Decomposing but to recompose: Browning, biblical hermeneutics, and the dramatic monologue.
He [the interpreter] has to transfer himself to another age; to imagine that he is a disciple of Christ or Paul; to disengage himself from all that follows....[I]t is an inner not an outer world that he is striving to restore.... [His] business is to place himself as nearly as possible in the position of the sacred writer.... To get inside that world is an effort of thought and imagination, requiring the sense of a poet as well as a critic,--demanding, much more than learning[,] a degree of original power, and intensity of mind. (1)
Though Jowett is outlining principles for scriptural hermeneutics, his technique calls for a "poetic" imaginative power in order to perform the interpretive feat. While one may simply read this as a rhetorical flourish, it is striking how similar Jowett's hermeneutics are to the methodology of a particular contemporary poetic form. For dramatic monologues, especially those by the form's preeminent practitioner Robert Browning, are indeed "effort[s] of thought and imagination to create or restore the "inner world of another person who is often a figure from the past, with whose "position" or point of view the reader is compelled to identify.
Why do we find such similarities between Browning's poetic form and the hermeneutics of the Broad Churchman and Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893)? Browning and Jowett knew of each other's work and became very close friends, but their friendship did not begin until 1865, when Jowett had already published his essay and twenty-nine years after Browning had published his first dramatic monologues. (2) I will argue that both men are drawing on a common source, and Jowett's essay On the Interpretation of Scripture points us to the contemporary religious, interpretive, and epistemological techniques that also shaped the dramatic monologue. (3) I argue that the roots of Browning's poetics will be found in an ultimately religious hermeneutics, which came to Browning, as to Jowett, from German and English religious and literary paradigms of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though a few scholars have noted a similarity between the work of Browning and the Christian hermeneuticists Friedrich Schleiermacher and Jowett, (4) I am going to argue for a much more pervasive link between Browning, the dramatic monologue, and contemporary Christian hermeneutics. Out of a nexus of aesthetics and Christian interpretive practices emerged a type of sympathetic seeing that both poets and Christian hermeneuticists developed as an essential supplement to the new historical criticism of the Bible. My approach departs from that of scholars who have acknowledged Browning's indebtedness to higher critical thought but view him as inhabiting the skeptical stance of critics like Ernest Renan. (5) Rather, Browning, like Jowett and Schleiermacher, acknowledges the difficulties and limitations inherent within the attempt to recover past truth properly while viewing a certain "effort of thought and imagination" as a necessary complement to textual and historical reconstruction.
To place Jowett's hermeneutics in dialogue with the dramatic monologue, one can begin with Browning's Essay on Shelley, written in late 1851. (6) In the essay Browning gives an account of two opposed types of poet, the "subjective" and the "objective." The "objective poet, as the phrase now goes," is concerned "to reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the scenic universe, or the manifested action of the human heart and brain)." We learn from this poet about "the fact itself" (p. 137). Conversely, the "subjective" poet is "a seer" (p. 139) who "is impelled to embody the thing he perceives, not so much with reference to the many below as to the one above him, the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth" (p. 138). While readers generally identify Browning as a hybrid of these two types of "dramatic" and "lyric" poets, (7) I want to emphasize an aspect of the subjective poet that is crucial to understanding Browning's dramatic monologues. It is particularly important that the subjective poet embodies and achieves a perspective from within the thing viewed: the poet and the reader of a dramatic monologue alike "embody" the speaker--put themselves into his "body"--in their attempts to see into and through his point of view.
That the dramatic monologue is fundamentally about positioning oneself in relation to another and seeing with or in her or him was perceptively noted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who referred to his own experiments with the form as dependent on an "inner standing-point." Rossetti wrote in 1869 in a note on the poem "Ave" that "Art still identifies herself with all faiths for her own purposes: and the emotional influence here employed demands above all an inner standing-point." (8) Similarly, he wrote in 1871 in defense of the speaker of "Jenny":
But the motive powers of art reverse the requirement of science, and demand first of all an inner standing-point. The heart of such a mystery as this must be plucked from the very world in which it beats or bleeds; and the beauty and pity, the self-questionings and all-questionings which it brings with it, can come with full force only from the mouth of one alive to its whole appeal, such as the speaker put forward in the poem. (emphasis in original) (9)
The inner standing-point is the key element of what Rossetti calls the "emotional influence" of the dramatic monologue. This "emotional influence" is not just the poem's ability to elicit an emotional reaction; the poem also "employs" emotional influence in that it is formally structured by the ability to see through the speaker's point of view. This is not a purely objective understanding of facts that would fulfill the "requirement of science" or "reproduce things external" but rather a subjective view into "the very world in which" the perceived "beats or bleeds." This seeing with or within is part of what Robert Langbaum identified as the defining feature of the dramatic monologue--the element of sympathy that is in tension with judgment. According to Langbaum, the dramatic monologue is "a poetry of sympathy," for sympathy is the "way of knowing" characterizing poetry that "give[s] facts from within" (pp. 79, 78).
Rossetti and Browning articulated the dramatic monologue in ways that clearly mark the genre as situated within a nexus of religious, ethical, aesthetic, and epistemological concerns. Indeed, in his comment about the "objective poet, as the phrase now goes," Browning notes the fact that he is gleaning the terms "subjective" and "objective" from a larger discussion that emerged in England from the German philosophy and theology of Kant and his followers. (10) It is not surprising, though almost entirely overlooked in criticism, that the dramatic monologue's sympathetic viewing or "inner standing-point" had an important analogue in contemporary biblical scholarship, for out of this same discourse Jowett developed a hermeneutics requiring the interpreter, like the reader of the dramatic monologue, to "place himself as nearly as possible in the position of the sacred writer" or speaker in order to access his "inner world."
Jowett's contribution to Essays and Reviews, and the volume as a whole, was an attempt to demonstrate freedom of scholarly inquiry into the Bible and an English version of the "higher" biblical criticism that was already predominant in Germany. (11) In the opening of On the Interpretation of Scripture, Jowett acknowledges the spatio-temporal situatedness of criticism and interpretation that "reflect[s] the changing atmosphere of the world or of the Church" and yet insists that the true interpreter will be able to see "the book itself," which "remains as at the first" (p. 477). A central principle of his essay is "Interpret the Scripture like any other book" (original italics, p. 504), and integral to this injunction is his other central principle "that Scripture has one meaning--the meaning which it had to the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it" (p. 505). Though this one meaning is contingent to its originary community of authorship and reception, Jowett asserts that it nonetheless remains accessible through time and place to those who can accurately recover that historical-grammatical context through higher criticism.
Interestingly, Jowett makes the additional claim that the interpreter himself should also be "in company":
The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author. When the meaning of Greek words is once known, the young student has almost all the real materials which are possessed by the greatest Biblical scholar, in the book itself. (p. 508)
These articulated thoughts and the factual information we know about their meaning based on historical and cultural context are "the real materials" the scholar uses-analogous to what Browning famously calls the "pure crude fact" of the words "Secreted from man's life ... two centuries since" in the "old yellow Book" ("the book itself"). (12) It is these materials that the interpreter wants to be able to see without the distortion of an interpretive framework or sectarian bias: "He wants to be able to open his eyes and see or imagine things as they truly are" (p. 482). While this phrase certainly resonates with the oft-repeated injunctions of contemporary critics like Ruskin, Arnold, and Pater to "see the thing as it really is," Jowett's phrasing to "see or imagine things as they truly are" highlights the fact that the Biblical interpreter is not merely concerned with rendering the minute detail of rocks or other "material," as was Ruskin, but is engaged in an attempt to revivify in the imagination a historical context no longer physically present.
This type of hermeneutics involves more than just knowing "the meaning of Greek words," for textual accuracy alone does not put us "in company with the author." This is why the knowledge of the Greek words is "almost all" that the reader needs. Jowett states that interpretation necessitates "an effort of thought and imagination, requiring the sense of a poet as well as a critic--demanding much more than learning[,] a degree of original power and intensity of mind" (p. 508). Why does proper hermeneutics involve such an intense effort of imagination? The interpreter must mentally extract himself from his own time and place and transport himself into an entirely different world: "the interpreter['s] ... business is to place himself as nearly as possible in the position of the sacred writer. That is no easy task--to call up the inner and outer life of the contemporaries of our Saviour" (p. 505). The interpreter's difficult task is "to call up" and resurrect not only the "outer life" of Jesus' witnesses, their language and customs, but also their "inner life" of thoughts and feelings. Accessing the "inner" life is more challenging and requires inhabiting the viewpoint of the writer to see through his eyes in order to understand his meaning. Jowett quotes from Wordsworth to help him describe this interpretative tool as a poet's "'vision and faculty divine'" (p. 481). (13)
Jowett extends his coding of the hermeneutical technique in literary terms when he writes in summation that Scripture "is to be interpreted like other books, with attention to the character of its authors, and the prevailing state of civilization and knowledge" (p. 519). While "character" here could refer to the "moral character" of the authors, it seems that Jowett is advising interpreters to imagine the authors as characters--to "call up" the completeness of their "inner and outer life." In Browning's words, the interpreter must use his poetic faculty to "embody the thing he perceives" as a character with interiority and exteriority.
Part of this characterization involves attention to the experience of the author--how what he feels is related to his meaning. Jowett insists that meaning inheres in "the words as they first struck on the ears or flashed before the eyes of those who heard and read them" (p. 481). This description not only states the importance of the initial human experience of reception, but it also "embodies" it in its emphasis on the receivers' ears and eyes. Furthermore, it attempts to "call up" the original experience mimetically in its vividness, the verbs "struck" and "flashed" giving it a descriptive texture in excess of the meaning. The link between sympathetic embodiment and experience reminds us of the description of the dramatic monologue as a "poetry of experience" in which "the imaginative apprehension gained through immediate experience is primary and certain" (Langbaum, p. 35).
To understand the implications of this mode of hermeneutics for the dramatic monologue, it is necessary to examine the influences on Jowett and Browning of a key Christian hermeneutical forerunner, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher asserted that proper hermeneutics involves a two-fold technique of both "grammatical" and "technical" or "psychological" interpretation. The "grammatical" component involves the critical assessment of the author's language and the historical and intellectual context of the work. Schleiermacher describes this element in the introduction to his translation of Plato's dialogues, first published in 1804. In William Dobson's 1836 English translation, Schleiermacher writes that the interpreter of Plato should
adduce something relative to the scientific condition of the Hellenes at the time when Plato entered upon his career, to the advances of language in reference to the expression of philosophical thoughts, to the works of this class at that time in existence, and the probable extent of their circulation. (14)
He also describes a complementary hermeneutical task that he would later term the "technical" or "psychological" method:
And in like manner, also, whoever does not possess a competent knowledge of the deficient state of the language for philosophical purposes, to feel where and how Plato is cramped by it, and where he himself laboriously extends its grasp, must necessarily misunderstand his author. (15)
What Schleiermacher terms the "art" of interpretation requires an "oscillating" interpretative movement between the words (grammatical) and the user of them (technical-psychological): "The successful practice of the art depends on the talent for language and the talent for knowledge of individual people." (16) The interpreter must be able to, in a sense, enter into Plato's words in order to sympathetically "feel where and how Plato is cramped." In Hermeneutics Schleiermacher says of technical-psychological interpretation that
before the application of the art one must put oneself in the place of the author on the objective and the subjective side. On the objective side, then, via knowledge of the language as he possessed it.... On the subjective side in the knowledge of his inner and outer life. (p. 24)
This subjective inhabiting of the author's point of view is related to what Schleiermacher describes as "divination": "The divinatory method is the one in which one, so to speak, transforms oneself into the other person and tries to understand the individual element directly" (Hermeneutics, p. 92). The interpreter thus overcomes the mediation of language and history to "directly" access another's position and obtain "knowledge of" him. Schleiermacher extends the notion of repositioning oneself to one of "transformation" into another, which resembles the subjective changing of bodies or "embodiment" that Browning later articulates.
This "direct" mode of understanding is related to the concept of "intuition" that appears in the hermeneutics but also has a central role in Schleiermacher's understanding in On Religion (1799) of the "essence" of religion as "intuition and feeling." (17) He also writes in The Christian Faith (1821-22, rev. ed. 1830) about the source of the notion of God and the experience of being in relation with God as the feeling of radical or absolute dependence. (18) This feeling of dependence is an unmediated point of conjunction with the world, and yet Schleiermacher also maintains that this experience of the Infinite is irreducibly individual (On Religion, p. 26), uniting the "subjective" and "objective" poles in a way similar to the interaction between the psychological and grammatical hermeneutical techniques.
Schleiermacher's ideas arrived in England via a handful of scholars who were or would become leading figures in the Broad Church movement, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is generally considered to be its founder. Coleridge presented German philosophy and theology in works such as his popular prose volumes of Aids to Reflection (1825) and Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1840). (19) He emphasized the importance of internal revelation and experience, as in his comment in Confessions that "as much of reality, as much of objective truth, as the Scriptures communicate to the subjective experiences of the Believer, so much of present life, of living and effective import, do these experiences give to the letter of Scriptures." (20) Coleridge made his own and the next generation aware of and interested in German thought. Among those influenced was Thomas Arnold, whose pupil, the later Jewish historian, A. P. Stanley, encouraged Jowett toward German scholarship. According to M. A. Crowther, "German writers like Schleiermacher, who found the source of faith in an internal revelation, were fascinating to young men who admired Coleridge and who could read German biblical criticism without feeling that their religion was being undermined." (21) Jowett engages with Schleiermacher's ideas throughout notebooks probably dating from the 1860s and early 70s, praising him repeatedly as standing in relation to Plato as Barthold Georg Niebuhr, the author of an influential Roman History, to the history of ancient Rome. (22)
Browning's access to the Schleiermacherean interpretative tradition through Romantic thought is perhaps indicated by Browning's identification of Shelley as the exemplary subjective poet, who "appeal[s] through himself to the absolute Divine mind," in terms that remind us of Schleiermacher's subjective intuition of the infinite or divinatory immediacy. (23) Did Browning read Schleiermacher directly? Robert and Elizabeth did own Dobson's 1836 translation of Schleiermacher's Introduction to the Dialogues of Plato. (24) Moreover, as Clyde de L. Ryals and Linda Peterson have shown, Browning's Christmas-Eve (1850) bears striking similarity to Schleiermacher's own Christmas Eve (written in 1806 and reissued in 1826). While Ryals and Peterson speculate that Schleiermacher's Christmas Eve was a possible formal influence on Browning's poem, what I am arguing is for a more pervasive link between Browning and the Schleiermacherean scriptural-hermeneutical tradition, such that the dramatic monologue emerges as a response to and a poetic reshaping of this tradition. (25) The sympathetic repositioning that is at the heart of the dramatic monologue, the "role-playing or projective attitude" that travels through Romanticism and into the nineteenth-century "poetry of experience" (Langbaum, pp. 25, 27) is also at the core of this religious-hermeneutical tradition. The interconnectedness of religious understanding, subjective experience as a hermeneutical technique, higher biblical criticism, and the dramatic monologue is nowhere clearer than in Browning's poem A Death in the Desert.
The Hermeneutics of St. John
Like the earlier poems "An Epistle of ... Karshish" and "Cleon" (1855), A Death in the Desert (1864) presents a first-century perspective on Christianity, this time via one of Christ's disciples. The poem's title is an oblique reference to the various "Lives" of Jesus written by biblical critics like David Friedrich Strauss (Das Leben Jesu, 1835) and Ernest Renan (Vie de Jesus, 1863), (26) though the subject of this poem is not Jesus but the life and death of John, who is, in multiple senses, buried within the poem. Browning structures the text in a complex layer of frames to mimic the complexity of the historical transmission of biblical texts and to foreground the hermeneutical issues at stake in sifting through the layers of accretion and textual emendation to properly understand, as Jowett wrote, "the words as they first struck on the ears or flashed before the eyes of those who heard and read them" (p. 481). In the poem's case, the auditor of the original words is the apostle John.
The opening section of the poem is set off typographically by brackets:
[Supposed of Pamphylax the Antiochene: It is a parchment, of my rolls the fifth, Hath three skins glued together, is all Greek, And goeth from Epsilon down to Mu: Lies second in the surnamed Chosen Chest, Stained and conserved with juice of terebinth, Covered with cloth of hair, and lettered Xi, From Xanthus, my wife's uncle, now at peace: Mu and Epsilon stand for my own name. I may not write it, but I make a cross To show I wait His coming, with the rest, And leave off here: beginneth Pamphylax.] (ll. 1-12) (27)
This prefatory statement introduces the reader to the governing conceit that the poem is a first- or second-century document. Browning emphasizes the text's material history (it is made of assembled skins and stored in a very specific chest), reception history (it has passed from Pamphylax to Xanthus to his nephew-in-law), and grammatical history (it is all in Greek, presumably of a style used in Antioch). These are all the elements of interest to the higher-critical biblical scholar, facts that would help place the work in its historical context and enable the scholar to evaluate its authenticity and meaning. The brackets underscore this section as containing "external," objective information. Given our knowledge of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics and their presence in the thought and work of Jowett and Browning, we would expect this external perspective to be accompanied by a more internal, subjective view into the text. This subjective view, in other words, is the dramatic monologue that follows, the "embodiment" of John.
After the bracketed opening follows a past-tense narration of the events immediately prior to John's death in the first-person voice of Pamphylax, who narrates that the dying John was brought to the desert and laid in a grotto by his followers to hide him from persecutors. John is surrounded by Pamphylax, Xanthus, Valens, and "the Boy," who attempt to revive John to hear any further words he may impart. The Boy is at last successful when he has a new idea
And fetched the seventh plate of graven lead Out of the secret chamber, found a place, Pressing with finger on the deeper dints, And spoke, as 'twere his mouth proclaiming first, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Whereat he [John] opened his eyes wide at once, And sat up of himself, and looked at us (ll. 60-66)
In order to successfully revive John, the Boy speaks the words that John himself once wrote, Jesus' proclamation that we find in John 11.25. The Boy not only speaks them, but he in a sense enters into the words and the "mouth" of the one who originally said them. He physically achieves closeness with the author by also tracing his words with his finger and pressing deeply into their incisions, the closest he can get to literally embodying the words. The Boy, in his attempt to reanimate John, becomes an interpreter in a way that corresponds to Jowett's instruction that the interpreter should "place himself as nearly as possible in the position of the sacred writer." The boy's action of repositioning himself in John's place is a work of recovery not only of John to consciousness, but also of the original moment of transmission.
The passage he reads is noteworthy: they are the words John wrote that Jesus spoke to Martha before he raised Lazarus from the dead. It is significant that Browning draws the connection between reviving the author John via his text and the resurrection of Lazarus, for there is an important sense in which the interpreter in Jowett's hermeneutics is raising the author from the dead by entering into or "embodying" him. This also references the resurrections performed by Elijah and Elisha, who each raised a boy from the dead by stretching out on him bodily (1 Kings 17.21-22; 2 Kings 4.32-35). These resurrections are analogous examples of reanimating via "embodying," the recovery achieved when the prophet places himself as fully as he can in the position of the boy.
John comments on the effect of hearing the resuscitating words again:
First he said, "If a friend declared to me, This my son Valens, this my other son, Were James and Peter,--nay, declared as well This lad was very John,--I could believe! --Could, for a moment, doubtlessly believe" (ll. 71-74)
The words reanimate his original experience when, in Jowett's phrase, the words "first struck [his] ears" to such an extent that he could believe his present company were the apostles themselves. He has been re-placed, via his text, "in company." John then works to further revive himself and be fully present and cognizant. He says:
"A stick, once fire from end to end; Now, ashes save the tip that holds a spark! Yet, blow the spark, it runs back, spreads itself A little where the fire was: thus I urge The soul that served me, till it task once more What ashes of my brain have kept their shape, And these make effort on the last o' the flesh, Trying to taste again the truth of things." (ll. 105-112)
John is but a spark of his former self, but he rekindles this essential spark to reanimate first his brain and then his body so that he sees clearly the current truth that he has outlived James and Peter.
Browning here employs imagery that he will later use to describe his essentially equivalent technique of reanimating the text of the "old yellow Book" in The Ring and the Book. In Book I Browning states that unlike God who creates, man "resuscitates" (l. 719). Browning relates a mage's description of this process of reanimation that echoes John's rekindling of his own ashes:
he taught adepts, "man makes not man. Yet by a special gift, an art of arts, More insight and more outsight and much more Will to use both of these than boast my mates, I can detach from me, commission forth Half of my soul; which in its pilgrimage O'er old unwandered waste ways of the world, May chance upon some fragment of a whole, Rag of flesh, scrap of bone in dim disuse, Smoking flax that fed fire once: prompt therein I enter, spark-like, put old powers to play, Push lines out to the limit" (ll. 745-756)
Browning is describing his artistic process in terms of both the "outsight" of external, "objective" facts and the subjective, sympathetic "insight" that enables the poet and interpreter to "detach" from his world and enter another. Somewhat paradoxically, this type of sympathetic "detachment" is what characterizes the dramatic monologue as "empiric[al]" (Langbaum, pp. 96-98). While it is more common to understand detachment as an empirical stance because of its objectivity or selflessness, it is instead a form of detachment founded on sympathetic experience that enables a poet or reader of a dramatic monologue--or of the Scriptures--to transcend her own context. The "rag of flesh" is "embodied" as the mage, like John, rekindles the spark of former life. The mage calls this a Faustian power, but Browning rebukes the mage's attribution: "Oh, Faust, why Faust? Was not Elisha once?" (l. 760). For Elisha "went up / And lay upon the corpse, dead on the couch, / And put his mouth upon its mouth, his eyes / Upon its eyes, his hands upon its hands, / And stretched him on the flesh; the flesh waxed warm" (ll. 764-768). Browning calls this reanimation "a credible feat" (l. 771), which implies that not only is it an act capable or worthy of being believed or even producing belief in something else (for example, 1 Kings 17.24), but there is also a punning sense in which the feat could be done by means of belief, such that belief is both the cause and effect of the feat. The word choice of "credible" highlights the tension between something believable being the domain of faith as well as being granted fact status. The phrase thus highlights the claims of the hermeneutical, poetic, and religious modes intermingling in Browning's formulation. The credible feat in these three modes is a work that will be empirically valid: the science of hermeneutics, a poem that demonstrates that "[f]ancy with fact is just one fact the more" (l. 464), and a faith that is visible via experience and yet the "evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews, 11.1).
In A Death John continues to rekindle himself by narrating and interpreting his life story in light of the biblical texts he wrote (ll. 134-187), presenting his own "Life of John." He then switches to describe the awfulness of the present moment:
"Yet now I wake in such decrepitude As I had slidden down and fallen afar, Past even the presence of my former self, Grasping the while for stay at facts which snap, Till I am found away from my own world, Feeling for foot-hold through a blank profound, Along with unborn people in strange lands, Who say--I hear said or conceive they say-'Was John at all, and did he say he saw? Assure us, ere we ask what he might see!'" (ll. 188-197)
John's self-consciousness in the moment is informed by a consciousness of himself in the eyes of future generations. The poem, rather ingeniously, gives the experience of John's self in the minds of future readers of his texts. "John" becomes eroded, his existence put in doubt, as people try to sift him and his story/history to discern "facts" that can be grasped as objects of support or reliance against confusion or doubt. John feels what happens to "John"; he experiences extreme decrepitude not just because his body is on the verge of biological decay, but also because his "life" or biography is being broken down through time into pieces, the material pieces of "facts" that are his remains. (28) The journey of "John" through history is subjectively experienced as if free-falling in a "blank profound" of nothingness with no foothold of truth ("a credible feet"-hold) on which to firmly stand, a feeling that was probably familiar to many of Browning's contemporaries. (29)
The reader experiences John's historical disorientation in the temporal disorientation of this passage: John is "now" describing his present condition of being past the presence of his past self, and yet he is also in the future with "unborn people" who somehow have a present presence such that he hears them "say ..... Was John" and "Assure us, ere we ask what he might see." Though the "detachment from" one's temporality is at the core of the type of hermeneutical reconstruction I have been tracking, Browning is not characterizing John's time travel here positively. He is describing not a resuscitative or reconstructive hermeneutics but rather a procedure of "grasping the while for stay at facts which snap" under weight or strain. The implication is that an exclusive reliance on objective (or "pure crude") facts will do nothing to "stay" either one's Christian beliefs or the temporal freefall of these lines.
In answer to the imagined rebuttal of future Christians who "'Sigh ... "It had been easier once than now"'" (l. 299), John replies with the counterexample (recorded in Matthew 26.56 and Mark 14.50) of when he "forsook and fled" Jesus when he was arrested, even though John "'was present from the first'" and saw Christ "'transfigured, Him / Who trod the sea and brought the dead to life'" (ll. 301-311). John is acutely conscious of the effect of the passing of time on an event that occurred within history, and yet he insists that even those closest to that event were at no moral or spiritual advantage over later followers of Christ. In fact, he continues to note that already in the years following Christ's death at the end of the century, "'what the Roman's lowered spear was found, / A bar to me who touched and handled truth, / Now proved the glozing of some new shrewd tongue, / This Ebion, this Cerinthus or their mates'" (ll. 326-329).
The denials of the divinity of Christ by nineteenth-century critics like Strauss and Renan, which is Browning's context for this poem, were long preceded by the first- and second-century teachings of Cerinthus and the Ebionites about the "double nature" of Jesus. As Gibbon explains in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which was probably Browning's source of information), Cerinthus' followers believed that "Jesus of Nazareth was a mere mortal, the legitimate son of Joseph and Mary; but he was the best and wisest of the human race, selected as the worthy instrument to restore upon earth the worship of the true and supreme Deity." (30) Whereas John was once prohibited in person from physically touching the Incarnate truth by one of the Romans who arrested Jesus, resulting in John's "forsaking" of him, the new "bar" to the truth is the specious interpretations of teachers who deny Jesus' divinity. The "glozing" of these shrewd tongues is the opposite of John's interpretive mode of(bodily, immediately, experientially) "trying to taste again the truth of things."
John engages in an extended defense of the divine properties of Power and Love via an imagined dialogue with future unnamed higher critics like Renan, whom Browning had just read before completion of the poem. (31) John gives the imagined response to his teachings of one who says of Christ:
"'Has He been? Did not we ourselves make Him? Our mind receives but what it holds, no more. First of the love, then; we acknowledge Christ-- A proof we comprehend His love, a proof We had such love already in ourselves, Knew first what else we should not recognize. 'Tis mere projection from man's inmost mind, And, what he loves, thus falls reflected back, Becomes accounted somewhat out of him'" (ll. 377-385)
The theory of Christ as a "projection" was advanced by Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity (1841). Feuerbach argues (in George Eliot's 1854 translation) that
Man--this is the mystery of religion-projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself, is an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself. (32)
The "projection theory" is, essentially, the criticism leveled at any religious understanding, such as the theology originated by Schleiermacher, that sees experience as a fundamental category of knowledge of the divine. (33) According to Feuerbach, who came after and critiqued Schleiermacher, subjective experience is not epistemologically valid but rather a situated construction that merely yields a god made in man's image.
Readers of A Death have noted that Browning (through John) does not respond to the higher critics point for point or on their own terms. (34) However, Browning is indeed, though in a more subtle way, responding to Feuerbach's critique by offering a poetic assertion of the value of the projection of subjective experience. The poem addresses at a formal level the issue that not only underlies the hermeneutical reconstructions at work in A Death in the Desert but is also at the core of the dramatic monologue. That what Langbaum identifies as "sympathy or projectiveness, what the Germans call Einfuhlung," is central to the dramatic monologue points to the form's place within a tradition that includes Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, one that is thinking about the epistemological and religious validity of subjective experience and its projection. (35) Browning's poetry, like Jowett's hermeneutics, uses sympathetic projection of the self into another as an indispensable meaning-making and -accessing technique.
That Browning understood the issue of projection as at the heart of both the hermeneutical reconstruction of history and truth and the dramatic monologue is clear in his comments on the formal experiment of The Ring and the Book in Book I. Browning recounts how in his Florence home, "from the reading [of the old yellow book], and that slab I leant/My elbow on, the while I read and read / I turned, to free myself and find the world, / And stepped out on the narrow terrace" (ll. 476-479). The bodily and positional freeing of himself from the room turns into an imaginative projection of himself into what Rossetti would call "the very world" in which the hearts of Pompilia and Caponsacchi "beat or bled." The stance on the terrace becomes an "inner standing-point":
Over the roof o' the lighted church I looked A bowshot to the street's end, north away Out of the Roman gate to the Roman road By the river, till I felt the Apennine. There lay Arezzo! Farther then I fared, Feeling my way on through the hot and dense, Romeward, until I found the wayside inn
where Guido discovered Pompilia with Capponsacchi (ll. 497-507). The sequence of events clearly aligns this "feeling" with hermeneutics: he first "reads and reads" and then interprets via a sympathetic immediacy.
Browning states that in his ability to "resuscitate" the past, "man, bounded, yearning to be free, / May so project his surplusage of soul / In search of body, so add self to self" (ll. 722-724). He identifies this projection, which is analogous to Elisha's version of "embodiment," as the "credible" poetic and interpretive "feat." This type of projection enables Browning to say confidently, "I saw with my own eyes / In Florence as I trod the terrace" (ll. 523-524). Browning repeatedly states "I saw" as he imaginatively recreates the events leading up to the trial, echoing John's recurring testimony of "I saw" in A Death in the Desert. In fact, Browning's assertion that "I saw with my own eyes" is a strong echo of John's statement that he "'Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands'" (l. 131, echoing 1 John 1.1). Browning's "I saw" is a bold claim for sympathetic sight. (36) Jowett made the equally bold claim that one could be "in company" with Christ's followers. Like Jowett, who asserted that interpreters can "see or imagine things as they truly are," Browning is stating a firm belief in the possibility of accessing past (or transtemporal) truths. Though for both men historical reconstruction is a fraught enterprise--and Browning's poetry foregrounds this throughout (37)--for both men these difficulties give rise to the challenge of finding and employing a technique that actively seeks to arrive at truth within such conditions. Though most readily apparent at the level of content, this tension is also inherent within the very form of the dramatic monologue. What Jowett called an "effort of thought and imagination" is also what fundamentally structures the dramatic monologue, which repeatedly stages the use of this projective, sympathetic leap in tandem with the judgments of cultural, temporal, and linguistic difference.
The hermeneutical questions and methods at work in A Death in the Desert emerge clearly in its final lines. The final section is a mirror of the first in that it is set off by brackets and meant as another layer of interpretation. The writer here echoes Gibbon's comment that Cerinthus' followers believed that Jesus of Nazareth was merely "the best and wisest of the human race":
[Cerinthus read and mused; one added this: "If Christ, as thou affirmest, be of men Mere man, the first and best but nothing more,-- Account Him, for reward of what He was, Now and for ever, wretchedest of all. For see; Himself conceived of life as love, Conceived of love as what must enter in, Fill up, make one with His each soul He loved: Groom for each bride! Can a mere man do this? Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do. Call Christ, then, the illimitable God, Or lost!" But 'twas Cerinthus that is lost.] (ll. 665-687)
Browning is often thought to be this final definitive voice of the last sentence, which gives us a way out of the mise en abime of interpretative layers. But it also asserts the value of making a definitive moral and religious conclusion or judgment. The mixing of tenses in the final lines alerts us to this: it was Cerinthus, a past historical person, who is lost, not to history but eternally because of his disbelief. That this passage is a mirror of the first bracketed section also contains a clue to the identification of the final speaker. Though the first speaker of the poem is said to be the nephew-in-law of a follower of John, his initials are "Mu and Epsilon," which "stand for my own name." In other words, Browning is inscribing "ME" (himself) into the poem. The need to assert the truthfulness of the religious position taken forces the poet to "break character."
This final move is in essence a recapitulation of Browning's belief that though there are, no doubt, complications arising from the conditions of production and transmission, for him the "truth" of Jesus remains the subjectively accessible "one meaning." This hermeneutical strategy holds true for both biblical and poetic texts. Browning and the poem's readers sympathetically "see" into the texts of John and embody him. Though in the poem John dies and is buried within layers, he is also, in each layer, hermeneutically reconstructed and resurrected. Browning is an interpreter reanimating John, John's company hermeneutically calls him up, and John is the interpreter of himself and Christian truth. Browning's statement of his belief in Christ in the final stanza of the epilogue to Dramatis Personae (in which Renan is also a speaker) serves as an apt summation of not only his Christian beliefs, but also of the hermeneutics of the dramatic monologue A Death in the Desert:
That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows, Or decomposes but to recompose, Become my universe that feels and knows. (38)
(1) Victor Shea and William Whitla, eds., Essays and Reviews: The 1860 Text and its Reading (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 2000), pp. 481,505, 508. All quotations of On the Interpretation of Scripture are from this edition.
(2) Benjamin Jowett, Dear Miss Nightingale: A Selection of Benjamin Jowett's Letters to Florence Nightingale, 1860-1893 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 59; Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (London: J. Murray, 1897), pp. 400-402, 415.
(3) For a summary of dramatic monologue criticism and an example of the absence of religious context in scholarship on the form, see E. Warwick Slinn, "Dramatic Monologue," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Anthony H. Harrison (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 80-98.
(4) For Browning and Schleiermacher, see Clyde de L Ryals, "Browning's Christmas-Eve and Schleiermacher's Die Weihnachtsfeier: A German Source for the English Poem," Studies in Browning and His Circle 14 (1986): 28-31; Linda H. Peterson, "Rereading Christmas-Eve, Rereading Browning," VP 26, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 363-380. For Browning and Jowett, see Brahma Chaudhuri, "Browning, Benjamin Jowett, and English Higher Criticism," Studies in Browning and His Circle 4, no. 2 (1976): 119-132; W. David Shaw, The Lucid Veil: Poetic Truth in the Victorian Age (London: Athlone, 1987), pp. 198-207.
(5) See especially E. S. Shaffer, "Kubla Khan" and The Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), chap. 5.
(6) Quotations from the Essay on Shelley are from The Complete Works of Robert Browning: With Variant Readings and Annotations, ed. Roma A King, vol. 5 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1981).
(7) For example, see Joseph Milsand's September 1856 review of Men and Women for the Revue Contemporaine (qtd. in Robert W. Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition [New York: Random House, 1957], p. 81).
(8) The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911), p. 661.
(9) Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Jerome J. McGann (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 337-338.
(10) For the subjective and objective in German thought and its uptake in Romantic and post-Romantic thought, see especially M. H Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 235-244; Patricia M. Ball, The Science of Aspects: The Changing Role of Fact in the Work of Coleridge, Ruskin, and Hopkins (London: Athlone Press, 1971).
(11) For monographs on Essays and Reviews, see Ieuan Ellis, Seven Against Christ: A Study of "Essays and Reviews," Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 23 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980); Josef L. Ahholz, Anatomy of a Controversy: The Debate Over Essays and Reviews 1860-1864 (Aldershot: Scolar, 1994); Shea and Whitla, Essays and Reviews. See also Jude V. Nixon, "'Kill[ing] Our Souls with Literalism': Reading Essays and Reviews," in Victorian Religious Discourse: New Directions in Criticism, ed. Jude V. Nixon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 51-81; Suzy Anger, Victorian Interpretation (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2005), pp. 25-28.
(12) The Ring and the Book, ed. Thomas J. Collins and Richard D. Altick (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001), 1.33-37.
(13) "Oh! many are the Poets that are sown / By Nature; men endowed with highest gifts, / The vision and the faculty divine; / Yet wanting the accomplishment of verse" (The Excursion 1.77-80; William Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press], 2:42).
(14) Friedrich Schleiermacher, Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato, trans. William Dobson (London, 1836), p. 2.
(15) Schleiermacher, Introduction, p. 3; Julia A. Lamm, "The Art of Interpreting Plato," in The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher, ed. Jacqueline Marina (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), p. 96.
(16) Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, ed. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), p. 11.
(17) Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, ed. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), p. 23.
(18) Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. Hugh Ross Mackintosh and James Stuart Stewart (London: T&T Clark, 1999), p. 12.
(19) Though Tod E. Jones insists that Coleridge did not read Schleiermacher actively until 1826, his thought does develop the "subjective" interpretative category that is an essential feature of German and English Romantic thought. See The Broad Church: A Biography of a Movement (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), pp. 37-38.
(20) Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London, 1853), Letter VII, p. 116. In Confessions, which circulated in manuscript among friends such as Thomas Arnold, he also stares the directive that was echoed by Arnold and then by Jowett to read the scripture like any other book: "I take up this work [the Bible] with the purpose to read it for the first time as I should read any other work,--as far at least as I can or dare" (Letter I, pp. 43-44).
(21) M.A. Crowther, Church Embattled: Religious Controversy in Mid-Victorian England (Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1970), p. 71.
(22) Balliol College Archives Jowett Papers I.B.10 p. 47; I.B.17 p. 103; II.L.3 p. 170; I.B.19 p. 6; I.B.4 insert bcK. Jowett also comments on Schleiermacher in the "Essay on Atonement and Satisfaction" in his The Epistles of St. Paul commentaries (second ed. 1859).
(23) On Schleiermacher and Romanticism, see Crouter's introduction in On Religion, pp. xxv-xxix.
(24) Philip Kelley, The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia (Waco, TX: Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University, 1984), no. A2020. The marginalia in this copy, now at the ABL, indicates that the introduction outlining Schleiermacher's hermeneutical technique was the section of interest, though it is unclear in whose hand are the markings.
(25) Peterson draws the connection between the two works because Browning's poem is about "hermeneutics broadly conceived" ("Rereading Christmas-Eve," p. 364; see also Ryals, "Browning's Christmas-Eve," pp. 30-31).
(26) Schleiermacher inaugurated this line of inquiry into the historical Jesus with his lectures on the subject beginning in 1819. See Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, ed. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 56 ff.
(27) Quotations from A Death in the Desert are from The Complete Works of Robert Browning: With Variant Readings & Annotations, ed. Roma A. King, vol. 6 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1996).
(28) On the "vanishing historical subject" in higher criticism, see Suzanne Bailey, "'Decomposing' Texts: Browning's Poetics and Higher-Critical Parody," in Victorian Religious Discourse: New Directions in Criticism, ed. Jude V. Nixon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 117-129.
(29) The classic description of this is in Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), chap. 4.
(30) Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 12 vols. (London, 1797), 8:270; chap. XLVII, sect. III.
(31) Robert Browning: Selected Poems, ed. John Woolford, Daniel Karlin, and Joseph Phelan (Harlow, England: Longman, 2010), pp. 714-715. Browning wrote to Isa Blagden in November 1863: "I have just read Renan's book, and find it weaker and less honest than I was led to expect. 1 am glad it is written: if he thinks he can prove what he says, he has fewer doubts on the subject than I--but mine are none of his.... His admissions & criticisms on St John are curious. I make no doubt he imagines himself stating a fact, with the inevitable license--so must John have done" (quoted, pp. 721-722). See Shaffer, "Kubla Khan" and The Fall of Jerusalem, chap. 5, for a consideration of the poem as a response to Renan.
(32) Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. Marian Evans (London: John Chapman, 1854), p. 29.
(33) Alister E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 38. On the contested role of experience in hermeneutics, and a perceptive location of Langbaum within this tradition, see Gerald L. Bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1992), chap. 9.
(34) For example, see William O. Raymond, "Browning and Higher Criticism," PMLA 44, no. 2 (June 1929): 600; Robert Inglesfield, "Two Interpolated Speeches in Robert Browning's A Death in the Desert," VP 41, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 336.
(35) Langbaum, p. 79. Browning includes projection in his definitions of the subjective and objective poet (see pp. 137-139). On the Romantic aesthetic and religious philosophies that involved projecting the self into its object in order to understand or be reconciled to it, see M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971); Langbaum, chap. 1.
(36) Browning also expects this sight of his readers, asking from the outset: "Do you see this Ring?" (1.l); "Do you see this square old yellow Book...?" (1.33).
(37) Bailey notes some examples in which "he fully registers the higher critics' sense of the limitations of oral testimony and of the interpreter's activity" ("'Decomposing' Texts," p. 124).
(38) Complete Works, vol. 6, lines 99-101. Browning said as a gloss to these lines: "That Face, is the face of Christ. That is how I feel him" (William C. DeVane, A Browning Handbook, [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, c.1955], p. 315).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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