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When Robert Browning Found His Feet

A discussion of a mediating influence between Byron and Browning


Did Isaac Nathan Provide a Channel of Influence Between Byron and Robert Browning?

It is perhaps one of those quirks of literary history that the same man who prevailed on Lord Byron to write Hebrew Melodies (1815) was later to become the music tutor of a great Victorian poet, Robert Browning. Isaac Nathan, the son of the then cantor of the Canterbury synagogue suggested to Lord Byron that he write a number of lyrics to the accompaniment of certain Jewish melodies purportedly dating from the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is difficult to imagine that Nathan, never one given to false modesty, did not recall in glowing terms his former association with Byron to impress his pupil, then aged thirteen or fourteen. If, as one has good reason to suppose, young Browning practised his singing on some of the poems in Hebrew Melodies, Byron?s poetry might well have provided him with a powerful impulse to write his own verses. If that was the case, why did Browning pay almost no tribute to Byron as a source of inspiration although he as a young man spoke and wrote with effusive praise about the genius of Shelley?

At least in one passage of literary criticism we may find a hint pointing to Byron?s possible influence on Browning?s poetry. In the second section entitled ?Byronic Lyrics for David?s Harp? of his monograph Byron?s Hebrew Melodies, Thomas L. Ashton refers to ?Herod?s Lament to Mariamne? as the precursor of [Robert Browning?s] ?Porphyria?s Lover,?.(1) Thus, if only by way of a passing reference, a connection is discerned between Byron and Robert Browning, who published what later became known as ?Porphyria?s Lover? in 1836. Together with another poem, later entitled ?Johannes Agricola in Meditation? ?Porphyria?s Lover? shared the title of ?Madhouse Cells? I and II.

The absence of any admission by Browning of a debt to Byron?s influence might at first suggest that there was none, but we have at least one good reason for not jumping to this conclusion. Experiencing what Harold Bloom describes as an ?anxiety of influence?, (2) Browning obliterated almost all traces of his Juvenilia work Incondita, and the only two poems to survive the poet?s destructive hand ?The First-born of Egypt? and ?The Dance of Death? betray a strongly Byronic tone, as I hope to demonstrate in the ensuing paragraph.

The two surviving poems, which reveal Browning?s early almost morbid obsession with death and the death of the young in particular, contain echoes of lines and word patterns found in Byron?s ?The Destruction of Semnacherib?. This, like ?The First-born of Egypt? is based on themes and narratives in the Bible in which the Angel of Death appears as a central motif. In both these poems the colors of gold and purple repeatedly suggest the vainglorious aspirations of oriental despots before being thwarted by the intervention of the Lord of Hosts. In themselves, this evidence and the probability that Browning was strongly influenced by Byron?s verse in his first period of artistic experimentation could well be dismissed as matters of mere ?academic? interest unless pertinent arguments can be adduced to support the proposition that Byron?s early encounter with Byron?s verse through the mediation of Isaac Nathan lent form and direction to indwelling propensities that should in time pervade Browning?s entire poetic work. I argue that this was indeed the case for the reasons stated in the following paragraphs.

I begin by drawing attention to three entwined motifs in Hebrew Melodies, which I term for the sake of convenience: Hebraism, the psychology of anguish and music. (3) In ?My Soul Is Dark?, a dramatic monologue in which Saul implores the minstrel David to play his harp and so free him from a mood of deep depression, all these strands come together, for here music reveals its therapeutic power in assuaging the evil spirit that befell the first king of Israel. In Browning?s second version of ?Saul?, in Men and Women, the music produced by David?s harp leads to an act of spiritual apprehension that transcends the power of song and music altogether. Music leads the aspiring human spirit beyond, or rather higher, than a reality described by words, an idea implied by the term ?a psalm of ascent?. Very much the same notion comes to the fore in line 52 in ?Abt Vogler? ? ?that out three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star?. Even in so ?trivial? a poem as ?The Pied Piper of Hamelin? the transcending powers of music are also implied by the fact that this poem?s most lyrical passage demonstrates the effect the Piper?s music had on the lame child who witnessed its sound yet remained unable to follow the Piper to a `promised? land.

Some poems in Hebrew Melodies present the point of view of those traumatised by deep mental anguish. Herod and Jephtha are haunted by their remorse at having caused the death of either a beloved wife or a beloved daughter. The psychological plight of these victims of mental affliction finds a parallel in Browning?s poetry in ?Porphyria?s Lover? and ?My Last Duchess?. The theme of the Jewish exile from their spiritual homeland is a strong element in Hebrew Melodies as it is in a number of Browning?s poems that include ?Holy-Cross Day?, ?Rabbi Ben Ezra? and even ?Pisgah Sights I / II? depicting the deep sorrow of Moses at the end of his life, when aware that he may only behold the Promised Land in his life?s final vision without enjoying the privilege of entering that land in person.

The presentation of a traumatised or erratic point of view concerns poetic form as well as subject matter. Byron pioneered the dramatic monologue, a genre combining the confessional element of intensely lyrical poetry with the objectivity of a dramatic characterization. Browning developed, and arguably perfected, this style of monologue in such poems as ?My Last Duchess?, ?Rabbi Ben Ezra? and ?Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister?.

That music is the great reconciler aesthetically as well as spiritually and psychologically is suggested by the very title of Hebrew Melodies. The inclusion of a poem such as ?She Walks in Beauty? can hardly be justified in terms of its obvious relevance to biblical or Hebrew themes. Byron defended its inclusion by asserting that it was in keeping with the overriding spirit of the Melodies ? i.e. through an association of feelings as experienced by those subject to the effects of great music. Similarly, in Browning?s poetry the general title Bells and Pomegranates, which from 1841 until 1846 served as the heading of a seemingly odd array of poems lacking a recognizable common theme, suggests much the same assimilative power of association and its affinity to music. (4)

It may be more than a mere coincidence that Byron, Nathan and Browning themselves yielded to the wandering impulse so clearly reflected in their poetry and music. All left England never to return. Byron voiced his farewell to his homeland in the celebrated words he ascribed to Childe Harold as he departed from Albion?s shores. Browning vacillated between his periods of residence in England and Italy, where he spent his happy married years after his wife?s romantic elopement and release from virtual captivity under the authority of her tyrannical Victorian father. After his wife?s death Browning returned to England, but, as fate would have it, he died in Venice surrounded by the works of art and architecture that had so greatly fascinated him. Nathan left England for the Antipodes and made a significant contribution to the establishment a distinct national tradition of music in Australia. As artists, all three men, in their various ways, identified themselves with people?s and nations that were gaining a new awareness of their cultural heritage and were sooner or later to assert their political sovereignty, whether we speak of Greece with regard to Byron, Italy with regard to Browning and Australia, and perhaps even Israel, in the case of Nathan. Until well into the 1860s the poems in Byron?s Hebrew Melodies were sung at concerts and performances to the accompaniment of Nathan?s music and were particularly popular in Jewish circles, strengthening nascent hopes for a return to the land of the Bible.


1) Thomas L. Ashton, Byron?s Hebrew Melodies, Austin, 1972

2) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. New York, 1975.

3) Judith Berlin-Lieberman, Robert Browning and Hebraism, (Diss. Zurich; Jerusalem: Ariel Press, 1934).

4) ?Bells and Pomegranates? alludes to the garment worn by the chief priest when entering the Holy of Holies. To the hem of this garment were attached golden bells and ornaments representing pomegranates, which the Rabbis took to imply that pleasure and singing were essential elements in divine ministry.and poetic inspiration. (See:Browning?s letter to Elizabeth Barratt of October 18, 1845).

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