Robert Browning, a Man of his Times: A Look at how three of his Poems Represent the Romantic and Victorian

Robert Browning’s poems “My Last Duchess," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church," and "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" all show considerable influence from the Romantic and Victorian Age in which Browning lived. Browning was a Victorian, English poet who became famous in the latter part of the 19th century. After writing poetry for nearly four decades, his major breakthrough came with the publication of his narrative poem “The Ring and the Book” which was twenty-one thousand lines long (Robert Browning). Browning was known primarily for his dramatic monologue which was a common poetic technique of the Victorian era (Landlow).

The Romantic Era, which was the cultural age that led up to and had considerable influence on the Victorian era, was characterized by a rejection of reliance on reason that was emphasized by the philosophes in favor of emotion, imagination, renewed interest in the past, and a love of nature (Holman and Harmon). The Victorian Age, named so after Queen Victoria, was in many ways a renewal of traditional social, moral, and religious values; however it also included considerable advancements in science, industry, technology, and literature (Victorian England) - . Browning was heavily influenced by the famous Romantic poet Percy Shelley in his early career; however, it was his adoption of the dramatic monologue technique which was also used by prominent Victorian poets Alfred Tennyson and Dante Rossetti that gained him fame (Robert Browning: Self Made Poet Of Romance).

According to Professor Glen Everett, there are three defining elements of Browninesque dramatic monologue. The first is that the reader becomes the listenersilent listener, the second is the argumentative appeal on the part of the speaker, and the third characteristic requires that the listener “complete the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination” (Everett). This in many ways is indicative of the Romantic mindset – that uncovering truth is not dependent upon reason alone. The speaker uses appeals to the emotions to garner a particular reaction from his unidentified audience, which in a way is also the reader. But, through imagination and intuition, the reader is able to discern the true character of the speaker and come to the correct and just conclusion without having to resort to rationality (Romanticism).

In “My Last Duchess”, the speaker is commonly understood to be to be the Duke of Ferrara and his unnamed, one-member audience is supposed to be an agent of the count of Tyrol. The agent is visiting in order to negotiate the Duke’s second marriage with the count’s daughter. The Duke points out a painting to the agent of his “last duchess”. He describes his former wife as annoyingly flirtatious with other men, as one whose heart was “too soon made glad” and “too easily impressed” (22, 23). Browning begins to give the reader cause to question the Duke’s character when it becomes apparent that the Duke feels that his former duchess did not properly appreciate who she was married to. “Sir, 'twas all one!” complains the Duke, “my favor at her breast, the dropping of the daylight in the West” (25, 26). But, what really frustrates the Duke is the fact that his wife would rank his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift” (33, 34). The Duke’s true inner character is revealed to the reader as he reveals the cause of his lady’s putting away or possible murder: “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt whene'er I passed her; but who passed without much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together” (42-45). The Duke, then nonchalantly shows his guest another painting as they leave the room (Davis, Hawkins, and et al).
As the poem progresses, the Duke of Ferrara, reveals through inference that he is a selfish, egotistical, and evil person. The speaker would normally, often leave the reader torn between feelings of sympathy and judgment toward the speaker as he reveals more of his inner character. However, Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is slightly more straightforward in eliciting judgment from the reader than the typical Victorian dramatic monologue. The Duke’s arrogance, selfishness, and malevolence become all too evident as he begins describing his former wife’s shortcomings and reveals his own flaws in the process (Davis, Hawkins, and et al)

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” is another dramatic monologue, and like in “My Last Duchess”, the speaker without attempting to do so, ends up revealing his vile character through insinuation. The speaker is a dying Bishop who addresses his “nephews”, at least some of whom are his sons. The theme of the poem consists of him telling them what kind of tomb he wants to have. He attempts to accuse his predecessor “Old Gandolf” of immoral character traits such as envy, greed, and vanity, but ends up revealing that he himself is full of those vices. He at first claims he wants a slab of basalt for his tombstone, then changes his mind to peach blossom marble, and then tells them of the gem lapis lazuli which he has hoarded away to be used in the beautification of his burial place (Brumbaugh). The Bishop’s low level of character becomes more and more apparent to the reader. The Bishop is filled with contempt for Gandolf to whom he feels superior. “- Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone, Put me where I may look at him! True peach, Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize” (31-33)! The Bishop even sinks so low in the course of his dialogue to accuse his own sons of wishing his death so they can rob his grave (Brumbaugh). “Ever your eyes were as lizard’s quick, they glitter like your mother’s for my soul, or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze, piece out its starved design, and fill my vase with grapes” (104-108).

As in “My Last Duchess”, Browning once again uses dramatic monologue to criticize human vices in society, in this case religious hypocrisy, by having the narrator unwittingly reveal those vices in his own character while attempting to point out the flaws in someone else. For instance, the Bishop seems obsessed with how beautiful his tomb will be after he is gone. In fact, he seems completely unconcerned with where or how he will spend eternity. A true Christian who believes in eternal life in heaven would not be so absorbed in what earthly monument is left to remind people of his life. The Bishop’s emphasis on the temporal over the spiritual is an implied criticism directed at religious elders who in fact lack religious convictions (Robert Browning’s Poetry).

Another way that it can be seen that the Romantic and Victorian eras influenced Browning in this particular poem is the way in which the Bishop goes into great detail describing the semi-precious stones with which he wants to line his tomb. Fascination with nature was a major tenet of Romanticism which carried over into the Victorian era.  Also, collecting objects of nature was a pastime of the Victorians and this culture of collection no doubt had an allegoric influence on Browning’s basis for his dramatic monologues. Dramatic monologues such as this one are written as if Browning simply found them. Presenting poems from a non-moral position, may have been an attempt to move beyond the religious and philosophical speculation on the growing immorality of increasing urban life in Browning’s day and rekindle the morally neutral aspect of nature and anthropological existence, which was a common theme with Victorian writers (Robert Browning’s Poetry).

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a monologue, but unlike “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” it is not a dramatic monologue because there is no silent audience described in the poem. The title, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is taken from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. It is about a pilgrim who is on a journey to a dark tower. He is pointed on his way by a “hoary cripple”, whom Roland comes to despise because he feels the old man pointed him in the wrong direction (2). Nevertheless, after a frightful journey in which Roland encounters various creatures, animals, and other kinds of strange and frightful characters and scenes, he manages to arrive at the Dark Tower. However, instead of culminating in some explained reason or fulfilled purpose, the poem ends just as it begins in its title, with the words, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (Perquin).

The Romantic and Victorian eras clearly, held considerable influence over “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”; although, it appears that that influence may have exerted itself subconsciously, since according to Browning,
“Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. . . . I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I'm sure I don't know now. (Perquin).
          Browning draws from the past, something which was very common in the Victorian era. Not only is the title taken from Shakespeare, but the entire poem has a medieval setting. Similar to Tennyson’s “Mariana” in which the external surroundings reflect the inner emotions of the narrator, the description that is given to the wasteland that Roland travels through is a direct representation of how Roland feels on the inside (Jackson). Another way that the Romantic era helped to inspire “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” was imagination. The emphasis on emotion and imagination in the Romantic era paved the way for fantasy, which was a common genre used by writers during the early Victorian era before the Age of Realism. One thing that “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” has in common with other Victorian fantasies such as Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, and Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is they all “describe a process of transition from a realistic world to the fantastic — and when they do not, travel of another sort often plays a significant role” (Egervary).

Finally, Roland’s journey is reminiscent of the attitude that many authors in Browning’s time, such as Dickens and Trollope expressed toward their society. Victorian England was changing and moving rapidly away from an agricultural way of life, orderly structure, and traditional values that had held their society together, toward an unknown future that at times may have looked bleak from their worldview. But, just as Roland attempts to find solace in the past and fails, so too, regardless of how many attempts were made to glorify the past, the past could not be brought to life and the only thing for them to do was to press on into the dim future (CobbCached).

Robert Browning had his own unique style of writing poetry and he, perhaps, more than anyone else is still known to this day by the dramatic dialogue (Poetic Technique). However, like all authors, Browning was influenced by the time in which he lived. Historic settings which were common in the Romantic and Victorian eras can be seen in “My Last Duchess” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. The imagination, emphasized in the Romantic era is called upon in the reader in Browning’s dramatic monologues “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” was a typical imagination-stoker of its time in the form of fantasy. The description of nature, which was emphasized in both the Romantic and Victorian eras, is also seen in Browning’s poems. “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”, in which the Bishop explains in detail the type of precious stones with which he wants to decorate his tomb and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, in which there is a wasteland described through which Roland travels on his way to the Dark Tower and hill country once he arrives at his destination are two examples of this.


Works Cited
Brumbaugh, Katherine. "Dramatic Monologue and "The Bishop"." Universal Journal: The Association of Young Journalists and Writers. (2006): n. page. Web. 30 Mar. 2012.
Cobb, Marta. The Narrator of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". 10 Sept. 2004. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Egervary, Alex. A Brief Discussion of Victorian Fantasy — Setting and Character. The Victorian      Web, 13 May 2003. Web. 30 Marr 2012.
 Jackson, Mark. Setting the Psychology in “Childe Roland”. The Victorian Web, 10 Sept. 2004. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Pequin, Jean-Charles. The maze and pilgrimage of poetic creation in Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”. The Victorian Web, 10 Sept. 2004. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Poetic Technique: Dramatic Dialogue. Web. 30 March 2012. 
Davis, Jackie, Sarah Hawkins, and et al. "My Last Duchess: Analysis." Gonzaga U. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Everett, Glenn. Three Defining Characteristics of Browning's Dramatic Monologues. The Victorian Web. 18 December 2003.Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Holman, Hugh C., and William Harmon. “Definitions from A Handbook to Literature.” 6th ed. On American Romanticism. N. pag. English Department., Virginia Commonwealth U. Web. 30 March 2012.
 Landlow, George. Dramatic Monologue: An Introduction. The Victorian Web, 10 March 2003. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Robert Browning’s Poetry “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”. Sparknotes. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Robert Browning. 30 Mar 2012
Robert Browning: Self Made Poet Of Romance. World Class Poetry. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Romanticism. English Dept., Brooklyn College. Web. 30 Mar 2012.
Victorian England: An Introduction. English Dept., University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, n.d. Web. 30 Mar 2012.



Popular posts from this blog

Review of "Why Study History" by John Fea