Robert Browning Poetry: British Analysis
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,” 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...
(The entire section is 4,863 words.)