Dr. Dino Franco Felluga Presents “Browning and the Virtuous Act”

Date Wednesday, March 9, 2022
Time 6:00PM

Dr. Dino Franco Felluga Presents
“Browning and the Virtuous Act”

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by Laura Clarke

We are excited that Dr. Dino Franco Felluga will be presenting his recent work on Robert Browning at our March meeting, which will be held on March 9th at our new time of 6:00 pm.

About Dr. Felluga: Dino Franco Felluga is Professor of English and Director of Literature, Theory, and Cultural Studies at Purdue University. His articles have appeared in SEL: Studies in English Literature, Victorian Studies, Criticism, Victorian Poetry, European Romantic Review, Critical Quarterly, 19, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and the Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry. His first book, The Perversity of Poetry: Romantic Ideology and the Popular Male Poet of Genius was published by SUNY Press in 2005. It was followed by the 4-volume, million-word Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature and Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. He is also the general editor of BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History and COVE: Collaborative Organization for Virtual Education. His current book project, Novel-Poetry, co-written with Emily Allen, explores the cross-influence of poetry and the novel in the nineteenth
century. Prof. Felluga also created the North American Victorian Studies Association and served as NAVSA’s president for the first 11 years of the organization.

Abstract for Dr. Felluga’s talk:

As its very title suggests, Robert Browning’s Ring and the Book is about both things and forms, but what is so remarkable about the poem is the extent to which Browning troubles the easy relationship between the two. Engaging the Victorian novel’s own fascination with realistically rendered things and referents, Browning’s verse-novel asks us to interrogate the novel’s claim to present us with a window onto the world of things. Poetry by its very nature could be said to work in opposition to the pure crude facts of realism precisely because it continually asks us not only to see the things described but also to recognize the metaphoric equivalences that take us away from temporal contiguity. The verse-novels of the 1850s and 60s that experimented with  the temporal and spatial expansiveness of the novel ask us to see a depicted world, thus engaging in the fictional strategy of realism, yet, engaging as they do with the generic parameters of the lyric as it was theorized in the nineteenth century, they also ask us to “see” thither where eyes “cannot reach yet yearn,” as R. Browning puts it in this poem.

Verse-novels subscribe to the formal nature of poetry, making opaque the very page that might tease us with transport to the diegetic world of things signified. The very line breaks matter, for example, as much as any matter referenced—form thus trumping any “ring-thing,” as that very phrase suggests, alluding as it does to the formal structure of rhyme (ring/thing) in the midst of Browning’s blank verse poem. R. Browning’s point, however, is that art alone can save us from mere credulity, regardless of whether we are talking here about religion, ideology, or representation. It does so by teaching one ultimate lesson and that is “This lesson, that our human speech is naught,/ Our human testimony false, our fame/ And human estimation words and wind” (12.834-36). R. Browning thus questions both sides of the equation, both narrative realism and poetic lyricism.

Like the verse-novels that preceded Browning’s poem, The Ring and the Book does not stop at mere skepticism, however, but opens up for us a mechanism for radical critique in the present. What interests us specifically are the ways that Browning’s own verse-novel interrogates the nature of evil, a concern that Browning addressed throughout his career and the dark obverse of the search for infinite truths. We thus illustrate how Browning’s understanding of truth differs structurally from the way it is addressed in the novel—and in novel criticism of the last fifty years.

I am particularly looking forward to Dr. Felluga’s talk, as I am a keen reader of nineteenth-century verse novels and have just finished reading Owen Meredith’s Lucile. Meredith, the pen name of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, was a good friend of the Brownings and was clearly influenced by their poetry; thus, in this month’s newsletter I will talk briefly about Meredith’s verse novel and the Brownings’ response to it. It is important to note that Meredith spent time with the Brownings during the period that Robert was completing Men and Women and Elizabeth was working on Aurora Leigh. He wrote to his father about their powerful influence on him: “It is
something — the contact with superior minds — which both of them are. Sometimes a word from a person of genius is an open sesame to one’s own hidden life. It is true that ‘great men make the earth wholesome.’

“In a letter to Elizabeth about spiritualism, Meredith says something that can help us to understand his philosophical purpose in Lucile. He writes, “Matter must be brought up to the level of spirit, as the body is to rise with the soul. Form has never been strong enough yet to contain and fit idea; the wine has burst the bottles.” The notion that form cannot perfectly fit the idea, which Meredith understands in Plato’s sense as universal ideas, is reminiscent of romantic irony, the eternal tension between the ideal and the real. This tension for the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel results in “transcendental buffoonery,” the plight of the poet of imagination who cannot fully embody his transcendent visions in a work of art and thus only expresses himself through wit. Meredith conveys this irony in his verse novel through the humorous self-consciousness of the narrator who reveals the tension between the ideal and the real in the process of shaping his poem. There are juxtapositions of long philosophic flights with the prosaic facts of the real as well as many instances in which the poet-narrator cannot embody his inner sense of infinity in the world he is seeking to create. A particularly funny example of the poet’s plight can be seen when he invokes his muse, only to find that there can be no epic in the modern world; thus, he hails the modern muse, the publishers Murray and Son.

It is interesting that it is precisely this sense of irony—the humorous deflation of the ideal and the poetic raising of the real—that divides Robert and Elizabeth on the poem. It is not surprising that Browning, whose poetry often explores the ironic space between the ideal and the real, appreciated the combination of philosophy and wit. He wrote to Meredith to praise his achievement: “I think your general power is increased and brought into new channels; there is wit, use of the world; wisdom too, and the old music and pathos…There are backgrounds of scenery of great beauty and finish.” Elizabeth, however, was unsettled by the irony in Lucile. She commends the “descriptive part” of the verse novel which she finds “exquisite,” and she notes that Meredith can be “very witty, very tender, very pathetic.” However, she remarks that “readers like myself miss, through all the good and true thoughts scattered up and down, the sight of an earnest intention.” What Elizabeth is most critical of is “feeling a doubt whether the poet’s levity or his gravity be the more genuine. The colour of his convictions is doubtful, which, let us all be sure, is a weakness in a work of art, just as it is an infirmity in a man.” She writes: “Here, I do not see where the writer’s convictions are. He means well somehow; but what is the well he means?”

If you have not already, I encourage you to read Lucile to see whether you agree with Robert or Elizabeth’s perspective on Meredith’s experimental novel-in-verse.

I would like to close this month’s newsletter by offering my condolences to our President James Kepple, who sadly lost his mother last month. I would also like to extend my condolences to the family of Stephen Downey, our former President, who passed peacefully in his sleep on December 7th in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you would like to donate to the Society in remembrance of him you can go to https://nybrowning.org/contact/ and find out more information. You can also fill out your members’ dues for this season on that page as well.

Stephen Miner Downey
1937 – DECEMBER 7, 2021(AGE

Gay Muret (Browning) Kepple
1954 – JANUARY 17,
202 2 (AGE 67 )

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