A Grammarian's Funeral

by Robert Browning

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

“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 no less valid a field for scholarship, especially in view of the fact that prior to the Renaissance very little was known about the language of the ancient Greeks. Part of the reader’s judgment as to whether the grammarian is an admirable or a ridiculous figure rests on this intentionally ambiguous issue of whether the study of Greek particles is a significant or a trivial exercise.

The grammarian’s final words on his deathbed further exemplify this ambivalence toward his preoccupation with the minutiae of grammar. In his final moments, the grammarian delivers doctrines on Hoti, Oun, and De. In one sense it is admirable that even at the end of his life he does not waver from his devotion to his subject, instead continuing to the last to contribute to his life’s work. At the same time, however, the reader may wonder that at the moment of death the grammarian cannot raise his thoughts to anything higher than prepositions and conjunctions.

The grammarian’s choosing “not to Live but Know” is a similarly cloudy matter. He seems to have taken up learning as a prelude to living an enlightened life, only to spurn life after becoming engrossed in his grammar. While his single-mindedness in his scholarship seems laudable, his rejection of a conventional way of life seems foolish and wasteful; the determination is left to the reader.

Browning’s equivocal conclusion strikes one last note of ambiguity; the final three lines are capable of multiple interpretations. The grammarian is described as “loftily lying,” ostensibly a reference to his burial site, but possibly implying dishonesty—perhaps referring to the grammarian’s life of self-denial as he deceived himself about his own human wants and needs. “Leave him,” say the students as they depart the summit, possibly a hint that they are rejecting the austere lifestyle of the devoted scholar who renounced life’s pleasures. The grammarian was “loftier than the world suspects,” “lofty” here implying “noble” or “idealistic,” but also perhaps connoting “haughty” or “arrogant,” an appropriate...

(This entire section contains 704 words.)

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term to describe the grammarian’s rejection of everything but his studies.

The final image of the grammarian is of him “Living and dying.” The two seem inextricably intertwined for the grammarian. During his life he was dead to the world, living a kind of death-in-life, but he lives on after death in his achievements and in the hearts of his students. This paradox is a particularly appropriate finish for a poem that creates, through the use of contrasts and intentional ambiguities, such a complex and enigmatic figure as the grammarian.