Robert Browning: Poems

what is the theme of poem A GRAMMARIAN FUNERAL ?

how has the poet shown the Grammarian: as a positive character or negative.

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The basic dilemma of "A Grammarian's Funeral," which was published in Men and Women in 1855, is whether it is better to live one's life or to understand one's life. It is a classic literary theme that the two cannot be simultaneously chosen. Experiencing a moment is different than contemplating a moment.

Certainly, there is dramatic irony to suggest that the grammarian chose poorly in dedicating his life to study over living. The triumphant tone the speaker uses makes humorous the descriptions of the grammarian's afflictions. He talks of how the grammarian grew "bald too, [with] eyes like lead" (line 53), how tussis (a cough) afflicted him, and how his life was "cramped and diminished" (line 38). The disconnect between the content and the high-spirited tone suggests that the speaker is unaware of how terrible the life he describes actually was. Further, the disciples' goal – which is to remove the corpse far away from the everyday life that the grammarian eschewed – requires much toil as they carry him, an apt metaphor for the ineffectiveness of the grammarian's life choice. In the same way that the grammarian had to sacrifice so much for his relatively obscure goal, so are these men now pushing themselves into a difficult task simply to leave the man's body up on a mountain.

And yet Browning tends to value the glory of a committed quest, even when the virtue of the goal is uncertain. Consider how we are meant to be ambivalent about Roland in "Childe Roland": we admire him for staying committed to his quest, while pitying him because the quest is doomed and unworthy of such dedication. Similarly, even if the grammarian made a ridiculous choice, he stayed true to his course and thus is worthy of admiration. Even when "man's pity" gave him cause to change his course, he stayed true. Further, he is to be commended as a great man, if not a prudent one, because of his ambition. As the speaker says, "That low man seeks a little thing to do,/Sees it and does it:/This high man, with a great thing to pursue,/Dies ere he knows it" (lines 113-116). Regardless of whether the quest could actually be completed, the grammarian pursued the goal because he believed that in understanding his grammar he could understand the world.

How to judge the grammarian's choice is left to the reader, because psychology rarely allows us to view the world in strict moral terms. For every bit of pity we are meant to feel through the dramatic irony, we are also to recognize the greatness of devotion. We are left to wonder whether any quest is truly winnable, and if not, whether one should be commended for following it through regardless.