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

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907
Date Wednesday, November 11, 2020.

Time 1:00– 2:00PM

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

THE POEMS – THE PAINTINGS – The Brownings’ContinentalRivals- Robert Kramer

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; a
special 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 wd 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.