Robert Browning

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Robert Browning World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3836

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 didactic theory of art. Nowhere in “Porphyria’s Lover,” for example, does Browning intrude to pronounce the homicidal lover evil or a sociopath. If there are judgments to be made, Browning leaves that task to his readers. Thus, Browning occasionally went against the oversimplified Victorian morality of art.

As both Browning’s intense love affair with Elizabeth Barrett and the title of one volume, Men and Women, suggest, he was very much interested in the relationship of the sexes, especially in the high plane of love. Perhaps partially because he was forced to woo Barrett at first from a distance, Browning became profoundly reflective about romantic love. Even a cursory reading of his poetry reveals that he had several theories about man-woman relationships, and these theories, combined with the intense psychological reality of his characters, suggest why he is viewed as one of the great love poets in English. Interestingly, some of his great love lyrics were written before he met his wife and after she had died. When the eponymous speaker of “Rabbi Ben Ezra” argues, “Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be,” one must realize that the lines were composed after Elizabeth had died and therefore express wishful thinking. Also, Browning’s love lyrics express not only the joy of love but also its failures. “Meeting at Night” is coupled with “Parting at Morning,” wherein the male lover must leave the woman whom he loves to return to the “world of men.”

One notable idea often finding expression in Browning is how often love can be replaced by a preoccupation with material things. In “My Last Duchess,” the Duke of Ferrara has reduced the woman whom he had married to a work of art, where she is now even less treasured than a bronze statue. In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” the dying bishop has replaced his original love of God with things—a wine press, classical manuscripts, and villas.

Another typical theme in Browning is the supremacy of romantic love. Perhaps the best example of this idea occurs in “Love Among the Ruins.” The palace of the prince and the prince’s power are in ruins, the soldiers and their war machines have vanished, and Browning concludes that despite their “triumphs” and “glories,” “love is best.” True love for Browning was part and parcel of spiritual love.

What, then, is the poet’s role in the midst of love and psychology? Perhaps Browning best states his poetic credo in “Fra Lippo Lippi” by using the persona as his mouthpiece: “this world . . . means intensely, and means good.” In his “Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Browning elaborated upon this notion of the poet finding the “good.” The poet must have a “great moral purpose,” must search the world around him, for, paradoxically, the greatest spiritual elevation occurs when the poet immerses himself in the things of this world. Often Browning’s optimism is misunderstood. Good comes not in the actual attainment of higher things, often love, but also in the attempt. Failure and disappointment are secondary if the attempt is made.

“My Last Duchess”

First published: 1842 (collected in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842)

Type of work: Poem

The Duke of Ferrara reveals himself to be a selfish, jealous man desiring to control other people’s lives.

“My Last Duchess” is probably Browning’s most popular and most anthologized poem. The poem first appeared in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics, which is contained in Bells and Pomegranates (1841-1846). Perhaps the major reason for the fame of “My Last Duchess” is that it is probably the finest example of Browning’s dramatic monologue. In it, he paints a devastating self-portrait of royalty, a portrait that doubtless reveals more of the duke’s personality than Ferrara intends. In fact, the irony is profound, for with each word spoken in an attempt to criticize his last duchess, the duke ironically reveals his utterly detestable nature and how far he is from seeing it himself.

Before the subtleties of “My Last Duchess” can be grasped, the basic elements of this dramatic monologue must be understood. The only speaker is the Duke of Ferrara. The listener, who, offstage, asks about the smile of the last duchess in the portrait, is silent during the entire poem. The listener is the emissary of a count and is helping to negotiate a marriage between the count’s daughter and the duke. The time is probably the Italian Renaissance, though Browning does not so specify. The location is the duke’s palace, probably upstairs in some art gallery, since the duke points to two nearby art objects. The two men are about to join the “company below” (line 47), so the fifty-six lines of the poem represent the end of the duke’s negotiating, his final terms.

Since the thrust of a Browning dramatic monologue is psychological self-characterization, what kind of man does the duke reveal himself to be? Surely, he is a very jealous man. He brags that he has had the duchess’s portrait made by Fra Pandolf. Why would he hire a monk, obviously noted for his sacred art, to paint a secular portrait? The duke admits, “’twas not/ Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (lines 13-15). Then he notes that “perhaps/ Fra Pandolf chanced to say” (lines 15-16) and provides two exact quotations. The suggestion is strong that he observed the whole enterprise. He gave Fra Pandolf only a day to finish the expensive commissioned art. Pandolf is a painter so notable that the duke drops the artist’s name. Probably, he chose Pandolf because, as a man of the cloth, the good brother would have taken a vow of chastity. Yet the duke’s jealousy was so powerful that he observed this chaste painter with his wife in order to be sure. Later, the duke implies that the duchess was the kind of woman who had to be watched, for she had a heart “too easily impressed” (line 23), and “her looks went everywhere” (line 24). Yet the evidence that he uses to corroborate this charge—her love of sunsets, the cherry bough with which she was presented, her pet white mule—suggests only that she was a natural woman who preferred the simple pleasures.

The duke’s pride and selfishness are also revealed. He is very proud of his family name, for, as he describes his marriage to his last duchess, he states that he gave her “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (line 33). Yet he never once mentions love or his willingness to emerge from his own ego. Instead, he emphasizes that it is his curtain, his portrait, his name, his “commands” (line 45), and his sculpture. Tellingly, within fifty-six lines he uses seventeen first-person pronouns.

Undoubtedly, though, the most dominant feature of the duke’s personality is a godlike desire for total control of his environment: “I said/ ’Fra Pandolf’ by design” (lines 5-6). Browning reveals this trait by bracketing the poem with artistic images of control. As noted above, the painting of Fra Pandolf portrait reveals how the duke orchestrates the situation. Moreover, even now the duke controls the emissary’s perception of the last duchess. Everything that the listener hears about her is filtered through the mind and voice of the duke. The emissary cannot even look at her portrait without the duke opening a curtain that he has had placed in front of the painting.

The final artistic image is most revealing. The last word in the duke’s negotiations is further evidence of his desire for control. He compels the emissary to focus attention on another commissioned objet d’art: “Notice Neptune, though,/ Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity/ Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (lines 54-56). Once again, the commissioned art is a sort of Rorschach test—it reveals a great deal about the personality of the commissioner. The thrust of the art object is dominance—the duke desires to be Neptune, god of the sea, taming a small, beautiful sea creature in what would obviously be no contest. In other words, the duke sees himself as a god who has tamed/will tame his duchess.

As earlier indicated, the duke has always associated his last duchess with beautiful things of nature. Like Neptune, the duke rules his kingdom, Ferrara, with an iron fist. When he grew tired of his last duchess, he says, “I gave commands” (line 45), and her smiles “stopped together” (line 46). Since the duke says that in her portrait the last duchess is “looking as if she were alive” (line 2), the suggestion is strong that, like the god that he would be, the duke has exercised the power over life and death.

The key critical question in “My Last Duchess” focuses on the duke’s motivation. Why would a man so obviously desiring marriage to the count’s daughter reveal himself in such negative terms? Critics take opposing views: Some characterize him as “shrewd”; others, as “witless.” A related critical question considers the duke’s impending marriage: Why would a man who has had so much trouble with his first duchess want a second wife?

The answers to both questions seem to lie in the duke’s godlike self-image. Interestingly, for a man preoccupied with his nine-hundred-year-old name, nowhere does he mention progeny, and without children there will be no one to carry on the family name. Importantly, he uses a series of terminative images, all emphasizing the end of the cycle of life, to describe his last duchess—the sunset ends the day, the breaking of the bough ends the life of the cherry (also a sexual reference), the white mule is the end of its line (mules then could not reproduce within the breed), and whiteness as a color associated with sterility. Could it be that the duke, since he uses these images, employs his last duchess as a scapegoat and that he is the one who is sterile? Thus, his object in procuring the “fair daughter’s self” (line 52) is children. No doubt, for a man who likes commissioned artwork, the “dowry” (line 51) will help defray his expenses. Perhaps the duke, like another Renaissance figure, Henry VIII, will run through a series of brides because he is unable to see the flaws in his own personality.

Stylistically, Browning has written a tour de force. The fifty-six lines are all in iambic pentameter couplets. The couplet form is quite formal in English poetry, and this pattern suggests the formal nature of the duke and control. Interestingly, unlike the traditional neoclassic heroic couplet, where lines are end-stopped, Browning favors enjambment, and the run-on line suggests the duke’s inability to control everything—his inability to be a god.

Historically, readers have wondered about two things. Is the duke based on a real person? Some have suggested Vespasiano Gonzaga, duke of Sabbioneta, while others favor Alfonso II, fifth and last duke of Ferrara. Second, in his lifetime Browning was often asked what really happened to the duke’s last duchess. Finally, Browning was forced to say, “the commands were that she should be put to death . . . or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”

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

First published: 1845 (collected in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845)

Type of work: Poem

The dying bishop reveals himself to be more concerned with maintaining his materialism than admitting his many sins.

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” was printed in 1845 in Hood’s Magazine and later that same year in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, which is contained in Bells and Pomegranates (1841-1846). It was probably suggested by Browning’s visit to Italy the previous year. Although an actual Saint Praxed’s church exists in Rome, no bishop from “15—,” the poem’s dateline, is buried there, but the bishop in the poem typifies the bishops of the era.

The poem is another fine example of Browning’s mastery of the dramatic monologue form. The speaker is the church’s bishop, who is “dying by degrees” (line 11). His silent audience is his “Nephews—sons mine” (line 3). Actually, “nephews” is a historic euphemism for illegitimate sons, and only on his death is the bishop finally willing to acknowledge his paternity. The setting is Saint Praxed’s church: More specifically, the bishop seems to be lying up front, to the right of the pulpit, and near the choir loft. The situation is simple: With not much time left, the bishop is negotiating with his “sons” to do something that he cannot—to ensure that he will be buried in a marble tomb as befits his position in the church hierarchy.

As with “My Last Duchess,” the speaker ironically creates a self-portrait very different from what he intends. Because the bishop nears death, he can no longer control his words and thus reveals a man somewhat less than a paragon of virtue, a very flawed human who has hypocritically violated his clerical vows. As a representative of the Roman Catholic church, he suggests that the institution has failed, having been corrupted by materialistic, secular concerns.

One measure of a cleric’s righteousness has always been how he avoids the seven deadly sins. Browning provides an ironic “confession” in which the bishop admits to them all. Wrath is one of the deadly sins. Dying, the bishop is still angry at Gandolf, his predecessor, who has claimed a better burial site in the church. As his negotiations with his sons prove unsuccessful, the dying bishop becomes increasingly angry at them. He also asks God to curse Gandolf.

Another sin is pride. Though the bishop begins his 122 lines with a warning about vanity, he is proud of many things, especially his possessions, and the fact that he won his boys’ mother away from Gandolf. Yet he still envies (the third sin) his predecessor for that burial site.

Gluttony is manifest in a general sense by the sheer number of his possessions and in a gustatory sense by the way that he depicts the sacrament of communion; once dead, he will feast his eyes on a perpetual banquet, “God made and eaten all day long” (line 82). Greed is revealed with his last wish and his possessions. He desires his tomb to be made of basalt (a hard, dark-colored rock), as compared to his predecessor’s cheap and “paltry onion-stone” (line 31). The bishop’s legacy is mostly materialistic. Seeing that his sons are not acceding to his dying wishes, he offers his possessions as a bribe. He has accumulated a vineyard, a huge lapis lazuli stone, villas, horses, Greek manuscripts, and mistresses. Of course, as a priest he at one time took a vow of poverty.

Perhaps his greatest sin, however, is lechery. Having also taken a vow of chastity, he has also taken several mistresses and has fathered children by at least one of them. Quite often he commingles the sacred and the sexual. The lapis lazuli is described as “Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast” (line 44). On the horizontal surface of his tomb, he wants etched in bronze a bas-relief of pans and nymphs, Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Moses with the Ten Commandments, and “one Pan/ Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off” (lines 60-61). Furthermore, Browning emphasizes the ironic distance between the bishop’s sexual activity and what the cleric should be by the name of the very church that the bishop serves and represents. St. Praxed was a second century virgin martyr who converted to Christianity and gave her worldly possessions to the poor. The bishop is a sixteenth century nonvirgin who has never practiced self-sacrifice and has unofficially converted from Christianity to mammonism. He now obviously worships all the worldly goods that he can accumulate.

One helpful way of reading this poem is as an ironic sermon. After all, the bishop typically begins his address with a biblical quotation, the words from the book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, and the rest of the poem is an ironic portrayal of his own vain self-estimation, complete with moral illustrations. As a religious person, the bishop should doubtless consider this moment as an occasion for confession—to explain what he did, to acknowledge its sinfulness, and to ask for forgiveness. Instead, he dies as vain and as self-deluded as he has lived. His final thoughts dwell upon the carnal beauty of his mistress and the envy that evoked in his archrival. Browning’s final irony, then, is overwhelming. The bishop is not a servant of God but of Dionysus, the pagan god of fertility and sexuality.

“Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”

First published: 1845 (collected in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845)

Type of work: Poems

Romantic passion is brief, and lovers must return to the real world.

“Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning” are companion poems that are best read as one poem. They were first published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics under the general title “Night and Morning,” which suggests that Browning saw them as part of a natural, inevitable cycle.

When the poems first appeared, they were criticized as being immoral because they describe lovers rendezvousing for a night of passion, then going their separate ways. Early critics worried that the man and woman, because of the clandestine nature of the tryst, are not married. In any event, there is much of Browning in this poem, for, like its lovers, Elizabeth Barrett and he had to meet secretly.

Although early critics debated the poems’ use of pronouns, Browning said that in both poems the man—the “me” of “Parting at Morning,” line 4—is speaking, detailing his night with his lover. The real strength of the poems is Browning’s mastery of imagery. Every line in both poems employs some specific image in an attempt to stimulate a particular sense. Browning’s subject is a favorite, love between men and women, but only a close examination of the imagery reveals the exact nature of that love.

What Browning meticulously communicates in these poems is the physical nature of love. The images constantly refer to the senses of smell, taste, touch, and hearing, as well as sensations of heat, light, and kinesthesia. Browning’s artistry lies in his indirection. Never does the speaker say that their relationship is deeply sexual; he implies it. The description of the journey becomes a sort of emotional topography. Life apart for the lovers is like the land, black and gray with only a little light. They are each halves of the moon. Yet as he gets closer to the woman, his senses come alive, even commingle: the “warm sea-scented beach” (line 7) appeals to three senses simultaneously. When they join, like the boat’s prow in the “slushy sand” (line 6), there is a sudden spurt of love.

While he communicates the emotions of the ecstatic moment, Browning also suggests that they are fleeting, like the night, and inevitably the male must return to the “world of men” (“Parting at Morning,” line 4). Browning said that the first poem argues that “raptures are self-sufficient and enduring,” while the second contends “how fleeting” is that belief.

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