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Robert Browning's Language

Robert Browning's Language

Donald S. Hair
Copyright Date: 1999
https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442679412
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442679412
  • Book Info
    Robert Browning's Language
    Book Description:

    Attempts to define Browning's understanding of the nature and use of words and syntax by considering a full range of his texts, the ideas important to him, his historical context, and the other artistic passions that played a part in his life.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7941-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Texts
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction: ′Sense, sight and song′
    (pp. 3-7)

    This book is a study of Browning′s language. Its main concern is Browning′s understanding of the nature and function of words and syntax and the discourses they make possible, and I attempt to define that understanding not only through Browning′s poems, plays, and letters, but through the books in his library. Browning was, unlike Tennyson, largely untouched by the new philology which had been introduced from Germany into England by Coleridgians such as Kemble and Trench. Instead, his understanding of language belongs in an older context, that of Johnson′sDictionary, of the language theory of John Locke (on which the...

  6. Chapter One ′The world of words′: Johnson, Locke, and Congregationalism
    (pp. 8-58)

    When the first part of theNew English Dictionary– now theOxford English Dictionary– appeared in 1884, its editor, James A.H. Murray, met Browning, with whom he had already corresponded, in Edinburgh. ′Browning told him that he found the Dictionary ″most delightful″ and intended to read every word of it.′¹ The poet was expressing more than polite enthusiasm, for he had in fact prepared himself for his life′s work by reading the best known of the earlier dictionaries, Dr Johnson′s. ′When the die was cast,′ Mrs Orr writes in her account of the young Browning, and he ′was...

  7. Chapter Two Parleying, Troping, and Fragmenting: Pauline, Paracelsus, and Sordello
    (pp. 59-87)

    ′A Fragment of a Confession′ is the subtitle ofPauline, and it points to the linguistic concerns of Browning′s first published poem. A confession is etymologically a speaking with or parleying with, and since ′parleying′ is a label Browning will ultimately choose for some of his texts, we can seePaulineas his earliest version of such speaking together. The subtitle alerts us to the performative function of a Browning text, which here has three principal aspects: the text is the expression of Browning′s own soul and a stage in his soul-making; it is a fiction, being both the dramatic...

  8. Chapter Three ′Why need I speak, if you can read my thought?′: The Unacted Drama, ′My Last Duchess,′ and ′″Childe Roland″′
    (pp. 88-110)

    In April of 1876, Browning, fresh from the opening-night performance ofQueen Maryat the Lyceum Theatre, wrote to Tennyson to congratulate him on the success of the play. The acted version was about half the length of the published one, but, according to the laureate′s son Hallam, Tennyson wrote all his plays ′with the intention that actors should edit them for the stage.′ Tennyson, however, had misgivings about this practice, since he did not approve of the omission of ′those soliloquies and necessary episodes which reveal the character and, so to say, the mental action of the piece.′ He...

  9. Chapter Four ′I kept time to the wondrous chime′: Rhyme′s Reason, ′Love among the Ruins,′ The Inn Album, and ′Of Pacchiarotto′
    (pp. 111-141)

    ′Am I not a rhymester?′ Robert asked Elizabeth in April of 1846, when he was defending his use of the word ′gadge′: ′who knows but one may want to use such a word in a couplet with ″badge″ – which, if one reject the old & obsolete ″fadge,″ is rhymeless′ (Correspondence12:241). For in spite of Browning′s success with blank verse, he is primarily a rhymer, and thought of himself as a virtuoso in the art of sound repetition. ′Everybody knowsIbeat the world that way – can tie and untie English as a Roman girl a tame serpent′s tail,′...

  10. Chapter Five ′Adjust Real vision to right language′: The Idealist Goal of Language, ′Parleying with Christopher Smart,′ ′Abt Vogler,′ and ′Saul′
    (pp. 142-168)

    The ′Parleying with Christopher Smart′ from Browning′s 1887 volume is a late exploration of the idealist view of language. That view is bound up with Browning′s reading of Smart′s great ′Song to David,′ a poem Browning had in his head ′after nearly fifty years,′ he told Furnivall in 1887, and one which he repeated, from memory, ′to people of authority enough – Tennyson, the present Bishop of London – and – last year to Wendell Holmes, who had asked me innocently at Oxford, ″whether I knew the wonderful poem.″′¹ The ′wonderful poem′ is a song of praise to one who...

  11. Chapter Six ′For how else know we save by worth of word?′: The Ring and the Book
    (pp. 169-212)

    In spite of all thatThe Ring and the Bookhas to say about the inadequacies of language, the poem does affirm the ′worth of word.′ That worth lies in the ability of language to make sense of images that would otherwise be unmeaning; in the ability of language to interpret and give new life to texts that would otherwise be lost; and in the ability of language to present a drama to be played out in the theatre of the reader′ss mind, where it becomes a stage in the development of the reader′s soul. The Ring and the Book,...

  12. Chapter Seven ′One thing has many sides′: Browning′s ′transcripts,′ Balaustion′s Adventure and Aristophanes′ Apology
    (pp. 213-252)

    ′Only a poor creature has just one side to his soul,′ Browning told his friends the Skirrows when he was contemplating, with mixed feelings and much uncertainty, his return from Venice to London in December of 1883.¹ The many sides of the human soul guarantee the turning and interpreting of texts, and Browning′s multiple turnings of the Old Yellow Book can all be seen as ′the highest criticism,′ the kind Oscar Wilde called (in ′The Critic as Artist′) ′the record of one′s own soul′ and ′the only civilised form of autobiography.′² A logical development of such a record is to...

  13. Chapter Eight ′Do you say this, or I?′: Browning′s ′parleyings,′ La Saisiaz, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, and Fifine at the Fair
    (pp. 253-294)

    The topic of this chapter is one we have already glanced at inAristophanes′ Apology, where, we remember, the second of the nested plays was a debate between Balaustion and Aristophanes. The debate is presented entirely through the account of it that Balaustion provides for Euthukles, so that we hear it not in an unmediated way but as represented and interpreted by the voice of one of the participants. Browning often encloses both debate and dialogue in a monologue, and such framing is one of his riddling techniques, since the reader must struggle to keep in mind who says what,...

  14. Overview and Conclusion
    (pp. 295-302)

    The reader may find useful an attempt to summarize Browning′s understanding of the nature and use of language. In his view, language is the chief means of our moral and spiritual progress, the conditions of which determine the nature of words and syntax. That progress Browning refers to in the 1863 dedication toSordelloas ′incidents in the development of a soul,′ and he tells Milsand, to whom the dedication is addressed, ′little else is worth shady.′ Two major functions of language are indicated by this statement. First of all, the incidents which are crucial for an individual are judgments...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 303-320)
  16. Index
    (pp. 321-326)