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The Poetry of Architecture: Browning and Historical Revivalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Nicola Humble
Roehampton Institute, London


In book five of sordello (1840), Browning images the process of historical change in architectural terms. History is a building to be destroyed and rebuilt by successive generations:

… at his arm's wrench,

Charlemagne's scaffold fell; but pillars blench

Merely, start back again — perchance have been

Taken for buttresses: crash every screen,

Hammer the tenons better, and engage

A gang about your work, for the next age

Or two, of Knowledge, part by Strength and part

By Knowledge! (5: 221–28)

The metaphor engages with the nineteenth century's great preoccupation with the historically-determined nature of architectural form — its sense that, as Owen Jones declared in 1856, “architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments, of the age in which it is created” (5). The Classical-Gothic opposition that structured most contemporary debates about aesthetic value in architecture is economically encapsulated by Browning in the mutation of the collapsed Classical pillars into Gothic buttresses. It is the economy of the reference that indicates Browning's easy familiarity with those contemporary architectural debates. He makes use of architectural images and ideas in a number of poems, a fact that has gone relatively unremarked in Browning studies. The theme occurs throughout Sordello and is a major element in “Old Pictures in Florence” and “Bishop Blougram's Apology.” His interest in architecture, I contend, derived, like that of most of his contemporaries, from his preoccupation with history. I intend to examine the precise manifestation of that interest and the ways in which he illuminated, synthesized, and rejected elements of the architecture debates, which reveal much about the particular nature of his concern with history.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1997

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