LiveBlogging: Session One of the Robert Browning and Victorian Poetry at 200 Conference

Join us in about 30 minutes for a live blog of the first session of the Robert Browning and Victorian Poetry at 200 Conference! Our primary coverage will be over the Q&A sessions, but we will feature the main points of the arguments of each presenter.

Linda H. Petersen will begin the session in just a few minutes…

Her presentation is titled, “Browning’s Pauline: Making a Poetic Debut.

In 1833, Browning made poetic debut with Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession – no name on title page. Ambitious about debut. Told friend that this was part of a series of works: opera, etc. “A foolish plan,” he later called it. Inspired by 1830 success of Martineau who submitted works to three contests at once! She won all three, of course. Browning knew her through W.J. Fox. Browning was anxious about writing career, keeping authorship a secret, “A loophole for backing out of the thing.”

In 1830s, how create a debut? Couldn’t create a “book beautiful.” Wasn’t part of a writing society? What to do? Used paratext of Pauline. Puts a high value on the text and not on the author. So, browning puts Marot’s name on the title page. A French epigraph. Substitues Marot’s name for own. A model to express what he hoped to achieve. Through this and other methods, he checks his ambition and reveals his fear of initial response.

Pauline: “Sad confession first…ere I shall be as I can be no more.” Captures the core of Marot’s thought. But only quotes the first two lines of Marot. Devotion to poetry for Browning, and not devotion to a lover as in Marot. Confessional impulse of Pauline motivated by desire of the poet to claim a start to his new career. Approaching his debut this way made it easy for Browning to “start again” if needed if Pauline was not a success.

Marot (1496-1544) was exiled to Italy because he was accused of heresy. He officially recanted and then translated the Psalms. These Psalms channeled Reformation to France. Inaugurated a whole new era of poetry. Browning claims this same groundbreaking force by using his epigram.

Legitimacy of this bold claim is called into question in his Latin citation from Agrippa. Agrippa was a heretic and opponent of Marot. Through De Occult, from which Browning quotes, both states his intent, but also, again, hides behind the quote. Agrippa is the dark double of Merot. Agrippa (1486-1535) was also accused of heresy. Agrippa’s work was less respectable than Merot’s. Was Browning seeking shortcut to literary success by invoking the dark side? London, 1833, was 20 years old (published this) – Browning seeks dubious knowledge, indicating Agrippa’s influence upon him. By Agrippa paratext, acknowledges his possibly foolish envoy into what will be represented in Pauline. Repetition at the beginning through epigraph, allows Browning to, again, state his case, but also self-critique his own ambition. Agrippa represents worry about the legitimacy of Browning’s ambition.

In Pauline, writer needs Pauline’s protection. Invokes language that suggests writer’s block. After struggles of infancy, and before dark spirit takes hold, poet finds himself in between. Poet has consciousness, imagination, encounter with ancient books, and assurance in writing. If there is a moment of self-doubt, it is overcome in the course of writing the poem. Perhaps smooth course deserves to be interrupted. The Pauline poet is proud. Hubris here deserves a fall, but that’s not how Browning proceeds. Young poets choice causes a fall, chooses the wrong model in Shelley, and causes a stumble. Sends the poet’s career careening off-course.

“Oh God! Where does this end…” Answered by another paratext. Pauline invokes Shakespeare and Rafael, acknowledging they have their lack. In light of critique, poet confesses and turns from Shelley. Commits himself to Pauline. She is the narrative resolution to the poem – provides a method for moving forward when he knew not when to leave or what to choose. Pauline’s counsel marks a shift from youthful poetry to mature career.

Browning denied/suppressed his authorship of Pauline. When discovered, he admitted it. John Stuart Mill wrote in the margins of a copy of Pauline that he wishes the poet meet a real Pauline.

The role of the publisher in 19th century publishing debut. Browning had an issue with publishers, Saunders and Otley. Resembled other volumes of verse in 1833. The Bride of Siena, Anon. poem published in same year, the author went on to publish novels, which was more the trade of the publisher. They published some poetry, but likes light verse, not the ambitious poetry of Browning. EBB wrote to Mitford, a Saunders and Otley author, about the quality of their catalog once. Pleasure and distraction, not moral elevation. Browning did not consider publishers reputation when he sent Pauline to them. Soon recognized that it did matter.

Browning was left to do his own publicity for the book. Asked Fox for introduction to a good publisher, showing his disfavor. Asked for connection at Moxon, for they published substantive works. To win wreaths of fame, made the transition that is reflected in the poem Pauline from youthful to mature poet.

Next up: Joseph Phelan, “Made to Match”: Alliteration in The Ring and the Book.

Made to Match from first line of poem. Impetus for this paper came from a rereading of the poem. Sheer quantity of alliteration in the poem. Excerpt from Ring and the Book: “He waited and learned waiting…Where honor helps to spice the scanty bread.” (II, 304-17) Extreme case of alliteration, each line contains some alliteration. Prevalence of device and range of this is evident through the work. Alliterative proverbial phrases in the use of alliteration. “Lingering life.” Allteration even within words at times. Even reverse alliteration at times. Prevalence and density given, is this an alliterative poem?

Alliteration a structural principle in the work. Tentative conclusion: The prevalence of alliteration in the Ring and the Book represents the middle style of Browning’s work. Poems are of enormous length, blank verse, and alliteration as structural element. His use of alliteration is concurrent with the development of metrical thinking of the time. Browning shows influence of intellectual and cultural developments in this work.

To test this hypothesis: Performed a stylistic analysis of other poems from the time. Pauline, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, Mr. Sludge, The Medium, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, and The Inn Album. Chose unrhymed poems. Striking prevalence of alliteration. Pauline: 10 alliterations in 50 lines. Alliteration does not indicate metrical accent. Not as much of a structural principle in this poem, given the 50 lines chosen. Bishop: 14 alliterations. More of a structural element. Alliteration frames a proverbial phrase. Mr. Sludge is a riot of alliteration: 28 lines use alliteration. Reflects new techniques of consonant clustering. Multiple use in line and those that cut across word boundaries. List of redundant qualifiers at the end of a line. Extended use of assonance. Blank verse that is more patterned than earlier poems. Ring and Book, alliteration so prevalent, hard NOT to see it. Creates striking effect by refraining from it, in fact. Absence gives sincerity in one case. After Ring and the Book, a lessening of alliteration, although there is great repetition. 18 examples in 50 lines of Schwangau. The Inn Album, poem reflects on the use of the verse device, not flatteringly. Incompetently uses the device, in fact. Principle target is the sentimentality of this sort of album verse. “Head and heart.” The Inn Album is the last instance of this. Browning concerned his alliterative prose may be folding into album style.

Why does he delve into this and then it wanes? The evolution of his writing toward logaoedic forms. Late 1850s and 60s, new forms of metric structure designed to emphasize the structure of English verse. Stronger alliteration during this time. Search for new forms of poetic expression. Looked to past and other verse traditions for new ways of organization. Early English poetic revival occurring. Moore and Marsh were doing this work, both friends of Browning. Technique of mixing double and triple forms, logoedic. Blurred distinction between logical axiom and rhetorical axiom. Prose and verse accent distinction breaking down in logoedic form. 1864, “The Worst of It,” demonstrates end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance. Verbal device on stressed syllable showing metrical pattern. Freedom mixed with prescription here. Instinctive response to logoedic line. Also see in Tennyson’s, “Maud.” Meter is anapaestic ballad meter. In this, Tennyson allows iambic substitution to be more free. Balance of freedom and structure, much like what Browning is attempting after Ring and Book.

Alliteration is structural element intentionally then in Ring and the Book. Common pattern, three alliterative words. The alliteration helps to accentuate where the strong accent should fall. Another pattern, a 2 + 2 arrangement. Usually in 10 syllable lines. Similar logic in tags at end of lines that restore iamblic pattern to end of the line. Alliteration response to freedom of poetic meter in his era. Alliteration is structural principle of verse in this era. Suppressed native form that was being revived in Browning’s era. Not ornamental, but versatile metric device.

Hard for modern readers to understand how late this developed as structural principle. Erasmus Rask codified in third decade of 19th century. Some questions whether Anglo-Saxons capable of such intelligence in verbal forms! Conybeare (1826) comments on this. Christabelle meter. Coleridge bespeaks of a new structure in this poem. Tentative alignment of AS versification as part of new principle, actually a revival of ancient forms. Alliteration disguised and ancient practice.

Coventry Patmore (1857), friend of Brownings, alliterative verse form the template for the structural principle in verse. Makes alliteration paramount structural form of English poetry. Seen also in Perkins lectures (1858) by Marsh – also a friend of the Brownings. According to EBB, couples spent many evenings together. In the lectures, weariness of rhyme not corrected by laxity, but return to ancient form and substance. Alliteration is key to this return. Alliteration not only device used. Line rhyme. But also rhyme on endings. Alliteration used with other devices to structure the reading to bring out the key characteristics that marks the expression of the poetry of this era.

A hope for a renovation of the English language and the revival of English literature. EBB singled out for her use of Saxon words and willingness to use assonance. Marsh produces a table of Saxon words against which poets are graded.

Browning had to be aware of the work of his friends. Alliteration as alternative form part of critical debate at this time. Influenced clearly the Ring and the Book. Specific verses of Browning demonstrate the influence on this influence. Monologues of Half Rome, use of tags at ends of line is prevalent. Representation of minds tendency to proverbial wisdom captured in memorable phrases. Made to match the poem’s obsession with doubling and repetition. Use of alliteration also exposes the poem’s ambition. Public debate of people the correct structure of epic verse. Blank verse was no longer adequate to the poetic form. Ring and the Book invokes the alliterative device as a way to get back to something more native.


(1) Epigraph in Pauline. If Browning adopts Marot, a problem of secondariness? How reflected in the poem? A belated debut then. Use of the epigraph, then, is not ambitious but fearful.

Trying to displace the discussion of 70s and 80s of Browning’s anxiety over Shelley. Browning sees himself as starting a new poetics. Is Browning just anxious regardless of apposition to other greats? Confession of defection and heresy in Pauline. Marot is a Renaissance model for breaking new grand. Agrippa is the anxious pole. Maybe there, unsure? Deeply influenced by Isobel’s back and forth reading of Pauline.

Isobel Armstrong: There is a lot tied up in the angst of Marot and Agrippa in regard to Browning.

Aporia or gaps in texts. Great virtue of deniability. Marot: Not me?. Agrippa: Not recommend, just tell. Move in poem is to stand out of one’s own way. Odd, ecstacy of standing outside of oneself. Derrida here. Text opens a hole in itself so as to be…newly interesting. Do something never been done before. That’s the tension of anxiety and confidence.

Still, though, looking for an out, an escape.

(2) Status of alliteration in time period in Browning’s career. Most sophisticated one could use, it seems, is alliteration. But to us it seems so pedantic. Tennyson was blamed in early lyrics for too much alliteration. “Don’t know how many I crossed out!” Is there a sense in which Browning writing grotesquely simplified?

Paper tried to say is that what happens in 50s is alliteration moves into mainstream as poetic device. People begin to recognize as structural principle of English verse. Just as good as rhyme and in many respects better. Emboldens poets to use it as Hopkins does and, he suggests, Browning does.

Grotesque? Ring and the Book was intended to be popular. Possibly thought of device as more appealing. A native taste from a latent native tradition.

Isobel: Specifications of different forms of alliteration carefully documented. Poem by Elisa Carey, Christine and Mary a Correspondence. All done in alliterative half-frames, with a rhyme scheme. Retold Norse legends for children. Contemporary piece. She differentiates her alliteration in sophisticated ways. Feel of poem is of immense pressure, debate between women at religious odds – like half frames. Structure demonstrates the implicit tension.

Another poem: William Morris, Love is Enough. Peculiar pseudo-Medieval poem. Accessibility? Is that the move? Political affiliations are the Anglo-Saxon piece – can go either way. For Morris, Love is Enough only poem Patmore mentions as modern alliterative poem written in accord with his principles. Morris is intentional in use of the device.

In regard to gender, EBB use of blank verse. In Aurora Leigh, use of assonance and breaking of meter in interesting ways that Browning drew upon.

(3) Connection between revival of Anglo-Saxon verse…what do you make of the fact that technique is coming into being for Roman/Italian context? Subject matter not seem a natural association.

Alliteration less and less identified as Anglo-Saxon, but more of the way poetry itself in English was reinvigorating. Not like Morris where it was purely Anglo-Saxon drive. Block of poems in mid-Browning where this device is prevalent. Why? Not sure.

(4) Fragment of a Confession subtitle. How does that play in? Could go many different ways…

Confession and Fragment are both Romantic forms. Has he not completed the trajectory of the narrative? Partial confession? Whole poem seems like false modesty. In the first edition, it is a broken text as published. Full of misprints. Revised editions fill it up, if you will. Is the broken utterance delibrate or a misprint?

(5) Alliteration begins 1864. Asserting essential Britishness? EBB distancing? Italian topic, British manner?

Not sure if he would draw that great of a distinction. Many poems of this period do deal with continental subjects. Implications of this technique still yet to be explored.

Why does it disappear? Postpone, alliterative word. Putting off what is continually going on. Alliteration continues; rhyme closes. May stop whenever the Pope delivers the verdict. That is a closing of something. “How should I dare die, and this man yet live.” Postponement stopped, verdict reached, sentencing coming. Alliterative patterns live. Rhyme dies. Semantically something at stake here. Joe did not find any correlation.

(6) All silent readers of Ring and the Book, aren’t we? What are the records of the performance of Ring and the Book?

Patmore’s theory says metrically just as good as silence. How you mark quietly or out loud. Doesn’t matter. Reading out loud not essential. Meter about pattern. Tennyson did read aloud to his wife at night.

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About Carl Flynn

Director of Marketing & Communications for Information Technology and University Libraries for Baylor University. My staff and I manage marketing and publicity for Information Technology Services and all of the Baylor University Libraries, which include the Moody Memorial & Jones Libraries (Central Libraries), The Texas Collection, The W. R. Poage Legislative Library, and the Armstrong Browning Library. Connect with use via Twitter @BaylorLibraries.

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