Alas! Fever subsides for once-celebrated Victorian poets

Browning clubs are few, but rich in enthusiasm


May 02, 2004|By Glen Elsasser | Glen Elsasser,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In a mansion overlooking Gramercy Park, a leafy enclave of frantic Manhattan, a few dozen souls gather regularly to pay tribute to two Victorian dynamos, poets Robert Browning and wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Inside the richly eclectic National Arts Club, members of the New York Browning Society sit raptly as a Princeton professor unravels Virginia Woolf's 1933 biography of Flush, the Brownings' dog.

Professor Maria diBattista explains how Woolf, a leading 20th-century British novelist and critic, used the imaginary musings of the Brownings' King Charles spaniel as a literary device to understand humans better -- and particularly the poets' vanished world.

The Brownings and their world may have vanished, but this society of their devotees, founded in 1907, remains, one of the few left among the many that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Pasadena, Calif., to Jamestown, N.Y.

Society members come from varied backgrounds. Stephen Downey, for example, served as president of the Yeats Drama Society.

Ruth Singer, the society's president, is a sculptor. Corresponding secretary Estelle Blanchette is an opera singer.

Published in timetables

Today Browning societies such as theirs continue to offer programs in Boston, San Francisco and Dallas, but their numbers have noticeably declined since the 1960s.

In the Midwest, Chicago once boasted three Browning organizations. The Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a South Side Unitarian minister and University of Chicago lecturer, launched the first Browning society in 1882. Even before that, though, the Chicago and Alton railroad chose to publish Robert Browning's collected works in its timetables.

Chicago once suffered from a "Browning fever" so intense, according to William Peterson, a University of Maryland professor and Victorian scholar, that booksellers had trouble keeping up with the demand.

Like its surviving counterparts, the New York Browning Society has cast a wide artistic net beyond the majestic poet, whose wife, Elizabeth, won public recognition long before her husband.

In its bylaws, the society declares that its purposes "shall be to study the works of Robert Browning and other poets and writers, to cultivate, promote, foster and develop among its members and others an interest in the highest forms of Literature, Music and Art ... and to work for the intellectual development of its members and others."

The Brownings, though, remain the focus. Robert Browning left behind a complex body of work. Commentators have traced his influence, for example, to the 20th-century poets T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell.

The British critic V.S. Pritchett has pointed out that Browning's masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, which recounts the story of a Roman murder trial, is twice as long as Homer's The Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Mark Twain once commented that he had read every other line of Browning's poetry to a study group without anyone noticing the gaps.

Curiously, Browning enthusiasts in St. Louis formed a club for the sole purpose of studying the Brownings' challenging "Sordello." His verse drama, Pippa Passes, with the memorable lines "God's in his heaven -- All's right with the world!" became the namesake of a small Kentucky college town.

A `second Shakespeare'

Some of his poetry became popular mainstays of the classroom. A century ago, his "Rabbi Ben Ezra" was a standard recitation piece:

"Grow old along with me!/The best of life is yet to be,/The last of life, for which the first was made:/Our times are in His hand/Who saith: `A whole I planned,/Youth shows but half: trust God; see all nor be afraid!"

Stephen Downey, an officer of the New York society, says that Browning, who has been hailed as a "second Shakespeare," continues to fascinate readers as "a surgeon of human character" who in his own words put "soul above and beyond intellect."

Browning, he says, was fascinated by "the conflict between good and evil, obsession and madness" and the inability to fully resolve "the balance between imagination and intellect."

Veteran member Glen Alan Omans, a retired professor at Temple University, stressed that Browning should be read because "a lot happens" in his poems. He singled out the poem "Porphyria's Lover":

"It is a story told by a guy who we gradually realize is pretty crazy. His girlfriend, Porphyria, comes in, and he caresses her a little bit and winds her blond hair around her throat and strangles her. ... In the end he sits all night with the corpse without stirring while `God has not yet said a word!' "

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