“Robert Browning” by G. K. Chesterton

Since I already had Chesterton out, I figured I may as well read another, right? I almost started The Flying Inn, because it seems to be the last of his novels that I haven’t read, but I saved that one for later after reading a short description (it’s about a futuristic society where the teetotallers have taken over the country and ruined everything because you can’t get a good beer when you need one lol. That was GKC’s idea of a dystopia?). Instead, I found another biography of his, this time the subject being Robert Browning. I had heard the name before, but it was just another one of those poets that were probably difficult to understand that I had to read in high school (Tennyson, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth). Don’t get me wrong; I really try to enjoy poetry. I bought a copy of every single The Collected Works of _ I could find back in the day. But poetry always tends to eventually frustrate me when I realize I don’t know what is going on more than half the time. Maybe this biography would help rid me of my prejudice?

Robert Browning may actually be outshown by his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I grew up reading her poem How Do I Love Thee?:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Chesterton’s biography does cover their relationship, and it is beautiful. She was an invalid from a childhood injury, and her father was keeping her cooped up inside with doctors and medications and a general hospital-like atmosphere with the full expectation that she would die an early death. From there she would write poetry to pass away the time. And Browning and her first started a correspondence via letter that eventually bloomed into a romance. Her father fully disapproved, but they decided to elope. They secretly got married, and the next day they ran away to Italy together, where Browning did everything he could to help his wife recover, and recover she did; not fully, but she was eventually able to walk again. Chesterton says some really neat things about their relationship. I liked this description that captured the tone of their marriage:

[It has been said that Mr. and Mrs. Browning never had any differences]; that Mr. Browning never thought an Act of Parliament good when Mrs. Browning thought it bad; that Mr. Browning never thought bread stale when Mrs. Browning thought it new. Such unanimity is not only inconceivable, it is immoral; and as a matter of fact, there is abundant evidence that their marriage constituted something like that ideal marriage, an alliance between two strong and independent forces.

The other aspect you get about their marriage is that they communicated with each other in ways that others couldn’t make head nor tail of? Wordsworth said of them after they were married: So Robert Browning and Miss Barrett have gone off together. I hope they understand each other– nobody else would. In less condescending words, they were made for each other.

Chesterton really only has positive things to say about Browning. What I learned was that Browning represented a certain ruggedness in poetry that wasn’t captured in the poets around him. This wasn’t just in his style, but in his content. Browning was a master of what is referred to as the grotesque. Not grotesque as in gross or repulsive. But maybe it means a little of that. But as in ordinary, the everyday, things you wouldn’t think a poet would go writing poems about or finding inspiration in. Like, Browning would see a patch of weeds and write a poem about God’s mercy. Chesterton pulls a lot out of this, inferring a whole philosophy of life. Here’s just a few ideas out of it, including the importance of experience:

Thought and intellect are content to accept abstractions, summaries, and generalisations; they are content that ten acres of ground should be called for the sake of argument X, and ten widows’ incomes called for the sake of argument Y; they are content that a thousand awful and mysterious disappearances from the visible universe should be summed up as the mortality of a district, or that ten thousand intoxications of the soul should bear the general name of the instinct of sex. Rationalism can live upon air and signs and numbers. But sentiment must have reality; emotion demands real fields, the real widows’ homes, the real corpse, and the real woman.

his democratic approach to poetry, letting all sides of a question have a voice:

It is not by any means self-evident upon the face of it that an institution like the liberty of speech is right or just. It is not natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which you believe to be bad for mankind anymore than it is natural or obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half a town with typhoid fever…

[But Browning] held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. He held that justice was a mystery, but not, like the decadents, that justice was a delusion. He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong.

and the value of differences among us:

The sense of the absolute sanctity of human difference was the deepest of his senses. He was hungrily interested in all human things, but it would have been quite impossible to have said of him that he loved humanity. He did not love humanity but men. His sense of the difference between one man and another would have made the thought of melting them into a lump called humanity simply loathsome and prosaic. It would have been to him like playing four hundred beautiful airs all at once. The mixture would not combine all, it would lose all. Browning believed that to every man that every lived upon earth had been given a definite and peculiar confidence of God. Each one of us was engaged on a secret service; each one of us had a peculiar message; each one of us was the founder of a religion. Of that religion our thoughts, our faces, our bodies, our hats, our boots, our tastes, our virtues, and even our vices, were more or less fragmentary and inadequate expression.

True to his style, Chesterton doesn’t follow the regular expectations of a biography. I have read many a biography where I either couldn’t stop falling asleep or couldn’t finish because they get caught up in minutiae. Chesterton sacrifices a feeling of completeness and instead captures the spirit of a person that most biographies lack. Not to say they aren’t well-researched; Chesterton has definitely done his homework. But then, don’t expect a good works cited page either!

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