Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Grammarian’s Funeral” is marked by ambiguity and division. By contrasting the ideal and the actual and by subtly emphasizing the difference between appearance and reality, Browning creates a shadowy, ambiguous character and leaves the reader to decide whether the grammarian is the hero, as his students see him, or a foolishly overzealous scholar who has rejected life for the pursuit of trivial knowledge.

The grammarian’s students praise him as a paragon of scholarship and intellectual vigor, and often he is described as an admirable figure striving for lofty ideals. His complete and wholehearted absorption in his studies seems particularly inspiring when he says, “What’s time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!/ Man has forever.” The grammarian’s life of scholarship in this light seems a noble example of the Renaissance spirit of dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, and Browning’s pinpointing of the time in which the poem is set as the beginning of the Renaissance is significant; the grammarian’s close study of Greek grammar may well have paved the way for more accessible and practical products of the renewal of classical scholarship.

The grammarian’s chosen field of study, however, is treated with some ambivalence. After the students’ enthusiastic praise of the grammarian’s devotion to an idealized but rather vague “learning,” one is surprised to discover that his great achievements are in the realm of particles of grammar. The subject seems comically trivial in comparison with the comprehensive study of “bard and sage” described earlier. Yet, while grammar is perhaps relatively unexciting compared to other aspects of ancient Greek, such as drama or poetry, it is...

(The entire section is 704 words.)