My title creates what to some will seem a most unlikely union. What has typology, an exegetical approach to the Old Testament, to do with nineteenth-century autobiography? And what has either typology or autobiography to do with Robert Browning's poetry — poetry which Browning repeatedly and emphatically insisted was "always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine"?1 Quite simply, I suggest that typology and typological habits of mind were an important influence on the structure of nineteenth-century autobiography and that this influence is evident in and helps illumine a series of Browning's autobiographical poems.
I. Biblical Typology and Autobiographical Structure
Since both the terms autobiography and structure are currently used in different, even contradictory ways and since the influence of typology on nineteenth-century literature has received little attention,2 let me begin with definitions and explanations. In the strict sense of the term, Browning never wrote an autobiography. Late in life he composed the Parleyings, poems which include material relevant to his intellectual and artistic growth, but he did not write autobiography per se: a professedly truthful record of his life, composed as a single work and told from a consistent temporal point of view.3 Nevertheless, some of his poems are autobiographical in that they describe his development [235/236] as an artist. In them Browning speaks as poet, discussing a particular aesthetic concern or recounting a crisis in his poetic career. In doing so, he draws upon traditional types to structure and thus interpret his experience.
In this essay, then, I limit my use of structure to autobiographical writing — specifically, to the shaping of the events of an autobiographer's life as a whole into a coherent pattern or to the relating of a limited number of events to a pattern. This pattern is not necessarily inherent in the events themselves, but is discovered in or imposed upon those events as the autobiographer looks back upon his life. The discovery of such a pattern is a primary task of the autobiographer: he must create order out of the chaotic events of his life. In his attempt to create order, of course, he must guard against falsifying the facts of his experience.4 But if an autobiography is to be written at all, the autobiographer must discover or create an appropriate structure, and to do so, he may — and usually does — borrow structures from previous autobiography, from fiction, history, poetry, and other forms of discourse, altering them to suit his particular needs.
Many nineteenth-century autobiographers, I would suggest, derive their structures from biblical typology — either directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, for a part of the work or for the whole. There are several reasons for this derivation. In the first place, typological exegesis encouraged men and women to view their lives as correlatives of Old Testament types. Strictly used, typology was an exegetical approach to the Bible which treated Old Testament persons, events, and things (types) as prefigurations of Christ or some aspect of his ministry (antitypes). But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these types were also applied to events in the history of the Church or to experiences in the life of the individual believer. For example, the great Victorian preacher Henry Melvill, minister of Camden Chapel, Camberwell, during Browning's youth and later Chaplain to Queen Victoria and Canon of St. Paul's, taught his parishoners that the history of Israel was "a figurative history, sketching, as in parable, [236/237] much that befalls the Christian Church in general, and its members in particular"; it was, he added, a prophecy which would "find its accomplishment in the experiences of true disciples of Christ in every nation and age."6 Similarly, John Wesley explained the temptations and wanderings of modern Christians as parallels to the wilderness state of the Israelites:
After God had wrought a great deliverance for Israel, by bringing them out of "the house of bondage, they did not immediately enter into the land which he had promised to their fathers; but "wandered out of the way in the wilderness," and were variously tempted and distressed in like manner, after God has delivered them that fear him from the bondage of sin and Satan, . . . not many of them immediately enter into "the rest which remaineth for the people of God." The greater part of them wander . . . out of the good way into which he hath brought them. They come, as it were, into a "waste and howling desert," where they are variously tempted and tormented: and this, some . . . have termed, "A wilderness state."
The classic example of this typological frame of mind is the popular eighteenth-century hymn "Guide me, 0 thou great Jehovah":
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy pow'rful hand:
Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Open, Lord, the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing streams do flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliv'rer, be Thou still my Strength and Shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside:
Death of death, and hell's Destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan's side.
Songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee.8
The history of the Israelites provides the structure for the personal history of the individual believer, and the significant events of the Exodus — the manna, the water from the [237/238] rock, the pillars of cloud and fire, the crossing of Jordan the entry into Canaan — become prefigurations of Christian experience. When men raised in h churches or Dissenting chapels wrote formal autobiographies, then, it was natural to draw upon typological patterns.
There is another reason for the influence of typology upon English autobiography, secular as well as religious The developmental autobiography,6 the dominant mode of the nineteenth century, evolved from the spiritual autobiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth, and these autobiographies had drawn explicitly upon typology for their structures.
Paul Delany has shown that at the beginning of the seventeenth century English autobiography had no prescribed form. Secular autobiographers imitated various fictional genres; religious autobiographers turned to the Bible for their models, especially to accounts of Old Testament leaders, the psalms of David, the Book of Job, and the Pauline conversion experience in Acts.10 By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the form of spiritual autobiography had become fairly conventionalized, primarily through the influence of Bunyan's Grace Abounding and (among Quakers) Foxe's Journals. Following Bunyan, spiritual autobiographers built their narratives around a conversion experience. Generally, they began with an account of their sins and unrepentant ways, described a dramatic conversion, continued with a period of confusion or even backsliding, and ended on a note of spiritual felicity.11 Where did Bunyan and his successors find this pattern?
It seems fairly obvious that their primary source was the Exodus account, traditionally a type of the Christian's experiences from this world to the next. The autobiographer's description of his unrepentant ways corresponds to the Egyptian bondage; the dramatic conversion, to the flight from Pharaoh and the crossing of the Red Sea; the period of confusion or backsliding, to the wilderness wandering; and the final peace, to the entry into Canaan. In the preface to Grace Abounding, in fact, Bunyan draws [238/239] upon the Exodus account to justify the writing of a personal narrative:
Moses (Numb.33.1,2) writ of the Journeyings of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the Land of Canaan; and commanded also that they did remember their forty years travel in the wilderness. ... Wherefore this have I endeavoured to do; and not onely so, but to publish it also; that, if God will, others may be put in remembrance of what he hath done for their Souls, by reading his work upon me. [Bunyan, p. 2, 11. 9-11, 15-17]
Implicit in this justification is a typological application of the Exodus. Bunyan views himself as a spiritual Israelite, and thus the overall structure of his autobiography takes on the pattern of a modern exodus.
The spiritual autobiographer also drew upon typology not only for the overall structure of his work but to illumine specific events within it. Bunyan uses types in this way in section 38 when he, yet an unrepentant sinner, meets some Christians in Bedford:
And me thought they spake as if joy did make them speak: they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me as if they had found a new world, as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their Neighbours, Num. 23.9. At this I felt my own heart began to shake, as mistrusting my condition to be naught.
Numbers 23:9 records the unwitting blessing of Balaam upon Israel, a blessing imposed upon him by God in place of an intended curse. Thus, by analogy, the unrepentant Bunyan found himself blessing Christians whom he might otherwise have scorned.
Now these two uses of typology in seventeenth-century autobiography influenced the form and content of nineteenth-century autobiography — both religious autobiography per se and the secularized "developmental" autobiography. In Versions of the Self John N. Morris has already demonstrated a general relationship between seventeenth-century spiritual autobiography and nineteenth-century developmental autobiography: "the experiences recorded in [239/240] nineteenth-century autobiography are ... secular counterparts of the religious melancholy and conversions set down in the autobiographies of earlier heroes of religion . . . '[S]elf is the modern word for 'soul'" (5-6). I am simply suggesting two other aspects of that relationship: first that the habit of viewing one's life as a spiritual exodus influenced the general form of many nineteenth-century autobiographies so that both religious and secular works tended to be organized around a dramatic conversion preceded by a period of bondage and succeeded (despite the conversion) by a period of confusion or wandering; and second, that the habit of drawing parallels between Old Testament types and one's own life frequently influenced the content of nineteenth-century spiritual autobiographies and even some secular ones.
Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, the classic secularized spiritual autobiography of the period, demonstrates both of these influences. Consider, for example, the Editor's introduction to Teufelsdrockh's biography. He queries, "By what singular stair-steps . . . and subterranean passages, and sloughs of Despair, and steep Pisgah hills, has he reached this wonderful prophetic Hebron . . . where he now dwells?" and then warns us "that this Genesis of his can properly be nothing but an Exodus" (76, 81). In Book Second itself Teufelsdrockh's experiences assume the structure of a spiritual exodus. First, Teufelsdrdckh leaves the "Egypt of an Auscultatorship" where he "painfully toiled, baking bricks without stubble"; then he wanders through a "slough of Despair" and over "steep Pisgah hills" with "no Pillar of Cloud by day, and no Pillar of Fire by night"; finally, he reaches a "wonderful prophetic Hebron," but only after he affirms that the "Universe is not dead and demonical, a charnel-house with spectres; but god-like, and my Father's (131, 161, 188). Even the three central chapters of the biography show the influence of Exodus typology — "The Everlasting No" paralleling the rebellion against Pharaoh; "Centre of Indifference," the wilderness wandering; and "The Everlasting Yea," the entry into Canaan. Of course, Teufelsdrockh's is an exodus after the disappearance of God, for throughout his wanderings there is no sign of God's presence, no pillar of cloud by day or pillar of fire by night. gut traditional types still provide the structure of the autobiography.18
Types further contribute to our understanding of specific incidents within Sartor Resartus. Joseph Sigman's recent study of biblical allusions in Sartor notes, for example, that the description of Paris streets as "pavements as hot as Nebuchadnezzar's Furnace" depends upon a well-known type to make a moral judgment on the Enlightenment:
Paris, the capital of the Enlightenment, is spiritually the Babylon in which the three young men were cast into the furnace because they would not "fall down and worship the golden image" (Dan.', 3:10). The furnace, a general biblical image for captivity, torment, and testing, ... is the cultural environment that rejects the prophets and believes only in the senses.19
Carlyle also makes Teufelsdrdckh and his experiences into modern correlatives of other familiar types: Melchizedek, Moses, Isaiah, the Babylonian captivity, the ark of the covenant, and others. For our purposes, the significance is this: Carlyle, writing a new spiritual autobiography for nineteenth-century man, drew quite consciously upon a typological pattern for the structure of his work; he also drew upon other types to interpret specific incidents within that work. And one can find similar uses of typology in other major nineteenth-century autobiographies. Ruskin's Praeterita contains a series of failed Pisgah visions. In the Apologia Newman views himself as a "Moses in the desert" and an "Elijah excommunicated from the Temple." Even Mill's Autobiography, which makes no explicit use of types, derives its basic pattern of bondage-crisis-confusionultimate redemption from the Exodus.20
Browning tends to use typology in his autobiographical poems to interpret specific incidents within his life rather than to provide an overarching structure for it (although, as we shall see, he returns again and again to Moses, using every maior event in that type's life). Generally, these types are not applied to explicitly spiritual crises; thus he [241/242] does not use the exodus as a type of his own spiritual experience. The closest Browning comes to treating himself as an antitype of the Israelites is in Christmas Eve poem not literally autobiographical ("all the incidents are imaginary," Browning told W. G. Kingsland, " — save the lunar rainbow" but one which allegorically reconstructs a religious crisis in Browning's life (DeVane 199).
The crisis was a common enough one in the Victorian era: which form of Christianity to embrace. As Browning considered the alternatives, the most important were Nonconformity, the way of his mother and wife; Roman Catholicism, the way of Newman; and German rationalism the way of Strauss and his English followers. Browning chose the first and in the final section of Christmas Eve described his decision with a type:
May truth shine out, stand ever before us!
I put up pencil and join chorus
To Hepzibah Tune, without further apology,
The last five verses of the third section
Of the seventeenth hymn of Whitfield's Collection.
Hepzibah was Isaiah's name for the nation of Israel, restored after the Babylonian captivity, but also, according to typological interpretation, restored finally and completely at the second coming of Christ. "Hepzibah Tune" in Whitfield's collection was probably the popular hymn, "Come we that Love the Lord," a song of saints "marching thro' Immanuel's Ground / To fairer Worlds on high."22 Thus in Christmas Eve Browning makes himself a modern Israelite, returning after years of exile.
This particular type, however, raises more questions than it answers. From what sort of exile was Browning returning? No doubt, as DeVane suggests, from the religious waywardness of his youth and indifference of his manhood (195-97). To what did he return? Probably not to the evangelicalism of his youth, but to the form of worship represented by the chapel, a worship without the elaborate trappings and restricting dogmas of Catholicism on the one hand or the skepticism of the German rationalists on the other. But [242/243] one suspects that Browning deliberately chose a very commonplace type to avoid being specific.
In its application of typology to personal religious crisis Christmas Eve is an anomaly. Usually, when Browning applies types autobiographically, it is to interpret his experiences as a poet. These interpretations cannot be found within a single poem; instead, throughout his career he used types to define his concept of the poet and to describe specific difficulties he encountered as an artist. In the remainder of this essay I want to look first at three relatively early pieces — the narrator's intrusion in Book III of Sordello, Bells and Pomegranates, and "Saul" — to see how Browning used types to find his poetic self. Then, I shall turn to four later poems — "One Word More," Book I of The Ring and the Book, the "Prologue" to Asolando, and "Pisgah Sights" — to see how Browning used types to interpret an artistic predicament or explain an aesthetic problem. What we shall see emerging is a series of autobiographical jottings, made with traditional Old Testament types.
II. Types and the Poet's Office
Browning first uses types autobiographically in Sordello, a poem about a gifted young man who fails to become either a mature, productive poet or an effective political leader. In one sense, as Browning's biographers and critics have frequently pointed out, the poem contains many autobiographical elements; it is, as Michael G. Yetman says, Browning's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.24 But I am concerned here with a specific section of the poem in which Browning as narrator, musing "on a ruined palacestep / At Venice," speaks of his predicament as creator of Sordello and of the nature of the poet's office.
At the end of Book III, after 3,000 lines exploring the reasons for Sordello's failure as a poet, Browning imagines a dialogue between himself and his audience. The topic is the poet's task and the best way to carry out that task. Browning believes that the poet's responsibility is [243/244] to help suffering humanity and argues that in order to help effectively, the poet must address the problem of evil. For those poets who ignore this primary responsibility, versifying about inconsequential matters, he has no patience:
What, dullard? we and you in smothery chafe,
Babes, baldheads, stumbled thus far into Zin
The Horrid, getting neither out nor in,
A hungry sun above us, sands that bung
Our throats, — each dromedary lolls a tongue,
Each camel churns a sick and frothy chap,
And you, 'twixt tales of Potiphar's mishap,
And sonnets on the earliest ass that spoke,
— Remark, you wonder any one needs choke
With founts about!
His audience is quick to point out, however, that Browning's performance in Sordello is not much to emulate:
While awkwardly enough your Moses smites
The rock, though he forego his Promised Land
Thereby, have Satan claim his carcass, and
Figure as Metaphysic Poet. . . .25
The lines allude to Numbers 20, the account of Moses striking the rock at Meribah-Kadesh to provide water for the drought-stricken and hence angry Israelites. (Zin was the desert through which they travelled; the Numbers account follows the narrative of Joseph's experiences in Egypt [" 'twixt tales of Potiphar's mishap"] and precedes the story of Balaam ["the earliest ass which spoke"]; Moses's punishment for striking the rock was exclusion from Canaan.) On the simplest level, this biblical allusion anticipates what Browning knew would be his audience's reaction to Sordello: bewilderment, frustration, rebellion. What the audience wants is water — that is, the story of Sordello told in an intelligible manner. But this is not what it gets. After the initial promise, "Who will, may hear Sordelo's story," the narrator leads his readers through some of the most difficult lines in English poetry, and still they cannot understand Sordello's story or Browning's rea[244/245] sons for telling it. Thus Browning expects his readers, like the Israelites, to murmur and complain.
The allusion to Moses striking the rock functions in a more complex way, however. The audience is not simply the Victorian reading public nor even the literary critics; more specifically it consists of Browning's poetic predecessors — those he mentions by name (Sidney, Shelley, Landor) and those he does not (Donne, Milton, the Romantics). The narrator is, in Harold Bloom's terminology, an ephebe, a young poet writing his first big poem, taking on the strong poets who precede him and who would prevent him from becoming, too, a strong poet.26 Bloom would also call him a latecomer, a post-Miltonic poet struggling with the weight of the entire English poetic tradition.
At this point the typological interpretation of the Meribah-Kadesh incident can help us understand, as it helped Browning explain, his predicament as a latecomer. During the exodus Moses struck a rock twice to provide water for Israel: once early in the journey (Exodus 17: 1-7), once thirty-seven years later (Numbers 20: 1-13). It was on the second occasion that Moses incurred God's anger and was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. According to the Old Testament account, Moses was punished for unbelief:
And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron. Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. [Numbers 20:12]
Nineteenth-century typologists offered a fuller explanation for God's anger. As Henry Melvill explained in a sermon Browning may have heard, "It is generally allowed that this rock in Horeb was typical of Christ; and that the circumstances of the rock yielding no water, until smitten by the rod of Moses, represented the important truth, that the Mediator must receive the blows of the law, before He could be the source of salvation to a parched and perishing world."27 By typological logic, then, since Christ needed to die only once, Moses needed to strike the rock only once. To strike twice was to spoil God's plan: [245/246] Hence it would have been to violate the integrity and beauty of the type, that the rock should have been smitten again; it would have been to represent a necessity that Christ should be twice sacrificed and thus to darken the whole Gospel scheme (II, 166).
But moved by the genuine need, frustrated by the complaints, and perhaps overconfident of his own abilities Moses struck twice.
Moses's dilemma is the dilemma of the latecomer: he must repeat a task already undertaken, more or less successfully, at an earlier time. What is that task? As Browning believed, the poet must discover the source of and cure for evil. Why, then, repeat the task — which, after all, had been attempted by several major English poets and had been accomplished brilliantly by Milton a century and a half earlier? First, Browning repeats the task because the needs of the people demand it; he cannot stand "on a ruined palace step / At Venice" and observe "warped souls and bodies" without responding to the need. But Browning also repeats the task because the answers of his poetic predecessors are not satisfactory for his generation. Each poet, he goes on to explain, "constructs an engine" which "Grows into shape by quarters and by halves." Just when
The scope of the whole engine's to be proved;
We die: which means to say, the whole's removed,
Dismounted wheel by wheel.
The next poet must
set up anew elsewhere, begin
A task indeed, but with a clearer clime
Than the murk lodgment of our building-time.
And then, I grant you, it behoves forget
How 'i is done. [italics mine]
The final line pinpoints the predicament of every new poet. The later poet may have "a clearer clime" than did his predecessor, but — and here Browning outdoes Harold Bloom — "it behoves forget." Remembering creates an anxiety of influence; forgetting helps the poet escape that [246/247] anxiety. Thus Browning does not begin his career optimistically, expecting to win acclaim or even great success. His Moses strikes the second time and expects to suffer for doing so.
Browning's choice of an Old Testament type to interpret his predicament as a young poet is only half the story, for (paradoxically) his choice also becomes an attempt to escape the anxiety of influence. To understand the strategy of this attempt we must ask why Browning chose Moses for the first type in his poetic autobiography.
Recent critics have recognized in Sordello Browning's attempt to escape the particular influence of Shelley. Michael Yetman, in fact, treats the poem as an exorcism of Shelley, an attempt "to dissociate himself most emphatically from that earlier poet whose work, because of its temporal priority over his own, appears to threaten or neutralize the originality of his achievement."29 Browning performs this exorcism in several ways. To begin with, he simply tells Shelley to stay away in a sort of anti-invocation:
stay — thou, spirit, come not near
Now — not this time desert thy cloudy place
To scare me, thus employed, with that pure face!
More importantly, as Yetman points out. Browning gives young Sordello some rather negative Shelleyan traits, "those vaguely idealist habits of mind" which are ultimately responsible for the young poet's downfall: his extreme solipsism, his ungovernable need for public acclaim, his unrealistic expectations about language, his political naivete, his tempermental reluctance to accommodate himself to the notion of gradual change in human affairs rather than apocalyptic leaps forward, and his inability to translate mental growth into meaningful action (83). I would add here that Browning's Moses provides another way of exorcising Shelley and of dissc ating himself from his own earlier Shelleyan approach to poetry, for with Moses Browning suggests what the Shelleyan poet lacks.
In the first place, unlike the Shelleyan poet, Moses does [247/248] not look for truth within himself: his truth comes directly from God. Browning's first heroes had all been Romantic questers. The Pauline poet's method is self-confession and self-discovery; Paracelsus insists that "Truth lies within ourselves"; and young Sordello, too, remains "imprisoned within the romantic ego" (Stempel 561), looking within the self for answers and ignoring that "Power above [him] still / Which utterly incomprehensible, is out of rivalry." In contrast, the narrator of Sordello — that is, the new Browning — links himself with Moses as a mediator, not a discoverer, of truth. Like the Hebrew prophet, he is a forthteller of God's message.
Second, unlike the Shelleyan poet, Moses defines his responsibility to his people in a specific, immediate way. The Pauline poet was essentially an escapist; a "priest and lover," he beckoned Pauline to "come with me, see how I could build / A home for us, out of the world, in thought," much as the Keatsian devotee in "Ode to Psyche" vowed to "build a fane / In some untrodden region of the mind." Not completely an escapist, young Sordello intends to make a positive impact on history, but ultimately fails. As Browning sees it, Sordello's failure (and Shelley's) stems from an essential selfishness, a concern for others only as they relate to his own achievement:32
Sordello only cared to know
About men as a means whereby he'd show
Himself, and men had much or little worth
According as they kept in or drew forth
In contrast, he narrator sees the plight of a "sad dishevelled ghost" and uedicates himself to her redemption:
Warped souls and bodies! yet God spoke
Of right-hand, foot and eye — selects our yoke,
Sordello, as your poetship may find!
So, sleep upon my shoulder, child, nor mind
Their foolish talk; we'll manage reinstate
Your old worth.
All this may be saying no more than that in Sordello Browning first presented himself as a poet-prophet, a [248/149] common enough stance in the 1830s when young Victorian artists felt obliged to demonstrate their usefulness to society. If so, then Moses striking the rock was a particularly suitable type: Moses was the first prophet, a communicator of divine truth, and he was also the first poet, the author of the Song of Moses (Deut. 32). But 1 think Browning's use of Moses is significant in a third way, for with Moses Browning deliberately allies himself with two earlier Christian poets — Donne and Milton — and thereby attempts to bypass Shelley, his immediate predecessor.
Donne and Milton were two of Browning's acknowledged favorites, and he knew their poetry well enough to remember their important allusions to Moses, the poet.33 In the First Anniversary Donne had cited Moses's example to defend his own use of poetry to record a serious historical event:
Vouchsafe to call to minde that God did make
A last, and lasting'st peece, a song. He spake
To Moses, to deliver unto all,
That song: because hee knew they would let fall,
The Law, the Prophets, and the History,
But keepe the song still in their memory:
Such an opinion (in due measure) made
Me this great Office boldly to invade.34
Milton, of course, alluded to Moses's song in the invocation to Paradise Lost:
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos.
In the First Anniversary and in Paradise Lost Donne and Milton present themselves in a public role as poet-prophets, and significantly, too, they address the problem of evil, the problem that haunts Browning in this passage of Sordello.
Using Moses as a correlative type, then, Browning both explains a personal predicament and attempts to solve it. The type identifies his fears as a young poet trying to [249/250] separate himself from his predecessors. It also helps him make the separation by defining his sense of the poet's role vis-a-vis God and vis-a-vis society.
In Bells and Pomegranates, the series published immediately after Sordello, Browning adds two other types to clarify further his concept of the poet: the bells and pomegranates of the high priest's robe and David, the Hebrew psalmist. The title of the series baffled many readers including Elizabeth Barrett. "Do tell me what you mean precisely by your 'Bells and Pomegranates' title," she wrote Browning. "I have always understood it to refer to the Hebraic priestly garment — but Mr. Kenyon held against me the other day that your reference was different, though he had not the remotest idea how."36 In the final number of Bells and Pomegranates, therefore, Browning explained the title:
I only meant by that title to indicate an endeavour towards something like an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought; which looks too ambitious, thus expressed, so the symbol was preferred. It is little to the purpose, that such is actually one of the most familiar of the many Rabbinical (and Patristic) acceptations of the phrase. [Quoted by DeVane 89]
Browning cites Rabbinical and Patristic authorities, but typological interpretations of the bells and pomegranates were common enough in nineteenth-century exegesis. As Elizabeth Barrett realized, the two items were part of the high priest's garments, sewn alternately on the hem of his robe (Exodus 28:33-34). Since the high priest himself and every aspect of his dress typified Christ, typologists gave this sort of interpretation: the bells represent Christ's voice or "the sweet sound of the gospel which is gone into all the earth"; the pomegranates are emblems of "those fruits of righteousness with which the preaching of the gospel is attended."38 Hence, "sound and sense," as Browning explained, or "faith and good works." He might also have said, "My poetry and the fruit it will bear," but that would have been too explicit a declaration that the plays and poems of Bells and Pomegranates, unlike Sordello, would make a positive impact on those who read them. [250/251]
Bells and Pomegranates obviously signals a priestly role for the poet. Eleanor Cook sees in the title a decision to abandon (at least temporarily) the prophetic mode of Sordello, which had met an overwhelmingly hostile reception, and turn to a style which the public might more readily accept.39 It is unlikely, however, that Browning considered the priestly and prophetic roles as mutually exclusive. According to traditional teaching, the offices of priest and prophet were related. Patrick Fairbairn explained, for example,
The office'of the priesthood . . . necessarily involved somewhat of a prophetical or teaching character; and in after times, when those destined lights of Israel became themselves sources of darkness and corruption, prophets were raised up, and generally from among the priesthood, for the express purpose of correcting the evil, and supplying the information which the others had failed to impart. [II, 236]
More likely, with Bells and Pomegranates Browning attempted to add the priestly role to the prophetic, thus clarifying another aspect of the poet's relationship to society. Such a practice would have been exegetically legitimate, for typologists frequently used several Old Testament types to explain a single antitype. It would also have been in character for Browning who, early in his career, decided to be an artist of many talents and under different pseudonyms write a series of poems, novels, operas, speeches, and so on.41
Bells and Pomegranates does, however, signal a different sort of poetry. The bells are not direct utterances of God's law but instead pleasant sounds which remind the listeners of God's law as the priest walks among them. This describes, it seems to me, the method of Pippa Passes, which was the first number of the series. As Pippa wanders through Asolo, her songs are heard by others. The point is not that her songs are to be taken as specific messages from God or that they are to be evaluated theologically, as some critics have done; rather, they remind the listener of some forgotten truth.42 This approach also describes Browning's method in Bells and Pomegranates as a whole. The plays and the new dramatic monologues are not direct utterances, but "sweet sounds" which remind the reader of [251/252] some truth he already knows and thus carry with them the promise of fruit.
In "Saul," originally published in the seventh number of Bells and Pomegranates, Browning adds a third Old Testament character with numerous typological associations to his poetic autobiography — David. As Ward Hellstrom pointed out several years ago, "Saul" itself is thoroughly typological. Not only are Saul and David types of Christ in their roles as king and God's anointed; in almost every stanza typological imagery serves to unify the poem and move it logically to David's final vision: "See the Christ stand!"43 In addition to this fairly orthodox use of types, Browning uses David as a correlative type to explore his own responsibility as a poet and to explain the sort of poetry he, as a modern David, should write.
David was, after all, the chief Hebrew psalmist, and as such, he became a model for Christian poets and hymnwriters. Isaac Watts, for instance, invoked David's example to justify free translations of the psalms and original hymns:
They [the psalms] ought to be translated in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day: And therefore his poems are given as a pattern to be imitated in our composures, rather than as the precise and invariable matter of our psalmody.44
Christopher Smart's "A Song to David," which Browning gave as his inspiration for "Saul," treats David as the supreme poet who in his psalms and in his person foreshadowed Christ.45 And Browning seems to have viewed David as the archetypal poet-seer; in An Essay on Shelley he compares a visionary passage of Shelley's poetry with "David's pregnant conclusions so long ago."46 Most important, David's predicament in "Saul" defines the situation of the nineteenth-century poet, and it is this similarity of circumstance which makes David an appropriate type. Just as David must sing to assuage Saul's deep psychological and spiritual needs, so must the modern poet's song alleviate the burdens of his society. For David the psalmist and Browning the poet the question becomes, then, what sort of poetry has such power? [252/253]
The first fifteen stanzas of "Saul" tell us what sort of poetry does not have this power. First, David plays the simple songs of nature and man in nature: "the tune all our sheep know," "the tune, for which quails on the cornland will each leave his mate," "the help-tune of our reappers," "the glad chaunt / Of the marriage," and "the last song / When the dead man is praised on his journey." None of these songs can elicit more than a shudder from Saul. Next, David sings of the joys life has to offer Saul and of the fame which will last when life is over:
Is Saul dead? "In the depth of the vale make his tomb bid arise
A gray mountain of marble heaped tour-square, till, built to the skies,
Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame would ye know?
Up above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go
In great characters cut by the scribe, — Such was Saul, so he did;
With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid, —
For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there!
But these songs, too, fail to heal Saul. Only after David's vision of God's love in Christ, revealed through his own love for Saul, can David understand what sort of poetry he must sing.
The poem never tells us explicitly what sort of poetry that is, for after stanza fifteen, David recounts his vision, not his song. But Browning implies two things: (1) The Wordsworthian poetry of nature and the Shelleyan internal quest are inadequate; the poet needs a help beyond nature and himself. Here we have returned to the final section of Sordello and to Browning's analysis of Sordello's failure:
Ah my Sordello, I this once befriend
And speak for you. Of a Power above you still
Which, utterly incomprehensible,
Is out of rivalry, which thus you can
Love, tho' unloving all conceived by man —
What need! And of ...
... a Power its representative
Who, being for authority the same,
Communication different, should claim
A course, the first chose but this last revealed —
This Human clear, as that Divine concealed —
What utter need! [253/254]
David learns what Sordello, who remained trapped within himself, failed to learn: mere human knowledge and love are inadequate to heal; if the poet is to speak effectively his power and his message must be divinely inspired. (2) Nevertheless, the poet communicates this divinely inspired message through physical, earthly things. Thomas J. Collins has pointed out that within the poem David (or rather Browning) translates this pattern of 'the earthly revealing the divine into an aesthetic theory. David uses "the world of material reality as 'the starting point and basis alike' of successful poetry" and in the final stanzas builds on the physical and human to achieve a spiritual vision (122). David functions, then, as a type of Browning the poet. For Browning the aesthetic principle is the same — the human reveals the divine; the physical, the spiritual; the earthly, the heavenly. The only difference between David's poetry and the modern poet's is this: what David writes looks forward in time to Christ's life on earth (hence, the typological imagery in "Saul"); what Browning writes commemorates Christ's life and translates Christian truth into contemporary terms (hence, the use of correlative typology in poems such as The Ring and the Book).
III. Types and the Poet: Later Additions
Prophet, priest, and psalmist helped Browning formulate his conception of the poet, a conception which remained more or less the same throughout his career. In several later poems, however, he returns to two prophetic types Moses and Elisha — to reassess his view of the poet and to comment further on specific personal and aesthetic problems. I have labelled these later -omments (1) repetition, (2) resuscitation, and (3) revision.
In "One Word More," the epilogue to Men and Women, Browning once again uses Moses and the account of water from the rock. This time his concern is not self-definition or aesthetic theory, but the personal price one pays for being a poet. Addressed "To E.B.B." and admittedly autobiographical, the poem uses the type to contrast "the man's joy" in painting a picture or writing a poem for his [254/255] lover with "the artist's sorrow" in undertaking the same task for a public audience:
Wherefore? Heaven's gift takes earth's abatement!
He who smites the rock and spreads the water,
Bidding drink and live a crowd beneath him,
Even he, the minute makes immortal,
Proves, perchance, but mortal in th minute,
Desecrates, belike, the deed in doir
George P. Landow has already explained the typological framework of the poem. In striking the rock, Moses participated in a figurative event, providing physical water for the Israelites and foreshadowing the spiritual water which Christ's death would make available to all mankind; thus, in effect secularizing the type. Browning suggests that the poet provides physical and spiritual sustenance for his audience. Just as in Sordello, then. Browning uses the type to suggest the prophetic aspect of the poet's task.
But, again, as in Sordello Browning alludes to the second account of Moses striking the rock, and it is this account with its attendant typological tradition which enables him to explain a personal predicament:
Even he, the minute makes immortal,
Proves, perchance, but mortal in the minute,
Desecrates, belike the deed in doing.
While he smites, how can he but remember,
So he smote before, in such a peril,
When they stood and mocked — "Shall smiting help us?"
When they drank and sneered — "A stroke is easy!"
When they wiped their mouths and went their journey,
Throwing him for thanks — "But drought was pleasant." [italics mine]
Moses desecrated the deed when he struck the rock a second time instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. How does Browning desecrate the deed? Obviously, by failing to write perfect poetry — the plight of every mortal who, like Browning, would "put the infinite within the finite."sup>49 But he also desecrates the deed by striking twice, by repeating an act attempted and accomplished earlier. In Sordello as we have seen, this consciousness of [255/256] repetition reflected the frustration of an ephebe: Browning feared repeating what his successors had already done successfully. In "One Word More," however, he seems concerned about repeating what he himself has already done:
Thus old memories mar the actual triumph;
Thus the doing savours of disrelish;
Thus achievement lacks a gracious somewhat;
O'er-importuned brows becloud the mandate,
Carelessness or conscious — the gesture.
For he bears an ancient wrong about him,
Sees and knows again the phalanxed faces,
Hears, yet one time more, the 'customed prelude —
"How should'st thou, of all men, smite, and save us?"
The emphasis is on the remembrance of a prior act. What exactly did Browning feel he was repeating? If I have interpreted his use of types correctly, then the answer is plain enough: he was repeating what he had already attempted in Sordello. We have seen that with the completion of Sordello and the early numbers of Bells and Pomegranates Browning had worked out his conception of the poet as a servant of society, a communicator of divine truth, and a mediator between God and man. Thomas J. Collins' study of Browning's aesthetic theory additionally suggests that with Sordello the poet had solved the moral and aesthetic problems of Pauline (the danger of isolation, the lack of a central motivating goal tenaciously pursued, and the failure to accept poetic compromise) and had posited a moral-aesthetic synthesis which was to remain the basic principle of his thought throughout the rest of his career (Collins 77). But in Sordello Browning had also attempted a new type of poetry complementary to this moral-aesthetic theory, and it was this new poetry which caused problems.
Book III of Sordello explains this new poetry as more than mere description or even description plus interpretation. Instead, it allows the reader to see with the eyes of the poet:
The office of ourselves — nor blind nor dumb,
And seeing somewhat of man's state, — has been [256/257]
For the worst of us, to say they so have seen;
For the better, what it was they saw; the best
Impart the gift of seeing to the rest.51
Book V defined it as "synthetic" poetry. Superseding the epic, in which the author tells the reader of moral good and evil, and the dramatic, in which the author manipulates characters to show good and evil, this new poetry draws the reader fully into the creative-interpretive process:
Leave the mere rude
Explicit details! 'tis but brother's speech
We need, speech where an accent's change gives each
The other's soul — no speech to understand
By former audience: need were then to expand,
Expatiate — hardly were we brothers! true —
Nor 1 lament my small remove from you,
Nor reconstruct what stands already. Ends
Accomplished turn to means: my art intends
New structure from the ancient.
Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the "brother speech" of Sordello was a disaster. Readers judged the poem "incomprehensible" and called its style "offensive and vicious." "What this poem may be," said the anonymous Spectator reviewer, "we are unable to say, for we cannot read it" (Litzinger and Smalley, pp. 60, 62, 64). Thus Browning found himself caught in an embarrassing discrepancy between his theory of the poet as the communicator of truth and the actuality of Sordello — which no one could understand.
After the failure of Sordello Browning spent fifteen years re-working the practical application of his moral aesthetic theory. Men and Women was the culmination of this process, for in this volume Browning actually does "impart the gift of seeing" and make the reader an integral part of the poem. But as the typological allusion in "One Word More" suggests, there was bitterness mixed with the achievement: "old memories mar the actual triumph." Surely, as he published Men and Women, Browning remembered the contemptuous reviews of Sordello and the disaster of his first attempt as poet-prophet. The [257/258] second use of Moses striking the rock is therefore ironically appropriate. It invokes the example of Moses, who suffered personally for attempting to serve his people but for serving inadequately, and it also explains the predicament of a poet who must repeat himself and pay the price of repetition.
Resuscitation rather than repetition becomes Browning's concern in Book I of The Ring and the Book. In this introductory monologue the poet speaks of his materials and his method, and to explain the method, he turns to Elisha and the miracle of the Shunammite's son. The mood here is different from that in "One Word More." Whereas Browning's use of Moses in that poem reflected the bitterness of artistic failure, Elisha in Book I serves for a spirited defense of Browning's choice of subject: a forgotten Roman murder story which many readers might consider dead and irrelevant historical debris.
Browning argues otherwise. At first he compares himself to Faust: "I raise a ghost." But then, changing his mind, he claims a higher authority for his method:
Oh, Faust, why Faust? Was not Elisha once?
Who bade them lay his staff' on a corpse-face.
There was no voice, no hearing: he went in
Therefore, and shut the door upr them twain
And prayed unto the Lord: and went up
And lay upon the corpse, dead the couch,
And put his mouth upon its moiini, his eyes
Upon its eyes, his hands upon its hands,
And stretched him on the flesh; the flesh waxeil warm:
And he returned, walked to and fro the house,
And went up, stretched him on the flesh again,
And the eyes opened. 'Tis a credible feat
With the right man and way.
The raising of the Shunammite's son, to which the passage refers, was commonly treated as a type of Christ's miracles of resurrection — the raising of Lazarus and Jairus' daughter and the resurrection of his own body; some commentators also saw in it a foreshadowing of the final resurrection of the elect to eternal life (Mather 113). Using these interpretations, [258/259] we can see the relevance of Elisha's miracle to Browning's technique. In his art the poet imitates (and commemorates) Christ by bringing what was dead to life. Browning, in fact, introduces this imitatio Christi theme earlier in Book I when he compares the poet's act of creation to God's creation of the world:
I find first
Writ down for very A B C of fact,
"In the beginning God made heaven and earth;"
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence — that man,
Man, — as befits the made, the inferior thing, —
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow, —
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him, — which attempt is growth, —
Repeats God's process in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result, —
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
The comparison with Elisha follows and is carefully chosen to illustrate Browning's aesthetic theory.
Elisha's resuscitation miracles had a second possible typological interpretation. According to Samuel Mather,
There might also be a Spiritual Application and Accommodation of them, as to the quickening of Mens Souls, the healing of the Diseases of the Soul, feeding them with the Bread of Life, pouring into empty Vessels, empty Souls, the Oyl of Gladness, the Joys and Graces of his Spirit. [Mather 113]
That is, the miracles signify a spiritual revitalization, a meeting of the soul's needs. This spiritual interpretation of the type explains, it seems to me, why Browning abandoned Faust as a symbol of the poet and chose Elisha instead. It was not simply, as Eleanor Cook says, that Browning frequently wavered between mage and prophet or even that Faust, who dealt in black magic, was ultimately damned for his art. Faust as artist was inadequate, for The Ring and the Book attempted more than the raising of a ghost. As the final monologue of the poet insists, Browning intended the poem to produce "a quickening of men's souls": [259/260]
Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
Of all the prophetic types, Elisha best served Browning's need to explain his method and intention in The Ring and the Book. According to typological exegesis, Elisha's miracle represented a literal, historical fact which signified an ultimate, spiritual salvation.55
In two late poems, "Pisgah Sights" and the "Prologue" to Asolando, Browning returns to Moses as a type of the poet. Both poems are revisionary — they look back to an earlier time in his career when "Sinai-forehead's cloven brilliance" was his style, and with a certain irony, they smile at young Browning, the poet-prophet.
"Pisgah Sights," published in 1876, takes its title from the mountain upon which Moses viewed the Promised Land just before his death. The details of Moses's death were in themselves typological, prefiguring the death, ressurrection, and ascension of Christ, but here Browning focuses on the prophet's vision of Canaan as a type of his own prophetic vision of earthly existence.
It is quite easy to mistake the poem for another (mediocre) example of Browning's "Sinai-forehead's cloven brilliance." Stanzas such as
Over the ball of it,
Peering and prying.
How I see all of it,
Life there, outlying!
Roughness and smoothness,
Shine and defilement,
Grace and uncouthness: One reconcilement.
"Which things must — why be?"
Vain our endeavor!
So shall things aye be
As they were ever. [260/261]
"Such things should so be!"
Sage our desistence!
Rough-smooth let globe be,
Mixed — man's existence!
seem to contain the sort of prophetic pronouncements that Browningites of the early twentieth century loved to quote admiringly. Even DeVane, whose notes on the poems are generally perceptive, sees only contentment and reconciliation in the poem and thus is misled to conclude that it is "a curious commentary upon some of the less genial poems of the Pacchiarotto volume."57
But Browning's ironies undercut (or at least seriously call into question) the pronouncements and his own role as prophet. First of all, the poem is a Pisgah vision, a vision granted to the speaker, as to Moses, only at his death when it can be of no worldly use to him:
Honey yet gall of it!
There's the life lying,
And I see all of it,
Only, I'm dying!
It becomes perhaps his punishment for those earlier "imperial fiats," just as Moses's punishment for striking the rock twice was exclusion from the Promised Land. Second, because it is given at death, the vision is of no use to mankind. Even if he could return to earth and proclaim it, the speaker says he would not:
Could I but live again
Twice my life over
Would I once strive again?
* * *
Only a learner,
Quick one or slow one,
Just a discerner,
I would teach no one.
I am earth's native:
No rearranging it!
I be creative,
Chopping and changing it? [261/262]
The vision leads to a renunciation of the prophetic role and to a questioning of the value of a life spent "rearranging" things on earth. Finally, there is even a touch of bitterness reminiscent of "One Word More" in the lines,
Those who, below me,
(Distance makes great so)
Free to forego me,
Fancy you hate so!
Standing on Pisgah's heights, the poet-prohet remembers the negative reception he received during his lifetime and imagines the additional negative comments now that he stands above other men. Thus the poem looks back to earlier works — Sordello, Men and Women, The Ring and the Book — in which Browning had assumed the responsibilities of prophet. There through types he had shown himself striking the rock and dispensing the water of life. Here he shows us the prophet's reward — a Pisgah vision riddled with ironies. The reward scarcely seems just recompense for a life of service.
In Asolando, the final volume of Browning's poetry, the prophet makes his peace with his past, his audience, and himself. The "Prologue" returns to a familiar Mosaic type to contrast the poet's age with his youth and to reaffim his calling as a poet-prophet. Appropriately, Browning uses the first incident in Moses' prophetic career — the vision of the burning bush — as a correlative of his own calling:
"The Poet's age is sad: for why?
In youth, the natural world could show
No common object but his eye
At once involved with alien glow —
His own soul's iris-bow["].
* * *
How many a year, my Asolo,
Since — one step just from sea to land —
I found you, loved yet feared you so —
For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No — [262/263]
No mastery of mine o'er time!
Terror with beauty, like the Bush
Burning yet unconsumed. Bend knees,
Drop eyes to earthward! Language? Tush!
Silence 'tis awe decrees.
When the poet returns to the scene of his calling, he finds that the bush has changed.
And now? The lambent flame is — where?
Lost from the naked world: earth, sky,
Hill, vale, tree, flower, — Italia's rare
O'er-running beauty crowds the eye —
But flame? The Bush is bare.
Lest this absence of flame (the equivalent of Wordsworth's "glory passed away from the earth" in the Intimations Ode be mistaken for a revocation of his poetic calling, Browning quickly adds another aspect of the incident:
A Voice spake thence which straight unlinked
Fancy from fact . . .
... for the purged ear apprehends
Earth's import, not the eye late dazed.
The Voice said, "Call my works thy friends!
At Nature dost thou shrink amazed?
God is it who transcends."
Thus, at his death Browning both revises and reasserts his claim as prophet. The young poet who looked for spiritual meaning in every physical thing has become the mature poet who has learned the distinction between God and his creation.
The "Prologue" to Asolando completes Browning's poetic autobiography with a conscious repetition of Moses as type of Browning the poet. Browning had first visited Asolo in 1838 while writing Sordello. As we know from Book III, one result of that visit was his dedication to "suffering humanity," a dedication symbolized in his use of the prophet Moses. At the end of his life. Browning returned to [263/264] Asolo — literally, for he died there on December 12, 1889. But he also returned poetically, once again using Moses as a correlative type and reaffirming his claim as modern prophet.
Last modified 26 July 2012