Suzanne Bailey, Cognitive Style and Perceptual Difference in Browning’s Poetry

Suzanne Bailey, Cognitive Style and Perceptual Difference in Browning’s Poetry (London: Routledge 2010) 200pp. £39.99 Pb, £110.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780415874779

In her study, Cognitive Style and Perceptual Difference in Browning’s Poetry, Suzanne Bailey suggests that Robert Browning suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly known as ADHD. She uses this hypothesis to explain several of the well-documented challenges presented by Browning’s poetry, exploring the neuroscience of attention and ADHD in relation to Browning and his work to expand her argument.

In her introduction, subtitled 'Shadows and Light', Bailey maps out her understanding of the neuroscience of cognitive dysfunction. Initially, she focuses on the personal and anecdotal. She recounts her initial encounters with 'learning disabilities' and explains how these inspired a fascination with what it means 'to be told that your “brain” did something different between the time you registered information and then attempt to process it' (3). Bailey also relates her encounter with a phrase in Browning’s letters, 'an odd statement' that, she says, implies 'a mode of perception that is distinct from language' (3). She situates her study among several other biographical-critical studies and other theories pertinent to it, including theories of cognition and linguistics, and proceeds to argue that Browning’s difficulty as a poet – the challenge of reading his poetry – stems from a cognitive dysfunction.

The study divides into two parts. The first section, 'Being Browning', organized into four chapters, reviews evidence of Browning’s identity as a poet, his poetic personality. The first chapter explores evidence about perceptions of Browning’s poetic personality, considering contemporary accounts of Browning’s 'unmistakable genius' (13) combined with statements about his genius having 'an odd note' (13). Bailey proceeds to piece together evidence about Browning’s personality from contemporary accounts, effecting a retroactive diagnosis. The second chapter, 'Containing Energy: Reading Browning and Barrett', considers the relationship between Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and mines further evidence about his 'odd' genius. It draws on Browning’s relationship with and memory of Barrett as 'folded into the complex patterned mental world of the poet' (39). The third chapter, 'Perception and Difference', using the subtitle, 'Visual Biases', explores and conceptualizes different visual imagery and representations of seeing. Again, Bailey draws on a range of theoretical issues pertaining to visual perception, quoting, for instance, Temple Grandin’s comment about 'Thinking in pictures' (50). Bailey attempts to map these theories onto Browning, however, and his poetry, drawing again upon written comments from the poet and his contemporaries, as well as snippets from his poetry that suggest how his visual perception, in line with Bailey’s general argument, may have been unusual. The final chapter in the first section, 'Attention', discusses ADHD in some detail and then offers evidence that Browning may well have fitted the diagnosis. Alhtough such retroactive diagnosis is problematic (and Bailey does not seem to clearly address the problems it raises), making the case for Browning having the disorder or some symptoms of it is integral to the second section of the study, which more directly examines evidence of abnormal cognitive function in Browning’s poetry.

The second section declaires its focus as on 'Browning’s Writing: Self-Representation, Cognitive Style, and Finding A Voice'. Having laid out evidence in the first section, supported by a conceptual framework, that Browning may have had ADHD or something like it, Bailey sets out to consider the possible effects of such a condition in relation to Browning’s poetry. She proposes to focus on the experience of reading Browning’s poetry and the challenges of it. Key to Bailey’s hypothesis about Browning’s cognitive dysfunction is evidence within his poetry that might suggest attention deficits; namely, his rapid shifts of topic and the lines of verse that can seem erratic, both in terms of their content or subject focus, and their syntactical arrangement. Bailey’s initial evidentiary focus, however, is again not upon Browning’s poetry but upon his correspondence and reports from contemporaries. Bailey begins with a chapter on 'Speech Pragmatics', looking at the style and syntax of Browning’s correspondence, rather more than his poetry, and drawing on theoretical notions about how the pragmatics of speech can represent the workings of the mind. Bailey posits that 'Browning’s condensation of language, one of his stylistic innovations, can create effects of exceptional precision', adding, 'as readers and teachers of Browning also know, it is hard to follow Browning from the beginning of the sentence to the end' (72). Bailey next considers the 'Perceptions Whole', or the narrative difficulty, as she calls it, in Browning’s early poems. Here, the focus is more directly upon portions of Browning’s poetry, as the chapter title suggests.

The focus on extracts from Browning’s poetry continues in the next several chapters, 'Finding A Voice: “Celerity” as Poetic Principle', 'The Subjective Browning', and 'Celerity and Its Consequences: The Later Poems'. As previous reviewers have already observed, the analysis of individual poems and the tying together of portions of Browning’s poetry with his writing in letters provides intriguing insights into how his cognitive style and his ideas about language informed his poetics. The overall scope of insight into Browning’s language, however, feels hampered by the dependence on hypothetical diagnosis within the study as a whole.

Charlotte Fiehn, University of Cambridge