Monday, October 4, 2010

Browning Vs Chesterton: Round One

Another mini review from the depths of grotesque history. Not so far back this time, though. In this two-part post I'm going to look at English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (usually referenced as G.K. Chesterton) and his discussion of the grotesque in the poetry of Robert Browning.

I refuse to let the fact that this post is literature and poetry oriented prevent my usual image fest. So here is a picture of Chesterton (1874-1936), looking fierce.


Chesterton's Robert Browning (1903) explores the poet's life and relationships, investigating the links between the personal and the poetic. Explicit discussions of the grotesque are largely confined to chapter six. However, they are informed by the wider text so it is useful to put things in context. The full book can be downloaded here, if you are interested. My page numbers are from this edition.

As the introduction makes clear, the author is interested in Browning's character as a man, the events that shaped his lifetime, and how they inform his work. He understands Browning to be a "natural" man; terribly clever, yet "entirely unconscious and impulsive" (1).

Here is the natural man himself (1812-1889), looking natural.


For Chesterton, Browning "combines the greatest brain with the most simple temperament" (3). This might sound patronising, but it isn't meant to be. "Simple" is more a reflection of his intellectual generosity and uncomplicated, instinctual approach. Something which, the author argues, makes analysing him difficult.

"Anything that is deliberate, twisted, created as a trap and a mystery, must be discovered at last; everything that is done naturally remains mysterious" (2-3).
"The way to be inexplicable is to be chaotic, and on the surface this was the quality of Browning's life; there is the same difference between judging of his poetry and judging of his life, that there is between making a map of a labyrinth and making a map of mist" (3).

Chesterton has a way with words, so there is lots of quote worthy material here. For example, of Browning's often convoluted work he comments that:

"A man who is intellectually vain does not make himself incomprehensible, because he is so enormously impressed with the difference between his readers' intelligence and his own that he talks down to them with elaborate repetition and lucidity" (37-38).
"[In contrast] a young man of genius who has a genuine humility in his heart does not elaborately explain his discoveries... he thinks that the whole street is humming with his ideas, and that the postman and the tailor are poets like himself" (38).

I love it.

Another amusing section comes in the chapter on Browning's marriage, which describes how he met, wooed, and eventually eloped with Miss Elizabeth Barrett, herself an excellent poet.


When they met, Barrett had been confined to bed for years due to an unfortunate combination of spinal injury and overprotective familial hysteria. Because she wasn't allowed to leave the house, Browning wrote her a letter. The two quickly developed a rapport and corresponded lovingly in what seems like nonsense speak. For example, Browning wrote this to her:

"I ought to wait, say a week at least, having killed all your mules for you, before I shot down your dogs... But not being exactly Phoibos Apolon, you are to know further that when I did think I might go modestly on... let me get out of this slough of a simile, never mind with what dislocated ankles" (quoted page 66).

Say what now?

Chesterton strongly disagrees with the publication of these intimate letters. This is one of my favourite quotes of his on the topic:

"Our wisdom, whether expressed in private or public, belongs to the world, but our folly belongs to those we love" (65).

I'm sure he would have had much to say about Facebook.

The exposure of the letters is made more bearable by their obscure content, which acts as a private code.

"The ordinary sentimentalist who delights in the most emotional of magazine interviews, will not be able to get much satisfaction out of them, because he and many persons more acute will be quite unable to make head or tail of three consecutive sentences" (66).

This 'head or tail' notion of a topsy-turvy writing style is fleshed out later:

"The tail, the most insignificant part of an animal, is also often the most animated and fantastic. An utterance of Browning is often like a strange animal walking backwards, who flourishes his tail with such energy that every one takes it as his head" (67-68).

Here we see hints of where Chesterton is going in terms of the grotesque. By likening Browning's poetry to a "strange animal walking backwards," he evokes carnivalesque notions of the 'upside-down' world that Bakhtin later associates with the grotesque. He also generates vivid imagery that crosses the border between the visual and the textual, visualising the poem as an unusual body. This is reminiscent of Montaigne's comment that his own writing resembles a grotesque body.

[It also reminds me of the Duke Nukem 3D quote: "your face, your ass, what's the difference." Not as relevant, I guess.]

What else does Chesterton say about the grotesque? How about some practical examples of actual 'grotesque' poetry? You will have to wait for part two... or just read the book. Part two will be shorter than the book. Just.

[Edit: If anyone is interested, I'm going to add the keyword 'history' to all the historical review posts I've done, because otherwise they get mixed up with all the other contemporary grotesquerie I post on here. This blog is becoming rather huge and obstreperous. Dare I say... grotesque?]


  1. I'm interested in why you entitled this point Chesterton VERSUS Browning? Or will that be in part two?

    I'm blogging through the Browning book right now, too. Nice to meet you---

    Have you read his essay on Bronte? I blogged about it here.

    There is also some great stuff on the grotesque in The Defendant, which I blogged about here.

    Good luck on your dissertation--just finished mine---cross over, cross over! It's all mai tais and pool chairs. (I wish.) LOL.

  2. Hi there, nice to meet you also. Thanks for commenting :)

    The 'versus' in the title was mostly tongue-in-cheek, I guess. Although I am interested in how writers interpret each other, and to what extent readings of a text can be seen to 'rewrite' its content through the ideological lens of the reader. How much does the book tell us about Browning, and how much does it tell us about Chesterton? In any case, I'm much more curious about BOTH of them after reading it.

    I haven't read his Bronte essay, but I will now! Your blog looks really great. I like the idea of '15 minute' blogging.

    Can't wait to 'cross over' (which is an excellent way to put it, haha). Hopefully early next year *fingers crossed* Major congrats on submitting, you've earned those hypothetical pool chairs!

  3. Hey I'd be glad to have you read and let me know what you think of the Bronte--he takes my breath away. He's more like a literary diviner than a critic---casting rune stones and reading tea leaves.

    Which most Chesterton scholars agree that Chesterton is always writing autobiography when he writes lit crit. Though what's odd many have also noted that while he is riddled with historical and factual errors, he somehow gets the tone indescribably RIGHT. An intution as impossible to defend intellectually as it feels RIGHT.

    Dickens is the most famous example. He spews a fountain of errors yet seems to get at the heart of an author that other more scrupulous researchers somehow miss.

    And from what I understand of the Browning, he continually insisted on quoting from memory which he inevitably got wrong, much to the consternation of his editors who concluded that it was going to be a disaster. On the contrary, it was very well received.

  4. And btw---post-graduation, I am actually finding blogging my notes on various projects takes the place of actually working and studying in a community quite well. I get to have discussions with people from all over the world and from various points of view, while working out my notes in a blogging format. I'm staying out of academe for awhile because I'm raising a family but I continue to write and publish and it's really quite a thing, since I'd otherwise be writing in isolation.

    Good luck and give a holler if you need anything.

    Jennifer Pierce

  5. Oh that background is very interesting. I sometimes wonder at the role that intuition or personal 'instinct' plays in academic non-fiction writing. It is not creative in the sense that fiction is creative... but at the same time it isn't just about collating facts and abstractions either. As Chesterton so aptly illustrates!

    I'm so easily distracted. Must.Write.Thesis. ;)