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Quest for Eros

Quest for Eros: Browning and 'Fifine'

Samuel B. Southwell
Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Quest for Eros
    Book Description:

    Students of Browning have long been puzzled by the discrepancies between the dramatic framework ofFifineand its symbolic development, but these difficulties are resolved in Southwell's explication by a biographical hypothesis. The powerful influence of the memory of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, involved Browning in a deep ambivalence, andFifine at the Fairrepresents his effort to escape the effects of the profound inhibitions associated with her memory, while at the same time remaining loyal to it.

    The poem is itself a flawed quest for Eros. Browning's symbolic vision of sexuality as the central vitalizing force in human culture -- a supreme achievement of the poem -- is followed by a renunciation of the quest, but the validity of the vision is explicitly affirmed and its promise recognized.

    InFifine at the FairBrowning's artistic powers are splendidly in evidence. Southwell's fresh examination of the tensions within the poem offers new understanding of its power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6455-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Intoduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Opinion concerning Robert Browning’sFifine at the Fairsuggests that a clear and coherent reading of the poem must overcome formidable obstacles but will be worthwhile. The magnitude of the problem was vividly reflected in the earliest critical response. A writer for theWestminster Reviewcommented that “the subject matter” would “have made the epic of the present day” if it had been “treated as Browning could treat it, and as he has treated it here in many passages.” The writer continued: “We believe that he has put more substance intoFifine at the Fairthan into any other poem....

  5. 2 ‘Fifine’ and the Love Letters
    (pp. 19-31)

    The fundamental argument for the hypothesis basic to this study is that this hypothesis, and it alone, can give coherence to the poem and that it will explain all the facts embodied in the poem. This is a powerful and perhaps a sufficient argument. However, the hypothesis may be further strengthened if its implications are consistent with the poet’s experience as reflected in documentary evidence external to the poem.

    The hypothesis assumes psychological factors which imply that in the poem the poet lived once again through essential elements of an earlier experience necessarily related to the love letters written some...

  6. 3 Truth
    (pp. 32-43)

    Before proceeding to a sequential examination of the poem, it is necessary to examine that aspect of it which presents the single greatest obstacle to a consistent reading. An acute difficulty lies in Browning’s treatment of words and ideas involved in his conception of truth. The basic realizations of the poem are achieved through symbolism. With care, one can understand the symbolic development. But in passages where the speaker pauses in a kind of interlude to comment on a symbolic realization which has gone before or is to follow, we seem to confront semantic chaos. Browning’s extreme practice in this...

  7. 4 Modalities of Woman
    (pp. 44-79)

    In the headnote toFifine at the FairBrowning quotes and translates a passage from Molèire’sDon Juan(I, 3), in which Donna Elvira asks her husband, Don Juan, for an explanation of his strange behavior and indicates in ironic tones her expectation that he will respond in spurious protestations of his love. The effect from the outset is to skew our expectations of credibility in the speaker ofFifine.While this is definitely Browning’s purpose, we will be struck by the dissimilarity between Molière’s Don Juan and the speaker of the poem. A parallel that does exist between them...

  8. 5 The Elegiac Process
    (pp. 80-108)

    Part 1 has served to establish basic symbolism—the meaning of Fifine, a variety of images projecting modalities of the experience of woman, and a pattern of reference to images associated with the wife but treated as the distant content of memory. The quest consists in the making of the symbols. Next follows what must be called an elegiac process—a process of remembering in order to forget, in which forgetting must not betray a loyalty.

    Part 2 begins with an assertion of loyalty to the dramatic wife. The speaker employs an allegory in which our awareness remains close to...

  9. 6 Affirmation of the World and the Flesh
    (pp. 109-124)

    The elegiac process is a negative function of the quest to the extent that its purpose is remembering in order to forget. But recognition of a death may mean acknowledgment of death in a way that is generative of meaning and coherent with the affirmation of life and this world which is the purpose of part 3. When the heavenly vision has been disrupted by the emergence of Glumdalclich and when its implications have been discredited by the bitter attack of the dramatic wife, the speaker does not at first respond directly to or deny the wife’s charges. Rather, his...

  10. 7 Translation of the Quest into Mind
    (pp. 125-132)

    Part 4 has its definition chiefly by its position between two parts of the poem that are themselves well defined. The image of slack tide, introduced at the beginning, characterizes this part of the poem. It is diverse though brief, and its symbolic developments are transitory and occur in close communication with the dramatic surface. Part 4 is transitional. It marks a translation of the quest into the realm of intellect. Up to this point the development has been an imaginative process, intensely personal and concerned with a transformation of affect and attitude. Part 5 will bring something new into...

  11. 8 The Cultural Vision
    (pp. 133-176)

    The poem now achieves its culminating realization in a breathtaking transformation of Victorian vision. Though the new vision is eventually betrayed, its validity is not denied. It has been implicit from the beginning—in the image of Fifine as physical and sensual vitality untouched by, and rejecting, the forces of cultural configuration, and in a moment sensing unity with animal nature in awareness that the boundaries of life are generation and death. Fifine has served as an objective symbol of sexuality throughout the poem, a fleeting, tantalizing image, perhaps pruriently beheld. Now in a moment of intuitive realization sexuality moves...

  12. 9 Abandonment of the Quest
    (pp. 177-190)

    In part 6 and the epilogue the quest is abandoned, not in a denial of the validity of the cultural vision of part 5, but in a tortured and unstable turning away from its implications. It was this vision that Browning had in mind when he recorded the Greek quotations on the manuscript (see above, p. 2). It was the “new words,” yet “this doubtful word.” The abandonment of the quest registers in the poem Browning’s personal response to the light that brought “dark night before his eyes.” Psychologically it is a corollary of that strange defaulting in Browning’s proposals...

  13. 10 ‘Fifine’ and Browning’s Poetic Structure
    (pp. 191-240)

    A comparison ofFifine at the Fairwith the body of Browning’s work that came before it draws attention to and illuminates characteristics of the poetry which turn out to be fundamental. A number of patterns emerge which are so pervasive that they may be considered prototypal and which in their collective formulation go far toward describing the structure of Browning’s poetry. I use the word structure to indicate a central dynamics and a set of configurations which would seem to comprise margins and defining limits of the poet’s imagination. One of the advantages of describing such a structure will...

  14. 11 Background and Milieu
    (pp. 241-250)

    That Browning should have arrived at a theory of culture as an elaboration of libido comes to seem more probable in the light of the history of his intellectual experience and in the light of aspects of the intellectual history of his time. The cultural reduction becomes possible when ideas are available to explain it, and, as we know, conceptions which will explain it are those of the unconscious, of repression, and of sublimation.

    We may note, to begin with, a special tendency of Browning’s mind. InSordelloas inFifine,we are repeatedly impressed with the idea that the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 251-266)
  16. Index
    (pp. 267-276)