Robert Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral,” subtitled “Shortly After the Revival of Learning in Europe,” is a funeral elegy in four stanzas. It is written in the first-person plural, suggesting either a group or a single person speaking for a group. It is important to bear in mind the distance between the speaking persona of the poem and the poet himself; throughout “A Grammarian’s Funeral,” Browning is careful to include elements that make the reader question the objectivity and accuracy of the speaker’s (or speakers’) observations.
The poem describes a funeral procession for a noted grammarian; the procession leaves a sleeping countryside at daybreak and makes its way to a burial site high on a mountain. The funeral party is composed of students of the grammarian, including the speaker(s), who praise their dead master enthusiastically for his devotion to scholarship and his choice of a life of learning over a more conventional existence.
As the students proceed up the mountain, they describe the grammarian, his early years, his decision to embark on a life of study, and finally, his physical decline and death. They speak with admiration of his contempt for life’s more ordinary pursuits and praise his focus on lofty scholarship.
Browning uses form and language to heighten the poem’s thematic tension between appearance and reality, between the high praise the students lavish on their master and the more shadowy, contradictory portrait of the grammarian that emerges through their posthumous encomium.
The phrasing of the poem is frequently awkward and discordant, and the unusual metrical pattern is distinctly unmelodious: “He ventured neck or nothing—heaven’s success/ Found, or earth’s failure:/ ‘Wilt thou trust death or not?’ He answered ‘Yes:/ Hence with life’s pale lure!’” Such verse seems particularly incongruous in a poem about the great achievements of a man whose life was devoted to the study of the graceful and flowing language of Homer and Sophocles.
The verse seems to undercut the ostensibly serious tone of the poem. The feminine rhymes in the even-numbered lines create a somewhat comic effect, at times resembling strained doggerel more than serious verse. Lines such as “Calculus racked him:/Tussis attacked him,” and “Fancy the fabric/Ere mortar dab brick!” are but a few examples of the pat, singsong rhyming found throughout the poem.
Despite the praise of the grammarian’s lofty idealism, there is much in the poem that seems to decry his austere way of life. The most apparent is the recurrent imagery of death. In the setting of the funeral, the grammarian is first referred to as “the corpse.” He is described rather strangely as “famous, calm, and dead.” The students themselves make an unwitting acknowledgment of a connection between death and a life of selfless devotion to scholarship when they say, “Seek we sepulture,” implying that the pursuit of knowledge leads to death. It is interesting to note that the only specific reference to the grammarian’s field of study (as opposed to more general references to “learning” throughout the poem) occurs at the grammarian’s deathbed, as he stammers out Greek grammar through his death rattle.
This physical death, however, is not the only death associated with the grammarian. The life he leads with such singleness of purpose can be seen as a kind of death-in-life in which he rejects the fullness of an ordinary life for the intense but one-dimensional life of a scholar. At the beginning of his career he determined that “before living he’d learn how to live”—but if he follows this plan he will never begin to live, since, as he himself knows,...
(This entire section contains 509 words.)
there is “No end to learning.” He seems glad to make this sacrifice, saying, “Hence with life’s pale lure!”
Other images add to the ambiguity of the grammarian’s portrayal. Despite the students’ admiration of him as a heroic figure, the grammarian is described as bald, “cramped and diminished,” with “eyes like lead.” He was racked with physical disease, and by the end of his life he was “dead from the waist down,” hardly the “Lyric Apollo” his students describe. Browning uses imagery such as this deliberately to set up tension between the positive and negative aspects of the grammarian and his life’s work.