Browning hated literary criticism. He dropped out of the newly founded London University after only two terms, and was infamous for excoriating critics who relied on dictionaries and encyclopedias to interpret his work. In a review of a new collection of Browning’s marginalia, Daniel Karlin reminds us of the distaste Browning had for scholarly analysis by exhuming a letter the poet wrote to his friend Mrs. Fitzgerald in 1883 about his poem ‘Jochanan Hakkadosh’:
“You begin by asking of a friend ‘Who Jochanan was’: why, nobody … the poem tells you who he was, what he was, where he lived, and why he was about to die: what more do you want? … all the other stories are told at just as much length as is requisite for the purpose, and years of study of dictionaries and the like would make the student learned enough in another direction but not one bit more in the limited direction of the poem itself. I say all this because you imagine that with more learning you would ‘understand’ more about my poetry — and as if you would somewhere find it already written — only waiting to be translated into English and my verses: whereas I should consider such a use of learning to be absolutely contemptible: for poetry, if it is to deserve the name, ought to create—or reanimate something— not merely reproduce raw fact taken from somebody else’s book.”
As we move further and further away from Browning’s time it has become harder not to bring a critical apparatus – or at the very least an army of footnotes — to the reading of his work. But it is worth keeping in mind the poet’s dedication to the word alone, or else we too may fall into what he calls the “sad trick the real admirers have of admiring at the wrong place—enough to make an apostle swear”.
Daniel Karlin’s review of The Complete Works of Robert Browning, Ashby Bland Crowder and Allan C. Dooley, editors, appears in the November 1st issue of the TLS.
Below is The Connell Guide to The Poetry of Robert Browning: