Robert BrowningRobert 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
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
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. (p.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. 200).
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.
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!