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Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the

Dramatic Monologue
Author(s): Melissa Valiska Gregory
Source: Victorian Poetry, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 491-510
Published by: West Virginia University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002497
Accessed: 04-05-2018 21:05 UTC

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Robert Browning and the Lure of
the Violent Lyric Voice: Domes-
tic Violence and the Dramatic


the brink of extinction, contemporary literary scholars have tended
to work through their primary concerns in novels rather than poetry
when it comes to questions of nineteenth-century domestic ideology. Like
Nancy Armstrong, who argues in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987)
that "the gender of representation is ♦ ♦ . bound . ♦ ♦ to the institution of
the novel/' academic critics repeatedly position the novel as the most
effective testing ground for hypotheses regarding Victorian culture and
domesticity.1 This essay, by contrast, situates Victorian poetry, and Rob-
ert Browning's dramatic monologues in particular, within the analysis of
domestic and sexual dynamics that has dominated literary and cultural
criticism over the past two decades*
More specifically, I suggest that Browning's dramatic monologues
shed new light on a domestic problem of considerable importance to the
Victorian period: the psychology of sexual violence. I will argue that
Browning's focus on sexual violence paradoxically lies at the heart of both
the fierce public rejection of his early work and the suddenly enthusiastic
and widespread approval of The Ring and the Book (1868-69), which,
after its publication, was "praised to the far side of idolatry."2 This abrupt
reversal of critical opinion seems weirdly contradictory, given that the
subject matter of The Ring and the Book shares the same transgress ive
resonances that Victorian readers repudiated in Browning's early work. A
violent wife murder is, as Mary Ellis Gibson remarks, "hardly ♦ . ♦ within
the conventional bounds of subject matter for a poem of epic proper-
tions" (p. 74). Academic critics, however, have generally neglected to
probe the competing Victorian responses to Browning's early and later
representations of sexual violence. This oversight not only glosses over
important nuances in Browning's formal treatment of the subject, it also


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obscures the larger implications of the important relation between Victo-

rian representations of sexual conflict and poetic authority- The chang-
ing public response to Browning's work stems from a tangled convergence
of Victorian literary and social concerns, as Browning questions both the
fate of the lyric voice and the traditional power dynamics inherent in the
Victorian domestic ideal Browning at once intervenes in a Victorian
debate about domestic violence (a debate which struck at the heart of
nineteenth-century domestic ideology and heterosexual norms), and,
moreover, implicitly argues that this cultural problem is best explored
through poetic representation.
This project, which emulates Isobel Armstrong's efforts to relate
"both formal and cultural problems, ... to see these things as inseparable
from one another," first demands a brief and general consideration of
literary representations of sexual violence in the Victorian period.3 Next,
I will investigate the representations of domestic violence in Browning's
early work, comparing it to representations of sexual conflict in novels
and speculating as to why Victorian readers found it so profoundly unset-
tling. Finally, I will consider how The Ring and the Book's reconfiguration
of the lyric voice as testimony accounts for its great public success.

Sexual Violence (Un)represented

Historical work on the subject of sexual violence within the Victo-
rian home suggests that it was a relatively common feature of domestic
life, and occurred within families from a wide range of economic and
social positions.4 Marital conflict was so prevalent that "until the nine-
teenth century wife -beaters had been punishable on indictment only,"
remarks Maeve Dogget, noting further that the punishment for spousal
abuse was augmented only marginally in the 1853 Act for the Better
Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and
Children.5 More generally, in the decades following the 1857 Divorce
and Matrimonial Causes Act, the Divorce Court proceedings reported in
the daily papers effectively exposed the reality of marital violence with
some regularity. Real-life accounts of domestic violence - such as Caroline
Norton's public condemnation of her abusive husband - also gained na-
tional recognition.6 And John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women
(1869) alludes not only to domestic abuse, noting that "there is never any
want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands," but also to
the infrequently addressed topic of marital rape.7 Mill's stark observation
that a husband "can claim from her [his wife] and enforce the lowest
degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an
animal function contrary to her inclinations" (p. 504), acknowledges the
presence of severe violence even within the bourgeois Victorian home.

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Despite its everyday presence in Victorian society, domestic vio-

lence resonated as a deeply transgressive act- Sexual violence within the
domestic sphere profoundly violated the Victorian domestic ideal, a far-
reaching and powerful set of social norms which positioned the home,
and especially marriage, as a sanctuary from the violent pressures of an
increasingly competitive and impersonal outside world.8 The middle-
class family's ideological role as a virtuous counter to the traditional aris-
tocratic vices of excess and profligacy refused to accommodate the possi-
bility of violence in the home, no matter how common an historical
reality.9 Hence domestic violence, especially as it was associated with sexual
conflict, became a subject of nervous inquiry throughout the nineteenth
century, as well as an important subject of literary representation. Some
of Victorian literature's most viscerally memorable scenes, such as Nancy's
murder in Charles Dickens 's Oliver Twist (1838), feature domestic abuse.
Scenes of sexual violence in Victorian novels, however, tend to be
brief. More importantly, they tend to avoid scrutinizing the psychologi-
cal motives and effects of such violence. Representations of violence
outside the domestic sphere generally portray it as clearly prompted by
specific and external social factors; consider William Makepeace Thackeray's
satiric treatment of the Napoleonic wars in Vanity Fair (1847-48), Tho-
mas Carlyle's overwrought descriptions of the Terror in The French Revo-
lution (1837), or the more poignantly described abortive violence of the
displaced mill strikers in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855).
While war, revolution, and class conflict are depicted as disturbing, these
forms of violence are not portrayed as psychologically inexplicable or acutely
transgressive. Depictions of domestic violence, by contrast, are. Repre-
sentations of sexual conflict in novels show it to be particularly troubling
and mysterious, a subject demanding delicate handling or oblique treat-
ment, both of which forestall any deeper investigation into its psycho-
logical motivation. Indeed, scenes of domestic abuse frequently threaten
to halt the plot altogether: witness the narrative rupture that occurs after
Dempster's beating his wife in George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" (1857).
Even the prominent scrutiny of unhappy marriages so often featured in
sensation novels, such as Caroline Clive's potboiler Paul Ferroll (1856) or
Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd (1863), generally and strikingly
fail to explore the psychological aims and effects of sexual and domestic
conflict with any real intensity.
Enter Browning. Acute depictions of sexual conflict within the
domestic sphere - from the coarse physical brutality of Porphyria's lover
to the carefully controlled aesthetic and sexual domination of Duke
Ferrara - not only fundamentally shape the tone and character of Dra-
matic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and

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Women (1855), and Dramatis Personae (1864), but, of course, also struc-
ture Browning's longest and most important work, The Ring and the
Book, Throughout his career, Browning persistently portrays the dynam-
ics of the home as deeply painful for both men and women, and focuses
especially on the various forms of masculine violence occurring in the
struggle for sexual dominance between husbands and wives. His poetry
explores the psychology of domestic strife with an unrelenting fierceness,
luring his readers into intimate contact with speakers whose transgressive
sexual fantasies and disruptive familial behavior profoundly violated nine-
teenth-century domestic norms and immensely troubled his contempo-

I will suggest that the generic logic of Browning's dramatic poems-

the very form of the dramatic monologue itself - not only allows for a
sustained examination of the psychology of domestic violence unavailable
in other mid-century genres, but actually leads Browning to engage the
disquieting and outlandish (for the period) subject of domestic conflict in
the first place. The literary concerns of the monologue lure Browning
and his readers to the theme of sexual brutality and intimate violence,
giving a voice to the inner secrets of sexual dominance.

Lyric Demands and Sexual Domination: The Forced Intimacy of

the Dramatic Monologue
Beginning with S. S. Curry's 1908 monograph, academic critics have
repeatedly explored the strategies by which Browning attempts to reassert
the cultural preeminence of the increasingly jeopardized lyric voice.10 New
genres - the novel and the theater - threatened to usurp poetry's once
dominant position in nineteenth-century society, and Browning, like so
many other Victorian poets, struggled to prove the lyric voice capable of
confronting modern social problems. "From the beginning, Browning . . .
raised the question of whether poetry was marginal to its culture," re-
marks Gibson.11
In his effort to avoid the social isolation of the traditional lyric
voice, Browning thus created, in the dramatic monologue, a version of
poetic lyricism dependent on an awareness of both the socio-historical
and rhetorical dimensions of human identity. 12 "In these historical po-
ems," says Robert Langbaum, "the extraordinary moral position and the
extraordinary emotion become historical phenomena."13 Or, as Armstrong
observes more economically, in Browning, "psychological states are rooted
in history" (p. 146). Browning's dramatic monologues inherently bridge
or create a generic slippage between the social setting of the novel and the
subjective utterance of the Romantic lyric, featuring speakers who firmly

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locate themselves historically and rhetorically. The power - indeed, the

very existence - of Browning's speakers originates in their ability to ma-
nipulate an audience and craft rhetorical transactions.
Hence Browning's dramatic speakers demand attention. Expressing
themselves with a rhetorical violence that, as Armstrong suggests, "spurts
in the language of even the most subdued of Browning's poems" with
"deranged intensity" (p. 289), they force upon their readers a wide array of
intimate obsessions, fantasies, and pathologies. The Bishop's self-absorbed
preoccupation with his tomb; the monk's crazy fixation on his fellow
brother; the inability of the speaker of "Garden Fancies" (1845) to throw
away an old book: all express an obsessive energy which repeatedly fore-
grounds the aesthetic challenge inherent in finding an audience for the
lyric voice in mid- Victorian society. Even the hostile landscape of "Childe
Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855), a surreal world in which "noth-
ing thr[ives]" (1. 56), commands a rhetorical force.14
Browning thus harnesses rhetorical violence to his lyric project from
the outset, as he repeatedly creates speakers who are less concerned with
truth than they are with "trying to impress it on the outside world"
(Langbaum, p. 146). The urgent need to find an audience for the poetic
voice manifests itself in Browning's graphic images of speech as a grossly
physical struggle. Gismond forces Gauthier to tell the truth by literally
hacking it out of him, "Cleaving till out the truth he clove" ("Count
Gismond" [1842] 1. 96). Confession results in extreme torture and death
in "The Confessional" (1845). Even the good news "which alone could
save Aix from her fate" (1. 46) exacts a physical price, when, out of the
three messengers who leave, two horses die en route and the third barely
finishes the journey "With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
/ And with circles of red for his eye-sockets' rim" (11. 47-48). The relation
between these broken and battered bodies and the rhetorical violence
with which they are portrayed suggests the desperation inherent in
Browning's attempts to reclaim lyric authority, as the very act of self-
expression exacts a physical toll. As Dorothy Mermin observes, Brown-
ing, more than any other poet, "considers the exercise of imaginative
power as a form of covert aggression."15
What Langbaum, Mermin, and others have not considered is how
Browning's efforts at augmenting the power of the lyric voice through
rhetorically violent, demanding speakers leads him directly to an explora-
tion of domestic violence and sexual domination that lasts throughout
his career. The rhetorical dynamics of his monologues, which metaphori-
cally force themselves on their readers, parallel the dynamics of sexual
violence. Sexual conflict is, of course, largely about domination, and
Browning's sustained preoccupation with how to force readers to listen to

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his highly personal lyric outpourings echoes the structures of one of the
most intimate forms of violence. In short, Browning's monologues create
a dynamic of forced intimacy.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that those poems which focus on
domestic conflict are both the most visceral and the most famous of
Browning's oeuvre, with "My Last Duchess" (1842) leading the race and
"Porphyria's Lover" (1842) coming in a close second. Not only did
Browning's fascination with sexual violence resonate in the Victorian
social scene, a culture in which the power dynamics of married life were
fiercely scrutinized and debated, but also, in so many of his dramatic
monologues, sexual violence becomes a particularly extreme version of
the longing to dominate and to define oneself through domination. Hence
those monologues which prominently feature wrecked or destroyed do-
mesticity (the psychic counterpart to Childe Roland's hostile landscape)
highlight the relation between social authority, rhetorical violence, and
sexual conflict: "See a word, how it severe th! / Oh, power of life and
death / In the tongue" (11. 89-91), exclaims the speaker of "A Lover's
Quarrel" (1855).
Of those many early monologues which conjoin lyric violence with
acts of domestic abuse, especially resonant are Browning's expressions of
masculine failure within the domestic sphere. The painful loss of tradi-
tional patriarchal power portrayed in "Andrea del Sarto" (1855) surfaces
persistently, as do representations of violently brutal masculine sexual
authority which fall well outside the boundaries of conventional male and
domestic power. Porphyria's lover is just one voice among a crowd of male
speakers who, in relating to their readers literal or imagined violence
toward the women they believe have failed them, unite rhetorical vio-
lence and sexual cruelty. In his explorations of the pleasures inherent in
domestic and sexual domination, Browning effectively transforms the
occasional allusions to domestic abuse that crop up in Victorian novels -
Mr. Dombey's momentary fantasy in Dickens' Dombey and Son (1846-
48), for example, of "beating all trace of beauty out of [Edith's] trium-
phant face with his bare hand" - -into a poetic form in which imagined
violence bears the same visceral impact as the real thing.16 The fanta-
sized murders of "The Laboratory" (1845) - "[A] mere lozenge [of poison]
to give, / And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live! / But to
light a pastille, and Elise, with her head / And her breast and her arms
and her hands, should drop dead!" (11. 21-24)- possess a rhetorical force
equal to the literal murder described in "Porphyria's Lover."
Browning's lyric project leads him, then, into a sustained examina-
tion of sexual violence. Although occasionally love survives in the ruins,
as in the lead poem of Men and Women, that the expression of love even

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requires ruins at all illustrates the close relationship between domestic

intimacy, violence, and rhetorical power structuring so much of Browning's
work. And, unlike the happier outcome of "Love among the Ruins," most
of Browning's domestic relationships dissolve into the obsessive, distorted
outpourings featured in "Love in a Life" and "Life in a Love" (1855), or
the shipwrecked marriage of "James Lee's Wife" (1864). This work sug-
gests that achieving social authority for the lyric voice is, at best, ex-
tremely difficult. At worst, as Browning's rhetorically disintegrating speak-
ers imply, it is impossible.
Browning's highly transgressive explorations of domestic brutality
agitated his Victorian readers, who felt violated at having been lured into
contact with sexually transgressive speakers who rejected bourgeois norms
of domestic behavior. While J. Skelton wryly observed that Browning "is
not the poet to be perused with profit in the nursery or in a railway-
carriage,"17 other, more overtly hostile reviews attacked him for being
"really insane" or "perverse."18 The English Review declared Browning's
preoccupation with murderers his most "serious" error as a poet: "We
know that there are enthusiastic Churchmen and earnest Christians who
applaud the murderous deed of Tell and warmly sympathize with, if they
do not sanctify the memory of, Charlotte Corday. We do not belong to
this class of thinkers: in our eyes, murder is always murder."19
But in a culture in which the reading public repeatedly clamored for
Dickens' performances of the violent death of Nancy, what, exactly, proved
so troubling about Browning's subject matter?20 What upset Victorian
readers about Browning's sexually transgressive, violent voices is not so
much that they violate bourgeois norms (though that was indeed trou-
bling), but that they draw heavily on the claim for sympathetic identifica-
tion traditionally demanded by the Romantic lyric speaker. As Langbaum
notes, the dramatic monologue requires a certain degree of reader identi-
fication no matter how perverse or abnormal the speaker, for the "willing-
ness of the reader to understand the duke, even to sympathize with him as
a necessary condition of reading the poem, is the key to the poem's form"
(p. 85). Ultimately, the monologue's truth, Langbaum continues, will
emerge from the reader's vacillation between "sympathy and moral judg-
ment" (p. 85) - a movement between understanding and repulsion, em-
pathy and distance, or what Tucker describes as a "balancing act" (in his
reading of "A Toccatta of Galuppi's" [1855]).21 Browning's readers, in
other words, are unable to find truth in his monologues simply by identi-
fying with the speaker's experiences.
If, for Browning, truth is much more than an issue of sympathetic
identification, then it is no surprise that his use of domestic violence as a
vehicle for solving and strengthening the lyric voice hit a cultural nerve.

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In a society preoccupied with the constant reevaluation of domestic norms,

Browning's demand that his readers identify with the morally monstrous
"I" of his early lyric voice, and, moreover, that they sympathize with speakers
whose actions pose a threat to conventional domesticity and whose plea-
sures and satisfactions violate accepted norms of domestic behavior, was
identified as the ultimate "perversity,"22
Hence critics resentfully and repeatedly attacked not only Browning's
content, but, more specifically, criticized his rhetorical technique, Mar-
garet Oliphant rather generously described Browning's style as "rugged,"
but David Masson and others complained that his monologues featured
"strokes of the hard imagination where we expect nothing but uncon-
scious melody and cadence." 23 The Eclectic Review ominously warned
against "a sensual trait about his writings which will bring him one day a
bitterness" (BCH, p. 113), and, by the same token, an Athenaeum re-
viewer disappointedly asked of Men and Women:

Why one who can pour out his thoughts, fancies, stores of learning, and emo'
tions, with an eloquent and direct sincerity such as this, should, so often as Mr.
Browning has here done, prefer to rhyme the pleadings of a casuist, or the argu-
ments of a critic, or the ponderous discoursings of some obsolete schoolman . . .
is an enigma - The riches and the ability are there, but the employment and the
expression of them seem to us, on the whole, more perverse, personal, and in-
complete. (BCH, p. 157)

Perhaps most economical was Eliot's claim that although "we admire
[Browning's] power, we are not subdued by it."24
The widespread critical agitation at the prospect of being "subdued"
by Browning's rhetoric points to a specific cultural anxiety about the power
of his dominating lyric speakers to force their readers to identify with
deeply transgressive sexuality, an identification prominently absent in
the descriptions of marital conflict in other literary genres. Eliot's own
"Janet's Repentance," for instance, also features a husband who, in his
coarse physical abuse of Janet, echoes the masculine brutality displayed by
Porphyria's lover. But while Porphyria's lover forces his confession upon
his unsuspecting reader, Eliot's third-person descriptions of Dempster's
violence render it relatively oblique, not to mention decidedly unsympa-
thetic. Occurring only at night under the cover of darkness, Dempster's
abuse registers as no more than "a hideous blank of something unremem-
bered, something that must have made that dark bruise on [Janet's] shoul-
der."25 Janet's own descriptions of her beatings are marked by uncharac-
teristic pauses and gaps, signified by ellipses: "But he began to be angry
with me for little things and ... I don't want to accuse him ... but he
drank and got more and more unkind to me, and then very cruel, and

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then he beat me" (p. 356).

Eliot further erects a formidable barrier around the most explicit
moment of violence in the story by describing it through the eyes of a
fictional witness:

There was a portrait of Janet's mother, a grey-haired, dark-eyed old woman, in a

neatly fluted cap, hanging over the mantelpiece. Surely the aged eyes take on a
look of anguish as they see Janet - not trembling, no! it would be better if she
trembled - standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty, while the heavy arm
is lifted to strike her. The blow falls - another - and another. Surely the mother
hears that cry - 'O Robert! pity! pity!' (p. 285)

This portrayal, filtered through the consciousness of an imaginary on-

looker, mediates, contextualizes, and ultimately frames Dempster's brutal-
ity, cushioning the shocking violence that might otherwise stop the nar-
rative dead in its tracks (and even then it occurs at the end of a chapter,
providing a respite). If there is any specific point of identification estab-
lished for Eliot's reader, it is the shadowy self of Janet's own mother,
which conveys a vague sense of parental horror.
Eliot's evident reluctance to explore the psychological subtleties of
Dempster's violent behavior exemplifies the treatment of domestic vio-
lence in Victorian novels, suggesting that readers resisted close contact
with the unsettling motives behind domestic transgression. Dickens' blow-
by-blow description of Nancy's murder, for instance, achieves a certain
visceral intensity but also refuses to grant the violence the idiosyncratic
individualism evident in Browning's speakers. Nancy's sudden lapse into
anonymity as Dickens abruptly stops using her name - referring to her
only as "the girl" - in the moments leading up to her death, is ultimately
comforting, as the traumatic murder of a specific character metamorpho-
ses into a more familiar Victorian narrative of the prostitute reaching her
inevitable demise.26 As Amanda Anderson and others have pointed out,
the tonal shift into generic language - and thus the shift into wholly
familiar narrative territory - suggests that this has been the only possible
outcome for Nancy all along.27 This rhetorical strategy, teetering precari-
ously on the edge of pure objectification, effectively prevents readers from
participating in the specific psychology of either murderer or victim. The
scene's popularity with the Victorian public thus stems from its familiar-
ity, its very rejection of the intimate contact with violence so prevalent
in Browning's murderous or sexually transgressive speakers.
Compare further Dempster's dying string of vitriol in "Janet's Re-
pentance" to the violent fantasizing in Browning's "A Pretty Woman"
(1855). When excerpted, Dempster's last words to Janet sound remark-
ably like those of Browning's speaker: Dempster's threat to "hunt you

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down like a hare . . . I'll make a fire under you, and smoke off the whole
pack of you . . . I'll sweep you up . . . I'll grind you to powder . . . small
powder" (p. 381) parallels Browning's "Shall we burn it up, tread that face
at once / Into tinder, / And so hinder / Sparks from kindling all the place
at once? / Or else kiss away one's soul on her?" (11. 53-57)- Browning's
monologue provides an uninterrupted connection between his audience
and a sexually transgressive speaker for whom violence and love yield
similar satisfactions, whereas Eliot's story firmly checks the reader's sym-
pathies. Lying on his deathbed, surrounded by members of the commu-
nity who judge him, Dempster's impotent final threats do not permit the
reader identification invited by Browning's rhetorically aggressive speaker.
The contrast between novelistic representations of domestic vio-
lence and Browning's poems thus helps to account for the persistent criti-
cal complaint that Browning's intense, first-person outpourings were in-
vasive, abnormal, and immoral. As G. Brimley suggested, it was not so
much that Browning chose to examine vice and violence (though his
subject matter certainly remained a problem for other critics), but, more
importantly, that he failed "to solve the moral problems" and questions
that he raised.28 As far as reviewers were concerned, the lyric "I" of
Browning's early work withheld an appropriately overt moral perspective.
With what proved a profoundly disturbing rhetorical intensity, Browning's
monologues lured their readers into intimate contact with sexual corrup-
tion and then left them there, trapped within the monologue's form.

Lyric Testimony in The Ring and the Book: Domestic Violence

on Trial

The fear that readers would be corrupted - or at least profoundly

unsettled - by their contact with Browning's transgressive speakers also
surfaced in the reviews of The Ring and the Book, though not nearly to
the same degree. Some critics raised the issue more obliquely, evident in
their proclaimed relief at Browning's decision to publish the poem in
installments. Not having to read The Ring and the Book all at once,
suggested a Spectator reviewer, prevented the disturbing subject matter
from overwhelming its audience:

We may well suppose that [Browning] wishes it to be read, and studied, and
conceived in instalments; . . . Four small volumes about a tragedy so rich in
picture and passion as this do not strike us as too much for any one. . . . A public
that has once tasted will not be satisfied to desist till it has drunk off all it can get
of the draught, and this little volume is certainly in itself by no means alarming,
offering as it does two separate pauses to the reader, and rising in fascination as it

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travels round each separate wind of the spiral in which the narrative mounts
upwards towards a complete view of the tragedy on which it is based. 29

Such comments reveal the anxiety that the intense darkness of Browning's
raw material would prove disturbing, "alarm[ing]," or, even worse, com-
pletely overpowering. Browning's investigation of sexual violence in The
Ring and the Book threatened to be just as troubling as that of his earlier
But aside from a few isolated objections that the poem's subject
matter was "low and mean, . . . vice pure, unadulterated, and unrelieved,"
the critical response to The Ring and the Book abruptly contrasts with
the reviews of Browning's earlier monologues.30 Despite its thematic simi-
larities to "Porphyria's Lover" or "My Last Duchess," Victorian reviewers
generally greeted the poem with effusive praise. The Ring and the Book
"as a whole, contains perhaps more of Mr. Browning's brilliant intellec-
tual flashes of many-coloured light than almost any of his hitherto pub-
lished works," enthused the Spectator (BCH, p. 291 ), while another deemed
it "deeply, intensely, human."31 R. W. Buchanan went so far as to com-
pare Browning to "a messenger from heaven, sent to teach the highest of
all lessons to rashly- judging men."32 Given both the poem's subject mat-
ter and its self-proclaimed emphasis on the lyric force of rhetorical testi-
mony - the very same rhetorical force to which critics previously objected -
its enthusiastic reception, which decidedly clashes with the reception of
Browning's earlier work, creates a striking dissonance not adequately at-
tended to by literary scholars. If The Ring and the Book's subject matter
continued to unsettle Browning's Victorian readers, what explains the
public praise of the poem?
I suggest that the surprising shift in Browning's public reception
depends upon the poem's courtroom setting, and the resulting transfor-
mation of rhetorical lyricism into testimony. On the one hand, Browning's
conversion of the dramatic monologues into courtroom testimony inten-
sifies his rhetorical force, but on the other hand, the idea of testimony
also accommodates the overtly moral perspective readers found lacking in
Browning's earlier work. Browning's trial model, in which lyric utterance
functions as legal declaration, inherently contains an ethical invitation
to judge his speakers; hence poetic lyricism demands a social response
extending beyond reader identification. When poetry is not only pure
self-expression but testimony, it moves away from a concern with the
"private or meditative intimacy of the sole self (Tucker, Browning's Be-
ginnings, p. 150) and toward a view of the self as integrally connected to
communal norms. As Alexander Welsh observes, The Ring and the Book
"elevates testimony over managed circumstantial evidence," suggesting

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that rhetorical utterance is the most important dimension of social au-

In other words, The Ring and the Book's courtroom dynamic brings
together the concerns of the lyric and the social as never before. If iden-
tity is an ongoing rhetorical transaction, then a trial becomes not only a
test of the specific moral and legal valence of one's acts, but also the
ultimate test of one's very existence. Guido's claim to rhetorical author-
ity becomes his claim to social authority. His two monologues encourage
readers not only to weigh his actions, but also to judge Guido himself: his
status as a husband and, consequently, a particular set of expectations
about marriage and power. The rhetorical force of The Ring and the Book
thus bears an important ethical framework noticeably more muted in
Browning's previous work. When Browning casts lyric expression as tes-
timony, he augments the social authority of his lyric voice without raising
the troubling specter of reader identification which haunted his early
monologues. Thus, Victorian readers affirmed Browning's representations
of transgressive sexual violence knowing that they were meant to judge
it - unlike their resistance to the disconcerting reader identification in-
vited by "Porphyria's Lover" or "The Laboratory." The Ring and the Book
effectively puts domestic violence - its motivation, its reasons, its justifi-
cation - on trial.
Hence the most vivid, rhetorically aggressive passages within the
monologues of The Ring and the Book invite scrutiny rather than
submission. When read as testimony, the visceral intensity of Guido's
violent rhetoric demands an ethical judgment. Take, for instance, Guido's
sudden, disruptive lapse into a startling echo of Porphyria's lover in his
second monologue, a lapse at once extraordinarily similar to yet importantly
different from Browning's earlier representations of sexual violence.
Beginning to unravel, Guido digresses into an obsessive and violent
recollection of Pompilia's hair:

The long black hair was wound now in a wisp, -

Then, she lay there, mine:

Now, mine she is if I please wring her neck, -
A moment of disquiet, working eyes,
Protruding tongue, a long sigh, then no more -
As if one killed the horse one could not ride!
Had I enjoined 'Cut off the hair ! ' - why, snap
The scissors, and at once a yard or so
Had fluttered in black serpents to the floor:
But till I did enjoin it, how she combs,

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Uncurls and draws out to the complete length,

Plaits, places the insulting rope on head
To be an eyesore past dishevelment! ( 1 1 .1347-69)

Despite the resemblance to "Porphyria's Lover" in both tone and theme,

Guido's violent fantasizing fundamentally contrasts with the expression
of transgressive sexual violence in that poem because its role as testimony
invites the judgment and subsequent rejection of such violence. Guido's
lyric violence engages - rather than retreats from - the larger social world.
Throughout The Ring and the Book, the rhetorical force of lyric
violence demands a social response: consideration and likely condemna-
tion. In rewriting the rhetorically violent, self-absorbed expressions of
Porphyria's lover or Duke Ferrara as testimony, Browning creates a subtle
shift in the imaginative force of his lyric rhetoric, situating his speakers'
efforts to "subdue" their audiences within a larger social context. The
courtroom dynamic of The Ring and the Book allowed Victorian readers
to experience and appreciate the poem's rhetorical intensity without the
disturbing fear that they would be sympathetically swept away by its darker
Even more importantly, in inviting his readers to condemn Guido
and his transgressive sexual and domestic brutality, Browning also moves
toward a version of rhetorical force which suggests alternative subject
matter - other than sexual violence - for authorizing the lyric voice. If
sexual domination is, in Browning's earlier monologues, a particularly
extreme version of the longing to define oneself, then the version of
rhetorical energy manifested in Pompilia's monologue suggests Browning's
interest in exploring modes of achieving lyric self-expression without domi-
nating his readers. Though Pompilia is a victim of sexual violence, she
defines her rhetorical authority by withholding her victim testimony and
directing her rhetorical force toward more productive themes, a rhetori-
cal distinction between her monologue and Guido's that was appreciated
by Browning's contemporaries but has generally disappointed modern aca-
demic critics.
Instead of writing Pompilia's testimony as a chronicle of the indi-
vidual wrongs against her, Browning fills her monologue with metaphors
and ellipses, blank spaces, and oblique references where the reader must
imagine violence rather than (as in so much of Browning's early work)
experience its painfully intimate details. Pompilia's marriage is a "blank"
(7.574, 594); she is the lamb to Guido's wolf, the ox to his butcher, the
wild briar bud caught on the wild beast. She even converts marital rape
into an absence:
Remember I was barely twelve years old -

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A child at marriage: I was let alone

For weeks, I told you, lived my child-life still
Even at Arezzo, when I woke and found
First . . . but I need not think of that again -
Over and ended! (7.734-739)

Pompilia's indirect descriptions of her abusive marriage lead up to her

most telling omission, the gap between "The night and the tap" (6.1695)
and Guido's attempt to murder her. Her refusal to narrate the worst act of
violence against her thwarts the traditional role of courtroom plaintiff,
and points to Browning's investigation into modes of achieving lyric self-
expression without forcing violence upon his audience.
Indeed, in Pompilia's monologue Browning rewrites the act of rhe-
torical domination as an expression of rhetorical energy, the full lyric
force of which surfaces in those passages involving her pregnancy:

Up I sprang alive,
Light in me, light without me, everywhere
Change! A broad yellow sun-beam was let fall
From heaven to earth, - a sudden drawbridge lay,
Along which marched a myriad merry motes,

On the house-eaves, a dripping shag of weed

Shook diamonds on each dull grey lattice -square,
As first one, then another bird leapt by,
And light was off, and lo was back again,
Always with one voice, - where are two such joys?
The blessed building-sparrow! I stepped forth,
Stood on the terrace, - o'er the roofs, such sky!
My heart sang, 'I too am to go away,
I too have something I must care about,
Carry away with me to Rome, to Rome!' (7.1223-39)

Resembling the productive rhetorical energy of "Fra Lippo Lippi" (1855),

Pompilia's monologue thus achieves lyric and social authority by imagin-
ing language as a creative force. She reworks the pain of her marriage
along the imaginative framework Elaine Scarry describes as the produc-
tive expression occurring when "the wholly passive and acute suffering of
physical pain becomes the self-regulated and modest suffering of work."34
In Pompilia's monologue, Browning thus portrays the violence of the
lyric voice as creative energy, achieving a rhetorical intensity that hinges
on production rather than destruction.
Pompilia's maternal, feminine rhetoric deeply appealed to Victorian

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reviewers, who heralded her monologue as exhibiting a "changeful and

moon-like beauty" and "heavenly purity and glamour" (Buchanan, BCH,
p. 318). Pompilia, claimed Buchanan, "fearlessly lay[s] bare the strangest
secrecies of matrimonial life, and with so perfect an unconsciousness, so
delicate a purity, that these passages are among the sweetest in the poem.
... So subtle is the spell she has upon us, that we quite forget the horrible
pain of her story" (BCH, p. 319). Contemporary academic readers will
undoubtedly note in Buchanan's overwrought rhapsodizing the presence
of a troubling desire to deny the ugliness of marital conflict; his eagerness
to "forget the horrible pain" inflicted upon wives betrays a larger, patriar-
chal investment in affirming a passive, relatively silent role for the suffer-
ing woman in the domestic sphere. But Buchanan's attention to Pompilia's
rejection of her role as plaintiff also intimates Browning's underlying ar-
tistic project, a project in which he rewrites lyric domination as a restor-
ative, less-coercive form of rhetorical energy.
Browning's efforts to explore alternative techniques for registering
lyric force in Pompilia's monologue have been oversimplified by modern
academic readers, who, in their efforts to avoid the Victorian, patriarchal
admiration of feminine purity celebrated by Buchanan, have largely as-
sumed that Pompilia's lack of rhetorical aggression reveals a rather un-
complicated investment on Browning's part in reaffirming the basic logic
of Victorian patriarchy.35 Clearly yearning for a version of the modern
Lyotardian plaintiff, who "has incurred damages and who disposes of the
means to prove it," critics from the past several decades have repeatedly
fretted about Browning's vexed portrayal of Pompilia's rhetorical and so-
cial agency.36 Hence much recent work on The Ring and the Book either
attacks Pompilia's passivity or performs critical acrobatics to rescue her
from wilting-flower syndrome. "Like Guido and the lawyers, Pompilia
has well-defined motives for speaking, she can be ironic and sarcastic, and
she is conscious of addressing an audience," declares William Walker in a
1984 Victorian Poetry article.37 "To insist on Pompilia's agency," follows
Susan Brown some twelve years later in the same journal, "is to redefine
agency not as a fixed category but as the product of particular social and
linguistic parameters - in this case, paradoxically, the construction of
woman through the discourse of female passivity" (p. 30).
Though these somewhat laborious attempts to emphasize Pompilia's
agency effectively highlight questions of gender and power within Victo-
rian cultural constructions of heterosexuality and domesticity, they also
obscure Browning's emerging preoccupation with the productive dynam-
ics of lyric authority. In Pompilia's monologue, Browning strives for a
lyric power (and hence a social authority) which stands outside the herme-
neutics of domination and submission so common to his early work. If

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the Duke of Ferrara exemplifies a speaker whose violent rhetorical aggres-

sion is permanently enmeshed within his own acts of sexual violence,
Pompilia, by contrast, represents the achievement of self-definition
through a creative energy, a lyric power which seduces rather than coerces
the reader. Her full voice appears in the representation of her pregnancy,
and in directing the force of her lyric energy toward her body in its most
productive form, Pompilia rejects Guido's violent rhetorical tactics.
Browning thus uses Pompilia to suggest alternative lyric strategies
to the dynamic of forced intimacy created by his earlier poems (and, in-
deed, attempted in both of Guido's monologues). If lyric representation
is the ultimate test of one's existence, Pompilia secures her social author-
ity by refusing the distorted, obsessive, transgressive rhetoric of Browning's
most culturally suspect and rhetorically aggressive speakers, productively
harnessing and externalizing her internal physical pain.38 The theme of
sexual transgression thus takes on new forms in The Ring and the Book,
as Browning not only continues the exploration of the relation between
sexual domination and lyric power, but also probes the limitations of
sexual violence as adequate material for stabilizing social authority.
As a work which conjoins an investigation of domestic transgres-
sion with the search for lyric authority, The Ring and the Book offers a
sustained exploration of sexual violence which rivals the representation
of cultural dynamics in those middle-class novels we have come to think
of as the ultimate portrayals of Victorian domestic life. Browning's ver-
sion of cultural and rhetorical testimony serves as one of Victorian poetry's
most culturally visible claims to social authority, as he creates a world in
which rhetorical expression not only becomes the sole evidence of the
self, but also the only determinant of a verdict.

Beyond The Ring and the Book: Victorian Poetry and Domestic

Some of the richest and most provocative Victorian poetry occurs at

the nexus between domestic conflict and lyric imagination, as poets, groping
for a new use for lyricism in the modern age, increasingly treat sexual
violence as an issue of representation, imagination, and psychology. What
is Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867) if not a meditation on violent
lyric energy linked to sexual conflict? Or the poetry of George Meredith
or Algernon Charles Swinburne, laced with lyric metaphors of poison
and decay which amplify the slow misery of domestic dissolution? From
the wife's sobs "like little gaping snakes, / Dreadfully venomous" (1.5-6) in

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the bedroom of Meredith's Modern Love (1862), to "the little snakes that
eat at my heart" (11. 112) in Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time" (1866),
mid-century Victorian poets repeatedly use the lyric form to register sexual
violence and domestic destruction. Their use of intense lyric language
rivals the novel's claim to the representation of domestic psychology. The
sexual anguish and violence in Modern Love - "he went mad, / And raged
deep inward" (2.8-9) - follows the prominent staging of domestic vio-
lence in Browning's monologues as a means of achieving new insights
into both domesticity and poetry.
Hence the sexual violence of modern domestic life, a problem so
often alluded to in theater and novels but scrutinized only superficially,
lent itself to the struggle of Victorian poetry, as Victorian poets discov-
ered that poetic forms permitted a greater attention to - and expression
of - the inner psychology of sexual transgression. But it was Browning
who most successfully folded the theme of violent heterosexuality into
the project of Victorian poetry, suggesting that the plight of the lyric
voice mirrored the desperate violence of sexual domination. Further in-
vestigation into the relation between Browning's representation of rhe-
torical violence and sexual violence enriches both our historical under-
standing of the predicament of Victorian poetry, and, moreover, high-
lights a psychological dimension of Victorian domestic life sometimes
obscured by other literary genres and lines of modern historical research.


1 Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 49. That is not to say that issues of
domesticity and gender in poetry have been completely ignored. Indeed, over the
past two decades, literary scholars have increasingly attended to Browning's poetry as
a means of achieving a broader understanding of the intersection between Victorian
cultural problems and Victorian literary history, especially in terms of gender. The
number of recent essays devoted to The Ring and the Book's Pompilia, for example,
provides ample evidence of literary approaches which focus on Browning's awareness
of gender and domesticity as important social preoccupations. These essays often aim
to illustrate "the active participation of [poetic] texts in historical debate and social
change" (Susan Brown, "Pompilia: The Woman (in) Question," VP 34 [1996]: 31).
For two important studies of gender, Browning, and Victorian culture, see Nina
Auerbach, "Robert Browning's Last Word," VP 22 (1984): 161-173, and Mary Ellis
Gibson, "The Criminal Body in Victorian Britain: The Case of The Ring and the
Book," BIS 18 (1990): 73-93.
2 Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, Browning's Roman Murder Story: A
Reading of "The Ring and the Book" (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 1.
3 Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry : Poetry, Poetics and Politics (New York: Routledge,
1993), p. 11.

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4 See James A. Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-

Century Married Life (New York: Routledge, 1992); Lawrence Stone, Broken Lives:
Separation and Divorce in England, 1660-1857 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press,
5 Maeve E. Dogget, Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England (Co-
lumbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 106407.
6 See Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Mar-
ketplace, 1880-1885 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995); Mary Poovey, Uneven
Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chi-
cago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988).
7 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (New York: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1991), p. 485.
8 See Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the
EnglishMiddle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987).
9 See Catherine Hall, "The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology," in Fit
Work for Women, ed. Sandra Burman (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), pp. 15-

10 S. S. Curry, Browning and the Dramatic Monologue: Nature and Interpretation of

an Overlooked Form of Literature (Boston: Expression Company, 1908).
11 Mary Ellis Gibson, "Introduction," Critical Essays on Robert Browning, ed. Mary
Ellis Gibson (New York: G. K. Hall and Co!, 1992), p. 3.
1 2 See Herbert Tucker, "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric," in Critical
Essays, ed. Gibson, p. 33. Tucker observes that although most literary scholars agree
that Tennyson actually published the first dramatic monologues, Browning truly
refined the genre. "One good reason why the dramatic monologue is associated with
Browning's name rather than Tennyson's, who technically got to it first," remarks
Tucker, "is that in Browning the lyrical flight from narrative, temporality, and identity
appears through a characteristic, and characterizing, resistance to its allure" (p. 24).
13 Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern
Literary Tradition (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 96.
14 All quotations from Browning's poetry are from Robert Browning: The Poems, ed.
John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins, 2 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1981) and The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (Harmondsworth: Pen-
guin Books, 1990).
15 Dorothy Mermin, The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets (New Brunswick:
Rugters Univ. Press, 1983), p. 49.
16 Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 756.
17 J. Skelton, "Robert Browning," Eraser's Magazine (February 1863): 240-256, in
Browning: The Critical Heritage, ed. Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley (London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 207. All quotations from nineteenth-century
reviews of Browning's work are from Litzinger and Smalley and are cited as BCH.
18 Review of Bells and Pomegranates [B&P], Eclectic Review (April 1846): 421-426, in
BCH, p. 113; review of Men and Women [M<SW], Athenaeum (November 17,
1855): 1327-28, in BCH, p. 157.
19 Review of B&P, English Review (June 1846): 354-386, in BCH, p. 126.

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20 See Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press,
1988), p. 532.
21 Herbert F. Tucker, Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (Minneapolis:
Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1980), p. 191.
22 Review of M&W, Spectator (December 22, 1855): 1346-47, in BCH, p. 163.
23 Margaret Oliphant, review of M&W, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (February
1856): 135437, in BCH, p. 188; David Masson, review of M&W, British Quarterly
Review (January 1856): 151-180, in BCH, p. 180. This is a version of what a Dublin
University Magazine reviewer identified as "rough wild etching" (review of M&W
Dune 1856]: 667-681, BCH, p. 189). He further remarked that he would prefer
"more delicate pencilling, without losing bold reality" (p. 189).
24 George Eliot, review of M&W, Westminster Review (January 1856): 290-296, in
BCH, p. 177.
25 George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 333.
26 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 421.
27 Amanda Anderson, Tainted Soub and Painted Faces; The Rhetoric of Fallenness in
Victorian Culture (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993). "Nancy's latent purity," re-
marks Anderson along these lines, "is proven by the fact that she knows she cannot
be saved" (p. 90).
28 G. Brimley [with T.C.C.], review of M&W, Eraser's Magazine (January 1856): 105-
29 Review of The Ring and the Book [R&B], Spectator (December 12, 1868): 1464-
1466, in BCH, p. 288, emphasis added.
30 Review of R&B, Saturday Review (December 26, 1868): 832-834, in BCH, p. 298.
31 Richelieu [pseud.], review of R&B, Vanity Fair (November 28, 1868): 46-47, in
BCH, p. 285.
32 R. W. Buchanan, review of R&B, Athenaeum (March 20, 1869): 399-400, in BCH,
p. 296. That is not to say that Victorian critics naively demanded of Browning an
unsophisticated didacticism. Indeed, Moncure D. Conway commended Browning
for avoiding "moral monotony" (review of R&B, Atlantic Monthly [February 1869]:
256-259, in BCH, p. 313). Both Frederick Greenwood and Walter Bagehot re-
marked on the poem's moral subtlety: Greenwood, for instance, observed that only
the poem's most delicate aesthetic nuances revealed Browning's moral perspective -
"It is noticeable . . . that we have a generally better workmanship when the poet
speaks for those who are on the right side than when he speaks for those who are in
the wrong" (review of R&B, Cornhill Magazine [February 1869]: 249-256, in BCH,
p. 313) - while Bagehot praised Browning for refusing "to take sides" (review of
R&B, Tinsley's Magazine [January 1869]: 665-674, in BCH, p. 306).
33 Alexander Welsh, Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence
in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), p. 206.
34 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New
York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 171.
35 Auerbach, for instance, argues that Browning kills his female speakers as a substitu-
tion for the aggression he bears his wife.
36 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den

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Abbeele, eds. Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Theory and History of Lit-
erature 46 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 8.
37 William Walker, "Pompilia and Pompilia," VP 22 (1984): 47.
38 See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.

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