< Previous page | Home | Contents | Next page >

8. Victorian Poetry II: The Action of Robert Browning’s Verse

8.1. Discovering Browning

This lecture will open with a reading in the guise of a case study from one of Browning’s early poems, ”By the Fireside”. To begin with, the readers’ expectations are for a Victorian fire-side, perhaps a family scene or an idyll even. What we get instead is a reverie – but unlike the romance reveries that are set in nature, here, like in Vasile Alecsandri’s ”Pastel”, nature is contemplated from beside the fire-place and at one further remote from nature than the fire-side, in the hearth of a home: from the cultural window that the ”deep” study of Greek opens as an oblique vista of the mind.



I shall be found by the fire, suppose,

Till the young ones whisper, finger on lip

   O’er a great wise book as beseemeth age

   ’There he is at it, deep in Greek:

While the shutters flap as the crosswind blows

Now, then, or never, out we slip

   And I turn the page, and I turn the page,

   To cut from the hazels by the creek

Not verse now, only prose !

A mainmast for our ship!’



I shall be at it indeed, my friends!

The outside frame, like your hazel-trees-

   Greek puts already on either side

    But the inside-archway narrows fast,

Such a branch-work forth as soon   extends

And a rarer sort succeeds to these,

   To a vista opening far and wide,

    And we slope to Italy at last

And I pass out where it ends.

And youth, by green degrees.

Nature outside the fire-place in the house and the fire-place outside the book – of Greek prose, only prose –and the poetic ”I” moving out – into imagination – there where every outside frame and vista ends. Indeed, to gain access to the spirit of Browning’s poetry one has to open up a whole game of Chinese boxes, first the outermost box, then the next and the next all over again before you are ”there”. At the beginning of this poem we meet not only Browning’s genuine love of Greek, not at all like Tennyson’s picturesque invocation of classical commonplaces to decorate his poetic studio like a painter (Browning was very much better educated than most of his contemporary Victorians, let alone Tennyson who had been to Cambridge, whereas Browning had read copiously, but on his own, in his father’s library); but to return … ”by the fireside”, we are also invited to slope with Browning ”to Italy at last/And youth, by green degrees”. Indeed, for Browning Italy signified all these and more, youth, the escape from the Victorian art of husbandry and tritely sublime industriousness. (Browning himself had sloped and, even, we could say, he eloped to the Italy he so loved, where he lived for half a life-time with his poet wife, Elizabeth Barett, until she died first, then he, 28 years later.) This is precisely what this poem does in its more external Chinese boxes, it takes us along ”by green degrees” while it embarks upon a journey into the past on the wings of imagination. The poem might even at this point still be regarded as a conventional reverie, were it not for the much more powerful entrance into the world of vision than in any of Tennyson’s nostalgic allegories of experience and sentiment (in, say, ”The Lotos Eaters” or even  in Ulysses’s dramatic monologue).

               ”The outside-frame, like your hazel-trees-

                      But the inside-archway narrows fast,

                And a rarer sort succeeds to these.

i.e., to the hazel-trees and the outside-frames.  (Compare this to the discursively intense statement, still just a statement in general, poor in dramatism, of Tennyson’s ”Ulysses”:  ”Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough/ Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move”)

The surprises continue: the journey is not a solitary reaper’s or an exiled lonely soul’s but a ”journey à deux”, so to say, by an inter-languages cooperative coinage, and the land of the journey is the land of love invoked with the discrete exclamation of subdued, just signalled emotion strengthened by the alliteration and assonance as ”Oh, woman-country, wooed not wed” (And to think that Browning has been accused by his detractors of not having a musical ear!) . In the following stanzas, the journey is crowned by standing ”in the heart of things”(VIII) where it becomes possible for the two contemplators to be thrilled by the same thoughts:


               Think, when our one soul understands

                  The Great Word which makes all things new

   When earth breaks up and Heaven expands

How will the change strike me and you           

               In the House not made with hands?

We are no longer there where F.R. Leavis generalised about Victorian poetry saying that ”it was possible for the poets of the Romantic period to believe that the interests animating their poetry were the forces moving the world, or that might move it. But Victorian poetry admists implicitly that the actual world is alien, recalcitrant, unpoetical, and that no protest is worth making except the protest of withdrawal” (cf. the same earlier quotation in reference to Tennyson). Indeed, after opening all the duly constructed boxes of one stage within a stage within a yet further stage, Browning’s poetry points one over ”the earth’s break-up”, where heaven expands to a kind of Wordsworthian mature, ripe age ”an age so blest that, by its side/Youth seems the waste instead” (XXV) . This is an age that reveals at one stroke, in the matter of a moment, before it asks anything, both the vision of eternity as a fact observable in time ”For my heart had a touch of the woodland time” (XLI) and the mechanism of vision in a rational meditation upon it:


               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 suspend the blood’s best play,

               And life be a proof of this!

A poem which ends in this key:


               I am named and known by that hour’s feat;

                  There took my station and degree:

               So grew my own small life complete

                    As nature obtained her best of me-



               So, the earth has gained by one man more,

                  And the gain of earth must be Heaven’s gain too,

               And the whole is well worth thinking o’er

                  When the autumn comes......................


such a poem, then, is a poem in which individual belief matters much more than the public, plural, social Victorian self haunting literature in the second half of the 19th century. Also, this is one typical poem of Browning’s poetry which deals with ”huge” objects. So, the main difference between Tennyson’s and Browning’s poetry seemes to be a matter of very intimate choice: where Tennyson’s talent selects external, circumstantial realities, objects or abstract ideas which he makes touchable, in the guys of toys for the immediate public imagination, Browning makes palpable huge trains of ideas, whole arguments about values, and ages and types of people. Browning touches with his talent more universal, wider cultural contexts than Tennyson with his predictable, stock allegories; also, Browning does not choose the miniature story key but the confession of the intimate, hidden self; he does not work like in Tennyson’s ”The Princess” with models in little of the world, but with expansions of the individual to the universal. This is his key. And he does not remain just a Laureate for an age to recognize its dear self in, but a poet as great as the romantics in his comprehensive range and approach to life. As compared to the high Romantics, Browning is, however, not concerned with the higher order of the sublimer ”other” of human life; but, in an equally titanic outburst of poetic energy, he is ”interested in the dangerous edge of things”, in ”the grotesqueness of existence”, side by side with its sublime outreach in moments of epiphany. (That like in ”Porphyria’s Lover”, such moments of epiphany are in the grotesque key, as moments of vision entrusted to madmen, is not in the least meant to diminish the mechanism of vision itself, which is repeated again and again by Browning, no matter how despicable the occasions or agents for the visions may be)

Actually, Browning writes what Virginia Woolf wanted to find in the Victorian novel, when she commended George Eliot’s literature intended for adults; only, Browning writes in verse and in poems that read like sketchy novels which wait for the reader to wake up and write further in his own mind; Browning’s poems could be expanded any time and to the greatest lengths by the more ingenious readers – as the essay papers experimentally requested on ”My Last Duchess” from the students of the current academic year proved. All the social, psychological, ideological connections imaginable are concentrated in Browning’s concentrated scenes which embody what stanza XLIX of ”By the Fire-Side” states:


               How the world is made for each of us!

                   How all we perceive and know in it

               Tends to some moment’s product thus,

                   When a soul declares itself – to wit,

               By its fruit – the things it does!

In trying to understand extensively, on an incredible multiplicity of cases, in the judicial, clinical, anecdotal and sentimental key which his poems represent, this very statement about the world and every soul’s declaration of itself by its fruit, Browning proves that he was interested, after all, in the life of the race, in its most ample variety, not  in the life of the Victorian century and its particular themes and moods of self-assurance or anguish, as the case may be. This is what makes Robert Browning a greater poet, a  poet for all ages, when compared to Tennyson, and a major poet.

What makes Browning’s poetry major for all the fact that he was a poet without an audience for ”a quarter of a century” after his 1840 volume ”Pauline”, as Martin Day shows in his ”History of English Literature 1834 to the Present”, (p.30) was his ceaseless struggling with such sublime topics as infinity and the weight of the soul, this amphibian substance of man’s life which is followed and ferreted through in all its accidents, no matter if grotesque or sublime under the game of appearances. Like in Carlyle’s ”Sartor Resartus”, Browning’s grotesque characters begin the same main subject of the soul, albeit from the lowest level of the philosophy of appearances, i.e., of satire dressed up in the burlesque, carnivalesque garb of satire or ”the philosophy of clothes”. It can be stated that Browning starts from the margin in order to talk of the centre, by faithfully cataloguing each, and every, and all the material movements of this fabulous creature, the human soul…Browning makes the nice distinctions that render fully human even the last, most distorted, most grotesque human being. Thus, in the publicly reproachable character of Fra Lippo Lippi, Browning embodies the strongest defensible hedonism by offering it the chance of getting directly connected to the ideal, ”the best thing God invents”:

               Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,

          And then add soul and heighten them threefold?

               Or say there’s beauty with no soul at all –

               (I never saw it – put the case the same-)

               If you get simple beauty and nought else,

               You get about the best thing God invents:

               That’s somewhat: and you’ll find the soul you have missed,

               Within yourself, when you return him thanks. (lines 213 – 219)

These are followed by a frontal declaration of faith in, and love of, life which is not equalled by any but the devotional poet’s love of  God and His nature, as can be seen in Hopkins’ s poetry. And all this is complete with a protagonist for this declaration made on a stage and by means of the trick of rendering concrete and particular as a fictive character’s voice one of Browning’s own ideas:  

               And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,

               The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,

               And I do these wild things in sheer despite,

               And play the fooleries you catch me at,

               In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass

               After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,

               Although the milller does not preach to him

               The only good of grass is to make chaff.

               What would men have? Do they like grass or no –

               May they or mayn’t they? All I want’s the thing

               Settled for ever one way. As it is,

               You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:

               You don’t like what you only like too much,

               You  do like what, if given you at your word,

               You find abundantly detestable.

               For me, I think I speak as I was taught;

               I always see the garden and God there

               A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,

               The value and significance of flesh,

               I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards. (lines 250 – 269)

       Once hedonism, ”the value and significance of flesh” makes the man of sensibility grasp ”the thing/ Settled for ever one way”,  ”he can’t unlearn [it] ten minutes afterwards”. And through the methodical practice of intense living and thinking, this illuminated man who, archetypally speaking, has rediscovered the garden of Eden (and he is articulate about it being one among the professional  Bible readers in a cloister), so  he can ”always see the garden and God there / A-making man’s wife”, this illuminated man, therefore, gains the right to teach a lesson back to the average man he is addressing as you who ”tell too many lies and hurt yourself: / You don’t like what you only like too much, / You do like what, if given you at your word, / You find abundantly detestable.”  This brings us to the important issue of the form and technique Browning employs in his versified plays of ideas in little. These plays are realistic and exemplary but from a distance, the distance that the stage and the plot introduce as fiction. We shall now look at the devices or conventions which typically weave the gaudy fabric of Browning’s allegories in the grotesque key. (Because, a play, especially a play in little, may also function as an allegory, only, it is unusual to refer to staged conflicts as allegorical. Also, the gaudiness of the fabric above-mentioned or the stridence of the speakers’ voice in quite a number of poems by Browning are tokens of the grotesque.) (One more parenthetic addition is necessary here: If you wonder whether the poem just discussed was allegorical or not, you have to consider that it tells something very general too about two distinct tendencies that separate mankind into, on the one hand truth-seekers, usually artists, like Fra Lippo  Lippi, like Fra Pandolf who painted the ”Last Duchess” on the wall, or like Galuppi, Baldassaro! of ”A Toccata of Gallupi’s”, also, more often than not truth tellers because enraged men, like the Duke in ”My Last Duchess” or like ”Childe Roland” or like the other soliloquist of  ”Soliloquy at the Spanish Cloister” and, on the other hand, blunderers in matters of truth, average men, who know not what they like and don’t like and who stand to be chided in the same way as Fra Lippo Lippi is chiding ”the silent interlocutor” who obviously represents a Victorian philistine, in Matthew Arnold’s language. And there is an ironic reversal, obviously, in the way the culprit Fra Lippo ends up teaching a more important lesson than the moral one to his interlocutor(s) who had clapped their torches to his face when they caught him, a monk, ”at an alley’s end / Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar”, at midnight).

8.2. Browning’s Technique


At a first, descriptive level of analysis, Browning chooses conventional situations ”turned outside in”, by an operation of reversal of expectations that turns the probable into the unlikely while  the uncommon is provably shown to be the case in that particular circumstance. Thus, a deathbed scene with a bishop ordering his tomb at St. Praxed’s Church in colloquy  with his heirs proves his ultimately undefeatable love of life lived idiosyncratically and it gives the paradoxical sensation that death might not be parting with life but a more intense return to the core of being ”human all too human” - in passion and blindness; Fra Lippo Lippi has just been shown to be … turning the tables with his long arguments upon those who would silently accuse him of loving life more than ascesis, althoug a monk. (It is obvious how much more dramatic and fit for the alert rhythm of drama Shakespeare’s writing of Antony’s funeral oration is as compared to Browning’s dramatic monolgues which are so very long, and endowed with a dramatism of pure sentiments, not with the alert dramatism of genuine drama). Returning to the first characteristic… ”trick” that Browning performs, another example is the Duke of Ferrara, an art collector, a connaisseur, who begins by praising to a visitor a beautiful portrait but proves to be a scandalously jealous villain, a murderer of the lowest order. More often than not, it is friars, monks, bishops, childes (well-born youths, candidates for knighthood) or sublime lovers, in a word - elevated people who are expected to rise above the average rascal that Browning shows to be possessed actually by what would function as worldly furies when regarded from the conventional perspective of respectability and from the standpoint of the majority. But with Browning, the favourite device is to work with richly ironic substitutions of perspective and of roles made possible by novel combinations of lenses, mirrors, mirages, odd impersonations and masks which, Browning believes, alone can give the unique value of the individual’s mind and give it precedence over everything else.

Figuratively speaking, Browning builds amazing word labyrinths and idiosyncratic pleasure domes threatening to baroquely turn at any time into scaffolding or scenes for demonstrating or exhibiting the power of the one (one mind, one soul, one imagination, will or passion) against the many who, as Carlyle would indict them in ”Signs of the Times”, are organised into conventionally powerful flocks.

All this amounts to the statement that Browning masterfully uses THE TECHNIQUE OF THE DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE by which an essentially philosophical, general statement held as a personal idea by the poet is presented in action by a staged conflict between concrete people, ”men and women” (cf the title of Browning’s 1855 collection of poems ). Although this dramatic presentation of a life situation is accompanied by gestures and a contextual frame clearly recoverable from the mentioned settings, from the inherently dissonant music of the text working itself as a background, as in genuine drama, this felt representation of life is not fully dramatic, because the general dynamics of a whole dramatic score is missing. Instead, the dramatic monologue is just an updating in the 19th  century of the classical figuration device of the PROSOPOPOEIA, whose major convention enables the poet to SPEAK FROM BEHIND THE MASK. Comparable to the intellectual literary species of the epistle, the prosopopoeia or dramatic monologue GIVES VOICE (in a kind of extended personification that gives voice to objects or animals) TO PEOPLE FROM PAST AGES OR OTHER EXOTIC SPACES; also, in the Victorian age poetry, THE VOICE IS AN INTROSPECTIVE ONE, with Browning in particular speaking, as it were, directly from the viscerae and man’s vital centre (conventionally speaking, the inmost soul) rather than, as the epistle does, from man’s mere mind. This enables the poet to voice profounder thoughts, more secret impulses than the ones normally observable during genuine conversations; the dramatic monologue therefore, is a kind of ENHANCED CONVERSATION, whose polyphonically confessive impact comes from presenting  the communication between people, just like in fiction when the device of a dramatised narrator introduces a form of dramatic tension in every ordinary sequence of  speech acts. And the difficulty of understanding Browning’s dramatic monologues lies in the effort of understanding what the real circumstances of the ground situation are while the speaker only describes them subjectively. Linguistically speaking, the dramatic monologue apparently confronts the reader with straight utterances, which are actually richly connotative ones, and the reading task for the person who wants to find his or her way in this labyrinth or echo-chamber created by the richness of the interwoven connotations has only one chance: that of making a kind of propositional calculus by concentrating upon the situational presuppositions recoverable from the surface text. But even the surface text poses problems to the lay reader of  dramatic monologues. The surface text itself is conceived as a kind of STENOGRAM OF LIVE CONVERSATION, with the poet-stenographer madly crowding the page with IDIOMATIC, ELLIPTICAL TRACES OF SPEECH ACTS AS THEY CAN BE CAUGHT/SAMPLED IN MOMENTS OF BROKEN PSYCHOLOGICAL CLIMAX. Browning’s poetry in particular amounts to A KIND OF STREAM-OF-DRAMATISED-CONSCIOUSNESS which is as spectacular as the stream of consciousness experiments of Joyce or Woolf or Faulkner, only, the Victorian dramatic monologues are perhaps even more difficult to decode as the phenomenon of speech is caught (like Hopkins’s ” dapple-dawn drawn morning minion” of ”The Windhover”) in overwrought verses using archaisms and set phrases meant to evoke not the objective … ”every-time” of the human psychological duration but the atmosphere of the Renaissance or the monastic Middle Ages situations which form the ground contexts of a Browning poem; or even the mythical atmosphere of the Greek legend, as in Tennyson’s dramatic monologues ”Ulysses” or ”Tithonus”; and also the passage from what Matthew Arnold called Hellenism to Hebraism, as in Swinburne’s poem ”Hymn to Proserpine”. In the Victorian dramatic monologue another figure is superimposed on the already dramatic convention of the prosopopoeia : consciousness itself is only a mask for the unconscious and the stream, therefore, is a less technically mimetic stream- of-  consciousness rather, as critics have already used the term when they wanted to characterise James’ Joyce’s ”Finnegan’s Wake”: what we get is a disguised ”…stream of unconsciousness”. The dramatic technique supplies in the Victorian dramatic monologue what the 20th century spectacularly experimental techniques will supply for catching the mystique of word and thought forming. From this point of view, the dramatic monologues written by Browning are more sophisticated literary  forms than the 20th century stream of consciousness novels in so far as they, Browning’s dramatic monologues, capture the mystique of JUDGMENT forming, which mystical experience is the privilege of the attentive members of the drama audience only. If we can agree that the contemplation of judgment-forming is a more satisfactory form of literary contemplation, this will allow us to make a bold statement representing a ‘pro domo suo’ argument in favour of the … superiority of certain sections of Victorian literature which almost nobody of the wider cultivated public still reads today, as compared to the fashionable literature for the educated elites of the 20th century. The bold statement goes as follows: it seems that dramatism is a more profoundly writerly  privilege than the programmatical privilege of so much modernist and high-modernist avantgarde writerly literature (as Roland Barthes would describe it, cf. his ”S/Z”), a privilege that  the dramatic monologue enjoys over the ultimately rawer prose of the modernist experimenters, for example, whose surface prose is more sophisticated, but (especially in Virginia Woolf’s prose), whose thoughts can be after all cruder, being mere recordings of human sensibility in action. But, again, figuratively speaking, the ticket which the reader needs in order to ”buy” his access to a Browningesque dramatic feast is represented by a reading competence superior to the mere technicalities of the writer-like competence which Roland Barthes designates by his terms ”writerly literature”. The reader of Browning’s dramatic monologues, like the ”wedding guest”, at the beginning of Coleridge’s ”Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, should let her-/ himself get contaminated first with Browning’s relishing and cherishing of (Renaissance) art and of alienistic psychology. (cf. Ekbert Faas: ”Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry”, another book that got lost in the 1990s, this time not from the British Council but from the Teachers’ Library of the English Department). With this proviso, any reader can freely begin to enjoy the stylistically (i.e., rhetorically) sophisticated  and astute dramatic monologues.


After irony with the device of the prosopopoeia as its rhetorical form of expression, Browning’s poetry challenges its audiences with the fictionalization of the ethical judgments which are set in older civilization contexts, in a sort of low-mimetic allegory or parable of man in general. We can wonder if what we find here again is a case of Victorian escapism, as that inaugurated by the late Romantic Carlyle’s return to the ideal Middle Ages. Were it not for the underlying intention of addressing psychological or cultural essentials in poetry, as demonstrated for the case of the poem ”By the Fireside”, we might answer in the affirmative. But, as it is, Browning’s transpositions of cultural and philosophical debates that we also encounter in the essays or in George Eliot’s ”Middlemarch” make us rather see his poems as thematizations of centrally Victorian ethical or existential  issues, therefore exactly the opposite to any form of utopian or romance-mode escapism. But this is also telling for the kind of acrobacies that realism or direct lyricism required from Victorian poets before they were allowed to address their audience bluntly. Actually, Browning himself had to pay a big price for his choices in matter of subject and sophistication in verse: nobody read him in Victorian England for what Martin Day (loc. cit) called ”a quarter of a century after 1840”. The other outspoken Victorian poet who was not known – ever – by the wide Victorian public, Gerard Manley Hopkins chose silence too, from the beginning, together with sophistication in form and devotional sentiment as his poetic key.

Thus, the theme of Browning’s dramatic poetry is confrontation - achieved through a game of  eloquent masks, a confrontation between the individual and the tribe, and this amounts to two things: first, it works against the grain of the Victorian gregarious ideology, namely, it goes against the grain of the self-assured, utopian self-complacency of the Victorians who liked to imagine that ideological consensus also pointed to universal harmony; secondly, Browning’s re-enactment of the conflict between, on the one hand, conventional opinion or hypocrisy (as, for example, the hypocrisy of the prior and his suite in Fra Lippo Lippi’s Carmelite convent) and, on the other hand, the impassioned loquacity of the ”agonists” confronting the implied ”chorus” was meant for the benefit of Browning’s contemporaries. The dramatic monologues served as imaginative illustrations of some ideas understood and shared by the more advanced Victorian intellectuals. The underlying more enlightened opinion explains why the precise confrontation or opposition is not easy to define for Browning’s poetry as a whole. Because, for all the recurrence of artists, art collectors and connaisseurs, poets, lovers, monks, bishops and priors, they are sometimes cast as ”positive”strong characters, mouthpieces for Browning’s own vision on life, as in ”A Toccata of Galuppi’s”, ”Fra Lippo Lippi” or ”Bishop Blougram’s Apology” when the poem acts as a mere allegorical history, while at other times, the same gallery of characters is cast as absurd, grotesque representations of what Jung would have called ”the archetype of the shadow”, and what the purely realistic fiction writer would use as his vicious villains and even (potential) criminals (as it happens in the grotesque romance of ”Porphyria’s Lover”, in the poems ”My Last Duchess” or ”A Soliloquy at the Spanish Cloiser”). Consequently, it becomes quite clear that Browning is not interested in making mere realistic inventories of characters, but he is rather intrested in the cases themselves as speaking of the way in which each human being, no matter what he or she is busy doing in the poem’s plot, represents an instance of  ”the life of the race” (cf.”By the Fireside”). This brings us to the last effect of the transpositions in times and places remote from the Victorian scene. There is in Browning’s poetic sensibility a need for detachment from the linear, conventional thinking which materialises as a clinical interest in the species ”man”. (This can also be called an anthropological, scientific interest that exceeds the conventional sharing of sentiment characteristic for lyrical or for public poetry, and that could be regarded as one of the secret springs of Browning’s preference for the dramatic monologue in poetry.) As a careful clinician or lab experimenter, Browning selects the most revealing, and complex cases and experiments which he also processes by an acribious use of  judicial self-defence or apology; this makes the monologuists perfectly eloquent and, sometimes, to their horror, puts  the readers in a corresponding perfectly empathetic relationship of sympathy with even the most inveterate criminals. Thus, in a second reading moment, the lucid reader (as compared to the Victorian literalists who were dismayed by Browning’s poems at first) checks his own immediate reactions and censures them. Now, this effort of adaptation that the reader’s sensibility has to perform like in stage drama in order to adjust to the world again by employing reason to check on momentary feeling, or in more directly rhetorical terms, this appeal to reason in a secundo tempo over against the primo tempo appeal to emotion finally casts Browning’s dramatic monologues as fictionalised deliberative kinds of discourse in which the reader is him-/herself cast as a liberal reader , capable of making the apposite momentary distinctions or the right decisions in action because he or she is prompted by reason and not by sentimental whims or by stereotypes learned by heart that condition him like a Pavlovian dog. It is very interesting to note here that the common root of the words ”deliberative” and ”liberal” is at this point shown to represent a real semantic affinity. The last effect of Browning’s ideologically poetic transpositions is that they reveal the affinity existing between irony, dramatism and intellectual deliberation which seem to have been summoned for a …summit poetic meeting in Browning’s dramatic monologuesa.


a Browning obviously did not only write dramatic monologues, if you think of the love narratives or apostrophes like ”By the Fireside” analysed in the beginning part of the lecture, or like ”Two in the Campagna”, functioning mostly as love letters in verse to Elizabeth Barrett (who is also famous for answering to her poetic husband in the same manner, which made the pair as famous as Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, to think just of an Italian pair; he also wrote another kind of love poem in ”The Last Ride Together” which is closer to his 3rd person narrative poems (such as ”Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”). Browning composed a lot of epistle-poems about Shelley, his main inspirer (”The Lost Leader” or ”Memorabilia”) who is also behind the monologue ”How It Strikes a Contemporary”, about the figure of the poet rendered as the imaginary poet of Valladolid (who may be Browning himself as a Shelleyan mouthpiece). He wrote another set of culture-tinged nature poems with Italy in the background or the foreground  (”Home- Thoughts, from Abroad”, ”Home Thoughts, from the Sea”). But most importantly, Browning is one of the best and interesting modern Christian poets, being equally dramatic and eccentric in matters of  Christianism as in his approach to the other branches of (cultural) life. He devoted great dramatic monologues to the Christian religion (among which ”Bishop Blougram’s Apology” as a less ironic poem with a man from the priestly profession, ”Caliban Upon Setebos”, a general dramatic allegory on the religious theme inspired from the theological disputes between the high- and the low-church creeds of his day) but he also wrote a long verse narrative or soliloquy discussing religious life titled ”Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day”. Browning’s attraction for the dramatic genres included  ”The Heretic’s Tragedy – A Middle-Age Interlude” but also the socialist, Ruskinian drama in verse ”Pippa Passes”.

< Previous page | Home | Contents | Next page >

© University of Bucharest 2003. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Ioana Zirra
Last update: March 2003
Text editor&Web design: Raluca OVAC