Stefan Hawlin and Michael Meredith (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 15: Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day and Asolando

Find Location in text

Main Text

The root of this parleying lies in Browning's childhood and in his early musical education. Trained well by his teacher John Relfe (1763–1837), mentioned here with affection (81), he was a good amateur pianist,1 and in sections IX to XIII he shows off his musical knowledge by putting a simple melody, in thought at least, through a series of modulations (276–381). The tune at the heart of this parleying was a childhood favourite: according to Griffin and Minchin, 'one of his earliest memories was of [his mother] playing Avison's once popular Grand March in C Major'.2 According to Browning himself, it was also 'a favorite of my father's, and came into my hand after—oh, no matter how many a lustrum since he hummed—or I strummed—its resonancy'.3 Charles Avison (1710–70), the minor eighteenth-century composer, wrote a short treatise on music and on his contemporaries, the Essay on Musical Expression (1752), referred to here as his 'little book' (96). Since he was young Browning had owned a copy of the first edition, but on 20 February 1886—either forgetting this, or interested in Avison in a deeper way—he bought a copy of the second edition.4 He read again of the great stars of eighteenth-century music, of Bononcini (1670–1747), Geminiani (1687–1762), and others, little known in the later nineteenth century; and so he revived thoughts first expressed to EBB in a letter of pg 2041846—embodied also in 'A Toccata of Galuppi's' and 'Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha'—about how the 'Beau Idéal' in music 'changes every thirty years'. In the letter he is haunted by the ghosts of displaced greatness, composer after composer fading from view: 'yet, yet the pity of it! Le Jeune, the Phœnix,—and Rossini who directed his letters to his mother as "Mother of the famous composer"—and Henry Lawes, and Dowland's Lute, ah me!'5 Music, so potentially joyous, has an eerie and pathetic relationship with death and time. In the parleying the frightening image is of the passionate composers and their music stilled to 'quietude' (120), like 'figured worthies' in the great waxwork museum of Madame Tussauds (115). One of the oppositions Browning suggests can focus our understanding: Handel's operas versus Wagner's.

It is clear from the way he refers to Handel's Rinaldo (1711) and Radamisto (1720), and from the way he refers to Rinaldo elsewhere,6 that to some degree he knew these works (or at least parts of them). In the nineteenth century they were little performed, the oratorios being much more popular, but it is likely that he knew the crucial arias through versions for piano and voice, perhaps from his youth. He contrasts these operas with Tannhäuser (1845), in particular the beautiful 'Hymn to the Evening Star' ('O du mein holder Abendstern'), as an instance of the total change of harmonic soundworld. Citing examples of contemporary composers, he originally chose 'Brahms, / Wagner and Liszt' (99–100), and then added Dvorak in revision. Wagner and Liszt, we might bear in mind, were his contemporaries. Wagner's music, particularly his later style, is usually seen as the way into twentieth-century modernism and atonality. The parleying is setting the relatively clear harmonic and melodic structures of eighteenth-century music against Wagner's complex chromaticism and dissonances and, in this context, seeking to describe a haunting scepticism about music.

In May 1877 Browning attended five out of the six originally advertised concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in which Wagner, with an excellent cast of singers, conducted a rich sampling of his own work: 'The programmes were designed to outline the operatic development of the composer from Rienzi to the Ring, the Kaisermarsch being added at the first concert, the Huldigungsmarsch at the fourth, pg 205and the Centennial March at the sixth.'7 Browning met the composer, and also wrote a mildly debunking quatrain on the whole experience.8 In 1883 to Mrs Bronson, he expressed the view that Wagner was 'a great genius but greater curmudgeon … a monster of peacock-like vanity'.9 If he were no signed-up Wagnerian, the way in which he alludes to Tannhäuser is evidence of how the music sometimes moved him (127–37).

In April 1886 the 75-year-old Abbé Liszt—who was to die just a few months later—made a rare trip to London, to be lauded and fêted, in a manner that anticipates the cult of celebrity: 'ovations such as those offered to Liszt have never been witnessed in musical England', reported The Times; 'Even outside the hall the composer's arrival was always waited for by crowds who raised their hats to him as if he were a king' (12 April). The biggest reception, on 8 April, with a guest-list representing different areas of public life, was held at the Grosvenor Gallery, and Browning attended as one of the special guests representing literature.10 He heard an all-Liszt programme, including the 'Chor der Engel' from Goethe's 'Faust', 'Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude' (for piano), three songs from Schiller's 'Tell' (sung by Mr Winch), and then, as the climax of the concert, Liszt himself at the piano. This must again have impressed on him an extraordinary sense of the changes of musical style and taste that had taken place since his childhood.

Section IX at first appears regressive in Freudian terms, as though Browning were trying to avoid the full implications of all this manifest transience, clinging to a simple childhood melody in the face of Wagner's proto-modernism. But, then again, it can be viewed in other ways. As an avid concert-goer in his later years, hearing Wagner, Liszt, and Brahms in their newness—but with older styles of music embedded in his sensibility—the jarring of different styles might have struck Browning in Walter Benjamin style, the disorientations coming from the sheer extent of musical reproduction, a quasipostmodern sense of arbitrariness and impermanence, 'chance and pg 206change' (242). In 'The Aging of the New Music' (1955), one of his finest essays, Theodor Adorno examines the way in which Webern's highly modernistic work of the 1920s has 'aged', how its 'fresh effects have become sedimented and rigidified' even by the 1950s.11 There is something of this same concern with musical 'ageing' here. How, Browning asks, can Avison's once-stirring tune have become so dead, overtaken by later musical styles? In section IX he sets out to update the piece into contemporary harmonies, modulations, and rhythms, as one might revive an almost lifeless corpse—to 're-infuse' its 'torpor' with life (278–81). To his surprise he is successful. For a moment he creates a Romantic, almost Wagnerian Avison, a 'Titanic striding toward Olympus' (318). Then he falters. The 'irreverent innovation' is abandoned (319) and he faces up to the doubt that music—the art that most moves him—may not be as profound as he thinks.

As he carries forward these ruminations, strumming the piano, he modulates Avison's March into the relative minor, A. His fear is that music (and by implication all art) only moves over the shallow surface of fashion; it has no access to the depths because maybe there are no depths. Its apparent embodiment of profound emotion and meaning is simply illusory. A really Beckett-like moment shadows his usual Whig sense of progress. Does the history of music fail to show us a development towards deeper insight and understanding? Does it only show us that our spiritual yearnings and searches all end in recurrent ignorance, 'nescience absolute' (342)? In music, at least for this moment, there seems no 'truth perennial' (358). From this point he effects a recovery. Switching Avison's March into a major key, he boldly asserts that Truth does exist, that different musical styles (or, for that matter, different philosophical and religious forms of thought) are Truth's dressings in time, its 'garniture' (368–72). As if to back up this perception he ends the poem with an extraordinary evocation of a progressivist Whig-Liberal view of history. The range of allusion here is so complicated that it deserves separate treatment.

The climax of Parleyings, sections XIV to XVI, is rooted in the moment of the 1880s, in ideas about the seventeenth century, and in pg 207aspects of Victorian liberal historiography. As a young man, of course, brought up partly within the Nonconformist tradition, Browning had shown a real interest in the seventeenth century, finishing John Forster's Life of Strafford for him when he became ill,12 and subsequently writing his own play Strafford (1837). Already the equations of religious and civil liberty were established in his mind. Now, through the 1870s and 1880s, appeared S. R. Gardiner's series of works examining the period leading into the civil wars and then the civil wars themselves, a massive historical endeavour. It began to reach its climax, in June 1886, with the appearance of the first volume ofthe History of the Great Civil War 1642–1649, a defining and subsequently famous work. On the evidence here, Browning had certainly read Gardiner. (In one of his works of the 1880s, at the end of his own treatment of Strafford's trial, Gardiner in fact quotes Browning's Strafford.13) Gardiner's Whig-Liberal historiography implicitly links together the struggles of Parliament against absolutist Stuart pretensions with a Liberal-progressivist view of contemporary politics in the 1880s: in this reading Cromwell becomes a kind of Gladstone figure, and Gladstone a kind of Cromwell: contemporary Liberalism was a reactivating and extension of the progress towards 'Liberty' enacted in the seventeenth century.14 This is also Browning's essential conclusion, delivered with almost tub-thumping glee. Gardiner is probably also responsible for the emphasis here on the role of John Pym (1584–1643). It was Gardiner's histories that first established Pym as the crucial parliamentarian opposing the king (previously Hampden had featured in this role), and Gardiner's own hero-worship of Pym seems reflected in the 'hymn, / —Rough, rude, robustious' (413–14) with which the parleying ends.15

pg 208Browning draws together considerations of this kind with another ideal of the 1880s, the Imperial Federation and its aspirations for a 'federated England' (388)—a topical allusion in 1886–7. The Imperial Federation League, founded in London in November 1884, was developed by conferences and pamphlet publication in the succeeding years. It appealed both to conservatives and liberals, and was sometimes a vehicle for British race nationalism. The primary idea was that, rather than allowing the Empire to drift apart—something that many supporters believed to be a likely long-term outcome— the colonies (mainly the predominantly white colonies) would be brought together into a federated structure, a kind of united states of England. The object of the League was 'to secure by Federation the permanent unity of the Empire', 'a United Empire in its foreign affairs, with constitutional liberty for every part as regards internal administration'.16 The League put flesh on these aspirations in its 'Special Report' of October 1886, with proposals for an Imperial fleet, an Imperial military force 'on uniform terms throughout the Empire', harmonization of certain laws, the opening of the Civil Service to colonists, and the facilitation of systematic emigration: 'The future of the world is with the English-speaking people. The time is within measurable distance when French, German, and Italian will be either provincial dialects or forgotten languages.'17

The tone of this nationalism harks back to what was in many ways the book which helped to found the League in theoretical terms, J. R. Seeley's The Expansion of England (1883). Browning had almost certainly read it;18 it was influential in these years, and came with the authority of Seeley's Regius professorship of history at Cambridge University. The lectures which formed the book were concerned to understand the meaning of 'this mighty phenomenon of the diffusion of our race and the expansion of our state', and the related extension of democracy, 'this tendency by which first the middle class and then gradually the lower classes have been admitted to a share of influence in public affairs':

No one can long study history without being haunted by the idea of development, of progress. We move onward, both each of us and all of us pg 209together … The English State then, in what direction and towards what goal has that been advancing? The words which jump to our lips in answer are Liberty, Democracy! They are words which want a great deal of defining … The struggles of the seventeenth century secured it [Liberty]—even they did not first acquire it—for us … When we inquire then into the Greater Britain of the future we ought to think much more of our Colonial than of our Indian Empire … In not much more than half a century the Englishmen beyond the sea—supposing the Empire to hold together—will be equal in number to the Englishmen at home, and the total will be much more than a hundred millions.19

This is the 'approaching trample, even now / Big in the distance—or my ears deceive— / Of federated England' which Browning starts to hear (386–8), to which he seeks to match a new version of Avison's March. The idea of 'federated England' appealed to him, of course, first of all because it fitted with his opposition to Irish home rule (the dominant political issue of 1886); more simply, it was a popular notion within some parts of the intelligentsia. Tennyson and Hallam Tennyson were on the Committee of the League, as indeed was Browning's friend W. C. Cartwright.20 In this context, Browning's spirits revive. The atmosphere of liberal historiography and of the League allows even Avison's faded music to come alive again with a permanent sense of the value and dignity of the human spirit. The old music becomes part of the ever-vibrant march of social and political progress and a celebration of the pre-eminence of British civilization.

Our own time has taken a hard, sceptical look at the pervasive nature of Whiggish ideas of progress in the later nineteenth century and at the teleology of this kind of historiography, and, after two World Wars and the demise of Empire, there seems a sharp effect of distance between then and now.21 Browning, however, must be placed in these contexts. The parleying ends with a patriotic hurrah, a hymn to John Pym and liberty (422–33), an evocation of the 'march' of political progress. It is not always appreciated how the words here were written to fit the score of Avison's March (given on the final page): clearly we are supposed to sing (not read them) in rollicking, 'robustious' fashion (420). Perhaps, however, the effect for us now can pg 210only be one of distance. Some readers will be inclined to look askance at such Liberal-Protestant triumphalism as the delusion of a historical moment. Other readers may be more sympathetic to the interplay of doubt and faith in the parleying as a whole, taking into account, for example, the problems of scepticism it evokes, and the open recognition, in the past at least, of the persecuting English state (389–403). In either event, the Rule-Britannia or Land-of-Hope-and-Glory effect of the ending has its own peculiar charisma, an evocation of deeply felt loyalties. It shows how well the Liberal—Nonconformist imagination tallied with some of the ideals of Empire.


1 The degree of Browning's expertise is revealed by much of the music he owned and played, now in the Brighton Public Library. This also shows how he taught his son Pen to play the piano: see Rowena Fowler, 'Browning's Music: The L. L. Bloomfield Collection', RES ns 47 (1996), 35–46 (46).

2 Griffin and Minchin, 15–16; probably they say 'in C Major' on the authority of the poem: see l. 85 n.

3 RB to Violet Paget, 31 Jan. 1887: ABL: New Letters, 341. RB to Revd. Henry Spaulding, 30 June 1887, includes the statement: 'I have the "March" in my Father's notation'.

4 His copy of the first edition, now at the University of Pittsburgh, is inscribed on the fly-leaf 'Robert Browning Jan. 1836'. The purchase of the second edition is noted in his account book.

5 7 Mar. 1846: Wellesley College: Correspondence, xii. 137, 138.

7 Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. (1933–47), iv. 537.

8 'Wagner gave six concerts: five / I have managed to survive. / He announces other two: / Stand these—hang me if I do!': Park Honan, 'The Texts of Fifteen Fugitives by Robert Browning', VP 5 (1967), 157–69 (163).

9 ABL: Meredith, 21.

10 Most of the special guests are listed in Constance Bache, Brother Musicians: Reminiscences of Edward and Walter Bache (London, 1901), 299.

11 Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, selected with an Introduction by Richard Leppert (Berkeley, Calif., 2002), 185.

12 See this edition, Volume II. 3–6.

13 S. R. Gardiner, The Fall of the Monarchy of Charles I, 1637–1649, 2 vols. (1882): ii. 180.

14 For a full discussion of how Gardiner's liberalism affected his historical writings, see J. S. A. Adamson, 'Eminent Victorians: S. R. Gardiner and the Liberal as Hero', The Historical Review, 33: 3 (1990), 641–57.

15 Adamson says this about Gardiner's treatment of Pym: 'Research since Gardiner has greatly refined our understanding of aspects of Pym's religious and political personality; yet it has left almost wholly unexamined Gardiner's estimation of Pym as unquestionably the dominant figure in Parliament and politics from the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640 until his death in 1643. Pym's dominance as leader of the House of Commons, and hence the House of Commons' dominance of parliament, is central to Gardiner's case': 644–5.

16 Imperial Federation League: Report of the Adjourned Conference held on November 18th, 1884: p. 7.

17 Imperial Federation League: The Record of the Past and The Promise of the Future (Oct. 1886): p. 3.

18 Furnivall recommended it to Browning: see Letters, 225.

19 pp. 3, 7, 11, 12.

20 Tennyson alludes to the League in excited fashion in 'Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen' (1886): see Ricks, iii. 147-8.

21 See, for example, Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850–1930 (Oxford, 1991), and J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Dissent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge, 1981).

logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out