Wednesday, September 24, 2014

That old Romantic poetry trope

Sometimes, but not too often, I read literary criticism related to texts I'm actually reading. For example, I'm reading Robert Browning's epic poem thing The Ring and the Book, and I have trolled around JSTOR to find Truth and "The Ring and the Book:" A Negative View by L. J. Swingle, in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 6, No. 3/4, An Issue Commemorative of the Centennial of the Publication of "The Ring and the Book" (Autumn-Winter, 1968), pp. 259-269.

It's an interesting set of claims about Browning's poem, is this article. I don't know who L. J. Swingle is/was, aside from someone with a lot of Romantic poetry criticism publication credits, and I think a faculty appointment (at least at one time) at the University of Kentucky. Credentials aside, Swingle seems to have made a pretty intelligent reading of The Ring and the Book and makes a pretty good case that Browning's aims in the poem were not epistemological, but were rather ontological. That is, Ring is not (contrary to the great bulk of 20th-century interpretation of the poem) about how truth is subjective, but it is instead about how existence is fleeting and the great strength of art is the ability to bring back to life persons and events that have passed into the shadow world of things forgotten. I accidentally quoted Browning saying that very thing in a prior post about the poem. So being rather than truth is Browning's concern here. The quality of having been real is what matters about his characters, not what they might try to convince us of. Browning has already told us, in Book I, what is true, who is lying and who is not. There is no question of the truth--objective truth it is, too--for the author of the poem. There is no question to be answered at all. Browning is bringing people to life, showing us how life passes and is forgotten, and reminding us that we too, etc. That old Romantic poetry trope, you see?

Do I quote more of the poem to illustrate Swingle's claims, or do I just let you find the article on your own, you imaginary persons who are interested in this argument? Well, I'll just hit "publish" and move on.


  1. You touch upon an intriguing dilemma: do we read criticism of the texts we are reading, or do we allow ourselves the freedom to form our own opinions about those texts? That dilemma still bugs me. There are some days that I wish I never became an English major and teacher; I had to read all that criticism (much of it was crap -- especially beginning with critics writing in the 80s), and now -- when I read familiar texts -- the voices of those critics sneak in at the oddest moments. Ah, to be a naïve reader once again! I could be my own "new critic" and find my own way -- until I yield to temptation and seek out the newer critics.

    1. I had to stop worrying about the purity of my reading experience when I realized it was getting in the way of deciding what to have for dinner. Priorities, man. Priorities.