kept out of view,
The very man as he was wont to do,
And leaving you to say the rest for him.
(I, 14–17)

14Instead of telling the story of the troubadour in his own name and with his own words, by impersonating Sordello himself, the speaker goes across the boundary of words in the poem and stays there, motionless, not choosing one point of view against the other, leaving the whole poem as if suspended and unable to unravel the story promised by the ambitious narrator in the very first line of the poem. When, in the middle of the very first book of the poem, the speaker compares his role and work with those of an ‘adventurous spider’ (I, 665), calling himself ‘our architect’ (I, 669), he again blurs the various frontiers between the speaker, the reader and the audience within the poem.

15Such a blurring of limits and categories was of course highly desirable for Robert Browning, who openly tried never to conform to a precise model. For instance, he rejected the expression ‘dramatic poetry’ after the publication of Paracelsus, in March 1835, in a short preface that was all but designed to make the situation any clearer: ‘I have endeavoured to write a poem, not a drama’ and ‘I do not very well understand what is called a Dramatic Poem’. By pretending he mistook literary genres and modes, he also rejected limits and boundaries, which was the best way to go through the looking-glass of literary composition, i.e. the only way to transgress rules and forms without giving the impression he was actually crossing limits at all. Here, we have the blatant illustration of his complex relations to play-writing. In the 1830s, Robert Browning wrote seven plays in all, attempting to believe in the possibility of a dramatic career in London. He actually hesitated before he gave up and fell back on poetry with a vengeance. The relative success of Paracelsus had certainly encouraged him to try the stage, although he had initially rejected the qualification of ‘Dramatic Poem’ attached to his latest poem. In other words, as he himself claimed, he perfectly knew the rules of dramatic composition (‘the canons of the drama are well-known’, as he haughtily wrote in the Paracelsus preface), but his poem was but a poem.

16For the same reason, and that clearly was a reason for his dramatic failures, his plays were less intended for the stage than they were intended to be read. Two years after the publication of Paracelsus, he wrote the preface to his latest play, dedicated to his friend the actor William Macready, and in which he explained that all he had been interested in had been ‘Action in Character rather than Character in Action’. In other words, he again rejected the realm he was now engaged in and such a going across the limit would become the main reason why his relationship with William Macready would be so stormy. The actor-producer would soon start complaining about what he considered as confusion from the part of the poet-playwright. It would certainly be most erroneous to conclude that the poet would only become a poet because he had not managed to become a successful playwright. Indeed, his hesitation between the two literary genres and modes would remain a major poetic drive for his entire literary career. Hesitation was not the main point in his reflection; it was more the question of the literary boundaries he had always been interested in trespassing, along with the rebellious Fra Lippo Lippi, Sordello’s helpless narrator, and a good number of his other innumerable unstoppable speakers, all of them involved in breaking bounds in their own times and fashions—artists at a loss, criminals caught red-handed, jealous husbands, betrayed lovers, unsuccessful painters, confused narrators, and desperate musicians.

17This is how, in a way, since the very beginning of his dramatic monologues, most critics and readers had mistaken him for a poet strangely fascinated by crime and evil. More than that, which was just the tip of the iceberg, or the visible side of the question, Robert Browning, once again, had himself defined his own conception of poetry in the very dedication of Sordello to his French long-standing friend Joseph Milsand, written twenty-three years after the original publication of the long difficult poem: ‘The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires’. In other words, and as the poet belatedly understood it would have been necessary to make things clear from the start, he thus bluntly stated that he had originally walked through the mirror of illusions, what he then termed the mere ‘background’ or ‘historical decoration’, in order to deal with something more profound, which he explained at the end of a famous long sentence: ‘my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study’. More than two decades after the original publication of the long poem, Robert Browning obliquely admitted that he had imprudently walked one step too far, that he had crossed a line his readers had probably not crossed themselves. Indeed, by calling the background of the story the ‘historical decoration’, the poet had definitely rejected the traditional value of narrative. The imaginary biography had been a biography without biographical events, if not events at all.

18What he called ‘the development of a soul’ did not only apply to the ill-famed Sordello, it was the heart of his poetic inspiration and composition, something Bishop Blougram, in Men and Women, had already aptly termed ‘the dangerous edge of things’, not very far himself from Fra Lippo Lippi’s ambitious and rebellious breaking of ‘bounds’. Such a dangerous moment in a speaker’s life was Robert Browning’s main interest, and he turned this moment into a poetic form, i.e. the dramatic monologue, hence the urgency of the speaker’s speech on the verge of something to happen. This is undoubtedly what the poet had always appreciated in ancient tragedy, something he also fondly shared with Elizabeth: doubt, hesitation, transgression, anxiety, hope, and regrets were the staple food of such a form, whether it was the nodal point of classical tragedy or the core of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. After all, the time of the dramatic monologue is by definition this moment out of time, as if suspended in the middle of nowhere, just before or just after the going through or across something that is just subtly felt but never explicitly described or plainly defined. Such a poetic moment, beyond definition or description, escapes action, background or representation, this is the very reason why Robert Browning’s plays were so unsuccessful. If Paracelsus had been understood and acclaimed as highly dramatic, the poet’s plays had been seen as not dramatic enough, not to say not dramatic at all. Towards the end of their friendship, William Charles Macready complained about what he considered as confusion in the poet. In between genres, Robert Browning had simply but assiduously developed a criss-cross of sub-genres which notoriously overlapped without clearly belonging to the one or the other, lost as they were in a literary limbo of poetic creation. This is probably the reason why the poet refused to define his poetry.

19In another poem taken from Men and Women, ‘Transcendentalism, a Poem in Twelve Books’, a short dramatic piece in everything but twelve books, the speaker directly addresses another poet in order to put him on the right track again. In another metaleptic twist, Robert Browning made another poet speak about poetry, lecturing a poet he considered at a loss. Metalepsis was certainly a favourite of Robert Browning’s and the structure enabled speakers to speak from their enunciative backgrounds in order to address the reader, the addressee, or the very poet himself, thus blurring lines the poet did no longer need to cross since he had managed to make them fade away:

Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak?
’Tis you speak, that’s your error. Song’s our art:
Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts
Instead of draping them in sights and sounds.
(l. 1–4)

20The very beginning of the poem changes roles in the form of the dramatic monologue despite its fixed rules and structures. The ‘brother’ is the ‘poet’s’ double: a poet addresses another poet in order to tell him his error. Robert Browning thus entered his own monologue so as to lecture some other Robert Browning, especially in order to tell him his speech sounds too much like normal speech, ‘Instead of draping [it] in sights and sounds’. Such an intervention on the part of Robert Browning is all the more ironical as he himself was reproached with trespassing the limits of poetic language and indulging in unpoetic language. Was it not what Oscar Wilde suggested in his essay entitled The Critic as Artist when he wrote ‘Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose’. When ‘Transcendentalism, a Poem in Twelve Books’ was written, the poet had already been accused of crossing the line between prose and poetry. He played with the accusation in the short poem, inventing some doppelgänger inside his own poem to debunk the literary theory conflict, blurring sides and roles. It was all the more ironical as Robert Browning, at the beginning of his correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, in the letter of the 13 January 1845, had written to the acclaimed Victorian poetess:

Your poetry must be, cannot but be, infinitely more to me than mine to you—for you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time—you speak out, you,—I only make men & women speak,—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me: but I am going to try…

21In such a letter, Robert Browning precisely regretted the fact that he did not dare to speak in his own name and person, whereas he spent his literary life and career using other speakers’ voices and speeches so as to remain in the dark. There is another poem published in Men and Women, entitled ‘One Word More’, in which the poet spoke in his own name in what looks like an afterword at the end of the collection:

There they are, my fifty men and women
Naming me the fifty poems finished!
Take them, Love, the book and me together.
Where the heart lies, let the brain lie also.
(l. 1–4)

Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth,—the speech, a poem.
(l. 129–32)

Let me speak this once in my true person
(l. 137)

There in turn I stand with them and praise you,
Out of my own self, I dare to phrase it.
But the best is when I glide from out them,
Cross a step or two of dubious twilight,
Come out on the other side, the novel
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of,
Where I hush and bless myself with silence.
(l. 191–97)

22It is not by chance that the speaker in this poem, Robert Browning himself, addresses the great names of Italian art, especially painters and poets, Rafael and Dante. In other words, the poet addresses painters addressing poets, in some circular artistic ambulation between different forms and genres, in which every art only dreams about crossing to the other side of aesthetic creation. As if every artist only lived in the dream of painting the poem or writing the picture. In Robert Browning’s hesitation between poetry and dramatic art lay his indecision between speaking in his own name and his position in a ‘dubious twilight’. In lines 192 and 193, their chiasmic structure manages to capture the moment when the one is the other becoming the one again, whether it be a question of genres or artistic forms or simply a question of names: ‘Out of my own self, I dare to phrase it. / But the best is when I glide from out them’. Those two lines indeed invite the poet, the man, and the reader to ‘Cross a step or two of dubious twilight’ in a moment of indecision, when the crossing becomes more important than the origin, the distance, and the destination, something close to the epitaph John Keats had imagined for himself after his particularly exhausting journey to Naples: ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’. By the way, the name and fame of John Keats were also used and illustrated in ‘One Word More’: ‘Dumb to Homer, dumb to Keats—him, even!’ (l. 165). The whole poem, itself illustrating Robert Browning’s whole poetics, is the process of crossing the line and going through the looking-glass, caught as the poet is in the back-and-forth movement of metamorphosis poetic language is about and the dramatic monologue fundamentally relies upon. Robert Browning even transposed that idea with one of his favourite metaphors, the ‘moon’:

What were seen? None knows, none ever shall know.
Only this is sure—the sight were other,
Not the moon’s same side, born late in Florence,
Dying now impoverished here in London.
(l. 180-83)

23Fifteen years after the publication of Sordello, the poet again transposed the question asked by the confused narrator of the long poem:

                           [...] What Is, then? Since
One object, viewed diversely, may evince
Beauty and ugliness—this way attract,
That way repel,—why gloze upon the fact?
Why must a single of the sides be right?
What bids choose this and leave the opposite?
(VI, 441–46)

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Bright, Michael. Robert Browning’s Rondures Brave. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1996.

Hassett, Constance W. The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1982.

Hatcher, Harlan. The Versification of Robert Browning. New York: Phaeton Press, 1968.

Honan, Park. Browning's Characters: A Study in Poetic Technique. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1961.

King, Roma A. Jr., et al., ed. The Complete Works of Robert Browning. 17 vol. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1970–2014.

Martens, Britta. Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011.

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Woolford, John. Browning the Revisionary. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988.

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Jean-Charles Perquin, « I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds—Robert Browning Crossing the Limits of Poetry », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 mai 2016, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2451

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Jean-Charles Perquin

Jean-Charles Perquin is an associate professor at Lyon 2 University, in France, and has published many articles on Victorian poetry. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the genesis of Robert Browning's dramatic monologue and has since then worked on first person poetry, especially in the Victorian era, and the Victorian novel. He is now working on two biographies in French: Robert Browning’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s.
Jean-Charles Perquin est maître de conférences à l’Université Lyon 2, en France, et a publié de nombreux articles sur la poésie victorienne. Son doctorat avait été consacré à la genèse du monologue dramatique, dans l’œuvre de Robert Browning, et depuis il se consacre à la poésie à la première personne, en particulier à l’époque victorienne, ainsi qu’au roman victorien. Actuellement, il écrit deux biographies en français, l’une sur Robert Browning, et l’autre sur Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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