Robert Browning Robert Browning World Literature Analysis

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Robert Browning World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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During his lifetime, Browning was probably appreciated most for his optimistic themes about humankind in a pessimistic era. Typically, Browning offers this self-portrait at the end of the epilogue to Asolando: “One who never turned his back but marched breast forward/ Never doubted clouds would break./ Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph.” Retrospect, however, reveals a greater legacy and a more profound influence, especially on later generations of poets. When Browning began writing, Romanticism dominated poetry with all of its effusive self-indulgence, its confessional nature, its overwhelming Weltschmerz—its supreme subjectivity and preoccupation with the individual poet’s emotional state of being. By the time he died, Browning had demonstrated that poetry could be intensely dramatic, profoundly psychological, and simultaneously insightful.

Browning’s insistence on the poet’s detachment and devotion to the dramatic ideal was his enduring literary legacy and his greatest influence on future poets, such as T. S. Eliot. In his advertisement published on the second page of Dramatic Lyrics, Browning announced his credo, his preference for “poetry always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” More precisely, Browning refined, though he did not invent, a poetic genre called the dramatic monologue. Browning’s poems of this type are essentially speeches by a single person. Unlike a soliloquy, however, a listener/audience is present, though never speaking. As a result, as in real life, the speaker offers no guarantee of telling the truth. As with all drama, the speech is set at a particular place, is about a specific subject, and contains a conflict with some opposing force. The ultimate thrust of a Browning monologue is character insight; the speaker, no matter what the apparent subject of the monologue, always reveals the essence of his or her personality. Thus, there is usually a sense of dramatic irony. Browning’s major contribution to the dramatic monologue, then, is to demonstrate its psychological potential; the chief motives, the very soul of the speaker, are laid bare.

Browning, then, is the harbinger of the modern literary preoccupation with the mysteries of the psyche. He reveals both the breadth and the depth of the human mind, and these insights range from the normal to the abnormal. Browning, for example, originally classified one of his earlier poems, “Porphyria’s Lover,” under the heading “Madhouse Cells.” The poem, coldly narrated by a man who has only a moment ago finished strangling his lover, shows Browning’s willingness to explore that other side of the human mind, the dark side. Moreover, Browning is willing to plumb the depths beyond the conscious mind. Occasionally, when his poems seem incomprehensible, his characters are gripped by irrational impulses and speak from their unconscious.

Of course, not all of Browning’s seemingly obscure lines can be traced to the minds of his characters. After the hours in his father’s library and his journeys to Italy, his knowledge was immense, and he frequently uses allusions to history, the Bible, and the classics. In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” for example, Browning displays an awareness of church ritual, Greek mythology, and marble. Also, he was a great experimenter. He used metrical variations and often unnatural syntax. He was fond of beginning his poems in mid-speech and situation. “My Last Duchess” commences as the Duke of Ferrara is only fifty-six lines from finishing a long interview with the count’s emissary. Browning shuns logical transitions, preferring to jump from one thought to the next as most people do in everyday speech. He often discards pronouns.

Another notable characteristic of Browning’s verse is his detachment. Like many of the realists of his day, he refrained from the moral judgment of his characters, thus eschewing...

(The entire section is 3,836 words.)