Browning and the Ekphrastic Encounter

by Lawrence J. Starzyk
Browning and the Ekphrastic Encounter
Lawrence J. Starzyk
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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Sl<l.58 (1998)

ISSS 0039-9657

Browning and the Ekphrastic


Critical theory regarding verbal representations of visual representations continues to emphasize the paragonal aspect of literary ekphrasis.' The artifact resulting from the contest between the sister arts of poetry and painting attests to both a representational friction-the "difficulte' vaincue" occurring when particular artistic media are required to function beyond their inherent limitations2-and an engendered hostility-the antagonism between word, defined as male, and image, identified as female.3 The long history of ekphrasis from Simonides' time to the present recounts the obstetric attempts of the verbal to deliver message from the muted visual.~cknowledging the understandable reluctance of the chauvinistic word to empower the subservient visual, recent criticism persists in analyzing ekphrasis disjunctively as a contest dominated by one or the other of these sisterly antagonists.

Such critical assessment derives primarily from the continued dominance of mimesis in discussions of ekphrasis in general and of individual manifestations of ekphrasis in particular. Superi- ority in the contest is accorded to whichever medium produces the closest resemblance, correspondence with, or trace of the object depicted. M. H. Abrams's brilliant analysis of the late- eighteenth-century shift in critical orientation from mimesis to

L.awrence 1. Starzyk, Professor of English, Kent State University, has published numerous scholarly articles on ~fctorian poetry and poetics. He has recently completed a monograph on poetry and painting, "lfMine Had Been the Painter'c Hand": The Indeterminate in Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Painting, scheduled for publication this Autumn.

expressivism unfortunately focuses on an apparent consequence of that shift, namely the demotion of painting from poetry's sister to its distant cousin." Roy Park's efforts to correct the unwitting misconception affords an insight, to this day neglected, into the dialectical rather than the disjunctive rela- tionship of the sister arts in romantic theory. Citing William Hazlitt's assertion that painting and poetry are both "'revela- tion[~]of the workings of the mind within . . . a language point- ing to something beyond, and full of this ultimate import,"' Park redefines the essence of the relationship between the sister arts as necessitating the "involution" or embodiment of "spiritual" and "universal" (the special province of the word) in the "mate- rial" or particular (the unique province of painting) ."

Aesthetic developments in nineteenth-century English criti- cism tend to emphasize this involution. James Frederick Ferrier, for example, argues in "The Crisis of Modern Speculation" that "every objective, when construed to the intellect, is found to have a subjective clinging to it, and forming one with it." Perception, he concludes, "always is, and must be, the object with the addi- tion of oneself-object plus subject,-thing, or thought, mecum."' The aesthetic implication of such a position is that verisimilitude and mimesis are no longer the central concerns of art. Of para- mount importance is the dynamic by which the demands of perceived reality are balanced against the demands of the perceiver. Imitation attempts to save the appearances of things by predicating some immutable force on the other side of phenomena from the perceiver. Mimesis becomes unfeasible, however, in a dialectical system in which involution and the attendant uncertainty resulting from it become the measures of discourse between the self and the not-self. The modern land- scape, whether delineated in word or image, reflects the conse- quences. The "stability, definiteness, and luminousness" characteristic of classical and medieval scenes give way in modern landscape, according to John Ruskin (i2lodern Painters, vol. 3), to "what it is impossible to arrest, and difficult to ~omprehend."~ Verisimilitude is no longer the aesthetic standard; the indefinite and "uncertain" are-the ability of artistic media, singly or in concert, to delineate not the appearance of things, but "the appearance of objects, as seen through" clouds and the self.g

What I propose in this essay is an examination of represen- tative works by Robert Browning in which he employs ekphra- sis to dramatize the dialectical relation between seeing and being seen. The results of this examination will confirm the paragonal nature of the ekphrastic encounter, the contest between word and image, the simultaneous struggle to empower what is mute and to enforce the image's silence. It will show also how the beholder becomes, through projection, the object of the gaze. Instead of arguing some resolution or closure to the contest, however, I propose showing how Browning's dialectically oriented struggle between word and image generates the indef- inite "other" that is the subject of virtually all he wrote.

Browning's earliest published poetic effort, Pauline, illustrates the involution of subjective and objective forces Ferrier defines as the characteristic feature of modern thought." This most intensely self-conscious of all Victorian poems begins with the speaker's address to his beloved:

Pauline, mine own, bend o'er me-thy soft breast Shall pant to mine-bend o'er me-thy sweet eyes, And loosened hair and breathing lips, and arms Drawing me to thee-these build up a screen To shut me in with thee, and from all fear, So that I might unlock the sleepless brood Of fancies from my soul, their lurking-place."

Like the duke after him, Browning's speaker immediately asserts ownership of the object before him: "That's my Pauline [last Duchess]" ("My Last Duchess," line 1). The crass materialism and chauvinism of the duke may inform Pauline's lover's affir- mation of property rights. More likely as motive, however, is an egocentrism verging on paranoia. Fear of exposure prompts the speaker's transformation of a beautiful woman into an alter ego who breathes in sync with him and who provides him with refuge from a hostile universe. However, such a rationale-the female as protective other-conflicts with the other defined motive for appropriation. Poised above his reclining body, her hair encircling his face, Pauline becomes a screen that serves both to protect her lover and to disclose as objectified image whatever is projected from his soul. The companionableness and equivalency insured by Pauline as frame permits the illu- sion that projected images of his soul correspond to the brood of fancies that is his soul. The only threat to the sleeping brood lurking darkly in his psyche comes from forces allowed to pene- trate the screened environment. Secure, for the moment, against such threats, the speaker's mind is free to "dissipate itself' (line 29), to "convert / All objects to [its] use" (lines 316-7). Having abandoned God, whom he "saw . . . everywhere," the speaker must now "trace" in "signs / And omens" his own soul rather than the divinity he has rejected (lines 301-2) .

Appropriation becomes the requisite modus operandi of the solipsist, and pathetic fallacy becomes his defining mode of speech and thought. The discrete elements of his universe become framing devices, voided of independent significance, that now derive their meaning from the solipsistic signifier pred- icating himself in all that is not self.

The terms of the speaker's relationship with Pauline reveal the fatality of his position relative to the woman: the security purchased through appropriation is continually threatened by the possibility-and indeed the inevitability-that framing devices can neither exhaust nor contain the inexhaustible char- acter of the speaker. The impossibility of arresting "soul's evanes- cent moodsM-which is "Art's endeavorn-("Parleying with Charles Avison," 8.13, 14 ), calls into question the solipsistic enterprise-"The Life in me abolished the death of things" (The Ring and the Book, 1.514). "Only this is sure-the sight is other" ("One Word More," line 191).

The curse of failing "to blend [the soul] with each external charm" ("Sordello," 1.507), however, becomes salvific and liber- ating once the solipsist recognizes that his prodigal sowing of self amid all that is not self "soon imprisons past escape / The votary framed to love and to submit" to the "idol's empery" ("Sordello," 1.512-3, 515). The romantic passion for Coleridgean correspondence and unity, which acknowledges outward forms' passion and life only as predicates of the soul's force, unwittingly generates a universe peopled with figures that simultaneously imprison their progenitor, deny their origins in the self, and assume identities independent of that self. Understood in terms of visual representations framed by Browning's verbal repre- sentations, this complex etiology defines the ekphrastic event as obstetric, not in the sense that word delivers the meaning inher- ent in the mute image, but in the sense that the word recognizes the visualized object it initially appropriated as pregnant with no significance.

To be aestheticized, an object must be dispossessed of its util- ity.'* But to initiate the artistic enterprise, the object must first be possessed, appropriated by the solipsistic divine, informed with a vitality that transforms mute idols into icons to be worshipped.

The aestheticization consequent upon such appropriation, however, transforms artifact not into likeness of the egoistic self but into a memorial of what has been lost, the artistic self disas- sociated from its creation. What "the minute makes immortal, / Proves, perchance, but mortal in the minute" ("One Word More," lines 76-7). Browning's wife, like Pauline, has watched him "[elnter each and all, and use their service, / Speak from every mouth,-the speech a poem" ("One Word More," lines 141-2), only to have him confess the je ne sais quoi of his efforts. "Let me speak this once in my true person" (Letter to EBB, 26 February 1845, p. 14'7), Browning writes to Elizabeth Barrett, as if the images and framed figures of Men and Women were now no more than mute idols betraying a creator himself left mute by his attempts at speaking authentically.

The speaker of Pauline, however, cannot count on Browning's faith that his beloved will treat the attempt at speaking authen- tically as disclosure of the genuine self. However sincere his attempts at going "[tlhrough all conjuncture" and refusing to be content "with all the change of / One frame" (Pauline, lines '701-3), the speaker in the end recognizes three important consequences of the process: (1) "Myself stands out more hideously7' (line 647), (2) "I myself have furnished its first prey" [line 6521, and (3) "I supply the chasm / 'Twixt what I am and all I fain would be" [lines 676-7'1. Instead of finding "cover," in other words, in the "screen," the speaker is hideously exposed. More precisely, he unwittingly exposes himself as prey to forces of his own making. The ultimate threat to identity, however, is not so much the idols or images of a self bankrupt of self, but the "chasm" symbolizing the disassociation of what he is and what he would be.

William Wordsworth expressed this "irony of modern life," "that self-consciousness equals self-alienation,"13 when he observed in The Prelude,

so wide appears The vacancy between me and those days Which yet have such self-presence in my mind That, musing on them, often do I seem Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself And of some other Being.14

The mind's limitation in seeing unity, recognizing instead only temporal distinctions, is nevertheless compensated for in Wordsworth's world by faith in "the one presence and the life / Of the great ~hole."'~

Duality of consciousnesses "seem [s] ." The reality of essential coalescence is symbolized in Wordsworth's description of the visionary process in terms of watery reflections:

Behold the universal imagery Inverted, all its sun-bright features touched As with the varnish, and the gloss of dreams; Dreamlike the blending also of the whole Harmonious landscape; all along the shore The boundary lost, the line invisible That parts the image from reality; And the clear hills, as high as they ascend Heavenward, so piercing deep the lake below.'"

The boundary in Browning is neither invisible nor imagined: it is terrifjingly real. In that "chasm" where identity is attempted, art occurs. The mimetic orientation, which defined the overlaid tracings of images of reality as semblances essentially coexistent along the line invisible, becomes impossible in a world charac- terized by the unbridgeable chasm between formerly united elements like image and reality, self and not-self, creator and creation. What transpires in that chasm is the Paterian diver- gence of things on their way, the divorcing of semblances from each other, the denying of equivalency between the self as creator and the creation he solipsistically fashions. That locus is atemporal; it marks continual vanishings, a realm in which the chronology suggested by firsts and lasts is rendered illusory by cyclical repetition attesting to essential differences.

Browning's "Pictor Ignotus," though technically not an ekphrastic poem, nevertheless illustrates this process of vanish- ings; images once informed with power are transformed into mute, dispossessed idols. The circularity verging on the terrify- ing perning into some destructive gyre emerges immediately as the unknown artist imagines what he could have been but is not. Like Wordsworth's speaker in "Elegiac Stanzas," Browning's pictor rationalizes as comforting truth what remains (namely his "monotonous" paintings [line 58]), instead of courageously "seconding [his] soul" and so realizing what he "could have painted" (lines 7, 1). "If mine had been the painter's hand," Wordsworth speculates as he views the rugged pile of Peele Castle and its idealized form reflected in the "glassy sea."" That his vocation involves words rather than visual images only intensifies the discontinuity informing Wordsworth's and Brown- ing's poems. The sense of deprivation pervading both poems, however, has less to do with the physical loss through the death of a brother or the dying pictures ("so, die my pictures" ["Pictor Ignotus," line 691) that "moulder on the damp wall's travertine" ("Pictor Ignotus," line 67). Both poems, paradoxically, memo- rialize something never realized. For Wordsworth, the "truth" of Sir George Beaumont's painting involves its betrayal of the notion that the "Form7' or idea eternally securing equivalency between the immutable and its mutable or imperfect represen- tation constitutes a "fond illusion" (lines 31, 4, and 29). Noth- ing squares in such a world; nothing bears out what it portends. For the unknown painter, his mechanically rendered repeti- tions of Virgins, Babes, and Saints represent repeated denials of the "truth made visible in man" ("Pictor Ignotus," lines 60, 12). His identity as "ignotus" derives from the terror "[olf going- I, in each new picture,-forth" (line 26). In such a world, the human passion for immortality-"thus to live, I and my picture" forever "linked" (line 36)-is denied by the faces of connoisseurs who "press on me and judge me" and by the transformation of aesthetic objects as testaments of eternal life into "garniture and household-stuff' (lines 47, 51). ls

The discontinuous-the "~nmating"~~-worldborn of such aesthetic disappointment and personal failure of courage gener- ates an inhospitable climate for the self thus hideously exposed as prey of its own devising. Excommunicated from the sanctu- ary of its own self-worship, the soul is condemned either to the commonality of the masses (as Alfred Lord Tennyson's empalaced poetic anima voluntarily is, as Matthew Arnold's Empedocles deterministically is prior to ascending Etna) or to going as "love's slave" with an other "[olver the unshaped images which lie / Within my mind's cave" (Pauline, lines 948,969-70). Revisiting under these circumstances the self-generated "chasm" between what the pictor is and what he "fain would be" makes transparently obvious both the fatality to art and artist of living among "[plartakers of . . . daily pettiness" as well as the inef- fectuality of returning with an other to a place fundamentally defined in terms of the poetic self's godlike isolation (line 54).

Framed between the pictor's statements of what he could have been-an ethereal fire vying with the outbursts of the stars-and of what he has become-a creature of the quotid- ian-is the striking picture occasioning the ekphrastic encounter. Seeking a visual analog for the "frightful thought" that allows the monotonous to triumph over the ideal (line 40), the pictor imagines himself witnessing "the revels through a door / Of some strange house of idols at its rites!" (lines 42-3). This powerful image acknowledges the iconophobic awareness of the divinized self desecrated by its own adoration and trans- formed into one more of those false gods of whom the psalmist wrote, they "have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not."20 What "scare [s] " (line 42) Browning's unknown artist is that the price of refusing to be what "he could" have been is his presiding at the ultimate iconoclastic act, the reduction of self to a mere object of utility, the "second[er]" not of his own "soul" but of the "monotonous" patterns of someone else's devising. The pictor's self-adoration is prompted, as is Paracelsus's and Pauline's narrator's, by the awareness that "some temple seemed / My soul . . .only God is gone" (lines 469-71), and the consequent necessity of

Wast[ing] not thy gifts

In profitless waiting for the gods' descent,

But have some idol of thine own to dress

With their array.

("Paracelsus," 1.523-6)

The distant perspective the pictor's image calls to mind resem- bles so many of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings in which a figure is drawn, his back to the audience, looking out a window onto some landscape or seascape. The figure deliberately is drawn as apart from the perspective instead of being a part of the view. The overwhelming sense of discontinuity between painterly promise and actual unmemorable achievement pales in comparison with the sense of divorce evident in an image registering the consciousness of contrast between the self and its selves. If publicly being reduced to "garniture and household- stuff' constitutes the price of anonymity, of being seen as a mass-produced object of utility that merchants traffic in and householders use to cover their walls, then the private cost of repressing or denying uniqueness to render endlessly and eter- nally the same utilitarian objects is existence in the "chasm," from which perspective the self sees itself as other. The ekphras- tic event discloses not only the antimimetic nature of an enter- prise in which the semblances produced by the pictor symbolize his refusal to second his soul, but also what Tilottama Rajan calls the "aesthetics of corrective illusion,"21 in which the dishonest self of the pictor and the authentic self he might have seconded betray his creations as phantasms or idols, vested in his array but mute, deaf, and blind to his being.

The theatricality of Browning's duke similarly functions to distract his audience from the bankruptcy of a character bent on appropriating objects to himself in an effort to assert or establish his identity. He has, by his own admission, long ago become a name. And this impresario's virtuoso performance before the count's envoy leads us to believe that securing his name against the devaluation that errant smiles or insufficiently dowered brides may bring is his paramount concern.

My argument here, however, is that the duke is, first and foremost, an unabashed iconoclast, an artist like the pictor, only unapologetic about acting out his inadequacies before an audience predisposed by their position as spectators and by the maestro's own charm to regard his performance as theatrical illusion.22 The duke revels in the strange house of his posses- sions, his empalaced museum where he worships idols dressed out in his array. Bronze, canvas and paint, wet plaster-the raw materials from which emerge Neptune taming a sea horse, a woman's face illumined by a spot of joy, and a fresco of saints and sinners-become aestheticized when dispossessed of utility. The iconoclast's principal interest in destroying sculpted saints and painted portraits is the wealth or power attained by depriv- ing the artifact of spiritual power in order to redeem the mate- rial worth of what remains.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the duke's perfor- mance is that it adheres to classical norms by beginning in medias res. The opening line of the poem, reinforced by the title, stresses accumulated property: "That's my last duchess." The duke's monologue, however, does not begin with this assertion, but, as one of his closing comments indicates, with his avowal that the count's daughter, not the duchess, "as I avowed / At starting, is my object" (lines 52-3). These avowals frame the duchess's portrait, giving it a centrality that momentarily distracts the envoy-and the reader-from recognizing that what the duke has done to the duchess is about to be repeated (more successfully, the duke hopes) with the next "object" of his attention, the count's daughter.

The duke's witlessness in eventually disclosing such an inten- tion, or his brilliance in arguing to the envoy the terms of his next marital engagement,2%owever, is not the point. Making something or someone his "object" is the issue. Like Browning's other solipsists, the duke requires correlatives of his own being to establish his name. Like Paracelsus and the speaker in Pauline, the duke must dissipate himself as an act of aggrandizement but also as a means of identification. To do so requires the solipsist to empty an other of its authentic being, as would an iconoclast, and then to transport his self into the vacated object. In finan- cial terms, the broken or vacated object is reconstituted as currency. "Re-issue looks and words from the old mint" and "Re-coin thyself' might aptly be the duke's imperatives in the absence of his former duchess ("Any Wife to Any Husband," lines 88, 91).

What is most disturbing to the duke's financial sense is loss without recompense. The duchess's portrait may preserve for the iconophile the "spot / Ofjoy" she too easily shared with others when alive (lines 14-5, 21), but the image memorializes for the iconophobe the bankruptcy that occurs when an object of util- ity is aestheticized. The duke cuckolds himself: he commissions Fra Pandolf to paint the duchess and thus to render her mute, but he apparently does so without warning the painter against calling forth the lady's spot ofjoy. Decommissioning the artifact with a veil, the duke deprives it of value and thus removes it from the economic trafficking of connoisseurs. Worse, the portrait represents the ultimate repudiation of his power: Pandolf has unwittingly undermined the duke's command that all smiles cease by artistically rendering that smile for eternity. In isomor- phically repeating the spot of joy, the portrait reinforces the discontinuity between a self idolizing itself in an object and the self betrayed and desecrated by its possession. The painted form, the duke discovers, fails to take anything she possessed, to recompense anything he seems to have lost. The aestheticiz- ing of an object of questionable utility compounds the bank- ruptcy of Browning's investor. As he stands before the portrait watching "[mly own self sell my self, my hand attach / Its warrant to the very thefts from me" ("Any Wife to Any Husband," lines 80-l), the duke appears outmaneuvered by the very commodity he's attempted to control. Like an inveterate arbi- trager, the duke rationalizes his loss by calculating that trading in a new "object" will be more profitable. The self-exposure of his failure, the awareness that he has become his own prey, finds expression in the duchess's portrait. In the ekphrastic moment when the duchess looks out at the man from whom she stole so much, the duke nevertheless appears buoyed by the prospect of reveling in another "object" to be broken and remade in his image and likeness. The spiritual paralysis occa- sioned by the pictor's fear of seconding his self never remotely enters the duke's soul. Whatever form his idol assumes-whether useful exemplum for a prospective bride, artifact seconding Pandolf's self, a theft from self attesting to betrayal-the duke attempts to console himself with the knowledge that the portrait represents "my" duchess.

The irony of ownership without full appropriation of the object, however, is the import of an iconic disclosure under- mining consolation. So realistically has Pandolf rendered the dead duchess that she stands there "as if she were alive" (line 2). Prior to reminding the envoy that the count's daughter is, as earlier avowed, his real "object," the duke again remarks on the realistic, "[als if aliven(line 47), portrayal of his wife. The perspectival ingress/regress produced by this verbal framing ("as if alive") within a frame ("my object") prevents full contact with the framed portrait. It also intensifies the threatening aspect of what is framed: an object he owns but does not possess.

If the solipsist's goal is to "so appropriate" "what lay owner- less before" and thus enable "something dead . . . to live again" (The Ring and the Book, 1.719, 718, 722), the galvanizing of the inanimate or dead should arouse pride at the accomplishment. But the duke's prospective "resuscitation" of the duchess ( The Ring and the Book, 1.712), instead of lending voice to the mute image and joy to his heart, threatens imminent cessation of speech to a speaker heretofore verbally facile and masterfully articulate. The stammering speech-"how shall I say?" (line 22); the broken syntax and linguistic insecurity-"She thanked men-good! But thanked / Somehow-I know not how" (lines 31-2) ;and the admission of verbal inadequacy-"Even had you skill / In speech-(which I have not)" (lines 35-6)-are selfconsciously acknowledged signs that visual appropriation of his silenced duchess endangers the duke himself with muteness. The silent and atemporal image whose smile perdures eternally despite commands to the contrary seems the "perfect absorptive artifact" for the aggrandizing duke.24 The fact that the spot of joy endures, contrary to his command that all smiles cease, transforms the ekphrastic hope of union with the duchess into ekphrastic fear that the duke may be silenced by his mute wife.25

The duke, however, will not "stoop" to blame or to "lesson" his wayward wife (lines 43, 40). He most certainly will not "stoop" to be quieted. And so it is on to a new "object." Brash as he appears about contemplated transactions with the next duchess, though, the duke remains possessed by and obsessed with what his last duchess symbolizes, the terrifying "chasm / 'Twixt what I am and all I fain would be." The duke's complex verbal fram- ing of the duchess's portrait, like the coulisse-generated vortex of a J. M. W. Turner landscape or seascape, indicates psycho- logical betweenness. Closure is impermissible. Any attempt at resolution ends in the silencing of self. Veiling of the threaten- ing image of the dead duchess at least creates the saving illusion that the duke cannot be seen and thus threatened by what he nevertheless is possessed of.26

The duke's ceremonial entombment of his duchess behind the veil is an uncharacteristic gesture for someone given to theatrically escorting spectators past objects in his museum. The fear of being silenced or even emasculated by the unveiled image may, in part, motivate his ritualistic burial of his wife. More disconcerting than this prospect, I think, is the duke's fear of being seen whenever the duchess is unveiled. Herein resides the betweenness, the psychological indeterminacy, of the duke's situation: to be is to be seen-esse est percipi. The duke requires the duchess's regard to validate his identity as a man with certain marital standards; ironically, such affirmation of his identity undermines the very identity he attempts to convey to the envoy. The epiphanic disclosure during the ekphrastic encounter reveals to a man intent on a new "object" how threatening to the self is the making and breaking of images, the appropriation of, the aestheticizing and de-aestheticizing of objects.

Browning's "'Childe Roland"' engages in a process analo- gous to the duke's confrontation with his duchess. Roland admits near the conclusion of the poem, in fact, that his entire life to this point has been spent "[tlraining for the sight" (line 180). This knightly visionary, however, demonstrates through the course of his narrated journey how flawed his vision is, the long training notwithstanding. His encounter with the "hoary cripple" from whom he seeks direction (line 2),for example, reveals the paranoia coloring his perception of matters. Roland, on the one hand, presumes that the cripple "lie[s] in every word" (line I), seeks to "waylay" and "ensnare" every "victim" approaching his post (line 8); on the other hand, he admits that the path to which the cripple directs him is, "as all agree" (line 14), the tract leading to the dark tower. His complaints about the "penury, inertness and grimace" (line 61) of the natural landscape he traverses quickly become so annoying that Nature, the only other "speaker" in this dramatic monologue, commands him, "See / Or shut your eyes" (lines 62-3). Roland continues his description of the landscape's ignobility for twenty-one more lines before he heeds Nature's directive: "I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart" (line 85).

The interior landscape Roland "sees," however, is as desolate as the exterior. Before describing that wasteland (lines 109-62), Roland juxtaposes "happier sights" of his predecessors in the quest (line 87), like Cuthbert and Giles, against the "part" he is about to "play" (line 88). His misjudgment in calling to mind such knightly paradigms for his continued journey becomes immediately apparent: one has been disgraced, the other found to be a traitor. The only explanation for recalling dishonored predecessors involves his confessed desire to "fail as [the Band]" did (line 41). "Finding failure in [the quest's] scope" (line 24), Roland admits, "seemed best" (line 41). The teleological moti- vation informing Roland's quest amounts to specious reasoning: if the Band failed but remain honored in their successors, then failure to attain the goal is tantamount to success. That is why Roland's opening paranoid assertion, "My first thought was" (line I), appears to lead to an acceptable conclusion as the young knight stands before the tower at poem's end and speaks of "the last of me" (line 200).

From this teleological perspective, Roland's ongoing appro- priation of objects in the physical world, whether viewed with open eyes or from the perspective of eyes turned inward on his heart, bespeaks defeatism that spurs him on to an ignominious end rather than paranoia. His ontological insecurity becomes tolerable only if the objective correlatives he visually appropri- ates do in fact support an ignobility of the self and all that is not self (line 56). The sense of the universe as a hospitable envi- ronment, evidenced by the fact that outward vision squares with inward sight, resolves the absurdity born of the awareness that all is, in Thomas De Quincey's words, "irrelate."27 Everything in Roland's perceived world squares, matches, relates.

That is until he opens his eyes-"For looking up, aware I somehow grew" (line 163)-and sees what he has been training to discover. This line does not prove that Roland now begins to see with the bodily eye. The ambiguous "aware I . . . grew" could simply refer to a clarity of inner vision distinct from the visual perspective-exterior or interior-disclosed in his narra- tive to this point. But awareness, whether new or different, is what Roland calls our attention to.

And that awareness is occasioned by a large "black bird" "brush [ing] " against his "cap" (lines 160, 162) and prompting renewed speculation whether this incident is simply additional evidence that the quest is a "trick" or "a trap" (lines 169, 174). The definition of his ensnared condition as either, however, simply reflects the linguistic uncertainty of someone as yet unable to "solve" or explain this recent development in the quest (line 167). Ultimately the sighting of the tower becomes less significant than the perspective of its ostensible viewer. "Burningly it came upon me all at once," Roland remarks, "This was the place!" (lines 175-6). Not the sight, but the place!

In describing the locus of the tower and of his being at this moment in the quest, Roland talks of being "inside the den" (line 174). He stands, as does the tower, surrounded by two mountains, "hills, like giants at a hunting" (line 190). But Roland has never left his den since turning his eyes inwardly, or, for that matter, since he began marking objects along his exter- nal path to the dark tower. Roland's sudden awareness of a change-he calls himself "Dunce" for not recognizing the obvi- ous sooner (line 178)-involves a location, a perspective, instead of an object. Roland comes to understand that his years spent in "[tlraining for the sight" have as their real end not seeing, but being seen.

Consideration of this "den," or locus of awareness, returns us to the framed confines of Pauline to discover that Roland's stance relative to the rest of his world approximates the speaker's in Pauline. "[S] creen [ed] " by the surrounding hills (Pauline, line 4), protected thereby from external threats, Roland looks out upon the hillsides to see there burningly framed portraits of his predecessors in the quest. Roland senses his indeterminate position: not only are those images hostile to him, their histo- ries fail to square with his. The figures from the Band represent failure in the sight; Roland represents success in coming to the tower.

The discontinuity of these juxtaposed images-the failed Band against the successful Childe-emboldens Roland to reassess his perspective relative to the "trap" or "den" into which he has walked. Browning's Essay on Shelley (December 1851), writ- ten scarcely a month before the 2 January 1852 composition of "'Childe Roland,"' suggests that the young knight exemplifies the subjective poet who "does not paint pictures and hang them on the walls, but rather carries them on the retina of his own eyes" (p. 1009).28 Such a poet is a "seer" (the subjective poet) rather than a "fashioner" (the objective poet); his vision is not something distinct from his personality, but "the very radiance and aroma of his personality, projected from it but not sepa- rated" (p. 1009). The ekphrastic encounter, in this context, renders images formerly regarded as inimical to the self as anal- ogous selves, visually exogenous to the self yet essentially indis- tinguishable from it.

The poem, however, seems to contradict such correspon- dence when, in describing the brown squat turret, it identifies the tower as having no "counterpart/ In the whole world" (lines 183-4). The tower, it turns out, is a diversion, a "mocking elf' intended to help the shipman navigate dangers but which points out "the unseen shelf / He strikes on, only when the timbers start" (lines 184-6). Roland's teleological motivation explains why he has missed the point: the tower is not his goal. Being seen, not seeing, is the ostensible end. When Roland acknowl- edges in the concluding stanza that he is seen, he makes it clear that the stasis or closure associated with that temporal act- being seen in time-merely initiates anew what is an ongoing process or quest. "Not see?" (line 187) "Not hear?" (line 193). His questions acknowledge the fallacy of his previous dealings with empirical reality and register the insight the portraits ranged along the hillsides compel him to accept and contest:

There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture!

(lines 199-201)

The statement acknowledges two critical insights: (1) that the world is a psychological construct self-consciously critiqued and amended; (2) this making and breaking involves, as does all of significance in Browning's world, the "Incomplete" (The Ring and the Book, 11.1556). Roland here identifies himself as a "living frame" for pictures of his own devising that simultaneously appear distinct from but not separate from his being. A particular life or quest, viewed by others as a series of discrete histor- ical moments, has no significance independent of the person living those moments. Nor can the series of images or portraits signifying discrete moments in a life be viewed as a chronology of events defined relative to "first" and "last." Roland's account of his "history" begins, as chronologies must, with his "first thought." That chronological account must conclude with his "last" thought. Unless, that is, Roland's narration can be made susceptible to another ordering independent of the chrono- logical. Roland's real fear derives from the awareness that what his predecessors see at the "conclusion" of his account is the "last" of him. His defiant slug-horn challenge signals his rejec- tion of such finality or closure by forcing us, in his trumpet blast, to have the "last" return endlessly upon the "first." The final line of the poem repeats the first line or title. And when we return to the poem's opening, we must, in light of the preceding expe- rience, begin, "My second thought was . . . . "

Roland's defiant act, in these terms, is less a statement of triumph in finding the ostensible object or goal of the quest, less a recapitulation of Browning's tenet that "what's come to perfec- tion perishes" ("Old Pictures in Florence," line 130),and more an acknowledgment that the indeterminate alone is an adequate structural principle of reality. Roland's encounter with the portraits ranged along the hillside summarizes what transpires in the various ekphrastic encounters discussed here: in each case the soul or persona standing out, exposed to the regard of an other and thus its potential prey, attains that indeterminate state in which the self is defined as existing between "what I am and all I fain would be." The paragonal relationship between word and image characterizing these poetic encounters, however, serves less as a contest for supremacy among allied arts, less as an engendered drama in which the male principle (word) simultaneously attempts to render the mute female (image) articulate while preserving her silence, and more as an artistic means of dramatizing a way of structuring existence and reality. Browning's ekphrastic poems underscore the importance of rescuing self from the static enthrallment threatened by idols, images, and portraits, of freeing the self for dynamic growth. Ironically, release in this dialectically ordered system requires entrapment; seeing demands being seen; integrity of identity depends upon the indeterminate state of becoming in the present what one is currently not. In the words from ClCmet Marot that Browning appended as epigraph to Pauline, "Plus ne suis ce que j 'ai CtC / Et ne le s~aurois jamais Ctre."*"


'For the most recent survey of scholarship on the paragonal nature of ekphrasis, see Murray Krieger, "Picture and Word, Space and Tirne: The Exhil- aration-and Exasperation-of Ekphrasis as a Subject," in Ekphrasis: Thr Illusion of the ~Vatural Sign, emblems by Joan Krieger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 1-28.

?Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of I,iterarj Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. xxi and 53.

"W. J. T. Mitchell, "Ekphrasis and the Other," SAQ91, 3 (Summer 1992): 695-719, 705-6. lJames A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum oj Words: The Poetics of Ekphmsisfrom Homer to Ashbe? (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 1-8.

jIn The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), M. H. Abrams writes that "[tlhe use of paint- ing to illuminate the essential character of poetry. . . so widespread in the eigh- teenth century, almost disappears in the major criticism of the romantic period; the comparisons between poetry and painting that survive are casual, or, as in the instance of the mirror, show the canvas reversed in order to image the inner substance of the poet. In place of painting, music becomes the art frequently pointed to as having a profound affinity with poetry" (p. 50).

Qoy Park, "Ut Pictura Poesis: The Nineteenth-Century Aftermath," JAAC 28, 2 (Winter 1969): 155-64, 161.

'James Frederick Ferrier, "The Crisis of Modern Speculation," in Philosophical Works ojthe Late James Frederick Ferrier, vol. 3 (London: Blackwood and Sons, 1888), p. 275. For a fuller discussion of Ferrier's influence on Victorian poetics in general and on Alfred Lord Tennyson's critical theory in particu- lar, see W. David Shaw, The Lucid L'eil: Poetic nuth in the Victorian Age (London: Athlone Press, 1987), pp. 48-53.

XJohn Ruskin, "Modern Painters, " Volume 3, vol. 5 of The Complete Works ofJohn Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Mledderburn, lib, edn. (New York: Long- mans, Green, and Company, 1904), p. 317.

"uskin, pp. 319, 317.

InFor a discussion of the poem in terms of this dialectical tension, see Clyde de L. Ryals, "Pauline," in Becoming Browning: The Poems and Plajs of Robert Browning, 1833-46 (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 9-30.

"For a detailed account ofJohn Stuart Mill's criticism that Pauline revealed an "intense and morbid self-consciousness," see William S. Peterson and Fred

L. Standley, "The J. S. Mill Marginalia in Robert Browning's Pauline A History and Transcription," PBSA 66, 1 (March 1972): 135-70, 145. Browning, Pauline, in The Poetical Works ofRobert Browning (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1895), p. 2, lines 1-7. Further references to Browning's poetry and prose are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

]?For a detailed explanation of the aestheticization of objects, see Ronald Paulson, Breaking and R~making: Aesthetic Practice in England, 1700-1820 (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 14-20, 246-59.

':$Patricia M. Ball, The Central Self: A Studj in Romantic and I/z'ctorian Imagz- nation (London: Athlone Press, 1968), p. 187.

'-'William Wordsworth, The Prelude, in The Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 2.38-43. All further references to WTordsworth's poetry are to this edition.

13Wordsworth, The Prelude, 3.130-1.

16Mlordsworth, "Home at Grasmere," lines 571-9.

17Wordsworth, "Elegiac Stanzas," line 4.

IXFor a discussion of "Pictor Ignotus" in terms of these contrasting states,

see George Bornstein, "The Structure of Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus,"' in Poetic Rurnaking: The Art ofBrowning, Yeats, and Pound (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 30-7, and Herbert F. TuckerJr., Browning's Begin- nings: The Art ofDisclosure (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1980), pp. 165-7 1.

'"n "Isolation. To Marguerite," Arnold complains to Marguerite that "they / Which touch thee are unmating things" ( The Poems ofMatthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth Allott [London: Longmans, 19651, pp. 121-2, lines 31-2).

"'Psalm 11 5 (DV) . "Tilottama Rajan, Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), p. 99.

"I take issue here with W. David Shaw's reading of "My Last Duchess" as a theatrical exhibition of the duke's "ceremonial compulsions" ("Browning's Duke as Theatrical Producer," W 29 [Spring 19661: 18-22, 21).

2"or conflicting views on the duke, see B. R. Jerman, "Browning's Witless Duke," PMIA 72, 3 uune 1957): 488-93, and Thomas J. Assad, "Browning's 'My Last Duchess,"' Tulane Studies inEnglish 10 (1960): 117-28.

"W'endy Steiner, Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and 1,iterature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 82.

2"effernan's reading of "My Last Duchess" interprets the poem in terms of the tension between the iconophilic and iconophobic impulses (pp. 139-45).

%atherine Maxwell emphasizes the duke's ambivalence toward the duchess: "A curtain may be drawn both forwards to open and backwards to screen. Even under the compulsion to disclose, the Duke tries to protect himself from the portrait which unveils him" ("Not the Whole Picture: Brown- ing's 'Unconquerable Shade,"' W&I8,4 [October-December 19921: 322-32, 325).

27Thomas De Quincey, "Suspiria de Profundis: Being a Sequel to the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," in Tales and Prose Phantasies, vol. 13 of The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincq, ed. David Masson (London: A. and C. Black, 1897), pp. 331-69, 347.

2XFor a discussion of the relationship between "'Childe Roland"' and the Essaj on Shellej, see Harold Bloom, ""'Childe Roland,""' in Robert Browning, ed. Bloom, Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), pp. 103-15, 112-3; first published in Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975). For a discussion of the relationship between Brown- ing's Essaj on Shellej and "Pictor Ignotus," see Fred Kaplan, Miracles of Rare Device: The Poet's Sense of Self in Nineteenth-Centurj Poetrj (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 110-5.

'""I am no longer that which I was nor will I ever know how to be again."

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