The Poetry of Robert Browning

my last duchess

I wish I had ordered two sets of Robert Browning’s poetry so I could rip the pages out of one set and roll around in them like a villain in a pile of money.

Mmm, Robert Browning. He wrote poetry for the prose lover. His best poems are puzzles with intricate settings, characters and plot twists. In his most famous poem, My Last Duchess, an Italian nobleman talks to a marriage broker. While contemplating a painting of his last wife, he inadvertently reveals his possessive and controlling nature. Or does he do it on purpose to ensure that the marriage broker advises the new wife to never arouse any slight feeling of jealousy in the Duke? I dunno, but I sure enjoy speculating.

I see Browning’s poems as precursors to Modern stream of consciousness novels. He takes readers on brief journeys into the minds of medieval monks, Renaissance painters, and mad lovers. He uses psychological intimacy to tell stories and I love it. Yes, please, I would like to read a monologue by a monk who has been arrested for drunkenness, and all the other dramatic monologues you have for me, Robert. I’ll read them all.

Browning is a unique poet. His wife, Elizabeth Barret Browning, asked him to write from his own point of view. She valued “true” expressions of a poet’s thoughts and personal reactions to the world. But, Robert wasn’t into that. He wrote characters with complex personalities. He envisioned dramatic events and romantic scenery. He imagined psychological responses to places and events he never experienced. You will find no Romantic odes to daffodils among his poems. Instead, he offers twisted love stories; brilliant lives stifled by outward circumstances; humorous and exotic anecdotes.

I really don’t have that much else to tell you about Robert Browning. He’s one of my absolute favorite poets, if not my very favorite. His poetry isn’t exactly easy, but it’s definitely fun. You should read some, you won’t regret it. I feel a little bad that I’m not writing more about him, but my feelings are simple. He’s wonderful! One of the greatest. There’s no one like him.

Here is a partial list of my favorite Robert Browning poems:

  1. Fra Lippo Lippi
  2. My Last Duchess
  3. Andrea del Sarto
  4. Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister
  5. Porphyria’s Lover
  6. In a Gondola
  7. The Statue and the Bust

You might like Robert Browning’s poetry if:

  • you understand what things are good in this world
  • you’re a history nerd
  • you like puzzles

You might not like Robert Browning’s poetry if:

  • you’re foolish

Final Thoughts: All of those poems fill my heart with joy and make me glad to be alive on this earth. Don’t get me wrong, they are mostly tragedies, but tragedies so beautifully executed they make you exult in your existence.

Congratulations! You are a literate human living after Robert Browning wrote poems. You can read them. You can read them right now! Go forth, appreciate the glory of his words! I’m excited for you.

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The Sick, Sad World of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838

I read Oliver Twist as rapidly as I read The Hunger Games. That’s how caught up I was in the plot of Oliver Twist. Dickens creates a web of immoral, malicious schemers around his sweet, innocent protagonist. Oliver is a bright light in a dark, sordid world. I was driven to keep reading by a sense that danger lurked behind every lamppost. I needed to know if Oliver would escape the traps laid for him or be irrevocably lost to a life of crime.

I’ve noticed that morally ambiguous characters with complex, ever-changing personalities are popular in contemporary TV, movies and novels. You won’t find that in Oliver Twist. Oliver is completely good and naïve. Bill Sykes the housebreaker is coarse, self-interested and mean. Each character stays true to a relatively simple set of traits. Which is fine, because this is a plot driven novel and the seedy underbelly of London provides ample space for the characters to interact with each other in complex ways.
The only personage who shows any character development is Nancy, literature’s first tart-with-a-heart. I’m pretty sure about that. Oh, wait. Mary Magdalene? Anyway, Nancy starts to lose her loyalty to her little gang of criminals. Unlike the rest of that gang, she starts to act selflessly. Nancy’s attempts to find a semblance of love and morality in her dark, dysfunctional world are more pitiable even than Oscar’s trials as a beleaguered orphan on the streets of London.

Sykes Kills Nancy

Overall, I loved reading Oliver Twist and I heartily recommend it. I did have two problems with it; one major and one minor. The anti-Semitism in this book hit me like a punch in the gut every 50 pages or so. The character Fagin is depicted as a greedy, cowardly, deceitful, hook-nosed Jew worthy of the utmost scorn. Dickens rarely uses Fagin’s name, but refers to him instead as “the Jew.” Dickens describes Fagin as more of an animal than a man.

Proof:
“The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”

Doesn’t that just turn your stomach? Worthy of the pages of Mein Kampf. When I came to passages like this, I felt like a terrible person for enjoying other parts of this book.

My other, much less disturbing complaint about Oliver Twist is classism. The implicit reason that Oscar is able to stay good and pure throughout his trials and in spite of his exposure to corrupted people like Sykes and Fagin is the genteel blood secretly coursing through his veins. How silly of Dickens to think that a well-born mother can save a child from perdition when the mother died in childbirth and cannot influence the child. Oh well, if there’s one thing the British gentility are good at, it’s thinking well of themselves.

You might like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like your novels to have plot, tension and a sense of urgency.
  • You don’t mind well-worded if long-winded descriptions of setting and characters interspersed with your urgent, tense plot movement.

You might not like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like a lot of character development in your novels.

Final Thoughts: I love Nancy. The fallen woman, forced by poverty into bad company. Her sad, misguided attempts to find affection and worthiness in her dark world will break your heart. In a good way. The way literature should.

The Pickwick Papers: The Lighter Side of Charles Dickens

pickwick

The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens, 1836

Dear readers, I must confess that I am far behind on my blogging. Seven books behind, to be exact. It can be quite difficult to find the time to take photos for each post, especially in winter when daylight is limited. I have a number of posts written in advance that are just waiting for pictures. I truly thought that I had written a post for The Pickwick Papers. . .but I can’t find it. It’s been a while since I read the book. So, here are my thoughts on The Pickwick Papers, as I remember them.

The Pickwick Papers launched Dickens’ career. Everybody in immediately-pre-Victorian England just loved them. However, he went on to write many novels that earned more critical acclaim. So, I probably could have skipped Pickwick and satisfied myself with the 5 other Dicken’s novels on my list, right? Wrong! The Pickwick Papers is an influential novel. Victorian authors read it and referenced it. My heart swells with gratification when I read a reference to an earlier novel and I totally get the reference. Conversely, I get enraged when I don’t know the reference. Look at my reading list! I should know every literary  reference. All of them!

Anyway, I am reading Vanity Fair now. Thackeray has been lambasted for his copious obscure references. In one chapter he briefly alludes to a character from The Pickwick Papers. Instead of being confused and annoyed, I found the reference sweet and touching, because I, like Thackeray, have affection for that character. Also, the sisters in Little Women read The Pickwick Papers and it it’s good enough for Jo March, it’s good enough for me.

I’ve written a lot already and you’re probably still wondering what The Pickwick Papers is about. Samuel Pickwick is a jolly, but distinguished (by his own estimation) old gentleman who leads a gentlemen’s club called “The Pickwick Club.’  He leads a small group of gentlemen around the country on academic expeditions. Knowledge is the stated purpose of their expeditions, but they mostly seem to ride about in carriages, drinking and getting into trouble.

Eventually, Mr. Pickwick hires a cockney manservant, Samuel Weller, who is one of my favorite characters I’ve encountered during this project. He has a quaint way of expressing himself, but is quite down to earth. So, he’s both pragmatic and hilarious. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller have a very Bertie and Jeeves relationship. Pickwick gets into trouble; Sam Weller gets him out of it.

The book is a bit too long, but I really enjoyed it overall. It’s quite lighthearted and entertaining for Dickens who later moved on to more serious subjects than the follies and foibles of self-important English gentlemen.

Here’s a quote for you to appreciate:

‘The gout, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘the gout is a complaint as arises from too much ease and comfort. If ever you’re attacked with the gout, sir, jist you marry a widder as has got a good loud woice, with a decent notion of usin’ it, and you’ll never have the gout agin. It’s a capital prescription, sir. I takes it reg’lar, and I can warrant it to drive away any illness as is caused by too much jollity.’ Having imparted this valuable secret, Mr. Weller drained his glass once more, produced a laboured wink, sighed deeply, and slowly retired.

 

You might like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you like P. G. Wodehouse.
  • you like the British trope of the valet who is wiser than his “betters.”

 

You might not like The Pickwick Papers if:

  • you’re not an Anglophile.
  • you don’t have the attention span for Victorian Literature.

Final Thoughts:

It’s rare and refreshing for a British author to treat a servant character with respect and admiration. Dickens himself in other books can be uncomfortably condescending. I  l liked it. That’s all.

 

White Men Shoot Bear, Indians, Mexicans

Lady Crockett

Lady Crockett

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, David Crockett, 1834 and The Big Bear of Arkansas, T. B. Thorpe, 1836

Today, I bring you two stories of ego-maniacal white men exploiting the riches of North America!  The Big Bear of Arkansas is a short story in which a man entertains his fellow steamboat riders with a tale of hunting bear in Arkansas. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is an autobiography written by Crockett to increase his popularity heading into a presidential campaign. Why did I choose to review these two items of literature together? Because  I figured you only need to hear me rant about wanton, excessive bear slaughter once on this blog.

The Big Bear of Arkansas is a “big fish” story, but about a bear. This short story features a man bragging about the bounteous game and fertile soil of Arkansas. He then describes in detail his hunting of a semi-mystical bear. That’s all there is to it. It has a proto-Mark Twain vibe. The story also contains one of the most sickeningly racist metaphors I have ever heard. I won’t repeat it here, because it’s disgusting.

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett was also disturbingly racist, which I’ll address in a moment. Crockett talks about his wild upbringing in Tennessee. He was the son of a dirt poor farmer, who hired young David out to neighboring farmers and traveling salesmen to help pay off his debts. Crockett describes his misadventures and hardscrabble lifestyle with colorful, folksy colloquialisms—really the only worthwhile element in this narrative.

As a young man, Crockett joined Andrew Jackson’s militia to fight the Creek Indians. If his callous description of the slaughter of Creek warriors doesn’t turn your stomach, this excerpt will:

We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters.

[…] We went back to our Indian town on the next day, when many of the carcasses of the Indians were still to be seen. They looked very awful, for the burning had not entirely consumed them, but given them a very terrible appearance, at least what remained of them. It was, somehow or other, found out that the house had a potatoe cellar under it, and an immediate examination was made, for we were all as hungry as wolves. We found a fine chance of potatoes in it, and hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had a little rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before had run down on them, and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat.

Now, I don’t know if that really happened. But I do know that Davy Crockett chose to include this in his autobiography, so he must have thought this charming detail would win hearts and minds and help him get the presidency.

The rest of the book consists of Crockett bragging about how much smarter he is than his political opponents and how great he is at hunting. He dedicates many pages to describing his bear hunts. He actually boasts that he could shoot so many bear in a day that he had to leave much of the meat to rot.

Crockett’s autobiography consists almost entirely of the egotistical ramblings of an entitled white man.  His argument for why he deserves the presidency boils down to “I am great at slaughtering bear and Indians.” It’s nauseating.

You might like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re really into hunting.

You might not like The Big Bear of Arkansas and A Narrative of the Life of David Crocket if:

  • you’re disgusted by the worldview of settlers who not only felt entitled to shoot everything they saw whether man or beast, but felt that their skill as slaughterers was ennobling.

Final thoughts:

David Crockett was neither noteworthy nor admirable. He represents some of the worst, most destructive American ideals. Ideals that lead to cruelty and oppression. It’s completely ridiculous that we make a hero out of this guy. There are plenty of forgotten Americans who achieved more and lived more commendable lives. He died at the Alamo and he’s very quotable. That’s all.

Listen, it’s good to question the foundation of American values. If you’re on a mission to indulge your bitter skepticism and growing sense of dissatisfaction with the U.S.A., Crockett’s autobiography will help.  Godspeed.

The Mummy: A Steampunk Adventure Story

The Mummy Jane C LoudonThe Mummy, Jane C. Loudon, 1828

I need to borrow a line from one of my favorite poets A. E. Housman. “It is in truth inequity on high” that Jules Verne is considered the father of steampunk, when Jane C. Loudon published The Mummy the same year that Verne was born. The Mummy out steampunks Verne’s entire oeuvre, and no one has even heard of it, not even fervent steampunk enthusiasts.

This book has it all. It’s a neo-Victorian, futuristic, sci-fi, political thriller, romance. A mummy steals a dirigible. A MUMMY STEALS A DIRIGIBLE. That plot element alone gives Loudon all the steampunk and sci-fi cred one can have. But if you need more proof that she’s the mother of the genre, know that steam driven technologies abound in The Mummy, including mechanisms that harness clouds to water crops and odd communication devices.

Like a lot of science fiction, this book is really silly. It takes place in the 22nd Century. Loudon’s ideas of the political climate in the future are hilarious. To summarize: the people revolt against the aristocracy and establish universal education. Once they are educated they feel like they shouldn’t have to do manual labor. With no laborers, there is no food. England is plunged into anarchy and, to escape the turmoil, the people seek out the former aristocrats and beg them to take back their ancestral homes and roles, because with no one to work for, no one will do any work. . . . So they establish a matrilineal monarchy. Now that the lower classes are educated, education is no longer fashionable. So, Loudon’s servant characters speak in unbearably pretentious monologues while the bluebloods speak plain English. Which is pretty funny the first time, but becomes wearisome.

The Mummy Jane C Loudon

The characters have amazing romantic names, including Edmund, Edric, Roderick, Elvira and Rosabella. Elvira and Rosabella engage in political intrigues; both are in line to become Queen. Roderick is the king of Ireland and the world’s most powerful imperial monarch. How hilariously Anglo-centric is that? Edric is essentially Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with reanimating a corpse, he travels to Egypt in an airship with a galvanic battery and reanimates the pharaoh Cheops. Just like good old Victor, Edric’s success causes him to faint, and the mummy runs off. The mummy steals the airship and somehow sails it to England, where he becomes deeply involved in the dispute over the succession. I have no idea why a reanimated Egyptian pharaoh would spend his time on British political intrigues. Interestingly, everyone is afraid of the mummy, because he’s scary looking, but he’s actually a wise, benevolent character.

The book is far too long and has too many characters, but overall it’s a fun romp. I enjoyed it.

Other than prejudice against women, I can’t imagine why The Mummy is not recognized today as a pioneering work of science fiction and the beginning of the steampunk genre.

You might like The Mummy if:

· you like science fiction.

· you like steampunk.

· you don’t mind long books.

You might not like The Mummy if:

· you’re a very serious person who likes tight plots and fast action.

Final thoughts: Anyone interested in steampunk or early science fiction should read this book and give Jane C. Loudon her due.

Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

witch of atlas

The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere

 

Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience