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Robert Browning`s "By the Fire-Side" PDF Drucken E-Mail
Browning's "By the Fire-Side" and "How they
Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" in
the Light of Word Theory
A critical study of Browning's poetry


By Julian Scutts


1. Browning's Reticence and its Relation to the Interpretation of his Poetry


A most remarkable characteristic of Browning's poetry lies in the fact that it makes such little reference either to the author himself or to contemporary England. Without embracing the position of George Santayana when arguing that Browning sought self-concealment in all sorts of different guises in remote historical settings, (1) one may still ask whether the poet's apparent avoidance of themes concerned with Victorian England might not have resulted from some psychologically conditioned estrangement from his native land and family background. It does seem possible that Browning's use of language served as some form of verbal camouflage behind which the oversensitive poet was able to conceal himself and his most intimate concerns. Certainly, G.K. Chesterton observed in Browning's poetry a dissociation of language and content. (2)


Among modern critics, Barbara Melchiori sees the problem of artistic reticence as the central aspect to be tackled in critical attempts to adequately discuss Browning's poetry. She establishes this point in first paragraph of her book Browning's Poetry of Reticence. (3)


Some of the tension, which lends strength to his work, arises from the conflict between his wish to guard jealously his own thoughts and feelings, and the pressing necessity he was under to reveal them.


According to her line of argument, as the reader of Browning's poetry is debarred from making direct inferences about Browning's personal life from his poetry, he or she should adopt an indirect approach to better understand Browning's poetry by paying attention to clues provided by certain key words found within it. The principle underlying Melchiori's mode of interpretation is based on the assumption that the poet's choice of individual words is not subject to the same degree of mental scrutiny as that applied to sentences and groups of words combining to express ideas and opinions. Melchiori suggests that the key word in Browning's poetry is "gold", occurring, as it does, approximately 390 times throughout Browning's poetic works. C. Williard Smith, on the other hand, attaches much the same order of importance to the word "star" in his book Browning's Star Imagery.(4) Other key words or verbal clues have apparently attracted less attention, particularly words like "promise", tower" or "cross", which assumes a position of importance in this study as it is also a prominent key word in the poetry of Dylan Thomas.


2. A Three-level Approach to the Task of interpreting Browning's Poetry


In the introduction of this study I made reference to the "sustained Metaphor" which both lends structural unity to a particular work and helps to reveal the unity underlying all the works of a poet or author. I suggested earlier that the notion of a journey to the Promised Land informs a central sustained metaphor in Browning's poetry. However, an awareness of the macrostructure of a work in no way precludes sensitivity to its minutæ, the individual words that together constitute a poem or prose passage. Indeed, we shall soon consider how sustained metaphors and the poet's use of individual words are inseparably connected and, when duly studied, mutually enhancing in the light they cast on each other. In line with this argument I wish to subject two of Browning's poems to criteria based on the contention that poems may be read at three levels, which I set out as follows:


1. The Narrative or Literal Level
2. The Allegorical Level (based on a Sustained Metaphor, e.g. a Journey
3. The Level Implied by Key words


The following case studies may contribute to clarifying the basic approach I apply to the study of poetic texts and provide evidence showing how the problem of time impinges on Browning's poetry.


I: "By the Fire-Side" (published in Men and Women)


At what I have termed Level 1, the speaker, Browning himself, recalls making a mountain excursion with his wife in Italy. The poem reaches its highest degree of intensity in the rendering of a profound mystical insight which the couple experience when exploring a ruined chapel. (5)


At "Level 2", the mountain climb assumes a symbolic dimension with the implication of an ascent from the earthly to the spiritual realm (cf. the mountain as a symbol of divine habitation or presence in the Bible or Greek mythology, and, indeed, in other works by Browning such as Pauline or even "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" with the line "He never can cross that mighty top".


At "Level 3", at which individual words undergo particularly close scrutiny, we find evidence corroborating the contention that the surface description of a mountain climb is permeated with mystical and religious symbolism. In stanzas XXXIV, XXXV, and XXXVI there is a conspicuous repetition of the word "cross":


Silent the crumbling bridge we cross, (line 166)


The cross is down and the altar bare, (line 174)


We stoop and look in through the grate
See the little porch and rustic door,
Read duly the dead builder's date;
Then cross the bridge that we crossed before, (line 179)


Within the space of only thirteen lines the word "cross" occurs three times, twice as a verb meaning "to traverse" and once as a noun signifying a crucifix. In logical terms this repetition appears to be accidental, yet the threefold occurrence of "cross" strikes the reader's attention, entailing recognition that in some sense "the same word" is receiving emphasis. The Russian Formalist Jurij Tynjanov drew attention to the phenomenon which in my view concerns us here in an article entitled "The Word in Verse".(6) The article points out that while the conspicuous repetition of the same word in prose usually produces a discordant note, in poetry its effect is often to enhance and deepen the power of language. Tynjanov and other Formalists incurred the censure of Leon Trotsky for having succumbed to "the superstition of the word" and allied themselves to the pronouncements of Saint John. (7) According to one of Tynjanov's postulations the word in its immediate context partakes in the word of like appearance that transcends all contexts - a contention which, incidentally, echoes the second principle of scriptural exegesis in rabbinical tradition. But what relevance has this theory of language to the occurrences of the word "cross" in the lines cited above? Let us consider the two lines, which follow the last citation.


Take the path again - but wait!
Oh moment, one and infinite!


In the seventh chapter of his book Browning - Background and Conflict, F.R. G. Duckworth quotes the line "Oh moment one and infinite!" among passages which, in his view, are expressive of Browning's quest to reconcile two apparently contradictory concepts of time. - in short - the "Greek" and the "Jewish" understanding of time. (8) The former conceives of eternity as an ideal or absolute state beyond time altogether, while the latter stresses the objective reality of time as temporal succession, even when it reveals aspects of the eternal. Duckworth argues that both these concepts of time coexist in the universe represented by Browning's poetry. The nearest Browning comes to reconciling these two attitudes to time, the critic asserts, is when his poems intimate that eternity breaks through the succession of temporal events in moments when individuals experience a flash of intense insight and recognition releasing them from normal time-bound consciousness. W. Whitla argues that Browning brings theology to bear on the question of time's relationship to eternity. The Christian belief in the Incarnation, Whitla argues in The Central Truth, suited Browning's philosophical and intellectual frame of mind as it pointed to a possible reconciliation of what Browning perceived as two fundamentally different ways of understanding time. (9)


Perhaps the lines cited from "By the Fire-Side" will help to illustrate Whitla's assertion. The lines quoted above contain a number of striking juxtapositions. Not only does the word "cross" recur with noticeably frequency, but a reference to the date of the builder's death, suggesting temporal fixity in the course of history and the irreversibility of death, almost immediately precedes the ecstatic experience of the "moment one and infinite". This together with the force of the twice-repeated word "cross" surely recalls "the Cross" as the central reference point in theology and the meeting of historical time and eternity. I would even relate Browning's apparently jocular treatment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to his interest in the main symbolic elements in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, for nearly all the literary treatments of the story, however much they vary otherwise, retain the kernel of the original story in as far as they assign a historical date to a supernatural or mysterious event. (10)


The appearance of "cross" as a verbal clue is not only found in Robert Browning's poetry, of course. Another notable case of a significant repetition of the word is found in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", in the lines ''At length did cross an Albatross'' in line 63 and ''With my cross-bow/ I shot the Albatross'' in lines 81 and 82). Here the verbal clue could point to what G.H. Hartman sees as the sustained metaphor of the Wandering Jew informing and underlying this poem. (11)


II. "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"


This poem, so well known to many English schoolchildren, furnishes an example of a poem which rarely receives close critical attention, doubtless because its riveting narrative excellence is so eminently satisfying in itself. However, the following study of the poem will take account of verbal clues that may deepen our perception of the poem's symbolic and allegorical attributes that are not apparent if the poem is considered only at the narrative or literal level.


At Level 1, three messengers, Joris, Dirck and the speaker, gallop on their horses through the night and the following morning to "bring the news which alone could save Aix from her fate" (line 46). The horses of Dirck and Joris die from exhaustion on the journey but Roland, the speaker's horse, survives, all rigours notwithstanding, and reaches Aix to be rewarded by the acclamation of its jubilant inhabitants and by the riders' "last measure of wine" (line 58)- a strange beverage for a horse, when one comes to think of it. Could "wine" provide a verbal clue in view of its obvious sacramental associations?
There is more than one reason for questioning whether the poem could be treated only as a realistically treated story, however gripping and well told. Browning himself commented that the story had no historical foundation, and William Clyde Devane notes that the route chosen by the riders was far from direct (12). Was the path of the riders dictated by the poet's need to synchronize earth-bound incidents accompanying the ride with the position and visibility of the sun, moon and stars in accordance with a symbolic framework?


At Level 2, the journey described in the poem reveals a sustained metaphor based on the motif of a journey through life and experience towards ever-higher states of progress, which characterizes Browning's poetry generally. Brown skilfully avoids foisting an overt allegorical frame on the poem but intimates one by the use of expressions which ambivalently fulfil the reader' expectations of what is plausible in terms of the story itself and still point to other planes of significance. This ambivalence we discover in Joris's words "Yet there is time!" (line 18). On the one hand, they can be taken to mean what one could paraphrase as "There's still time, it isn't too late", which are fully consistent with the dramatic situation of the riders. On the other, the words point to one of the major questions the poem raises in wider metaphysical terms, the nature of time itself. Further to this inquiry, let us now consider the main events reported in the poem.


As in Browning's poetic drama Pippa Passes, the reported events in "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" are framed by the diurnal cycle starting from around midnight, as reported in the first stanza, and ending not long after Joris and the narrator sight Aix in the oppressive heat of the midday sun. We note a marked contrast between "a great yellow star" at the break of dawn (see stanza III), probably evoking the star of Bethlehem in many readers' minds, and the sun, which here carries negative associations with soulless aridity and the remorseless progress of time. These lines arouse such an impression:


The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
'Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff
(Stanza VII)


The death of two horses and the survival of Roland imply a contrast of life and death in terms that transcend the specifics of the story itself, even carrying a possible allusion to the third day of the Resurrection reinforced by an allusion to wine and the Eucharist, especially so in the light of a reference to "red blood".


At level 3 we find further corroboration of the religious symbolic framework we have already considered. The words "Good News" in the poem's title refer in the first instance to the contents of the message which the three riders bring to the city of Aix. It is surprising in some ways that the contents of this message itself are never divulged to the reader, suggesting that only the the idea of "the good news" is paramount, and of course, in a religious context, the "good news" imports the Gospel, especially to someone like Browning, with a staunch Nonconformist family background. Another word of particular significance in evangelical circles appears in the wording that Aix is "saved." This is not to say that the poem is a cryptic religious tract, though there are strong reasons to conclude that it is the product of a mind steeped in a Christian, particularly a Nonconformist, attitude to life, irrespective of the fact that Browning in his youth underwent a Period of religious doubt and even antireligious sentiment when the young poet was subject to the powerful influence of Shelley's "Queen Mab".


1George Santayana, "The Poetry of Barbarism", in Robert Browning / a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. P. Drew (London, 1966), p. .21.


2G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, (London, 1916), p. 142.


3 Barbara Melchiori, Browning's Poetry of Reticence (London, 1968). Ibidem, p.1.


4 C. Williard Smith, Browning's Star Imagery (New Jersey, 1941).


5 The ruined chapel was close to a mountain pass leading to Prato Fiorito.


6 Jurij Tynjanov, "The Meaning of the Word in Verse", in Readings in Russian Poetics
Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. by Ladislav Mateijka and Krystina Pomorska (Michigan Slavic Publications, Ann Arbor, 1978), pp. 136-145.

 7.Leon Trotsky, "The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism" in Literature and Revolution (Russian version published in 1924), tr. Rose Strumsky (Ann Arbor: 1960).


8 F.R. G. Duckworth, Browning: Background and Conflict (Connecticut, 1966).

9. W. Whitla, The Central Truth: The Incarnation in Robert Browning's Poetry (Toronto,

10. Julian Scutts, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Der Rattenfänger von Hameln) as a Motif in European Poetry", in Wascana Review, University of Regina, (Winter, 1985). Revised version on the website of Jonas Kuhn, University of Stuttgart:


11. Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self-Consciousness'" in Romanticism and Consciousness /  Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1970).


12 William Clyde DeVane, A Browning Handbook (New York, 1955), p. 154.


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