Robert Browning: Contribution as Victorian Poet

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      Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, and educated at home and at University College, London, Browning published his first poem Pauline in 1833. Browning shared the primacy of Victorian poetry with Alfred Lord Tennyson. His Paracelsus and Sordello came in 1838 and much of his best works was done under Italian skies. On his return from Italy, he became interested in the poems of Elizabeth Barret Browning and made her acquaintance, which later ripened into one of the most romantic of love stories. On September 12, 1846, they were quietly married at Marylebone Church and at once started for Italy which was to be their home for many years. He published his volumes of poetry here: Dranmatic Lyrics (1845), Dramatic Romances (1848), Men and Women (1855), Dramatis Personae (1864), The Ring and the Book (1868), etc. Fifineat the Fair (1872), The Inn Albun (1875), Feristah's Fancies (1884) and Asolaindo (1889), are his other works, Browning wrote several dramas - Strafford (1837), Pippa Passes (1841), King Victor and King Charles (1842), The Return of the Druses (1842), Colombe's Birthday (1844) and A Soul's Tragedy (1846).

Robert Browning stood singularly aloof from the movements and thought-currents of his age. The discoveries of the material sciences, the theory of Darwin's evolution, the industrial revolution leading to the growth of England's prosperity, the feminine movement, the Oxford Movement did not affect and influence his works.
Robert Browning

      Robert Browning stood singularly aloof from the movements and thought-currents of his age. The discoveries of the material sciences, the theory of Darwin's evolution, the industrial revolution leading to the growth of England's prosperity, the feminine movement, the Oxford Movement did not affect and influence his works. Herein Browning differs from Tennyson who was profoundly influenced by the ethos of the age and gave expression in his poetry to the complexities of his time. This explains why Browning's poetry suffered from the lack of appreciation by his own contemporaries while Tennyson was at the height of his popularity. It was in the later ages that the fame of Browning grew steadily with the readers, while Tennyson's fame suffered a gradual eclipse.

      Browning's favorite poetic mode is dramatic monologue. Dramatic monologue is a comprehensive soliloquy in which a certain critical moment in one's person is taken and by permitting the individual to speak, his character, the whole course of his existence is revealed in a brilliant searchlight. A dramatic monologue is not a meditation nor is it a soliloquy; it is a series of remarks usually confessional addressed to a person or to a group of persons. These figures, though they do not speak are necessary to the understanding of the monologue. Browning excels in his power of conceiving a character in some vivid and exceptional moments of his life and throwing light on the inner-most recess of the mind by his psychological analysis and dissection. Browning places his characters in strikingly dramatic situations and makes them reveal themselves. The Last Ride Together, Porphyrin's Lover, Two in the Campagna, The Laboratory are some of the notable dramatic monologues of Browning.

      In all these poems, the characters have revealed their thoughts and innermost feelings under the impact of the quintessential moments of their lives. Like John Donne, he makes subtle analyses of various moods and emotions - he can show the infinite passion of the finite heart in brilliant imagery from nature (Two in the Campagna, Love among the Ruins) and he can at the same time dissect the eddies and currents of human love (The Laboratory, Porphyria's Lover).

      Browning has the psychologist's interest in characters and philosopher's love of ideas. But above all, he is a poet who evolves his own poetic medium for representing his ideas and interest. Tennyson has also written monologues like Ulysses, The Lotos Eaters, etc. While the monologues of Tennyson are mood pieces, those by Browning are vivid objective characterization, bringing to life a unique temperament and viewpoint. Tennyson's Ulysses is the voice of Tennyson himself: Browning has a unique power of objective character studies. But successful as a writer of dramatic monologues, Browning failed as a dramatist. He could not present his characters in action. His characters think and feel but never act. Browning's poetry reveals him as a dramatic thinker rather than as dramatic creator. Browning's is not the drama of the outer world of events but of the inner world of thoughts and ideas.

Robert Browning's comparison with Tennyson:-
      Browning and Tennyson differ also in poetic outlook and methods. While Browning is a thinker; Tennyson is an artist. Browning's poetry embodies a certain philosophy but he is great not in his philosophical poems but in his lyrics where he has wedded poetry to music. The mantle of Spenser and Keats fall on him and he in his turn influenced the later generations of poets like the Pre-Raphaelites and others by his craftsmanship and musical gifts. His philosophical poems like In Memoriam and Idylls of the King are rated as obtrusive moral preachings. Browning's philosophy has a deep perennial significance while Tennyson's moral preachings are meant for advocating the Victorian orthodoxy and Victorian compromise between science and faith.

      Browning's philosophy is valued as the most significant exposition of the optimistic theory of life true for all ages and climes, while Tennyson's philosophy is dismissed as shallow, superficial and stupid. Browning has as unquestioning faith in the "existence of a supreme authority namely God, controlling the manifold energies of the world". To him, this "world means intensely and means good". His is no ascetic turning away from the world in despise; he always sings of wild joys of living. Love is the supreme principle of life and failures in life are but the earnest of success in the life beyond. According to him, this "life is but the threshold of an infinite life and our true life is beyond". It is this robust optimism that inspired the later generations of readers.

      While Browning's genius is essentially dramatic, Tennyson's genius is lyrical. Browning is the poet of characters and situations, while Tennyson is the poet of mood and melody. Drowning's interest in man and life is unbounded; aspects of characters interest him more than the moods of the moment. Tennyson can catch the fleeting moods and convey them artistically in neat little melodious lyrics (Break Break, Break; Tears Idle Tears), but Browning can catch a character in a particular situation and dissect and analyze his feelings and thoughts with great psychological insight (The Laboratory, The Last Ride together). Tennyson is a perfect artist. His lyrics are characterized by perfect combination of music, imagery and expressions. His music is flawless and his imagery is vivid and picturesque and his expressions are apt and lucid. But Browning is often a slipshod artist. "He is more careful of the thought than of the expression." He also attains beauty of expressions but sometimes he neglects it in the desire for significance. He has never meant to be rugged, but has become so in the exercise of thought. He has never intended to be obscure but has become so from the condensation of style which was the excess of significance and strength. The charge of obscurity has been brought against him.

      Tennyson said of Sordello that he had understood only the first line and last line of this long poem. The fact is that Browning "never thinks but at full speed". The rapidity of thought, parentheses, inversions and quick jumps make his poems obscure. But an intelligent reader who is acquainted with the technical devices of Browning's dramatic monologues finds his poems intellectually stimulating and highly pleasurable. At the same time, Browning is capable of grace, sweetness and melodic variety (Home thoughts from Abroad ; One Word More etc.).

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