[Adapted from Glenn Everett, "You'll Not Let Me Speak": Engagement and Detachment in Browning's Monologues"]
To twentieth-century readers of Robert Browning's poetry, the reactions of his contemporaries may seem startling. One is prepared to see Browning disliked for his obscure references and difficult syntax, but the critics of the 1830s, '40s, and '50s were more extreme: it was impossible to make sense of his poetry, they said, he must have gone mad, he was unreadable. This charge of "unreadability" is curious, for today the standard view of his work is that it is a variety of the Romantic "poetry of experience," the kind of thing with which his critics should have been most familiar. Something is amiss. Whereas modern criticism sees more similarities between Browning and his predecessors than differences, his contemporaries react as if they are facing something new and alien. Clearly, they did not know what strategies to use in reading Browning's poems.
The same fundamental lack of comprehension of Browning's appears even in the reactions of major critics, such as John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin, both of whom incidentally made the Wordsworthian lyric central to their notions of poetry. Witness Browning's remarks in the copy of Pauline that has both John Stuart Mill's marginal notations and the young Browning's responses to them. In his comments beside lines 971-75,
So, when spring comes
With sunshine back again like an old smile,
And the fresh waters and awakened birds
And budding woods await us, I shall be
Prepared, and we will question life once more. . .
Mill wants to know what it is that the Poet is preparing himself for. Browning's reply is, "Why, 'that's tellings,' as schoolboys say" (Peterson and Standley 169). The rules for his poetry are the same as those for schoolboys' games: the participant has to infer the truth without actually being told it, from "a set of governing rules" (Iser, Act 108).
Certainly, some readers — perhaps we should say players — will find some games more difficult, even bewildering, as John Ruskin did Browning's poetry. This statement of his poetic practice is taken from a December 1855 "thank you" letter to Ruskin, who had written some friendly criticisms of Men and Women:
For your bewilderment more especially noted — how shall I help that? We don't read poetry the same way, by the same law; it is too clear. I cannot begin writing poetry till my imaginary reader has conceded licences to me which you demur at altogether. I know that I don't make out my conception by my language, all poetry being a putting in infinite within the finite. You would have me paint it all plain out, which can't be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you. (Litzinger and Smalley 14-15)
In other words, the reader must fill in the gaps, and can do so better from the standpoint of the auditor than from that of the speaker.
Modified 18 December 2003