Happy 200th Birthday Robert Browning

Hello Mr Browning,

I think you are great. Really great. Thank you for writing lots of the best poetry in English, including, but not limited to, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, ‘Andrea del Sarto’, ‘A Toccata of Gallupi’s’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover'(*).

I set up a thing about you. It was mostly meant as fun, and I suppose it has been, or at least it’s kept me entertained. (By the way, I was delighted when my rips of James Mason reading your poetry were exactly the right length to be mixed with the exact two songs that I’d already thought it might be fun to use. I took it as a sign. Thanks.)

It’s meant I’ve spent the last month or two thinking about you a lot, and reading you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks again.

So, you’re a classic, but not much more than one at the moment, and that bothers me. You’re in the canon, but there are no festivities, no seasons of your works, no big articles in which a minor novelist or thoughtful actor tries to sell you to an indifferent public. I’m a bit out of touch (In the West of Ireland, on a bad internet connection, so excuse the fact-checking and lack of quotes) – so maybe The Essay on Radio 3 is about you this week. But it’s all a bit disappointing. I feel like there’s just a little cadre of fans and maybe a few poems that people know(**), and otherwise you’re in the hands of the academics, God love them.

I don’t get it. You’re dynamite, a poet who absolutely answers to us. You know how we’re all middle class now? (HA! RIGHT!) You’re the pre-eminent English poet of the middle class, & I don’t mean how-the-middle-class-sees-themselves, because if you were you’d be popular, I mean you are the great artist of the urban bourgeoisie, the revolutionary class that Marx told us to learn from, the one that took over and transformed the world, 1688-1900, who built the hegemon we’re trapped in; you’re their/our artist (not a laureate, not telling us what we want to hear) because you are all about the doubts, the terror, the one who gets how everything is collapsing even as it is being built, the contingency of it all, Clive of India about to get a bullet through his skull in a card game, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, a tyrant of compromise and laodicean cowardice…

wait there’s a donkey giving birth in a field nearby, I want to go and have a look.

Cool, the action’s over, everything fine, mother and child are doing well. Donkey foal is bigger than I would have imagined. Took some photos. Where were we?

You seem to know what’s underneath: that it’s all built of private states and private moments and that we justify ourselves, everything by returning to the interior. That we build lives on top of the void with these voices in our head, nagged by these other voices around us, aware that everything can be seen from another perspective. God might vindicate it all, wrap it all up into one big story, but really, who can trust him now?

It’s not that you write about Empire, London commerce, what it is to be ‘modern’ etc, in fact you really don’t – you’re always going crabwise to it – you’re drawn to the Italian city state maybe because it’s the birth of the secular world – banks and scholars and show-off merchants and dubious priests and artists who don’t give a row of buttons about the one holy roman catholic and apostolic church even while living in its shadow (The poleis should suit you, too, but I don’t really know your Greek poems (***)).

Your contemporaries worked hard to make you more sensible than you were, just a poet of bullish optimism and over-active intellect, but you you were always overshooting or undermining. Too particular, too precise, too thrilled by the throng of the world (haha I’m picking up your faults – thrilled, throng – seems that initial alliteration always the first thing that comes out of your toolkit when you’re getting a bit prosy and want to pick things up. Sorry. But the criticism’s coming from a loving place.)

(People say you’re like Dickens sometimes. I think this is largely wrong; you both like grotesques and details but you’re far far better at the interior world than him; more a George Eliot than a Dickens, though it’s deeply disguised.)

(Oh, I’m not saying you’re secretly a fiction writer; that long tradition of trying to cast you as something other than a poet – philosopher, thwarted dramatist, novelist – almost always reveals the person making the claim to be a bit thick about poetry’s capacity, power and history, and not to have really paid attention to your joy in form, love of supererogatory detail and heft of language. Though I accept such claims can be made to draw attention to an aspect of your poetry. Which is what I’m doing. Obvs.)

(There’s one thing you do have in common with Dickens. As you know, because you’re a ghost and can read my thoughts, I think paper was too cheap in the Victorian period and there weren’t enough distractions like telly and such, which meant basically people wrote way too much – it is the era of flabby style, ‘ffs i don’t have time for this Cardinal Newman’ etc. You and Dickens are the two with the constant energy and inventiveness to fill all that space, those reams and reams of paper, brilliantly and engagingly, detail after detail, novelty after novelty. Sometimes it can be a little wearing. But we’re here to celebrate!)

I live in Camberwell, by the way. You’d find it very different today – there’s little you’d recognise in fact – but you’d enjoy it perhaps. It’s busy and confusing and mixed up and there are a lot of buses. The strange foods and strange fabrics would catch your eye, and I hope you’d be ok with the fact that it’s very black –wasn’t your father disinherited because he took an anti-slavery stand? (and then your grandfather presented him with a bill for his education!). It might take some getting used to, but surely you’d at least want to find out about the African churches set up in disused office spaces on Walworth Road. It’s just your subect!

That makes me wonder: Would you be a Christian if you were around now? Can’t imagine it; you were barely one then in some ways, the great and profound poet of Victorian doubt, radio receiver picking up a signal that said the world was pointless even while transmitting message that we had to carry on, had to do and make things: the interference made the poet. But you wouldn’t be a science-sceptic either I suspect. Too much uncertainty in the world and in people’s hearts; you like the margins, the doubt, the shifting light at the edge. But maybe you’d see something in the science world now: living information, patterns and codes at all levels, chaotic systems… maybe. We need new theologies, but perhaps there’s not quite enough love or death in it for you, a bit too paracelsus-lost-in-intellect.

Oh, there’s a street named after you, up where your school used to be, near the Elephant and Castle. Isn’t that great? It’s not an especially nice street, but still.

I’ve enjoyed hanging out with you a great deal. Today, I’m going to finish off Fifine at the Fair (****), maybe read Red Cotton Night Cap Country.

Fifine, God, that reminds me, we haven’t even started talking about you and sex. Chesterton wonders how the hell you got past Victorian prudery, and you pop up in John Carey’s book on Donne when Carey points out you’re way more physical, more sensual than Donne, and I think he’s right: all those details of body parts, imagining the weight and texture of clothing on skin. Lust and perversity and perversion – sometimes feels you’re nearer the bottom of them than eg Swinburne (plays the shock game, plays the fetish game, cannot get beyond them).

Take The Inn Album. 1) It is super creepy that no-one has a name. Amps up the vaguely kinky atmosphere. 2) Feels like the relationship between the older and younger man is swimming over the line from homosocial to homosexual. The whole education-in-corruption thing that’s gone on before the action starts unspeakably suggestive. 3) It’s one of the great sex-death-money narratives of the reign – the older man’s horrible psych game in which he fake-pimps the ex-hot-stuff turned dutiful clerical handmaiden (which, as it turns out, = living in actual hell) to the younger man in order to get out of his gambling debt is, well… I am completely unsurprised the critics gave you a kicking for the ethics of this one. But it’s great and you are right and it is a pity barely a soul reads it now.

Anyway. I’ll stop there. I could probably go on, but I’m already annoyed at this ramble. I come to praise you, simply, and say hello, and I end up wrapping myself up in arguments about class and sex and canon, and slightly odd theories that you don’t much care about. You loved people; you mastered sound and rhythm; you wrote astonishing poems. You made the world better. Thank you Mr Browning, and happy birthday.


(*) I know, it is a totally unimpressive and obvious list, as though I had picked ‘Yesterday’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘In My Life’ as my favourite Beatles songs, but hey that is just the way things are sometimes. But i will now also mention ‘Development’, and ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’ just to let everyone know I rate a few deep cuts. Literary anxiety! One of your subjects, eh?

(**) By the other measure of survival, tag-making, you’re actually doing pretty well. You have a few lines that just float around, and people know them even if they don’t know where they’re from: ‘Oh to be in England, now that April’s here’, ‘God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world’, ‘where were you when the kissing had to stop’. I think that’s competitive with other major figures. Does Jonson have a single one?

(***) Could have just used ‘polis’ there of course, no need for the plural, much less the fussy plural, but dammit I taught myself Attic Greek and I am going to show it off else what’s the use. And then tell you about it in a footnote, just in case you DON’T GET IT.

(****) This is only going to mean so much to you, but I spent the best part of a morning before going to Ireland looking for Fifine on Google books and sending increasingly enraged feedback when they were refusing to offer anything more than snippet view of editions from the 1870s. HOW CAN IT BE IN COPYRIGHT? HOW? HOW? ANSWER: IT ISN’T.