(Yes, I know. I don’t blog for like 2 1/2 months and now I won’t shut up. But bear with me.)

To read Browning he must exert himself, but he will exert himself to some purpose. If he finds the meaning difficult of access, it is always worth his effort — if he has to dive deep, “he rises with his pearl.”

This comment comes from George Eliot’s review of Men and Women that was published in the Westminster Review. (Thanks, Norton editors!) The observation that Browning’s work is difficult but rewards thought is hardly exclusive to Eliot. In fact, it’s more or less a commonplace about Browning and, I think we could see with fairly little effort how this kind of attitude produces on the one hand the Browning Societies of the 1880s and — in a much more nuanced, scholarly context, something like Donald Hair’s discussion of emblems in Robert Browning’s Language (1999) — the idea is basically that you have to work your way through the poem to find a  meaning that could not have been directly stated otherwise, engaging in an act of interpretation that is also, Hair argues, the process of saving one’s soul as far as Browning is concerned.

I am obviously on board with the idea that careful reading of poetry (or any literary text — or not-necessarily-literary text — for that matter) should be rewarding. But that’s different, I think, than saying that careful reading should be rewarded. A hair-splitting difference? Perhaps. But it helps me express something that bothers me about Eliot’s image of the reading of poetry as diving for a pearl — and, more than that, the implication that if you apply the correct, careful reading practices, you cannot help but come back with the pearl of meaning at the center of the poem. And as with Hair’s discussion of emblems and riddles, this seems to imply that there are right answers when it comes to these kinds of poems, even if we are meant to value the dive as much as or more than the pearl or the process of working out the riddle as much as or more highly than the answer to that riddle.

And I find myself wanting more, wanting something more uncertain, more contingent. This is the approach I’ve been trying to take in my reading of “An Epistle” for the last six months, but the poem does seem kind of impervious, at a certain level, to any kind of “new” reading — whether one applies New Criticism, historicism, deconstruction, Bakhtin, the best anyone seems to be able to do is come up with a slightly different version of the same story about faith and skepticism struggling with each other. Different approaches make it possible to notice different aspects of that struggle or read it in a slightly different way, but no amount of critical theory is going to be able to make the poem not be about Jesus, for instance. And this may be why, the last time I checked the MLA database, the last time anyone published an article on “An Epistle” was 1993.

It’s not that I think “An Epistle” is somehow not about the things that it is very obviously about. But I feel like there’s more to be done, that the working out of the riddle or the canonical Victorian religious doubt narrative may not actually be the most important thing to do. I hope, of course, that I can make this case from the poem — and I’m pretty sure that I can and will by December. But I’m beginning to see that a lot of this has to do with my resistance to the pearl-diving model of reading poetry, where we work hard and are sure to find a meaning. Perhaps what really needs to be interrogated here is something about the language of reading poetry — of what it means, for example, to “get something out of” a poem. It’s a discourse that we take for granted — one that I certainly do, particularly when trying to make the case for close reading to undergraduates — but it may be more difficult to do this if we’re going to take seriously the performative aspect of Victorian poetry, the whole “poetry as constitutive cultural event” school of thought. And I don’t think it’s a matter of shifting our attention from the pearl to the dive, but rather rethinking the metaphor entirely and changing the way we think about reading poetry. Part of the reason why I keep going back to Coleridge’s “poetic faith” is that it seems to imply a certain kind of contingency — the possibility and the threat not just of something overwhelming happening, but the equally and perhaps more terrifying (if we believe Lyotard) possibility of nothing happening. (Those of you who remember my ESA paper from March may recall that Peter only starts to sink *after* his faith has carried him to Jesus….)

I don’t know where I’m going with this at the moment, except towards another ginormous blog post. But at least now you have a sense of what I’m dealing with. And I’d be interested to know if anything of the foregoing seems like it might be valuable….

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