Men and Women is Robert Browning’s only significant publication during the period of his marriage to poet Elizabeth Barrett. These were the years when Browning made Italy his home and when his output of poetry was markedly curtailed by a number of other interests: his family, his dabbling in painting and sculpture, and his study of Italian Renaissance art. The quality of his poetry, however, had never been higher than in the poems produced during this period. It was in the original 1855 edition of Men and Women, above all, that he brought the dramatic monologue to perfection. Indeed, his reputation is largely due to his mastery of the dramatic monologue.
The title Men and Women first was appended to two volumes of poems containing fifty-one of Browning’s most celebrated works. Beginning with the collected edition of 1863, the number of poems appearing under this title is thirteen, only eight of which had been in the 1855 edition of Men and Women. Of the other forty-three poems, thirty are grouped by Browning as dramatic lyrics (the most famous of these being “Love Among the Ruins,” “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” “Saul,” “’De Gustibus—,’” and “Two in the Campagna”). Twelve poems are grouped as dramatic romances (including “’Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’” “The Statue and the Bust,” “The Last Ride Together,” and “A Grammarian’s Funeral”). The poem “In a Balcony” eventually was listed separately, under its own title. The poems that remain include several of Browning’s greatest dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” “Andrea del Sarto,” and “Cleon.”
Life in Italy suited Browning, and the atmosphere of that land permeates many of the poems in this collection. Some are Italian simply in landscape, such as the humorous “Up at a Villa—Down in the City.” In other poems, such as “A Serenade at the Villa,” “By the Fire-Side,” and “Two in the Campagna,” it is apparent that Browning’s primary interest is in examining human relationships that could take place anywhere; the setting is Italy, but it is incidentally so. Other poems, however, owe more to their Italian sources, including curious customs (“Holy-Cross Day”) and local legends (“The Statue and the Bust”). In later years, Browning would often say that “Italy was my university”; what he had studied at that university was Italian art. “Old Pictures in Florence” reflects his interest in that art, as do “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto,” both of which are imaginary character studies of real Renaissance painters. “The Guardian-Angel: A Picture at Fano” is based on an actual painting. “’De Gustibus—’” contains the clearest statement of Browning’s love for Italy: “Open my heart and you will see/ Graved inside of it, ’Italy.’”
The Italian element is, however, less important than another personal influence, that of the poet’s marriage to Barrett. Although the love poems in Men and Women are not necessarily autobiographical, they do reflect, at least indirectly, the relationship between Barrett and Browning. In “By the Fire-Side,” communication is complete; love is serene. In “The Last Ride Together,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Love in a Life,” “Life in a Love,” and “Any Wife to Any Husband,” communication breaks down and love fails. “Two in the Campagna” deals with “Infinite passion and the pain/ Of finite hearts that yearn.” Thus, Browning indicates the gap between love in dreams and love in reality. Most of these poems dramatize a love situation and are content to evoke it without commenting on it. “The Statue and the Bust,” however, includes a flatly stated moral: “Let a man contend to the uttermost/ For his life’s set prize,” and never miss that prize because of wasted opportunities.
Some have suggested that in examining the vicissitudes of love Browning was revealing flaws in his own marriage. “A Lover’s Quarrel,” for example, does involve disagreement over two subjects about which he and his wife differed: spiritualism (she believed in it; he scoffed at it) and Napoleon III, emperor of France (she was an admirer; he was not). The evidence is by no means conclusive, however, and the one poem in Men and Women that is openly autobiographical, “One Word More: To E. B. B.,” is Browning’s dedication—both his and that of the book—to Barrett.
Many of Browning’s favorite themes are broached in the poems of Men and Women. The idea that the course of one’s life may turn upon a moment’s decision is expressed in “The Statue and the Bust.” The idea that “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp” is the subject of “Andrea del Sarto,” as well as “Old Pictures in Florence” and “A Grammarian’s Funeral.” Browning’s attitudes toward religion and religious belief are presented in “Saul,” “Cleon,” “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.”
“Memorabilia,” a slight poem, is chiefly remembered because it alludes to Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of Browning’s early enthusiasms and the subject of Browning’s only important prose essay. “Popularity” is a tribute to another of Browning’s favorite poets, John Keats. In this poem there is further allusion to Browning’s belief that the poet’s role is somehow linked with the divine mission. One of Browning’s most explicit statements about what poetry should aim to be is found in “’Transcendentalism’: A Poem in Twelve Books.” In this work he makes clear his preference for Keatsian or Shelleyan “song” to the overlabored, earnest “thought” that characterizes so much bad Victorian poetry. One poet, speaking to another, says, “’Tis you speak, that’s your error. Song’s our art:/ Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts/ Instead of draping them in sights and sounds.”...
(The entire section is 2535 words.)