Robert Browning as a Love Poet
Browning is one of the greatest poets of love in English literature. Nowhere does he display his inherent power more clearly than in his treatment of love. But his treatment of love is original. Unlike most of the love poets, he is a realist. He does not resort to ideal imagery but makes use of the grotesque in order to express sublime emotions. In this connection Chesterton has observed,
“The best and most characteristic of his monologues are poems of love, they express almost to perfection the real wonderland of youth, but they do not express it by the ideal imagery of most poets of love.”
Love for Browning is the meeting point of God and man. Love is the supreme principle both of morality and religion. It is the most perfect form of goodness and the one way that leads to the God head. It is the quality by which man touches the infinite, the quality common to God and man. It is the philosophic principle which harmonizes and unifies all beings. It is the creative cause and sustaining and perfecting power. It is also the moral ideal towards which man must strive to advance:
“O World, as God has made it all is beauty
And knowing this is love, and love is duty.”
A life devoted to love is an ennobling life and leads man higher and higher
“Love once evoked, once admitted into the soul
Adds worth to worth.”
A life devoid of love is arid and barren. This is what Aprile brings home to Paracelsus:
“Love preceding power
And with much power, always much more love. “
Love is the great magician clothing the barrenness of earth with the glory of summer. This is brought out in Natural Magic.
Browning has spoken of the cosmic importance of love in human life, but his poetry does not actually deal so much with divine love or love of God, love of country, love of family, the manly love of comrades as with physical love the love between man and woman “The love poems of Browning,” says S.A. Brooke, do not mean those poems which deal with absolute love or love of the ideals and truth and beauty or love of mankind or country, but it means the isolating passion of one sex for the other chiefly in youth whether moral or immoral.”
The love Browning writes of, is love between man and woman. He has understood the wide and varied phases of love and gives expression to all sides of physical love varying from the fierce animal passion of Ottima in Pippa Passes to the romantic love (“Queen worship”) he called it so exquisitely in The Last Ride Together and Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli. There is nothing personal about his love poems. His personal story impresses itself upon his poetry only through the pre-occupations which it induces with the love stories of other people mostly quite unlike his own.
In his love stories, Browning explores the eddies, backwaters and torrents in the current of love. He is not satisfied with giving descriptions of the fairest weights or in praying like Donne the weird secrets of the past when the poet longed:
“To walk with some old lover s ghost
Who died before the god of love was born”
Browning is interested in analyzing the passion of love in all its intricacies and wide ramifications.
Browning’s love poetry is intensely realistic in character. He does not sentimentalize love unduly. For him, a beloved is not a supernatural being who can take the lover to the distant heaven. The realistic nature of his view of love makes him believe in and depict the love whose object is not an imagined goddess but a real woman whom a man loves not because she is his ideal but because she is herself loves for the way she has with her curls, her dented chin, her little private jokes and common memories that are stuff of intimacy. That is the real thing, and in that kind of love poetry Browning is a master Too Late, A Lover’s Omarel, Love Among the Ruins, By the Fireside such poems are among his best titles to immortality”
Browning uses realistic images in the presentation of his women in love. In A Lovers Quarrel, he affords a glimpse of his realistic method by portraying his lady as a modern girl:
“See how she looks now, dressed
In a sledging cap and vest
‘Tis a huge fur cloak-
Like a reindeers yoke
Falls the lappel along the breast
Sleeves for her arm to rest,
Or to hang, as my Love likes best”
Browning intellectualizes the passion of lover. He is not a poet of passionate feeling but of the psychology of passion. He has nothing in him of the deep, tormented, sensual strain that at once attracts or repels us in Donne, but there is the same activity of intellect, the same rush of thought through the impassioned mind, in such poems as- Too Late, The Last Ride Together, Cristina, etc. His lovers indulge in dissecting and analyzing their passion. As a rule, the mood of passion is longer Hashed upon us than the poet seems to detach himself from the purely individual emotion and is engaged with the results of that emotion on the lover’s life. This analyzing and psycholizing of love is present in the Last Ride Together where the lover is not so much interested in his beloved as in dealing with the problem of failure and success in love. The emotion of love is always tied up with grave questions of life and conduct in Browning’s love poetry
Another offshoot of this intellectualization of passion in Browning’s love poetry is that the poet does not dwell on the beauty of the woman. Instead, he fixes his thought on the influence she casts on sex life. He analyses the passion of love and reveals how love affects the course of life. Browning’s love poems provide little feast of beauty to the eyes by enumerating the physical charms of his women in love. Light feet and creamy breast do not find place in Browning’s poems of love. Rather he insists on the power of the woman to transform man’s life and raise it to a nobler plane and give it new strength as in By the Fireside or entangle it in sensuous beauty as in Andrea Del Sarto.
In his love poems, Browning’s method is dramatic rather than lyrical. The pure passion of love is not rung out in lyrical strains as in Herrick or Burns. The dramatic element is present in the reactions of man or woman to a particular situation, The Last Ride Together is dramatic in its utterance. Most of the love poems of Browning are in the form of dramatic monologues, and it is doubtful whether they could be impressive in any other form.
The poetry of Browning is both complex and comprehensive dealing with cases of successful as well as unsuccessful love. Or the poems having for their subject physical love, about two thirds envisage the feelings of man and one third those of woman. The love of man is partly successful and partly unsuccessful, and as such some poems are poems of successful love while others are parked with despair. Among the successful poems of love we have By the Fireside. Respectability, and One World More. Poems, marked with a note of failure and despair are Lane Among the Ruins, in a Gondola, Porphyria’s Lover, A Lovers Lover’s Quarrel, Love in a Life and One Way of Love,
Poems dealing with the love of woman can also be divided into two categories -(1) Successful love poems, and (2) Unsuccessful love poems. The successful love poems in which women have succeeded are- Parting at Morning, A Woman’s Last Word, Any Wife to Any Husband, and Count Glomond. Poems in which women have met buffets of fortune are-The Laboratory, and in a Year: Love poems dealing with women’s passion lack that width of view and intellectual power that characterize the poems dealing with the love of men
All love poems of Browning whether dealing with cases of successful love or failure in love end on a note of optimism and triumph This triumphant note is nicely sounded in the concluding line of Evelyn Hope where the old man puts a scroll in the “sweet cold hand” of his dead beloved, hoping that some day when she awakes she will remember and understand. The lover in The Last Ride Together is optimistic and the poem ends on a note of hope:
“What if we still ride on, we two
With life forever old yet new
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity
And Heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together forever ride?”
Browning lays emphasis on married love, and like Donne in an earlier age, is the chosen poet of wedded love. This is well presented in By the Fireside. The motto of Browning’s love poetry is well put in the beautiful stanza from the said poem- one of the noblest and truest he ever penned:
“Oh, the little more and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away
How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
Or a breath suspended the blood’s best play
And life be a proof of this!”
Browning deals with both married and unmarried love, but, like Tennyson, he prefers to depict and celebrate married love because in such love he finds particular sublimity of emotions which is not found in mere passionate excitement of unmarried love. Also Browning seems to prefer affection of a wife or a mother to the tumultuous youthful passion of a beloved Browning gives sanctity to love and treats it as beautifying and sanctifying force which is opposed to all evil force. As Browning says in his poem Colombes Birthday:
“Love is incompatible
With falsehood-purifies, assimilates
All other passions to itself.”
Browning holds the view that love is its own reward. Love itself is a prize which is won by the noble and great act of loving. In the field of scientific knowledge we are always conscious of some reward of our efforts. But in the field of love action is identified with the prize. This idea has been put forward by Browning in Pillar of Sebzebir where he says:
Ever renewed assurance by defeat
That victory is somehow still to react:
But Love is victory, the prize itself”
We thus find Browning a great poet of love who has dealt with love in its various forms and shades. He has treated love realistically, but at the same time he has also given it dignity and sanctity. Having a lofty conception of love, Browning has not been too idealistic or sentimental in his view on love and though he has dealt with the highest type of spiritual love, he has not overlooked the worldly aspects of love as it is generally found among men and women. So far as the variety and the range of the treatment of love is concerned Browning stands about all the rest of the poets of his age. As Compton-Rickett points out. “Certain aspects of love have been more finely tendered by other poets, but in range of matter. Browning has no superior.” Also, to quote Compton-Rickett again,
“We shall find a more delicate grace in Tennyson, a more voluptuous intensity in Rossetti, an easier sweep in Byron, a more ideal beauty in Shelley, but in no one poet is there a more complete fusion of all these qualities than in Browning.”
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