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“Unsettled Scores: Meter and Play in Two Music Poems by Browning” by Herbert Tucker

Hear Herbert Tucker read his essay on Robert Browning

You are about to read—and to hear as well, if you like, on a visit to the Critical Inquiry website—a pretty shamelessly self-interested talk.  I prepared it for two reasons.  I wanted to get a more inward understanding of a couple of Browning poems that have been favorites of mine for forty years.  I also wanted to give a sort of extreme road-test to a mode of critical understanding—prosodic analysis—that has at least until quite recently forfeited not just its prestige but its very academic currency, within the study and the classroom alike.  A welcome uptick of interest in versification is now perceptible among scholars on both sides of the Atlantic: witness the “Metre Matters” conference at Exeter in 2008, the like-titled book of selected proceedings that conference organizer Jason Hall published in 2011, and concurrently a dedicated issue of the journal Victorian Poetry, edited by Yisrael Levin and Meredith Martin, who for good measure brought out the next year her landmark contribution to the historically contextual study of prosodic theory and practice in the modern era. Interventions like these are sorely needed at a time when the once routine habit of incorporating the scansion of verse into literary pedagogy at the secondary or tertiary level has so withered that we are raising a generation of English majors—doctoral candidates, for that matter —who have only the shakiest access to the interior structures that sustain the great tradition in verse and only the most impressionistic vocabulary for describing and debating what they manage to see and hear there.  We who retain the prosodist’s endangered skill set have a duty nowadays to use it or lose it.  If in discharging this duty we can impart to others some of the powerful enjoyment that formal analysis, at its luckiest, promotes, then maybe the self-interest to which I have confessed can creditably sport the mask of virtue, too.

What follows is a detail-indulgent serial close-reading of two musician monologues from Robert Browning’s 1855 collection Men and Women: “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” and “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha."   Before the plunge into details engrosses us, let me premise a guiding hypothesis and subjoin a few preliminary reflections to go with it.  The hypothesis, suitable for testing on these two virtuoso poems rooted in musical performance, takes the form of a double analogy concerning issues that visible scansion and audible voicing jointly disclose:  The meter of a poem is to its rhythm as a composed score is to its performance and also as a text is to its interpretation, whether one takes interpretation in its hermeneutic, written sense or in the sense of an experienced vocalization—whether, that is, one takes it into the library or into the auditorium, the literate domain or the oral.

  • Herbert F. Tucker