Robert Browning: Poems Summary and Analysis
The speaker asks himself what it is like to "fear death" in this poem. He begins by describing the oppressive imagery of it – "fog in my throat," "the press of the storm, [and] the post of the foe."
Despite the deterrents, "the strong man must go" and he insists he will push forward on his journey no matter the end. As he has always been a "fighter," he refuses to "creep past" death, and is instead committed to following those who died before by facing it head-on.
The second half of the poem stresses his resolve to confront death fully, until he reveals his true motivation: to reunite with a beloved who has died before him.
Written soon after his wife Elizabeth's passing in 1861, "Prospice" can easily be viewed as one of Browning's most naked declarations. Its basic message is that he (in this case perhaps not a character, but the poet himself) will not falter before death even though its imminence perverts the journey of life, but instead will march forward heroically and face it head-on. In other words, both because he considers himself a "fighter" and because his beloved awaits him, the speaker refuses to consider taking a coward's route to death and approaching it with anything less than full confidence.
However, one can certainly take license in interpreting the poem more freely. The basic question that opens the poem – "Fear death?" – works not only as an impulse for the speaker, but as a challenge to the reader. He makes no pretense of hiding the darkness of death; the imagery in the first 10 lines is quite grotesque. Further, he does not pretend that death brings nobility to life. Instead, he suggests that the imminence of death makes life into a "battle" and that life leads to "pain, darkness and cold." The coward's path – to "creep past" death – would be for the poet to have prettied death up, to write of it as something wonderful and thereby to rob it of its terror. However, by confronting its true darkness, Browning displays with language the truth of his resolve to face death with full honesty and strength.
It is perhaps most interesting to read this poem in the context of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." The latter poem, significantly more obtuse and mystical, nevertheless sketches the same shape. A soldier has committed himself to a journey with full awareness that not only is death likely on the journey, but also that the goal itself might be death. He is not excited or pleased to be on the journey, but rather considers death to be a fitting reward, especially because of those who traveled before him and found death on the path. "Prospice" even suggests the goal in similarly heroic terms – "for the journey is done and the summit attained/And the barriers fall/though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained." Both poems trace a journey through difficult terrain for a reward that on the surface seems one to avoid rather than pursue.
While "Childe Roland" is suffused with pessimism, this poem tells the same story with optimism. The longer poem's message seems to be that we struggle onwards through life's grotesquerie from simple resolve, even though it contains no redeeming qualities to justify the struggle. "Prospice" gives two indications that there is honor in life, both of which come from relationship to others. The speaker’s reference to persisting in the face of death so he can "fare like [his] peers/The heroes of old" carries a positive tone of camaraderie, as opposed to Roland of “Childe Roland,” who is haunted by the legacy of those who went before. Where Roland fears shaming himself before them, the speaker of "Prospice" is intent on earning their respect. And lastly, the final motivation in the poem – to reunite with the beloved – ends this otherwise dark poem with a suggestion that death itself is but a barrier, beyond which true happiness can be regained. Whereas Roland could go no further than the Dark Tower, the poet of "Prospice" braves the Dark Tower with full confidence that there is light beyond it.
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