Book review: “Dramatis Personae” by Robert Browning

As a first plunge into a Browning’s poetry (for that matter, it’s been a while since I tried any poetry at all), I took up Dramatis Personae, one of the first works he published after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett. The introduction states, At this time, Browning’s reputation was uncertain, though following the publicatiion of Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, he finally achieved the critical attention that had eluded him for so long. So this was one of his big breaks that put him on the map. I found it in interesting contrast to Chesterton’s assessment on his life post-Elizabeth, that He, closing a door of that room behind him, closed a door on himself, and none ever saw Browning upon the face of the earth again but only a splendid surface. Chesterton probably wasn’t passing judgment on the quality of his poetry, but you would think it did have an impact on how he wrote or what he chose to write about?

The title itself reflects something distinct about Browning’s work: the attempt to capture the voices of as many characters as possible– like the dramatis personae, or list of characters, at the beginning of a play. Chesterton had commented on the significance of this in Browning’s work:

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.

In Dramatis Personae, you capture a wide range of colorful voices– a medium just discovered as a cheat in Mr. Sludge, a rabbi in Ben Karshook’s Wisdom, and many a lover wronged in poems like James Lee’s Wife Speaks and The Worst of It. Chesterton commented on how Browning has a knack for finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places, for instance, a stomach cyst in Mr. Sludge:

Nature might mean flowers to Wordsworth and grass to Walt Whitman, but to Browning it really meant such things as these, the monstrosities and living mysteries of the sea. And just as these strange things meant to Browning energy in the physical world, so strange thoughts and strange images meant to him energy in the mental world. When the professional mystic is seeking in a supreme moment of sincerity to explain that small things may be filled with God as well as great, he uses the very same kind of image, the image of a shapeless sea-best, to embody that noble conception.

One whole poem was dedicated to some musings on the corpses of men who died by suicide in a French morgue. The message?

My own hope is, a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;
That, after Last, returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched;
That what began best, can’t end worst,
Nor what God blessed once prove accurst.

Even here, Browning hasn’t given up hope: he believes that these poor individuals who came to a point that they thought taking their own life better than going on, he believes their sins atoned and ends with this belief, that life, though sometimes miserable, can’t end bad. When God blesses something, it can’t end bad, and he has blessed every life that has come to earth.

In this sense, Browning’s poems are all theological. I like Browning, because he doesn’t simplify life like the optimists who only gaze at the good in life, and the cynics who only look at the bad. Browning can find good in, as Chesterton puts it, the sinners whom even the sinners have cast out.

There are some that don’t necessarily end happily. There was one that moved me: two former lovers who have since moved on. The narrator, a woman, reflects how, when they were together, they weren’t always good to one another. He flirts (and probably more) with the models he sculpts:

I did look, sharp as a lynx
(And yet the memory rankles,)
When models arrived, some minx
Tripped up-stairs, she and her ankles.

And she gets back at him too, making eyes at the piano tuner:

But I think I gave you as good!
“That foreign fellow,– who can know
How she pays, in a playful mood,
For his tuning her that piano?

In the end, she reflects on a life they could have lived together, but chose not to take:

Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired,– been happy.

And nobody calls you a dunce,
And people suppose me clever:
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost for ever.

A lot of the poems have some element of this, discord in marital or romantic relationships– an eternal theme, but I like this one better than We are never, ever, never getting back together.

I think one stanza from Reading a Book, Under a Cliff can capture Browning’s overall theme throughout the book:

Simple? Why this is the old woe o’ the world;
Tune, to whose rise and fall we live and die.
Rise with it, then! Rejoice that man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul’s wings never furled!

If we are going to be battered through life by the winds of change, we may as well unfurl our wings instead of waiting for the winds to die down! You aren’t ever going to be perfect; get over it. Try something any way. Your relationships are going to be messy. People will wrong you. You’re going to be hurt. So you may as well roll with the punches. It’s a kind of faith that is able to embrace imperfection, and one that we need more of today.

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