Browning and the Twentieth Century. A Study of Robert Browning's Influence and Reputation. By A. Allen Brooking: ton. (Oxford University Press. 15s.)
IT is doubtful whether many of our modernist poets would willingly acknowledge even the indirect influence of so hale a Victorian as Robert Browning upon their working methods. The daring indeed must continue to believe that their noveltieg spring, fully armed, from their own heads. Yet the great precedent of Browning might well protect contemporary experimentalists from impatient criticism ; for Browning, too, was assailed in his own time because of his obscurities; abrupt transitions and iconoclastic attitude towards the polite amenities of Victorian verse. One has but to think of Meredith, Hardy or any other poet of the last generation to realize that Browning's influence was a steadily spreading fOrce. But that influence, being one of method and manner rather than of spirit, has been obscured by the fact that Browning's optimism and theological cheerfulness brought an inevitable reaction and have been for long out of fashion. Mr. Brockington, therefore, in his study of the poet's influence can afford to avoid paradox and ingenious derivations. He amasses a number of scattered facts and the result is im- Pressive and almost beyond argument.
At a time when poetry was loitering once more around castle walls, Browning brought back attention to the poetic value of the ordinary, though, as Mr. Brockington points out, his championship of the ordinary is disgUised at times by apparent remoteness and unusualness of his subjects. Yet a title such as Any Wife to any Husband, though the emotional content of the poem may belong to the Victorian past, indicates Browning's range of reality. In his use of the: conversational manner in verse, his confidential asides, Browning anticipated the most advanced manner of to-day. In quite modem fashion he could indulge in a sly " dig " at the language of conversation as not being poetry :
"With Sludge it's too absurd? Fine, draw the line Somewhere, but, sir, your somewhere is not mine ! Bless us, I'm turning poet !"
Time, of course, has had its revenges, keeping for us not the levels of The Ring and the Book, but those dramatic lyrics in which conversation with its abrupt turns and returns is keyed to a supreme pitch. John Davidson, Kipling, Housman and Rupert Brooke are among the poets who have developed the dramatic lyric. Mr. Masefield carries on in his narrative verse the use of ordinary life while Gerald Hopkins pursued the compressed grammar and syntactic occultation in which Browning indulged. In an interesting chapter Mr. Brockington studies the influence of Browning as the first of the psychological writers and quotes the poet's well- known comment on Sordello : " My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul : little else is worth study. I, at least, always thought so— you, with many known and unknown to me think so—others may one day think so."
That is true and Mr. Brockington reminds us also that Henry James found in The Ring and the Book the latent pattern of the modern psychological novel.
Browning was a realist but realism in verse is different
from that in prose. It may be said to be a question of attitude rather than of fidelity to fact or intensification of detail. Poetry by its very nature heightens and when these is a deliberate lessening, our minds register a shock. The realist in verse cannot in fact escape humour or grotesqueness. Many of Browning's images might have been written to-day, such as :
" Well now, look at our villa ! stuck like the horn of a bull Just on a mountain-edge as bare as the creature's skull," or this : " The church's apsis, aisle or nave, Its crypt, one fingers along with a torch, Its face set full for the sun to shave."
The following illustrates the reaction of modem poets such as Mr. Robert Graves from the pastoral tradition : " And the bees keep their tiresome whine round the resinous firs on the hill."
It is hardly necessary to add that Browning's deliberate eschewing of easy syllables, his harsh consonantal groups and dreadful dentals prepare the way for modern discords.
Mr. Brockington deals largely with Browning's influence on the poets of a previous generation and he only refers discreetly to contemporary schools. But he has set the faggots in readiness and lovers of poetic tradition who hold that there is nothing new under the sun may provide their