UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Deception and artifice in four late Browning poems : Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Fifine at the fair, Red cotton nightcap country and The inn album Slinn, Errol Warwick


While deception and its artifices have been recognized as central to Browning's poetry, they have not been examined in his late works. The dominating concept in The Ring and the Book that falsehood is ubiquitous in human existence provides Browning with impetus for the next decade, as he attempts further to understand and dramatize both the means by which man obscures truth, and the circumstances, if any, under which man may act according to some sort of moral perception. Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau presents a persona who manipulates point of view in order to mask his insecurity. His final realization that his political benevolence is an illusion leads not to salvation but to an impasse, since the truth he perceives is that all language is inevitably false, and therefore all arguments inevitably futile. Once he relinquishes deception, he is at the mercy of chance. Don Juan in Fifine at the Fair flaunts the artifices of language and mind overtly and deliberately. He apprehends both the elements of deception in all perceptual processes, and his dependence for knowledge on the misleading appearances of reality; consequently, he realizes a "histrionic truth" which is based on this realistic understanding of man's limitations and which enables him momentarily to reconcile the conflicting impulses of soul and flesh. In Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, Miranda's disastrous leap of faith is the result of his insufficient strength of intellect to perceive properly the function of religious symbol. All the characters in this story adhere to external signs, either symbols of belief or indications of social convention. Clara, the cousins and the clergy exploit the possibilities of deception, taking advantage of Miranda's impulsiveness and flawed perception. His death is rational in a perverse sense according to his circumstances and training, but his reasoning functions in terms of a naive literalism. He dies, a victim of the inept attempt of his fancy to merge the reality of illusion with the reality of physical fact. The Inn Album dramatizes the reaction of three people to the knowledge and discovery of falsehood. The Lord views deception as characterizing human morality and he exploits its possibilities to impose his cynical design on others. The Youth acts impulsively and naturally to destroy it, but he retains the same obtuse idealism at the end with which he admires the Lord at the beginning—he has swapped a master for a mistress. The Lady reacts with horror, trying to escape from falsehood and to purify its leprous touch—her suicide is a kind of martyrdom to the cause of tainted purity. The Lord's social artifices, epitomizing human pretentiousness and sophisticated behaviour, are contrasted with the spontaneous beauty and natural art of the landscape. Man's deceit outrages the civilization of the natural world. None of these poems offers the purely generous response of right against wrong; even good actions retain an element of selfishness. Browning does, however, allow the reader to judge his characters and his point of view which underlies each poem testifies to at least the possibility of abstracting and authenticating values from human experience. Much of the interest in these dramas of consciousness lies in the paradoxical ability of reason to perceive good or unselfishness while it simultaneously deceives itself. The refinement of intellect leads to the obscurity of earthly reality as well as to the apprehension of its essentially ambiguous nature. These poems are dramatic, unified and more intelligible than many critics have admitted. They undoubtedly emphasize the experience of the mind, but they are not devoid-of emotion. Juan's sense of the "histrionic truth" combines Browning's aesthetic with his metaphysic, and Browning as always locates intellectual questions within the labyrinths of personality.

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