Last night I ate dinner at a long table at Emilio’s with a group from the Two-Year College English Association-Midwest’s annual conference. Eight years retired, I was there at the invitation of my old friend and colleague, Jane Wagoner, who was ably running this year’s conference sponsored by my former employer, the City Colleges of Chicago. I had done the interior layout for the printed conference program, so I had a connection to the event.
I was an outsider among this young group, and yet, as an observer of people, I regained an appreciation for my old profession. In a pop culture world, English teachers are often the repositories and promoters not only of good writing, but of the literary classics as well.
A few of us actually discussed, briefly, the soliloquies and dramatic monologues of nineteenth-century English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), a favorite of mine. It’s been years since I’ve encountered anyone who recognized that name–my late husband connected the name "Browning" only to weapons until he endured a lecture I gave in the early 1970's.
Why Robert Browning? I can’t explain why he’s a favorite of mine, but there’s something about his soliloquies and dramatic monologues, especially, that intrigues me. "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria’s Lover," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church"–I still remember them all. One of my young table companions last night referred to these poems as Browning’s "crazy poems." Well, yes, but I think what fascinated me most was Browning’s ability to explore the gap between the way people see themselves and the way others see them. The poems deal with life’s insane obsessions and misguided self images, the same foibles that often lead to murder and other crimes today. That’s their timeless quality.
My fascination with poetry in general revolves around the great poets’ ability to express profound thoughts briefly. What I would need at least a chapter to explain in prose comes through more clearly in the pictures Browning created.
After strangling the object of his obsessive love by winding her hair into "one long yellow string," Porphyria’s Lover is able to prop up her head and sit quietly with her body. "And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!" The Duke is able to say of his less-than-haughty former Duchess, "I gave commands, / Then all smiles stopped together," as he goes on to point out his lovely home’s magnificent art work to a representative of his future Duchess’ father.
Browning portrays an envious monk fixated on the rituals of religion rather that its principles in "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." There, the speaker destroys Brother Lawrence’s carefully-tended garden and plots his damnation. Brother Lawrence’s "sins"? He does not properly cross his knife and fork after dining, "As do I, in Jesu’s praise," and "I the Trinity illustrate, / Drinking watered orange pulp– / In three sips the Arian frustrate; / While he drains his at one gulp."
Yes, I realize that this may seem old-fashioned, and perhaps crazy, but unfortunately, obsessive love, arrogance, jealousy, and extreme religious zealotry have not disappeared from our world. A glance at nearly any newspaper or TV news broadcast will prove that.
I was inspired to read Robert Browning’s poems again. Why don’t you explore your own nostalgic memories from your reading–and your jobs–of the past? Who wrote, "Everything old is new again"? How true.
Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Program cover design by Allison Wagoner