Robert Browning: Poems

Robert Browning: Poems Study Guide

Though one of several Victorian poets whose legacies have endured, Robert Browning is arguably the hardest of his contemporaries to classify. His work equally reflects his remarkable intellectualism, his interest in grotesqueness, and his refusal to espouse any consistent worldview. These disparate elements make it difficult to categorize his oeuvre under any simple classification. Browning did not find much popular success until later in his life, largely because the public either found his work obscure and difficult, or because they considered imperfect some of the very qualities that are now lauded. Examples of these elements are irregular rhyme schemes, contradictory characters, and imprecision about character motives. Perhaps this lack of success has proven a boon to Browning's legacy, however, since it allowed him to continue to follow his own eccentricities without the pressure of having to subscribe to popular taste, thereby creating work now appreciated for its uniqueness.

Browning is perhaps most famous for his use of the dramatic monologue, a poem written from the point of view of someone who has dramatic imperative to argue for him or herself. This form fits Browning's interests perfectly, since it allows him to empathize with perspectives he likely did not hold himself, thereby considering myriad human perspectives, and to investigate the remarkable human facility for rationalizing our behaviors and beliefs.

Much of his poetry, however, has a deliberately philosophical edge. Again, Browning believed that humans are constantly changing, their attitudes subject to shifts day-by-day or hour-by-hour. However, by using the dramatic monologue, he was able to explore a philosophy in the moment, and some of his work, like "Death in the Desert" or "Rabbi Ben Ezra," is as much defined by a statement of belief as by any dramatic situation. Even some of the more dramatic poems are difficult to comprehend if the reader is not ready to engage in questions of existence, time, memory, or love.

Despite his pronounced interest in psychology, Browning's early influence came from the Romantic poets, particularly Shelley. Reflecting this interest in human emotions as the path to transcendence, Browning's collections continued to feature shorter meditations on love and individuality. While these poems tend to be easier to categorize than the more sophisticated monologues and philosophical poems, they too reflect his belief that a human is always "becoming," always changing.

Overall, what one can take from Browning's work is that the poet himself lived according to one of his more prevalent themes: the quest. A mercurial and intellectually adventurous man who sought to document his ever-changing attitudes and beliefs into art, Robert Browning saw the human struggle as a noble quest towards an impossible goal of perfection, and luckily thought to immortalize that struggle as best he could.