“Thirty-Four Observations on ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’” – Timothy Donnelly – Annual Luncheon Wednesday, May 15 2019

PDF: Browning Society May Newsletter 2019

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

Annual Luncheon Wednesday, May 15

Time 12:00– 1:00PM
Timothy Donnelly, “Thirty-Four
Observations on ‘Childe Roland to the
Dark Tower Came’”

by Laura Clarke

May was an important month for Browning, since it was during this month in 1837 that his first play Strafford was performed at Covent Garden Theatre. This performance would mark the beginning of Browning’s difficult and disappointing experience with the Victorian theater. Indeed, Browning is famous for being a failed playwright, and his plays were criticized for being too intellectual and philosophical, especially at a time when sensational melodramas were
more popular on the stage.

Browning’s Strafford was an ambitious play. It was not simply a historical tragedy but rather an exploration of Carlyle’s concept of symbols—the material forms in the world that embody spiritual ideas. For Carlyle, these symbols must continually evolve so that they do not become fixed in tradition and stymie the spiritual vitality that ever embodies itself anew. The historical
context for Strafford is seventeenth-century England leading up to the Civil War. Strafford believes in the undisputed power of the king, whereas Pym champions the increasing power of the people as it is embodied in parliament. This for Browning represents the progress of symbols in history and the manifestation of spirit in new political forms.

Strafford is clearly influenced by Carlyle’s Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, especially Carlyle’s argument that Puritanism, as it was embodied in the actions of John Pym and Henry Vane, was a symbolic transition from political forms that had become merely tradition, outworn semblances, to a new organic embodiment of spiritual truth. Carlyle contends that English Puritanism was a continuation of the progress of the Protestant
Reformation and that it looked forward to the French Revolution; together these were three
successive stages in the return from “Falsehood and Semblance” to “Truth and Reality.”

Browning’s play presents Pym as one of Carlyle’s heroes, the individual who bodies forth the new spirit of the age, but his focus of the play is more on Strafford and the tragedy of a soul which is tethered to a defunct symbol that no longer embodies the truth of the age. Browning depicts Strafford’s dedication to the king as an inversion of teleological development, and the Biblical imagery that suffuses the play points to the fact that Strafford continues to worship what in the modern age can only be a false idol.

Strafford recognizes that he is being subsumed by the force of history. Thus when Strafford is betrayed by the king and sentenced to death, he expresses a willingness to die. Yet at the very moment of his death Strafford has a sudden vision of the pain and destruction that will bring
about the new symbols that embody the ideas of spirit. Foreseeing the horrors of the Civil War, he cries: “I, that am to die, / What must I see! ’tis here—all here! My God, / Let me but gasp out, in one word of fire, / How Thou wilt plague him, satiating Hell! / What? England that you help,
become through you / A green and putrefying charnel.” This is for Browning the tragic aspect of the dialectical progress of history: progress is only rendered through conflict, and in its self-destruction and self-renewal, spirit sacrifices individuals to the greater purpose of history.

We see this in Pym’s response to his old friend’s prophetic vison. He declares coldly, “England,— I am thine own! Dost thou exact / That service? I obey thee to the end.” It is Pym’s conviction that the will of England is made manifest in his being and therefore he is compelled to subordinate personal connections. This highlights in the drama the tragic space between the
individual and the collective good. Clearly Pym is one of Browning’s great heroes, as we see in “Charles Avison,” but his position as a hero renders him far less human than Strafford, and when Stafford cries in the last line of the play: “O God, I shall die first—I shall die first” (l. 360), we feel the tragedy of one whose life is sacrificed for the future. May must have been a disappointing month for Browning; Strafford only ran for four nights and many critics declared it to be a disastrous debut. Sadly, Browning never found a receptive audience for his intellectual
dramas, but his experience writing these dramas inevitably shaped the dramatic poetry
for which he is remembered today.

We hope you will be able to join us for the annual luncheon and for Timothy Donnelly’s
exciting talk to close out the season.

Timothy Donnelly Presented “Thirty-Four Observations on ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’” for the New York Browning Society at The National Arts Club Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at our Annual May Luncheon.

“Words of Love” – Bob McNeil, Poet -Wednesday, April 10 2019

PDF: Browning Society April Newsletter 2019

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

Meeting Wednesday, April 10 2019
Time 1:00– 2:00PM
Bob McNeil, “Words of Love”

by Laura Clarke

In anticipation of Bob McNeil’s talk “Words of Love,” I want in this month’s newsletter to take a closer look at Browning’s first letter to Elizabeth Barrett. It is the letter that began one of the most renowned literary love stories of all time, and it also provides an interesting insight into the Romantic poetic persona that Browning wanted to present to his future wife. The letter also
foregrounds some of the key themes that Browning explores in his poetry:

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,—and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,—whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me—for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration—perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter!— but nothing comes of it all—so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew .. oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at top and bottom, and shut up and put away .. and the book called a “Flora,” besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought—but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too.

Robert Browning begins his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett by declaring a love so deep and sincere that it goes quite beyond the ordinary. Browning concedes that it is not a typical letter of praise because he cannot offer Elizabeth constructive feedback about her poetry as a fellow poet or as a critic, since he has perceived the totality of her poetry through feeling that ‘rises altogether.’ Since to break that feeling down into its constituent parts through analysis would be
to lose its organic or natural power, he can only do justice to her ‘great living poetry’ by
asserting the totality of his love, rather than by giving reasons for his appreciation.

Browning constructs a metaphor to convey the difference between knowing and feeling,
comparing a flower desiccated and trapped between the pages of a book to a flower
flourishing in nature, blooming from the growth of its plant and falling to the ground to contribute to the plant’s grown with its own decay. For Browning, to know something is to give ‘a proper account’ of it, and this knowledge is thus only as deep as its details; whereas to feel something is to be overcome with the inherent truth or genius of that thing, only expressible ‘with all my heart.’

This comparison between feeling and knowledge or analysis is indeed an enduring theme throughout Browning’s poetry. When the force of a person’s feelings triumphs over their analytical faculties, they can bypass an analysis of its parts and open themselves to a perception of the organic whole of a work of art in all its intended vitality.

Browning ends the letter by disclosing to her that he had once before had the chance to
meet her in person:

Mr Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?”—then he went
were too unwell—and now it is years ago—and I feel as at some untoward passage
in my travels—as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel or
crypt, .. only a screen to push and I might have entered—but there was some slight .. so
it now seems .. slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut,
and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be.

With this image of the crypt or chapel, Browning depicts Elizabeth as the object of
his reverence and worship, and hints at an almost spiritual calling to see her, just as in
the trope of the heroic quest. Although his journey was thwarted, he declares that
reading Elizabeth’s poetry allowed him to experience this mystical union with her. He
ends the letter with an affirmation of the force of her poetry and his commitment to
her and to her art:

Well, these Poems were to be—and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel
myself
           Yours ever faithfully,
           Robert Browning.

We hope you can join us to learn more about Robert and Elizabeth’s famous love story.

Bob McNeil recites “Annabel Lee”

A Window View to Who We are by Bob McNeil

Bob McNeil Presents “Words of Love” for the New York Browning Society @ The National Arts Club 15 Gramercy Park South Wednesday, April 10, 2019

“Elizabeth’s Rivals: Women and their Mirrors” – Robert Kramer, Society Vice-President – Wednesday, March 13, 2019

PDF: Browning Society March Newsletter 2019

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

Monthly Meeting 1:00– 2:00PM
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Robert Kramer, “Elizabeth’s Rivals:
Women and their Mirrors”

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us for Robert Kramer’s talk this month, “Elizabeth’s Rivals: Women and their Mirrors.” Considering Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s popularity and influence,
Kramer’s talk will explore several poems by women authors on the theme of the mirror and the reflection in the mirror, including poems by Christina Rossetti, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, Sylvia Plath, and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.

Elizabeth’s influence on women poets has been profound and wide reaching. Indeed, in her own time, Elizabeth was a much more popular poet than her husband, Robert Browning. Although Elizabeth also experimented with a variety of dramatic forms in her poetry, her self-expressive lyrical poems were extremely popular considering the vogue for romantic and
sentimental ballads and lyrics in the nineteenth century.

In their early courtship, Browning praised his future wife for her ability to express herself in her lyrics, something he had turned away from in his own work. Browning exclaimed to Elizabeth in a letter:

“you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first
time—you speak out, you,— I only make men & women speak,—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me: but I am going to try.”

In turn, Elizabeth encouraged him to be more self-expressive in his poetry:

“I do not think that, with all that music in you, only your own personality should be
dumb, nor that having thought so much & deeply about life & its ends, you should not teach what you have learnt, in the directest & most impressive way, the mask thrown off however moist with the breath. And it is not, I believe, by the dramatic medium, that poets teach most
impressively.”

It is perhaps the fact that Browning positioned himself as an “objective” poet that appealed less to Victorian readers, but for him this was an important philosophical stance. Browning tried to explain this position to Elizabeth in his poem “One Word More,” which he conceived of as an epilogue to his collection of dramatic monologues Men and Women. In this poem, Browning explains that his inner feelings, the ineffable nature of his love, cannot be perfectly expressed, in much the same way that any transcendent truth cannot be perfectly articulated. However, he suggests that this inner transcendent reality can be embodied in symbols. As the expression of the infinite in the finite, symbols can indirectly communicate the transcendent truths of the soul.

In “One Word More,” Browning acknowledges Elizabeth’s wish to see more self-expression in his poetry, and at first it appears he will try when he addresses her in his own voice: “Let me speak this once in my true person.” However, Browning quickly concedes the ultimate futility of this
endeavor: “Where my heart lies, let my brain lie also! / Poor the speech; be how I speak for all things.” Although Browning admits here the impossibility of fully expressing his divine love for his wife, he calls her attention to another mode of communication:
“Yet a semblance of resource avails us— / Shade so finely touched, love’s sense must seize it.” This resource is for Browning the symbol.

Browning reminds Elizabeth that she saw him “gather men and women” and “enter each and all, and use their service, / Speak from every mouth, —the speech, a poem,” and he asks her to see them as symbols. He exclaims, however, that it takes “love’s sense”—the feelings that intuit the soul—to recognize them as such. Therefore, he asks Elizabeth, and by implication the reader, to
look at his dramatic monologues “lovingly,” through the exalted sense of love that perceives truth, as well as “nearly,” to see how they embody the feelings of soul that he cannot express in language.

We hope you can join us for Robert Kramer’s exciting talk.

 

Xavier High School and Gramercy Arts High School Poetry Reading – Wednesday, February 13, 2019

PDF: Browning Society February Newsletter 2019

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

Monthly Meeting 1:00– 2:00PM
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Xavier High School and Gramercy
Arts High School Poetry Reading

by Laura Clarke

This month the Browning Society of New York is pleased to present the original poetry of students from Xavier High School and Gramercy Arts High School inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is always a pleasure to see a new generation engaging with the Brownings’ ideas and bringing their insights into our own day. This leads me in this
month’s newsletter to think about Browning as a young man and how he interacted with his own literary idols. As we know, the poet that sparked the young Browning’s poetic ambition was the radical Romantic poet Percy Shelley, whose poems he had happened upon one day when perusing a box of second-hand books. Browning was entirely enthralled by Shelley, and for some time, to his mother’s despair, he followed Shelley by renouncing Christianity and
becoming a vegan. Browning would regain his faith in God (and his enjoyment of meat), but the fact that he kept a flower from Shelley’s grave his whole life tells us much about his continued devotion to Shelley.

Even though Browning escaped from under Shelley’s spell, he continued to define himself in relation to his former idol’s poetry. In his 1851 “Essay on Shelley” Browning famously characterized Shelley as the archetypal subjective poet who seeks to embody what he perceives, not in relation to broader humanity but rather in relation to “the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth.” He aspires therefore to express “not what man sees, but what God sees—the Ideas of Plato, seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand.” In contrast, the objective poet, who shares the same heightened vision of the subjective poet, seeks “to reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the human heart and brain) with an immediate reference, in every case, to the common eye
and apprehension of his fellow me, assumed capable of receiving of profiting by this reproduction.” In appealing to “the aggregate human mind” rather than expressing the depths of the individual soul, the objective poet “chooses to deal with the doings of men.” For Browning, Shelley embodied a transcendent idealism and an exulted spiritual poetic vision. Browning, then, turns to the figure of Shelley in his poetry in order to define his own poetic identity in opposition to this notion of the inspired poet-prophet. This is not because Browning does not believe in eternal truths that he sees as embodied in Shelley and his poetry, but
because he preferred to explore in his dramatic poetry the difficulties faced by the individual soul in realizing these ideals in the complexities of the real world.

Browning explores this transition in his first published poem, Pauline: The Fragment of a
Confession, which is widely believed to be one of Browning’s most overtly autobiographical poems. The poet-narrator voices Browning’s youthful passion for Shelley and reflects upon why it is he had to move away from Shelley to forge his own path. The problem that Shelley poses to the young Browning is expressed by the poetnarrator when he bares his soul to his lover,
Pauline. When the poet-narrator describes the journey he has taken from his first intimations of poetic aspiration to his mature poetic stance, he explains that Shelley’s poetry set him the impossible task: “To disentangle, gather sense from song: / Since, song-inwoven, lurked there words which seemed / A key to a new world, the muttering / Of angels, something yet
unguessed by man.” Shelley’s song transports the young poet to spiritual truths, but the challenge for the poet-narrator, and for Browning, is whether he can ultimately embody the ideal forms that he follows in Shelley’s bewitching song. The poet-narrator is anguished when he faces the real world and finds that no ideal can ever be fully realized, and this precipitates a dark period of disillusion and despair. The more mature poet comes out of this period of darkness, declaring: “I aim not even to catch a tone / Of harmonies he [Shelley] called
profusely up.” However, although Browning turns away from Shelley’s transcendent poetry to the necessarily imperfect world of “men in action,” this is not a rejection of Shelley’s idealism. The poet-narrator confesses that Shelley’s song can still be heard: “A melody some wondrous singer sings, / Which, though it haunt men oft in the still eve, / They dream not to essay; yet it no less / But more is honoured” (ll. 222–225). Rather than renouncing Shelley, Browning makes his poetry an abiding symbol for the transcendent truths that cannot be fully expressed in language, which belongs to conceptual thought, but can be apprehended through the poetic imagination.

We hope you can join us to celebrate these inspired young poetic voices.

Performance of Dear Miss Barrett – Thursday, January 17, 2019

PDF: Browning Society January Newsletter 2019

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

Monthly Meeting * 1:00– 3:00PM
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Performance of Dear Miss Barrett

by Laura Clarke

The Browning Society of New York is excited to invite members and guests to a performance of selected songs from the musical Dear Miss Barrett. For this month’s newsletter, I asked composer and music professor Michael Kurek to discuss the genesis of Dear Miss Barrett and what inspired him to write a musical adaptation of the Brownings’ famous love story.

I must confess at the outset that I am a latecomer to the Brownings, beyond the few poems one reads in school. Finding them took a bit of a convoluted path. By profession, I am a classical composer and had never written for the theater. My classical works have been played by
symphony orchestras and chamber groups on five continents, won the top annual award in composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and been number one on the Billboard classical chart. In 2010 I married Crystal Kurek, who happened to be a Browning fan, as well as a very wonderful local theatrical performer (and who will play EBB at our reading in
January). In the last five years, she has performed in twenty musicals in theaters in the greater Nashville area, including the lead roles of Mary Poppins (in Mary Poppins) twice, Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), Maria (West Side Story), Truly Scrumptious (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Fantine (Les
Miserables), and others.

Crystal was the one who suggested the Brownings to me as the subject of a potential musical, should I ever be persuaded to try writing one, hint, hint. It so happens that my classical music is known for being neoromantic and melodic, and on more than one occasion people had suggested to me that some of my instrumental melodies were crying out to be sung with words. One evening at our home, Crystal hosted a social gathering of several women, all leading Nashville theater performers, and I thought this might be a good test audience. As they were about to leave, I asked them if they might kindly step into my composing studio and take a listen to something, and they graciously agreed. I put on a symphonic recording of the slow movement of my Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which had been performed several times
nationwide. I proceeded to sing along with the melody for them my slightly modified words to EBB’s “How Do I Love Thee?” which fit the tune hand in glove. My back was to these women, because I was facing the score on my computer screen, and when I turned around, I saw them all in an emotional state; they absolutely loved it. Then I knew I was on to something. “How
Do I Love You?” became the first song of my show to be written, and in all, six of the
twenty-four songs in the show borrowed melodies from my previous classical works.
The rest are new.

As a professor of music at Vanderbilt University, I had done a good amount of published academic prose writing about music over the years and critiqued the writing in many student term papers, so I decided to take a crack at writing the book for a Browning show myself. Then I would show it to lots of theatrical writers and directors for their advice and critique. This I
did, producing, thanks to their good comments, several revisions. I had obtained a first edition of all of Elizabeth’s and Robert’s letters to each other, from which I drew both dialog and lyrics, and I read and studied a few Browning biographies, including Dared and Done (1995) by Julia
Markus. It was a task to decide what scenes, in such a limited time span, would give an
audience a few “snapshots,” or at least a sense of the Brownings, while having to painfully omit so many things one would wish to have, were it a comprehensive biographical treatment – not the least of which was Flush, the dog! I will ask forgiveness in advance of the NYBS members if I have, of necessity, neglected something dear to them. But just think, if people can only discover the Brownings through my show, many will go on to learn much more about them and their works, later.

I chose to put the focus of my book on the love story rather than on Elizabeth’s conflict with Papa, as had been done in the play and movie versions of The Brownings of Wimpole Street. There are still two big songs for Papa, but we will not be doing those among our selections for the NYBS. For additional interest, I created an original, parallel story with a modern-day couple,
Sarah and Henry, with Sarah as a huge fan of EBB. I believe her character is important, both for comic relief and as an effective bridge and advocate for the Brownings to present-day young people. The show therefore jumps back and forth across time, including some numbers where characters sing simultaneously across time, unaware of each other, but with similar concerns. When they are alone in their own time, though, the modern characters generally sing in a more
popular musical theater style, while the historic characters sing in a more classical, yet tuneful style, highlighting the time contrast. This creates something of a hybrid genre between popular Broadway theater and light opera, which could be problematic in some ways but, I believe, ultimately of real interest to reviewers, in itself. From Sondheim to Les Miserables, finding some
such bridge or hybrid has been under discussion. Rather than to find a merger of styles in every song, though, I keep the Broadway and classical styles mostly distinct, in separate songs, but present them side by side in the same show, justified by the switches in time between present and past.

Needless to say, in the process of working on this, though a latecomer, I have caught my wife’s enthusiasm for the Brownings and strongly believe in a mission to perpetuate their works and legacy to new generations, which I hope this show will help to do, and I am deeply grateful to the New York Browning Society for their interest.

We do hope that you will be able to join us for this exciting event. Please note that the performance will be held on Thursday, the 17th of January, rather than our usual Wednesday meeting.

To Live in A Dream – Song from “Dear Miss Barrett” – National Arts Club NYC 01/17/2019
A Reading of Selected Scenes from Dear Miss Barrett by Michael Kurek

Rare Books and Tea NY – Song from “Dear Miss Barrett” – National Arts Club NYC 01/17/2019

Lets Work Something Out – Song from “Dear Miss Barrett” – National Arts Club NYC 01/17/2019

Annual Holiday Poetry Reading – Wednesday, December 12, 2018

PDF: Browning Society December Newsletter 2018

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

Monthly Meeting, 1:00 PM
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Annual Holiday Poetry Reading

by Laura Clarke

Every year in December, the New York Browning Society welcomes its members and visitors to share with each other a favorite quote from the poetry of Robert Browning or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the spirit of this festive celebration, I would like to place a central tenet of Browning’s philosophy in the context of the Victorian idea of Christmas.

Interestingly, before the early nineteenth century, Christmas was not a widely celebrated holiday in England. The biggest Winter holiday was the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, on January 6th, and Easter was the most important holiday on the Liturgical Calendar. Christmas was not a popular holiday because the Puritans had disapproved of a celebration that was aligned with a Pagan Winter festival; furthermore, since the Catholic worship of saints’ days was banned during the Reformation, the link between St. Nicholas and Christmas implicated this holiday in contested theological debates. In Germany, however, the sacredness of Christmas was still emphasized by the very instigator of the Protestant Reformation himself, Martin Luther.

In his 1530 Christmas Sermon, Luther emphasized the importance of honoring Christmas as a celebration of God’s divine love, agape, which is embodied in the birth of Jesus. Thus in Protestant Germany, St. Nicholas was replaced with the Christ Child, das Christkindl, whose gifts reflected the gift of love from God that is Christ. This emphasis on divine love and incarnation,
rather than on Easter and atonement, ushered in a new symbolic focus on children.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s popular A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (Die Weinachtsfeier: Ein Gesprach), published in 1806, and E.T.A Hoffman’s Nutcracker and Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig), published in 1816, reinvigorated Protestantism in the early nineteenth century and defined the holiday afresh as an inward experience centered in
the family. It is Schleiermacher’s conviction that Christmas makes everyone a child again; that is, it elicits a feeling that heightens our perception of the religious idea that is embodied in Jesus. Each speaker in Schleiermacher’s dialogue reveals the significance of Christmas to lie in an inward spiritual idea rather than in a celebration that is anchored in the literal and external
historical narrative of the Nativity, or even in a Church service. Thus for Schleiermacher the idea of God that is embodied in Christ can be apprehended through the love of a mother for her child, through spiritual feelings, or through music.

The German Romantic idea of Christmas, as a spiritual experience embodied in family, was introduced to England through Prince Albert, who studied with August Wilhelm Schlegel at the University of Bonn. In 1848 the Illustrated News published a drawing of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas with their children around an adorned Christmas tree, which served to solidify Christmas as a new sacred national celebration: the German Christmas
tree became a key component of this new holiday; German Christmas carols were translated into English by Catherine Winkworth, including Luther’s own Christmas songs, and became once again a focal point of English celebrations; and of course, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
would cement the new symbolic significance of Christmas in the Victorian imagination.

Christmas for the Victorians is a holiday of love, and Browning, we might say, is a poet of love. Browning’s idea of love is derived from Plato and from the Christian concept of love of which John speaks in his First Epistle—the concept that God is love and that to love is to know the divine. This for Schleiermacher was the essence of Christmas.

Browning was not a strictly orthodox religious thinker, believing along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning that the spiritual truths of religion are not known through theological doctrines but inwardly through feelings; likewise, they both believed that it was not possible to apprehend spiritual realities through the logic of the intellect but only through imagination and love. In
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, Browning’s speaker takes the reader on an imaginary journey on Christmas eve to a dissenting chapel in London, a Catholic church in Rome, and to a university lecture in Göttingen. The speaker criticizes aspects of all three religious positions, but, more
importantly, he apprehends the transcendent through the human expression of love—a
love and faith that is shared by all three celebrations on Christmas Eve.

We hope that you will be able to join us on December 12th for our holiday celebration.

“To the Dark Tower: Childe Roland, C.S. Lewis, and The Gunslinger” – James Kepple, Society President – Wednesday, November 14, 2018

PDF: Browning Society November Newsletter 2018

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

Monthly Meeting, 1:00 PM
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
“To the Dark Tower: Childe Roland,
C.S. Lewis, and The Gunslinger”
– James Kepple, Society President

by Laura Clarke

James Kepple will talk this month about Browning’s enigmatic poem “Childe Roland
to the Dark Tower Came,” a dark vision of the knight’s quest that came to Browning in
an eerie dream. The meaning of this elusive poem has perplexed many readers, and while
I will leave its subtleties for our President to explore, I want to consider in this month’s
newsletter what significance the Middle Ages had for Browning. Why did he set the
psychological dreamscape of Childe Roland in the Middle Ages? How does the medieval
inform the modern for Browning? As we will see, Browning saw something in the
Middle Ages that he believed explained the essence of the modern condition.

It is well known that the Victorians were fascinated with the idea of the Middle Ages,
as seen in Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, the paintings of the PreRaphaelites, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and the Gothic Revival, to mention a few examples. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, Browning did not privilege medieval subject matter, undoubtedly agreeing withthis proclamation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh:

Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,–this live,
throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates,
aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,

Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles. Browning preferred to grapple with modern
questions, and even in his works that are about medieval subjects, such as Sordello
and The Return of the Druses, he tends to explore the inner lives of complex individual figures, placing them in the context of historical phenomena, rather than offering imaginative enderings of mythic and legendary tales. But while Browning did not turn as often to the medieval topics that preoccupied his contemporaries, the idea of the Middle Ages was in fact crucial for his concept of the modern age. To understand the connection that Browning made between the medieval and the modern, we must turn to his theory of history, which was a theory of history
popularized in England by the many English translations of lectures given in Germany by
the brothers literary and critics, August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel.

In their influential lectures on literature and history, the Schlegel brothers argued that
history was demarcated between Paganism and Christianity. The crucial distinction that
the Schlegel brothers made between the classical and the Christian paradigms was grounded in their concept of subjectivity; they believed that the classical human invested soul in the material world so that soul was seen as external to the self, whereas Christianity turned humanity inward to contemplate the transcendence of the soul. They saw the flowering of courtly love as the first embodiment of the modern spirit: women were held as a symbol of divine love, and the medieval code of chivalry dictated external action on the basis of the intuitions of the soul. The Schlegel brothers saw their own age as a continuation of this inward turn. They believed that the external world was a symbol of an inward spiritual reality, just as humanity was the
imperfect embodiment of the divine idea.

Browning turns to this idea in his poem “Old Pictures in Florence.” In the speaker’s defense of early Christian painters, he makes a comparison between the classical and the modern worlds that is derived from the Schlegel brothers. The speaker concedes that while classical art perfected the beauty of form, as seen in their sculptures, in focusing on the soul, the modern artist can never perfectly embody the inward life. Yet the speaker, in speaking for humanity at
large, realizes that classical art is only perfect in the context of the finite, whereas the modern is only imperfect in the context of the infinite. This leads the speaker to voice an important facet of Browning’s poetic theory:

On which I conclude, that the early painters,
To cries of “Greek Art and what more wish
you?”–
Replied, “To become now self-acquainters,
“And paint man man, whatever the issue!
“Make new hopes shine through the flesh they
fray,
“New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters:
“To bring the invisible full into play!
“Let the visible go to the dogs–what matters?”

Browning, like the Schlegel brothers, viewed his own contemporary moment as the continuation of the Middle Ages, seeing all speech and action as the attempt to
realize the inward life. This for Browning was the very opposite of utilitarianism,
which considered the worth of action in the world based upon the calculation of external
causes and effects. Browning, therefore, sought to trace actions back to the internal
motivations that we might not normally perceive. He delights in tracing the twists
and turns of the soul as individuals make choices and take action at critical moments
in their lives. As Browning explained in the preface to his drama Strafford, his aim was
to reveal “action in character, rather than character in action.”

Browning did not always feel the need to turn to medieval subjects to explore the
complex vicissitudes of character, seeing the modern condition as a continuation of the
turn inward to soul that began in the Middle Ages. Childe Roland is unique in that he
compresses the medieval and the modern in a vision that has haunted writers ever since.
James Kepple’s talk, “To the Dark Tower: Childe Roland, C.S. Lewis, and The Gunslinger” will examine the impact of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” From its influences to its influence, “Childe Roland” is truly a poem that resonates in abundance. Its roots are
formed from a Scottish Ballad and Shakespeare’s King Lear, out of which Browning crafts a treacherous road, leaving a map that leads three adventurers towards the ultimate destination. From the historic past, to the unknown future, the Dark Tower has guided and led our hero Childe Roland, and authors C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, down various paths grounded in Browning’s Epic Poem. Let’s trace their routes together, onward, to the Dark Tower.

I will be in touch soon with updates about our new website, and plan ahead for our
festive winter, as our yearly Browning Celebration is coming soon, on Wednesday
December 12th! All members are invited to share their favorite Browning poems and
holiday cheer!  Also coming soon is a very special performance of “Dear Miss Barrett,” a
musical on the Brownings, written by Michael Kurek. Please note that this performance will be held on a new date,THURSDAY JAN 17th at 1pm.

To the Dark Tower: Childe Roland, C.S. Lewis, and The Gunslinger James Kepple, Society President – The New York Browning Society The National Arts Club 15 Gramercy Park South Wednesday, November 14, 2018
(WARNING AUDIO QUALITY IS LESS THAN DESIRABLE)

“The Brownings in Tuscanyshire” – Tom d’Edigio, Poet – Wednesday, October 10, 2018

PDF: Browning Society October Newsletter 2018

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

Monthly Meeting:
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
The Brownings in Tuscanyshire
Tom d’Edigio – Poet

by Laura Clarke

When I met our president James Kepple over lunch to discuss my new position as
the Corresponding Secretary, he handed me an innocuous looking cardboard box.
To my great delight, I found inside a treasure trove of documents relating to the rich
past of the New York Browning Society. Among the documents there were programs that
detailed plans for ambitious study classes as well as the minutes from meetings dating
back to the 1920s. I spent a wonderful afternoon reading through this eclectic
collection of materials, but I was particularly struck by the published minutes
from the December meeting of 1942, held at the Waldorf Astoria, in which Grace Hazard
Conkling, a professor of poetry at Smith College, gave a talk on Browning entitled
“The Responsibility of the Poet.” This responsibility was certainly a concern for
Browning in the nineteenth century, just as it was for Professor Conkling at the time of
the Second World War.

For my first newsletter and as an opening to this season’s program of talks and events, it
seemed fitting to ponder: what interested people about Browning in the past?
What interests us about Browning now? What were the goals of the Browning
society when it began? How has it evolved, and what new directions will it take in the
future? When reading the minutes for Professor Conkling’s talk, I could not help
but linger on a paragraph in which she spoke of Browning’s enduring modernity. I
quote this section in full because it speaks to the importance of Browning today and to
the continuation of our society, especially at a time when the humanities are seen to be
have less relevance for our contemporary issues and needs:

When planning a course at Smith College, to serve as a sort of connection between the older poetry and modern verse, given a choice between Tennyson and Browning, Mrs. Conkling unhesitatingly chose Browning. For, she said, Browning scarcely seems to belong in the nineteenth century. He seems of the moment. He has the modern approach—the indirect, the colloquial. The flicker and flash of his irony; the way in which his interest in people takes in both the evil and the
good; the fact that he doesn’t moralize or preach but lets people speak for themselves—if they are condemned, it is out of their own mouths; the fearless way in which he tells the truth, no matter how
unpleasant—all this is modern. Mrs. Conkling expressed the wish that Browning could be back here to “do” a few people right now. What a study he would make of Hitler!

Professor Conkling’s assessment holds true today, for Browning still has much to say to
us. In looking back at Browning, he can help us to think about our present moment and to
envision the future. Indeed, Browning believed this to be the role of the poet. Browning exclaimed in his famous “Essay on Shelley” that when “the world is found to be subsisting wholly on the shadow of a reality, on sentiments diluted from passions, on the tradition of a fact, the convention of a moral, the straw of last year’s harvest” there is a need for the poet to “replace this intellectual rumination of food swallowed long ago, by a supply of the fresh and living swathe.” This requires a poet to interpret the present in light of the past and to fashion the forms of the future, which is something Browning admired in Percy Shelley, writing in “Popularity”: “My poet holds the future fast, / Accepts the coming ages’ duty, / Their present for this past.”

Our President, as both a poet and a lover of Browning, has fused the creative and the
critical to shape the new direction of the society. The Browning Society’s annual poetry competition, held in over one hundred and twenty schools, has introduced young people to Browning’s work, ensured his inclusion in the high school curriculum, and incited a passion for poetry in the young adults who are our future civilians and leaders. In order to continue this goal, the Browning Society is striving to make itself more accessible to a younger generation of members, and we hope to expand our reach in the future by offering additional evening meetings.

Browning scholarship continues to attest to Browning’s striking modernity. Hédi A.Jaouad, who has previously presented his work to the Browning Society of New York, has recently published a groundbreaking new book, Browning on Arabia: A Movable East, with Palgrave Macmillan. As we grapple with the legacy of nineteenth-century politics on the Middle East, Jaouad’s book is a timely reminder of Browning’s progressive views. Below I excerpt the abstract for this engaging new study, which can be purchased on Amazon or through the Palgrave website.

Browning Upon Arabia charts Robert Browning’s early and enduring engagement with the East, particularly the Arab East. This book highlights the complexities of Browning’s poetry, revealing Browning’s resistance to triumphalist and imperialist forms of Orientalism generated by many
nineteenth-century British and European literary and scholarly portrayals of the East. Hédi A. Jaouad argues that Browning extensively researched the literature, history, philosophy, and culture of the East to produce poetry that is sensitive to its Eastern resources and devoted to confirming the interrelation of Northern and Eastern knowledge in pursuit of a new form of 
transcendental humanism.

We are fortunate to have Tom d’Egidio, a noted poet, as the speaker for our October meeting, where he will address another fascinating facet of Browning’s life and work. D’Egidio, who is currently working on a memoir of 80s Downtown Manhattan called “Basquiat Requiem,” will explore the Brownings’ relationship to Florence, in a talk that raises complex issues of identity,
politics, and history. Please find the below the abstract for this exciting presentation:

In 1846 Elizabeth and Robert Browning eloped to Italy, spending most of the time until Elizabeth’s 1861 death living in Florence. Elizabeth had been a lifelong Italophile who had written poems in Italian while still in England. Yet during all their Florentine years they essentially had no Italian friends, living exclusively within the English colony wryly referred to by some, as Tuscanyshire. Although they were generally in accord with the ongoing struggle for Italian unification, their greatest interest, especially on Robert’s part, was in Italy’s past. They were both highly taken by the Italian literature and art of yesteryear, at the precise moment when the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt was in Italy formulating for the first time the concept of what we now refer to as the Renaissance, a period whose artists and princes fascinated Robert to the point of utterly transforming his poetry. In going to live in Italy, Robert was following the example of his hero Shelley whom he otherwise resembled neither as poet nor in personality. Whereas Shelley struck those who knew him as the personification of Renaissance individuality, Browning’s surprisingly banal conventionality led his friend Henry James to portray him as a doppelganger straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. What were the complex reasons the Brownings had for going to Italy and what was the effect on their poetry of living there? What did Robert Browning in particular find in Italy that enabled him to become a great poet?
What was really going on in Tuscanyshire?

We look forward to seeing you at the October meeting and to an exciting new season. Please look out for our November newsletter to learn more about James Browning Kepple’s discussion of Browning’s mysterious poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”