Robert Browning, one of the most talented poets of the Victorian period, is famous especially for his dramatic monologues. Often these long poems deal with such issues as love, death, and faith. Much of his work is directly reflective of his life and of those issues that were of direct concern to him. One conflict seen throughout Browning’s poetry is one of spirituality. His poetry forms a spiritual timeline; it reveals his spiritual influences and opinions. It formed his own Bible of beliefs which he possessed.
Because Browning’s views on spirituality changed, his poetry also gives insight on the internal conflicts within his life. The paper will explore Robert Browning’s spiritual journey as is reflective in his poetry. Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, near London, England on May 7, 1812. He was raised by his father, also Robert Browning, and by his deeply religious mother, Sarah Anna Weideman-Browning. His often indulgent parents gave him the freedom to explore new literary and philosophical ideas of the time period, yet he was also instructed to believe the unexplained mysteries of the Christian faith(Miller, 1953).
His mother, who had strong ties to the congregational church, took great time to instruct Robert in his religious studies. With this open atmosphere, however, Browning exhibited signs of disinterest in religion during his early childhood. The town preacher, in fact , found it necessary to publicly scold “for restlessness and inattention Master Robert Browning”(as cited in,Miller, 1953, p. 9). Robert Browning’s tendency toward skepticism was recorded early on. Robert Browning’s first deviation from his faith was at the age of fifteen or sixteen. His primary influences were the Flower family and the writing of P. B Shelley.
Browning often traveled to the Flower’s house to discuss music, poetry, and aethism (Irvine & Honan, 1974). Eliza Flower , with whom Browning was infatuated was an influence in Browning’s aethism. She was one of the primary influences that turned Browning away from the Christianity of his mother. His other influence, the writing of Shelley, a known aethist, taught Browning to be an independent free thinker. After reading Shelley’s book, Queen Mab , Browning became an aethist and a vegetarian(DeVane & Smalley, 1984). He rejected his mother’s world to gain a sense of liberty and independence(Irvine & Honan, 1974).
This faith change at such an early age seemed to lead to a continual spiritual inconsistency throughout his life. Browning had trouble accepting any faith or religion he chose to follow and often questioned his judgment in faith related decisions. Robert Browning considered Shelley to be moral because he was “true, simple hearted and brave”(cited in Payne, 1967, p. 198). He found him to also be a man of religious mind because Shelley was “everywhere taking for granted some of the capital dogmas of Christianity, while most vehemently denying their historical basement” (cited in Payne, 1967, p. 9).
Browning clearly possessed a great respect for Shelley which followed him through much of his early poetry. Browning’s life was “fundamentally affected”(Miller, 1953, p. 9) by the Shelley’s writing. During his adolescence, Browning may have recognized Shelley’s, “fearless spiritual independence”(Miller, 1953, p. 9). He noticed a “principal of conduct whereby to measure in the years to come not only the sum of his own poetic achievement but the very nature of human integrity itself”.
Although there is no available poetry written before his first published work, Pauline, his early aethism is still reflected in his early poetry. Robert Browning eloped to Italy with Elizabeth Barret. Upon meeting his extremely religious wife and with her persuasion, Browning began to realize that Shelley’s poetry had led him to a life of self- absorption. Yet, “Robert took a skeptical attitude on the spiritual rappings, spurred on perhaps by his wife’s immediate will to believe”(Markus,1995, p. 219).
Eventually, though, Robert Browning made the decision to return to his Christian faith, perhaps due to his respect for his deeply religious mother or to the persuasion by his spiritually inclined wife. It is said that Elizabeth, Browning’s wife, believed that “spiritualism offered an alternative to melancholy: an assurance reinforcing faith”(Miller, 1953, p. 192). Browning, however was often skeptical of his wife’s spiritualism. Despite this, Pauline reveals a return to God, but also displays an undying reverence to Shelley. Pauline, Robert Browning’s first published work, was published in 1832.
Pauline was undisputedly representative of Browning’s reacceptance of Christianity. Some critics believe that “his mother’s reaction to his intellectual rebellion was probable one of the major factors in Browning’s return to faith”(Williams,1970, p. 19). Others agree that the unbending spiritual beliefs of his wife may have led him down such a road(Miller, 1953)). The exerpt in Pauline most clearly representing this is the conclusion which is also an invocation to Shelly. ” sun – treader I believe in God and truth and love; and as one just escaped from death…
Browning’s contradictory attitude in Pauline proves that he is still lingering on the edge of aethism. Robert Browning does not praise Shelley’s ideals in Pauline, but it is clear that his great respect for Shelley did not dwindle with the writing of Pauline. Browning’s attempt at returning to Christianity resulted in the hero of Pauline speaking of an “early loss of youthful idealism and sense of purpose, of his intellectual pride and the bitterness and emptiness which it brought to him”(Williams, 1970, p. 94). Unfortunately, in his invocation to Shelley as “sun-treader”, Browning’s devotion to him cannot be missed.
One of Robert Browning’s next great literary achievements was the publishing of Paracelsus in 1835. Historically, Darwin had recently published The Origin of Species, and the new scientific ideas of evolution caused many to revoke God, Jesus and Christian living. Robert Browning, however had the opposite reaction. He took his knowledge of a competitive world and viewed it as a reason for hope and reason to continue his struggles. Browning saw this scientific revolution as a bridge connected God and man; and answer to the mysteries of life.
The great reinforcement in Browning’s faith is evident in Paracelsus. Browning meditates “on the ability of God to restore his worn out youth – or, in other words, to extend the capacity of his human nature… ” (Williams,1970, p. 21). Robert Browning says in Paracelsus, ” God! Thou art mind! “. He comes to the realization that through God, everything exists, and also through God, the poetic talent he possesses was given. He reveals that, “if all poets, god ever meant should save the world, and therefore lent great gifts to, but who, proud, refused to do his work.
God is said to have “lent” great gifts to those talented; it is a connection between God and the world. By Paracelsus, Browning’s reverence to Shelley is non existent. The next step in Browning’s spiritual journey occurs about ten years later when he begins to develop a dislike for the church. Around 1845, Browning found himself focusing his anger on the church as an institution, especially the Catholic Church. In 1845, Robert Browning wrote ” The Confessional”, a short poem berating the Catholic Church.
Browning writes: It is a lie – their priests, their pope, Their Saints, their… all they fear or hope Are lies… No part in aught they hope or fear! No heaven with them, no hell! -and here No earth. (1845) This poem appeared to have spurned underlying hatred and suspicion toward the Christian institution. In 1855, Browning wrote Fra Lippo Lippi. In this story, Browning criticizes the fact that Christianity is too ideal for humanity; he does not address whether God exists but whether Christian living can truly exist in a corrupt modern society (Irvine & Honan, 1974).
Here, Browning writes: You’ll not mistake an idle word spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot, tasting the air this spicy night… when ladies crowd to church at midsummer. And then I’ the front, of course a saint or two-… And so all’s saved for me, and for the church, A pretty picture gained. (1855) Browning notices the insincerity of the church goers and clearly satirizes the idea of unearned, expected salvation. He finds it difficult to follow such a message. He had strong belief and faith in the existence of God, but also disdain in the institution that followed him.
In his continual attempt to find inner peace, Robert Browning continued to face conflicts in his spiritual and religious future. In 1849, Robert Browning’s mother died. One year later he published two of his less-famous poems, “Christmas Eve” and “Easter Day”. These poems, due to their ambiguity, were neither extremely popular, nor critically praised. The two voices in Easter Day, the more powerful of the two poems, are often difficult to distinguish. While one maintains that it is difficult to lead a Christian life, the other scolds and argues that it is easy.
These associations are tied to the fall of Adam and Eve and their willingness and inclination toward evil. The voice calling to the difficulty of Christianity states that “He who in all his works below adapted to the needs of man, Made love the basis of his plan… while man who was so fit instead to hate as every day gave proof”( line 981), and blames man alone for his fall. The other sees Christianity as the ultimate struggle: ” With darkness, hunger toil, distress.. No ease henceforth, as one that’s judged… shut from heaven” (line 1000, 1030). The two voices represent the inner conflicts of Robert Browning.
While he blames himself for the abandonment of the faith of his mother thereby hurting her, he sees Christianity as a lifelong struggle in hopes of something better which people have yet to explain. It is difficult to believe in condemnation when it cannot be proved. Presumably, these poems represent an argument which Robert Browning had with himself concerning his guilt over the death of his mother, and the abandonment of her principles. As Browning became older, death became an ever present danger. He was confronted with the thought of hell condemnation and a fear of the existence of God.
Rather than attempting to find secular peace, Robert Browning turned his heart and soul toward the Church and all of its principles. He was able to accept Christian dogma and believed in God as a part of his life, rather than death. As explained in Poetry Criticism: Browning concludes his long years of scrutiny not in a theodicy, but in a reaffirmation of his personal faith in God and the indestructibility of the soul. Not what God means in this vast universe, but what God means to him, Robert Browning, and to all believing souls, is the sum and substance of it all. . 69)
Browning lived his life with the concept of a God present always in the world. (DeVane and Smalley, 1984). His faith was not a philosophy or religion, but rather involved intuition. Browning discerned what God meant to him and what application it had on his life. His real theme in his poetry was a “God in the spirit of the individual”(Markus, 1995 p. 221). From his experiences,as expressed by professor Royce, Browning “met, in his own way, the problems set before him not only by tradition, the Christian conception of God” (cited in Payne,1967, p. 0).
Robert Browning’s spiritual journey was not one of disinterest but one of great meditation and thought. Browning appeared to take time contemplating his spiritual beliefs. In his poetry, there is evidence of God and Christianity in both positive and negative aspects. Both aspects helped Browning to make faith decisions and come to a conclusion that could leave him in peace. Robert Browning died December 12, 1889. He faced death with genuine knowledge of his beliefs concluding a long and conflictory study of his faith through the poetry he wrote.
The following poem is an accurate expression of the spiritual conclusion that Browning finally came to and freely accepted toward the end of his life. “Prospice” Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat, The mist in my face, When the snows begin, and the blasts denote I am nearing the place, The power of the night, the press of the storm, The post of the foe; Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form, Yet the strong man must go: For the journey is done and summit attained, And the barriers fall, Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained, The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so – one fight more, The best and the last! I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore And bade me creep past. No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers The heroes of old, Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arreaes Of pain, darkness, and old, For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, The black minute’s at end, And the element’s rage, the fiend-voices that rave, Shall dwindle, shall blend, Shall change, shall become first a piece out of pain, Then a light, then thy breast, O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, And with God be the rest!