Why is Browning so interested in the Renaissance?
The Renaissance saw a major shift in theories of art. As “Fra Lippo Lippi” discusses, a new realism, based on observation and detail, was coming to be valued, while traditional, more abstract and more didactic forms of art were losing favor. This shifting in priorities is analogous to the shifting views on art and morality in Browning’s time. The Renaissance, like the Victorian era, was also a time of increasing secularism (see “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”) and concentration of wealth and power (“My Last Duchess”. All of these aspects make the Renaissance and the Victorian era rather similar. By talking about the Renaissance, Browning can make his cultural criticism somewhat less biting. He also gains access to a wealth of sensuous detail and historical reference, which he can then use to add vibrancy to his verse. The historical connection, furthermore, lets him talk about his place in the literary tradition: if we still appreciate Renaissance art, hopefully future generations will still appreciate Browning’s poetry.
Think about how Browning uses language. What kinds of meter and other poetic forms does he use? Why is his language so often rough and “un-poetic”?
Browning aspires to redefine the aesthetic. The rough language of his poems often matches the personalities of his speakers. Browning uses colloquialisms, inarticulate sounds (like “Grr”), and rough meter to portray inner conflict and to show characters living in the real world. In his earlier poems this kind of speech often accompanies patterned rhyme schemes; “My Last Duchess,” for example, uses rhymed couplets. The disjunction between form and content or form and language suggests some of the conflict being described in the poems, whether the conflict is between two moral contentions or is a conflict between aesthetics and ethics as systems. Browning’s rough meters and unpoetic language test a new range for the aesthetic.
Why is there so much violence against women in Browning’s poetry? What symbolic purpose might it serve?
Women, particularly for the Victorians, symbolize the home—the repository of traditional values. Their violent death can stand in for the death of society. The women in Browning’s poetry in particular are often depicted as sexually open: this may show that society has transformed so radically that even the domestic, the traditional, has been altered and corrupted. This violence also suggests the struggle between aesthetics and morals in Victorian art: while women typically serve as symbols of values (the moral education offered by the mother, the purity of one who stays within the confines of the home and remains untainted by the outside world), they also represent traditional foci for the aesthetic (in the form of sensual physical beauty); the conflict between the two is potentially explosive. Controlling and even destroying women is a way to try to prevent such explosions, to preserve a society that has already changed beyond recognition.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the dramatic monologue form. What kinds of subject matter does it best address? What kinds does it address less aptly? What is the relationship between drama and poetry?
2. Describe the relationship between morality and art in Browning’s poetry. What does Browning have to say about the subject? How do his poems work in this regard?
3. Why does Browning so often choose painters as the speakers for his monologues? Why not choose poets?
4. How do Browning’s dramatic monologues change over the course of his career? Compare an early poem like “Porphyria’s Lover” to a later one like “Andrea del Sarto” or “Fra Lippo Lippi” in terms of subject matter, structure, and language.
5. What is Browning’s relationship to the ideals of Romanticism? Consider his use of nature and also his conception of the poet, of the self, and of memory.
6. Why are most of Browning’s poems set well after the main action they describe? For example, in “Porphyria’s Lover” the speaker tells of how he murdered Porphyria while he sits beside her corpse, “Andrea del Sarto” is set in the twilight of Andrea’s career, long after the events he describes (his theft from the King of France and his escape back to Italy). Why not set the poem at the time of action? Why make the poem a musing memory?
Boyd Litzinger in Time’s Revenges: Browning’s Reputation as a Thinker, 1889-1962 (1964) reviews the critical reception of Robert Browning’s work during the decade after his death and finds that his immense popularity was based on three chief beliefs among his readers: Browning was a defender of Christianity, although his specific beliefs were subject to considerable doubt; he was admired for an optimistic worldview and his works were thought to urge humanity to higher and higher efforts to improve its condition; and he was considered to be a serious philosopher and man of ideas.
This analysis seems seriously misguided. Browning’s religious teachings are contradictory at best. His frequent comic and...
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