I’ve been reading Browning for the last two or three years–but only here and there, a little at a time. He’s like strong drink: in the right amount, he sweetens and deepens experience; in the wrong amount–too much–he overwhelms experience, making it too easy to lose oneself in the various dramatis personae on offer. But what has been on my mind lately is the systemic and instructive similarity between what Browning is doing in offering his dramatis personae and what Kierkegaard is doing in offering his psuedonyms.
Browning plots his course in various places, Book III of Sordello, in the Epilogue to Dramatis Personae, in intrducing The Ring and the Book and in Fifine at the Fair. He aims to be a “Maker-see”, not just a poet who tells you what he sees but rather a poet who causes the reader to see:
See it for yourselves,
This man’s act, changeable because alive!
He takes it that we simply do not possess the requisite moral imagination–call it a negative capability–for really understanding the lives and the aliveness of others:
Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought;
Man, like a glass ball with a spark a-top,Out of the magic fire that lurks inside,
Shows one tint at a time to take the eye:
Which, let a finger touch the silent sleep,
Shifted a hair’s-breadth shoots you dark for bright,
Suffuses bright with dark, and baffles so
Your sentence absolute for shine or shade.
Human beings are not always in their Sunday best or Saturday worst. Browning wants us to catch a glimpse of the “bustle of a man’s work-time”, to see what the man or woman sees on a middling Monday, to see how hard it is to categorize when we attempt to realize the concrete spiritual drama of an individual’s life.
Once set such orbes, –white styled, black stigmatized, —
A-rolling, see them once on the other side
Your good men and your bad men every one
From Guido Franceschini to Guy Faux,
Oft would you rub your eyes and change your names.
…The inward work and worth
Of any mind, what other mind may judge
Save God who only knows the thing He made,
The veritable service He exacts?
Browning believes his work will be of value for so long as the soul of a person remains precious to us. Now Kierkegaard works a slightly different angle, but it is importantly related in its technique. He too wants to be a Maker-see. He wants us to confront the concrete spiritual drama of the lives of others. But the lives he dramatizes are lives we are meant to see as objects of comparison with our own–they are meant to lead us to self-confrontation. No doubt Browning’s dramatic monologues can and in fact often do the same, but that does not seem to be their primary purpose. We might say that whereas Browning wants us to awaken to the mystery of others, to the littleness of our understanding of others; Kierkegaard wants us to awaken to the mystery of ourselves, to the littleness of our understanding of ourselves. I suspect, though, that the two tasks are inextricably related, and that their being so is one reason why often Browning seems like Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard like Browning.
I plan to pursue this comparison across a few post in the next week or two.