Robert Browning 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.199).
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”(Miller, 1953, p.9). 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, …