The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 3. Pauline

The wholesome and wealthy confusion of this seething period of the young poet’s life is faithfully rendered or, rather, betrayed, in the brilliant and incoherent Pauline—Browning’s earliest published poem. Pauline herself, except for the first half-dozen lines and a footnote, is the shadow of a shade—the passive recipient of the psychological confessions of a young poet: a young poet, who, not at all unaware of his curls and lace and ruffles, has been turning himself round and round before the mirror, and has found that he is too noble a being, too bold, reckless, unrestrained, sceptical, brilliant, intense, widesouled, hungry for knowledge and love for this work-a-day world. The self-consciousness is not “intense,” as J. S. Mill thought. It is picturesque. It is not “morbid” or unwholesome, as other critics have averred. It is only the frippery, the most serious mock-believe tragical outpourings of an extra-ordinarily handsome and innocent youth, who, in truth, had never known disappointment nor looked in the face of sorrow. Browning’s dislike of the poem in later years was entirely natural. He resented all prying into private life, and was, of all men, least willing to “sonnet-sing about himself.” So, the drapery in which he had clothed himself in this early poem seemed to him to be almost transparent, and he felt as if he had been going about nude.

Pauline was published in January, 1833, anonymously, when its author was twenty years old. But that fine critic W. J. Fox discerned its merit and dealt with it in generous praise in The Monthly Repository for April in the same year. Allan Cunningham, also, praised it in The Athenaeum. Some years later (probably in 1850), Rossetti found and transcribed it in the reading room of the British Museum, and he wrote to Browning, who was in Florence, to ask him “whether he was the author of a poem called Pauline.” Beyond this, the poem attracted no attention. Why, it is difficult to say. That it is mastered by its material, flooded by its own wealth, it true. Of all Browning’s poems, it is the only one which owes its difficulty to confusion; and it is, in fact, to use the poet’s own phrase, a “boyish work.” But what work for a boy! There are passages in it, not a few, of a beauty that exceeds so much as to belong to a sphere of being into which mediocrity never for a moment gains entry. So long as he has this theatrically earnest boy at his side, the reader is never safe from the surprise of some sudden splash of splendour:

  • the boy
  • With his white breast and brow and clustering curls
  • Streaked with his mother’s blood, but striving hard
  • To tell his story ere his reason goes.
  • He is “exploring passion and mind,” he says, “for the first time,” “dreaming not of restraint but gazing on all things.” He is “borne away, as Arab birds float sleeping in the wind, o’er deserts, towers, and forests.” He “nourishes music more than life, and old lore,” and “knows the words shall move men, like a swift wind.” In every way, Pauline must remain a supremely interesting poem to Browning’s readers: it holds in bud many of Browning’s qualities, powers and even convictions.

    After the publication of Pauline, in 1833, Browning visited Petrograd with Benkhausen, the Russian consul general; and it was probably this contact with offical life which led him, shortly after his return to England, to apply—in vain—for a post on a Persian mission. During this period, there is ample evidence of physical and mental exuberance, but little of poetic activity. It was many years later that the Russian visit yielded the forest-scene of the thrilling tale of Ivàn Ivànovitch, and his toying with the Persian mission (possibly) suggested Ferishtah. But his interest in the complicated subtleties of diplomacy appeared in Sordello and Strafford as well as in Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau—not to mention Bishop Blougram and Caliban upon Setebos. In 1834, however, there appeared in The Monthly Repository a series of five poetic contributions of which the most noteworthy were Porphyria, afterwards entitled Porphyria’s Lover, and the six stanzas beginning “Still ailing, Wind? Wilt be appeased or no,” which were republished in James Lee’s Wife. Then, with a preface dated 15 March, 1835, when its author still lacked two months of completing his twenty-third year, there appeared one of the most marvellous productions of youthful poetic genius in the history of any literature.