Robert Browning: Poems

Legacy

Browning's admirers have tended to temper their praise with reservations about the length and difficulty of his most ambitious poems, particularly Sordello and, to a lesser extent, The Ring and the Book. Nevertheless, they have included such eminent writers as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. Among living writers, Stephen King's The Dark Tower series and A. S. Byatt's Possession refer directly to Browning's work.

Today Browning's critically most esteemed poems include the monologues Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Fra Lippo Lippi, Andrea Del Sarto, and My Last Duchess. His most popular poems include Porphyria's Lover, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, the diptych Meeting at Night, the patriotic Home Thoughts from Abroad, and the children's poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. His abortive dinner-party recital of How They Brought The Good News was recorded on an Edison wax cylinder, and is believed to be the oldest surviving recording made in the United Kingdom of a notable person.

Browning is now popularly known for such poems as Porphyria's Lover, My Last Duchess, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and also for certain famous lines: "Grow old along with me!" (Rabbi Ben Ezra), "A man's reach should exceed his grasp" and "Less is more" (Andrea Del Sarto), "It was roses, roses all the way" (The Patriot), and "God's in His heaven—All's right with the world!" (Pippa Passes).

His critical reputation rests mainly on his dramatic monologues, in which the words not only convey setting and action but reveal the speaker's character. In a Browning monologue, unlike a soliloquy, the meaning is not what the speaker voluntarily reveals but what he inadvertently gives away, usually while rationalising past actions or special pleading his case to a silent auditor. These monologues have been influential, and today the best of them are often treated by teachers and lecturers as paradigm cases of the monologue form. Ian Jack, in his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Browning's poems 1833–1864, comments that Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot "all learned from Browning's exploration of the possibilities of dramatic poetry and of colloquial idiom".[35]

In Oscar Wilde's dialogue The Critic as Artist, Browning is given a famously ironical assessment: "He is the most Shakespearean creature since Shakespeare. If Shakespeare could sing with myriad lips, Browning could stammer through a thousand mouths. [...] Yes, Browning was great. And as what will he be remembered? As a poet? Ah, not as a poet! He will be remembered as a writer of fiction, as the most supreme writer of fiction, it may be, that we have ever had. His sense of dramatic situation was unrivalled, and, if he could not answer his own problems, he could at least put problems forth, and what more should an artist do? Considered from the point of view of a creator of character he ranks next to him who made Hamlet. Had he been articulate, he might have sat beside him. The only man who can touch the hem of his garment is George Meredith. Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose."

Probably the most adulatory judgment of Browning by a modern critic comes from Harold Bloom: "Browning is the most considerable poet in English since the major Romantics, surpassing his great contemporary rival Tennyson and the principal twentieth-century poets, including even Yeats, Hardy, and Wallace Stevens. But Browning is a very difficult poet, notoriously badly served by criticism, and ill-served also by his own accounts of what he was doing as a poet. [...] Yet when you read your way into his world, precisely his largest gift to you is his involuntary unfolding of one of the largest, most enigmatic, and most multipersoned literary and human selves you can hope to encounter."[36]

His work has nevertheless had many detractors, and most of his voluminous output is not widely read. In a largely hostile essay Anthony Burgess wrote: "We all want to like Browning, but we find it very hard."[37] Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Santayana were also critical. The latter expressed his views in the essay "The Poetry of Barbarism," which attacks Browning and Walt Whitman for what he regarded as their embrace of irrationality.


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