"Famous, Calm, And Dead"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The subtitle "Shortly after the revival of learning in Europe" gives the key to this dramatic monologue. It is spoken by one of a group of pupils of the dead grammarian who, with his fellow-students, is carrying the body of his master to burial at the top of a mountain. The pupil describes his late master as a man who has devoted his entire life to scholarship–to the study of the grammatical structure of the Greek language, at that time newly returned to Europe after centuries during which it had been known only in fragments. The grammarian had sacrificed a lifetime to this study; neither illness nor age had halted his work. Now that he is dead, his pupils feel that only burial on a mountain-top, amid the storms and lightnings, is fitting for such a devoted scholar. The poem contains one of Browning's favorite themes: that the important aspect of life is what we try to do, not what we accomplish. The man of small mind aims at a low mark and easily attains it. The really great man aims at an impossible goal. This goal he can never reach; yet in his effort to do so, he goes far beyond the reach of the small man. So it was with the dead grammarian: he had tried to master all of the subtleties of the Greek language. He had failed, yet he had been an inspiration to his pupils to whom he had passed on his love of learning for its own sake. So the speaker, who is leading the burial procession, comments:

. . .
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
Clouds overcome it;
No! yonder sparkle is the citadel's
Circling its summit.
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
He's for the morning.
Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
'Ware the beholders!
This is our master, famous, calm, and dead,
Borne on our shoulders.