The speaker of this poem is a disciple of an accomplished grammarian who has recently died. It begins with the speaker instructing others to help him "carry up this corpse" (line 1) so they can bury him high "on a tall mountain… crowded with culture" (lines 15-16), far above normal human life down on "the unlettered plain with its herd and crop" (line 13).
The speaker gives a eulogy for their master, telling how "he lived nameless" (line 35) in pursuit of mastering his studies, which focused on Greek grammar. He was willing to sacrifice his youth and ruin his body, aging extremely quickly, in the process ignoring "men's pity" over his choice (line 44). The grammarian put off "actual life" (line 57) until he could know everything there was to know about his field, believing such mastery would give him a true understanding of life.
As the funeral party reaches the gates of the town where they wish to bury him, the narrator again praises his master for a life that had "no end to learning" (line 78) and that was willing to forgo the "NOW" (line 83) of life for the "forever" (line 84) of true understanding. Even as his health continued to decline, the grammarian remained ambitious towards mastering his field, until he finally died. The party reaches its spot, and the speaker commends the grammarian's body as one "loftier than the world suspects" as the world continues "living and dying" (lines 147-148).
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. The grammarian decided he needed to understand life before he lived it and so he locked himself away, devoted solely to the study of his grammar as the days passed and he fell into ill health. His disciples, of which the speaker seems to be the leader, apparently applaud the choice as noble. The fact that they are burying him far away from everyday life suggests that the grammarian has made a noble choice and hence deserves to be buried apart from and above normal men; yet all the while the reader is left to wonder whether such a life truly could bring happiness to the grammarian.
Browning's work tends to suggest that he would value living one's life over understanding one's life, since man can never fully understand the complexities of his own life, and love offers a true happiness. However, as is often the case with his work, the answer is more complicated in the poem.
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.