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

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'Reverie' is one of the last poems Browning wrote. He changed the date on the manuscript from 12 February 1889 to 14 October 1889, before cancelling it. This would indicate that the poem was drafted in London in the February, brought to Asolo, revised there, and completed on the day before Browning sent the Asolando manuscript to his publisher.1 Its position at the end of the book suggests that it was intended to express Browning's final thoughts on familiar subjects, such as the relations of man with God, the problem of evil, and the need for faith. Previously his practice had been to approach such topics obliquely, through the mouths of the aspiring Paracelsus, the dying evangelist John, or the aged Pope Innocent. Now, two months before his death, Browning considered them in his own person.

The form he chose, abstract musing or day-dream, does not make for easy reading. As Philip Drew has observed:

he treats … questions conceptually, offering us the attempts of a mind limited by its own restricted experience to break through by sheer speculative energy into a world differently organised. Instead of defined details of experience Browning is handling terms which resist definition, such as Power, Love, Good, Knowledge and Life. The difficulty of the poem, as one would expect, is that Browning is elucidating his own ideas of these key terms as he goes along, yet the elucidation cannot be followed by the reader without an understanding of the poem, which in turn depends on knowing the meaning of the key terms.2

Drew also draws attention to the fluidity of idea as the poem's most interesting feature.

Browning starts the poem confidently with the assertion that one day, either in this life or the next, Power will reveal to him 'life's law' (27), or the complete truth of existence. In this context Power would pg 473seem to be the personification of one of God's attributes. In The Ring and the Book (x. 1634) the Pope sees God as the central truth, incorporating Power, Wisdom, and Goodness. In 'Reverie' Browning, from his own experience, recognizes the Power and the Wisdom of God in the world, but as yet is unable to see evidence of God's Love.

As he grew up and learnt for himself as much as it is possible to know about the world, became acquainted 'with joy and woe' (53), Browning realized 'Earth's good is with evil blent:/ Good struggles but evil reigns' (64–5). Even so, he reasons, perhaps, if one understood God's purpose, evil might be seen as insubstantial as a cloud obscuring good, a cloud which could be dispersed, and good's gold be revealed from the dross around it (70–5).

Browning recognizes such speculation is inadequate. Power is unchangeable and infinite, while Good is limited and imperfect. All man can do is to plead with Power to 'enlarge/Good's strait confine' (92–3), but, however submissive and pleading man is, Power is intransigent. Browning realizes that Power could solve the problem of evil by instantaneously suspending the natural laws —'Stop change, avert decay,/ Fix life fast, banish death,' (116–17)—and by creating a new order, 'some law which wrong retrieves' (138). But such a solution will not happen. Alternatively, Browning continues, what if God's Power could be matched with God's Love, instead of the two being in conflict, as his own experience of life has suggested to him —'so reads my record' (152)? He then asks the world whether or not it corroborates his view. He imagines the world's affirmative answer: at the moment of creation Knowledge dispelled doubt and God's Power was celebrated. Had only Good been as self-evident, there would have been universal joy and happiness.

So, Browning concludes, as my own life and my experience of the world are the same, all that remains to me is faith—faith that eventually there will be a reconciliation between Power and Love. Faith is something positive 'to lift the load,/ To leaven the lump' (181–2); man is not passive clay, but has a heart and a mind which can pierce through the barrier of flesh towards heaven and the future, to 'Heaven's "Shall-Be" from Earth's "Has-Been"' (200).

One must, therefore, equip oneself on earth for this quest, by means of an active life, waking not sleeping, rising not resting, aiming beyond the mundanities of the world towards the height of heaven. There Browning's faith tells him, amid strife and stress, those who pg 474seek the soul's world will discover that 'Power is Love' (208). From the beginning Browning was aware of Power, and his experience of life has taught him that 'strive but for closer view,/ Love were as plain to see' (214–15). Thus he confidently awaits God's revelation in this world or the next.

A summary cannot convey the richness of this complex but rewarding poem. In it is one of Browning's favourite ideas, already discussed at more length in 'Development': the need for a gradual acquisition of knowledge, by stages, in man's search for truth. Once boyhood is over and the mind developed, man needs to study himself and the natural world around him, rather than ask more abstruse questions: 'Try the clod ere test the star!' (38). God's universal purpose is reflected in the life of every individual. Man can, therefore, understand what it is, if he can understand the meaning of his own life, even though the truth, 'fitful, half-guessed, half seen' (24), may not be easy to grasp. This ultimate truth comes not by reasoning, but by instinct and, ultimately, by faith, enabling Browning at the end of the poem to say that life's experiences have taught him that Love and Power co-exist.

The dichotomy between Power and Love is the central issue of the poem, as it had so often been since Paracelsus in 1835. The dying Paracelsus realized that in his quest for the power of knowledge he had totally neglected love:

  • I learned my own deep error; love's undoing
  • Taught me the worth of love in man's estate,
  • And what proportion love should hold with power
  • In his right constitution; love preceding
  • Power, and with much power, always much more love. (v. 854–8)

Towards the end of his life Browning told Mrs Orr that for him 'the evidence of divine power is everywhere about us; not so the evidence of divine love'.3 Yet in three earlier poems he had drawn convincing portraits of men who had reconciled the two. The Pope in The Ring and the Book acknowledges the existence of evil, but sees it as a cloud obscuring the sun, which else might shine too bright. For the Pope, evidence of God's love comes from the Incarnation, and 'repetition of the miracle,/ The divine instance of self-sacrifice/ That never ends pg 475and aye begins for man' (x. 1656–8). Rabbi Ben Ezra is aware of God's love through His creation:

  • I see the whole design,
  • I, who saw Power, see now Love perfect too:
  • Perfect I call Thy plan. (56–8)

This is a view shared by St John in 'A Death in the Desert', who once knew the living Christ:

  • And, as I saw the sin and death, even so
  • See I the need yet transiency of both,
  • The good and glory consummated thence?
  • I saw the Power; I see the Love, once weak,
  • Resume the Power. (218–22)

In 'Reverie' Browning avoids these answers, particularly that of the Incarnation; instead, he sees the union of Power and Love as a confident hope for the afterlife. He tells us that in his own life, as in the life of the world, the absence of Love has been only too evident, but he has faith that this wrong will be righted, probably in some future world. In the words of H. C. Duffin:

Life to be tolerable, should be pressing forward to heaven, where the adventurous soul may perhaps find continuing strife and storm, but where those who on earth aspired to the highest will find that Power is Love. Such is the poet's faith. He has always been aware of God's power, and life has taught him that if mankind's vision were clearer we should be equally aware of God's love.4

'Reverie', therefore, lacks the robust optimism of 'Rabbi Ben Ezra', as it explores doubts, hopes, and frustrations. The verse form Browning chooses, five-line stanzas with three stresses to a line, very well suits his thought patterns, with their repetitions, stops and starts, and parentheses. The basic iambic rhythm, interspersed with anapaests, stretched at times almost to breaking point, returns with a confident reassurance, when needed, particularly towards the end.

Notes

1 Beside the date at the end of 'Reverie' Browning has written the initials L. D. I. E. [Laus Deo Inscriptum Est], a practice he often adopted when he had finished a book. This suggests that originally 'Reverie', was intended to be the last poem in the new work. Browning changed his mind in Asolo, where he wrote 'Epilogue' to follow the revised 'Reverie'.

2 Philip Drew, The Poetry of Browning: A Critical Introduction (1970), 170.

3 Alexandra Orr, 'The Religious Opinions of Robert Browning', Contemporary Review, 60 (1891), 879.

4 H. C. Duffin, Amphibian: A Reconsideration of Browning (1956), 212.

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