Robert Browning

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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,

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