The Boston Browning Society Papers Selected to Represent the Work of the Society from 1886-1897. New York: Macmillan, 1897. (ABLibrary Rare X 821.83 D B747b)
Nature’s Intimate: Robert Browning’s New England Reception
By Anna E. Beaudry
Housed in plain, forest-green binding, the 1886-1897 Boston Browning Society Papers (located in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Rare Books collection), does not immediately draw the eye, compared with other ornate and gilded volumes with which it shares the archive. The book contains the papers delivered at the Boston Browning Society meetings between 1886-97. Consider the book as the “conference proceedings” of the Boston Browning Society. Members would gather to hear papers read on their favorite author, the most worshipful Robert Browning. In his work on American obsession with Browning, Hédi Abdel-Jaouad likens the poet’s surge in American popularity to the religious revivals in early America. Clubs like Browning Societies, he writes, “came to play a role similar to that of churches” (39). These papers provide keen insights into Browning’s reception as an author in America, particularly in a New England context. New England at this time was still home to some of the greatest authors America would ever see: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Sarah Orne Jewett, just to name a few. Other New England authors like Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, though dead by 1886, still loomed large in the literary and philosophical imagination of Americans.
The final essay of this collection of papers is an essay by the Boston Browning Society’s librarian, Emma Endicott Marean. Outside of her involvement in the Browning Society, Marean was also a poet and hymnodist. Her paper, titled “The Nature Element in Browning’s Poetry,” explores Browning’s poetic relationship to nature, describing his posture towards the created order as one of intimate attentiveness and mutuality. Marean’s paper provides insight not only into Browning’s reception by American audiences, but also offers a representation of Browning’s nature poetics as supplying a lack in the American Transcendentalist poetic tradition.
Marean’s essay begins by highlighting two major events that forever changed the trajectory of nature poetry: the French Revolution and the Scientific Revolution, culminating in the 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. According to Marean, the French Revolution resulted in “the reaction against all traditional or conventional authority… [and] a desire to throw off the bonds of ecclesiastical and theological restraint” (472-3). She cites this overthrow of tradition as the reason so many poets in the ensuing years turned to “[t]he love of nature… [as] a religion” (473). Such worship can clearly be seen in British romantic poets like Wordsworth and Shelley. Though Marean is writing about primarily European events and British poets, it makes sense that an American would find common ground in these topics. The French Revolution had much philosophical crossover with the American Revolution. So much so that the Marquis de LaFayette famously sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington. Americans were no strangers to throwing off traditional sources of authority. Even Emerson’s nature poetry is a reaction against the Puritan strictures of his forebears, who insisted that God could only be found within the walls of particular churches. Emerson claimed to find God everywhere in nature, including within himself.
The second major event that Marean highlights is the Scientific Revolution. Though many thought the rise of “the scientific impulse” might act “as a check of the most serious kind” upon poetry, Marean argues that Browning is a perfect example to the opposite effect (474). Because of the Scientific Revolution, poets as well as scientists have “wrestled with the treacheries of doubt, the demands of the intellect, the new conceptions of social progress” (475-6). Nature was no longer a pastoral backdrop for the exploits of humankind; nature and humanity were closer kin than before appreciated. Marean cites the fifth act of Browning’s Paracelsus as embodying the modern poetic tension of carrying “at once a welcome to the new scientific ideal, and a recognition of the truth that man cannot live my science alone. No matter how much we may learn, and however far back we may push the limits of knowledge, still our reach will for ever [sic] exceed our grasp” (475). Because of his unique posture towards nature, Browning occupies a place Marean finds necessary in a post-Darwinian universe.
From here, Marean dives into her analysis of Browning’s poetic posture towards nature, situating him both amongst and counter to his contemporaries. She describes Tennyson as “the artist,” using nature as his medium to paint the mood of his poem (476). She pronounces Emerson “the priest” of the nature poets, exegeting the divine in human and more-than-human nature (476). Arnold she considers to be a refugee who looks for shelter and sanctuary in the natural world. Though Browning shares some poetic qualities with his contemporaries, Marean sets him apart on the basis of his elevation of the soul. “The development of a soul and incidents in that development have always the first, the supreme, the absorbing interest for Browning” (477). She quotes from “Fra Lippo Lippi”:
You’ve seen the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, – and God made it all!
Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to?
Marean finds Browning, here and elsewhere, as balancing the shortcomings of the Transcendentalist movement. Though Browning finds “human life… the main interest, yet he was far from indifferent to nature or unobservant of its varying phases” (478). She captures Browning’s posture as one that possesses “the longing for a companionship of enjoyment” (478). Scholar Ashton Nichols writes that, for Browning, “‘nature’ was not so much a category distinguished by its ‘otherness’ as it was a part of a continuum of living creatures and even nonliving entities” (47). Emerson wanted his readers to go out alone into the woods to appreciate nature and to know oneself. Browning wanted his readers to go into the woods for the purpose of being a better neighbor, to nature and to humankind.
Marean suggests that this companionship in Browning is fostered through careful notice: “Nothing is unworthy [of] Browning’s observation. Often with a single word he fixes a flower or an insect so that thereafter it is named and known for us by his expression” (482). “Named and known” – there is something divinely gracious in this posture. All of creation cries out to be named and known, known and loved. Marean argues that Browning’s poetry achieves this kind of intimacy between the human and more-than-human world, a companionship so close, it verges on the sexual. She never uses such terms explicitly, but the language of her final paragraph is unmistakable (please bear with the long quote):
Marean’s description of Browning’s poetic prowess in “Saul” is unmistakably orgasmic. She hints as much as she can without transgressing 19th-century sensibilities in the paragraph’s opening line: “intimate, most intimate, relations” and later when she references the “consummate vision.” Her appreciation of Browning’s nature poetics versus Emerson’s and the other Transcendentalists’ revolves around this shared intimacy between the human and the more-than-human. Though she does not explicitly say it, her implication is that Browning’s poetics of nature are superior to those of the Transcendentalists because his is mutually pleasing and beneficial to both humanity and nature. The Transcendentalist posture, which uses nature to achieve self-actualization, is decidedly masturbatory. It exists primarily for the ego, despite Emerson’s protestations to the contrary in his essay “Nature” that “all mean egotism vanishes” (6). After all, his vision includes the self becoming a “transparent eyeball,” punning off of eye/I and the ball implying a globe or world; the self dominates and devours—becomes universal. Emerson’s poetry lacks the mutuality of Browning’s poetics, which Marean notes is best exemplified in the “consummate vision of the Christ that is to be” (486). Browning’s posture towards the natural world is mirrored on the posture of Christ toward the Church: a self-giving posture that prioritizes the fulfillment of the beloved.
One more scene in which nature is brought into intimate, most intimate, relations with human feeling must be remembered. The closing lines of “Saul” are a fit ending to that poem in which Browning has gone the whole round of creation. In so supreme a moment of revelation as that here imagined, nature is swept far beyond all limitations of actual existence. Its emotion is transcendent, and experience has nothing to say to a moment like this. Nothing in the entire poem is more revelatory of Browning’s genius than that he could close by such exquisite modulations, thoughts, and words of such scope. After the gradually increasing passion of the poem, rising higher and higher until the consummate vision of the Christ that is to be breaks full on the mind of David, and the words of annunciation seem fairly wrenched from the agony of his inspiration, the reader holds himself breathless, and if he did not hasten to the conclusion, it would be almost impossible to imagine how Browning could release him from that surpassing moment without a loss of dignity,–how, feeling for the common chord again, the poem could slide my semi-tones and reach the resting-place, the C Major of this life. Browning has done just this by putting all of nature into sympathy with the word of God uttered to man. (486)
Marean’s paper establishes the milieu in which Browning wrote, a milieu which clearly resonated differently with Americans than Europeans, considering the hundreds of Browning Societies that popped up across North American in the late 1800s, versus the mere handful that emerged in Britain. It would seem that Browning’s emphasis on intimacy, mutuality, and community with nature resonated with an American audience hungry for a better way to relate to the complicated land they inhabited. There are many essays contained in the Browning Society Papers, and it would be worth a scholar’s time to put Marean’s essay alongside others given to the group over the years. Do other papers deal with Browning’s poetic posture towards nature? Do other papers position the human relationship to nature as one of equality and equal submission? Additionally, Marean’s paper is one of the few written by women in the collection, though a majority of Boston Browning Society members were women. How does her essay compare to the concerns and priorities of the male authors in the collection? Does her essay speak to interests and concerns of the female members of the society? How might her essay resonate differently with male or female listeners, especially the portions on intimacy? At a time when women’s sexual education was negligible, Browning’s poetics of ecstasy offer a vision of a sexually fulfilled life, one where mutual pleasure is not incidental. This fact could not have been unimportant to his female readership. The Boston Browning Society Papers remain a largely untapped wealth of scholarly resources on Browning’s international reception. Were they to be digitized in full, scholars and students would be able to begin to tackle some of these questions.
Abdel-Jaouad, Hédi. Browningmania: America’s Love for Robert Browning. Cambria Press, 2014.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson, Random House, 1992.
Nichols, Ashton. “Celebration and longing: Robert Browning and the nonhuman world.”
Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives, ed. by Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.