Alfred Lord Tennyson & Robert Browning - Comparison

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Broad Difference

      Never have two products of the same age been so widely diverse as Browning and Tennyson. Tennyson is one extreme and Browning, the other. Tennyson is simple and lucid. Browning is complex and obscure. Browning is not a child of his age in the broad sense of the term because he does not reflect in his poetry any remarkable influence of the happenings of his age. Tennyson, on the other hand, is a true product of the age in which he lived. Not only does he reflect the influence of his age, but at the same time he gives it a place of importance in his poetry. He represents it in its various facets. Whereas Tennyson confines himself primarily to his own country and his own age, Browning is a cosmopolitan. The genius of Browning is fundamentally dramatic. Tennyson's bent of mind is lyrical and narrative. Tennyson is a great literary artist. Browning is not as great a literary artist, but he, unquestionably, is a greater thinker.

Representation of the Age

      Tennyson is a strong representative of his age. In Idylls of the King, he deals with Victorian standards of morality. In Ulysses, he shows the spirit of his age and of enquiry in its search for knowledge. The Princess deals with the question of women's education. In Memoriam represents the conflict of doubt and faith. From Tennyson's poetry, we get a clear understanding of his personal opinions about the social and economic changes that were taking place in his times. We hardly find anything of this sort in the poetry of Browning. He is a poet of the individual and not of the masses of his times. He never cared to cater to the general taste of the public at large and this accounts for his delayed popularity. He was not read by his immediate contemporaries, because they failed to see their own image in his poetry. Browning remains uninfluenced by the element of doubt that had entered the Victorian era as a result of the scientific and industrial advancement of the age. He speaks of outright faith. The poetry of Tennyson aims at setting a compromise between faith and doubt but Browning speaks the strongest word of pure faith to an age of doubt.

Greater Universal Appeal of Browning's Poetry

      Browning could not get immediate popularity, because he did not confine himself to a single age, but this proved a blessing in disguise. The basic difference between him and Tennyson is that whereas Tennyson is insular, Browning is cosmopolitan. There was an excessive degree of the feeling of patriotism in Tennyson's heart and he made poetry a medium for the expression of his feelings. He found it difficult to go beyond the range of his own country. That is why we find that whenever Tennyson speaks of war, he tries to glorify his own country. He fakes incidents from the history of his own nation and gives them poetic grandeur. On the other hand, Browning takes his subjects from different countries and different ages. Whereas the scenery in the poems of Tennyson is primarily English, in those of Browning it is primarily Italian. At the same time, Browning takes his scenery from other lands also. Whereas Tennyson fails to rise above his narrow patriotic limits, Browning presents the national qualities of France, Spain and Germany, unhesitatingly. Tennyson's interests are topical. Browning takes up subjects of universal significance.

Tennyson, a Poet of Events: Browning, a Poet of Individuals

      Still another reason for the greater appeal of Browning's poetry is its concern with the soul of man. He has created men and women who keeps haunting the minds of the reader long after he has read his poetry. One fails to find equally revealing and interesting character studies in the poetry of Tennyson. It is Browning, the thinker that emerges from his poems. From this point of view, he is much ahead of Tennyson. The reader of today attaches greater importance to the thought-content of a poem than to its sheer artistic beauty. The poetry of Tennyson speaks of big events and episodes, primarily of historical significance. Browning, on the other hand, is a poet of individuals and of events from the life of individuals. The range of Browning's subjects is wider than that of Tennyson because he has portrayed human beings who provide enough variety to a literary artist for fuller exploitation. The poetry of Tennyson lacks this vitality of life, and as a result, Tennyson is read today more because of his poetic and artistic worth than because of his subject-matter. W. J. Long comments: "Tennyson is first the artist and then the teacher; but with Browning the message is always the important thing."

More of Modern Element in Browning's Technique

      The genius of Tennyson was lyrical and that of Browning was dramatic. "Tennyson is under the influence of the romantic revival", says W.J. Long. On the other hand, Browning frees himself from all preconceived concepts of poetry and writes independently. W.J. Long further says that Tennyson "chooses his subjects daintily; but all's fish that comes to Browning's net. He takes comely and ugly subjects with equal pleasure, and aims to show that truth lies hidden in both the evil and the good."

      Tennyson could not free himself from the established norms, whereas Browning bothered little about them and wrote in an independent fashion. Hugh Walker remarks: "Tennyson is full of echoes from the classics, but though Browning knew all the Greek and Latin poets, there are few lines or phrases in his works which can be traced back to them."

Browning: A Lesser Literary Artist than Tennyson

      Browning comes nowhere near the sweet melody and effective lucidity of the poetry of Tennyson. Tennyson is clear and simple. Browning is obscure and complex. Saying that: "Tennyson was not merely an English, but a European poet", S.A. Brooke remarks: "Browning, in spite of his cosmopolitan interests, has peculiarities of style and outlook that make him inaccessible to the great bulk of foreigners. And the reason, of this difference is easy to see. Tennyson is, perhaps, the most limpid of English poets, while Browning the most difficult. Tennyson was classic in his sympathies. He was interested in the form of his utterance at least as much as in their matter, and perfected that form with infinite labour and exquisite literary taste. Browning was pre-occupied with the matter of his poems; he had too much to say to trouble about the perfection of form, and so long as his meaning got itself expressed somehow, he was satisfied. He had neither Tennyson's ear for verbal music, nor the same sense for literary form. His verbal felicities seem accidental, not the result of pre-meditated art. But he had much the more powerful intellect of the two, much the greater capacity for, and insight into passion."

      The obscurity of Browning is understandable and justifiable where it results from unavoidable circumstances, namely, his preoccupation with the mind and soul of man, an occupation which by its very nature involves a tremendous intellectual exercise. But at places, Browning seems to become obscure deliberately. "His style and rhythm are often intolerably rough and unmusical. He is full of strained expressions, irritating puns, harsh inversions", as Hugh Walker says.

      Compared to Browning, Tennyson is a mature literary artist. He is choosy about every word that he uses and puts the right word at the right place. Unlike Browning, Tennyson takes no liberties with the established stanza-forms and other rules of poetry. As a result of this, his poetry becomes more musical in tone than that of Browning. The easy flow of The Lotos-Eaters remains unparalleled. In the process of trying to be original, Browning makes his verse harsh and rough, whereby his poetry loses the poetic charm, so essential for a first-rate piece of literary art.

Treatment of Love

      The treatment of love differs in the hands of Browning and Tennyson. Here also, as usual, Tennyson is conventional and Browning unconventional. In Browning's poetry, one finds instances where the passion of love is glorified. He adds spiritual significance to this passion by virtue of his belief that the departed souls meet in heaven.

      The rejected lovers of Tennyson express their annoyance with the women who reject them. It is not so in case of the rejected lovers of Browning. They, on the other hand, adore their beloveds all the more, even after they have rejected them.

      Browning differs from Tennyson in his treatment of love in still another manner. Whereas Tennyson deals primarily with the normal cases of love, Browning is bold enough to take up even the abnormal ones like the lover of Porphyria who strangles his beloved to death out of love and then justifies his crime.

Views on the Individual

      For Tennyson, an individual is not more important than a collective group of people, but it is the other way round in the case of Browning. "Tennyson’s message reflects the growing order of the age, and is summed up in the word 'law'. In his view, the individual will must be suppressed; the self must always be subordinate." Tennyson is a poet of the masses; Browning is a poet of the individuals.

Treatment of Nature

      The basic difference between Tennyson's and Browning's treatment of Nature is that whereas the former can afford to look at it for its own sake, Browning, almost always, looks at it in connection with Man and God. For Browning, Man and Nature are two entities. In spite of his awareness, of what is cruel and ugly in nature, Browning looks at it as an expression of God's creative force and His joy. Tennyson's nature-pictures are more vivid, detailed and minute, because he looks at nature for its own sake and goes deep into its physical details. The nature pictures are used to reflect man's moods. 

Conclusion

      Thus, we find that to draw a comparison between Browning and Tennyson is to experience a world of two different realms of poetry. It yields an interesting and enlightening study. In their own fields, they have kept themselves unmatched. If one is an epitome of literary skill and poetic grandeur, the other is unsurpassable in the manner in which he has made use of poetry as a medium for intellectual and psychological penetration into the very being of the individuals.

Select University Questions

1. Never have two products of the same age been so widely diverse as Browning and Tennyson

2. As a poet, Tennyson is greater than Browning but as a thinker Browning has left Tennyson far behind. Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.

3. Compare and contrast Tennyson and Browning as poets.

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