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Robert Browning’s Poetry


by:
Robert Browning

Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Themes

Multiple Perspectives on Single Events

The dramatic monologue verse form allowed Browning to
explore and probe the minds of specific characters in specific places
struggling with specific sets of circumstances. In The Ring
and the Book
, Browning tells a suspenseful story of murder
using multiple voices, which give multiple perspectives and multiple
versions of the same story. Dramatic monologues allow readers to
enter into the minds of various characters and to see an event from
that character’s perspective. Understanding the thoughts, feelings,
and motivations of a character not only gives readers a sense of
sympathy for the characters but also helps readers understand the
multiplicity of perspectives that make up the truth. In effect,
Browning’s work reminds readers that the nature of truth or reality
fluctuates, depending on one’s perspective or view of the situation.
Multiple perspectives illustrate the idea that no one sensibility
or perspective sees the whole story and no two people see the same
events in the same way. Browning further illustrated this idea by
writing poems that work together as companion pieces, such as “Fra
Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.” Poems such as these show how
people with different characters respond differently to similar
situations, as well as depict how a time, place, and scenario can
cause people with similar personalities to develop or change quite
dramatically.

The Purposes of Art

Browning wrote many poems about artists and poets, including
such dramatic monologues as “Pictor Ignotus” (1855)
and “Fra Lippo Lippi.” Frequently, Browning would begin by thinking
about an artist, an artwork, or a type of art that he admired or
disliked. Then he would speculate on the character or artistic philosophy
that would lead to such a success or failure. His dramatic monologues
about artists attempt to capture some of this philosophizing because
his characters speculate on the purposes of art. For instance, the speaker
of “Fra Lippo Lippi” proposes that art heightens our powers of observation
and helps us notice things about our own lives. According to some
of these characters and poems, painting idealizes the beauty found
in the real world, such as the radiance of a beloved’s smile. Sculpture
and architecture can memorialize famous or important people, as
in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (1845)
and “The Statue and the Bust” (1855). But
art also helps its creators to make a living, and it thus has a
purpose as pecuniary as creative, an idea explored in “Andrea
del Sarto.”

The Relationship Between Art and Morality

Throughout his work, Browning tried to answer questions
about an artist’s responsibilities and to describe the relationship
between art and morality. He questioned whether artists had an obligation
to be moral and whether artists should pass judgment on their characters
and creations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Browning populated
his poems with evil people, who commit crimes and sins ranging from
hatred to murder. The dramatic monologue format allowed Browning
to maintain a great distance between himself and his creations:
by channeling the voice of a character, Browning could explore evil
without actually being evil himself. His characters served as personae that
let him adopt different traits and tell stories about horrible situations.
In “My Last Duchess,” the speaker gets away with his wife’s murder
since neither his audience (in the poem) nor his creator judges
or criticizes him. Instead, the responsibility of judging the character’s
morality is left to readers, who find the duke of Ferrara a vicious,
repugnant person even as he takes us on a tour of his art gallery.

Motifs

Medieval and Renaissance European Settings

Browning set many of his poems in medieval and Renaissance
Europe, most often in Italy. He drew on his extensive knowledge
of art, architecture, and history to fictionalize actual events,
including a seventeenth-century murder in The Ring and the
Book
, and to channel the voices of actual historical figures,
including a biblical scholar in medieval Spain in “Rabbi Ben Ezra”
(1864) and the Renaissance painter in the
eponymous “Andrea del Sarto.” The remoteness of the time period
and location allowed Browning to critique and explore contemporary
issues without fear of alienating his readers. Directly invoking
contemporary issues might seem didactic and moralizing in a way
that poems set in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries
would not. For instance, the speaker of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb
at Saint Praxed’s Church” is an Italian bishop during the late Renaissance.
Through the speaker’s pompous, vain musings about monuments, Browning
indirectly criticizes organized religion, including the Church of
England, which was in a state of disarray at the time of the poem’s
composition in the mid-nineteenth century.

Psychological Portraits

Dramatic monologues feature a solitary speaker addressing
at least one silent, usually unnamed person, and they provide interesting
snapshots of the speakers and their personalities. Unlike soliloquies,
in dramatic monologues the characters are always speaking directly
to listeners. Browning’s characters are usually crafty, intelligent,
argumentative, and capable of lying. Indeed, they often leave out
more of a story than they actually tell. In order to fully understand
the speakers and their psychologies, readers must carefully pay
attention to word choice, to logical progression, and to the use
of figures of speech, including any metaphors or
analogies. For instance, the speaker of “My Last Duchess” essentially
confesses to murdering his wife, even though he never expresses
his guilt outright. Similarly, the speaker of “Soliloquy of the
Spanish Cloister” inadvertently betrays his madness by confusing
Latin prayers and by expressing his hate for a fellow friar with
such vituperation and passion. Rather than state the speaker’s madness,
Browning conveys it through both what the speaker says and how the
speaker speaks.

Grotesque Images

Unlike other Victorian poets, Browning filled his poetry
with images of ugliness, violence, and the bizarre. His contemporaries,
such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in contrast,
mined the natural world for lovely images of beauty. Browning’s
use of the grotesque links him to novelist Charles Dickens, who
filled his fiction with people from all strata of society, including
the aristocracy and the very poor. Like Dickens, Browning created
characters who were capable of great evil. The early poem “Porphyria’s
Lover” (1836) begins with the lover describing
the arrival of Porphyria, then it quickly descends into a depiction
of her murder at his hands. To make the image even more grotesque,
the speaker strangles Porphyria with her own blond hair. Although
“Fra Lippo Lippi” takes place during the Renaissance in Florence,
at the height of its wealth and power, Browning sets the poem in
a back alley beside a brothel, not in a palace or a garden. Browning
was instrumental in helping readers and writers understand that
poetry as an art form could handle subjects both lofty, such as
religious splendor and idealized passion, and base, such as murder, hatred,
and madness, subjects that had previously only been explored in
novels.

Symbols

Taste

Browning’s interest in culture, including art and architecture,
appears throughout his work in depictions of his characters’ aesthetic
tastes. His characters’ preferences in art, music, and literature
reveal important clues about their natures and moral worth. For
instance, the duke of Ferrara, the speaker of “My Last Duchess,” concludes
the poem by pointing out a statue he commissioned of Neptune taming
a sea monster. The duke’s preference for this sculpture directly
corresponds to the type of man he is—that is, the type of man who
would have his wife killed but still stare lovingly and longingly
at her portrait. Like Neptune, the duke wants to subdue and command
all aspects of life, including his wife. Characters also express
their tastes by the manner in which they describe art, people, or
landscapes. Andrea del Sarto, the Renaissance artist who speaks
the poem “Andrea del Sarto,” repeatedly uses the adjectives gold and silver in
his descriptions of paintings. His choice of words reinforces one
of the major themes of the poem: the way he sold himself out. Listening
to his monologue, we learn that he now makes commercial paintings
to earn a commission, but he no longer creates what he considers
to be real art. His desire for money has affected his aesthetic
judgment, causing him to use monetary vocabulary to describe art
objects.

Evil and Violence

Synonyms for, images of, and symbols of evil
and violence abound in Browning’s poetry. “Soliloquy of the Spanish
Cloister,” for example, begins with the speaker trying to articulate
the sounds of his “heart’s abhorrence” (1)
for a fellow friar. Later in the poem, the speaker invokes images
of evil pirates and a man being banished to hell. The diction and
images used by the speakers expresses their evil thoughts, as well
as indicate their evil natures. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower
Came” (1855) portrays a nightmarish world
of dead horses and war-torn landscapes. Yet another example of evil
and violence comes in “Porphyria’s Lover,” in which the speaker
sits contentedly alongside the corpse of Porphyria, whom he murdered
by strangling her with her hair. Symbols of evil and violence allowed
Browning to explore all aspects of human psychology, including the
base and evil aspects that don’t normally appear in poetry.


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Analysis of “A Different History” by Sujata Bhat

714 words, approx. 3 pages
Sujata Bhat wrote the poem “a Different History” during the time period of England’s colonization. It appears that the poet was attempting to represent Indian’s culture and draw attention to the fact …
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