ROBERT BROWNING'S "PAINTERLY" AESTHETICS AS REVEALED IN
"FRA LIPPO LIPPI," "A GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL," AND
"CHILDE ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER CAME"
Lorraine Jean Timm
B.A., University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 1993
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Lorraine Jean Timm
has been approved
Timm, Lorraine Jean (M.A., English)
Robert Browning's "Painterly" Aesthetics as Revealed in "Fra Lippo
Lippi," "A Grammarian's Funeral," and "Childe Roland to the Dark
Thesis directed by Professor Mary Rose Sullivan
Robert Browning applied the Renaissance art techniques of
perspective and luminous layering to his poetry, finding these techniques
useful for portraying his philosophy of the perfect within the imperfect.
Simultaneously, presenting his characters in flashes of light like that from
the rotating beam of a lighthouse, he has often been accused of intentional
obscurity. In addition, Browning's role of serving as the "maker-see"
requires the cooperation of an active rather than a passive reader, one who
will visualize and re-create the poet's original picture. In light of his
"painterly" techniques, it is useful to approach Browning's poetry as one
would a painting by surveying the whole to grasp its "ultimates" before
scrutinizing its "mediates."
Reading Browning's poetry in this manner more accurately
illuminates the transcendental dimensions of his characters.
Consequently, certain characters that critics have often perceived as
failures are actually revealed to be artists and heroes. Fra Lippo Lippi has
been viewed as a fallen monk, nervously chattering to the watchmen who
apprehend him, when, viewed from an art-appreciator's perspective, he
becomes a vibrant man and brilliant interpretive artist, energetically
communicating many of Browning's aesthetic principles.
Likewise, the Grammarian is often perceived as a dessicated, introspective
hermit, eschewing the active life. When we view the "ultimates" of his
poem as a portrait, the Grammarian emerges as a man of appetite and
action, transcending the limitations placed upon him by ill fortune,
gamering fame while patiently investing his energies in knowledge for
eternity. Similarly, Roland, often seen as the knight errant with a death
wish, emerges not as a knight-candidate, but as an artist-candidate, who
perseveres through the ordeal of a "salt-water baptism" in an ominous
tract of grotesque images. Tempted by thoughts of failure and by
intimidation at the appearance of his lost peers, he, nevertheless,
triumphs in that he acquires the true poet's vision that allows him to see
the tower that others have failed to see, heroically blowing his horn to
celebrate his victory.
The reader who actively participates as the art-appreciator,
intuitively gazing upon the poem-portrait's "ultimates" before analyzing
its "mediates," is equipped to mine the quarry of ideas that comprise
Browning's dramatic monologues. This reader is able to see Browning's
spark of the divine glimmering within the mundane.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I
recommend its publication.
1. INTRODUCTION: BROWNING'S "PAINTERLY"
2. "FRA LIPPO LIPPI" THE MANY FACES OF LIFE .13
3. "A GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL" ETERNAL PURSUIT ... 24
4. "CHILDE ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER CAME"
.; "SALT-WATER" BAPTISM........;... .........39
5. CONCLUSION: A PROMETHEAN POET.............. 58
WORKS CITED .... ......................................63
ROBERT BROWNING'S "PAINTERLY" AESTHETICS
Walter Bagehot's critical review, published by Tinsley's Magazine in
1869, states that Robert Browning is "a man intentionally obscure, a writer
whom people who value easy literary digestion ought piously to avoid"
(Litzinger & Smalley 300). Bagehot's opinion is accurate. In fact,
Browning's poetry has continued to challenge the active reader and
frustrate the passive reader for the past 160 years. Combining the
ideologies of the Greek "poein" and the Roman "vates," Browning
practiced his philosophy that the poet should be a "maker-see" (Sordello).
He was convinced that the poet had an obligation not only to be the
creator and the visionary, but also to be the transformer of his readers, so
they could recreate the vision themselves. This process requires the
reader to exert some effort, as Browning admits in a letter written in 1868
to his friend W. G. Kingsland, "I never designedly tried to puzzle people,
as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never
pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar, or a
game of dominoes to an idle man" (Woolford 28-29).
In an 1864 essay comparing the styles of Wordsworth, Tennyson,
and Browning, Bagehot describes the intellectual effort required of
One of his greatest admirers once owned to us
that he seldom or never began a new poem
without looking on in advance and foreseeing
with caution what length of intellectual
adventure he was about to commence.
Whoever will work hard at such poems will
find much mind in them: they are a sort of
quarry of ideas, but whoever goes there will find
these ideas in such a jagged, ugly, useless shape
that he can hardly bear them. (410)
Bagehot's attitude was common to his time; Browning's works were not
received enthusiastically by the general public or the criticsonly a
handful of young intellectuals (many of them in Browning's circle of
friends) appreciated his use of grotesque images or understood his
seemingly-disjointed techniques of sketching characters.
Aware that his poetry was difficult for his readers, Browning wrote
to his friend Joseph Milsand in 1853, "I am writing, a first step towards
popularity for melyrics with more music and painting than before, so as
to get people to hear and see" (Woolford 55). It was not unusual for
Browning to compare his poetry to painting; in fact, he usually described
his poetic techniques in terms that an artist would use when discussing
his painting. He wrote to Elizabeth Barrett during their courtship in 1845
using this painting metaphor:
for an instructed eye loves to see where the
brush has dipped twice in a lustrous colour, has
lain insisting along a favorite outline, dwelt
lovingly in a grand shadowfor these "too
muches" for the everybody's picture are so many
helps to the making out the real painter's-
picture as he had it in his brain .... (Kintner 7)
Browning's phrases have a textbook ring, describing the Renaissance
method of painting involving the deliberate buildup of many layers of
transparent paint to achieve luminosity. This technique is evident in
Browning's dramatic monologues. Browning layers transparent hues of
each character's own musings, confessions, defenses, reactions, notions,
and memories until the reader, hearing Browning's men and women
speak their truths "broken in prismatic hues" (7), glimpses "the real
painter's-picture as he had it in his brain."
A second Renaissance art development that Browning adapted to
his poetry is the use of perspective. To achieve this three-dimensional
rather than flat presentation, the artist imagines a distant point to which
he gradually diminishes the proportions of shapes so that the viewer's eye
is drawn into the picture, which has become a window to the scene.
Browning opens his dramatic monologues in medias res, giving the
reader the impression that the window's shutters have just opened upon
the action in the poem. Not only is the reader an observer of the scene,
but through the character's stream-of-consciousness delivery, the reader is
drawn towards that distant reference point in the soul and psyche of
Browning's characters that reveals the dimensional depth the poet had in
If Browning had combined only the two well-known Renaissance
painting techniques of luminous layering and perspective with the
modern stream-of-consciousness mode of monologue, his readers might
need to exert only a minimal effort. Fortunately for the energetic reader,
Browning complicates his technique with an intermittent strobe-light
effect. A few lines of another letter to Miss Barrett allude to this
these scenes and song-scraps are such mere and
very escapes of my inner power, which lives in
me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean
phares I have watched at sea, wherein
the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery
bright and alive, and only after a weary interval
leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow
chink, and then goes on with the blind wall
between it and you, and, no doubt, then,
precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the
cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick .
. . (Kintner 17)
Similarly, the characters in Browning's dramatic monologues are
illuminated in the poet's carefully-chosen flashes of light. One leap of the
light from the chink may illuminate a facial expression; another may
reveal an insult; still another might uncover a betrayal. Browning's light
does not steadily illuminate the subject in his poetry; rather, his light
flashes like a strobe light or "blips" like a radar scanner, exposing snatches
of conversation, reactions to glances, and snippets of action.
This sporadic illumination has caused critics to complain about
Browning's rough technique. Even John Ruskin, an admirer of
Browning's work, confessed in a letter to Browning the frustration he
experienced while attempting to follow Browning's syntax. Browning's
defense confirms that he was deliberate in his technique:
You would have me paint it all plain out, which
can't be; but by various artifices I try to make
shift with touches and bits of outlines which
succeed if they bear the conception from me to
you. You ought, I think, to keep pace with the
thought tripping from ledge to ledge of my
'glaciers,' as you call them; not stand poking
your alpenstock into the holes and
demonstrating that no foot could have stood
there; suppose it sprang over there?
Significantly, Browning advises Ruskin that "in asking for more ultimates
you must accept less mediates" (233). In this prescription, Browning gives
us a key to decoding his poetry: ideally, the ultimates should be sensed
first before the mediates are scrutinizedmuch as we do when we view
art. When we first look at a painting, we form an impression based on the
whole effect of the work. We do not begin viewing the painting
sequentially from the top down or from the right to the left; we do not
extract piecessymbol by symbol or image by imagepuzzling over their
individual connections, working toward the ultimate meaning. Only after
the initial "ultimates" have been grasped, do we analyze the "mediates" to
appreciate their contribution to the whole.
Unfortunately, we cannot read poetry in one glance; we are limited
by the need to read it sequentially, word by word and phrase by phrase,
absorbing it symbol by symbol, image by image. Furthermore, we know
what the poet intends the beginning and the ending of a poem to be
(regardless of the point at which he actually began composing it), whereas
we have no idea where the beginning or the ending of a painting lies.
Normally, as we read poetry, we collect the mediates much like puzzle
pieces and try to fit them together according to our notions of how they
should fit, hoping to discover the ultimates by piecing together these
mediates. In the case of Browning's dramatic monologues, however, it is
useful to suspend this inductive process while reading a poem. In other
words, we might scan for the whole effect before analyzing the parts. In
fact, Browning admitted, "The whole is all but a simultaneous feeling
with me" (233). Reading for the "simultaneous feeling" instead of
puzzling at the gaps over which the poet sprang proves to be a useful
technique for mining the quarry of ideas from Browning's poetry.
Gotthold Lessing, in Laocoon, discussing the difficulty of forming a
visual whole from lines of poetry, observes:
the co-existence of the physical object comes into
collision with the consecutiveness of speech and
the former being resolved into the latter, the
dismemberment of the whole into its parts is
certainly made easier, but the final reunion of
those parts into a whole is made uncommonly
The collision of co-existence of object with consecutiveness of speech that
Lessing identifies accounts for the reader's difficulty in synthesizing all the
impressions and images of Browning's poetry into his whole "painter's
lln the preface to Laocoon or The Limits of Painting and Poetry, Lessing stresses the
importance of comparing the two arts with care, estimating that there have been "fifty
witty to one clear-eyed critic" (3). The odds of my being witty have never been so
picture." Of the various images in a poem, Lessing says, "Our imagination
must be able to run over them all with equal swiftness in order to unite in
one from them that which in Nature we see united in one" (62), again
suggesting the desireability of an intuitive scanning that would allow the
reader to perceive the co-existence of images, regardless of the
consecutiveness of the medium.
From Browning's many allusions to paintings, we may postulate
that his dramatic monologues began just as he says, as a painter's picture
in his brain, a painting that he sketches into verse using scenes, song-
scraps, and prismatic huesinsistently outlining a character's
predicament, dipping twice to illuminate a character's soul, dwelling
lovingly in the shadow of a seemingly-unrelated episode. In like manner,
the reader, cooperating with Browning's role as the maker-see, would
initially suspend inspection of minute aspects of the poem, ignoring all
momentary bewilderment at seemingly-impossible leaps from glacial
ledges, until he or she has mentally recreated the poet's original "painter's
picture as he had it in his brain."
Approaching Browning's poetry in a way that allows the reader to
form an initial portrait of the character, intuitively absorbing the poem's
ultimates before analyzing the poem in terms of its mediates, not only
enables readers to participate in Browning's "painterly" techniques, but
also allows them to discern within Browning's characters his philosophy
of the perfect within the imperfect. Browning believed that each
individual, however imperfect he or she may currently appear to be, is
capable of embodying an element of the perfect. While perfection is never
attained in this life, each human being must reach for it. That this concept
became foundational to Browning's philosophy is understandable,
considering the fact that his aesthetics were influenced by his Christian
the fact that all of his activities during this
period [from 1845-1852]as worshiper, as poet,
as letter writer and criticwere directed toward
the fundamental problem of apprehending
perfection through imperfection, of somehow
fusing apparent opposites, indicates that his
religious and aesthetic thoughts developed
simultaneously and were mutually dependent.
Surely, Browning was familiar with Paul's epistle to the Corinthians,
which addresses a paradox similar to that of perfection apprehended
For God, who commanded the light to shine out
of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give
the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this
treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of
the power may be of God, and not of us. (2
Paul refers to God's light in the believer's heart as a treasure. Just as the
"bright and alive" light actively rotates within the dark gallery of
Browning's Mediterranean phare, the believer holds the light of the
knowledge of the glory of God within the dark gallery of his earthen vessel
as an element of perfection within his body of imperfection. As this light
rotates, its beams merely hint of its entire greatness. In like manner, as
Browning's characters speak and act, the reader catches glimpses of the
light hidden within each "dark gallery," sensing ethereal dimensions
beyond the superficial characteristics.
Of course, Browning's aesthetics were shaped by additional factors;
for example, other poets and critics influenced him. Browning describes
all poetry as a vehicle for "putting the infinite within the finite"
(Collingwood 232), a phrase that echoes Thomas Carlyle, who greatly
influenced Browning through his German professor Teufelsdrockh in
Sartor Resartus, preaching that "the universe is but one vast symbol of
God; nay if thou wilt have it what is man himself but a symbol of God"
(547). If humankind serves as a symbol of God, each individual embodies
a measure of the infinite. Indeed, Carlyle states, "In the symbol. . there is
ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and
revelation of the infinite; the infinite is made to blend itself with the
finite" (547). If humankind by nature embodies some element of the
infinite, every human action contains some aspect of the infinite.
Accordingly, Carlyle concludes that a man's actions in themselves serve as
"a revelation to sense . the mystic God-given force that is in him" (547).
This mystic force within humankind echoes Paul's metaphor of the
treasure of unearthly light that resides in earthen vessels. In calling man
the "Messiah of nature" who preaches by word and deed, Carlyle points to
the transcendental implications of his theory that humankind's words and
actions comprise the "visible record of invisible things" (547).
Browning's religious aesthetics lead to his portrayal of a
transcendental dimension in his characters. The character who recognizes
the existence of a realm of perfection, who carries this vision as a treasure
inside him, unconsciously projects Carlyle's mystic force, flashing forth
hints of the perfect and infinite just as the rotating light in the phare,
drawing the reader's attention to this realm in the same way that the use
of perspective draws the art viewer's eye deep into a painting. Not
surprisingly, the Renaissance tradition of deeply-receding backgrounds in
paintings again prefigures this transcendental depth that Browning
achieves in his poetry. Browning's religious philosophy reveals that the
distant point toward which he directs his poetic perspective resides in
God's perfect realm; his "painterly" poetic techniques establish this
perspective through the transcendental portrayal of characters. He writes
to expose the divine within the mundane.
Reading Browning's poetry in such as way as to distinguish the
divine ultimates from the mundane mediates proves particularly
enlightening with three of Browning's characters commonly perceived as
failures. Many critics have perceived Lippo as merely the charming but
fallen monk who fantasizes about sexual escapades in heaven; the
Grammarian as a man obsessed with trivia, who tunnels for knowledge
and eschews the light of living; and Roland as the knight errant with a
death wish who journeys to hell. Reading for Browning's "painterly"
ultimates, however, unveils quite another trio of portraits. Lippo, the
Grammarian, and Roland all treasure divine elements within their
earthen vessels. Lippo, sensory as well as sensual, searches each face to
discern and paint the soul beyond the flesh, thereby interpreting God to
everyone. The Grammarian, seemingly as inert as Lippo is energetic,
patiently gathers knowledge, confident that his studious investment will
generate eternal dividends. Childe Roland, the poet candidate, perseveres
to announce the triumph of his poetic genius.
"FRA LIPPO LIPPI" THE MANY FACES OF LIFE
Fra Lippo Lippi's face is illuminated in the very first lines of this
poem as the torchlight from the night-watch flashes upon it.2 In a
manner strongly reminiscent of Longinus' words on the sublime, we can
imagine that Lippo's bright countenance in the dark street "scatters
everything before it like a thunderbolt" (76). If we were to focus a wide-
angle lens upon the poem during our initial reading to discover the poet's
painter's picture has he had it in his brainto sense his "ultimates" we
compose a portrait on two levels: in the lower foreground we see playful,
oath-uttering Lippo in the midnight-dark alley, indignantly surprised by
the policemen, his face flashing in their torchlight; in the background
shrinks speechless Lippo in the eternal brightness of heaven, sheepishly
surprised by the celestial throng, his face blushing in the great light. He
has descended to the first surprise by escaping from the monastery
window down a ladder of knotted bedding; he emerges out of a comer into
2Written in 1853, "Fra Lippo Lippi" was published in Browning's Men and Women
the final surprise as if he has ascended a dark stair leading to a bright light.
Both apprehendings occur through his own inventionthis portrait
emphasizes the steady faith beyond his momentary "rage."
High-energy Brother Lippo is thoroughly in control of the
questioning that ensues. In fact, as the watchmen discover, detaining
Lippo for questioning is rather like trying to make a missile hover. He
claims: "And I do these wild things in sheer despite, / And play the
fooleries you catch me at, / In pure rage!" (252-254). After gaining his
release by mentioning the name of his statesman and art-patron friend,
the Cosimo de' Medici, and by deftly threatening his captor's hanging,
Lippo inspects the faces of the group as if they were the "fair prize" that
came into his net, instead of his being theirs. He decides that one face
resembles that of Judas and another would serve well as the face of the
slave that dangled John the Baptist's head by the hair; in fact, Lippo goes
on to tell of his gallery of faces, all collected through his years as an
orphan, learning to read faces to discover the temperaments behind them.
Not only does Lippo paint faces realistically, but he paints bodies to
accompany them-bodies with arms and legs in three-dimensional action,
"paying homage to the perishable clay" in a way that makes his superiors
angry: "Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!" (180, 193). Being
commanded by his pompous superiors ("they, with their Latin") to paint
in a way contrary to his natural inclinations, and being told he will never
be a great monastic painter on par with Brother Angelico and Brother
Lorenzo, Lippo says, "I swallow my rage, / Clench my teeth, suck my lips
in tight, and paint / To please them" (242-244). Then, having painted
saints and more saints, inevitably the evening comes when he must kick
up his heels to indulge in "A laugh, a cry, the business of the world" (247).
Only such occasional carousing can offer him a release from the rage that
builds from suppressing his nature.
Lippo's "head being crammed" with words and his listeners' minds
being as blank as the monastery walls,3 he embarks upon a monologue in
the same spirit of "prompt disemburdening" by which he originally filled
the walls at the monastery with paintings the day his head was likewise
crammed with faces (143,144). Uttering 71 exclamations and asking 30
questions in the course of his monologue, he explains why he was out in
the street, how he became a monk, and what his theory of art is. One
would think he had been approached for an interview; all this talk is
hardly necessary once he has secured his release by invoking a powerful
name, a subtle threat, and a playful bribe. In keeping with his explosive
nature, he accents his account with short, volatile verbs: "clap," "catch,"
3Lippo has already dared to call his captor's hat as empty as his own stomach was
the day his aunt brought him to the convent. He sees the nightwatchmen as empty walls
for filling with his observationsthis time he will paint with words.
"hunt/7 "snap/' "fling/7 "curse/7 "kick/7 "rub/7 "clench/7 "caught."
Spontaneously self-indulgent, he views life in sensual terms: "quoth the
good fat father / Wiping his own mouth" (93-4), "nip each softling of a
wee white mouse" (10), "the breathless fellow at the altar-foot, / Fresh
from his murder" (149-50), "skipping of rabbits by moonlight,three slim
shapes" (59), "white smallish female with the breasts" (195), "tasting the
air this spicy night which turns / The unaccustomed head like Chianti
wine (338-39), and "Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing / Forward,
puts out a soft palm" (370-71). His monologue flashes with rapid-fire
images. The reader imagines the strobe-like effect of the light from
Browning's Mediterranean phare as it flashes upon these images that form
the mediates of Lippo's monologue.
The glimpses of Lippo reveling in the flesh during his momentary
rage are only surface motifs, however. Temporal experiences tutor him,
but the religious training he has received in the monastery informs his
deeper perspective. Endowed with imaginative vision, he confesses, "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" (265-68). Lippo reminds his would-be captors that
God made human flesh and framed it with the beauties of nature. Do they
ignore God's creation, despise it, dwell upon it, wonder at it? Lippo
admires the power of faces to induce wonder. While conceding that
wonder is an appropriate response, he still insists that it is not the
ultimate response.4 Passive wonder must yield to action. Painting in a
way that surpasses mere reproduction, Lippo improves upon the raw
material in order to invest it with interpretive powers.
Lippo is no passive theorist; he is a passionate creator. Even as a
child, he had brought his ABC's to life by adding "nose and eyes and chin"
to the shape of the letters on the page and animated the music notes in his
antiphonary by enhancing them with legs and arms (132). He enlivened
his copy books as well as walls, benches, and doors with men's faces and
pictures of the world. Exercising Baudelarian creativity,5 he exclaims of a
woman's face, "Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue, / Can't I
take breath and try to add life's flash / And then add soul and heighten
them threefold?" (212-214). Just as Lippo appears in his own painting, "I,
caught up with my monk's things" (366), Browning himself, caught up
with his poet's things, makes a philosophical appearance in the poem
^Beyond Herbert F. Tucker's claim that what Lippo loves best about faces is their
power to induce wonder (205), we see Lippo experiencing wonder only as a stepping-stone to
5Charles Baudelaire, in The Salon of 1859, writes, "the constructive imagination
... inasmuch as man is made in the likeness of God, bears a distant relation to that sublime
power by which the Creator projects, creates, and upholds his universe" (623).
through these lines. Lippo is not satisfied with merely copying nature,
which Baudelaire says is like copying the dictionary, a mechanical exercise
devoid of imagination (623); he must breathe physical and spiritual life
into his subjects. In the same way, Browning goes beyond the role of vates
to add the spark of life to his creations. These transcendental dimensions
of life, like the luminous layers of paint in a Renaissance portrait, reveal
the soul. In a similar vein, the art appreciator (surely Browning himself)
in "Old Pictures in Florence" says, "Make the hopes shine through the
flesh they fray, / New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters. / So bring the
invisible full into play" (149-151). Browning demonstrates his aesthetics of
the spiritual treasure within earthen vessels through Lippo's philosophy
of painting the flesh in a way that draws the viewer on to see the soul
within. Just as viewers of such a work as Fra Filippo Lippi's 1455 tempura
on wood, Madonna and Child with Angels, are transported through these
perspectivist layers of life to sense the divine, so can the readers of
Browning's poems hear his characters' souls talking.
Ultimately, Lippo's description of his painting techniques illustrates
how Browning's poetic techniques rise to the same transcendental levels.
Like the mystery of haunting blue eyes set in a captivating face, Browning
presents his characters enmeshed in mundane predicaments; then, by
having them react, defend, or justify themselves, he breathes life into
them. Soon the reader becomes aware of the spiritual dimension beyond
the material, and he glimpses the treasure of God's light within an earthen
Beyond the realm of mere technique, this transcendental
dimension communicates Browning's aesthetics of poetry on a
philosophical level. The poet chooses and arranges words to create static
images like a woman's blue eyes or a wayward monk's embarrassment,
breathes life into them by engaging them in conflict, then draws the reader
through them into the poet's vision of the divine. The image becomes a
window to Life. The words become living flesh, and their life becomes
light to the reader. In this way, the poet is not only creating and
energizing as God did in the garden, but effecting another incarnation:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the
Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ... .
In him was life; and the life was the light of men" (John 1:1,14,4).
Whereas humankind was initially created from inert elements, Christ, the
Redeemer, came to earth as God's word made fleshthe ultimate example
of the infinite in the finite, the perfect in the imperfect.
In poor, temporal imitation of this lofty incarnation, the
earthbound poet, creating with words instead of dust, attempts to clothe a
measure of the perfect in the limitations of language. Lippo counts
omission of the transcendent element in every human act a crime: "God's
workspaint any one, and count it crime / To let a truth slip" (295-96). To
illustrate his talent for revealing previously-unseen truths, Lippo points
to his captor's dog with the "hanging face" and asks if he had ever really
noticed that face. Give Lippo a piece of chalk and he would draw that face
in such a way that the owner would truly behold it for the first time.
"How much more, / If I drew higher things with the same truth! / That
were to take the Prior's pulpit-place, / Interpret God to all of you!" (308-
311). Far from being didactic, this sermon would be one preached without
words, but intuitively grasped. "Art was given for that / God uses us to
help each other so, / Lending our minds out" (304-306). As Lippo lends
his mind out to his viewers, so Browning lends his to the reader.
Thomas J. Collins observes that Lippo "serves as a mouthpiece for
Browning's ideas on the nature of art. He is a prime example of the
'whole' artist, whose function, as stated in the Essay on Shelley, is to
behold 'with an understanding keenness the universe, nature and man, in
their actual state of perfection in imperfection'" (143). Beyond standing
merely in his characters' shoes instead of in their skins, as F. L. Lucas
claims (29), Browning actually stands in his characters' hearts, reaching for
their souls. Careful to appear objective in his portrayal of a character who
is purely subjective in his own defense, Browninghowever
covertlymanages to reflect his aesthetics through that character.
Good-natured, street-smart, humor-loving Lippo is no exception.
He inspires the reader's wonder, buttrue to Browning's transcendental
visionultimately serves as the vehicle to spiritual interpretation. At
first, Lippo plans the ultimate penance for his waywardness of the
evening. He will paint God, Madonna, and the Babe along with angels,
saints, and even Job. Lippo expansively describes the painting as it is
already taking shape in his mind. Playfully, he even envisions himself as
part of the painting. Intoxicated with his creative power, Lippo
experiences Dionysiac stirrings in Nietzschean terms:
He feels himself to be godlike and strides with
the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has
seen in his dreams. No longer the artist, he has
himself become a work of art : the productive
power of the whole universe is now manifest in
his transport. (630)
His playful vision of himself in the painting becomes a surprising reality,
illustrating his creative power alongside of heaven's acceptance of
unworthy but humble creatures.
Ironically, Lippo's creative talent serves as the vehicle for his
vision of his own approbation in heaven. The little boy who heard six last
words spoken by the fat father on the day of his renunciation of the world
will soon hear the seventh word spoken by an angel in heaven. Browning
loads this final scene with Biblical allusions that communicate his
philosophy of the artist as an interpreter of God. Lippo's mortification at
being caught in the midst of such a pure company parallels Isaiah's as he
finds himself surrounded by seraphim before God's throne: "Woe is me!
for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the
midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the
Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:5). As a seraphim flies to Isaiah with a live coal
from the altar to purge and consecrate his tainted lips, so Lippo is rescued
by an angel who takes his hand to prevent his escape and, uttering the
seventh and final word, defends him to the celestial company, reminding
them that they are Lippo's creation, after all. The phrase, "Iste perfecit
opus," meaning, "This one himself finished the work," has often been
ascribed to the man who commissioned Lippo to paint the Coronation of
the Virgin, but a grammatical analysis shows the antecedent of the
pronoun "iste" to be Lippo in the preceding line: "We come to brother
Lippo for all that, / Iste perfecit opus" (376-77). These words also echo
Christ's final words from the cross, "It is finished," announcing that the
work of redemption had been completed (John 19:30). Browning's
philosophy of art as a window upon the spiritual realm and the artist as a
creative and redemptive force in the world is convincingly communicated
through the art and steady faith of this seemingly-fallen monk.
"A GRAMMARIAN'S FUNERAL ETERNAL PURSUIT
At first glance, the Grammarian appears to be the antithesis of
Lippo.6 Whereas Lippo gleefully lowers himself from his "mew" to join
the festival in the street and credits his eight-year apprenticeship in the
streets with causing him to develop an observant, artist's eye for the spirit
behind the face, the Grammarian disdains the commonality of the low
plain, preferring the challenge of the mountainside. Lippo views the
cloister as a prison, preferring to study man first-hand in the streets, but
the Grammarian cloisters himself with his books, studying man second-
hand through the works of the bard and sage. Whereas Lippo revels in
Dionysian passion, the Grammarian studies in Appollonian orderliness.
Whereas Lippo flashes about in robust health, the Grammarian seems to
suffer from rigor mortis even before he is dead. Upon closer inspection,
however, we can note several similarities between these two characters.
Lippo and the Grammarian both seek God. Both poems demonstrate
6Browning wrote "A Grammarian's Funeral" in 1852. It was published in Men and
'Women in 1855.
strong motion upwards: Lippo is transported prematurely to heaven by
his own creative impulses; the Grammarian's corpse is finally carried to a
lofty mountaintop by those who admire him. Although both characters
have been seen as failures, Browning symbolizes their victory by
positioning them at the beginning of a new "day" in their respective fields.
Lippo painted at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance; the
Grammarian gained fame shortly after the revival of learning in Europe.
When Lippo parts from the night-watch, he notes the grey beginning of
the new day; likewise, the Grammarian's funeral procession also takes
place as a new day is "Rimming the rock-row" (8).
Upon reading "A Grammarian's Funeral" for the "ultimates," we
may form a mental portrait of the Grammarian seated in some esoteric
dining hall, literally feasting upon the knowledge of men, savoring one
ancient volume after another in much the way an oyster-connoisseur
might smoothly slip a dozen or more from the shell through his lips. In
our mind's eye, the artist has deliberately blurred the Grammarian from
the waist down and magnified his head, revealing through its
translucence the stormy digestion that is taking placeclouds, flashes of
lightning, shooting starsa scene both rare and intense. The
Grammarian's leaden eyes not only betoken the fact that his true vision is
focused beyond the realm of material objects, they also signify the
purification of his mindthe intense heat having driven all dross out to
the surface. This scene is surrounded by a border design that mirrors the
maze of winding, treacherous pathways over which the Grammarian's
disciples ascend to his burial site, a maze which symbolizes the intellectual
intricacies that the Grammarian has savored.
This exercise in holistic reading unveils a man who inwardly
relishes his fare, who is obsessed not with physical nourishment but with
intellectual refinement of otherworldly proportions. A man like this
might easily be misunderstood and underestimated, particularly when he
cannot speak for himself. "A Grammarian's Funeral" differs from
Browning's other dramatic monologues in that the main character never
speaks directly; consequently, the reader must depend upon the musings
of the pallbearers, accented by only five quotations from the Grammarian
himself. Successfully gleaning the "mediates" from the poem involves
separating the Grammarian's actual words from the opinions and
memories of his disciples. Approaching the poem in this manner sheds
light upon a startling tragedy turned to triumph.
Critics have long argued over whether Browning portrays the
Grammarian with honor or contempt. Martin J. Svaglic defends the
Grammarian against Richard Altick's view of the poem as a mock
The text of the poem does not justify the
common assumption that the grammarian was
always a scholar, that he has never 'lived' at all
in the common sense. He had played; he had
danced his 'dance'; but instead of retreating then
to the placidities of age, he determined to ask
'bard and sage' the perilous questions about the
real meaning of life that most people are content
to evade. (99-100)
Svaglic correctly emphasizes the Grammarian's choice to pursue
intellectual studies only after an active youth but does not speculate upon
reasons for the change in direction. Indeed, the text reveals that during
his youthful years the Grammarian played, "Till lo, the little touch and
the youth was gone! / Cramped and diminished, / Moaned he, 'New
measures, other feet anon! / My dance is finished?"' (37-40). These lines
could be interpreted to mean that the young man fiddled his youth away
much as the grasshopper did the summer until suddenly old age touched
him. The very first words we hear quoted from this man are introduced
by "Moaned he" (39). Disbelieving that the end of his dance had come, he
immediately calls for new measures and other feet. The reader might
assume that the dancer is calling for new musical measures and other
metrical feet so the dance might continue, or he may imagine the
dismayed dancer requesting new challenges since the literal dance is now
over, and another "dance" may yet begin. As soon as the Grammarian
realizes that the world would have him respond to his altered
circumstances by taking it easy and foregoing challenges: "keep the
mountainside, / Make for the city" (41-42), he decides to rise above his
situation. "Stepping on with pride / Over men's pity," he drastically
changes his lifestyle; he stops playing and starts working (43-44).
Perhaps we could believe that, in his youthful dissipation, he did
not see old age coming. But does anyone readily pity someone who has
played his life away and suddenly whines because old age has abruptly
arrived, bringing all the fun to a halt? If old age were the Grammarian's
impetus for turning from play to work, why do his disciples imagine that
another in his situation might have said, "'Time to taste life ... up with
the curtain!'" (55-56)? Surely they would realize the futility and cruelty of
such urgings upon an old man. Old age may bring a cramped and
diminished state, but when it happens over a period of decades, is it
reasonable to bemoan and question the shock of it all? Sudden disaster,
on the other hand, striking prematurely in the vigorous springtime of life,
turning it to bleak winter with no intervening summer, would certainly
come as a shockjustifying pitying, moaning, and questioning. If the
Grammarian had suffered a paralyzing accident, he might certainly seem
to be dead from the waist down. If the dance of his life is over, he might
well moan, be pitied by everyone, become cramped and diminished, yet
decide to step pridefully (and figuratively) over the world's pity by rising to
new challenges, demanding new measures and new feet immediately.
Rather than succumb to despair, he could redirect his energies, and he
doesbravely disallowing the world to escape his grasp, choosing to
"grapple with the world," facing new measures of challenge, propelling
himself along with the vehicle left unimpairedhis intellect (45). The
second quotation tells us that the Grammarian then demanded the scrolls
of poets and philosophers, donned the scholar's gown, and began the
sedentary occupation of digesting all of the world's available learning.
After his accident, he spends the rest of his earthly life learning about the
world from secondary sources, just as the reader of this poem is forced to
learn about the Grammarian from his disciples' words.
The disciples' curious reference to lyric Apollo further supports this
theory of tragic interruption in the Grammarian's life. As the disciples
leave the safe plain, they bid its flocks and herds a good night's sleep
saying, "He, whom we convey to his grave aloft, / Singing together, / He
was a man bom with thy face and throat, / Lyric Apollo!" (31-34). Since
Apollo is remembered as the patron god of shepherds, the disciples might
well think of him as they look down upon the flocks on the plain. That
he also became the patron of music and poetry arose from a tragic
interruption in his life. After Apollo took revenge on the Cyclops who
had fashioned the thunderbolt that Jupiter used to kill Apollo's son
Asclepius, Jupiter banished Apollo to Thessaly, sentencing him to serve
the mortal King Admetus as his shepherd for one year. This job, forced
upon him, bored Apollo, so for escape from an unhappy twist in his life,
he played the enchanted lyre and shepherd's pipe that Mercury had traded
him, inventing lyrics for his music, becoming the first in a long line of
poetic shepherds (Macrone 20-21). Thus, the allusion to lyric Apollo
serves to remind the reader of how a god had turned to good a most
unwelcome interruption in his life. In a letter to Tennyson, Browning
referred to the Grammarian as a "triton among minnows" and, as Svaglic
points out, "from the waist down, the triton was only a fish; but the rest of
him was a man, a servant of the gods" (104). The disciples confirm that
from the waist down, the Grammarian was only a mortal, but his "face
and throat" were godlike. The third and fourth quotations from the
Grammarian call for patience in view of his opinion that man has forever.
Apollo was sentenced to shepherding on earth by the river Amphrysus for
only one year; after that, he resumed his godhood at Delphi. The
Grammarian may have viewed a lifetime on earth as a sentencing of a
similar nature, during which he would marshal knowledge as a shepherd
gathers his flocks, after which he would resume in the next realm "such a
life as he resolved to live" (65).
The reader might be tempted to think that along with the
Grammarian's new sedentary occupation might come laziness. Quite the
opposite conclusion is suggested by the initial portrait, and an
examination of the verbs in the poem shows that they appropriately
demonstrate appetite and action. Not only does the Grammarian develop
an appetite for learning, he appears to have become quite a glutton for it,
boasting: "Even to the crumbs I'd fain eat up the feast, / Ay, nor feel
queasy!" (63-64), and his disciples recall that "He (soul-hydroptic with a
sacred thirst) / Sucked at the flagon" (95-96). Insatiable, he did not want to
hear about "most" or "least," but would only be satisfied with "all." After
the Grammarian could no longer play, he still "resolved," "mastered,"
"gathered," "ventured," "ground," "spumed," and "settled." His disciples'
reminiscences reveal that, as his health problems increased, he redoubled
his efforts: "Fierce as a dragon," he threw himself on God, sought Him,
and unlike the perpetual seeker who never concluded a project, found
Him (94). His tenacity only increased as death knocked on his door. With
the death-rattle in his throat threatening to still his speech, he stubbornly
pursued the study of parts of speech. He had become an "all or nothing"
kind of person, reaching for heaven's success while still on earth: "He
ventured neck or nothingheaven's success / Found, or earth's failure"
(109-110). Whereas the plainsdwellers readily accomplished their low and
simple tasks, this scholar pursued a task that would require more than one
lifetime to achieve. As a result, some would perceive him to be a failure
when, in reality, he illustrates Browning's ideal of the artist's reach
exceeding his grasp: "This high man, aiming at a million, / Misses an
Misinterpreting the Grammarian's far-reaching focus as a deliberate
postponement of immediate activity, some critics have censured him.
Mary Ellis Gibson compares the Grammarian's deferral of life to the
procrastination of the characters in "The Statue and the Bust," saying that
Browning viewed such deferred action as a form of death (145). Such a
comparison is unfair. Day after day and year after year, the lady and the
Duke postpone acting upon their infatuation; consequently, the speaker of
the poem pinpoints their sin as the "unlit lamp and the ungirt loin" ("The
Statue and the Bust" 247). But the Grammarian can never be accused of
this sin. The lamp on his feast table burned day and night as he studied
until his eyesight was nearly consumed. Far from having ungirt loins, he
may be said to have resolved to "gird up the loins of [his] mind" (I Peter
1:13)a girding of considerably higher purpose, yet no less a preparation
for action. In fact, the Grammarian was a man of resolute action in
addition to voracious appetite. When he substituted the lofty mountains
of intellectual pursuits for the common plains of physical activities, he
attacked these new quests with the same energy that he had previously
used for playing and dancing.
Browning would certainly applaud the Grammarian's courageous
decision and dogged quest. In fact, he may have envisioned the
Grammarian's journey in terms of Alexander Pope's dilemma:
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise,
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
The eternal snow appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way;
Th' increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise! (276)
The Grammarian, having deliberately left the safe and tethered plains for
the rarified air of the mountainous pursuitjust as the swallows and
curlews had left their muddy nests for the high-flight of
migrationresolutely forges ahead despite the weakness of his flesh.
Robert Kelly points to the metrical structure of the poem as typical
of satire: "The unit of structurea quatrain of five-measure iambics
alternating with two-measure dactylsis intrinsically deflating. The
heroic line marches strongly and steadily forward; the dactyl comes
tumbling behind" (107). He also observes that swallows and curlews,
normally ground dwellers, only fly at great altitude when they are
migrating, concluding that as the students fail to recognize these birds'
habitats, the students' opinions of their master may be equally ill-
informed (109). Actually, the poet's choice of birds holds great significance,
as already noted, and the metrical structure of the poem further serves to
convey the Grammarian's new struggle in life: his intellect "marches
strongly and steadily forward"; only the stricken flesh "comes tumbling
In his final quotation, we hear the Grammarian readily answer
"yes" when asked whether he will trust death. Like the speaker in George
Herbert's poem "Death," the Grammarian, his appetite for the short views
of temporality long diminished, views death as a trustworthy vehicle to
usher him into the perfect realm to which he has aspired all along. Again,
this view agrees with that of the art appreciator in Florence: "Tis a life-
long toil till our lump be leaven / The better! what's come to perfection
perishes. / Things learned on earth we shall practice in heaven. / Works
done least rapidly art most cherishes" ("Old Pictures in Florence" 129-132).
Focused on the endless possibilities of eternal knowledge, the
Grammarian began to consider the allurements of this life pale in
comparison. Consequently, in his final words, he waved the dim
pleasures of immediate earthly gain aside with a mere phrase: "Hence
with life's pale lure!" (112). He decided that to live knowledgeably entails
first acquiring the means; anything less is mere existence by instinct.
Others might learn a thing or two to live for a time; he would know all in
order to live forever. The former attitude, propelled by a lofty perspective,
is timeless; the latter, tethered by a lowly perspective, is terminal. The
breadth of knowledge of the former is endless, the latter is minimal. This
focus on the God-given intellect as the well-spring of true life is apparent
in the Grammarian's comment: "What's Time? leave Now for dogs and
apes! / Man has For ever" (83-84). The physical, instinctive acts that even
animals can perform are limited to this temporal life; the soul- and spirit-
enriching acts of the God-seeking intellect bear fruit forever. Paul reminds
Timothy of this same idea: "For bodily exercise profiteth little: but
godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that
now is, and of that which is to come" (I Timothy 4:8). The Grammarian,
in deliberate rather than instinctual migration to a distant goal, could not
be dissuaded from that goal by any "now or never" pleas by the
mistrusting adherents of short views.
Examining these mediatesthese prismatic hues that are facets of
the wholereveals to us not a man who terminally postpones life, but a
man who zealously invests every moment as a means toward his distant
goal. He could have succumbed to pity and despair when the "little
touch" ended his dance; instead, he chose to continue his dance with "new
feet"with the part that was yet untouched: his intellect. His new dance
was not of the plain but of high flight, and his former namelessness
turned to fame. With great admiration, his disciples bury his remains on
the mountaintop, observing that he was "loftier than the world suspects"
(147). The speaker in "How It Strikes a Contemporary" describes the poet
in the same way: "The town's true master if the town but knew!" (40).
Described in military terms such as "chief-inquisitor," "corregidor," and
"general-in-chief" (39,90,104), this poet is clearly Browning's hero. The
poem may even have been a self-portrait, identified by the "bald and
blindish" dog at his feet, which may be the Brownings' long-time pet
Flush. The speaker even compares the poet's death to being relieved from
guard duty (103). Similarly, the Grammarian's disciples employ military
terms in their funeral march: "Step to a tune, square chests, erect the
head" (25). These similarities between the portrayal of the Grammarian
and Browning's admired poet further testify that Browning is not
satirizing the Grammarian. His faithfulness in living so trustingly and
forebearingly, investing every moment with concentrated effort, parallels
the contemporary poet's faithful recording and reporting of daily events
on behalf of an unseen master. While others are impatient for hasty gain,
these two men entrust their investments to eternity, patiently awaiting
the ultimate return, knowing that God will perfect in eternity that which
is begun here on earth. That the funeral march is a morning event not
only verifies the realization of the Grammarian's hopes but also affirms
the wisdom of his chosen path. His disciples conclude, "Our low life was
the level's and the night's; / He's for the morning!" (23-24).
Even the order in which the Grammarian pursues his studies
parallels our technique of approaching Browning's poetry: "Image the
whole, then execute the parts / Fancy the fabric / Quite, ere you build,
ere steel strike fire from quartz, / Ere mortar dab brick!" (69-72). First, the
Grammarian formed the whole picture of knowledge by mastering all the
texts and memorizing their contents; then, near the end of his life, he
concentrated on the finer details such as parts of speech. Significantly, the
enclitic De of the Grammarian's study is the unaccentuated particle
meaning "towards" rather than the accentuated one meaning "but." Even
these are not without their transcendental significance in the poem, as
Svaglic observes by pointing out the difference between the carpe diem
philosophy of those detractors of the Grammarian who would have him
live now or never and the Grammarian's own philosophy of steady
progress towards a distant goal (103). If Browning had meant to satirize
the Grammarian, he would not have spoken in such emphatic terms in
his response to the Daily News' rather pompous declaration that the
enclitic De did not even exist. He wrote: "That this [De] is not to be
confounded with the accentuated 'De meaning but/ was the 'doctrine'
which the Grammarian bequeathed to those capable of receiving it"
(DeVane 271). In response to his physical trauma, the Grammarian might
have been tempted to think in terms of the particle meaning "but,"
suggesting excuse and exception; however, he chose to give the world a
doctrine of "towards," implying direction and progress towards a goal.
This unaccentuated particle actually serves as an appropriate motto for
this scholar's life. Unaccentuated and unassuming, the Grammarian
personifies Browning's ideal of an individual who transcends all
limitations to pursue that distant point in eternity on which all the
perspective of his life is focused.
CHILDE ROLAND'S "SALT-WATER" BAPTISM
Literary critics have puzzled over allegorical meanings in "Childe
Roland to the Dark Tower Came" ever since its publication over 140 years
ago.7 Their theories largely ignore the likelihood that Roland serves as a
personification of Browning's personal experience as a poeta man
doggedly pursuing his goal with little hope of reward and even less
immediate praise or gratification.8 Critics have also failed to see the
striking influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Vision of Poets"
upon "Childe Roland"an influence that redefines "Childe" Roland not
as a candidate for knighthood, but rather for the title of poet.
7"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" was written in 1852 and published in
1855 in Browning's Men and Women.
8The poem has been read as a nightmare of language (Gibson 232), "a poem of hate"
(Melchiori 120), and a chivalric romance (Golder 970). Roland has been perceived as a
misdirected truthseeker who is diverted through a wasteland of atheistic science (Berdoe
105), "a man who finally realizes that he is imprisoned within consciousness" (Slinn 162),
and an historical individual divorced from the social context of human interconnectedness
and love (Gibson 233). He has been diagnosed as representing the feelings of guilt, despair,
and fear that Browning himself had suppressed (Melchiori 139). Norton B. Crowell argues
that "Childe Roland" depicts a "fearsome pilgrimage into the dark night of the soul"
("Reader's Guide" 144). Frederick Glaysher views the poem as the soul's struggle to reach
God (34), while Eugene R. Kintgen says Roland's imagination tempts him to believe that he
is led on an evil quest by the devil to the tower, which is the seat of all evil (255).
Suspending inductive reasoning in order to read for the
"simultaneous feeling" is somewhat easier to do with this poem than
with either "Fra Lippo Lippi" or "A Grammarian's Funeral." This entire
poem builds to the final climax, which conveniently presents itself as a
framed picture. Roland says, "There they stood, ranged along the hill-
sidesmet / To view the last of me, a living frame / For one more
picture" (191-201). The mountains, which are actually more like "ugly
heights and heaps" now animated, steal into view and crouch around the
edges of the scene, lying "chin upon hand" as spectators at the games
(166,191). The setting sun's final shaft of light, like a sheet of flame,
reveals more life among the hills: the entire company of Roland's
predecessors, lost adventurers despite their bravery and boldness. Their
unearthly faces illuminated by eerie flame, they stand among the beastly
hills and watch while Roland defiantly blows his horn to announce his
arrival at the fabled tower.
This painting features a man of sensitive perception yet courage in
the face of intimidation. Roland has traveled onward in spite of qualms,
misgivings, and momentary flirtation with failure, as we will see. The
journey has not been pretty; even the anticipated lofty tower turns out to
be a squat turret, but at the end of the journey, Roland announces his
identity and accomplishment.
Inspecting the mediates that inform the ultimate picture involves
first investigating Browning's crediting of lines from Edgar's song in King
Lear as his inspiration for "Childe Roland": "Child Rowland to the dark
tower came; / His word was still, 'Fie, foh, and fum, / I smell the blood of a
British man'" (Shakespeare 3.4.185-187). This hint is rich, for the character
of Edgar in King Lear informs Browning's Roland in important ways. Just
as Edgar learns of his father Gloucester's mutilation and sees his bleeding
eyesockets, Roland sees the warped, the twisted, and the deformed. More
importantly, as Edgar serves as his father's eyes during the journey to the
cliff at Dover, Roland serves as the reader's eyes during the journey to the
tower. Significantly, Edgar empties himself of all inherited identity
("Edgar I nothing am") to assume a facade of madness (2.3.21). The
Browning student is immediately reminded of Paracelsus' reply to Festus:
"God! how I essayed / To live like that mad poet, for awhile / To love
alone; and how I felt too warped / And twisted and deformed!" (Paracelsus
77). The "mad" poet empties himself of his personal identity to serve as
eyes for humanity.
Further evidence points to Browning's development of the
character of Roland as a figure not of chivalry as a knight, but of sensitivity
as an artist. Clarice Short has noticed that Roland, whether he was ever a
candidate for knighthood as the name "childe" suggests, is not a mounted
knight but a pedestrian. She correctly reasons that if the characterization
of Roland departs from convention in this way, the reader should watch
for other departures as well (175-77). Not surprisingly then, we find
Roland deliberately reversing the soldier's priorities. He says, "Think first,
fight afterwardsthe soldier's art" ("Childe Roland" 89). Pondering the
gruesome fate of the men who he imagines fought like "Toads in a
poisoned tank, / Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage," Roland questions
their decision to stay in that "fell cirque" when they had all the plain to
fight in, concluding: "mad brewage set to work / Their brains, no doubt"
(131-37). Again, it seems likely that a knight would be more apt to admire
the noble sacrifice of the soldiers who gave their lives in that desperate
battle. A knight would ascribe their motivation to patriotism rather than
madness, portray their actions as honorable rather than desperate, and
revere them as martyrs rather than label them caged animals. Instead,
Roland questions the ultimate value of their narrow cause within the
larger scheme of eternity just as the cirque is but a pit in the wide expanse
of the endless plain, exercising the mindset of an artist rather than that of
Roland also departs from traditional conventions of knighthood in
that, while he claims to have been in visual training: "After a lifetime
spent training for the sight!" (180), he appears to be in training not to
develop a capacity for military observation, but to develop the poet's
vision that, like blinded Gloucester, sees with feeling (Shakespeare
4.6.151). In fact, Roland is transported into a land of pathetic fallacy in
which he becomes the antithesis of the scientific physician Karshish in
"An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the
Arab Physician." Karshish prides himself on his empirical observations of
a variety of phenomena: the spider that spins no web, the Judeans'
superior gum-tragacanth and remedy for falling-sickness, the intriguing
relation between scalp disease and leprosy. As a scientist, Karshish does
not invest any of these curiosities with human emotions, nor does he
allow himself to become intimately involved with the flora and fauna,
however fascinating they might be. To do so would jeopardize the
integrity of his scientific vision.
Roland, on the other hand, observes his environment with
intimate subjectivity rather than detached objectivity. He becomes
emotionally entangled with each observed phenomenon, assigning
human emotions or judgment to everything he sees: the horse must be
"wicked" to warrant such painful gauntness, the thistle-stalks are
"jealous," the willows fling themselves toward the "spiteful" little river in
"suicidal" desperation. This tendency to become intimately involved with
his environment validates his artistic vision.
The likelihood that Browning meant Roland to represent
development as a poet becomes even stronger when the reader considers
the rich correlation between "Childe Roland" and Elizabeth Barrett's "A
Vision of Poets"a poem which Browning selected for particular praise in
his letter to EBB dated August 3,1845: "Come, let me . say how perfect,
absolutely perfect, are those three or four pages in the 'Vision' which
present the Poetsa line, a few words, and the man there,one twang of
the bow and the arrowhead in the white" (Kintner 142). Written in
September, 1843, nine years before Browning wrote "Childe Roland," "A
Vision of Poets" expresses EBB's conviction that the true poet is called and
ordained by God.
Significantly, the poet-candidate in EBB's "A Vision of Poets" is
called and chosen only after he has submitted to a period of testing and
sorrow that the angel later describes as a "baptism in salt water": "'What
say ye unto this?refuse / This baptism in salt water?choose /Calm
breasts, mute lips and labor loose?'" (551). In the Boethian vision at the
beginning of the poem, the poet, hailed by a lady riding a white horse, is
led to a series of four pools "With white low gleamings, blank as death"
(126). The lady commands him to drink successively from these pools,
three of which symbolize world's use (which is cold), world's love (which
is vain), and world's cruelty (which is bitter poison). The landscape
surrounding these pools contains an assortment of grotesque elements in
chiaroscuro, strikingly similar to the landscape in "Childe Roland." The
spectral, lightning-stricken tree, the toads and snakes, the ghostly light, the
black batwing, and the drooping alderlater echoed in "Childe
Roland"all make their appearance in the dismal landscape through
which the lady leads the "childe" poet:
Then, with a deathly sickness, passed
Beside the fourth pool and the last,
Where weights of shadow were downcast
From yew and alder and rank trails
Of nightshade clasping the trunk-scales
And flung across the intervals
From yew to yew: who dares to stoop
Where those dank branches overdroop,
Into his heart the chill strikes up;
He hears a silent gliding coil,
The snakes strain hard against the soil,
His foot slips in their slimy oil,
And toads seem crawling on his hand,
And clinging bats but dimly scanned
Full in his face their wings expand. ("A Vision of Poets"
Only after he has passed through the agony of drinking from each pool
does the poet-candidate acquire the poetic vision to behold the heavenly
Many aspects of Roland's journey resemble those of EBB's poet-
candidate. Both begin their travels at the direction of an anonymous
personage (the lady on the white horse and the hoary cripple). Both
journey through a grotesque land of pathetic fallacy in which flora and
fauna are perceived as desperate or wicked. Both participate in a
supernatural adventure that includes alterations of consciousness and
apparent transportation: EBB's pilgrim poet experiences a dream vision
within a dream visionan adventure of supernatural proportions
culminating in the poet's being consecrated and commissioned. Similarly,
Roland is enveloped by the plain of testing as soon as he turns onto it; any
trace of the road along which he has travelled is obliterated, and this same,
endless plain just as suddenly gives way to the mountains as he gains the
poet's vision that suddenly enables him to see the tower.
Through their trials, Childe Roland and the childe poet of "A
Vision of Poets" demonstrate EBB's paradox that to become "God's
prophets of the Beautiful" they must first suffer cruelty and ill use ("A
Vision of Poets" 292). This baptism in salt water is necessary to "free / [the
poet's] spirit into verity" (101-02). This descent into death, culminating in
a rising up to new life and new vision, parallels the Scriptural definition
of baptism: "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:
that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father,
even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Roland's
testing throughout a lifetime of searching and his ensuing suffering after
following the hoary cripple's direction, accomplishes his bitter baptism in
salt water, which frees his soul to truth and sharpens his poetic vision to
behold the Dark Tower.
In addition to noting the primary ways in which "Childe Roland to
the Dark Tower Came" is informed by the character of Edgar in King Lear
and the poet-candidate in EBB's "A Vision of Poets," we need to consider
another important influence upon Browning's artistic theory: his copy of
Gerard de Lairesse's The Art of Painting in All its Branches (DeVane 205).
In Chapter Seventeen, "Of Things Deformed and Broken, Falsely called
Painter-like," Lairesse takes his students on a walk in order to instruct
them about images that the pseudo-classical school would object to in
paintingsuch images as the cripple, water rat, pathless field, gnarled
vegetation, spiteful river, leering sunset, and enclosing mountains that
appear in "Childe Roland" (206).
Browning's marginalia in his copy of Lairesse's book attest to the
many childhood hours that he had spent poring over the volume (205).
Images from this book, decades later, pervade the landscape of Browning's
poems; however, we have ample evidence that Browning did not consider
such grotesque elements "unpainterlike." Lairesse called antique art noble
and the "modem" art of his day ignoble; he preferred subjects from the
past and despised those from the vulgar present (465-66). Norton B.
Crowell says Lairesse loved the ideal and despised the "ugly
actualwhereas Browning found the actual of consuming interest,
whether ugly or not, and despised the ideal, except as a goal for man in the
real world to strive for" (The Convex Glass 178). Clearly, at some point in
Browning's development as an artist, he had utterly rejected the Dutch
Browning dramatizes his disagreement with Lairesse in the section
of his Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1886)
that is titled "With Gerard de Lairesse." Here the speaker identifies
himself as: "I who myself contentedly abide / Awake, nor want the wings
of dream,who tramp / Earth's common surface, rough, smooth, dry or
damp" (111-113). Browning's speaker then invites Lairesse to come on a
walk with him (just as Lairesse had led his students on a walk) so that he
might see through the speaker's eyes. Browning's speaker warns Lairesse,
however, that if current poets see more deeply than past artists, it is
because those in the past saw the body only, and now poets see into the
very soul of daily, mundane things:
If we no longer see as you of old,
'Tis we see deeper. Progress for the bold!
You saw the body, 'tis the soul we see.
Try now! Bear witness while you walk with me,
I see as you: if we loose arms, stop pace,
'Tis that you stand still, I conclude the race
Without your company. Come, walk once more
The 'Walk'. .. (Parleyings "With Gerard de Lairesse" 171-178)
Browning's acceptance of the grotesque is crucial to our understanding of
Roland's reaction to the landscape through which he travels. In fact,
Browning offers a catalogue of tire grotesque to Lairesse as evidence of a
true poet's vision. To see less or to see only a varnished exterior is to
exercise mere common sight. Roland exhibits true poetic vision as he
provides the reader with a running commentary of his interpretation of
the very soul of his environment's grotesque elements:
If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
Above its mates, the head was choppedthe bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock's harsh swarth leavesbruised as to baulk
All hope of greenness? 'tis a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute's intents.
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosythin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood,
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupified, however he came there
Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
A sudden little river crossed my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms
This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath
For the fiend's glowing hoofto see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.
So petty yet so spiteful! all along,
Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;
Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate'er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.
Which, while I forded,good saints how I feared
To set my foot upon a dead man's cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
It may have been a water-rat I speared,
But, ugh; it sounded like a baby's shriek. (67-78,
By taking the ultimate, instructional walk to ponder and embrace all that
is "unpainterlike," and by interpreting the soul beyond the mundane and
even the grotesque, Roland suffers the birth pangs of true poetic genius.
"Childe Roland" also demonstrates Browning's philosophy of the
importance of a poet defending his or her own age rather than glorifying
an age gone by. The speaker in "Old Pictures in Florence" emphasizes that
there is still time for each generation to create: "The Artificer's hand is not
arrested" (125). Indeed, "The first of the new in our race's story, / Beats the
last of the old" (155-56). As the reader might expect, old values and
models fail Roland as he journeys forward over the plain, realizing that
determined persistence is the most direct path to the future. He is
convinced that the hoary cripple is an emissary of deception from the past.
As Roland walks along, he ponders the barbarism of the men of yore who
battled so desperately in the cirque. He speculates about the past uses of
the old, rusty torture engine, calling it Tophet's toolan instrument for
the most abhorrent of deaths. Tophet was a place of pagan worship of the
god Molech in Old Testament times. The name is derived from "toph"
meaning drum, referring to the drums that were used to drown out the
cries of the children who were sacrificed there. Over the ages, Tophet has
come to be synonymous with the very gate of hell (Unger 1109). The
hoary cripple, barbarous cirque, and tortuous engine appear to Roland as
evidence of an inglorious and degenerate past.
Furthermore, as Roland seeks solace in the midst of his gruesome
journey, he turns in vain to his memories of the past, especially memories
of friends. He finds no comfort in remembering Cuthbert's disgrace and
Giles' execution. In fact, he decides the horror of the present is preferable
to the shame of the past, that life is better lived pressing onward than
looking backward. As Roland glances back for one last reassuring view of
the safe road, he finds it has disappeared. Looking back can be a delaying
tactic. According to Scripture, asking to remain behind to bury one's dead
father is a sign of being unfit for the task at hand (Luke 9:62). The
spiritually dead can tarry to bury their physically dead fathers (Matthew
8:21-22); the spiritually alive will not pause for any intervening task but
venture forth immediately to find the poetic treasure which, like the Dark
Tower, is invisible to the common seekers (Roland's lost peers) and
visible only to the true poet (Roland). Once Roland found himself
"pledged to the plain," he had put his hand to the proverbial plow, and he
knew that looking back was futile (50).
Perhaps the significance of Roland's blowing the horn has divided
critics even more than their speculation over the quest itself or possible
sources for the poem.9 Rather than viewing Roland merely as a knight
engaged in a pyrrhic quest, I view him as the "childe" poet triumphing in
his artist's initiation. Like Edgar, he has assumed a different identityone
which ultimately serves the vision of another. Like EBB's poet candidate,
Roland submits to the gruesome testing of baptism in salt water that frees
his soul to perceive truth. He embraces the grotesque to gain the true
9Most critics assume a pessimistic cause for his action. Barbara Melchiori claims
Roland's original goal was the celestial city, but he turned suicidally to the Dark Tower
(122). Edward Berdoe concludes that Roland blew the horn as a warning to others that he
had failed in his quest and that the way of the Dark Tower was the way of destruction and
death (105). E. Warwick Slinn sees Roland's moment of self-discovery as one of self-
destruction; the poem ends in his sacrificial death (161). Mary Ellis Gibson's ideas are
similar in that Roland blows the horn in challenge, but it calls forth his own death (233).
The shift from the grotesque to the apocalyptic signals a shift in Roland's consciousness
which proves he is in hell, according to Ashton Nichols (161). Robert Pearsall claims
something within the tower needs to be killed, so Roland blows the horn "in defiance of the
turret-housed Unknown which will now destroy him" (84).
A few critics are cautiously optimistic about Roland's reasons for blowing the horn.
Clyde de L. Ryals decides that even though the quest was hateful and the goal unworthy,
Roland's relentlessness allows him to perform this "signature act" to signal his "triumph of
personality" (127). Eugene R. Kintgen claims that Roland's blowing the horn is optimistic
because it signals his victory over self (258). Edward Strickland says blowing the horn
means Roland is accepting the challenge of the tower (300), and Harold Golder suggests
that Roland is like Jack in Jack the Giant-killer who blows the horn to show that he is able
to overthrow the giant, breaking the enchantment connected with the "fie-foh-fum" (966).
poet's vision, which sees into the very soul of that which others might
consider "unpainterlike." When Roland sees the tower, it appears
powerless: the tall, classic spire with windows overlooking the
countryside is gone. What remains is merely the basethe windowless,
squat, turretblind and deformed.10 Roland's transformed vision, which
came "burningly" upon him, finally allows him to see the tower's
impotence. He realizes, as his peers failed to, that it is merely the stuff of
romanticized fable. His peers, the lost adventurers, failed to find the Dark
Tower because they had not developed the poet's soul-penetrating
vision.11 Having failed as artists, they ironically become merely a "living
frame" for Roland (200), the true artist, who appears in his own painting,
just as Lippo does. Again, the artist has become a work of art.
True to Browning's ideals, Roland distinguishes himself from the
traditional band to become a man of vision and action in his day,
exhibiting the perseverance of the dauntless knight-hero while
demonstrating the perception of EBB's pilgrim poet. As a true poet of
vision and action, Roland, like the Grammarian, realizes his only moral
choice is to transcend his limitations. Unlike his hesitation at the
lIronically, Lairesse was blind.
11 Lippo's interpretive, soul-revealing acuity represents this kind of vision.
beginning of the plain when he found it had become a physical
impossibility to return to the safe road, Roland, at this point, never
harkens backward. Just as he had earlier found himself "pledged to the
plain," he now finds himself duty-bound to blow the horn. Not to blow it
is unthinkable: "Plain retrogression, this! / No, no: we poets go not back
at all" (Parleyings 165-66). As the dauntless hero-poet, Roland trumpets
the certainty that the poet has become the poem.
Interestingly, Roland blows a slug-horn, not a sleek trumpet.
Browning may be making a doubleplay on words here, for the OED defines
"slughom" as either an earlier form of "slogan: a war cry or battle cry
consisting of surname and place" or "a short and ill-formed horn of an
animal of the ox kindturned downwards, and appearing to have been
stunted in its growth." Both meanings are appropriate for the text.
Roland does unequivocally announce his surname and the place to which
he has come, and we know from Browning's letter to Ruskin (referred to
earlier) that Browning was fond of using early forms of words.12 The
stunted horn is equally appropriate in view of the landscape of "starved
12Ruskin had chided Browning for calling "iris-root" by its old name of "orris-
root." Browning replied indignantly: "Why won't you ask the next perfumer for a packet of
orris-root? Don't everybody know 'tis a corruption of iris-root... ? And because 'iris' means
so many objects already, and I use the old word, you blame me!" (Collingwood 235).
ignoble nature" (56) and "stubbed ground" (145) leading to the "squat"
Just before Roland blows the horn, he hears a noise, tolling ever
louder like a bell. He recognizes "Names in [my] ears, / Of all the lost
adventurers my peers" (194-95). The bell tolls the virtues of each one:
"How such a one was strong, and such was bold, / And such was
fortunate, yet each of old / Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of
years" (196-98). Roland becomes aware of the peopled hillsides, knows the
names of each lost peer, and assumes that this infernal band that appears
to him through a sheet of flame is gathered there to watch him fail just as
they had. Again, Browning's Parleyings with Lairesse is informative:
"Sad school / Was Hades! Gladly,might the dead but slink / To life
back,to the dregs once more would drink / Each interloper, drain the
humblest cup / Fate mixes for humanity" (404-08). Roland's lost peers
may have gathered not only to watch him fail, but to seek another chance
to slink back to life.
To establish that Roland acts victoriously, as our initial portrait
would indicate, we might ask: does Roland blow the slug-horn in
acknowledgement of the ghost assembly of peers or in triumph over
them? The answer lies in the volta, "And yet" (202). Their presence
appears hostile; Roland thinks they have assembled to view the last of
him. If they stood around in congratulatory approval, his blowing the
horn would be a natural consequence prefaced by "and so." Instead, they
are there to daunt or intimidate him. Roland recalls his triumph: "in a
sheet of flame / I saw them and I knew them all. And yet, / Dauntless the
slug-horn to my lips I set / And blew." (201-4).
Actually, the failed peers seem to have haunted Roland for a long
time. He repeatedly reveals his flirtations with failure, especially through
his story of the dying man who hears his loved ones make preparations
and receives their tearful farewells until he feels duty-bound to do them a
favor and die soon. Roland feels the same way. He has been expected to
fail for so long, he might as well get it over with. When his hope
dwindles to a whisper, he scarcely tries to temper the surge of spirit he
feels at the prospect of finally managing to fail: "I hardly tried now to
rebuke the spring / My heart made, finding failure in its scope" (23-4) All
of these pessimistic prophesies about his unending, hopeless quest have
left him feeling entrapped: he feels like the cripple's victim; the sun
shoots a red ray across the plain to pierce him straying upon it; the
mountains trap him in a den, and, "The hills, like giants at a hunting,
lay / Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay, / 'Now stab and end the
creatureto the heft!'" (190-92). In light of all these previous
discouragements, the appearance of "the Band" should given him his
final excuse to fail. The peers were sure it would; they had come for the
show. Add to this the Tophet-like noise of the bells reminding Roland of
the woes of the lost adventurers, despite their strength, fortune, and
boldness, drowning out any thought he might have of blowing the horn,
of daring to succeed where such great ones of the past had failed. The
infernal cacophony of these bells becomes a final test of Roland's
decisiveness. The scene is set; conclusive failure is upon him, but still he
summons strength to reach beyond it: "And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn
to my lips I set / And blew. 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came'"
Roland, in training as the artist, discerns the souls of the daunters
and refuses to be daunted. Having traversed the holy ground of the plain
of testing, and having passed through the "baptism of salt water" in which
he dies to his old fear of failure and rises to the newness of life as the
dauntless hero, Roland embodies the essence of Browning's poetic theory
as a poet of clear vision and decisive action in his day.
A PROMETHEAN POET
Because of his belief in the transcendence of humankind, Browning
is able to portray with hope and optimism characters who might otherwise
be viewed as failures. Lippo, the Grammarian, and Roland all transcend
their limitations and circumstances. While Lippo is a monk against his
choice or inclination, he is, more importantly, an insightful artist with a
poet's heart, looking the world full in the face, just as the contemporary
poet. The Grammarian rises above his physical limitations by choosing to
"dance" with his intellect through new measures of life, preparing for
God's lofty realm. Roland, refusing to remain "pledged to the plain,"
perseveres through a grueling "salt-water" baptism to obtain the poet's
vision. Lippo always carries the image of the Creator in his mind; the
Grammarian seeks God and finds him; Roland reaches the tower his
predecessors had missed. They each carry that spark of the perfect as the
treasure within their earthen vessels.
The reader who is aware of Browning's "painterly" techniques of
luminous layering and perspective, and who is patient with his
intermittent illumination of characters, need not cautiously calculate the
effort required to mine Browning's quarry of ideas. Suspending the
inductive process of gathering mundane mediates just long enough to
grasp the divine perspective of the ultimatemuch as in viewing a
paintingfurther enables the reader to cooperate with Browning's
ultimate mission of being a maker-see. Through this process, the poet has
envisioned and created; the reader has visualized and re-created.
With or without cooperative, appreciative readers, Browning
remained true to the philosophy he shared with his much-admired artist
Giotto di Bondone. It seems that Giotto did for painting what the
Grammarian did for language: they both pioneered the resurgence of
learning in their fields.13 Boccaccio claims that Giotto revived the art of
painting "that for many centuries had been buried under the errors of
some who painted more to delight the eyes of the ignorant than to please
the intellect of the wise" (Hartt 76). Certainly Browning applied this
philosophy to his poetry, writing to stimulate the wise rather than to
titillate the ignorant.
Stimulating the wise sometimes calls for "new measures." In his
"Introductory'Essay" to the volume of Shelley's letters, Browning, after
^Significantly, the subtitle of "A Grammarian's Funeral" indicates that its setting
is "Shortly After the Revival of Learning in Europe."
defining the objective and the subjective poets, calls for "another sort of
poet" who will not be an imitator but an initiator. This poet will be
getting at new substance by breaking up the
assumed wholes into parts of independent and
unclassed value, careless of the unknown laws
for re-combining them . prodigal of objects for
men's outer and not inner sight, shaping for
their uses a new and different creation from the
last" (The Poems, Appendix 1, 1004).
When this new kind of poet's work becomes recognized and accepted in
tradition, Browning claims that one more rung will have been added to
the poet's evolutionary ladder.
The difficult job of breaking up the old, dying forms to shape new,
living ones is what Browning set out to do with his poetry. In breaking up
the old sod of received tradition, he may have had Carlyle's planting
advice in mind:
wouldst thou plant for eternity, then plant into
the deep infinite faculties of man, his fantasy
and heart; wouldst thou plant for year and day,
then plant into his shallow superficial faculties,
his self-love and arithmetical understanding
what will grow there. A hierarch, therefore, and
pontiff of the world will we call him, the poet
and inspired maker; who, Prometheus-like, can
shape new symbols, and bring new fire from
heaven to fix it there. (548)
Browning was not interested in copying the old forms or appealing to
shallow thinking. Rather, he chose to be a Promethean poet who
fashioned men and women out of the clay of his words, bringing them
alive with transcendental fire, re-inventing the writing that the original
Titan beganreaching to fulfill Milton's definition of "Promethean,"
which is "expert in craftsmanship" (Macrone 43-44).
Unfortunately, artistic sod-busting can also expose one's liver,
laying one open to the devouring vultures. Browning's reviewers often
accused him of being unfaithful to his poetic genius, saying that he had
chosen to let his gifts run wild instead of cultivating them. An article
published in Fraser's Magazine in 1856, reviewing Browning's Men and
Women, charges, "what might have been a beautiful garden is but a
wilderness overgrown with a rank and riotous vegetation" (reprinted in
Litzinger & Smalley 165). One anonymous, not atypical reviewer chastised
Browning for "energy wasted," "power misspent," and for taking
"extravagant license" (155). The reader hears echoes of "it's Art's decline,
my son" ("Fra Lippo Lippi" 233). Just as Lippo faced criticism for the fleshy
roundness of his subjects and the warmth and sweetness with which he
portrayed women, Browning was at first devalued for the very qualities
that we admire in him today. He who developed characters that could be
construed as failures found himself in the same position when Men and
Women was published in 1855, and the general public judged his poetry to
be veiled in obscurity.
Recognizing that "A poet's affair is with God, to whom he is
accountable and of whom is his reward" (also part of Browning's letter to
Ruskin, reprinted in Collingwood 234), and conscious of the eternal realm
beyond the temporal, Browning, like Roland, trained himself to see the
soul beyond the mundane. In "Old Pictures in Florence," he also wonders
if this vision operates in reverse; that is, whether the dead Michaelangelos
and Rafaels who behold God's face can still look down on earth to see how
people of "little wit" have categorized and criticized them, "Not dreaming
that Old and New are fellows" (60, 62). Like the lost adventurers, these
departed artists people the horizons of Browning's poetry, surrounding
him like the witnesses in Hebrews: "Wherefore seeing we also are
compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses ... let us run with
patience the race that is set before us" (12:1). In transcendent realms, his
race continues, for we may never say of Browning that he is dead.14
l^Tucker reprints portions of a letter from Browning to his friend William Sharp in
which he asserts:
Why, amico mio, you know as well as I that death is life,
just as our daily, our momentarily dying body is none tire
less alive and ever recruiting new forces of existence.
Without death, which is our crapelike churchyardy word
for change, for growth, there could be no prolongation of
that which we call life. Pshaw! it is foolish to argue upon
such a thing even. For myself, I deny death as an end of
everything. Never say of me that I am dead! (209)
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