Men and Women Summary
by Robert Browning

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Men and Women Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,535 words.)