Sunday, August 12, 2012

we shall each meet each

Say for fun that Browning's characters are migrating towards the Prufrock point of view, which is, I cannot explain myself, I cannot understand others, we are all separate, but they still have action, they're not Alfred standing still on the stairs, they still act, they have a kind of faith, or action itself (in Meeting at Night) gives them faith, or faith gives them action, or allows them to have it. The narrator of Fifine charges at the problem of doubt as if he thinks he's going to reach a solution. And does not, but the poem still ends with the optimistic concluding statement, "Love is all and Death is naught," which is the same as, "The soul exists" (more on this in a second) and "Hope exists, hope supersedes doubt."

Prufrck is charging at doubt as well, but this is so that he can describe his failure and redescribe it several times, not working towards Browning's soft positive conclusion but trying to refine his despair and prove it; Browning worries the question of soul, Prufrock worries the question of hopelessness: I'm an irritant, I'm boring, my legs are too thin, I am "an easy tool

Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool"

-- stalls, mourns, won't talk, gets into the past tense and regrets peaches. They don't understand me, they won't understand me, I don't understand them, "That is not it, at all," they'll say, it's too much, I wilt, physically speaking, though my thoughts are active; I can't absolve myself of myself, I try, I will not be forgiven, I dissolve myself through different characters and ideas, I am multiple, I am the Fool, I am really a crab, I am Lazarus; this corse is a cage.

Browning's characters aren't free from despair but they have action, they move, they pursue, the poet getting them over their separation dilemma with the help of a presence he calls the soul. Everyone has a different point of view in Browning, he makes it an ordinary theme, but points of view belong to the material world, they're acquired because no two bodies can exist in the same space at the same time; meanwhile your true self, which is also your soul, can come into very close contact with other souls, and it can transfer the intimacy of itself to others through the eyes, or through hearts "beating each to each," or, in his later poem La Saisiaz (1878), after death, when the poet hopes he will meet once more Miss A. Egerton-Smith, who died in her hotel room while she was on holiday. "The next morning she did not appear, and Browning and his sister waited for her," explained Lilian Whiting, in The Brownings Their Life and Art (1911). "They sat out on the terrace after having morning coffee, expecting to see the 'tall white figure,' and finally Miss Browning went to her room to ask if she were ill, and she lay dead on the floor."

The words "tall white figure" come from the poem.

But, for once, from no far mound
Waved salute a tall white figure. "Has her sleep been so profound?
Foresight, rather, prudent saving strength for day's expenditure!
Ay, the chamber-window's open: out and on the terrace, sure!"

Then Browning the poet rearranges her, the words of the poem are searching for her again in the next verse, slightly refreshed yet essentially the same, the poem restates her, it stares twice, nothing there, puzzlement increases: "No, the terrace showed no figure, tall, white, leaning through the wreaths."

In La Saisiaz it seems Browning believed that the soul contained, or was, the true character or personality-essence of the person, it was her he was going to meet again, Miss Egerton-Smith. If souls existed (which he couldn't prove but hoped for), then there would be recognition and reunion, not of two inhuman postdeath energies (which is another way to envision the soul), but two people. "Grant me (once again) assurance we shall each meet each some day," he wrote.

The soul in his work is only theoretically a sublime substance; he treats it like a human being who happens not to have a body, it is described in human terms, it is addressed as if it still interested in Beethoven and Mozart, it can "Walk -- but with how bold a footstep," its supreme purpose was to go through experiences that are purely material and human ("Soul was born and life allotted: ay, the show of things unfurled / For thy summing-up and judgment"), it is not separated any longer from other souls by flesh and the privacy of brains, a soul can mingle with other souls; this mingling in Browning is a human noun, it is love.

How can a person be a person as we understand people and be also immortal, which is precisely inhuman, I do not know (but this is a consequence of the living trying to find words for unlife, an inbuilt conundrum, perhaps the other way around too, when one soul asks another, "What did you do while you were alive?" -- and the other soul replies with death-appropriate words that we would not recognise as descriptions of living behaviour -- among the living, the horror of the grave is described as the horror of a dark cold sealed hole when the real horror is that you are not in the dark cold sealed hole -- any description of an afterlife is necessarily dishonest, as far apart from life as a written representation of thought is from thought, by which I mean that it's made of a whole different substance), but somehow this refinement is achieved by undescribed mechanics in which Browning has unconscious faith, and this belief in the true, fixed self, existing somewhere, somehow caught in the body during its lifetime, propels the narrator of Meeting at Night across the sea in a boat so that his immortal self can commune with the self of another. Soul in Browning is a practical resource, like a locomotive, or like the taurine in that drink I had a couple of days ago, it gets you going, it's a useful invention, very Victorian. What is it that Prufrock's behaviour betrays or abandons, wonders Browning. Is it his soul?

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