Saints and Sinners: Robert Browning and Rome
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Christopher Hitchens once said, in his brilliantly contrary tone, that if magically transported back to nineteenth-century England he would happily push past Thackeray and Dickens to speak to George Eliot, citing ‘her near-Shakespearean gift for divining the well-springs of human motivation’. Given Hitch’s love of satire and hatred of the Catholic church, it may have been worth his while to detour in the direction of the man Wilde called ‘the most Shakespearean creature since Shakespeare’ – Robert Browning.
Browning stands out in a period bracketed by the Romantics on one side and more recognisable Victorians, such as Kipling, on the other – a period of Britain’s meteoric rise overseas, but one of (frequently overlooked) political and social evolution, and even insecurity, at home. Yet Browning’s uniqueness is found not in when he wrote, but what he wrote – his favoured medium was the dramatic monologue, a poetic style in which he would adopt the voice of an imagined figure and pour out their hopes, insecurities, faults and fears in a way recognisable, as Wilde identified, from Elizabethan drama. One of the most famous examples is ‘My Last Duchess’, a delightfully gothic poem in which the sinister Duke of Ferrara shows the servant of his prospective new father-in-law around his palatial residence. Pausing by a portrait of his former wife, frozen for all eternity in a coquettish smile, he hints at how he had her killed for showing that smile to other men:
‘. ..who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive...’
Browning’s poems thus form a Dramatis Personae (the title of one of his collections), in which the minds of his characters are laid open with impressive subtlety. Often, Browning is less a poet and more a psychiatrist, though he never lets this dampen his wicked sense of humour. ‘Mr Sludge, ‘The Medium’’ mocks the Victorian fascination with the dead, adopting the voice of a seance-holding conman caught in the act;
‘This was the first and only time, I’ll swear...
I swear I ever cheated,- yes, by the soul
Of her who hears- (your sainted mother, Sir!)
Yet if dark, iconoclastic humour is a common theme in Browning’s monologues, another is surely Italy. Browning’s life was in many ways a grand Italian pilgrimage – he spent much of his life there, taking with him his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many of his most famous works, such as Sordello or The Ring and the Book, took Italian settings. In this regard, Browning joined a long line of English intellectuals who were entranced by the ruined glories of Italy’s Roman past and the decadent beauty of the Renaissance – Chaucer travelled there, Shakespeare set many of his works there, and Gibbon was famously inspired to write his life's work after visiting Rome’s forum. Nineteenth-century poets were entranced by the faded beauty of Italy after the Napoleonic invasions: Wordsworth wondered at the bygone glories of Venice, who ‘once did..hold the gorgeous east in fee’ (as would Byron and T.S. Eliot), and Wilde would later write of how ‘I reached the Alps: the soul within me burned/Italia, my Italia, at thy name’. Browning’s fascination with Italian decay was thus entirely normal and, given his love of Renaissance grandeur, it’s hardly surprising that he was drawn to the Catholic Church. Predictably, in some of his work this takes the form of the Anglican ‘Black Legend’ of a deceitful, corrupt false hierarchy – ‘the Confessional’ has a female speaker, consigned to execution for adultery, declare that:
‘It is a lie -their Priests, their Pope,
Their Saints, their . . . all they fear or hope
Here, Browning is lazily playing to stereotype. Yet, on closer inspection, he actually places Catholicism centre stage in some of his best work. Perhaps his funniest monologue is the gloriously rude ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, in which a sarcastic, bitchy monk furiously but silently fulminates against a rival brother:
“ Gr-r-r--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God's blood, would not mine kill you!”
Browning’s darkly comic cynicism is on full display as the speaker vandalises Lawrence’s herb garden while plotting his demise. The satirical trope that Catholicism is obsessed with idolatrous minutiae appears:
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange pulp--
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp!
Browning, with shocking irreverence, has his monk fantasise about planting a ‘scrofulous French novel’ (‘even glance at it, you grovel/hand and foot in belial’s gripe’) on Lawrence’s person before plotting a Faustian pact to destroy the hated monk’s rose garden:
Or, there's Satan!--one might venture
Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine...
Mocking Catholic clergy has been a British tradition, from George Farqhuar to Father Ted, yet Browning does it with real panache. Unsurprisingly, an essay on Browning in the Irish Monthly (March 1913) sniffily dismisses ‘Soliloquy’: ‘Such compositions do not tend to enhance the dignity of Browning's work’.
Yet Browning could go far, far deeper than that. The extent to which he intertwined a desire to simultaneously satirise and understand Catholicism with a deep fascination with Italian culture is visible in one of his most moving pieces, ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’. Here, a Renaissance bishop in Rome lies dying before his illegitimate sons, and declares in a startling opening line ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, Vanity!’, a reference to Ecclesiastes. Though Browning is drawn to motifs of Italian beauty, richly imagining visions of marble and classical epigrams, the monologue seems at first glance to be a typical attack on popish corruption – the bishop begins by speaking solemnly of heaven, before devolving into a spiteful rant against a rival bishop. Ultimately he threatens his sons with disinheritance as he outlines his ostentatious plans for a luxurious tomb:
‘All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick,
They glitter like your mother's for my soul,’
Yet this isn’t a hate piece: Browning’s bishop comes across as a man terrified of death, drowning in the luxury of his surroundings as he slips in and out of consciousness:
‘Drop water gently till the surface sink,
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ...
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli…’
And he realises that ‘Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage’, even as he lapses back into ever more ambitious plans for his memorial. If ‘Spanish Cloister’ shows that Browning could satirise sinners, ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb’ shows that he could draw sympathy for them, too – and all the while, he remains able to create with incredible skill the atmospheric magic of a Vatican transept:
‘And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk…’
Browning understood how religion is often coloured by human failings, yet he also understood man’s innate need for the beautiful and the godly. He expresses this in the simplest terms in ‘Caliban upon Setebos’, where Browning has The Tempest’s savage creature cry out to his god, wondering what supernatural power forged ‘clouds, winds, meteors, such as that...Also this isle’. He clearly imagined that we too are simply grovelling ‘Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire’, desperately searching for a meaning to the world’s chaos. Here, Caliban’s concluding muse that ‘likelier He/Decrepit may doze, doze, as good as die’ voices a teleological assumption that as man evolves, the need for religion to explain mystery falls away.
Yet not content with discussing religion in the distant past, Browning also investigated the Roman allure in the very immediate present. In Browning’s own lifetime, Britain’s religious landscape was being shaken up by Catholicism’s triumphant return. Since the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, the faith had been seen as a seditious, continental and essentially treacherous vice: Catholics were banned from succession to the throne and essentially excluded from academia and politics, dismissed as either illiterate Irish labourers or hidebound, recusant gentlemen. The progressive decriminalisation of Catholicism in English public life over the course of the nineteenth century was accompanied by a powerful intellectual resurgence of ‘Anglo-Catholic’ High Church ideals, centred on the Oxford Movement whose members included the high-profile convert John Henry Newman (canonised in 2019). Most disturbingly for the Anglican establishment, this took place at a time when many saw Christianity entering a downward spiral in England, as famously mourned in Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’:
‘The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.’
The Roman ‘reconquest’ of England was immortalised in the construction of striking new Catholic churches across the country, along with Keble College at Oxford – about which one visitor supposedly remarked, in a parody of Pierre Bosquet’s famous remark on the Charge of the Light Brigade, c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la gare? (It’s magnificent, but isn’t it the train station?). Architecture aside, Keble College and the men who created it (and they were men) remains a powerful reminder that in the intellectual and religious life of Victorian Britain, the papacy had made a triumphant return. Browning takes this on in a fascinating monologue, ‘Bishop Bloughram’s Apology’. ‘Bloughram’, who could essentially be a cypher for anyone in the newly-re-established Catholic hierarchy in England (the title is eerily prescient of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua), sits down after a convivial dinner with a journalist, the atheist ‘Mr Gigadibs’, to discuss matters of faith: ‘No more wine? Then we’ll push back chairs and talk.’ As the Bishop speaks, we are placed by Browning in Gigadibs’ position, hanging on every word to try to pick up on some hint of scandal on one hand or faith on the other, while struggling to follow the thoughts of this startlingly realistic character. As the debate goes on, we’re met not with a strident declaration of fanaticism, but a subtle discourse on the human condition:
‘We mortals cross the ocean of this world
Each in his average cabin of a life-
The best’s not big, the worst yields elbow-room…’
Bloughram’s faith is thus revealed as one of pragmatism – he describes, in a manner reminiscent of Browning’s other work, the human yearning for a higher power:
‘Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, someone’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides-,
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new as Nature’s self
To rap and knock and enter in our soul...’
It’s in these terms, of uncertainty and the search for meaning, that Bloughram’s faith is outlined as a form of Pascal’s Wager in a monologue incredibly far removed from Browning’s Renaissance work, and at once cynical and believable. On an earthier level, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Browning has managed to capture practically everything about the Anglo-Catholic spirit, then and now, in this character. ‘Bloughram’ has the epicureanism (‘Another glass for me, though- cool, i’faith!’), the cultured, worldly tone (‘Che, Che, my dear sir, as we say in Rome!’), the gentle self-deprecation (‘I pine among my million imbeciles/You think’) and the faint, name-dropping, class-obsessed snobbery (‘the thing you’ll crown yourself with, all your days, is- dining here’). Behind it all, Browning captures the vague, modern, muddling sense of faith that always seems to be expressed in the conditional tense: ‘this good God- what He could do, if He Would,/Would, if He could…’
In all, Browning had a wickedly satirical mind, able to produce belly laughs on the darkest of subjects, yet he was also able to suffuse his poems with scenes of incredible beauty, and to dip his toes into the dark waters of religious philosophy. To finish, it’s also worth mentioning that, despite his fascination with the visual culture of Rome, Browning never converted. This is more surprising than it sounds. The fumes and icons of the Mass have had a remarkable ability to fixate English intellectuals in search of the transcendent. Evelyn Waugh viciously attacked seemingly everything he saw in his brilliant satires of the 1930s, yet his cynicism evaporated on the topic of God and turned into his repressed fantasies of recusant aristocracy in Brideshead Revisited, weakly mumbling that ‘No one could really hate a saint...They can’t really hate God either’. Siegfried Sassoon included the Church of England in his furious attacks on wartime society: in ‘The Bishop’, a crowd of maimed, blinded and syphilitic soldiers confront a warmongering prelate. More profoundly, ‘Christ and the Soldier’ sees an exhausted rifleman praying to a battlefield crucifix to ‘end this bleeding fight’, interrogating Christ on the theology of war: ‘I’m paid to kill/and if I kill a man his mother grieves…does this come into what your teaching tells?’. Against this, the cross falls silent and the soldier’s question, ‘Lord Jesus, ain’t you got no more to say?’ vocalised a deep disillusionment with a religion claimed by both sides on the Western Front as their own righteous cause. Yet after his disappointing postwar years – the death of his devoted protege Wilfred Owen, the struggle to write, a disastrous relationship with Stephen Tennant – Sassoon found intense solace in his late conversion to Catholicism, and would later write masochistically (and weakly) of how
Flawed with inherited humanity…
This He first fashioned, this He can forgive…’
Fittingly, Lord Egremont’s biography of Sassoon summarises his conversion as ‘authority – an end to questioning...beauty and history, even glamour...the Roman Catholicism of Brideshead’.
Even Oscar Wilde made a deathbed conversion. Yet Robert Browning, predecessor of Wilde, Waugh, and Sassoon as both a satirist and a man of exquisite aestheticism, never did. Why was this? Perhaps it was the lack of disillusionment, his later life free of either career failure, personal disaster or the threat of twentieth century modernity. He continued to glory in the decadence and beauty of Italy without apparently feeling any need for mysticism. Conversely, it could be related to his own liberal beliefs (as with all nineteenth-century poets, we may ask how closely they were influenced by the atheistic liberty of Shelley and his ilk). But it's tempting to believe that Browning’s religious immunity was because, as shown in his great monologues, he remained a remarkably shrewd observer of the flaws of others. With Catholicism as with the other human faiths and foibles of his characters, Robert Browning gave voice to the saint and the sinner, and makes us laugh at them one moment, and cry for them the next. Above all, he remained fascinated by, but distant from, what his earlier Bishop, dying in St Praxed’s, dreams of witnessing from his ornate tomb for all eternity:
‘...hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!’
Browning satirised Catholicism in an enduringly funny, sharp way. Yet he did so with a surprisingly profound empathy that truly marks him out as, to quote Wilde once more, ‘a creator of character [who] ranks next to him who made Hamlet’ – and like Hamlet, Browning’s characters are psychological portraits of a truly fascinating depth. ▲
Elliot Jordan took an undergraduate degree in History at the University of St Andrews, and lives in London. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.