Monday, September 21, 2009

PC and sympathy

At the Kansas State University website I find an astonishing claim that Browning's Johannes Agricola in Meditation is "unsympathetic" to Agricola. The commentator on the poem, which is reproduced there, says it shows how well the technique of dramatic monologue
can be used for effects of humor and purposes of satire. In the speaker of the poem we encounter the poet's unsympathetic imagination of the kind of mentality he believed was fostered by the teachings of the tradition known as Protestant Antinomianism.
It is hard for me to imagine the imaginative machinery of a person who takes this poem to be presenting an unsympathetic picture of Agricola. The tendency of the poem, blindingly effective in every line, is to render the passionately felt belief of an "Antinomian" in such a way as to make the reader able to recreate it in his own imagination.

But the induction of sympathy is not a call to belief. This is where I think the commentator goes astray. I can find only one explanation for his or her calling the poem an "unsympathetic imagination" of Agricola. This explanation requires me to suppose that the commentator is a thoroughly modern, all-embracing Protestant (that is, anti-Antinomian and so non-Agricultural) who yet believes that to sympathize is to condone. The commentator likes Browning and wants things to stay that way. So in the poem Browning must be unsympathetically portraying Agricola's beliefs, because the commentator does not sympathize with those beliefs. I can barely imagine reading the poem in such a frame of mind: "Agricola is presented as self-righteous, he thinks he's OK with God and so can write off everyone else without a qualm".

But it's not always about sympathy and poetical correctness. The commentator seems to be unfamiliar with the willing suspension of belief, as a technique of reading - in this case religious belief. That is the counterpart, for the Christian literary critic, of what Coleridge once hoped to encourage in a different context, in the general public. Note that I have nowhere implied here, nor intend to claim, that Browning "had Antinomian sympathies". Rather, I am stating a generalized version of Coleridge's idea: that it can be useful to occasionally suspend belief, and disbelief, and anything else that a reader may otherwise depend on - in the interests of gaining new insights, as well as avoiding chronic dependence on the old ones. Change the label, and think again, at least once a week.

The poem starts:

There's heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e'er so bright
Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
I keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
For 't is to God I speed so fast,
For in God's breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
I lay my spirit down at last.
I lie where I have always lain,
God smiles as he has always smiled;
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
The heavens, God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
This head this hand should rest upon
Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.
And having thus created me,
Thus rooted me, he bade me grow,
Guiltless for ever, like a tree
That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
The law by which it prospers so:

The poem ends:

For as I lie, smiled on, full-fed
By unexhausted power to bless,
I gaze below on hell's fierce bed,
And those its waves of flame oppress,
Swarming in ghastly wretchedness;
Whose life on earth aspired to be
One altar-smoke, so pure! -- to win
If not love like God's love for me,
At least to keep his anger in;
And all their striving turned to sin.
Priest, doctor, hermit, monk grown white
With prayer, the broken-hearted nun,
The martyr, the wan acolyte,
The incense-swinging child, -- undone
Before God fashioned star or sun!
God, whom I praise; how could I praise,
If such as I might understand,
Make out and reckon on his ways,
And bargain for his love, and stand,
Paying a price at his right hand?

1 comment:

AJP Crown said...

Grumbly, where are you? We need you to translate something ...