Dr. Robert Kramer: “The Brownings’ Continental Rivals”

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907
The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York NY 10003
Date Wednesday, November 11, 2020.

Time 1:00– 2:00PM

Dr. Robert Kramer: “The Brownings’ Continental Rivals”

ZOOM LINK: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86416985787

SEE THE POEMS – THE PAINTINGS – The Brownings’ Continental Rivals by Robert Kramer

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us this month for Robert
Kramer’s exciting talk, “The Brownings’ Continental Rivals.”
Dr. Kramer will give a talk on the poetry of Central Europe written
in German by several contemporaries of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. The poets discussed come primarily from Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Switzerland, and are usually considered so
called “late Romantics.” Though they often differ greatly from each other, their poetry tends to share certain common characteristics: the expression of intense emotions, as well as the examination of
subtle shades of feeling and profound psychological analysis of self
and society; aspecial interest in the unconscious, in dreams, the
irrational, and the mysterious; an increased appreciation and
exploitation of the creative powers of the imagination; a fascination
with memory, history, and the past in general; a preoccupation with
nature as cosmic or sacred force, but also involving close
observation and precise description; a loss of belief in traditional
religions; a frequently skeptical, ambivalent, pessimistic, or ironic
world-view; an ardent sense of yearning for what is absent, distant,
past, or lost; and also that perennial theme in literature–the
transitoriness of all earthly things.

The Brownings were more oriented to Romance languages and literature–Italian and French. But they were broadly educated and well aware of German cultural contributions. In fact, Elizabeth translated a number of Heine’s German poems into English verse. All translations from the German included here are by Robert Kramer. Dr. Kramer’s presentation will provide an important contribution to our understanding of the Brownings, especially as the influence of German ideas on both poets is often overlooked. Perhaps, as Kramer notes, this oversight is the result of the fact that they stated their preference for Romance languages and literature. However, both Elizabeth and Robert were keen to learn
German. In a letter to Lady Margaret Cocks, Elizabeth wrote:

“Talking of the Greek dramatic writers,
reminds me of envying your German. I must
learn German some day before I have
attained to the age of man—or at least to
the fourscore years. I have had my hands &
head full of a book called the Greek
Theatre, composed in part of extracts, &
edited by a Cambridge Student. It is an
admirable work; but what I am going to
speak of, is this. In the body of the work, are
extracts from Schlegel: so full of poetical &
classical enthusiasm, that I should like to
know something of the German Schlegel!”

Elizabeth was extremely impressed with  August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, so much so that she turned to redo her translation of Prometheus Bound, having concluded that she had not done it right the first time without the light Schlegel shed on dramatic writing. In a letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd, she recommended that Boyd’s wife read the German critics on Shakespeare, those “poet-critics” who know “more of Shakespeare than any of Shakespeare’s compatriots do.” Elizabeth was a keen reader of German writers, and she was determined to read them in the original rather than in translation. In another letter to Lady Cocks, Elizabeth wrote that she had been reading
Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling’s autobiography. “I read it in English of
course,” she remarks, but “I am yearning to look into the German souls of some German writers, without arriving at their thoughts by
“transfusion.” Elizabeth persevered with her German studies, writing to Lady Cock that “I must learn German before I arrive at the age which is ‘but labour & sorrow.’” One reason that Elizabeth was so attracted to German writers was because she shared their transcendental philosophy. Of course, it was this German mysticism that disconcerted English audiences. Carlyle, a great champion of German writers in England, notes in his essay “Novalis” that more empirically minded critics are quick to dismiss German philosophical ideas as unintelligible, and it was in response to these assumptions that Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus, his humorous novel which seeks to parody and explain idealist metaphysics through Herr Teufelsdröckh’s philosophy of clothes. That many English writers assumed Germans writers to be overly abstruse is clear from an exchange between Elizabeth and Richard Henry Horne. Planning to write a drama together, Horne discouraged Elizabeth from using German names in case their work was negatively associated with German obscurity. She responded: “Though perfectly right in abjuring German names you made me smile a little by protesting against them because ‘it would be called German mysticism.’ Do you really suppose it will be called anything else, in any case? You will see what Mr Darley (for one) will say to us, in the Athenæum.”

Elizabeth, it is clear, was able to poke fun at the fact she was known and criticized for the difficulty of her ideas, which were associated
with foggy Germanism. Robert Browning also wanted to learn German, but he found his natural inclination was for Spanish. In a letter to André Victor Amédée de Ripert-Monclar, he wrote, “I have learned Spanish enough [to] be able to read “the majestic Tongue which Calderon along the desert flung.” I am more & more possessed by a perfect antipathy for the North & its sights & sounds—which is strange truly, but real– I will not learn German for instance—& can’t help learning Spanish!”

And yet Browning also persevered. He asked Alfred Domett, “How do you get on with German?” noting that he now reads “tolerably” and that he finds the best help in Schlegel and Tieck’s translation of Shakespeare. Browning was not as comfortable as Elizabeth to be associated with German obscurity, exclaiming defensively to F. J Furnivall, President of the Browning Society, that “I have never read a line, original or translated, by Kant, Schelling, or Hegel in my whole life.”

However, Browning’s works were clearly influenced by German
idealist philosophy, and it is impossible to miss German metaphysics in Browning’s Sordello. We look forward to learning more about the affinities between the Brownings and German writers in Dr. Kramer’s presentation.


James Kepple is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Dr. Robert Kramer: “The Brownings’ Continental Rivals”
Time: Nov 11, 2020 01:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 864 1698 5787
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