Robert Browning as a Poet

Robert Browning as a Poet

Robert Browning as a Poet


Browning’s genius is essentially dramatic; but his interest lies not in the world of action, but in the moral and spiritual forces and conflicts of individual men and women- not in the actions and interactions of different persons, but in the motives which govern their actions. The strict dramatic form of the regular stage play in which he did not attain much success, does not provide for the natural outlet of his dramatic genius, because he lays stress on “incidents in the development of a soul”. Now incidents of the utmost importance in the development of a soul might have no issue in action that could be represented on the stage. Moreover, he has not the capacity for self-detachment- the supreme dramatic gift of forgetting and obscuring oneself.

“In all the words which his characters utter we seem to hear the ring of Browning’s own voice; as an accompaniment to their actions there always runs, silent or expressed, his comment of blame or praise”. (Moody & Lovett)

Dramatic Monologue

The literary form which is most suited to the character of his genius is the detached speech or dramatic monologue in which he takes some striking individual at some critical moment of his life, and instead of dissecting him from the outside, he penetrates  to the depth of his nature, and through his own utterances makes him lay bare the innermost secrets of his life-his motive, good or bad, his temperament, his personality, the aberration of his thought, his self-deception, his attitude to life. W.L. Phelps says that Browning’s dramatic monologue is not a meditation nor a soliloquy: it is a series of remarks usually confessional, addressed orally to a group of listeners. Another peculiarity of Browning’s method in his dramatic monologues is that he throws the reader into the midst of the situation with startling suddenness, and then proceeds to reveal facet after facet of it with a rapidity that is apt to bewilder a reader. There are no explanations, no gradual transitions; we are not allowed to guess at the whole intention until the end is reached.

Wide Range of his Poetry

The range of Browning’s poetry is very great. In Caliban upon Setebos he shows the grotesque imaginings of a half-human monster groping after an explanation of the universe. In Childe Roland he  shows the mystical side of medieval knighthood. In Abt Vogler and A Toccata of Galuppi’s he deals with the inner meanings of music. In The Grammarian’s Funeral he shows the poetry and heroism hidden underneath the gray exterior of the life of a Renaissance pedant. In Fra Lippo Lippi, Andrea del Sarto and Pictor Ignorus he gives the psychology of the painter’s nature, and illuminates those sources of success and failure in art which lie deep in the moral being of the artist. In The Bishop orders his tomb at St. Praxed’s Church he reveals the worldliness, sensuality, vanity, hypocrisy of a pagan Renaissance Bishop, and through him of an epoch. In Christmas Eve and Easter Day he approaches Christian faith from the modern position.

Also Read:

Browning’s Philosophy of Evolution

Of all the dramatic poets, Browning is probably the most philosophical. His poetry is a vehicle for his optimistic philosophy. In such poems as Bishop Blougram’s Apology and Rabbi Ben Ezra he impresses us more as a Philosophy of philosopher than as a poet. He believes in the law of evolution. The subject of perpetual progress of man and his infinite capacity for improvement forms the backbone of his poetry. His towering optimism hinges on the creed of evolution.

The following lines from the 10th book of The Ring and the Book strike the keynote of Browning’s philosophy of evolution:

“Life’s a probation and earth no goal

But starting point of man.”

According to Browning the evils of life-failures, frustration, disappointment, etc. are necessary for the perfection and purification of man. Failures strengthen the mind of man and thereby help in his spiritual development. Hence man has no reason to mourn. As a critic has said, “To show that it is within the power of man’s spirit to pluck the sting out of failure and make of it something better than success- this was Browning’s constant endeavour. He believes that the whole worth of life lies not in perfection, but in the effort to become perfect, not in the accomplishment, but in the effort to accomplish. In his opinion the only weakness that cannot be excused is to delay and shuffle. To act decisively is better than to hang back, even if the action is in itself bad. In the Statue and the Bust he condemns the Duke and the lady for letting the chances of their conjugal happiness slip because of their of infirmity of purpose. His robust optimism wells out from his robust faith in God who, he thinks, shapes everything, even the evil to good ends. As Pippa sings,

“God’s in his heaven

All’s right with the world.”

Belief in the Immortality of Soul

Browning believes in the immortality of soul. In his view the soul does not perish with one’s physical death, it survives the body and resumes in heaven the work left incomplete on earth. As heaven is a better place than the earth, the heavenly achievement must be more perfect than the earthly one. It is the life after death that lends meaning to the present life, because it ensures the realization of the goal pursued, but not reached on earth:

“On the earth the broken arcs, in the heaven,

a perfect round.”

(Abt Vogler)

He has the belief that in rare moments of intense experience man has glimpses of heaven or eternity. To the rejected lover in The Last Ride Together the instant’ is ‘made eternity’ while he is having the last ride with his ladylove.

Browning as a poet of Love

Browning considers love the be-all and end all of human life. He holds that a life without love must be a failure. In spite of his vast knowledge Paracelsus failed to find joy in life because he could not understand the value of love. In Browning’s view love provides a man with an opportunity to show the best in him and thus to rise to the fullest stature of his personality. He deals with both earthly love and divine love.

But earthly love (physical love between man and woman) is a prelude to divine love. It is a means to the attainment of godhead. God to Browning is not an abstraction. He is the ideal being-the perfect man. Man, on the other hand, is imperfect, and as a man it is his constant endeavour to perfect himself through love and raise himself to the status of God -to grow from the finite to infinity” from “man’s dust to God’s divinity”. In The Last Ride Together love elevates the rejected lover to God. When the lady agrees to have the last ride with him he cries in joy,

“So, one day more am I deified.”

Love is Infinite

As love is a deifying force it is infinite and defies complete fulfilment on this finite earth and by finite man. Consumed with insatiable longing  for love’s fulfilment the lover in Two in the Campagna says,

“Infinite passion, and the pain

Of finite hearts that yearn”.

Browning’s Teaching

Like Tennyson’s Browning poetry is animated by moral purpose. Browning teaches that evil is necessary for the evolution of good. Evil is often blended with good, and sometimes seems stronger than the latter. In Reverie he admits

“Earth’s good is with evil blent:

Good struggles but evil reigns.”

But he assures us that good will ultimately triumph, and that evil too will be converted into good. His message is also the triumph of the individual will. The self is not subordinate to corporate will to ‘law’ as in Tennyson; it is supreme. Browning speaks the strongest word of hope to a world of worry.

“His energy, his cheerful courage, his faith in life and in the development that awaits us beyond the portals of death, are like a bugle-call to good living.” (Long)

Browning’s Obscurity

Browning was considered to be a very obscure writer in his own time. Tennyson said about Sordello that he understood only the first and last lines of the poem. Mrs. Carlyle, after going through it, was unable to make out whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book. Douglas Jerrold read Sordello just to beguile time after recovery from a prolonged illness, but unable to make head or tail of its meaning, soon set the book aside with the remark, “My god! I’m an idiot. My health is restored, but my mind’s gone.” Even Browning could not explain the meaning of some of his poems. Once a student went to him and asked him to illuminate a certain point in one of his poems. Browning read the poem, but failed to illuminate the point to the student’s satisfaction. At last Browning said to the student quite humorously, “When I wrote this poem, two persons knew the meaning of it- God and I. and now only one of them (God) knows it”. Even now-a-days Browning is thought a difficult poet, but not unreadable as in his own times.

Causes of Browning’s Obscurity

The obscurity of Browning has many sources. First, the poet’s thought is so subtle that language can hardly express it perfectly. Second, his allusions are often far-fetched and refer to historical information so unknown that the ordinary reader finds it difficult to trace and understand it. Third, he wrote too much and revised too little. The time he should have given to making one thought clear was devoted to express other thoughts that flitted through his head like a flock of swallows. Fourth, he presents the incidents in the development of individual soul, never exactly alike in any two men, without introductory remarks or explanations or setting. Naturally the reader cannot follow the poet’s exploration of the soul-the hidden motives and principles which govern individual action. Fifth, his style and rhythm are often intolerably rough and unmusical. He is full of strained expressions, irritating puns, harsh inversions. He is careless in his English and frequently clips his speech, giving us a series of ejaculations. As we do not quite understand his processes of thought we must stop between the ejaculations to trace out the connections. Sixth, and worst of all, is his inability to select the essential and to reject the unimportant.

“He pours out the whole farrago of his thoughts and sometimes does not take trouble to set them in order.” (Hugh Walker)

And the inevitable result is the jumbled expression and obscurity. He is often condensed to a fault. He packs his line with so much thought that the reader is apt to suffer from mental or even imaginative indigestion.


Browning is careful of the thought, but careless of the expression. He has however many poems, specially his love lyrics and dramatic monologues, in which beauty of style is conjoined with profundity of thought. His fame mainly rests on these poems.

Leave a Comment