Skepticism and the dramatic monologue: Webster against browning.
And yet, despite this widespread and justified praise of Webster's achievement, scholars have not fully explored just how unusual these monologues are. For Webster makes a bold choice to abandon the epistemological problems so famous in Robert Browning's monologues, which have often been considered a defining element of the genre. The dramatic monologue calls our attention to the particular situation and context of a given speaker, often leading to a wealth of skepticism about the utterance that is often omitted from lyric poetry. The genre, ever since Robert Langbaum's groundbreaking work, has been viewed as a form that challenges our understanding of a speaker's self-presentation, forcing us into an unceasing "tension between sympathy and moral judgment." (4) Isobel Armstrong, for instance, has described the dramatic monologue as "an infinite regress of possible interpretive instability" where no assertion or belief goes unchallenged. (5) Angela Leighton, in her discussion of Webster's dramatic monologues, argues that the form shows that "the self is a thing of inner strata and differences, of overlaid repressions and deceptions" (p. 177). And Linda K. Hughes defines the dramatic monologue as a form that "operates within a problematical epistemology and demands that readers negotiate a range of ambiguities." (6) By contrast, Webster's work, as Patricia Rigg has shown, downplays the "conventions of paradox and irony" often found in the dramatic monologue; her speakers are reliable and trustworthy observers of the world. (7) Consequently, her poems offer a variant of the dramatic monologue that leaves readers "with the sense that the basic position proposed by the speaker is fully endorsed by the poet." (8) Rather than emphasize the "tension between sympathy and moral judgment" or a speaker's "unconscious self-revelations," Webster pushes the dramatic monologue into what Adena Rosmarin terms the "Mask Lyric" and "confute[s] rather than reward[s] the reader's attempts to distinguish the speaker's meaning from the poem's." (9)
Webster, then, writes widely admired dramatic monologues that violate what many critics have seen as the central aim of the form. This puzzle could be solved by abandoning these definitions of the genre for another, such as Cornelia Pearsall's claim that the genre's major function is to present speakers who desire "to achieve some purpose ... through the medium of their monologues." (10) But I propose, instead, that Webster's dramatic monologues are best seen as a deliberate challenge to Browning's. His monologues are skeptical about human motives and knowledge but surprisingly sympathetic to religious belief; they explore how faith can survive when its epistemological foundations crumble. Webster challenges both of these tendencies, rejecting the persona that frequently appears when Browning turns his attention to religion: a speaker, conscious of some intellectual limitations and unconscious of others, who nevertheless cannot shake the desire for belief. This is the attitude of Karshish, who humbly refers to himself as "the picker-up of learning's crumbs" and who cannot shake his fascination with the idea that Jesus Christ is the "Creator and sustainer of the world," even as he cannot quite bring himself to believe ("An Epistle of Karshish," 11. 1, 269); it is the attitude of the much more cynical Bishop Blougram, who shrewdly claims that we must choose between "a life of doubt diversified by faith" and "one of faith diversified by doubt" ("Bishop Blougram's Apology," 11. 210, 211); it is, finally, the attitude of the speaker of Easter-Day, who sees life as a constant struggle to "try, prove, reject" while holding to a foundational belief that "Christ rises" (11. 1019, 1039). (11) In all these cases, Browning's speakers frankly acknowledge the epistemological problems that surround any religious belief but refuse to dismiss belief itself. Webster's speakers do the opposite: their knowledge is limited but secure, and it is enough for them to reject faith as misguided.
Webster challenges Browning's dramatic monologues, then, as an opponent of his religious attitudes. Whether Browning's unusual combination of skepticism and faith adds up to a defense of Christianity is a matter of debate; for Jonathan Loesberg, Browning's position is merely an "ostensible Christianity," while for Herbert Tucker, Browning can be closely identified with the "customized evangelicalism" of Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. (12) But while Browning's exact theological beliefs are difficult to define, his poems consistently break the link between epistemological skepticism and doubt about religious belief itself. As Loesberg has argued, Browning combines "the conclusions of the Higher Criticism about the historicity of the gospels" with a "justification of willed belief" (p. 209). Webster, on the other hand, is "famously skeptical." (13) Her poetry celebrates disenchantment, assuming that science and rationality were claiming "authority over subjects hitherto regarded as mysterious." (14) Her affinities lie with Victorian skeptics like Thomas Huxley, who defined the "agnostic principle" as an edict to "not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." (15) But she also challenges Browning's work on the level of poetic language itself. She abandons the obscurity and difficulty often found in Browning's work; instead, as Patricia Rigg has observed, "clear and direct language ... typifies virtually all of Webster's work after 1866." (16) Angela Leighton has rightly called Webster "a determined literalist of the imagination" (p. 164); Webster's poetry embodies this literalism in a style that pursues clarity just as Browning aims for difficulty. And her stylistic objections to Browning are inseparable from her religious skepticism. Poetic clarity and epistemological accuracy, for Webster, go hand in hand, and they lead to the same place--a humble but convinced agnosticism.
Webster's attitude toward poetic style can be seen most clearly in her essay "A Transcript and a Translation," originally published as two reviews in the Examiner in November 1877 and later revised for her collection A Housewife's Opinions. The article, putatively an evaluation of two new translations of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, is considerably more ambitious; it is in fact a statement of Webster's own poetics. One translation gets only cursory attention; Webster declares that it is competent but that "there seems to be no particular reason for its existence." (17) But the second translation she reviews is much more interesting. For this version of Agamemnon was translated by Robert Browning, whom Webster acknowledges as "a chief of poets now" (ATT, p. 353). As Patricia Rigg has noted, Webster recognizes the very real merits of Browning's work: his "intuitive scholarly acumen,... creativity and talents as a poet" ("Enter," para. 5). Webster admires this translation's commitment to "unflinching self-restraint" and "dogged fidelity," as Browning aims for scrupulous accuracy to the original, and praises it because it "bears the strong impression of originative power--a power which must have been recognized if Robert Browning had never been heard of before" (ATT, p. 353). His translation faithfully captures the "intolerable harshness" of the original, which Webster argues is essential to any decent translation: "a poet," she claims, "would no more wish to be changed and embellished to the taste and after the likeness of his translator than a woman aware of beauty would wish to have her portrait painted up to the type of another" (pp. 354, 358). Indeed, Browning offers a translation emphasizing "minute accuracy," capturing all of the original's merits and flaws. Given the power of the original and the talent of the translator, Webster argues, "the result ought to have been one of the most magnificent poems in the English language" (p. 354).
But as the phrase "ought to have been" implies, Webster cannot recommend Browning's translation. Instead of a masterpiece, it is nothing more than "the most magnificent of 'cribs' " (p. 354). The reason for her disapproval is simple: Browning's translation is almost incomprehensible. (Erik Gray has recently confirmed Webster's judgment, calling this translation "perversely literal, to the point of unintelligibility.") (18) Although Webster concedes that the original is difficult, Browning, in her opinion, overdoes it, making the poem "bewilderingly, sometimes hopelessly, obscure" (ATT, p. 354). "The reader who knows no Greek at all," we are told, "will be left bewildered and incredulous" (p. 359). To be sure, Webster appreciates Browning's care to capture Agamemnon's subtle linguistic details. "Any poet who is worth translating at all," she declares, "will have used his words with such definite intention that no exactitude in giving their equivalents can be too scrupulous." (p. 359) But Browning goes beyond this "exactitude" and makes the poem more confusing than the original. His desire to capture the syntax and word order of Greek adds "an element--that of confusion or of eccentricity--which was not in the original phrase." (p. 359) Partly at fault, she claims, is Browning's own tendency to make his poems more difficult than we expect or wish. Browning does not understand that "even thoughtful readers of poetry require to be told what it is they are to think" (p. 362). Since we have been raised to expect "a great deal of words to the meaning," it comes as a shock to find a "spiritual pastor" who gives us "an excessive deal of meaning to the words" (p. 363). Two crucial elements of Webster's poetics emerge here: her assumption that poetry should teach (as in her reference to poets as "spiritual pastors") and her demand that those poetic lessons be taught in clear language. Browning's obscurity and difficulty prevent a clear meaning from emerging.
Webster's argument is not a simple rejection of poetic difficulty or an unwillingness to face the challenges of Browning's demanding translation. It is, instead, a principled argument that develops out of her theories of language. Browning's desire for literal translation, she argues, eventually leads to mistranslation, "on the principle that if you go very far east you get west" (p. 364). His obsession with capturing the syntax is merely the first sign of a problematic attitude toward language; Browning, Webster claims, places too high a value on the uniqueness of words. He overvalues etymology; he "will by no means let us have a word without its pedigree" (p. 364). Consequently, his translation of Agamemnon makes for difficult reading, as Browning insists on capturing every subtle connotation or historical meaning found in the original Greek. Language, she claims, is full of words that have acquired "a sense having no reference to their root-derivation--or which having once been metaphors have come down to being mere speech-tokens used without the slightest regard to the simile they once epitomized" (p. 364)- These words, for Webster, are like coins whose original distinctiveness has been eroded with handling--they "serve the purposes they are put to just as readily with the face blurred out" (p. 364). Here lies the great difference between the two poets: while Browning treats language as a dense network of denotations, connotations, references, and etymologies, where each word contains a host of important secondary attributes, Webster imagines words as worn, well-handled coins.
The metaphor of word as coin is a startling one--Webster, in effect, urges writers and readers to pay less attention to the subtleties of language. Her account of language emphasizes transaction; words, like coins, exist to be exchanged. As Rigg argues, Webster views translation as a process of "exchange ... between the translator and the original script" ("Enter," para. 10); Webster's insistence on words as coins amplifies this metaphor of translation as exchange. A coin exists to be spent, and a word exists to be used--each has value only in circulation and use. And just as coins work by assigning accepted value to each denomination, language, for Webster, should work through a similar sort of clarity. Using "twice as many" English words to translate Greek clearly, Webster argues, is no more "amplification" of the original than it is "overpayment to give two sixpences to discharge a debt of a shilling" (ATT, p. 364). The older connotations, etymologies, historical references, and previous uses of words become attributes like scratches on the face of a coin or the grooves on its edges: undeniably part of the token or physical object but irrelevant to its exchange value. Browning's translation, then, goes wrong by treating the incidental parts of language as though they were part of its essential value. His attention to the material of language, Webster implies, is like valuing a quarter for its engraving instead of its use value.
But Webster's embrace of clarity and easy "exchange" should not be read as a sign that she believed in naive theories of language where words always have simple meanings. After all, this metaphor appears near the end of a lengthy review in which she explores the difficult problem of translation and the need for precise, careful phrasing. Webster does not insist that language is perfectly clear and that Browning needlessly complicates the simple process of translation. Instead, she values clarity and communicability as a stylistic achievement, a difficult but rewarding process of selecting just the right words to make writing and its exchange of ideas as comfortable as it can be. Her poetic style is deliberately prosaic--Algernon Charles Swinburne, after having read Webster's volume Portraits, even suggested that she "ought really to resign verse for prose." (19) It closely resembles what Cicero calls the plain style: it emphasizes restraint and clarity, following the "ordinary usage" familiar to the orator's audience. (20) It aims for "elegance and neatness" while being "somewhat subdued in using the other embellishments of language and of thought" (secs. 79, 81). And although it deliberately refrains from exotic or idiosyncratic use of language, it is not a thoughtless or slapdash form of writing. It is "easy to imitate at first thought, but when attempted nothing is more difficult" (sec. 76). Clear and precise language, of the sort Webster embraces here, becomes a hard-won achievement. It aspires to let ideas and thought circulate as easily as a well-worn coin--even if the writer knows how difficult it is to reach that level of clarity. And this deliberate clarity stands with marked contrast to Browning, Webster's rival in the dramatic monologue. Browning, responding to John Ruskin's declaration that his poems are "a set of the most amazing Conundrums," asks a question that signals his acceptance of obscurity: "Do you think poetry was ever generally understood--or can be?" (21) Webster's insistence on communication and exchange, then, places her poetics at odds with Browning's willful embrace of difficulty.
And the "clarity of diction and syntax" that consistently characterizes Webster's style also shapes her skeptical arguments (Rigg, Julia, p. 69). For Webster, clear language leads to clear knowledge. And clear knowledge, her poems argue, exposes the empty grandeur of religious belief. This is not to say that Webster was unsympathetic to religious believers; indeed, as Robert Fletcher has shown, she was able to write poetry that sympathetically imagined a cloistered nun's "mystical dark night of the soul." (22) But more frequently, her monologues present speakers who are worldly and shrewd, able to see through the fog of hypocrisy and confusion surrounding everyday life. The speakers' humble "everyman" status (most of the monologues in Portraits are spoken by unnamed characters who represent broad social classes) positions them as the voice of practical knowledge and honest skepticism, challenging a world of easy answers. These speakers are not ideologically opposed to Christianity; typically, her speakers wish they could believe in Christianity even though their doubt makes it impossible. Nor are they able to simply abandon religious belief entirely; they are, as Fletcher observes, "squarely situated in the Victorian interstices between faith and doubt" ("Convent," p. 311). But if they find the attractions of faith all too real, they nevertheless tend to view religious belief as "incredible" in the most literal sense of the term. They see it as a dubious system of thought that, whatever its merits and attractions, ultimately remains too obscure to be credible. Webster's poems--with their focus on worldly knowledge, embodied in her "plain-speaking register of secular commonsense"-make religion seem all too bizarre for the plain-speaking, clear-perceiving people of the world (Loesberg, p. 224).
Webster's early volume A Woman Sold and Other Poems contains a series of dramatic monologues, "Anno Domini 33," that show how she weds style and skepticism. In particular, the third poem in the sequence, "Pilate," begins to develop the innovations that Webster was to exhibit most clearly in Portraits. This poem also contains a number of points in common with Browning's "An Epistle of Karshish": a narrator who encounters enough of Christianity to make him uncomfortable but not enough to make him reconsider his entire set of beliefs. That initial similarity, however, develops in two very different ways. While Browning explores one man's powerful attraction to the idea of Christ's divinity and resurrection (even if he remains unable to accept those beliefs), Webster presents a Pilate who admires Christianity's ethics but rejects its supernatural claims. Certainly, this Pilate finds Christianity attractive, enough so that he tells his wife, Procla, that he regrets Jesus's death. He acknowledges that Jesus, though "of mean state" and unfamiliar with the knowledge "Of the wise Greeks," would "yet have left his stamp upon the world / As deep as any sage's." (23) Characteristically for Webster, Pilate praises Christian ethics for being both clear and practical, the two qualities that most distinguish her poetry. Jesus, for Pilate, might have given the world
Something to take for real and hold fast In the confusion of philosophies And shifting dulled traditions of our Gods Who let us wander on and make no sign--(11. 106-109)
His teaching, Pilate assumes, would offer moral and intellectual clarity where Greek and Roman philosophy would not. He does not believe that Christianity would solve all the problems the world faces; the world would remain a "coil of labyrinths" that "wreath and puzzle round a gaping void/Where truth, we're told, should be" (11. 112, 115-116). But its teachings could form "a starting point/To find the clue from, and perhaps the goal" (11. 116-117). On the other hand, rival philosophies make truth and clarity seem unattainable and even undesirable; they act as though their "work was to make labyrinths" rather than to solve them (1. 119). Webster's Pilate thus pays Jesus a very high compliment: he treats him as someone who could have been a powerful guide to a clearer perception of truth.
But Pilate's interest in moral clarity and truth make his attraction to Christianity disappear. He is uncompromising when he learns of the rumors surrounding the resurrection, declaring that "death" is not "an actor's mask / To be thrown off and there's the man alive" (11. 144-145). Pilate presents himself as an uncompromising voice of harsh, unpleasant truth, unwilling to accept illusions about an afterlife:
But the dead Lie stark and helpless, then rot into earth, And there's an end. That's the deep sadness, child, Which all our hearts, outface it as we will, Faint at and whimper at through all our thoughts, That the dead are really dead and not asleep, And so there is no rising. (11. 149-155)
Here Pilate infantilizes his wife (the "child" of these lines) and her belief that resurrection is possible; he insists that this belief is a retreat into happy delusion instead of facing the realities of death. His attention is drawn to the body: its immobility, its decay, and finally its disappearance as it becomes indistinguishable from the soil. As in Webster's poetry more generally, truth about the world means acknowledging brute material fact. Pilate objects not to the ethics of Christianity but to its promise of a life after death--a promise that runs into trouble when faced with the undeniable evidence of dead, decaying bodies. Even when Procla gets him to admit that there must be a soul--since the body, nothing more than "reeking dung" after death, is animated during life--Pilate does not let that concession allow for false hope (1. 170). The soul must die too, he reasons, since the body becomes an inanimate and decaying lump of flesh. And he regards the belief that the soul survives without a body almost with repugnance; when considering the idea that the soul could be "part of the great breath we call the air," he rejects it with the rhetorical question, "What life were that to us to call it ours?" (11. 175, 177). In any meaningful sense, Pilate insists, belief in an afterlife runs up against the reality of the corpse; he insists, tautologically but firmly, that "We die ... and to die is death" (1. 178). No religious belief, he claims, can avoid this material fact.
Consequently Jesus's appeal, for Pilate, is decidedly limited. All his potential, Pilate insists, has disappeared with his death. Ultimately, we are told, "Dead philosophers / Are just as useful to the living world/As are dead lions, or dead rats" (11. 277-279). Their only merit lies in the dead matter they leave behind, which helps "To make good soil" (1. 280). Moreover, even Christian ethics prove deficient for Pilate. To begin, Pilate assumes that Christianity, with no living "philosopher" or teacher left, will inevitably decay into "counterfeit" versions of Christ's teaching. He introduces the figure of coins (not coincidentally, the same figure Webster later used to describe her own theory of poetry) to explain why Christian teaching cannot be separated from the supernatural aspects of the faith. In this analogy, a wise teacher's thought becomes a set of coins left for humanity to use and exchange. The problem is that most others--"ninety-nine/Out of each hundred," in fact--"stamp their own images/On all their dies, and so the coins mean nought" (11. 281-283). Ultimately, any wisdom or knowledge tempts counterfeiters, who efface the "coins" of thought and press their own image on them. A living Jesus, for Pilate, could forestall this problem, since a living sage can "give us his own gold" instead of forcing us to rely on coins of dubious worth (1. 290). Even then, though, Pilate sees very little advantage to "authenticated" religious thought; "in true sense," he concedes, "we're sure of nothing" (1. 296). Ultimately, he tells us, any attempt to translate wisdom into a universally accepted, widely exchanged medium like money will fail. Only two facts remain undeniable: "life means a great hurrying on to death," and "death means nothingness" (11. 301, 302). Even if Christian ethics prove attractive--and Pilate certainly admires Jesus--nothing guarantees their truth or insight. We are left, in his account, in a world where this religious system cannot lead us to greater knowledge.
It is here that the reader of Browning's dramatic monologues, trained to suspect the statements and ideas of his speakers, will note that we cannot equate Pilate with Webster. Instead, we might be tempted to look for ways in which this speech undermines itself, finding the knowledge that lies behind a speaker's statements. And Pilate's monologue seems, at first glance, to fit this pattern. As with Browning's "Karshish," the poem's climax features a speaker who remains dissatisfied with the uneasy conclusions he has reached. Pilate, after a lengthy attempt to dismiss Jesus from his mind, bursts forth with a memory that seems too troubling to reject:
Ah! they say Through all his anguish he would still look down With an ineffable strange pitying, As if 'twas those below who died, not he; They say through all he--nay, no more of this. (11. 358-362)
This moment is exactly the sort of emotional turmoil or surprising turn of thought that is often considered integral to the dramatic monologue as a genre. It certainly seems to work in ways we recognize; Pilate, whatever his stated intention to dismiss the crucifixion from his mind, cannot do so. Christianity and the suffering Jesus cannot be forgotten so easily; we are meant to see that there is something truly admirable about Jesus's compassion here. But we are not guided to challenge Pilate's earlier statements about life and death. Christ's compassion for his executioners remains in his mind, but there is no indication that Pilate has changed his opinion about life after death or any indication that readers should dissent from his skepticism. At most, Pilate proves willing to consider that Jesus might have believed in his own divinity--thinking that the executioners below were doomed instead--but he never appears to reconsider his own belief in the finality of death. We can read this moment ironically, if we insist, but only if we assume that Pilate must be wrong because of our commitment to the narrative in the Gospels; nothing in the poem indicates that we should dismiss Pilate's claim that death is the ultimate end. His hesitation at this climactic moment reveals that Christian ethics and compassion cannot be dismissed so easily--the unsentimental, material fact of death remains unchallenged.
"Pilate," characteristically, joins Webster's skepticism to her insistence on clarity. Pilate explicitly proclaims himself skeptical of poetic flourishes and metaphorical excess, through his rejection of the title "Son of God." He refers to this name as "one of their Syriac metaphors/Which, like hot-tempered kestrels, overfly/The quarry aimed at" (11. 238-240). This title for Jesus, Pilate claims, introduces excessive complexity where it does not help. Pilate reins in the wild metaphor by giving it a decidedly prosaic interpretation; he reasons that, since Jesus had encountered truth and "so was as One near the gods," the title can be explained away as nothing more than a sign of his wisdom (1. 268). There is, of course, the irony of Pilate using metaphor to denounce another "fanciful" metaphor, but we should remember that Pilate does not reject metaphor in its entirety--just poetic language that obscures clarity rather than capturing it. Accordingly, Pilate patiently explains the metaphorical language he uses: philosophers leave coins "Of thought"; we are "Like shipwrecked men" on "a sea of doubts," and so on (11. 281, 308-309). And the most memorable stylistic feature of the poem is Pilate's relentlessly literal exploration of death, insisting on the "putrid flesh" that, ultimately, represents all we know of the world (1. 158). It is this uncomfortable commitment to clear, plain, stark reality that makes Pilate seem far more credible than many speakers of dramatic monologues: neither the content nor the form of his speech takes shelter in obscurity.
It is worth pausing to consider how "Pilate" differs from Browning's seemingly comparable dramatic monologues. Browning's great monologues of the 1850s also frequently address religious topics through historical figures: perhaps most notably a first-century physician in "An Epistle of Karshish" and the apostle John in "A Death in the Desert." But Karshish, though he proves unable to abandon his skepticism about Christianity, lingers on the tantalizing possibility that "God himself,/Creator and sustainer of the world, / ... came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile!" (11. 268-270). And while Karshish cannot bring himself to believe, the poem ends with him pondering the Christian idea that "the All-Great, were the All-Loving too" (1. 305). The scientific bent of Karshish's mind cannot fully reject the inspiring ideas of religious faith. "A Death in the Desert" is even more explicit about the ways that religious belief can escape the clutches of skepticism; John, on his deathbed, claims that God has structured the world so that "man should conceive of truth / And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake,/As midway help till he reach fact indeed" (11. 605-607). Doubt, skepticism, and even outright error are simply markers of spiritual progress toward reaching religious truth. The poem is, as Jonathan Loesberg has claimed, "an argument for Christianity that does not merely grudgingly accede to [David Friedrich] Strauss's critique and [Ludwig] Feuerbach's psychological explanation but seems fully to accept their reality" (p. 224). "Pilate," on the other hand, presents a speaker for whom death is an indisputable argument against faith. His only certainty, the "only ground at hand to give us rest/Is the loathed home of dead things underneath" (11. 311-312). Like Karshish and John, Webster's Pilate sees the attraction of faith; unlike Browning's speakers, he forces himself Co remain content with the plain truth of death.
But it is in Webster's most acclaimed volume of poetry, Portraits, that her monologues become particularly clear challenges to Browning's obscure explorations of belief. Although several of the monologues follow Browning's pattern of using historical or mythological figures as speakers--"Circe" and "Medea in Athens," for example--most of her speakers are contemporary figures, making it harder to clearly dissociate their arguments from Webster's own views. They present their pragmatic materialism as a sensible, thoughtful response to a deeply confused world; they reject Christianity not out of hostility toward its ethics but from a sense that it obscures truth about the world. As Natalie M. Houston has noted, they are not self-deceivers engaging in "evasive conversational maneuvers"; instead, they are honest, thoughtful men and women who find faith incredible. (24) This sort of clarity and pragmatism appears in one of Webster's major monologues, "A Soul in Prison," where the speaker, a skeptic, finds no satisfaction in his agnosticism. He presents himself as a prisoner in the dark, hoping to be lifted into "the happy sunshine" where believers live (1. 4). (25) This speaker is tormented by genuine anguish, referring to his imagined audience--a pious Christian--as a "looked-for teacher" (1. 1). His agnosticism leads him to "grope and strain" toward faith, looking for a ledge that will let him escape his prison of doubt (1. 9). Indeed, the speaker even pleads with the faithful Christian for help, asking for advice about where these "ledges" are placed. For his trouble, he is rejected as a "wild wilful soul" who will "rot in the dark" because of his doubt (11. 14, 15). This is not a gleeful rejection of faith; the speaker would happily choose Christianity if it seemed like a viable option. He is "Reaching [his] hand" for help out of this unpleasant doubt (1. 3).
Unfortunately, the "soul in prison" has no possible escape waiting for him. The Christian, able to lead so many others to religious belief, rejects the skeptic and declares that he is "beyond [his] mercies" (1. 44). The skeptic's sin is one of honesty: his unfortunate situation is "to long to know / And know too plainly that we know not yet" (11. 42-43). (The "we" in this line is significant; the speaker refers to himself as one of many agnostics who would choose Christianity if they could.) Unlike, for instance, Browning's Bishop Blougram, the speaker is unwilling to let the worldly advantages of belief tip the scales in favor of religion; instead, the speaker chooses a harder path, declaring himself a skeptic despite his own inclinations. And because of this honesty, the speaker laments, agnostics are ridiculed by those Christians who should be trying to convince them to change. People like him are reduced to "Boggarts to placid Christians in their pews," unbelievers whose only use is as a cautionary tale to the faithful (1. 47). While his request for better proof seems reasonable and even justified in biblical precedent--the speaker cites John, Peter, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus as examples of those who needed evidence to believe--the devout teachers offer no such help (11. 55-61). According to the speaker, he approaches them just as "the sick man in his pain/Looks to the doctor whose sharp medicines/Have the taste of health behind them" (11. 98-100). Instead, he is rebuffed. Agnosticism becomes the position of honest seekers, as Christian faith becomes the domain of the arrogant and hostile.
This plea for better proof and more compassionate Christians could, thus far, be read as nothing more than a criticism of Christianity as practiced by smug, self-satisfied Victorians. But the speaker sharpens his attack, making it clear that this is not just a matter of bad evangelical strategy. His first move is to redefine doubt as a genuine search for truth, not a dismissive choice made by someone uninterested in religion. He does not claim, he points out, that "The old faith is obsolete, ... let us laugh" (11. 66-67). Far from laughing, he refers to doubt as "fathomless sorrow," a regrettable state that he would like to leave behind if at all possible (1. 69). Moreover, he denies that doubt can be understood as a simple rejection of Christianity. "Who doubts wholly?" he asks; "That were not to doubt" (1. 71). Skepticism is thus redefined as a lack of knowledge, not a contemptuous hostility to religious belief. The "soul in prison" doubts because he lacks the proof that religious teachers claim to offer: "Doubt's to be ignorant, not to deny" (1. 72). Nor is religious skepticism or agnosticism an apathy to religious belief, for the speaker; it is better defined, we are told, as being "wistful after perfect faith" (1. 73). Animated by the search for truth but unable to achieve it, the skeptical speaker presents himself as someone who doubts Christian claims out of the best of intentions. He longs for religious certainty and pleads for enlightenment (a term made explicit in his metaphor of the soul hoping to escape the dark prison), redefining doubt as a genuine desire for truth. "A Soul in Prison" makes skepticism a matter of acknowledging what we do not know while searching for answers, establishing its agnostic speaker as an honest and credible voice.
With the speaker having presented himself as a reasonable agnostic searching for religious truth, he proceeds to a second, harsher argument: he accuses religious dogmatists of being disingenuous. The very first words of the poem are, "Answered a score of times," which we learn is a quotation from a didactic work that the speaker is reading (1. 1). But we do not know what that answer is (or even the question being asked)--and, the speaker points out, we never will. He reminds the defenders of Christianity of their claim that agnostics waste time "On problems now so many times resolved/That you'll not re-resolve them" (11. 50-51). Once again, though, these defenders of the faith never actually give a satisfactory answer to their skeptical listeners (who, we remember, have been presented in a particularly favorable light). Consequently, the speaker's skepticism continues to mount, as he wonders something much more hostile: "Do these, who know most, not know anything?" (1. 115). His attitude toward his Christian interlocutors becomes overtly confrontational, as his praise for them--"You wise man /And worthy, utter honest in your will"--becomes overtly ironic and sarcastic (1. 82). Having once assumed that these Christian writers are accomplished and perceptive, able to "catch the clue in scholars' puzzle-knots" and "Deft to unweave the coil to its straight thread," he learns to his dismay that they are no more knowledgeable than he (11. 86-87). The speaker may be unhappy in his skepticism, but he is honest; and none of the authors he reads share that quality.
Ultimately, then, the speaker of "A Soul in Prison" accepts the importance of searching for religious knowledge and truth. He simply inverts the premise that begins the poem: it is the agnostic, he declares, who knows enough to understand the limits of his knowledge. For the speaker, the fiery defenders of Christianity have found obscurity and confusion instead of knowledge, and they hide their ignorance with unearned confidence. Both assent to a proposition often found in Webster: that life is a matter of searching for clear, reliable, accurate knowledge about the world. The speaker has found skepticism instead, having blinded himself "by too bold a gazing at the sun,/Thinking to apprehend his perfect light/Not darkly through a glass" (11. 137-139). Webster makes use of a common metaphor for knowledge and ignorance--brightness and darkness--but turns it on its head. The speaker is in darkness, he claims, because he eagerly sought the light. The "knowledge" of confident believers is only possible because of their dimmer vision. The speaker chooses to seek light in its most intense and unmediated form (not filtered through a "glass darkly") and consequently becomes unable to see the "truth" that others find so obvious. As a result, he settles on a bitter and difficult truth, which he presents to the devout as a hypothetical question: "Our doubt is consciousness of ignorance,/Your faith unconsciousness of ignorance;/So you know less than we?" (11. 180-182). The greatest light the speaker has found, he laments, makes him skeptical of religious answers without providing any certain knowledge of its own.
Having argued that agnosticism is true knowledge (of a sort) and faith a sort of deliberate ignorance, "A Soul in Prison" finally returns to Webster's characteristic assertion about religion: Christian belief is too obscure for those who focus, rightly, on clearly perceiving the reality of a practical world. We are, the speaker claims, "jostling, jostled, through the market world/Where our work lies" (11. 122-123). And in this jostling, active, energetic world, we cannot find everything we would need to fully understand obscure theological claims. We "lack breathing space, lack calm, / Lack skill, lack tools, lack heart, lack everything/For your work of the studies" (11. 123-124). As a result, our minds, worn down by the difficulties of everyday life, are unfit for the hard work of fully understanding a complex world. Any rudimentary attempts at theology are like "when the ploughman tries/His hard unpliant fingers at the pen": it produces nothing but a "blurred scrawl" (11. 126-128). Life, in the speaker's account, becomes a hard process of trying to turn that blurred scrawl into "Some clear belief, enough to get by heart" (1. 132). Knowledge and religious faith, in short, take part in a lifelong process of clarification--the challenge for all of us, according to the speaker, is to refine the blurred scrawl of what we know into some form of clear belief. As it happens, the only clear belief the speaker has yet found is his knowledge that religious dogma cannot be understood with the certainty its defenders claim. His desire to believe is outweighed by his desire to perceive the world accurately and clearly.
The metaphor of the blurred scrawl reveals that style, for Webster, is both an aesthetic and an ethical problem. Clear perception requires clear writing. As every line of this poem shows, the speaker labors to present his clear thought in clear verse. His insistence that "no man sees so plain / As he believes he sees ... excepting those /Who are mere blind and know it" encapsulates both the content and style of the poem; the speaker argues that knowledge of one's blindness is the highest form of clarity, in deliberately plain verse (11. 201-203). Conversely, for Webster, highly artificial or rhetorical writing goes hand in hand with the deceptive or unconvincing arguments of devout believers, full of undeserved certainty. As the poem draws to its end, the speaker offers mock praise of the religious book, mentioning the rhetorical mastery of its "big battling phrases" (1. 195). But nothing in Webster's poetry or the speaker's commitment to clarity should make us read this verdict as a compliment. Like a firework in the night sky, the book's eloquence offers a dazzling illumination that fools the eye into ignoring the darkness behind it. Webster's poetry models a different approach--a deliberately plain style dedicated to clarity. She writes in a humble blank verse, only calls attention to its language with an occasional use of parallelism, and even then only to illustrate the delusions that others fall into through their lack of clarity. The speaker rejects, for instance, "The zealot's warp, who takes believed for proved; / The disciple's warp, who takes declared for proved;/The teacher's warp, who takes defined for proved" (11. 184-186). This emphasis on the plain style and the honesty of doubt makes agnosticism seem like a responsible, moral choice. Thus, we see style emerge in "A Soul in Prison" as an ethical problem as well as an aesthetic one. Honest, practical agnosticism adopts a clear, plain style to explore what it does not know, while eloquence is the style of the deluded. Readers may disagree with the assertions of the speaker, but the unconscious self-undermining found in many dramatic monologues is wholly absent here.
For Webster, even outward believers often know that faith is a leap beyond rational limits. "A Preacher," originally published in Dramatic Studies (1866) and later added to the expanded edition of Portraits, presents a clergyman questioning his faith while reinforcing the link between skepticism and style. The impetus for his monologue is a verse from the Pauline epistles, which leads him to think about his concern that he too should "be a castaway" despite everything he preaches to others (1. 3). Despite his power to convince others to believe in Christian doctrine, he finds himself increasingly unmoved by his religious commitments. But like the speaker of "A Soul in Prison," the preacher takes no satisfaction from this fact. He would gladly exchange this discomfort for unquestioning acceptance of Christianity, if that were possible. The preacher hopes for someone to "waken [him]" as he has "wakened others," startling him out of his growing skepticism (11. 18-19). He longs for someone to reanimate "the old dull skeletons /Of points and morals, inferences, proofs, / Hopes, doubts, persuasions" of Christian doctrine, impressing him with the same eloquence that his sermons once possessed (11. 8-10). In the preacher's dreams, another Christian will come along and use "another, maybe choicer, style" to breathe life into his dying faith (1. 13). While "A Soul in Prison" presents a skeptic who longs for truth, "A Preacher" offers a contrasting monologue: a nominal Christian hoping for passion and stylistic novelty.
The speaker, being a preacher himself, knows eloquence's power all too well. The problem, as he tells it, is that he has grown numb to his own oratorical skill--he has become the "steward of an eloquence God gives/For others' use not [his]" (11. 20-21). But, as elsewhere in Webster, stylistic grandeur leads away from truth. Most immediately, the problem lies in rhetoric's tendency to lose its power over time. The preacher, so used to moving others with his sermons and his linguistic power, has seen his work become routine and mechanical. Ultimately, the preacher thinks of himself as a "callous actor," able to impress his audience "With the passion of his part" but utterly unmoved by his own powers (11. 60, 64). Eloquence, Webster claims, eventually becomes sophistry. Rhetorical flourishes simply conceal a lack of knowledge, one that forces the preacher to confess that he cannot see God "as some can on earth" and consequently "cannot love" him (11. 97, 100). The preacher knows, he says, that his faith is "A mere mirage sprung up of heat and mist" (1. 151).
But although the preacher chooses knowledge over glib, superficial dogma, his professional position requires him to trade in empty rhetoric. This is Webster's most aggressive accusation in "A Preacher": sermons and Christian teaching, she suggests, force preachers to choose false eloquence over the plain truth of religious uncertainty. Webster, in stark contrast, suspects that rhetorical flourishes are mere sophistry. The remarkable effect of Webster's monologue lies in seeing a preacher realize that his problem goes beyond feeling numb to Christian doctrine--instead, he begins to perceive that he knows much less than he thinks, and his skillful preaching has only concealed his own delusion. Despite his genuine desire to love God, he feels "A falseness somewhere" inside (1. 50). He is forced to confess to God that he cannot see him "as some can on earth" and "cannot love" him because of this lack of knowledge (11. 97, 100). As in "A Soul in Prison," Webster's preacher takes no satisfaction in his doubt; he hopes for an emotional shock to remove all skepticism. But he is unable to frighten himself into "Convulsive pious moods" because his sensible mind forbids him from being swept away by the theatrical eloquence that convinces his congregation (1. 128). That sort of maneuver, he tells us, only works on people "with thin minds/Of the effervescent kind, easy to froth" (11. 125-126). As a master of creating oratorical illusion, the preacher knows enough not to be convinced by the emotional appeals he offers his church. The preacher has seen through his own tricks and illusions, even though he hopes that his theatricality points to a genuine religious reality. But his work as a skilled orator and talented actor cannot hide his growing belief that there might be nothing behind the scenery, masks, and costumes he uses to promote Christianity. Eloquence not only fades with time; it cannot convince the preacher to love something that might not be true.
It is this passionate commitment to truth--rather than self-satisfied theatricality--that makes skepticism, horrible as it is for the preacher, seem like the only real possibility left. The preacher gains Webster's approval, and the confidence of the reader, by his brave decision to choose uncertain truth over passionate love for a God he can no longer fully embrace. Even if it were possible for him to turn his rhetorical power inward and convince himself to abandon all doubt, he would refuse to "school [himself]/To an unbased belief and love [God] more/Only through a delusion." In a remarkable prayer, he tells God of his choice:
Not so, Lord. Let me not buy my peace, nay not my soul, At price of one least word of thy strong truth Which is Thyself. The perfect love must be When one shall know thee. (11. 164-170)
As much as the preacher longs to fully love God, he cannot allow that emotional desire to trump his search for truth and knowledge. The prayer introduces layers of ironies: a preacher prays to the God he no longer understands or completely believes in, choosing knowledge of God (if that knowledge leads to conventional Christian faith at all) over the blind certainty of passionate faith. He refuses to let his powerful eloquence stand in the way of his search for clear knowledge about the world. While he clings to the idea that Christianity may prove satisfying in the end--the preacher is not a confirmed skeptic like the speaker of "A Soul in Prison"--he accepts that he might "doubt and be perplexed in soul" because religious truth "seems many and not one" (11. 172, 173). He accepts that the "fulness and minuteness" of religious knowledge might well lead him away from an orthodox Christian understanding of God (1. 175). The preacher makes the choice to abandon satisfaction or emotional comfort in favor of a commitment to truth--no matter how difficult that truth might be--if it leads him to discover the skepticism that his easy eloquence can no longer hide.
This difficult decision to choose knowledge over self-deluding emotion, for Webster, is highly praiseworthy. The preacher continues his prayer with a bold and shocking declaration of just how much more he values truth over comfort. He would, he tells God, rather
touch the ark To find if thou be there than--thinking hushed "'Tis better to believe, I will believe, Though were't not for belief 'tis far from proved"- Shout with the people "Lo, our God is there," And stun my doubts by iterating faith. (11. 177-182)
Even at the cost of his own life, the preacher declares, he would rather find decisive knowledge of God's existence--or lack of it. While he certainly wants Christianity to be true, he cannot let his desire be the sole factor deciding what he believes. He is no Bishop Blougram, choosing faith over doubt because of its material benefits in a religious world, nor Browning's John, confident that error is merely a stepping-stone to greater truth. The preacher's commitment to truth overrides his emotional desire for pious certainty. Nor is he willing to bludgeon his better judgment into submission by repeating declarations of faith, as his congregation does; honesty and commitment to knowledge force him to abandon this crude certainty. His eloquence in "iterating faith," his skill in teaching Christian doctrine from the pulpit, emerges as something that stands against a genuine interest in clearly perceiving truth about the world. Ultimately, the preacher is both unwilling and unable to anesthetize his critical judgment with rhetorical power and persuasion.
But of course, even if the preacher refuses to abandon his own search for knowledge in favor of glib, superficial dogma, his professional position requires him to trade in that sort of empty emotional rhetoric. This is Webster's most aggressive accusation in "A Preacher": sermons and Christian teaching, she suggests, force preachers to choose false eloquence over the plain truth of religious uncertainty. The poem ends on a particularly gloomy note, as the preacher realizes that his very skill at his job--his "knack/Of sermonmaking"--leads him "Athwart the truth" instead of toward it (11. 183-185). His sermon offers some banal statements on Sunday observance and some rote disapproval of "the pleasures of the world," but he realizes, on second thought, that these claims are untrue; he has no problem with the activities of everyday life or the "natural gaieties of youth" (11. 227, 232). So why, he asks himself, were they included in his sermon? Because his very facility in preaching leads him to say false things, letting him incorporate "lessons and rebukes long made" that are as easily put in sermons as "one puts dots to i's,/Crosses to t's" (11. 238, 240-241). Rhetorical skill is not just irrelevant to truth; the preacher realizes it poses a genuine obstacle to properly understanding the world. Perhaps most damning, he cannot help but admire his own oratorical power as he teaches his congregation something untrue. Although he rejects his sermon, he confesses that he "was thrilled to see it moved the listeners"; his rhetoric may no longer convince him, but it still carries a seductive emotional appeal (1. 249). He admires his deceptive sermon because it was "written well," as "Habit made the thoughts come fluently/As if they had been real" (11. 250-252). His eloquence-the very quality that makes him a good preacher--makes him a bad teacher, one who deceives his flock with soothing commonplaces and empty dogma.
Webster's deliberately prosaic verse and quiet skepticism, then, should be seen as direct challenges to Robert Browning's own dramatic monologues about religious faith. Her poetry argues that a prosaic, literal language reveals that faith cannot be trusted: it may be appealing and capable of attracting religious seekers with glib language and superficial reasoning, but Webster sees it as ultimately false. Hence, she rarely pursues the irony found in Browning's dramatic monologues; instead, her speakers remain committed to honestly understanding the world, even if all they ultimately see are the limits to false certainty. Webster's formal innovations and her determined skepticism, then, make her dramatic monologues of particular interest as we study Victorian religion and literature in all their complexity. Her poetry shows us that religious doubt may not imply epistemological skepticism; her agnosticism develops from her confidence in knowledge, not her wariness of it. Webster's poetry thus reinvents the dramatic monologue as a vehicle for hold, unambiguous skepticism, directly challenging the unstable ironies of Browning's poetry. And it serves as a reminder that the forms of Victorian poetry cannot be read as simple expressions of religious attitudes; they are, instead, as complex and diverse as the world of Victorian religion itself.
(1) Melissa Valiska Gregory, "Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence," VP 49, no. 1 (2011): 27.
(2) Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing against the Heart (Hertfordshire, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 173.
(3) Valentine Cunningham, "(Mrs. Julia) Augusta Webster (also 'Cecil Home') (1837-1894)," in The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Valentine Cunningham (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000), p. 768; Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, "Augusta Webster (1837-1894)" in Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology, ed. Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1995), p. 418; Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock, "Augusta Webster (18371894)," in Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 591.
(4) Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957), p. 85.
(5) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 288.
(6) Linda K. Hughes, The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010), pp. 15-16.
(7) Patricia Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," Victorian Review 26, no. 2 (2000): 76.
(8) Glennis Byron, Dramatic Monologue (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 16.
(9) Langbaum, Poetry of Experience, p. 85; W. David Shaw, Origins of the Monologue: The Hidden God (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 12; Adena Rosmarin, The Power of Genre (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 108.
(10) Cornelia Pearsall, Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 23.
(11) References to Robert Browning's poetry are drawn from Robert Browning: The Poems, Vol. 1, ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins (London: Penguin, 1996).
(12) Jonathan Loesberg, "Browning Believing: 'A Death in the Desert' and the Status of Belief," Victorian Literature and Culture 38, no. 1 (2010): 209; Herbert F. Tucker, "Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning," in The Cambridge History of English Poetry, ed. Michael O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010), p. 625.
(13) Robert P. Fletcher, "The Perverse Secrets of Masculinity in Augusta Webster's Dramatic Poetry," in Victorian Secrecy: Economies of Knowledge and Concealment, ed. Albert D. Pionke and Denise Tischler Millstein (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010), p. 149.
(14) George Levine, Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), p. 63.
(15) Thomas Henry Huxley, "Agnosticism," in The Major Prose of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed. Alan P. Barr (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1997), p. 272.
(16) Patricia Rigg, " 'Enter into the Genius of Him': Augusta Webster and the Discourse of Translation Theory," Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 6, no. 1 (2010): para. 7, http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue61/rigg.htm.
(17) Augusta Webster, "A Transcript and a Transcription," in Augusta Webster: Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2000), p. 358 (hereafter cited in the text as ATT).
(18) Erik Gray, The Poetry of Indifference from the Romantics to the Rubaiyat (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2005), p. 131.
(19) Quoted in Patricia Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2009), p. 122.
(20) Cicero, Orator, in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, 2nd ed., ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001), sec. 76.
(21) "9. Ruskin to R.B., 2 Dec. 1855" and "10. R.B. to Ruskin, 10 Dec. 1855, in The Oxford Authors: Robert Browning, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 687, 692.
(22) Robert P. Fletcher, " 'Convent Thoughts': Augusta Webster and the Body Politics of the Victorian Cloister," Victorian Literature and Culture 31, no. 1 (2003): 296.
(23) Augusta Webster, "Anno Domini 33," in A Woman Sold and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1867), II. 98, 100, 101-102.
(24) Natalie M. Houston, "Order and Interpretation in Augusta Webster's Portraits," Romanticismand Victorianism on the Net 47 (August 2007): para. 3, doi:10.7202/016701ar.
(25) References to Augusta Webster's "A Soul in Prison" and "A Preacher" are drawn from Webster, Portraits and Other Poems.
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|Title Annotation:||Augusta Webster, Robert Browning|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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