Robert Browning's Strafford

by Michael Peverett

Being (temporarily, as I suppose) without an income, the thought crossed my mind that choosing to write about Strafford was an especially unhopeful way of earning wordly reward; a Victorian verse-play, one of the least admired of objects in that least practical class of objects, fine literature. In this somewhat senile state of mind I felt a certain private identification with the condemned Strafford and his never-to-be-realized vision of retiring into private life, "under a quince tree by a fish-pond side", his idea of seeing (from the aimlessly unparticular outside) how "the Senate goes on swimmingly". The young Browning was amazingly good at foreseeing the prospects of middle age.

But of course there are one or two fortunate people who can turn an honest penny from such pursuits as this. One of them is the excellent Browning scholar Clyde De L. Ryals, whose valuable chapter on Strafford in Becoming Browning (1983) is available to read here. (Perhaps all the other chapters are available likewise, but for some reason when I try to get at them it plays havoc with my laptop.)

This book was about Browning's early works. Professor Ryals had previously written another book about Browning's late poetry and has since written a well-received biography, so we await only the ripely magisterial meditation on the central and essential masterpieces, a book (I hope) such as was J.A.W Bennett's Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge. Merely to have read all Browning's poems is probably sufficient in itself to qualify as one of the world's leading Browning authorities. Ezra Pound boasted that he had read Sordello and couldn't see what the problem was, but after all that's only one poem.

This was Browning's first play and the one that is least like a closet drama; five acts and numerous speaking parts. It played for five nights in 1837, with Macready in the title role; it was critically rather well received, well attended, and it might perhaps have played for more, but the actor who played Pym had another engagement, and Macready (who thought the play needed drastic changes to make it act well) was content to let it drop.

I would love to see a performance of Strafford. No-one raises their eyebrows over a hundred performances of Elgar's Sea Pictures, so surely we could have one of Strafford. It would be a challenge to bring it off, however: a challenge such as ought to get a producer fired up.

I suppose one difference from Elgar sixty years on is that Browning's play is sourly and bracingly unroyalist AND unpatriotic.

He is brilliant at portraying upper-class putdowns. Here is Charles, entering for the first time and finding the newly-returned Strafford with Pym:

     (The KING enters. WENTWORTH lets fall PYM's hand.)

Arrived, my Lord? - This Gentleman, we know,
     Was your old friend :
                    (To PYM.) The Scots shall be informed
     What we determine for their happiness. (Exit PYM.)
     You have made haste, my Lord.

Charles concisely manages to tell Pym to fuck off and to make sure he does so with the most hateful expression of god-like Monarchism ringing in his ears; politely acknowledging, at the same time, that Strafford does have a past, and yet leaving a little menacing chill hanging in the air as to what might happen were Strafford to forget that such friendships are very much a past matter. Yet Charles' several messages to both men are mere second nature, they cost him no effort. It is not he who is jealous of Strafford's loyalty - the jealousy comes all from the other side. He is actually too dense to accompany the habitual high tone with any real political awareness.

As the scene continues Strafford tries fruitlessly to break down the social barrier between himself and the man he loves, but Charles never emits the right noises:

     (Went.).. I am here, now - you mean to trust me, now -
     All will go on so well!
     Cha.                    Be sure I will -
     I've heard that I should trust you : as you came
     Even Carlisle was telling me . . .
     Went.                     No, - hear nothing -
     Be told nothing about me! You're not told
     Your right-hand serves you, or your children love you!
     Cha. You love me . . . only rise !

As a matter of fact Charles does trust Strafford, so far as that goes, but that's not really what this conversation is about. Charles sees himself as a corporation, not as a man. He can only concede that Strafford loves him, no more. He cannot give anything but royal favours. The gew-gaw in this scene, the conferred earldom, is what bulks largest both for him and for his queen, who makes a memorably charmless entrance a few minutes later, just as Strafford takes his leave:

     Cha. That man must love me!
     Queen.                    Is it over then?
     Why he looks yellower than ever! well,
     At least we shall not hear eternally
     Of his vast services: he's paid at last.

The court manner of speech is beautifully conveyed, and Browning's re-engineered Lucy Carlisle - saccharine in most respects - is happily not immune from it either. This flexible, unpoetic, socially adept dialogue is one of the many slightly surprising delights of Strafford - for whatever reason, it is not what we think of as Browningesque. (I suppose the basic reason is that Browning was conscious of a play appearing in public, and of a tie-in book that for the first time he was not publishing himself. These pressures disciplined him to produce something carefully unlike himself.)

Against its hateful court, shallow queen and miserable king stand the Faction. Hampden and Vane the Younger were then conceived as heroic images of statesmen selflessly devoted to England (Hampden's statue dignified the new Palace of Westminster a few years after Strafford). Browning's play, though it honours these two splendid men - in particular the impulsive Vane - (of Hampden he mainly considers, perhaps, that he was said to be a man of few words) - , teaches us to shiver at the invocation of England. Chesterton complained that Strafford is insufficiently political, because Strafford's political philosophy is not made plain to us. Instead, Strafford's actions are motivated entirely by lover-like devotion to the king - a totally self-sacrificial devotion, though not at all a blind one, which compels Strafford to claim personal responsibility for all Charles' meanest and most stupid actions.

But Chesterton's complaint is unreasonable to some degree, though it is understandable. So much history is demanded of the reader - this is another of the pleasures of Strafford - that we may be misled into thinking that the play is a virtually ungarnished and accurate historical account of Strafford's downfall. But that, while I think it would make a great drama in theory, is really an impossible project. Browning comes nowhere near it. To take some glaring examples, Strafford in the play hardly ever speaks of Laud without some coolness: historically, Laud was one of his closest friends. In Strafford, no-one mentions Catholicism: Pym, historically, was obsessed with, and chiefly motivated by, the belief that Strafford lay at the heart of a Catholic conspiracy. In Strafford, Pym and Hampden defend the process of Attainder from the outraged protests of Vane and others; historically they opposed it at first, as Forster discovered and Browning must have known. And who reading Strafford could possibly imagine that the odious court gossip Sir Henry Vane (Vane the Elder) would in a very short time be joining with his son in opposition to arbitrary power, which historically is just what did happen?

[It's a question whether Browning modifies the relative ages of the persons. The year is 1640 at the start of the play. Strafford was 47, Charles 40 (but he still acts childishly). Pym was 56, but I think in the play we tend to regard him as about the same age as Strafford (e.g. because of Pym's "That walked in youth with me").]


Still, Chesterton's remark is a good starting-point. Browning's play is interested in power-politics, in the political will, in the psychology of politics; it is comparatively (though by no means altogether) uninvolved in the rights and wrongs of the issues that divide the characters. In that respect there are a lot of points in common between Strafford and e.g. Trollope's entertaining Phineas novels of thirty years later.


Pym has his revenge on Charles in the fourth Act. He is a man who makes dramatically unexpected entrances, of which this is one. He comes to the king, alone, to ask a mild question: if the Attainder is approved by both houses, will the king sign it? If the answer is no, he will not even propose it to parliament. Charles, under pressure, does one of those unexpected things that are characteristic of the play's awareness: he of all people suddenly becomes both acute and humane:

                                   You think
     Because you hate the Earl . . . (turn not away -
     We know you hate him) - no one else could love
     Strafford . . . but he has saved me - many times -
     Think what he has endured . . . proud too . . . you feel
     What he endured! - And, do you know one strange,
     One frightful thing? We all have used that man
     As though he had been ours . . . with not a source
     Of happy thoughts except in us . . . and yet
     Strafford has children, and a home as well,
     Just as if we had never been! . . . Ah Sir,
     You are moved - you - a solitary man
     Wed to your cause - to England if you will!

It is true and wise: but how much pressure he is under! For still, humanity is only an instrument here. The noble speech has a political subtext: Charles in his mild, meditative remarks is exploring in Pym's presence the concessionary possibility of dropping the human shield of Strafford and of taking responsibility for his own unpopular acts. Pym understands him perfectly. Politely accepting the king's reluctance he turns as if to go; but Pym is like the lawyer in Armadale, and he knows that the time to do all the really serious business is when the interview appears to be over. A meandering regret for the weary business of politics turns wanderingly into a hypothetical advice and suddenly focusses into a real threat:

     I thought, Sire, could I find myself with you –
     After this Trial – alone – as man to man –
     I might say something – warn you – pray you – save you –
     Mark me, King Charles, save — you!
     But God must do it. Yet I warn you, Sire —
      (With Strafford's faded eyes yet full on me)
     As you would have no deeper question moved
     —"How long the Many shall endure the One" . . .

And with that Charles' resistance collapses. Pym momentarily takes Strafford's place at the king's elbow and, at a still deeper level (as Charles with his "we all have used that man" accuses) he becomes an arbitrary ruler himself. He is King Pym.


English drama, from Ane Satyre (OK, that is Scottish) onwards, had been preoccupied with a conflict between private affection and public business. In the earlier drama this took the form of the monarch's Favourites, as in Marlowe's Edward II or Shakespeare's Richard II. Arbitrary love is associated with arbitrary will - in fact it is not called love but something dirtier. In Strafford, the love is high-minded, and the message is transmuted, no longer pressed by the author as good government but recognized instead as merely inevitable: political momentum will find a way to override private affection. This time it isn't the king's love of Strafford that is the issue - what existence did that ever have? - , it is Pym's love of Strafford. Hampden provides the justification:

                                   England speaks
     Louder than Strafford! Who are we, to play
     The generous pardoner at her expense -

And Pym, at length impatient with fainter hearts, provides the psychological methodology:

     Fien. I never thought it could have come to this!
     Pym. (turning from ST. JOHN). But I have made myself familiar, Fiennes,
     With that one thought – have walked, and sat, and slept,
     That thought before me! I have done such things,
     Being the chosen man that should destroy
     This Strafford! You have taken up that thought
     To play with – for a gentle stimulant –
     To give a dignity to idler life
     By the dim prospect of this deed to come . . .
     But ever with the softening, sure belief,
     That all would come some strange way right at last!

Pym becomes increasingly terrifying as the play wears on. By the last scene he sounds deranged, a messianic chosen one who does not converse in any normal sense but only declaims his mission and only listens to his "England" for guidance. As Strafford prophetically tells him, varying Blake:

     What? England that you love – our land – become
     A green and putrefying charnel...


Strafford must be allowed the privilege of having just made a heroic self-sacrifice of his own life (which was true - in reality he put it in a letter to Charles). Still, the accusation against Pym isn't fair. It is Charles' rule in defiance of Parliament that drives the country to war.

     Fien. Had we made out some weightier charge . . .
     Pym.                              You say
     That these are petty charges! Can we come
     to the real charge at all? There he is safe!
     In tyranny's stronghold! Apostasy
     Is not a crime – Treachery not a crime!
     The cheek burns, the blood tingles, when you name
     Their names, but where's the power to take revenge
     Upon them? We must make occasion serve:
     The Oversight, pay for the Giant Sin
     That mocks us!

Browning, I don't know why, doesn't choose to spell out the concrete evils attributable to Strafford that are comprehended by Pym's terms: Apostasy and Treachery. This permits a false interpretation of the action, in which Strafford is a victim who has always been old and sick, and has never really been guilty of anything except trying to forestall civil war.

If this is a fault, it nevertheless places the reader in a curiously gripping position: that of never being able to weigh exactly what the characters are claiming. In most earlier drama, the audience is gifted knowledge beyond what is known to the characters - "dramatic irony" becomes possible. Browning flirts with it a little in the final act, when Strafford being visited by Hollis assumes that a way will be found to get him off, but we already know that Hollis must tell him to prepare to die. This is not typical, however. What is more typical is Browning dropping us into the midst of a political scene in which everyone is talking - not very coherently, and often not very sincerely - about matters on which we can form no independent judgment. We cannot even quite understand them. From this impressionistic babble an airy sublimity sometimes emerges, e.g. Strafford reflecting:

     His path! Where's England's path? Diverging wide,
     And not to join again the track my foot
     Must follow – whither? All that forlorn way –
     Among the tombs!

Who can explain what Strafford means here by describing his track as "among the tombs"? Or later on in the speech, the supreme forsaken star? These must be senile intimations of his own fate.

In this intuitiveness, as in the bedrock of national history on which Browning builds - or flings together - these extravagant vehemences, Strafford instantiates a sobering feature of his poetic career. In arriving at the mature and admirable "achievement" of his middle years, what is notable is how much he surrenders to get at it. Strafford's successor, the extremely forgettable King Victor and King Charles, has quite a lot in common with it, except that the story, as Browning quotes Voltaire, concerns "a terrible event without consequences", a pure - a mere - drama of the soul in costume. That's where he was headed. But Strafford remains to show that we could have witnessed a different kind of engagement with history. It leaves me with some regrets about that, and a feeling that Pym's words about "a gentle stimulant To give a dignity to idler life" linger as a rebuke incurred by that later career.


Van Dyck's paintings are evidently an influence on Strafford. Its hero reflecting on "The man with the mild voice and mournful eyes" is alluding to Van Dyck's portraits of the king, "a face fit to paint the Saviour from" according to Bernini's (possibly apocryphal) remark.

I like to think that Browning's conception of Strafford as both confidently capable and all too aware of being isolated from his own party is influenced by, in particular, the Petworth portrait.

But Browning's conception of the English court resists the sombrely lyrical idealization of aristocracy in Van Dyck's paintings (as here, Queen Henrietta Maria):


Denzil Holles (Hollis in Strafford), the socially mobile Parliamentarian who was also Strafford's brother-in-law and Charles' childhood playmate, may also have been the author of this satire on Cromwell as Hercules Furens, inscribed on a West-Country hillside:

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