Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 5: Men and Women
This imaginary poet is replying to a letter from Protus,1 a powerful ruler who has sent him a galley full of gifts, including 'one white she-slave' to serve as his cupbearer. He praises Protus as no ordinary king, and commends the splendid ambition which has led him to undertake the building of a tall tower:
- Whence, all the tumult of the building hushed,
- Thou first of men mightst look out to the East.
In the first forty-two lines the boundless power of the tyrant and the overweening pride of the poet are brilliantly established.
This impression is enhanced in the next long verse-paragraph, in which Cleon acknowledges that he is not only a remarkable poet, but also a sculptor, painter, an innovator in music, and a philosopher who has 'written three books on the soul'. He is, as we would say now, a Renaissance man whose abilities and ranging mind know no bounds, one who has attained 'The very crown and proper end of life'. That is why Protus asks him whether he fears death less than he himself does.
Cleon accepts that Protus is 'worthy of hearing [his] whole mind'. He rejects as a mere play on words the belief that a genius like himself 'lives on' through his works. He confesses that the truth about human life seems to him 'so horrible' that he has sometimes dreamed of personal immortality. If there were such a state, however, Zeus would surely have revealed it; and he has not. The poem ends, with a strong effect of dramatic irony, with Cleon's admission that he cannot forward the letter for the apostle Paul, as Cleon has asked him to do, since he does not know where this 'mere barbarian Jew' is to be found, or indeed whether Paul and Christ are not one and the same. Yet it cannot matter, since 'Their doctrine could be held by no sane man'.
'Karshish' and 'Cleon' have long been regarded as companion poems, a pair of the sort that had appeared as early as January 1836.2 The contrasting idioms of the garrulous yet highly intelligent Arab physician and the coldly lucid Greek artist point forward to the contrasting styles of the different speakers in The Ring and the Book.
pg 415Since the appearance of an influential article in 1927 it has been customary to associate 'Cleon' with Matthew Arnold's Empedocles on Etna, 'A Dramatic Poem' which we know that Browning admired.1 Having omitted it from his volumes of 1853 and 1855, Arnold reprinted it in his New Poems in 1867, with this note:
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of saying that I reprint (I cannot say republish, for it was withdrawn from circulation before fifty copies were sold) this poem at the request of a man of genius, whom it had the honour and the good fortune to interest,—Mr. Robert Browning.
Arnold's account of his aim in Empedocles is highly relevant here:
I intended to delineate the feelings of one of the last of the Greek religious philosophers, one of the family of Orpheus and Musaeus . . . living on into a time when the habits of Greek thought and feeling had begun fast to change, character to dwindle, the influence of the Sophists to prevail. Into the feelings of a man so situated there entered much that we are accustomed to consider as exclusively modern . . . the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.2
Proof, unavailable to DeVane, that Browning knew Arnold's poem in the year following its publication is to be found in a letter from EBB to her brother George written on 2 May 1853. 'Have you heard a volume of poems by Dr. Arnold's son, ('by A') spoken of in London?', she asked him. 'There is a great deal of thought in them & considerable beauty. Mr. Lytton lent them to us the other day.'3 The fact that they knew a virtually anonymous little volume of verse, of which fewer than fifty copies had been sold, is further proof of the remarkable way in which the Brownings were able to keep in touch with the English literary scene.
While it is of great interest that Browning's poem was probably prompted by Arnold's, the two could well have been written independently, as similar manifestations of the Victorians' passionate interest in the Greeks and the way in which they contemplated the great problems of life and death. By taking as his speaker an imaginary polymath of the first century ad, rather than an actual philosopher of the fifth century bc , pg 416as Arnold had done, Browning gave himself greater liberty, and produced a more successful poem.
1863: Men and Women
1 See A. W. Crawford, 'Browning's "Cleon" ': JEGP xxvi (1927), 485–6. There are minor inaccuracies in this article, however. It is not true that Arnold dedicated his New Poems (1867) to Browning. The grateful reference to Browning forms the first of the notes at the end of the volume.
2 Preface to Poems. A New Edition (1853), pp. v–vi.
3 Barrett, 184. Cf. Kelley and Coley, A 101.