Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 5: Men and Women

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Franz Anton Mesmer (1733–1815), an Austrian who dabbled in various branches of scientific thought, observed some of the features of what we know as hypnotic suggestion, and devised a system of his own to account for them. In his conception of the underlying unity of everything in nature, and in his tendency to mysticism, he can be regarded as having something in common with Paracelsus. He believed that the planets affect human health, and, fascinated by experiments with electricity, formulated his theory of 'animal magnetism', a phenomenon to which he ascribed hypnotic effects. Discarding the magnets, however, he came to believe that some power of influencing others resided in himself. From the 1780s Paris was excited by his claims; he held exhibitions which had some of the characteristics of the séances of 'mediums'.

In England it was during the 1840s and 1850s that magnetism was most widely discussed. '"What are we to believe"', wrote a contributor to the Quarterly Review in September 1853,

as to Mesmerism, Electro-Biology, Odylism, Table-Talking, and (we are almost ashamed to be obliged to add) Spirit-Rapping and Table-Turning, is a question which most persons have asked themselves or others during the last few years, and to which the answers have varied with the amount of information possessed by the respondent, with his previous habits of thought, with his love of the marvellous, or his desire to bring everything to the test of sober sense.1

In an early letter EBB asked Browning whether he was 'not aware that these are the days of Mesmerism & clairvoyance?', demanding to know whether he was an 'infidel'.2 She defended mesmerism against the charge that it was associated with religious unbelief. Her friend Harriet Martineau had an enthusiastic interest in the subject, on which she had written seven letters in the Athenæum for 1845: she believed that mesmerism had cured her of cancer. Browning, on the other hand, was strongly disposed to be sceptical, describing a French friend of his whose 'poor brains are whirling with mesmerism in which he believes, as in all other unbelief'. Early the next year, however, he was more diplomatic, stressing that he was not wholly opposed: 'Understand that I do not disbelieve in Mesmerism—I only object to insufficient evidence being put forward as pg 104quite irrefragable—I keep an open sense on the subject—ready to be instructed … So, I shall read what you bid me, and learn all I can.' EBB thought it a terrible thing to put oneself in the power of another, but while she was revolted by the idea she was also attracted in spite of herself.

In this she was not alone. Most members of the intellectual class of the age were fascinated by the claims of mesmerism, not least the writers. 'With regard to my opinion on … Mesmerism', Dickens wrote in January 1842, 'I have no hesitation in saying that I have closely watched Dr. Elliotson's experiments from the first … and that after what I have seen with my own eyes and observed with my own senses, I should be untrue both to him and myself, if I should shrink for a moment from saying that I am a believer, and that I became so against all my preconceived opinions.'1 Charlotte Brontë, Thackeray, and George Eliot were also keenly interested, as were such Continental and American writers as Balzac, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Browning described to his American publisher James T. Fields as 'the finest genius that had appeared in English literature for many years',2 may well have provided the germ of this poem.3 In The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, a young man tells the story of an ancestor of his own who had been a mesmerist, one Matthew Maule. By means of his power he had dominated a beautiful young woman, Alice Pyncheon. Whereas the mesmeriser and his subject are usually together at the time of the experiment, we notice that Maule is said to have possessed the power of summoning Alice from a distance:

Seated by his humble fireside, Maule had but to wave his hand; and, wherever the proud lady chanced to be—whether in her chamber, or entertaining her father's stately guests, or worshipping at church—whatever her place or occupation, her spirit passed from beneath her own control, and bowed itself to Maule.4

On one occasion he summoned her to 'wait upon his bride'. Inevitably she came, but the night was cold and wet, so that she caught a cold and died. In the narrator's words, 'he had taken a woman's delicate soul into his rude gripe, to play with;—and she was dead!'5

pg 105The piece is in five-line stanzas rhyming abbaa. Lines 2 and 3 of each stanza are dimeters, almost always consisting of an anapaest and an iamb, while the longer lines are trimeters, usually made up of one iamb and two anapaests, or two iambs and one anapaest. The movement of the verse tells us that we are listening to a man in a state of high excitement. In the words of Arthur Symons, 'The intense absorption, the breathless eagerness of the mesmerist, are rendered, in a manner truly marvellous, by the breathless and yet measured race of the verses—fifteen of them succeed one another without a single full-stop, or a real pause in sense or sound.'1 The speaker may well be deranged, and his story an illusion. With great tact, however, Browning leaves 'the actuality of such phenomena an open question'.2 'Mesmerism' is a brief Gothic tale, told by a man who believes himself to possess paranormal powers.

  • Date: 1853/4
  • 1863: Dramatic Romances

Notes

1 Vol. xciii, pp. 501–2.

2 Kintner, i. 31, followed by i. 110 and 424.

1 The Letters of Charles Dickens (Pilgrim ed.), iii. 23.

2 E. P. Gould, The Brownings and America (Boston, Mass., 1904), 65.

3 See J. C. Austin, 'The Hawthorne and Browning Acquaintance': Victorian Newsletter, 20 (1961), 14–15.

4 Centenary ed., ed. Fredson Bowers et al. (Columbus, Ohio, 1965), 208–9 (repr. Oxford, 1991, ed. Michael Davitt Bell).

5 Ibid. 210.

1 Arthur Symons, An Introduction to the Study of Browning (1894), 113. The number of stanzas without a full stop depends on the text one reads. In 1855 sts. 2–18 all end in dashes.

2 James Fotheringham, Studies of the Mind and Art of Robert Browning, 4th ed. (1900), 463. Browning praised the first ed. of this 'very noticeable book': Letters, 279.

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