13 August 2010

Henry James about Robert Browning

Casually leafing, recently, through a volume of the critical writings of Henry James, I came across a review he wrote in 1875 of Browning's book, THE INN ALBUM.

An "Inn Album" is a nearly forgotten institution. In days of yore one would be kept in the lobby of an inn, and visitors would write their thoughts therein, or in moments of leisure leaf through the thoughts of earlier visitors.

Anyway, if you would like to read Browning's poem yourself click here.

It was not, evidently, one of Browning's more successful works. James begins his discussion in the center of things: how did Browning fail?

"This is a decidedly irritating and displeasing performance. It is growing more difficult every year for Mr. Browning's old friends to fight his battles for him, and many of them will feel that on this occasion the cause is really too hopeless, and the great poet must himself be answerable for his indiscretions. Nothing that Mr. Browning writes, of course, can be vapid; if this were possible, it would be a much simpler affair. If it were a case of a writer 'running thin,' as the phrase is, there would be no need for criticism; there would be nothing in the way of matter to criticize, and old readers would have no heart to reproach. But it may be said of Mr. Browning that he runs thick rather than thin, and he need claim none of the tenderness granted to those who have used themselves up in the service of their admirers."

I love that! James praises with faint damns here. He praises Browning's career by the manner in which he is displeased at the recent falling-away -- he praises a talent still evidently all too evident even in damaged form -- and he works through the contrast between "thick" and "thin" that necessarily reminds me of the changes his older brother used to ring on the same terms.

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