The Genesis of Balaustion's Adventure.
If I mention the simple truth: that this poem absolutely owes its existence to you,--who not only suggested, but imposed on me as a task, what has proved the most delightful of May-month amusements--I shall seem honest, indeed, but hardly prudent; for, how good and beautiful ought such a poem to be!
Euripides might fear little; but I, also, have an interest in the performance: and what wonder if I beg you to suffer that it make, in another and far easier sense, its nearest possible approach to those Greek qualities of goodness and beauty, by laying itself gratefully at your feet?
LONDON, JULY 23, 1871 (1)
What led Robert Browning to write Balaustion's Adventure? It appears in is work as a kind of bufer between two much darker long poems, The Ring and the Book (1868-69) and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871), respectively his most comprehensive venture into traditional history/ historiography and his largest and most detailed treatment of contemporary events. (2)
Beside these, Balaustion's Adventure can seem a bit slight, as Browning himself seems to have feared, describing it in the Preface as "the most delightful of May-month amusements," but dismissing it, in a letter to Isa Blagden, as "a trifle indeed." (3) Alfred Domett records hearing from Browning's sister Sarianna that "they considered Balaustion's Adventure the most popular of his works." Domett's reaction, "A curious notion & fact if true," (4) suggests that he shared Browning's apparently dismissive view of the poem. So why did Browning write and publish it?
This question may be addressed either externally--Balaustion's origins in immediate circumstance, and participation in the historical array of treatments of its central theme, or internally--the position of the poem in the sequence of Browning's works. It will be my contention that far from the slight production it is usually presumed to be, Balaustion's Adventure not only responds to his contemporaries' readings (and writings) of the classical drama on which it is based, but also plays a critical role in the evolution of Browning's aesthetics, and makes a significant contribution to nineteenth-century debates over the value of Euripides and of classical drama.
I. Personal elements
i) The contribution of Lady Cowper
In an important sense, Balaustion's Adventure may be regarded as what its preface in effect claims it to be, a strictly occasional poem. Unpublished correspondence between Browning and Lady Cowper confirms Browning's claim that Balaustion's Adventure was indeed in a sense commissioned by her:
Wed: 17th [sic, for 16] Aug  Dear Mr Browning. My husband has just finished reading your poem to me & I must write at once & tell you how beautiful we both think it & what great pleasure it has been to us both reading it--I shall like it more & more the oftener I read it, I know; & meanwhile it has left all sorts of beautiful pictures in my mind to feast upon. There are such beautiful bits & lines through it all, & what a beautiful character you have given Alcestis--She is my perfect idea of what a wife shd be--only one has not to die for one's husband in these days--Your description of Leighton's picture too, is beautiful; much more beautiful than the picture which never half satisfied me. I long to be able to read the original; & yet I do not really care I think, for from what I make out the original was not a good play; had only the making of a beautiful poem in it, which you have done as no one else could. Thank you 1000 times for all the pleasure I have derived from your great kindness in having taken me at my word when I so impertinently asked you to translate the play into English for me[.] Believe me Yours very Sincerely Katie Cowper (Yale MS)
The final paragraph confirms that at some unspecified time "Katie Cowper" requested Browning "to translate the play into English," and in one sense that is what he did: Balaustion's Adventure consists mainly of his translation of Euripides' Alcestis into English blank verse. But it is more than that. Her suggestion that the Alcestis "was not a good play," but "had only the making of a beautiful poem in it" reflects the fact that Browning's translation (his own term was "transcript") is encased in a narrative detailing its fictitious recitation by the fictitious Greek girl Balaustion, an episode in turn relegated by the context of her current recitation, a retelling both of the play itself and of the circumstances of its original recital, to four girl-friends in the course of a stroll. Thus Euripides' work doubly nests inside Browning's, and in a further complication, Browning has Balaustion end by producing a quite different version in her own person. The story of Alcestis is, then, narrated twice in Balaustion's Adventure.
ii) The contribution of Leighton
There is one sentence in Cowper's letter that may indicate the occasion on which she requested the translation: "Your description of Leighton's picture too, is beautiful; much more beautiful than the picture which never half satisfied me." She is referring to a passage in which Browning puts a daring anachronism into the mouth of Balaustion:
I know, too, a great Kaunian painter, strong As Herakles, though rosy with a robe Of grace that softens down the sinewy strength: And he has made a picture of it all. I pronounce that piece Worthy to set up in our Poikile! (ll. 2672-97)
As Cowper indicates, the "great Kaunian painter" was in reality none other than Browning's friend the painter Frederic Leighton; (5) the picture was Leighton's Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, exhibited in the Royal Academy Exhibition of May 1871. One early reviewer of Balaustion (Robert Williams) speculated, reasonably, that "it was most probably after seeing Mr. Leighton's picture that Lady Cowper desired Mr. Browning to set out the Alcestis in English shape." (6)
As Catherine Maxwell indicates, "Browning and Leighton had first met in 1853, almost certainly through the agency of Leighton's mentor Adelaide Sartoris"; (7) and they were on terms of some intimacy by 1859, when in a letter Browning jocularly threatened to descend on Leighton's studio, and "buffet the piano" there. (8) He greatly admired Leighton's work, and after Barrett Browning's death in 1861 commissioned his design for her monument in Florence's Protestant graveyard. (9) In 1864, at Leighton's request, Browning provided a poem to serve as epigraph to his painting "Orpheus and Eurydice" for the Royal Academy Exhibition. (10)
In one sense, the passage in Balaustion's Adventure serves a similar function, though it postdates the exhibition of the painting it describes, and was not known to Leighton until after he read Browning's presentation copy of the poem. (11) Thus in his second letter of thanks, Leighton comments,
When I wrote to you the other day I had, as you saw, got no further than the Proem of your book, just received. Last night I finished it & saw in the last lines what, if Vanity does not deceive me is a description of my poor picture. I should like to say something--but not a platitude--I shall say simply & sincerely thank you. I know the value of the pen which has painted over again, and bettered in repainting, my insufficient work--and of the page in which you have given it a lasting home and an added dignity. (12)
Clearly if she had read this letter, Cowper would have agreed with at least that part of it, and several reviewers of the poem took the opportunity to comment adversely on Leighton's painting, the anonymous critic in The Orchestra claiming that "Most connoisseurs thought Mr. Leighton's picture rather claptrappy. It is pink and white and pretty, not terrible." (13) Francis Turner Palgrave found a more serious cause of dislike:
Surely Leighton makes a great fault in bringing the conflict into the bosom of the family. It seems to me a thing to be thought of as transacted in some dim region halfway between the two worlds--like Jacob's wrestling with the angel. To place it in the sight of the maidens (to me) reduces the heroic struggle to the level of a row at a wake. But (granting his point of view) there is of course much to admire in the work. (ABL MS.)
Leighton elected to depict the wrestling-match between Death and Heracles, and to introduce the dead Alcestis, Admetus, Pheres, and the maidens into the same scene, decisions that distort Euripides' play, which, as Greek dramaturgy required, keeps the fight offstage. This inevitably casts a shadow over Balaustion's anachronistic tribute to Leighton: her fidelity to Euripides' version inevitably if tacitly contradicts Leighton's revisionary crowding together of all the major figures of the play into a single image. (14)
II. From personal to literary influence
i) The contribution of Palgrave
What makes Palgrave's comment on Leighton even more interesting is that it appears in Palgrave's letter to Browning of May 25, 1871 (ABL MS.), in which two important strands of the story of the origins of Balaustion's Adventure are added or confirmed. Confirmed is the association of Leighton's picture with Lady Cowper, via an unexplained remark at the start: "Comme de raison, you were right and I sinned in contradicting you about the Cowper pedigree," presumably referring to a spoken or written conversation with Browning in which some (unreconstructable) dispute about the Cowper pedigree took place. Added is a reference to a poem on the subject of Alcestis just published by Palgrave himself: "I am very curious to see your Alcestis: but I fear your knotty & humorous Herakles will knock my Greek-vase treatment to pieces with the public." Clearly Browning had revealed that he was at work on Balaustion's Adventure, and Palgrave modestly deprecates his own poem on the same subject, "Alcestis," published the month before in April 1871 in his Lyrical Poems. Palgrave had sent Browning a copy of the volume (inscribed "With respect and regards, Apr. 1871,") (15) and this may have been the occasion of the discussion, since Palgrave's mention of "your knotty & humorous Herakles" indicates his awareness that Browning intended to keep to the form of the myth employed by Euripides, from which Palgrave himself had deliberately departed, as the Preface to his own poem makes clear. In his first paragraph, Palgrave narrates the version of the myth that he himself uses, in which "Persephone-Kora, Queen of the world below, moved by the self-sacrifice of Alcestis, restores her to life," adding: "Another version describes her as recovered from Death by Herakles. The intervention of Persephone appearing to be the older and nobler form of the myth (although against the authority of Euripides), has been here preferred." (16) Palgrave's dislike of the Heracles-version of the story is clearly reflected in his dislike of Leighton's painting, which combines various elements of Euripides' play into what, for Palgrave, was simply an incongruous jumble.
Palgrave describes his own treatment as "Greek-vase," indicating that he considered it "classical" in style. It is certainly lyrical, written in five-line iambic stanzas, and with notably smooth movement in and between stanzas. And alongside his elimination of the "knotty & humorous Herakles" from the tale, Palgrave also omits Euripides' Admetus' flyting match with his father, Pheres, which he transforms into Admetus' stately denunciation of his parents, in absentia, for refusing to die for him. Everything is dignified, smooth and elevated, as the protagonists, Alcestis and Admetus, are presented as noble and uncomplicated: Admetus receives no blame for Alcestis' death, which, shorn of the lamentations of Euripides' Alcestis, is presented as a tranquil collapse. The only arguably jarring note is the unusual rhyme-scheme, abccb, with its unrhymed opening line.
By contrast Balaustion's Adventure was often considered insufficiently classical, for instance by Browning's friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote to his mother:
I also declaimed Browning's new poem "Balaustion's Adventure" one day on the lawn outside the house from first to last (of course with book)--a process lasting about an hour and a half, with so much provocation to the nerves--the structure of the work being beyond all conception perverse--that we voted it at the end the name of "Exhaustion's Imposture." However of course it has its beauties, but it consists chiefly of a translation of Euripides' Alcestis, interlarded with Browningian analysis to an extent beyond all reason or relation to things by any possibility Greek in any way. (17)
Swinburne put it more generously: "I have just read his new poem--it has very fine things in it, especially in the part about Hercules--much finer than anything said about him by Euripides. But the pathos of the subject is too simple and downright for Browning's analytic method.' (18) A third Pre-Raphaelite friend, William Morris, contributed directly to Browning's treatment of Balaustion and Euripides, so I turn now to that under-documented relationship.
ii) Browning and Morris
Browning seems to have been very enthusiastic about William Morris' first collection, The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems (1857), calling them "the only new poems to my mind since there's no telling when," (19) and recurring to them in his letter of thanks for his presented copy of The Earthly Paradise (1868-70): (20)
My dear Morris, here is your book read at last--and beautiful it proves: affecting me much as do Handel's fine "suites," as he calls them, for the clavecin of his day: all the newer for their archaic tinge, all the more varied (to the appreciatively observant) because of the continuous key and recurring forms,--the New masked in the Old and perpetually looking out of the eyeholes of its disguise. It is a double delight to me--to read such poetry, and know you, of all the world, wrote it, you whose songs I used to sing while galloping by Fiesole in old days, "Ho, is there any will ride with me?" (21)
And now, quick, the second volume. (22)
That Browning did indeed read The Earthly Paradise receives confirmation from a hostile review of Balaustion's Adventure written by Browning's inveterate enemy, Alfred Austin, who, praising the lines: "the noble oars / Churned the black water white" as "the best thing in the volume," maliciously subjoined that they "strongly recall Mr Morris's line in telling the same story-'While from their churning tusks the white foam flew.'" (23)
Austin is referring to an episode in the first book of The Earthly Paradise entitled "The Love of Alcestis," in which there is no happy ending to the story: redeemed from death by his wife's self-sacrifice Admetus is obliged to live on alone. The consolation (if it is that) is the mythic persistence of both spouses:
And for Admetus, he, too went his way, Though if he died at all I cannot tell But through all lands of Greece Alcestis' fame Grew greater, and about her husband's twined, Lived, in the hearts of far-off men enshrined. (2.4298-4310)
But, as with other stories in The Earthly Paradise, the simplicity of the surface hides darker undercurrents. Admetus says of his future wife: "to me / More than a Goddess did she seem to be, / Nor fit to die" (2.3272-74). This is a leitmotif in The Earthly Paradise, the human emulating the divine, avoiding death, as Psyche had by her apotheosis in the preceding story--but in "The Love of Alcestis" this proves delusory: Alcestis does die, and no Heracles appears to recover her. (24) By restoring Euripides' version Browning reverses this bleak outcome.
But this element of Morris' treatment of the myth participates in the principal theme of The Earthly Paradise, to which Browning directly responds in Balaustion's Adventure--a theme implied in its very title, and in its narrative housing, which tells the story of a group of "Wanderers" who, seeking an island on which immortality may be found, learn that the quest is futile and each of them therefore doomed sooner or later to die. All the narratives of the first two volumes of this gigantic poem emphasize this idea, as in "The Love of Alcestis," where Apollo, having completed his year of servitude to Admetus, contrasts his own immortality with the mortal human fate:
And now my servitude with thee is done, And I shall leave thee toiling on thine earth, This handful, that within its little girth Holds that which moves you so, O men that die. (my italics; 2.3870-73)
Walter Pater, in his review of the poem, rightly identifies in Morris' poem "the sense of death and the desire of beauty; the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death:" (25) his later incorporation of much of the review into his programmatic Conclusion to The Renaissance accords it centrality as a late-Victorian cultural motif.
The influence, both direct and inverted, of "The Love of Alcestis" on Balaustion's Adventure goes deep. Of course, Browning's decision to employ Euripides' version of the myth decisively departs from Morris' version, which whitewashes Admetus of any culpability for Alcestis' death and, as I have noted, cuts out her resurrection. Through its restoration of Euripides' version, Browning's treatment implicitly rebukes both Morris and Palgrave for their departure from that; but he also responds more directly and positively to both in the rewriting of the story which Balaustion undertakes (ll. 2435-2650).
III. From original to successor to reader
Balaustion assimilates Palgrave and Morris
Balaustion's rewriting of the Alcestis echoes Palgrave's in eliminating Heracles altogether, and ascribing Alcestis' recuperation to the agency of Persephone. Likewise, the moment when Alcestis and Admetus finally confront each other ("Therewith her whole soul entered into his, / He looked the look back, and Alkestis died," ll. 2613-14) at once echoes and inverts an equivalent epiphany in Palgrave's poem:
And the King stood at height and fronted her: And the sad secret of each other's eyes Each read, and in the breathing of a breath Each heart devour'd the bitterness of death, And knew itself and saw without disguise. (ll. 91-95)
In a further detail echo, Browning incorporates Palgrave's description of Persephone's "eyes too dreadful to be look'd upon" (l. 238) into Balaustion's description of Apollo at the beginning of the Alcestis: "all his shape / One dreadful beauty" (ll. 361-364). Morris elicited an even stronger response. Browning begins Balaustion's version of the story with an allusion to Morris' in her account of the magical influence of Apollo's music. Morris puts it that Apollo's playing improves Admetus' mood:
And then that sweet, heart-piercing melody He drew out from the rigid-seeming lyre, And made the circle round the winter fire More like to heaven than gardens of the May. So many a heavy thought he chased away From the King's heart, and softened many a hate, And choked the spring of many a harsh debate. (Earthly Paradise, 2:3131-37)
Browning develops and politicizes this idea with the suggestion that Admetus is transmuted by it into not just a good and happy man, but also a virtuous ruler:
Much more did that melodious wisdom work Within the heart o' the master: there, ran wild Many a lust and greed that grow to strength By preying on the native pity and care, Would else, all undisturbed, possess the land. And these, the God so tamed, with golden tongue, That, in the plenitude of youth and power, Admetos vowed himself to rule thenceforth In Pherai solely for his people's sake, Subduing to such end each lust and greed That dominates the natural charity. (ll. 2442-52)
In "The Love of Alcestis," Thessaly, Admetus' kingdom, is represented as approximating to the "Earthly Paradise:"
this King Admetus sat Among his people, wearied in such wise By hopeful toil as makes a paradise Of the rich earth; for light and far away Seemed all the labour of the coming day, And no man wished for more than then he had, Nor with another's mourning was made glad. Wherein his land was, said that now at last A fragment of the Golden Age was cast Over the place, for there was no debate, And men forgot the very name of hate. (Earthly Paradise, 2:3043-3984)
But this condition is not directly attributed to the influence of either Apollo or Admetus, whereas in Balaustion's rewriting Admetus' good political intentions directly reflect Apollo's influence. And the echo of these intentions in Alcestis becomes responsible for both her death and her resuscitation. Again, this idea is germinated from Morris, whose Admetus, on his death-bed, suggests to Alcestis, "full surely if I live / The god with life some other gift will give, / And change me to thee" (2:4049-51). And Morris' Alcestis, on her death-bed, reciprocally argues: "A little time ago we two were one; / I had not lost him though his life was done, / For still was he in me" (2:4187-89). For Balaustion, Alcestis' purpose in substituting herself for Admetus is not just to express love but to preserve the political rectitude to which her Admetus, like Morris' version, originally committed himself:
Would'st thou, for any joy to be enjoyed, For any sorrow that thou might'st escape, Unwill thy will to reign a righteous king? Nowise! And were there two lots, death and life,-- Life, wherein good resolve should go to air, Death, whereby finest fancy grew plain fact I' the reign of thy survivor,--life or death? Certainly death, thou choosest. Here stand I The wedded, the beloved: hadst thou loved One who less worthily could estimate Both life and death than thou? (Balaustion's Adventure, ll. 2588-98)
If, as she believes, Admetus would happily die to further the "good resolve," so, she believes, should she; in volunteering for death, she bequeathes her own powers to him; and, ironically, this interfusion becomes the motive of Persephone's restoration of her to life. For the reason Balaustion's Persephone gives for resurrecting Alcestis is not, as for Palgrave, because she is "moved by the self-sacrifice of Alcestis," but fury that, by consigning her personal force to Admetus in dying, Alcestis has broken the compact that keeps humanity subservient to the gods:
Hence, thou deceiver! This is not to die, If, by the very death which mocks me now, The life, that's left behind and past my power, Is formidably doubled. (ll. 2632-35)
By a supreme irony, Alcestis' restoration to life, far from being a reward, constitutes her punishment, in the form of her and Admetus' subsequent and consequent failure to achieve or even adumbrate an ideal polity:
So, the two lived together long and well. But never could I learn, by word of scribe Or voice of poet, rumour wafts our way, That,--of the scheme of rule in righteousness, The bringing back again the Golden Age, Our couple, rather than renounce, would die-- Ever one first faint particle came true, With both alive to bring it to effect: Such is the envy Gods still bear mankind! (ll. 2752-60)
This passage closely resembles Morris' postlude to his narrative, in which historical nescience is likewise, but more generally, expressed:
And for Admetus, he too went his way, Though if he died at all I cannot tell; But either on the earth he ceased to dwell, Or else, oft born again, had many a name. See I have told her tale, though I know not What men are dwelling now on that green spot Anigh Boebeis, or if Pherae still, With name oft changed perchance, adown the hill Still shows its white walls to the rising sun. (Earthly Paradise, 2:4298-4309)
Morris' socialist thinking, of which Browning was aware, is ironically avoided in Browning/Balaustion's ultimate rejection of (the possibility of) his social vision in the real world or real history. With a certain generosity of spirit, then, Browning in Balaustion's Adventure responds to the contributions of two contemporaries. His reponse is complex, combining an implied admonition for their rejection of Euripides' reading of the myth with an implied forgiveness for their trangressions in the strong form of having his speaker echo elements of both, devolving onto a conclusion electing to differ from both. His restoration of Euripides' version presents a further dimension, making a contribution to the nineteenth-century debate about the value or otherwise of Euripides as a classical tragedian. This too had a personal side: Barrett Browning had been a fervent proseletytizer on behalf of Euripides, as Browning advertised by using as his epigraph her eulogy of him in "Wine of Cyprus," and both were aware of the controversial nature of such a preference.
The nineteenth-century Euripides controversy
It is striking that the critic most widely credited with reaffirming "classicism" in English Victorian culture, Matthew Arnold, scarcely ever mentions Euripides in his published works or private correspondence, instead completing the trio of leading Greek dramatists with Euripides' arch-enemy, the comic dramatist Aristophanes. (26) In this, he follows August Wilhelm yon Schlegel's hugely influential denunciation of Euripides for allegedly instigating the decline of classical tragedy after Aeschylus and Sophocles: "His constant aim is to please, he cares not by what means; hence is he so unequal: frequently he has passages of overpowering beauty, but at other times he sinks into downright mediocrity." (27) This depreciation was echoed by later commentators, including T. A. Buckley, a copy of whose translation of Euripides Browning owned. Although he makes something of an exception for Alcestis, terming it "the only real example of genuine conjugal affection on the Greek stage," (28) Buckley's introductory remarks make his overall agreement with Schlegel's negative appraisal abundantly clear:
The inferiority of our author to the greater tragedians, prevents our feeling much desire to enter upon the respective merits and demerits of his several plays, especially as we are completely anticipated by Schlegel, with whose masterly analysis every reader ought to be acquainted. ... It has been truly remarked, that tragedy, in no small degree, owed its downfall to Euripides.... We question whether the scene between Death and Apollo in the "Alcestis," could be surpassed in vulgarity, even by the modern school of English dramatists, while his exaggerations in the minor characters are scarcely to be surpassed by the lowest writer of any period. (pp. vi-vii)
Browning's marginalia in his copy of Buckley's translation (now at Yale) express contemptuous dissent. On p. 249 of vol. 2, Browning comments on Buckley's note condemning "this very poor play [Electra]," "and I can promise the student of this crib a very poor translation of a play far above the power of lying Schlegel or lick-spittle Buckley to understand, R.B." Browning confirmed his repudiation of "lying Schlegel" in a letter to John Daniel Williams of January 30, 1880: "I cordially hate the maligner of Euripides." (29)
However, Schlegel seems partially to exempt the Alcestis from his wider denunciation of Euripides, commending its "overpowering pathos," and Ernst Behler argues that, like his brother Friedrich, August Schlegel actually held a deeply ambiguous, conflicted view of Euripides. (30) Other commentators censured the introduction of Heracles and his drunkenness as being beneath the dignity of tragedy and more suitable for what the play's position at the conclusion of a tetralogy effectively makes it, a satyr-play. Balaustion's commentary unequivocally rehabilitates Heracles as the poem's Redeemer-figure (which probably accounts for Swinburne's comment quoted above):
I think this is the authentic sign and seal Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad, And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts Into a rage to suffer for mankind. (ll. 1918-21) Jennifer Wallace argues that
it was B.'s robust, creative response in Balaustion to Schlegel's denunciation of Euripides which provoked A. W. Verrall's polemic, Euripides the Rationalist (Cambridge 1895). Verrall followed B. in defending Euripides against Schlegel's attacks, but he then criticised him for presenting the play as proto-Christian and for "redeeming" Heracles as a noble character: "How hopeless is the well-meant effort to deify a swashbuckler appears when Balaustion ceases to describe and begins to quote. She indeed, like a good girl, having given her heart sticks at nothing; and since B.--with a poet poetizing it could not be otherwise--has given his heart to her, we, so long as we keep in their company, can perhaps believe what they tell us. But go to Euripides and the charm is lost." (p. 21) It was in fact through his lengthy analysis of Balaustion that Verrall developed his own sense of Euripides as "ironical" (91) and not easily understood. (Woolford, Karlin, and Phelan, p. 336)
Controversy has continued over the legitimacy of Balaustion/Browning's interpretation of the play: in "Balaustion's Adventure as a Beautiful Misrepresentation of the Original" R. G. Moulton argues that Browning's misrepresentation consists in his reading of the play as a moral fable upholding "conjugal devotion and the religion of love," which Moulton regards as a modern sentimentalism; rather: "the foundation, the turning-point and the consummation of the plot are all made by Euripides to rest upon the hospitality of Admetus; while Browning has thrown this idea so far into the background that a reader may well have gone through Balaustion's Adventure without having ever noticed it." (13) William Cranston Lawton riposted: "for every word of contempt poured on the selfish and cowardly Admetos, all thanks. Even Professor Moulton's persuasiveness can make no hero of him!" (32) And Balaustion's reading of the Admetus-Pheres relation as a doubled pairing is commended by more recent commentators, as for example John R. Wilson, who quotes it. (33)
IV Balaustion in the sequence of Browning's works
Balaustion on poetic influence
Balaustion prefaces her version with what Ezra Pound celebrated as a benign, permissive theory of influence: (34)
Still, since one thing may have so many sides, I think I see how,--far from Sophokles,-- You, I, or anyone might mould a new Admetos, new Alkestis. Ah, that brave Bounty of poets, the one royal race That ever was, or will be, in this world[ They give no gift that bounds itself and ends I' the giving and the taking: theirs so breeds I' the heart and soul o' the taker, so transmutes The man who only was a man before, That he grows godlike in his turn, can give-- He also: share the poets' privilege, Bring forth new good, new beauty, from the old. (ll. 2413-25)
As Bornstein suggests, this differs sharply from Harold Bloom's aggressively adversarial understanding of interpoetic relations. Of course, Morris and Palgrave were Browning's peers, and Bloom has little to say about poets' relations with their immediate contemporaries; but Browning is a poet who frequently reacts to the work of peers, as in "The Glove" (1845), responding to Leigh Hunt's "The Glove and the Lions" (1836), and "Cleon" (1855), dissenting from Matthew Arnold's classicism in his 1853 Preface. (35) In Balaustion's Adventure, Browning understands Euripides' Alcestis as a principal cultural source for his successors; but by reverting to it as an original Browning, as I said, elects to dispute Morris' and Palgrave's departures from it. At the same time, however, his stance, as exemplified by Balaustion's, remains permissive: for she goes on to give her version of the story, in the course of which Browning incorporates, as I have shown, a direct response to these particular peers.
But this amounts to a major innovation in Browning's aesthetics, specifically expressing a reaction against his immediately preceding published poem, The Ring and the Book (1868-9). In a letter to Julia Wedgwood, Browning said of his longest poem, "the business has been, as I specify, to explain fact.... Before I die, I hope to purely invent something,--here my pride was concerned to invent nothing" (see Curie, p. 158). This comment indicates perhaps some dissatisfaction with Ring, and determination to move his aesthetic in a more creative direction.
In Balaustion's Adventure, the Rhodian girl Balaustion and her companions, on their way to join Athens in the war against Sparta, are about to be refused shelter in the harbour of Sparta's Syracusan allies when she offers to recite the Alcestis to them, and
Then, because Greeks are Greeks, and hearts are hearts, And poetry is power,--they all outbroke In a great joyous laughter with much love. (ll. 235-237)
"And poetry is power": the very casualness of the phrase may speak inversely of its struggle to get into a latecomer Victorian text, and it is of course suggestive that Browning had to use a classical subject and state of society to make it sound contingently plausible. Still, there it is; and not merely as a slogan but in the form of a larger argument that systematically challenges the assumptions on which The Ring and the Book had originally been founded. In book 1 of The Ring, Browning had stigmatized any discrepancy between "pure crude fact" and his characters' partial or biased views of it as necessarily false and misleading. Half-Rome's "feel after the vanished truth," for example, has "in the centre of its sense / A hidden germ of failure," his "Over-belief in Guido's right and wrong," assisted by "The instinctive theorizing whence a fact / Looks to the eye as the eye likes the look" (1:847, 849-850, 863-864). The Other Half-Rome makes "the opposite feel / For truth with a like swerve, like unsuccess" (1.883-884). The "success-failure" binarism institutes an unwavering reality-test against which speakers' interpretations must be calibrated, but Balaustion's version of Euripides' Alcestis is stoutly defended against a parallel objection from a nameless "Critic and whippersnapper" that "The girl departs from truth! / Pretends she saw what was not to be seen, / Making the mask of the actor move, forsooth!" (ll. 306-310). In reciting Euripides' text, Balaustion has imputed facial expressions to masked characters, a procedure she defends by the following argument:
What's poetry except a power that makes? And, speaking to one sense, inspires the rest, Pressing them all into his service; so ... who receives true verse at eye or ear, Takes in (with verse) time, place, and person too. (ll. 318-326)
A mental realization of Euripides' text innovates on it, but Balaustion's role is in fact larger than that: a considerable proportion of what she says takes the form of intercalated commentary, and she is equally resolute, if a good deal less epistemologically secure, in her defence of that:
What if my words wind in and out the stone As yonder ivy, the God's parasite? What then? The column holds the cornice up. (ll. 351-35:)
An even more ringing formulation comes when at the end of the poem Balaustion reflects on what she has accomplished. First, she remarks,
They say, Sophokles also means to make a piece, Model a new Admetos, a new wife: Success to him! One thing has many sides. The great name! But no good supplants a good, Nor beauty undoes beauty. (ll. 2399-2404)
In The Ring and the Book, though self-evidently "one thing has many sides," it was considerably less obvious that "no good supplants a good." The elevated status allotted to "pure crude fact" had rather suggested that speakers' varying accounts should be collated with, or distilled into, a necessarily single true one; Balaustion by contrast refuses to disallow any version (ll. 2413-25). Of particular significance is the democratic element. Poetic affect is not an independent finality, but the catalyst of invention in readers whom it inspires to create their own "new good, new beauty," as Balaustion herself has already done in her interpretation of the Alcestis, and as, in a more radical way, she goes on to do by inventing, in the sequel, an entirely new version of Euripides' mythological source (ll. 2435-2663).
Balaustion's formulation conflates two classical sources, Plato's Ion and Longinus' On Sublimity. In the Ion Socrates instructs the rhapsode Ion about the origins of his art. The rhapsode, like Balaustion, had the task of expounding the meaning of his chosen poet, in Ion's case Homer:
this gift you have of speaking well on Homer is not an art; it is a power divine, impelling you like the power in the stone Euripides called the magnet.... This stone does not simply attract the iron rings, just by themselves; it also imparts to the rings a force enabling them to do the same thing as the stone itself, that is, to attract another ring, so that sometimes a chain is formed, quite a long one, of iron rings, suspended from one another. For all of them, however, their power depends upon that loadstone. Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through those inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed. (36)
Balaustion's vision of a serial inspiration descending through poets into ordinary readers evidently derives from this passage, but in the context of its attempted vindication of her own truthfulness it gains an added significance. For in Plato's Republic it was precisely poets' fidelity or otherwise to truth that was at issue, and the outcome, notoriously, was their corporate expulsion from Socrates' ideal polity, on the twofold ground that whereas the carpenter who makes a bed stands at one remove from the ideal form of that object, the artist who depicts a bed necessarily stands at two removes, copying a copy; next, in a linked though not consecutive argument, Socrates attacks poets for telling tales of the gods which are not only untrue, but also liable to mislead and corrupt the young, conceding the affective power of poetry only to condemn it for lack of truth and hence immoral influence.
In Balaustion Browning juxtaposes the Ion and the Republic in order to play one off against the other. The argument that Balaustion departs from truth is countered by the claim that she has been the recipient of what she in turn transmits, a divine inspirational force. She herself asserts this:
I sprang upon the altar by the mast And sang aloft,--some genius prompting me,-- That song of ours which saved at Salamis. (ll. 74-75)
The "genius" represents a version of the force which, in the Alcestis itself, descends from the god Apollo to the mortal Heracles. In On Sublimity, Longinus links this concept directly to his definition of sublimity in several passages:
It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe that we have created what we have only heard.... The aulos fills the audience with certain emotions and makes them somehow beside themselves and possessed. (37)
Browning, I suggest, derived from these passages the possibility that rather than alienating the poet from his readers and them from each other sublimity could conjoin them, creating a community of exalted feeling (ekstasis); from his Platonic source he added the possibility that instead of (or as well as) receiving and sharing in such feeling readers could be incited to fresh creation on their own behalf (as the rhapsode is).
It seems, then, that in the internal sequence of Browning's works, Balaustion's Adventure proves to be a much more important poem than either Domett or Browning himself allowed, representing Browning's reaction against the aggressive epistemological positivism of the Ring by reaffirmation of the transformative power of imagination. This amounts, in effect, to a return to Romanticism: (38) Browning's decision to foreground Euripides confirms this by adopting the most "Romantic" of the classical dramatists as his creative sponsor. (39) And his accommodation of his rivals' revisions allows these to coexist with his own, and with the entirety of the literary tradition, understood as a trans-historical creative partnership. The same path is followed in his immediately following work, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society, which vindicates imagination by the curious device of revealing, at the end, that the Prince who speaks has actually invented his apparent interlocutor, while also accommodating poems on its subject, Napoleon III, by his contemporaries Robert Buchanan and Swinburne. (40)
(1) Dedication of Balaustion's Adventure (London, 1871). Robert Browning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press). All citations are to this edition.
(2) My thanks to Sylvia Adamson, Mary Ellis Gibson, and Britta Martens for helpful comments on drafts of this essay.
(3) Letter of October 1, 1871, in Dearest Isa: Robert Browning's Letters to Isabella Blagden, ed. Edward C. McAleer (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1951), p. 367.
(4) Alfred Domett, Diary 1872-1887, ed. E. A. Horsman (London: Oxford Univ. Press 1953), p. 55 (emphasis in original).
(5) Browning's own term for the relationship was "good-fellowship"; the Ormonds consider that "he had not found Leighton capable of true intimacy" (Leonee and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1975], p. 80).
(6) Robert Williams, Review of Balaustion's Adventure, The Athenaeum (August 12, 1871): 199.
(7) Catherine Maxwell, "Robert Browning and Frederic Leighton: 'Che Faro Senza Euridice?'" Review of English Studies 44, no. 175 (1993): 363.
(8) Alexandra Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning (London, 1891), p. 221.
(9) Its execution was beset by difficulties. Neither Browning nor Leighton was present to supervise the work, which was compromised by local workmen's incompetent interference with the design; in the event Browning, who never revisited Florence, never saw the finished product.
(10) Catalogue, Royal Academy Exhibition 1864, item 217, p. 13. The poem, retitled "Eurydice to Orpheus," later appeared in the 1868 Poems, placed in Dramatis Personae.
(11) See Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Research Guide, section Collections C0212.1: http://www.browningguide.org/rc_search_action.asp.
(12) Armstrong Browning Library (hereafter ABL) MS.
(13) September 8, 1871, pp. 364-365. In The Standard (August 17, 1871): 5, Alfred Austin wrote "Mr. Leighton has a fine sense of beauty, but to call him strong, and most of all 'as strong as Herakles' is too ridiculous, for it is praising him for the quality he altogether lacks."
(14) Leighton's painting is reproduced in vol. 4 of The Poems of Browning, ed. John Woolford, Daniel Karlin, and Joseph Phelan (London: Longman, 2012), plate 3, pp. 262-263.
(15) See Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Research Guide, section Collections A1798: http://www.browningguide.org/rc_search_action.asp.
(16) Francis Turner Palgrave, "Alcestis," Lyrical Poems (London, 1871), p. 23.
(17) August 18, 1871, in The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. W. E. Fredeman (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer 2002), 5:116-119.
(18) Letter to George Powell, August 24, 1871, The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1960), 2:155-156.
(19) To W. M. Rossetti, December 31, 1858, Ruskin; Rossetti; Preraphaelitism: Papers 1854 to 1862, ed. W. M. Rossetti (New York, 1899), 2:219.
(20) Here is the relevant entry in The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction: A1678] Morris, William. The Earthly Paradise, a Poem. 3 vols. London, 1868-1870. [section] Presentation copies inscribed by WM. In vol. 1: Robert Browning from his friend the Author, to which RB has added: London, May 6, 1868. In vol. 2 [2nd ed.]: Robert Browning with the Author's kind regards, and in vol. 3: Robert Browning from his friend the Author. [section] Browning Collections, lot 944, purchased by Maggs. [Huntington]
(21) Browning is quoting Morris' "Sir Giles's War-Song," The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (London, 1857).
(22) William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris (Oxford: Blackwell 1936), pp. 641-642. But reason for doubting Browning's sincerity emerge from private comments on The Earthly Paradise to his friend Isa Blagden in a letter of January 19, 1870: "Morris is sweet, pictorial, clever always--but a weariness to me by this time. The lyrics were the 'first sprightly runnings'--this that follows is a laboured brew with the old flavour but not body" (McAleer, pp. 328-329). The hypocrisy exhibited here was anticipated in his public homage but private skepticism concerning Tennyson's "Enoch Arclen" and Idylls of the King: see McAleer, p. 328; and Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship as Revealed in their Letters, ed. Richard Curie (London: John Murray & Jonathan Cape, 1937), pp. 75-77.
(23) The Standard (August 17, 1871): 5.
(24) This outcome fits into the gloomy pattern Herbert F. Tucker identifies in The Earthly Paradise: "The implication ... that Western civilization has its roots in perpetual unfulfilment, that the idle singer's is a performance commanded by disenchantment" (Epic: Britain's Heroic Muse 1790-1810 [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 20081, p. 435).
(25) Walter Pater, Westminster Review 80 (October 1869): 309.
(26) I have located precisely two references to Euripides, both insignificant, in Arnold's correspondence, and none in his published works. Sophocles, Arnold's favorite, scores six in Arnold's letters, nearly all analytic and significant.
(27) August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. John Black (London, 1846), p. 111.
(28) Euripides. Tragedies, trans. T. A. Buckley, 2 vols. (London, 1868-1870).
(29) Thomas J. Collins and Walter J. Pickering, "Letters from Robert Browning to the Rev. J. D. Williams, 1874-1889," Browning Institute Studies in Victorian Literary and Cultural History 4 (1976): 14.
(30) Ernst Behler, "A. W. Schlegel and the Nineteenth-Century Damnatio of Euripides," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 27, no. 4 (1986): 335-367.
(31) R.G. Moulton, Balaustion's Adventure as a Beautiful Misrepresentation of the Original (1891) p. 19.
(32) William Cranston Lawton, "The Classical Element in Browning's Poetry," The Boston Browning Society Papers: Selected to Represent the Work of the Society from 1886.1897 (London, 1897), p. 371.
(33) Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Euripides' Alcestis, ed. John R. Wilson (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 7. (Other essays in the volume also accord this episode a pivotal place.)
(34) See George Bornstein, Ezra Pound Among the Poets (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 106-127.
(35) Browning later responded more openly to Arnold in, first, the Preface to The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1877), and secondly, the Parleying "With Gerard de Lairesse" (1887).
(36) Ion 533.d-e' Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 219-220.
(37) Longinus, Of Sublimity, 7.1, 39.3, Ancient Literary. Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translation, ed. D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1972), pp. 467, 497.
(38) See my essay, "Browning Rethinks Romanticism," Essays in Criticism 43, no. 3 (1993): 211-227. An excellent recent discussion of this subject is Britta Martens's Browning, Victorian Poetics and the Romantic Legacy: Challenging the Personal Voice (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).
(39) This is a common identification: see for instance "Euripides the Human," in Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Drama (New York: Henry Holt, 1927), pp. 45-51.
(40) Buchanan's dramatic poem Napoleon Fallen was published in early 1871, Swinburne's sonnet-set Intercession in 1869. Buchanan mentioned the latter in a letter to Browning of December 7, 1870; he also asked Browning, without success, to accept the dedication of Napoleon Fallen and requested him to correct its proofs (MS at Alexander Turnbull Library).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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