Bob McNeil: Love in Poetry of the Brownings

The New York Browning Society, Inc.Newsletter
Founded in 1907

Date Wednesday, February10, 2020
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

Bob McNeil: Love in Poetry of the Brownings

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us next Wednesday for Bob McNeil’s talk on the subject of love in the poetry of the Brownings:

The quotes and poems in this recital deal with the importance of love and hope. However, some of the words understand more often than not that the feeling and wish seem to lack permanence or relevance. Without question, cynics will say these sentiments seem better suited for art than everyday existence. They may argue that devotion to a dream is as illogical as mythology.  Nonetheless, there are words in this program that realize love and hope are parts of a building that require brick-strong devotion. Sans their foundation, there would be no place to house the best aspects of our humanity.

McNeil’s talk is especially important as Robert Browning’s concept of love is critical for understanding his poetry. Browning’s idea of love is derived from Plato and from the Christian concept of love of which John speaks in his First Epistle, for which God is love and to love is to know the divine. Browning agreed with the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel that religion is not a particular theological creed but anything that touches the infinite; thus, human love, as the embodiment of the divine, is a religious expression. This notion of love and religion meant that Browning did not think of unlawful love as blasphemous if it sprang from a genuinely spiritual feeling.

This is the subject of Browning’s long narrative poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers (1873), which shocked readers with its scandalous plot. Based on real-life events, the narrative follows a Norman gentleman, Léonce Miranda, who falls in love with a married woman and begins a relationship that conflicts with the tenets of his Catholic upbringing. Driven to a psychological crisis, Browning’s protagonist jumps from a tower, a symbol of his religious faith, believing that the miraculous powers of the Holy Virgin of La Ravissante will save him, only to be killed on the unforgiving turf of the real world. As Browning sees it, Miranda’s problem is that he fails to make a distinction between religion and theology. Browning conceived of theology as the outward forms and creeds that embody the divine ideas of religion. Miranda makes a terrible mistake because he focuses too much on these forms, which dictate his separation from Clara, and thus misses the fact that love is the true expression of religion

The plot of Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is based on the life of the Paris jeweler, Antoine Mellerio, who killed himself in 1870, leaving his property to the Church but stipulating that his mistress, Anna de Beaupré, could remain in their home. This was contested by Mellerio’s relatives who lost a law case against de Beaupré. Browning stays close to the facts of the case, so much so that he only changed the real names (Mellerio to Léonce Miranda and de Beaupré to Clara de Millefleurs) at the last minute because he was concerned about legal ramifications, and his observations are derived from visits that he made to

Normandy in 1870 and 1872. However, although Browning refers to real-life events, these details have a more important symbolic role in the poem since they are a vehicle for exploring his deeply held views on love.

Miranda hopes that he can live with Clara even though the Catholic Church forbids it, but this becomes impossible because Clara cannot divorce her husband. When Miranda’s mother dies, ostensibly broken-hearted as a result of her son’s actions, he has a complete breakdown. Relying on external laws dictated by the Church—the forms of theology—Miranda decides to renounce his relationship with Clara. He begins to engage in a series of ritualistic acts, burning his love letters and his hands, as well as giving generously to the Church, in an attempt to purify his body. This ends with his unfortunate attempt to test his faith by jumping off the tower.

Browning makes it clear that although Miranda’s love for Clara was illicit in terms of Catholic law, it was true in terms of the spirit: “Truth I say, truth I mean: this love was true.” Browning also does not judge Clara’s morality in terms of her sexual mores but only for her selfish interpretation of love. In only caring about seeking her own spiritual sustenance through her relationship with Miranda, she does not help him to attain a higher religious vision through their mutual love. Browning believes that if Miranda had possessed the imagination to distinguish between religion and theology, he would have found an expression of the eternal ideas of religion in his own love for Clara, and if Clara had loved Miranda as a reflection of God rather than for her own nourishment, she would have experienced the real religious transformation that transcends the temporal.

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