Robert Browning: Poems

Robert Browning: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the different artistic challenges faced by Fra Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto. How do these challenges influence the type of art they create?

    These artists have different artistic sensibilities, but both make art that is in conflict with the world around them. Lippo is pressured by his religious superiors to create moral art despite his interest in naturalism, while Andrea does not believe he is producing work to sufficiently inspire the world around him. Both are lauded by the public for certain qualities, but both want to do something different. In essence, what both want is freedom. Andrea paints the way he does partly for financial gain, while Lippo is frightened of ending up back on the streets and so tries to please his superiors. In the end, Lippo finds a way to paint the way he wants surreptitiously (notice his plan to integrate himself and his aesthetic into a commissioned religious painting), whereas Andrea spends his monologue rationalizing his cowardice to try harder to create inspirational, 'messy' art that will inspire the world.

  2. 2

    Based on his poems, what do you think Browning's attitude is toward organized religion? Can you suggest an alternative to it using evidence from his work? In what does the basis of Browning's religious sense lie?

    Browning does not make any direct or uniform attacks on organized religion, but he does seem particularly skeptical of it. Several poems – including "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church" – illustrate how the desire for power and wealth of religious superiors actually discourages the pursuit of truth. However, Browning apparently understands the religious instinct, as judged by the sincerity of works like "Rabbi Ben Ezra" and "Death in the Desert." What seems to be his strongest sense of religion is that each person should find his own way to and meaning for God according to his own worldview. Several protagonists, like Caliban and St. John, try to preach a religion according to this sense, and this sense also falls in line with Browning's overarching theme that each of us is always in flux in our search for truth.

  3. 3

    In what ways does Browning flaunt ideas about women commonly held in the Victorian Age? Be specific in the use of poems that propose either the strength or weaknesses of femininity.

    In the strict morality of the Victorian Era, a woman had limited options and faced certain expectations. Browning's work tends to question and occasionally criticize moral or social systems that quash individualism, and this sensibility extends to women. His use of a female narrator who exhibits strength and willpower in "The Laboratory," or a manipulative woman like Lucrezia, certainly gives a facility to a type of female character not common in the age. Other poems, which feature males as main characters, implicitly show a sympathy for a woman's limited options. Consider the unfortunate fate of the duchess in "My Last Duchess" or Porphyria. Of course, it is easy enough to argue that despite these distinct perspectives, women often remain solely an object that inspires a man's contemplation or behavior.

  4. 4

    Use "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" to illustrate the theme of the quest in at least five other poems. In what ways are the quests the same between these poems? In what ways are they different?

    "Childe Roland" follows a knight as he undertakes a difficult, miserable quest even though he is fairly certain he will either fail in his quest or achieve failure even if he finds his Dark Tower. One of the most fascinating elements in the poem is how Roland remains committed despite this awareness of the quest's futility. This element helps to understand the way Browning often uses a quest as a theme, sometimes even as a metaphor for life. We continue on our quests no matter how we feel or what difficulties we face, especially if we are brave. Some of the poems that consider life as a quest are "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Prospice," and "Two in the Campagna." In these, the speaker perseveres in the quest of life despite the inevitability of death. Others that use the quest more obviously are "Meeting at Night," "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," and "A Grammarian's Funeral." Finally, some that feature a quest that a character takes in his imagination are "Home-Thoughts, From Abroad" and "Caliban Upon Setebos."

  5. 5

    In what ways do Browning's more straightforward 'love poems' - such as "Life in a Love," "Meeting at Night," and "My Star," - confound expectations? In what ways do they exhibit a worldview greater than simply that the speaker has a lover?

    Though the subject of each of these poems is love in the Romantic tradition, what each of them has as a main theme is individuality. Each of the poems features a lover who has to confront the limits of his individuality in attempting to be part of a pair in love. "Life in a Love" considers love as fate, and the speaker must confront the limits of his free will in the face of his inescapable affection. "Meeting at Night" is more of an ode to the intense willpower of the lover who travels for his beloved than it is an ode to his beloved herself. And "My Star," which concerns the way he loves his star even if others don't see its power, again finds solace in the singularity of his love. All three fit into Browning's idea of a person as confined by his subjectivity, and in this way even these seemingly straightforward poems explore more esoteric themes.

  6. 6

    How does the rhyme scheme of "Porphyria's Lover" help demonstrate the poem's message? In what way is this message relevant throughout Browning's work?

    "Porphyria's Lover" is written in regular iambic tetrameter. There is a certain order to this regularity that works in ironic contrast to the horrific deed that the narrator recounts, the murder of his lover, and matches the rational way that he justifies his act. What this disconnect communicates is that the meaning of the poem is not to describe a grotesque act but to consider the way humans are capable of rationalizing their own behavior. This theme resonates throughout most of Browning's work. In this poem, it profoundly communicates that humans are both capable of great darkness and capable of justifying it to themselves. We all have our own truths, which helps to explain the various behaviors of Browning's characters.

  7. 7

    What is the effect of Browning's dramatic monologue form? What does it help him accomplish? Use examples to make your point.

    Browning is famous for his use of the dramatic monologue form, which uses a first-person speaker in a dramatic, high-stakes situations. What this form primarily allows Browning to do is to empathize with a large multitude of characters, thereby exploring the grotesqueness in human nature as manifest in narrators of "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban Upon Setebos," and many others. However, the form is used in a much more sophisticated way through Browning's use of dramatic irony. Humans are capable of justifying even their most outrageous behavior, but this does not mean that they achieve truth. Most of the characters in the poems are communicating things they do not mean to communicate. For instance, the speaker of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" is clearly a less religious, kind man than Brother Lawrence, whom he wishes to punish for the latter's lack of piety. The dramatic irony is that we as readers realize it whereas he does not. Browning can explore the complexities of unique individuals without taking an explicit authorial stance or judgment through the use of dramatic monologues.

  8. 8

    Would you consider Robert Browning to be an optimist or a pessimist?

    One can argue this either way. Certainly, Browning is not a saccharine poet who ignores the ugly sides of the world or human nature. In terms of the latter, "My Last Duchess," "The Laboratory," and "Evelyn Hope" show our capacity for the grotesque without even realizing how disgusting we can become. Further, he is always aware of the inevitably of death and the way it makes our "quest" of life futile. It is difficult to consider the author of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" as an optimist. However, Browning clearly maintains the Romantic influences of his youth and finds great joy and beauty in life. Consider the way that the speaker of "Love Among the Ruins" finds joy even in recognizing that death comes to us all, or how the speaker of "Prospice" commits himself to a journey towards death by contemplating his reunion with his beloved. Further, Browning's attitude of art as possible salvation, demonstrated in "Fra Lippo Lippi," or human dedication as a path to joy, such as in "Rabbi Ben Ezra," suggests optimism. Overall, one should think of every Browning poem as a different perspective on life. Like we all do, the poet has many contradictions and changed perspectives throughout his life, and no one poem stands as an absolute description of his life's philosophy.

  9. 9

    How does Browning use the Renaissance as a setting? What does he gain from that setting in poems like "My Last Duchess"?

    Browning was quite fascinated with the Italian Renaissance and set many poems in that time period, like "My Last Duchess," "Andrea del Sarto," and "Fra Lippo Lippi." It is useful to consider what they have in common, since it helps us to understand what Browning found so fascinating about them. All three share a strong sense of a class system. The duke marries for dowries and uses his position of power to make rather strict threats. The artists of the other two poems both must answer to superiors in some way. Lippo has to compromise before the prior and his religious superiors, whereas Andrea has to continue pleasing his patrons to stay financially afloat (or so he thinks). The duke wants to battle the changing of the world – a world where a woman can flaunt her flirtatious individuality without fear of death – whereas the other two acknowledge that their Renaissance world is changing. Lippo wants to break new ground in art, while Andrea notes that artists like Rafael and Michel Agnolo are doing so while he is not. Browning is clearly attracted to a world that is opening up for its citizens; he explores the conflicts that such a setting must have created for individuals.

  10. 10

    Discuss the recurring questions Browning asks about the passage of time in his poetry. What, if any, insight does he tend to find?

    Browning seems rather obsessed with the passage of time and the way it makes death inevitable. Sometimes that recognition breeds melancholy, like in "A Toccata of Galuppi's" and "Two in the Campagna." Other times, he finds a way to affirm his strength in the face of the realization, such as in "Prospice." It is clear Browning thinks it is important that we not ignore the passage of time, so prevalent is it in our existence. Further, he believes that strength comes from accepting this and remaining strong and persistent nevertheless, like Roland is on his own quest towards the Dark Tower. However, Browning also seems to suggest in "Memorabilia" that we can use art and memory to remain happy even in the face of this impending death.