A worm in Browning's shadow

IN my study the other day I was watching a measuring worm that had found its way onto my sleeve. I took it off and went outside and put it on a little plant. There again it began measuring, measuring, pulling itself up from toe to mouth, so to say, loop high in air. And I thought of the talk I was to give at the first program of the year to the San Diego Browning Society. My subject was ``A Browning Biography.'' But which of a dozen biographies was most authentic? Was the measuring worm telling me something?

For the biographer (and are we not all biographers of our own lives, writing in our daily acts our own bios?) measures his own ``length'' - thought, power of understanding, ways of behavior - against the cloth, the plant, the available facts of what he reads of and about, let's say Browning. His measuring stick is what? Just as the little worm's is his whole length, his body, so the biographer, who writes of ``someone else,'' measures with his own ``length.'' Mathematically, the worm, limited to worm-length measurements, can be said to be more universally accurate than the human biographer, who, using human-length measurements, dares to reach beyond worm length and probe a hidden depth and meaning. The human mind thus helps, you counter. But here, alas, must we not admit that because of its very ``measurements,'' it also can confuse, give imperfect, even false reportings? Inevitably, then, there are biographies and biographies, histories and histories.

So even we students, listening with critical or sympathetic ear, become geometrids, measuring, measuring, measuring. And the moral of that, as fables used to say, is - well, let's leave that to you.

Yes, I learned a new word the other day - geometrid, ``any of a family (Geometridae) of medium-sized moths with large wings whose offspring usually have two pairs of prolegs, and progress by a looping movement, whence they are called measuring worms, loopers, etc.'' (Thus Webster's Collegiate Dictionary on my desk.) There is also the Latin word mensurare, ``to measure,'' which means ``to mark the bounds or limits of, to pass through or over in `journeying.'''

And now, for an indulgent smile, let me add my Browning talk's conclusion:

Now today's not a sober science treatise But intended by presumptive analogy to show That authors, biographers, despite expertise Are merely measuring worms. They sometimes

glow, But skill and bile may oft get mixed in

measuring ``foe.'' They cannot measure with what they've not. An inside look at their books tells what they've

got. Stop there, speaker, or one named Robert

Browning Would rightly say, Yes, judge the books, but can

the clowning.

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