Robert Browning's Pauline

by Michael Peverett

Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

Pauline is a fragmentary poem about the unnamed narrator's inability to commit himself to poetry. His conception of poetry is vastly ambitious, its blueprint an apotheosized Shelley. Perhaps the very ambition makes failure inevitable, or perhaps he is right to analyze traits of vacillating weakness, vanity, over-egocentrism, over-self-analysis, insincere religiosity, insufficient love for others, and the rest. But Browning at 21 wasn't yet interested in the miniature detail of character portraits; here is no concreteness of situation, hardly any human association, and a turmoil of inner development that looks like it could cycle round and round for ever. Pauline is best when the narrator's imagination is given free rein, fragmentarily and confusedly, but boiling with pent-up energy.

               I have no confidence,
     So I will sing on—fast as fancies come
     Rudely—the verse being as the mood it paints.

The narrator's poetic is in an unstable relationship with the poem that contains him: it tries intermittently to suggest the kind of poem he cannot manage, maybe (secretly) to even be it. That opens up an experimental space that later triumphs would exclude.


The resulting imaginative visions are strange. Quite early in the poem the narrator imagines himself as

               a young witch, whose blue eyes,
     As she stood naked by the river springs,
     Drew down a god

- a god who "sat in the sunshine / Upon my knees". It isn't obvious iconography, and nor is this conception of "A craving after knowledge":

               for I beheld it in its dawn,
     That sleepless harpy, with its budding wings,
     And I considered whether I should yield
     All hopes and fears, to live alone with it,
     Finding a recompense in its wild eyes; ...
     I cannot but be proud of my bright slave.

A harpy, according to my dictionary, is "a rapacious and filthy monster, part woman, part bird", but the narrator's vision seems to be partly infected by the earlier ones of the swan and the young god. Think here, too, of the words to Christ:

               oft have I stood by thee—
     Have I been keeping lonely watch with thee,
     In the damp night by weeping Olivet,
     Or leaning on thy bosom, proudly less—
     Or dying with thee on the lonely cross—
     Or witnessing thy bursting from the tomb!

Not so much devotional as inchoately sexual, and with an impulse towards water that keeps recurring. The passage about Andromeda "as she awaits the snake on the wet beach" is also in this vein.

The most extended imaginative flight is, however, unpeopled. This is the "home for us, out of the world", that the narrator tries to imagine for himself and Pauline. His attempt proceeds fitfully, and that's the point, since it ends in frustration. Vibrant and rich in ideas as his imagination is, it refuses to stay still and it destroys its own attempt to envisage equilibrium, that is, a home. The narrator begins at night, but that's a false start; he isn't able to cope with such low visual input. So he switches to day, and moves deeper and deeper inwards to a water-coursed wood: "Dive we down—safe..." Eventually he invents/discovers "a small pool" and the pace slows, "still deeper in: / This is the very heart of the woods..":

                    the trees bend
     O'er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl,
     And thro' their roots long creeping plants stretch out
     Their twined hair, steeped and sparkling; farther on,
     Tall rushes and thick flag-knots have combined
     To narrow it; so, at length, a silver thread
     It winds....

This heart of the woods could have been (as he indeed names it) a pond, altogether cut off from other waterways. But the restless imagination of the narrator is impelled to move on; he has conjured up a silver thread to keep the water sparkling, and now he cannot forebear to pursue it: he is done with "deeper in" and instead commits himself to "farther on". Excitement grows:

     See, they part, like a ruined arch, the sky!

But now that the imagination is moving outwards, it becomes greedy for material, which is flung on in ever larger pieces, like feeding a bonfire:

          the muleteers, who whistle as they go
     To the merry chime of their morning bells, and all
     The little smoking cots, and fields, and banks, ...

This demand for wider vistas, these summary "all"s, cannot be maintained, and then the vision collapses:

     I cannot be immortal, nor taste all,
     Oh God! where does this tend—these struggling aims!

In the end the poem confesses to the imperative of onward motion, which is indeed why it's impossible to model one's work on the completed achievements of the dead.

[The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.]

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed