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browning - the grand perhaps

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
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By the Fireside

I follow wherever I am led,
Knowing so well the leader’s hand:
Oh woman-country, wooed not wed,
Loved all the more by earth’s male-lands,
Laid to their hearts instead!

Look at the ruined chapel again
Half-way up in the Alpine gorge!
Is that a tower, I point you plain,
Or is it a mill, or an iron-forge
Breaks solitude in vain?

A turn, and we stand in the heart of things:
The woods are round us, heaped and dim;
From slab to slab how it slips and springs,
The thread of water single and slim,
Through the ravage some torrent brings!

Does it feed the little lake below?
That speck of white just on its marge
Is Pella; see, in the evening-glow,
How sharp the silver spear-heads charge
When Alp meets heaven in snow!

On our other side is the straight-up rock;
And a path is kept ’twixt the gorge and it
By boulder-stones where lichens mock
The marks on a moth, and small ferns fit
Their teeth to the polished block.

Browning: The Grand Perhaps

Browning’s poetry illustrates what he called the "grand perhaps". Its form can be seen as a move beyond what Arnold saw as the "dialogue of the mind with itself" to an attempt to show the processes of thought. This quality in Browning's writing has led many to read his experiments, together with Hopkins, as forerunners of modernism.

This extract demonstrates the individuality of Browning's language and style, even while it dealt with typical Victorian issues, from the woman question to the crumbling citadel of faith. The "grand perhaps" is perhaps in part an illustration of the double nature of the Victorian poem which Isobel Armstrong argues achieving two poems in the same words. Here, the rhetorical questions ‘is that a tower...?’ ‘Does it feed the little lake below?’ remain unanswered. This is part of the speaker's monologist lyric utterance, but it also emphasises the process of investigation and interpretation in the poem. The speaker’s questions are alternated with descriptions of the landscape which in part serve to provide an answer and a reformulation of the original questions. 

The first line ‘I follow wherever I am led' can be read within the typical Romantic view of nature as female, but here ‘the leader’ is not an abstract guide or sage but literal ‘knowing so well the leader’s hand’. The alliteration in ‘woman’s country wooed not wed’ and in ‘from slab to slab’ links the ‘woman country’ with the ‘thread’ of water. 

In a sense the poem can be seen as allegorical, the landscape providing a level of comment on the speaker’s lyric utterance. The inclusion of the second person in ‘I point you plain’ turns to "we" as the woods are around us, a static ‘heaped’ wood yet hope is symbolised by the water, which, although it is a ‘slim’ thread, is nurturing ‘feed’ and guiding ‘thread’. 

The articulation of the motif of guidance is reiterated in the use of the conventional image of the path, between the rock and the gorge. It might be possible to read the theme of leading/guidance and the ‘thread’ of life-giving water as a way to depicting the woods ‘heaped and dim’ as a labyrinth. This suggestion of a Dantean dark wood follows the reference to what might be a ruined chapel, a symbolic embodiment of the failure of faith, the sens that God is no longer in his heaven, that all is nor right with the world. 

However, this typically Victorian angst, in the sense of Tennyson’s ‘quiet sense of something lost’ is only allowed into this poem as the speakers doubt as to what it is exactly he points to. 

The line ‘breaks solitude in vain’ articulates the theme of ‘honest doubt’ most clearly. Such assertiveness and force is figured in terms of war imagery: "the silver spear-heads charge/when alp meets heaven in snow." This metaphorical attack on heaven is enclosed within the speaker’s na´ve celebration of the beauty of a nature described in terms of war. 

The trope of battle as well as the estranging spaces of sea and water are both implicit in the "ravage of some torrent" and can be seen in the context of literal upheavals of the time, following the 1848 revolution in Europe, and the Crimean war which broke out in 54.

The poem’s setting in the "impassioned land" of Italy is not only a celebration of the beauty of the country the Brownings chose to live in but also a way of going outside society’s prescriptions. As Armstrong indicates in her book Victorian Poetry, the impassioned land setting is a typically female technique. However, here Browning seems to encode an investigation of gender into landscape (as Eliot does in the Wasteland) depicting water as feminine and opposed in its freedom of movement (emphasised by the sibilants) to the "straight-up rock" with it’s polished seeming impenetrability. 

Significantly however this impenetrability is only apparent, as the ‘teeth’ of small ferns fit into the ‘polished block’ the use of war imagery is moved from an exploration of religion to a wider view of life as struggle. 

The sense of danger in the path between rock and gorge is emphasised as the boulder stones marking the path are personified, like the bats in the Wasteland. Here they ‘mock’ the marking of moths – beyond the alliteration the symbolism becomes layered here: moth suggests the struggle of breaking out of the cocoon, but significantly the struggle ends not in the gaudy or delicate beauty of a butterfly but in the monochrome moth whose patterns are mocked by the lichen. 

Individuality breaks solitude in vain; struggle is necessary but also limited. Within a culture which read Lyell and Chambers Browning’s representation of struggle between the species of lichen and moth, fern and polished block is not simply a metaphor for the struggle to keep on the path in an attempt to ‘meet heaven’ but also seems to articulate a sense of the inverted sublime, and the glory of the ascending human. 

written: 2007;
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