Robert Browning

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Robert Browning Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4863

Boyd Litzinger in Time’s Revenges: Browning’s Reputation as a Thinker, 1889-1962 (1964) reviews the critical reception of Robert Browning’s work during the decade after his death and finds that his immense popularity was based on three chief beliefs among his readers: Browning was a defender of Christianity, although his specific beliefs were subject to considerable doubt; he was admired for an optimistic worldview and his works were thought to urge humanity to higher and higher efforts to improve its condition; and he was considered to be a serious philosopher and man of ideas.

This analysis seems seriously misguided. Browning’s religious teachings are contradictory at best. His frequent comic and hostile portraits of churchmen are hard to reconcile with conventional Christian belief. His alleged optimism does not account for the gray sadness of Andrea del Sarto’s world or the bloody trial of Count Guido or even the dauntless but perhaps meaningless call of Childe Roland’s horn in the face of the Dark Tower. As a “philosopher,” Browning seems to have a taste more for questions than for answers, and although he expands certain ideas such as the conflict of social role versus private personality or the concept of magnificent failure, he does not develop a coherent system comparable to the philosophic poetry of John Milton.

From the perspective of the present, Browning claims a place of first importance as a protomodernist, a writer who anticipated some of the major developments in art and literature occurring at the beginning of the twentieth century. His use of the dramatic monologue anticipated and to a degree influenced the limited and unreliable narration of such masterpieces of modernism as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915). His conception of relativistic and fragmented worlds in which a character is not at home anticipated the vision of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). His sense of character, defined by the conflict between social roles and internal impulses held in a sometimes unstable equilibrium, was confirmed by modern psychology. Browning is most interesting when seen not as a Victorian sage but as a forerunner of modernism.

“Porphyria’s Lover”

“Porphyria’s Lover,” published along with “Johanes Agricola” under the caption “Madhouse Cells” in Dramatic Lyrics, exemplifies Browning’s use of the dramatic monologue. Written in sixty lines of iambic quatrameter (rhymed ababb), the poem is spoken entirely by a dramatic character, much like the soliloquies in William Shakespeare’s plays. Typically, the monologue can occur only at a moment of inaction, enabling the character to pause from whatever he has been doing and reflect for a moment. What he proceeds to say implies a larger framework of surrounding circumstances: the dramatic situation. Understanding the dramatic situation within a monologue necessitates reader participation to discover the circumstances that are only implied in the poem.

By looking closely at the text of “Porphyria’s Lover,” the reader learns that the speaker is a man who has just strangled his lover, Porphyria. The dead woman’s head rests on his shoulder as he speaks, and he looks with approval on the murder he has committed. The speaker relates the events of the dark, stormy evening: Alone in a cottage, he waited for his beloved Porphyria to enter. Evidently, her absence had been the result of her attendance at a “gay feast,” one of the “vainer ties” which Porphyria presumably cultivated. Left alone, the speaker had become obsessed by the need for Porphyria’s presence, and when she finally entered the cottage, her lover could only think, “mine, mine, fair, perfectly pure and good.” Strangling her in her own hair, he has propped her dead head on his shoulder, and so he sits as he speaks his monologue. Exultant that he has done the perfect thing, he ends his speech with the words, “And yet God has not said a word.”

The dramatic monologue is always spoken by a dramatic character, creating a condition called limited narration. Everything that the reader hears is limited to what the speaker sees, thinks, and chooses to tell. Frequently, limited narration can be “unreliable,” so that the reader has reason to believe that the speaker is mistaken or lying. In “Porphyria’s Lover” the problem of unreliable narration occurs when the speaker says that the perfect thing to do in his situation was to strangle his beloved.

Some critics point to a poem such as this and assert that Browning’s form of writing is vicious, that he evades his duty as a moral teacher by not passing judgment on his characters’ actions. In reply, many scholars argue that Browning has indeed provided sufficient guidance for the reader to form a normative judgment, thus overriding the limited and defective judgment of the murderer. The careful reader of this poem will find much evidence to indict the speaker as a madman and criminal. His very mention of God in the closing line reveals an expectation of punishment. Such an expectation could result only from a subconscious admission of guilt. Thus, even the murderer in a deranged way has brought a moral judgment on himself. Browning has developed a situation that produces a conflict in the reader between sympathy for the character and judgment of him. The beauty rather than the fault of this poem is Browning’s mastery at creating such a conflict and involving the reader in its solution.

“My Last Duchess”

“My Last Duchess,” another poem published in Dramatic Lyrics, exhibits many of the features discussed with reference to “Porphyria’s Lover,” while showing a considerable advance in artistic power and seriousness. Browning’s dramatic poems fall into three categories: soliloquies, in which the persona speaks alone or solus on stage; monologues, in which a single speaker on stage addresses a defined dramatic audience, who must be imagined present; and epistles, monologues constructed as if they were letters written from one character to another. “My Last Duchess” is a monologue, having a speaking persona and a clearly defined dramatic audience. The dramatic situation of this poem is derived from history. The subtitle of the poem is “Ferrara,” and it is likely that the persona is Browning’s dramatization of Alfonso II, the fifth duke of Ferrara. Alfonso II married Lucrezia de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, duke of Florence. The Medici family were newly arrived upstarts in comparison with the more ancient house of Ferrara. The duchess of Alfonso II, Lucrezia de’ Medici, died at the age of seventeen in 1561, it being said that she was poisoned. Three years later Alfonso contracted to marry Barbara, niece of the count of Tyrol.

The dramatic situation of “My Last Duchess” probably involves Duke Alfonso II imagined as addressing an envoy from the count of Tyrol to negotiate the details of his wedding with Barbara. One of the main objectives of the duke’s speech is to “soften up” his adversary in the negotiations so as to extract from him the maximum dowry and to exact the most dutiful compliance with his wishes by his future wife and in-laws. The reader must imagine the duke walking with his guest in the duke’s art gallery while an entertainment is going on for the other guests in the lower hall of his castle. The duke pauses before a painting covered by a curtain, asks his guest to sit, and opens the curtain to display a striking portrait of his previous wife, who is dead. While the envoy contemplates the picture of the dead former wife, the duke explains that he was not completely happy with his last mate. She did not appreciate the value of his “nine hundred years old name,” and so the duke “gave commands” and her annoying smiles stopped completely. She stands in the portrait as if alive, and he invites the envoy to gaze on her. Then the duke suggests that they join the party below, mentioning in passing that he is sure that the count will give him any dowry that he desires. As they descend the stairs, the duke points out a statue of the pagan god Neptune taming a sea horse, which recapitulates the struggle of the duke with the envoy. The envoy has no chance of winning a contest of will with the duke, just as the sea horse must submit to the god of the sea. The power is all in the duke’s hands.

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church”

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” appeared in Dramatic Romances. Subtitled “Rome, 15—,” it appears to refer to a real place, the church of St. Praxed near Rome, but unlike “My Last Duchess,” it does not seem to refer to a particular person or historical event. One must construct a general idea of a worldly bishop in Italy in the sixteenth century on his deathbed speaking these lines. The dying man has his “nephews” or illegitimate sons, including his favorite, Anselm, at his bedside to communicate his last wishes to them. From the details of his speech, the reader learns that the sons’ mother, the bishop’s mistress, was a beautiful woman, and that the bishop had a rival for power called old Gandolf, who is buried in St. Praxed’s Church. The bishop orders his sons to build him a tomb in the church that will put Gandolf’s to shame by its richness. Such a tomb will be costly to build, but the dying bishop makes a shocking revelation to the boys: There was once a fire in the church from which the bishop saved an enormous semiprecious stone, a lump of lapis lazuli, which he hid. He now tells the boys where to find the buried treasure, provided they will put it on his funeral statue as a decoration.

The depiction of the bishop’s character is a study in hypocrisy. One expects a churchman to be humble and honest, to deny his physical desires, and to abstain from sex and the gratification of worldly lusts. As his mind wanders and he nears death, this bishop appears to be just the opposite. Rather than living celibate, he has fathered these sons who stand around him, and he has loved their voluptuous mother. Rather than showing generosity to his enemies, even at the moment of death, he is filled with petty jealousy of old Gandolf. He has stolen the church’s jewel from the conflagration. He even confuses Christianity and paganism as he describes the frieze he wants on his tomb as a mixture of erotic pagan elements and Christian scenes. Next to the depiction of the virgin martyr Saint Praxed, he wants a Bacchic orgy with “one Pan ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off.”

Works such as “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” were influential on the novel and the short story as well as on modern poetry, for they expanded the notion of character in fiction. Character is sometimes defined as what man habitually chooses to do. A character is said to be a liar if he usually lies. Another is a brave man if he usually refuses to run from danger. Browning writes many poems about churchmen, perhaps because their ethical character is so sharply defined. The minute one sees a character dressed as a bishop, one expects that this man will habitually act in a certain way, that his actions will be loving, self-sacrificing, humble, and Christian, and that he will not put his faith in the material world, but concern himself with heavenly goals. Browning puts such a character in a moment of unusual stress in which his expected role crumbles, and one sees through his public face to an inner set of unexpected feelings. At any other time in his life, the bishop of St. Praxed’s, dressed in his robes and healthy and strong, would never have revealed that he was subject to lust, greed, pride, and all the un-Christian characteristics he reveals to his sons on his deathbed. Browning has found a moment when the bishop’s public face cracks and his inner personality is revealed. The poem explores the conflict between the public role and the private personality of a man.

“Bishop Blougram’s Apology”

In addition to “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church,” Browning wrote a number of other poems about religious hypocrites, including “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” published in Men and Women. The dramatic situation is a nineteenth century dinner party given by Blougram for a young newspaperman who is an unbeliever. Blougram talks at length to the younger man and, perhaps a bit intoxicated by his own importance or an unusual amount of wine, confesses some things that he would not normally say in public because they do not fit the expected role of a bishop. The newspaperman Gigadibs despises Blougram because, while the bishop is intelligent enough to know that miracles and the historically untrue parts of the Bible are mere superstition, he nevertheless publicly professes to believe in them. He must therefore be a hypocrite. Apparently Gigadibs has also accused the bishop of profiting from his profession of belief and so achieving a comfortable and powerful position in life. Perhaps the poem refers to the Roman Catholic Cardinal Wiseman and Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) may be reflected in the title of Browning’s poem.

Blougram’s reply to Gigadibs’s charges is important for an understanding of Browning’s idea of characterization in fiction. At line 375 and following, Blougram suggests that Gigadibs thinks that a few intelligent people will always look at Blougram and “know me whether I believe in the last winking virgin, as I vow, and am a fool, or disbelieve in her and am a knave.” Even so, Blougram maintains that these intelligent people will be those most fascinated with him because he maintains an impossibly contradictory balance:You see lads walk the street . . . what’s to note in that? You see one lad o’erstride a chimney-stack; him you must watch—he’s sure to fall, yet stands! Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist . . . we watch while these in equilibrium keep the giddy line midway: one step aside, they’re classed and done with. I, then, keep the line.

Browning’s characters are people caught in impossible contradictions, frequently between their expected or usual pattern of behavior and some contrary inner impulse. The situations named by Blougram as fascinating are explored in Browning’s poetry: The tender murderer is Porphyria’s lover, for example. As in nearly all of Browning’s dramatic poems, “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” leaves the reader struggling to find a normative judgment. Is Blougram a hypocritical exploiter of religion for his own worldly benefit and therefore subject to scorn, or is he something else? Even though the concluding lines of the poem are spoken as if in the voice of Browning himself, it is still difficult to say whether one should approve of Blougram or despise him. In that impossible “equilibrium” the reader is fascinated.

“Andrea del Sarto”

Browning took the dramatic situation of the poem “Andrea del Sarto” mainly from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters (1550, 1568), which includes a discussion of the painter Andrea del Sarto—called the faultless painter because of the technical perfection of his art. Andrea married a widow, Lucrezia del Fede, in 1512 and was subsequently summoned from Florence to work at the court of Francis I of France at Fontainebleau. According to Vasari’s story, Francis I gave Andrea money to purchase artworks in Florence, but he misappropriated the funds and had to live in hiding because he allowed himself to be dominated by the artful and wicked Lucrezia. A self-portrait of Andrea and Lucrezia hung in the Pitti Palace at Florence while the Brownings were residents in Italy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cousin, John Kenyon, asked her husband to send him a photograph of the painting, and so the story goes, Browning composed and sent him this poem instead.

The poem illustrates the idea of the “magnificent failure,” one of Browning’s most important concepts. To understand the magnificent failure, the reader must be aware of thinking current in the 1850’s concerning the relation of art to society. For example, John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) makes a distinction between “slave art” and “free art.” Slave art, such as an Egyptian pyramid, sets up a simple design so that any slave can execute it perfectly. Free art, such as a Gothic cathedral, engages the creative impulses of every worker so that it is never completed and is marked by the luxuriant variety of every worker’s creation. A perfect, finished, polished work of art signifies that the artist set his or her design too low, and did not strive to reach beyond the limits of his or her power. Perfect art is the sign of moral degeneration. Andrea’s painting is slave’s work because it is perfect.

In the poem, Andrea is speaking to his dramatic audience, and his wife, Lucrezia, who is impatient with him, wishes to go out in the evening to join her “cousin,” or lover, who is whistling for her in the street. In the opening lines, the reader learns that Lucrezia is not kind to the painter and that he must bribe her to stay with him a few minutes. Andrea is unhappy, thinking how his art is not of the highest order despite all its perfection. He never fails to make a perfect drawing because he never sets his design beyond his ability, “but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” He considers a painting by Raphael and shows how the drawing of an arm in it is poor, but when he corrects the draftsmanship, he loses all the “play, the insight and the stretch” of the imperfect original. He laments his lost productive times when he worked in France and regrets that he must now live in exile. He pathetically asks Lucrezia to be his companion so that he can work more and give her more money. At the conclusion of the poem, Lucrezia’s “cousin” whistles for her again while Andrea, who is a faultless painter, envies the glory of less perfect artists.

Andrea paints designs that never challenge his ability and completes perfectly all his undertakings. Ironically, this perfection in art signifies his moral degeneration, for he is a slave to the beautiful but ignorant and unfeeling Lucrezia and to the profit motive, so that he must paint trivial works to earn gold, which Lucrezia simply gives to her “cousin” lover. Artists such as Raphael fail in their work because they set their sights so high that they can never finish or complete their designs perfectly. Although they fail, their works are magnificent. Andrea’s perfect works are merely slavish.

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

In the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a revival of interest in knightly romances and the “matter of Britain,” the ancient stories concerning King Arthur’s court, evident in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885) and many other poems of the period. Frequently, the failed quest of the courtly romance was a vehicle for the idea of magnificent failure. Arthur had tried to establish a court of perfect chivalry, but he had failed in the attempt. Nevertheless, his failure was more noble than a practical compromise would have been. Each of his knights must fail in some important way, suffer humiliation and death, even as Christ did, so that the nobility of their endeavor may show forth. Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is in this tradition of the courtly failed quest and the magnificent failure.

The subtitle of the poem refers to Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), specifically a song by the character Edgar in act 3, scene 4. Lear on the heath encounters Edgar disguised as a madman. Lear calls him a philosopher and takes him with his company. At the conclusion of the scene, Edgar pronounces some riddling or nonsense lines, including “Child Rowland to the dark tower came.” These are apparently garbled snatches of traditional ballads. “Childe” means any untested knight, and Browning’s poem constructs a nightmare quest for his untried knight, Childe Roland, who tells of his weird adventure. The poem is best considered a journey into the mind, a psychological rather than a physical quest. Childe Roland tells of his perilous journey across a wasted land in which a cripple advises him to turn into an “ominous tract” where the Dark Tower hides. As soon as he leaves the road, it vanishes. Everything in the enchanted land is sick, wounded, and in torment. Childe Roland thinks of his companions who have failed before him. He crosses a river and stumbles unaware on the “round squat turret.” He imagines he sees all his dead companions ranged along the hillside overlooking the arena, yet “dauntless” he sets his horn to his lips and blows the cry, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

Like many of Browning’s poems, this work seems laden with ambiguity. There are at least three possibilities: The tower is not the true object of a knight’s quest, and thus Childe Roland is lost when he takes the advice of the cripple to leave the high road, and he is punished for deviating from his proper goal; or, the tower is the true quest, but Childe Roland’s discovery is that it is worthless and ugly when he finds it (therefore, his life is wasted); or, the tower is the quest and is in itself meaningless, but the dedication of Roland creates success out of failure—although the tower is “squat” and ugly, he has played his proper role and even in the face of overwhelming forces, he blows defiance, dauntless to the last.

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” invites comparison with the surrealist nightmares of Franz Kafka, and Browning’s use of a wasteland as a symbol for humankind’s alienation and his evocation of a failed courtly quest foreshadow Eliot’s The Waste Land. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is one of Browning’s most interesting works, and it foreshadows developments in the modernist revolution some fifty years after its publication.

The Ring and the Book

The Ring and the Book is Browning’s most important poem. Written in blank verse, rhymed iambic pentameter, it appeared in four volumes between November, 1868, and February, 1869. In 1860, Browning came across in Florence a collection of old documents and letters telling the story of the murder trial of Guido Franceschini, who was executed in Rome in 1698. Browning called this volume The Old Yellow Book; it was translated into English by Charles W. Hodell and was published in 1911.

From the lawyers’ arguments and other documents emerges a particularly sordid case of “divorce Italian style.” In 1693, Count Guido Franceschini, an impoverished nobleman forty years old, from the north of Italy, married a thirteen-year-old commoner, Francesca Pompilia, in Rome. She was the daughter of Pietro and Violante Comparini. Pietro had opposed the marriage, knowing that the count was not as wealthy as he seemed. His wife, however, was attracted by the possibility of a nobleman for a son-in-law and contrived to have the marriage take place. The Comparini family gave all their possessions as dowry to Count Guido, expecting to live in comfort on his estate. The count, angry to find that the Comparini family was less wealthy than he imagined, harassed them until they were forced to flee from his house. They sued for the return of Pompilia’s dowry on grounds that she was not their natural daughter, but a common prostitute’s child whom they had adopted. Count Guido increased his cruelty to his child bride, even though she sought help from the local bishop and governor. Pompilia fled from Count Guido’s castle with the dashing young priest Caponsacchi in 1697, but Count Guido apprehended the couple near Rome on April 28, 1697. They were charged with adultery; Caponsacchi was banished, and Pompilia was confined to a nunnery from which she was released on bond to bear her child, a son, at the house of the Comparini on December 18, 1697, almost exactly nine months after her flight from Guido’s castle with Caponsacchi. Her son Gaetano stood to inherit the count’s name and estate. Two weeks later, Count Guido broke into the Comparini house and murdered Pietro and Violante, and left Pompilia mortally wounded. Pompilia lived four more days, long enough to accuse Count Guido of the assault. He and his companions were arrested fleeing toward his estate.

The bulk of The Old Yellow Book presents the legal arguments in this dark case. The murders were admitted, but Count Guido claimed that he was justified as an injured husband in defending his honor. When he was found guilty, he appealed to the pope, who refused to intervene. Count Guido was beheaded February 22, 1698, in Rome, while his accomplices were hanged. Finally, a convent brought suit to claim the estates forfeited by Pompilia’s allegedly adulterous action, but a court ruled that she was innocent and gave all property to her son Gaetano.

Browning converted the material of The Old Yellow Book into one of the first relativistic narrative masterpieces. Some authors tell their readers what to think about their characters; others make their readers think for themselves. Browning is one of the latter, presenting his readers with questions rather than giving them answers. In twelve books, Browning tells and retells the story of Pompilia, Count Guido, and the priest Caponsacchi, through their eyes and through the eyes of their lawyers, the eyes of the pope considering Guido’s appeal, and the eyes of three factions of the vulgar population of Rome. Naturally, when Guido explains his action, he not only argues in defense of what he did but also actually believes that he is right. In his own mind, he is blameless. Likewise, when the reader sees through the limitations and prejudices of Pompilia or of Caponsacchi, the point of view dictates what is right and what is wrong. Many readers coming to Browning’s text try to penetrate the tangle of conflicting judgments and opinions presented in these twelve books, and try to say that Browning’s sympathy lies with Pompilia or that the pope speaks for the author. However, if there is a single, clear-cut normative judgment, why did Browning feel compelled to write the contradictory monologues that argue against it? More likely, Browning intentionally created a powerful experimental literary form, rather like the limited narration novels of Henry James. Browning’s text provides a complicated stimulus, but each reader constructs in his or her mind a personal evaluation of the relative guilt or justification of Count Guido, Pompilia, Caponsacchi, the pope, and the Comparini family.

Stories are sometimes said to fall into two classes. There are stories such as mediocre mystery tales that cannot bear a second reading. Once the audience has heard the tale to its end, they know “who done it.” All questions are solved, so that a second reading would be unnecessary and boring. On the other hand, there is a second kind of story that is so constructed that each reading only deepens the questions in the readers’ minds. Every reader is drawn back to the text over and over, and the third or fourth reading has as much interest as the first. In The Ring and the Book, Browning converted a gruesome but mediocre mystery tale into a work of this second type, which poses troubling questions about right and wrong, judging and pardoning. Every character evokes some spark of sympathy when allowed to speak for himself or herself. Every character seems subject to guilt when seen through hostile eyes.

The Ring and the Book illustrates Browning’s concern with the infinite moment, the instant when a character can act decisively to break out of his or her characteristic pattern of expected behavior and do the unforeseen. The priest Caponsacchi’s flight with the count’s child-bride is an example of the dizzy equilibrium between expected social behavior and contradictory impulse. The reader asks, “How could he do it and still be a priest of God, forsaking his vows of celibacy and all his ordinary rules of conduct?” The reader can imagine what it is to be a priest and what it is to be a lover, but how can there exist such a contradictory character as a lover/priest? The same question can be posed for Pompilia, the childlike innocent yet renegade wife, who is the final winner of them all eventually when her son inherits the estate. The reader has seen many times in literature the childlike, innocent woman, and equally often has encountered the sexual sharpster, but how can these contradictory roles be balanced in a single character?

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