So I spent today’s ride on the North Jersey Coast Local looking through Thomas Blackburn’s 1967 study of Robert Browning’s poetry. It’s a book that somehow came across my radar a few weeks ago, enough so that I interlibrary loaned it and then completely forgot that I had done so — enough that I was completely surprised when I got the email saying the book was in.

I still haven’t quite figured out why this book was so important. I have, however, stumbled across what’s obviously a forgotten gem of Browning scholarship.  Some examples:

“Browning’s admirers have not been remarkable for their subtlety. Perhaps it is just their lack of subtlety which has attracted them to some aspects of the poet, for when he is off-form he is a bird of the same feather and shares their heavy obviousness of thought and feeling. Time may well be an acid in which bad verse and bogus critical opinion dissolves, but the process is a lengthy one. Robert Browning has not been dead for a hundred years and around his great poems there is an exceptionally thick rind of bad work for the acid of time.”

“No doubt Baudelaire’s angst and syphilis were as effective in keeping his work clear of rubbish as a post in the Board of Trade. All Browning had was Elizabeth Barrett.”

“Unfortunately, though In Memoriam was extremely popular the public had an equal relish for Tennyson’s sentimental and didactic verse. The poet’s wife was a piece of human litmus paper. He had only to dip the devoted creature into some new poem and her change of color would suggest its value – in current market prices, not unfortunately in terms of poetry.”

On the “climax of … falsity” in Browning’s “Christmas Eve”: “…the poem’s supposed vision of Christ; a vision described in terms which would delight the heart of any producer of a super-technicolor film about Jesus; and was probably no more a part of the poet’s actual experience than the ascent of Everest.”

Those, at least, were the highlights I was able to record in my iPod while I was on the train. I’m sure I missed many other gems because I was skimming. I do think that the problem of a good poet writing bad poetry is an interesting one, and I think that we do tend to shy away from discussions like that in our contemporary criticism. On the other hand, I’m not sure that anyone who relies so much on the “thick rind” metaphor for bad writing (that’s an image that crops up with rather alarming frequency) gets to criticize other people’s poetic process.

In other news: it’s NVSA time! Inaugurating the lovely season of Victorian-tasticness that culminates in the CUNY Victorian Conference. I’m a bit sad to be missing the Pickwick Papers reading tonight, but I’ll be driving (!!) over to Princeton in the morning for a full day of panels and the big banquet. Now that I have a WordPress app installed on my iPod, anything is possible — depending on whether Princeton’s generous with the wifi.

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