April 11, 2012

Growing Old With Robert Browning: A Bicentenary Broadcast

He offered the cosmos as an adventure rather than a scheme. He did not explain evil, far less explain it away: he enjoyed defying it …. He may be said to have serenaded heaven with a guitar, and even, so to speak, tried to climb there with a rope ladder.

—G.K. Chesterton

One click of the iMac mouse and into the YouTube universe we go, Robert Browning’s voice coming through, at first faint and sketchy over the noise made by the Edison cylinder, like the sound of a horse at full gallop as the poet springs “to the saddle …. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three …”

It’s April 7, 1889, and the first recording ever made of a poet reading from his work is barely underway when Browning forgets his lines. “I’m terribly sorry,” he cries in mid-gallop, “but I cannot remember me own verses!” It’s as if he were slyly playing out the eccentric, self-conflicted dynamic of one of his dramatic monologues as, undaunted, he lifts his voice in a transatlantic salute to the wizard of Menlo Park, for this “astonishing moment by your wonderful invention,” a moment he says he will remember all his life (he had less than a year to live). Still riding full-tilt above the galloping background noise, he shouts his name for the ages — “Robert Browning!” — before bellowing three times at the top of his lungs, “HIP-HIP HOORAY!” as he gallops off with a last brazen farewell roar of wordless exultation. This is Browning writ large, the heart’s-core essence of the energy that runs like an electric charge through his poetry.

On the afternoon of December 12, 1890, after a group at Edison’s Menlo Park lab marked the first anniversary of Robert Browning’s death by listening to the white wax cylinder, someone noted that this was the first time that any voice had been heard from “beyond the grave.”

Browning’s 200th

It was only after listening to another voice from the grave that I found the Edison cylinder of Browning and, with the wind of his farewell roar at my back, came upon Allan Massie’s March 31 story in the Daily Telegraph, which ends by rightly declaring that Browning’s bicentenary “should be celebrated with loud, cheerful, and sometimes discordant music.”

April was the key. Among poets, you could say that T.S. Eliot staked a claim to the “cruellest month,” but if any poet has April in his vest pocket, close to his heart, it’s the man who wrote, “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.” It wasn’t Browning’s “Home-Thoughts from Abroad,” however, that led me to my subject. It was a song with the same title sung by a British singer songwriter named Clifford T. Ward, who composed it in the form of a letter to his wife, with a reference to Browning in its opening line and a hint of the poet’s conversational manner in the phrasing. If you want to see this very special artist, you can find him on YouTube, as I did, alive and well, singing his “Home-Thoughts” beautifully, as he sang all his songs, even after multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1984, when he was 40; he died on December 18, 2001, singing and writing to the end (it’s said that he “crawled on all fours” to his home-based studio to make his last album).

How Strange It Seems

The Browning poem most in accord with my recent encounters and discoveries in the online “cosmos” (“an adventure rather than a scheme”) is “Memorabilia,” which begins, “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,/And did he stop and speak to you.” In his note to the poem, Browning recalls an encounter in a London bookshop when a stranger spoke of something that Shelley had once said to him. “Suddenly,” Browning writes, “the stranger paused, and burst into laughter as he observed me staring at him with blanched face …. I still vividly remember how strangely the presence of a man who had seen and spoken with Shelley affected me.”

When the first stanza ends (“How strange it seems and new!”), it’s Browning himself speaking, not Andrea del Sarto or Rabbi Ben Ezra or Fra Lippo Lippi, or any of the other personae this poet assumes in his signature dramatic monologues. How mind-boggingly strange and new it seems, then, to discover Robert Browning’s handsome face, as I did today, side by side with the face of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on the Washington Times website, wherein columnist Tim Kern, having plucked Browning’s “Less is more” out of the virtual universe, attempts to build an economic argument around it in the cause of “More is more.” Kern does admit that the Laffer Curve is one practical application of the “less is more” principle; the problem is that he quotes from the wrong poem, “My Last Duchess,” when the line in question is actually to be found in “Andrea del Sarto.”

In fact, a brave new old world of Browning is out there, not only online but in so-called everyday life. Take a poem like “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” No one needs to know what it’s all about to cop a line and run with it. When I was raving about God and Shakespeare under somewhat extraordinary circumstances (a large dose of mescaline in a laboratory setting), the scientist in charge, one of the few great men I ever knew, whispered “What I aspired to be,/And was not, comforts me,” in my ear. I had no idea where those words came from at the time, but the message was on the money and I never forgot it. Whether you read Browning or Keats, Tolstoy or Melville, you’re aspiring to share in greatness and the comfort you find in the sharing is worth the effort.

Brett Does Browning

Think how many couples over the past century and a half have shared and been inspired by the story of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whether as an audience to dramatizations of their courtship and romance or as readers in their voluminous correspondence. Just as Browning became Ben Ezra, so actors on the stage and in film have become Browning, the shining knight who rescued the captive invalid, saving the life of a poet whose reputation at the time was larger than his own. Theirs, the most renowned of all real-life literary romances, was first portrayed in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Besier’s 1931 play, a triumph for Katherine Cornell (Brian Aherne played Browning). M-G-M released it in 1934 with Frederic March and Norma Shearer in the leads; Bill “Geordie” Travers and Jennifer Jones starred in the 1957 CinemaScope version.

The best and most elusive version of the story is the BBC production from 1982, which apparently can be seen only in YouTube installments. In a January 2008 column celebrating Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, I suggested that his talent up to then had been wasted in unworthy roles. Among the most significant exceptions, it turns out, was his Browning, which is as exemplary and almost as energetic as his Holmes. Brett’s rapport with Jane Lapotaire’s Elizabeth makes their scenes together a pleasure to watch even in the washed-out print posted online. Brett’s alertness, the way he pounces on and passionately elucidates every nuance of his beloved’s response to him, her self-deluding acceptance of her lot, her unhealthy devotion to her father, and her fear of Browning’s physicality and indefatigable devotion to her recalls the genius that will animate Brett’s performance as Holmes three years later. What he learned from playing Browning clearly proved useful when he took on the role of his life as Conan Doyle’s moody master sleuth.

Like Holmes, Browning was a master of disguises. One of Jeremy Brett’s best moments is when Robert admits to Elizabeth that if he wrote about himself rather than disappearing into roles, the result would be dreadful. After Elizabeth hands him his famously obscure work, Sordello, and asks him to explain a particular passage, he scans it, ponders it by the fireplace, and admits, as the real-life Browning once said, that when he wrote it “only God and I knew what it meant, and now — alas — only God does.”

How He Lives On

How does he live? Let me count the ways.

Even though the above echoing of one of the most quoted sonnets this side of Shakespeare was written by Browning’s Elizabeth, he owns the emotional rights; it was written for him. And, as I’ve been suggesting, he doesn’t need any help from Edison’s “wonderful invention” to speak to us from beyond the grave. Like his American literary cousins, Emerson and Thoreau, he dispenses high-energy mood-enhancers. He courts the ailing Elizabeth Barrett in us, and when we’re in need of being roused out of our particular prisons, he cheers us on. But you can’t always be sure that he’s speaking for himself. In “Pippa Passes: A Drama,” he can make one of his most oft-repeated pronouncements (“God’s in his heaven;/all’s right with the world”) and end the same work by suggesting that we’re “God’s puppets, best and worst.”

Lennon’s Last Song

Among the couples who aspired to be Robert and Elizabeth were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Brownings gave them a romantic theme for their last album, the posthumous (for John, speaking of voices from the grave) Milk & Honey (1985), which carried John’s song “Grow Old With Me” (with its adapting of the first two lines of “Rabbi Ben Ezra”) and Yoko’s “Let Me Count the Ways,” taken from E.B.B.’s most famous sonnet. The couple envisioned “Grow Old With Me” as a song comparable to Lennon’s “Imagine” (a New Year’s Eve standard in his adopted home, New York City), one that would be chosen for special occasions, namely marriage ceremonies. Evidence online suggests that this is what has happened. While John’s “Grow Old With Me” may be in better shape than Browning’s Edison cylinder travesty of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” the clearest, loveliest version is sung by Princeton’s own Mary Chapin Carpenter.