Blended selves and the spectacle of subjection in Browning's "Andrea del Sarto".
Such unpropitious conditions for women do not produce uniformly charming results: though unusually, even refreshingly self-pleasuring, the masculinized Lucrezia seems self-absorbed and avaricious, as well as faithless. But reflecting on how Andrea, too, is unprepossessing, and rendered female (through his absorbing romantic attachment and unrealized potential, for instance), one begins to perceive how husband and wife are alike. By moving these two characters toward greater identification with each other--especially in their shared femininity--the poem reveals how the kinds of disabilities usually imposed on women can push people to clutch at some sense of control and self-esteem through unsavory means. He endeavors to detain her at home, stifle her speech, and make her the cause of his artistic underachievement, for example, while she ignores him, craves money, and openly takes another lover. But their mutual movement across porous gender norms and the temporary placement of each one's words in the other's mouth indicate a surprising overlap in their experiences of how disempowered femininity can warp the self. Ultimately, then, the monologue forgives and sympathizes with its unlikeable characters more than most readers are inclined to do.
This essay argues that "Andrea del Sarto" shows Browning thinking about the issues of social control over women's movements, voice, and sexuality that occupied his contemporaries in Italy and Britain in the 1850s, and that the poem demonstrates how the disempowerments of womanhood generate the distasteful traits of Andrea as well as of Lucrezia. The couple's mutual efforts to assert themselves and exercise control lead them not only to contend against each other, but also to identify with one another, as each recognizes in the other the personality-distorting maneuvers of a desperate individual suffering the restrictions and resentments usually attendant on Renaissance and Victorian womanhood. This gender- and identity-blending matters in part because it represents a key innovation of the distinctively Victorian genre of dramatic monologue, whose emergent poetics I briefly historicize by means of cognitive theory. The article will situate the poem in its immediate context, where the policing of women's sexual selves had surprisingly far-reaching social and political consequences, and then touch on the gender fluidity of the poem's main characters before moving to a detailed assessment of Andrea's endeavors to control Lucrezia's speech. It concludes by considering how speech in the poem blurs identities--finally giving way to a moment of insight without speech--and I gesture toward the implications of my argument for an understanding of genre and cognition.
Regulating Women's Bodies in England and Italy
No discussion of Lucrezia--the literary and historical resonances of her name, Browning's handling of his source material in Vasari's Lives, and her function within the sign system of the poem--should fail to situate her with respect to the lively climate of 1850s discourse respecting women. Both in England and the Italian peninsula, where the Brownings lived when Robert published "Andrea del Sarto" in Men and Women (and Elizabeth published Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh, which also famously feature Italy and the place of women (2)), discussions of women and sexuality accelerated throughout this decade, a fact I will illustrate briefly here and throughout the essay.
As the example of Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) indicates, women in the comfortable classes of Renaissance Italy served as a social glue that united the interests of wealthy families and political parties. (3) Borgia herself was betrothed, married, and separated from (via annulment and murder) a string of men through the machinations of her father and brother, as their financial and political whims dictated. But in her last marriage, to the Duke of Ferrara, she seems to have enjoyed the freedom of extramarital affairs in a manner akin to her immediate contemporary Lucrezia del Fede, the painter's wife whom Browning imagines as dallying with the "Cousin" outside her window. That the poet invents this detail of her infidelity, thus departing from his sole or primary historical source in Vasari, validates my claim that he seeks to direct reader attention to the control and circulation of women's bodies in Renaissance Italy and in his own time.
Though upper-class women in Victorian England performed an adhesive function somewhat similar to Lucrezia Borgia's, the emerging model of companionate marriage competed with the older tradition of arrangement. While Browning was writing about a disappointing marriage in "Andrea del Sarto," his home country publicly engaged in the discussions of marriage, infidelity, and divorce that led to the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, legislation that notoriously codified the sexual double standard whereby men--but not women--could sue for divorce solely on the basis of a spouse's adultery. (4) Lucrezia's openness about her infidelity, and Andrea's connivance at it and devotion despite it, would present challenges to received notions of morality and marriage in Victorian England. Her obviously adulterous relation with the cousin was exactly the sort that the Matrimonial Causes Act would proscribe. Unlike female adultery, male adultery was taken for granted by many, and that assumption played a defining role in the concurrent British and Italian debates about prostitution, to which I return later. What I wish to establish here is the immediate contemporary relevance of Browning's poetic representation of marital and sexual relations.
Violating and Vindicating Gender Norms
Traditional gender roles might be said to go out the same window as that in which Lucrezia sits throughout her husband's monologue. Andrea's palpable craving for the security of physical and even artistic enclosure means that he occupies an unusually domestic space, (5) while his wife's placement in a window--that liminal position between public and private--is one of numerous signals that she enjoys a substantially more public persona. The painter's dependence on Lucrezia to shield him from the unpleasant censures he might encounter in public, his prioritizing romantic love over all else, the latent eroticism of his interaction with King Francis (11. 153-161), and his cringing, begging subjection to his wife all compromise his masculinity, by traditional standards. In contrast, Lucrezia's power over her husband, her unsentimental view of art as a commodity, and her open indulgence in extramarital affairs mark her as "masculine." She also inhabits a powerful position as the instigator of her husband's labor, the broker who sells his paintings, and the beneficiary of those sales who then personally purchases what she wants. In such business negotiations and private purchases, as well as her explicit disinterest in the domestic interior and eagerness to rendezvous with a lover outside her home, she establishes an "unfeminine" public presence. These facts have led some critics to suggest that this marriage represents the giving way of medieval Christian notions of sublime art, inspired genius, sanctified marriage, and male prerogative to more modern ideas of commodity culture, art as craft, and marriage as a pragmatic legal arrangement between equals. (6)
As always with Browning, though, matters are not this straightforward. After all, Andrea insults his wife as a shallow, careless, unintellectual person who sports nothing more than a beautiful body (and one he figuratively dismembers as he speaks severally of it as "this small hand," [1. 6] "those perfect ears" [1. 27] and "brow" and "eyes," "the mouth," "this face," [11. 121-122] and "your hair's gold" [1. 176]), lamenting what might have been if she had "but brought a mind" (1. 125) to the marriage. This is a Janus-faced complaint, especially in relation to the Petrarchan tradition Browning certainly knew and seems to respond to here. He both appropriates the Petrarchan convention of blazon and foregrounds its inadequacy, because even while Andrea denies that Lucrezia has a mind, he regrets its absence and wishes she had brought some intellect to the marriage. In the tradition of Petrarchan poetry, there is never a question of the beloved's having a mind, but only a perfect heart or breast or lips, etc. In a quite backhanded way, then, Andrea acknowledges the inadequacy of such a beloved by conceiving the possibility that women could have minds, even if Lucrezia herself does not.
Lucrezia's status seems further reduced by the fact that her primary function might be described as mediating relations among men, much as women did in marriage both in Renaissance Italy and Victorian Britain. As the model for his paintings, she supplies Andrea with the content of his "ware[s]" (1. 224), as he calls them. Those wares he sells to another man, referred to only as her "friend" (1. 233), and the money thus earned Andrea passes to yet another man, the "Cousin" (1. 219) for whose loans and gambling debts Lucrezia demands money of her husband. She stands as an item of sale for one man, the broker of the sale to another man, and the means of transferring money from the sale to a third man.
Just as importantly, the poem does not grant Lucrezia the power of direct speech, while her husband uses hundreds of lines to construct her, himself, other artists, kings, courts, and even mountains. Her silence, as much as her name, links Lucrezia to the literary traditions of rape. (7) Sharing the name Lucretia, the enforced silence, and the status of subject of a contest among men, (8) Lucrezia cannot fail to evoke her Roman namesake and share her status as forgotten catalyst of grand consequences (Roman republic and faultless paintings) and bonds among men. Admittedly it was fortuitous for Browning that Andrea del Sarto's wife should be named Lucrezia, hut we cannot doubt that he exploited the history of that name to call attention to the conjunction of control over women's voices and their bodies.
The issue of Lucrezia's (near-)silence is critical to a comprehensive understanding of the poem in its historical contexts, because the imagined blankness of womanhood serves a vital function not only in Andrea's construction of his selfhood, but also in the legal and political formation of a modern Italy. For Andrea, the ways he imagines and hypothesizes Lucrezia's desires, motivations, and voice (of which, more anon) permit and even necessitate his uxoriousness and his artistic and ethical compromises. They require that he paint to satisfy her demands rather than loftier aspirations of his own. They provide cover for his abandonment of his impoverished parents, and they motivate his speech and his efforts to control the disposition of his wife's body. The trope of male artists inventing and imagining women has existed since antiquity at least, but what is different about Browning's construction of the trope is its place in the development of European modernity. By enacting how central to his sense of coherent subjectivity Andrea's efforts to control Lucrezia are, Browning registers the discursive and political field of Risorgimento Italy, where efforts to institute public control of women's bodies were integral to the construction of a united nation.
More than many social issues directly related to women, prostitution generated explicit conversations about the regulation and disposition of women's bodies. In fact the laws regarding prostitution played a surprisingly important role in the 1850s movement for a unified Italy, the Risorgimento, which the expatriate Brownings witnessed first-hand with intense interest. (9) As an architect of the Risorgimento, Count Camillo Cavour in 1852 began initiating reforms in Piedmont to prepare the infrastructure and modern military that would be needed for successful wars of independence and unification. His focus on the military had to reckon with the high rates of venereal disease undermining troops, so he implemented regulations aimed at the registration, examination, and treatment of prostitutes. The public control of certain female bodies, then, became integral to the expulsion of foreign rule and the quelling of civil war, to the entire project of Italian unification. Extending such laws to the new nation of Italy in 1860-1861, the Cavour Regulation widened the centralized state's role in protecting a freshly united/ing populace from the moral, criminal, and venereal contagion attributed to prostitutes. As Mary Gibson shows, the types of law that helped achieve the new nation then became instruments in its homogenization, in part by conferring a collective sense that all parts of the new unity shared identical laws, and in part by casting the centralized government as the protector of social order from crime and disease. (10) Thus public control of women's sexualized bodies played a vital role in nation formation (as the Roman Lucretia's sexualized body catalyzed the founding of the Roman republic in ancient times). Such legalizing, regulating laws as Cavour's had challengers, though, in the shape of purity campaigners and "abolitionist" social reformers. What matters for "Andrea del Sarto" is the major importance of questions about women's sexual status, and that these were active, public debates in Italy, just as they were in England. Browning's poem forms a small part of this broader cultural preoccupation with the presence and sexuality of women, especially in large towns.
England's legislative response to prostitution occurred later than Italy's, with the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869. But its cultural discourse about the issue gathered force in the years surrounding the publication of "Andrea del Sarto." Prominent journal editor William Tait published a detailed account of Magdalenism in 1840, followed by W. R. Greg's 1850 essay on "Prostitution" in the Westminster Review and William Acton's powerfully influential medical approach to sex, the book Prostitution which appeared in 1857. In literature, too, such characters as Gaskell's prostitute Esther (Mary Barton, 1848), Dickens's Martha (David Copperfield, 1850), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Marian Erie (Aurora Leigh, 1856) attest to the figure's prominence in the public imagination.
The problem of prostitution came to the fore in these decades not only in Italy and Britain, but in France, Belgium, the United States, and other countries where differing paces of urbanization and industrialization changed economies and moved large numbers of unmarried women (among others) to cities seeking work. The novelty of their presence and independence, and the exigencies of their poverty, made their desires, their bodies, and their sexualities matters of newly-important social concern. Thus while "Andrea del Sarto" thematizes an artist's dilemma and response, it simultaneously engages questions of female regulation and rebellion. The poem represents a desiring woman whose objects are sex, money, and freedom from domesticity, alongside a weakened husband who endeavors to control her attainment of those goals. Browning does not glamorize or celebrate her, but seeks to understand and identify with her. Regarded as a perfect exterior form with no internal substance, a muse and a model without a voice or a mind, a conduit for economic relations among men, she is what women were in Renaissance Florence, and what many still were in Victorian England and Risorgimento Italy. If his contemporaries argued and wrote and made laws about women's bodies and desires, Browning's art revealed why those fabrications mattered for men and for nations.
Contesting and Conflating Speech
Perhaps because Andrea seems incapable of controlling the body of the living, public, adulterous Lucrezia, his speech as recorded here enacts a compensatory effort to control her voice by categorically denying the efficacy of speech itself (he does exert control over her body in his paintings, casting her significantly--possibly wishfully--as a V/virgin, for instance, or commanding that she "Let my hands frame [her] face" [1. 174]). The poem's opening lines emblematically establish the importance of controlling Lucrezia's voice as well as her body. Andrea's first words ("But do not let us quarrel any more,") indicate that Lucrezia has been speaking, urging Andrea to complete a commission for several paintings. So he asks her to "Sit down" and spend some time with him "Quietly, quietly" (11. 3, 17); evidently the "quiet" evening is to be on her side only, since Andrea goes on to speak another 250 lines. She would be less authoritative were she seated and less irksome were she silent.
If a direct entreaty for her silence should not suffice, Andrea then reminds her of occasions (11.56, 65) on which she has merely listened to others, as when he opines that "you don't understand / ... about my art, / But you can hear at least when people speak" (11. 54-56). Here he couples her passive reception of others' talk with her intellectual inferiority, as if the one rightly follows from the other and such scenes model her appropriate behavior. In this passage Andrea relies on assumptions about women that also grounded Victorian opposition to women's suffrage. The 1850s witnessed the opening salvo in women's formal attempts to gain a voice in the making of the many laws governing them. To coincide with the presentation in the House of Lords of the first-ever petition for women's suffrage, in 1851 Harriet Taylor Mill published "Enfranchisement of Women," a powerful, carefully-reasoned argument seeking to overturn the longstanding suppression of women's political voices. By publishing her own speech, Taylor Mill resisted the trope of women as the blank space men fill in with their imaginations and productions of them, aesthetically, socially, and legally. The debate over her essay and the Parliamentary petition surely lurks in Browning's poem about an artist fixated on dominating a woman's voice.
But if she must speak, Andrea seems to reason, then at least Lucrezia could fashion words designed to inspire and elevate her husband to transcendent artistry. Between lines 119 and 120, it seems Lucrezia has essayed to speak in response to his optative "Had you enjoined [divine aims] on me, given me soul, / We might have risen to Rafael, I and you. / Nay, Love, you did give all I asked, I think-- / More than I merit, yes, by many times" (11. 117-120). His verbal stop sign "Nay" is a hasty attempt to quiet some rising objection on her part, while his "yes" seems to stipulate some prior claim of hers so as to prevent her actually uttering it here. He immediately goes on to fashion a speech for her, almost the only kind of words he wishes to hear from her: "Had the mouth there urged / 'God and the glory! never care for gain. /[...]/ Live for fame, side by side with Angelo! / Rafael is waiting; up to God, all three!'" (11. 126-130). Instead, "the mouth there" seems to have urged some practical considerations, such as completing the commissions one has agreed to and honestly earning money to support oneself.
Indeed, Lucrezia might in fact have urged the higher considerations as well, but those speeches fell equally on deaf ears. For Andrea completely deflates the exaltation and efficacy of the speech he posits for her, becoming progressively more flaccid as he follows it in lines 131-132 with "I might have done it for you. So it seems-- / Perhaps not. All is as God over-rules." Four marked pauses--two caesuras and two end-stops in as many lines--utterly evacuate the oxygen from this passage. And although it is not a solitary occurrence, the way the caesura in line 132 splits the two halves of a spondee ("Perhaps not. All") undermines the line's duple meter, makes it seem to have an unwelcome extra syllable ("ver" in "over"), and gives it a radically ambiguous scansion. All of these effects introduce still more doubt, layering sonic on top of thematic uncertainty and revealing how even the rhythms of Andrea's speech make hearers wish there were less of it. In the space of only a dozen or so lines, Andrea has stifled Lucrezia's speech, fabricated his own speech to put into her mouth, and then shrugged off even that speech as unlikely to have generated any results. Moreover, he has done so in rhythms that disquiet sensitive ears and make them uncomfortable with (this) speech.
As part of his endeavor to suppress Lucrezia's voice, Andrea multiplies examples throughout the poem of ineffectual speech, remarking, for example, "how profitless" it is to talk about what might have been (1. 100), and how less proficient artists than himself "cannot tell the world" of their transports (1. 86). Like Mt. Morello, which ignores people's assessments of it, "Speak as they please" (11), Andrea claims to be "unmoved by men's blame / Or their praise either" (11. 91-92). Even the words of someone as revered as Michelangelo have been powerless to stimulate Andrea's exertions. The sculptor/painter apparently taunted Raphael with the surpassing potential of the upstart Andrea del Sarto, boasting that, similarly circumstanced, the newcomer "Would bring the sweat into that brow of yours!" (1. 192). Yet, as we know and Andrea knows, he did no such thing, instead appearing to have acquiesced to a more mediocre career. Though Andrea is clearly proud of the praise, and though he explicitly points out that "I have known it all these years" (1. 184), the speech has plainly done nothing during that time to motivate Andrea's putative greatness. In fact he practically proclaims his dismissal of its efficacy, saying "Still, all I care for, if he spoke the truth, ... Is, whether you're--not grateful--but more pleased" either that he had such potential or that he sacrificed "such a chance" for her (11. 197 emphasis added, 201). All he cares for, he claims, is what Lucrezia feels, not what Michelangelo said. Whether true or not (and one wonders why he would remember it "all these years" and would repeat it to her so excitedly if he did not care), he offers her the highest example he can think of for how "profitless" speech is.
Some things people say, however, have affected him, in spite of his efforts to evade or misattribute their words. Having absconded with money King Francis intended he should use to purchase paintings on his behalf (a rebellion against the dependent position in which he is placed by the system of patronage?), Andrea guiltily avoids French courtiers who not only know of his culpability, but "speak" of it. He admits, "I dared not, do you know, leave home all day, / For fear of chancing on the Paris lords. / The best is when they pass and look aside; / But they speak sometimes ... / Well may they speak!" (11. 144-148). The ideal scenario, he says, is when those courtiers remain silent, but he cannot rely on that reticence. Rather than hear or face speech acts that might actively affect him or shame him, he avoids them by cowering in the house he apparently built using the misappropriated funds.
Why he returned from the "good time" (1. 164) of King Francis's court can also be traced to linguistic promptings, if we are to believe his simple statement to Lucrezia that "You called me, and I came home to your heart" (1. 171). Even this unusual acknowledgment of an efficacious summons, though, is preceded by an appropriation of agency: in a subtle legerdemain Andrea claims that internal promptings actually accounted for his return to Florence, for "'twas right, my instinct said" (1. 166) to go back to his more accustomed mediocrity. His own instinct spoke, before Lucrezia did, to urge flight. Even a blame-worthy act that half of him badly wishes to pin on his wife he cannot admit as wholly the consequence of her speech. The entire French episode shows Andrea either hiding from some speeches or partly undermining the motive power of others (in this case, his wife's).
Despite all of these efforts to cancel out any speech on her part, Lucrezia's voice nevertheless (very nearly) breaks into the text near the end of the poem, where readers can hear her and know what she herself is saying. Browning tiptoes on the extreme edge of monologue when he sounds her voice through Andrea's mouth. Interrupting his talk of loving each other and about the house he built for himself and his wife, Lucrezia's words thrust into the middle of a line: "Let us but love each other. Must you go? / That Cousin here again? he waits outside? / Must see you--you, and not with me? Those loans! / More gaming debts to pay? you smiled for that?" (11. 218-221) Of these four lines (and nine clauses), only the first and last clauses ("Let us but love each other" and "you smiled for that?") represent the painter's own words. The rest make him merely the medium for her ventriloquy. Significantly, her fragmentary sentences here focus not on the love or the domestic space of which Andrea speaks, but on money, her lover, and her desire to leave behind her husband and her home.
And in this instance, as when she apparently summoned Andrea from France, she gets what she wants. After a brief interlude of pleading and confession, Andrea seems to give up and resign himself to his powerlessness over Lucrezia's person and speech. Abdicating any temporal authority, he lapses into fantasies about what he would paint in heaven--an activity and a place he can imaginatively control--and he finally succumbs to the purport of her speech, ending the poem with "Again the Cousin's whistle! Go, my Love" (1. 266). The poem's conclusion, then, reasserts Lucrezia's power and freedom as the result of her irrepressible speech. (12)
Just as the impingement of her voice here makes the poem almost a dialogue instead of monologue, the very means of the incursion is striking. Writers like Flaubert have often impersonated women's voices, but that is different from how Browning takes readers to the very edge of Andrea's voice as it comes into ambiguous contact with Lucrezia's. Rather than assuming the prerogative of speaking in her voice, Browning pushes the limits of gender and individual speech, and the reader's task is to discern her voice through its impress on Andrea's consciousness.
The Spectacle of Subjection
Focusing on Lucrezia and her contradictory position is the key to a reading of the poem that recognizes how it stages a spectacle of subjection and invites identification with women as the Lucretias of Roman republics, Madonnas of museum masterpieces, and wives of wealthy alliances. Indeed, one might see a strong mutual identification between Andrea and Lucrezia, as her words in his mouth (at the end) and his words in her mouth (in the earlier speech he posits for her) indicate. This blended subjectivity helps make sense of the fact that the poem casts each character as simultaneously gender transgressive and gender conforming, as described earlier. To the extent that Andrea feels overpowered by a spouse, dependent on (and resentful of?) patronage, aware of unrealized potential, and pressured by the self and others not to venture beyond the domestic sphere, he lives the experience of most Renaissance and Victorian women. He even calls himself a "half-m[a]n" (1. 139). Readers react so strongly to his abjection largely because he is male, (13) and in this way Browning defamiliarizes the subjugation often taken as a matter of course for women.
Reading the poem through the prism of Lucrezia's subjectivity and Andrea's sometime identification with it might partly recuperate its speaker and auditor, neither of whom seems likeable or sympathetic at first. Critics have variously scorned the Andrea who is a cowardly, whining artistic disappointment and the Lucrezia who is a domineering, self-absorbed adulterer. Keith Polette, for instance, faults Andrea's creating and hiding behind many "walls" (including Lucrezia) which "protect him from encountering any form of masculine energy" (p. 501), while Dougald MacEachen rejects Browning's "libel" (p. 62) on the historical Andrea by claiming the poem turns him into a cuckolded, second-rate painter with no artistic integrity. (14) Against these examples of negative readings of Andrea can be placed correspondingly disparaging accounts of Lucrezia. Laurence Lerner's testy resistance to psychoanalytic readings of Andrea tilts over (perhaps unintentionally) into implying that Lucrezia herself is to blame for her husband's failures, (15) and Paola Evangelista--in the course of highlighting her essential, defining role in the poem--nevertheless sees Lucrezia as a despotic wife. (16)
If we view each character instead (or in addition) as both "masculine" and "feminine," as halves of a composite self suffering the confinements of "womanhood," then we can appreciate how each individual's struggle with the experience of oppression impels him/her to grasp at whatever power or means of control s/he can: quarreling, adultery, financial pressure, excuse-making, hiding, or silencing another's speech. Repression, the poem shows, can affect men as well as women and deforms them both into unlikeable people in the process. We should regard the unstable gender positions and moral characters of Lucrezia and Andrea as evidence not that the poem is simply confused or confusing, but that it blurs identities in order to stage and defamiliarize a scene of human subjection.
This overlapping of separate, but not fully distinct selves reflects an inverted image of the pattern in some other dramatic monologues, such as Augusta Webster's "A Castaway" and "Circe," Tennyson's "Tithonus" and "Ulysses," and R. Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos," where each individual speaker exhibits profound self-division. In "Andrea del Sarto," rather, we see less the splitting of a single self than the identification or occasional merging of two separate selves, Andrea and Lucrezia. Ironically, for a poem whose speaker spends so much energy denying the utility of speech, it is the monologic utterance itself which effects this intersection. As much as Andrea wants to influence Lucrezia's attitudes and behavior (and speech) through his own words, it is her consciousness and behavior (and finally, words) that exert their power over him. And yet, we know this entirely through his speech-negating speech, which is where and by means of which the mutual contest/commingling occur. Hinting at the basis for such a paradox, Pearsall and others have argued, "The form of the dramatic monologue itself represents speech seeking to be eff icacious, to cause a variety of transformations. The act of the dramatic monologue, its performance of thoughts, simultaneously creates a self and alters that self, and may perhaps ultimately destroy the self." (17) Andrea's self--male and female--is not destroyed by the poem's end, but it is (with Lucrezia's) arguably changed.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that the monologic utterance should effect the partial blending of identities I have been describing, if one accepts Aaron Worth's argument that this hybrid genre spectacularly evolved in tandem with and response to a period of unprecedented British encounters with alternative subjectivities. (18) The challenges and fascinations of otherness posed by freed slaves, newly-empowered women, colonized peoples, and an urbanized (and sometimes organized) working class prompted multiple new ways of confronting alien identities. Darwinian psychological speculation, Mayhew's ethnographic investigations, and phrenological precursors to psychiatry were just a few of the new efforts to come to terms with alterity. Worth contends that cultural forms such as the dramatic monologue were equally important "strategies for modeling other minds" (p. 140), and that that is why this genre is precisely one that struggles to integrate inner and outer, self and other (recall Caliban's endeavors to model how Setebos and the Quiet operate, Johannes Agricola's assumption that he thoroughly knows the mind of God, and Porphyria's lover assuring himself that he understood and fulfilled her "utmost will").
Fully appreciating how the dramatic monologue "blended"the inferiority of the lyric with the exteriority of the dramatic means perceiving that the form did not just stage new layerings of consciousness; (19) rather it represented a mode of thinking through them. Worth cites Merlin Donald's example of how human beings eventually began to parcel out, or distribute, the work of memory so as to share it between the biological brain and the symbolic systems (including poems, autobiographies, etc.) they had developed. This "biocultural" notion of consciousness accords great importance to cultural forms as integral, active (if external) participants in cognition (pp. 138-139). Victorians could represent and theorize the process of coming to terms with other selves by means of an innovative poetics that simultaneously practiced what it thematized. Relying on the dramatic monologue to do part of that intersubjective work would influence what work could be done, inasmuch as that form not only exemplified and thematized blending, but also prompted it in readers and itself became material to be blended with the biological, evolution-inflected modeling of other minds.
"Andrea del Sarto" blends or integrates "masculine" and "feminine" identities by means of its characterization of Andrea and Lucrezia and its transplantation of their words into each other's mouths, making the poem topical not only in its Italian and Victorian thematic content, but in its very form. Important symbolic systems and cognitive agents in themselves, a sonnet, a ballad, or an epic stanza just could not fill quite the same complex cognitive role at this historic moment as did that poetic creature of its time, the dramatic monologue.
As a final example of the poem's tentative integration of husband and wife, male and female, consider the poem's closing lines, which read,
This must suffice me here. What would one have? In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance-- Four great walls in the New Jerusalem, Meted on each side by the angel's reed, For Leonard, Rafael, Angelo and me To cover--the three first without a wife, While I have mine! So--still they overcome Because there's still Lucrezia,--as I choose. Again the Cousin's whistle! Go, my Love. (11. 258-266)
Right up until this moment, Andrea makes Lucrezia his excuse for other artists' superiority, even in the imagined heaven where he might better control her. But then Browning places a gap before the stranded final line, and we are not privy to what occurs in that blank space. When the momentary silence is broken, however, it is not by that coercive force language, but by a whistle that is neither Lucrezia's nor Andrea's voice. What does it mean that we do not hear either the Cousin's voice or, more strikingly, Lucrezia's voice speaking on his behalf as she had done 45 lines before? I think that somewhere in the white space, husband and wife have reached a fleeting rapprochement: in this possible moment of mutual pity, she lapses into the silence Andrea has sought to enforce throughout the poem, and in turn, he relinquishes his protracted efforts to detain and control Lucrezia, saying gently (with a period, not an exclamation mark, and with the measured pause of a comma after the imperative verb) "Go, my Love." The pauses, the tenderness, the resignation here imply his belief in some unspoken agreement. Yet though Lucrezia seems momentarily to let go of her urge to speak, she does nevertheless follow through on the action she has been poised to take throughout: she departs from home and husband, ostensibly to enjoy the pleasures of her affair. So it is hard to know whether she actually participates in the mutual understanding Andrea appears to apprehend. In his mind, perhaps, she understands why he shirked dependence and absconded with money, why he craves the illusion of control by putting words in her mouth, just as he understands why she wants the power of money and the freedom of illicit love. Readers can see that these are the actings out of beings who naturally chafe at the subjections and artificial restrictions usual to women. Whether Lucrezia has arrived at this view we do not know. Andrea might think so, but if he does, is he relapsing into his masculinist construction of femininity, imagining her as what he wishes or as what he has become?
Though this line of interpretation is speculative, it has support in the way "Andrea del Sarto" resembles several other dramatic monologues, including those by Robert Browning. Pearsall points out that many instances of this genre, right from its beginnings in the Victorian period, occupied themselves with the subjectivities of women whom we do not hear speak (p. 78). Discussing Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess," in addition to D. G. Rossetti's "Jenny" and A. C. Swinburne's "The Leper," she demonstrates that "female desire (linked, as it is, to complex and perhaps indefinable sexualities) is viewed as causative, as tending toward some effect." And she concludes that "each speaker is himself altered by an elusive female consciousness" (p. 79). Lucrezia's desire--in fact her several desires--are causative, motivating her husband's speech, defying strictures on women's conduct, inviting identification with and by her husband. Though we do not have access to her consciousness, we can trace its imagined, gender-bending impress on the husband who blames, insults, and fawns on her, while he also appreciates some of the frustrated powerlessness that might urge a woman to behave with unfeeling (some would say masculine) selfishness. Ultimately, it is the blurring of their genders and personas that makes both husband and wife more sympathetic characters.
It seems fitting that the method by which Browning, and his readers, must approach some understanding of Lucrezia's consciousness resembles sculpture as Michelangelo famously described it: "io intendo scultura, quella che si fa per forza di levare: quella che si fa per via di porre, e simile alia pitmra." (20) It emerges indirectly, as a process of negation rather than accretion. We are presented with Andrea's speech, like a block of stone, and by attending to the blank parts, the gaps and silences, the negative spaces that come in contact with the margins of his voice and gender, we begin to trace the outlines of her person. In a sonnet for Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo wrote "With chiselled touch / The stone unhewn and cold / Becomes a living mould, / The more the marble wastes / The more the statue grows." (21) Lucrezia's "mould" will be less distinct than the sculptor's emergent statue because she is always mediated and imagined in the materials of her husband's language, but that exquisite subtlety is the price of Browning's choice of dramatic monologue as his medium, and the reward of his experiment testing the limits of speech, gender, and genre.
For numerous lively conversations that helped me think through this poem, my thanks go to Suzanne Jacobs. I am also grateful to my colleagues Stephanie Jed and Jin-kyung Lee, who gave me valuable feedback that improved the article. Stephanie Jed also performed numerous translations from Italian for me, for which, grazie.
(1) Citations from "Andrea del Sarto" are from Robert Browning, "Andrea del Sarto," in The Poems of Robert Browning, ed. John Woolford, Daniel Karlin, and Joseph Phelan, vol. 3. (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 2007). This edition uses the 1855 version of the poem.
(2) For analysis of Italy and womanhood in these two works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, see, for example, Sandra M. Gilbert's classic "From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento," PMLA 99, no. 2 (March 1984); 194-211.
(3) For a useful general discussion of women's position in Renaissance Florence, see Dale Kent's "Women in Renaissance Florence," in Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Bend and Renaissance Portraits of Women, ed. David Alan Brown (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2001), pp. 25-48.
(4) Women's suits had to cite additional, aggravating offenses such as cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality, beyond adultery.
(5) See Keith Polette's "The Many-Walled World of 'Andrea del Sarto': The Dynamics of Self-Expatriation," for a detailed discussion of ways in which Andrea expatriates himself from public life by constructing a series of "walls." VP 35, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 493-508.
(6) See Julia F. Saville's "Marriage and Gender" in the Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 526-542.
(7) Threatening death and slanders against her chastity, Sextus Tarquinius commands the Roman Lucretia to silence about his raping her (Livy, Ovid, Shakespeare). Likewise Tereus seeks to silence Philomela by cutting out her tongue after he rapes her (Ovid). In the gender-bending medieval Le Roman de Silence, the Queen of England accuses the protagonist named Silence of raping her.
(8) Lucretia's husband Collatinus competes with his peers over who has the most chaste wife, while Andrea competes with Lucrezia's lovers and with other painters whose success as unmarried artists he envies.
(9) They were not alone among interested Britons, of course. See Maura O'Connor's analysis of mingled literature, culture, and politics in The Romance of Italy and the English. Political Imagination (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998). See also Stefan Hawlin's "Love Among the Political Ruins: 1848 and the Political Unconscious of Men and Women," VP 50, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 503-520.
(10) For a detailed account of this and related laws, see Mary Gibson, Prostitution and the State in Italy, 1860-1915, 2nd ed. (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1999). The civic and political importance of regulating prostitutes is clear in Gibson's claim that, "Like other early legislation issued immediately after unification, the Cavour Regulation reflected a preoccupation with the homogenization of the Italian population and the suppression of subversion.... The government took on the obligation to protect all respectable society from disease, especially those middle classes that would provide the bulwark of the new Italy" (pp. 28-29).
(11) This line was added after the 1855 version, which causes line discrepancies between this edition and other versions of the poem.
(12) The sequence of moves in the poem's conclusion is largely repeated in T. S. Eliot's monologue "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), which warrants a brief comparison. There, an abject man agonizes at his inability to influence women whose speech is decidedly not to or about him ("I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me" [11. 124-125]). Uncannily, women earlier in Eliot's poem speak of Andrea's oft-referenced competitor Michelangelo). Like Andrea, Prufrock fantasizes about being other than he is (a crab, or a dweller with mermaids and "sea-girls") and elsewhere than he is (in the sea), but the slightest touch of a genuine human voice--perhaps a woman's, speaking its own independent needs and desires--shatters the illusion and brings submission ("Till human voices wake us, and we drown" [1. 131]). This drowning seems an equivalent of Andrea's acquiescent "Go, my Love" (perhaps the progress of the women's movement in the sixty years between the two poems accounts for the fact that Andrea survives his submission, while Prufrock simply drowns). The men's reveries vaporize in contact with women's words, and the women proceed in their self-directed movements and speech. What we see in Browning's poem gets repeated, trope-like, in "Prufrock" and others, suggesting the importance and persistence in public discourse of linkages among women's voices and desires and men's perceptions of their own power. T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed., ed. Jon Stallworthy and Jahan Ramazani (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 2289-2293.
(13) As Gloria Steinem memorably demonstrated in "If Men Could Menstruate" (1978) and "What If Freud Were Phyllis?" (1994), certain behaviors and phrases and logical systems seem strange only when attributed to the sex not usually associated with them.
(14) Dougald MacEachen, "Browning's Use of His Sources in 'Andrea Del Sarto,"' VP 8, no. 1 (Spring 1970): 61-64.
(15) Laurence Lerner, "Browning's Painters," The Yearbook of English Studies 36, no. 2 (2006): 96-108. Lerner argues that those who try to avoid "blaming things on the woman" (103) by reading Andrea's portrayal of a shallow, selfish wife as his own self-serving "projection" err: "The problem with this is the problem with all psychoanalytic interpretation, that it seems to deny the existence of any causation outside of the self' (p. 104). The implication here is that Lucrezia is that external causation of Andrea's failure. Lerner then wittily remarks that "a world in which faithless spouses are helping to fulfill some unconscious wish to fail on the part of their partner is ... a convenient world for adulterers" (p. 104). That is true, but one might counter that a world in which a spouse's mediocrity can be pinned on the unfaithfulness of a shallow wife is a very convenient world for mediocre spouses.
(16) Paola Evangelista, "Caratterizzazione e valore funzionale del personaggio di Lucrezia in Andrea del Sarto di Robert Browning," Rivista di Studi Vittoriani 2, no. 3 (Jam 1997): 81-93.
(17) Cornelia D. J. Pearsall, "The Dramatic Monologue," in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), p. 84. For extended discussion of Victorian poetry as socially transformative speech act, see E. Warwick Slinn's Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003).
(18) Aaron Worth, "'Thinketh': Browning and Other Minds," VP 50, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 127-146.
(19) The terms "blending" and "integration" derive from the work of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, in The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
(20) "I understand sculpture as that which one does by dint (or by means) of removing, taking away: that which one does by way of placing in is similar to painting." Thanks to Stephanie Jed for this translation. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Le lettere di Michelangelo Buonarroti: pubblicate coi Ricordi ed i contratti artistici, ed. Gaetano Milanesi (Firenze: Coi tipi dei successori le Monnier, 1875), p. 522.
(21) Mrs. Henry [Maria Fletcher] Roscoe, Vittoria Colonna: Her Life and Poems (London: Macmillan, 1868), p. 169.
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|Title Annotation:||Robert Browning|
|Author:||Loose, Margaret A.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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