Prasanta Pathak –
Robert Browning is one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era who excels in his optimistic philosophy regarding the immortality of human soul. No English poet has coined so much credits that Browning has achieved in his venture to establish God as a supreme saviour to redeem the unattained affliction of human soul and thus treating the human soul for its complete perfection. A belief in God, heaven, and the immortality of soul are the cardinal points of Browning’s philosophy. The basic philosophy which is invariably inserted in the works of Browning that courage and struggle in this world is a necessary part of human beings and faith in the next life is a continuation of the work of this life. Failure does not mean a total wreck of human aspirations but a preparation for attainment of success. Due to this inherent philosophy, his protagonists remain undaunted in worldly failures and disappointments. His optimistic philosophy generates one of the robust hopes to human beings that failure bolsters one’s courage to a greater degree and one’s honest struggle will bring hope of reward in the next world for the sake of eternity. Browning’s faith is one which welcomes difficulty and failure as steps in the spiritual struggle and progress by which man perfects himself. Being an optimist, Browning believes that the good preponderates over the evil in this world. Evil is also a point from where goodness can be realized for its achievement.
Key words: God, human soul, eternity, evil, good, perfection.
Robert Browning, the premier Victorian poet, has arrayed his thoughts throughout his poetic career on certain sonorous and profound subject matters which are indubitably symmetrical to the real life situation of human being in individual or general. Browning has stamped on the Victorian age his prolific role as a refined thinker because he excels in his profound thinking rather than his poetry. Most of the Browning’s poems are dealt with the various philosophical speculations on human life and some basic questions of human life where the very age itself fluttered at the threshold of the new and innovative thoughts which are pampered by scientific progressions, industrial development and materialistic condition of life. He has marked his position in the Victorian Age as a stance moralist or a religious teacher and held a very distinctive place among the writers of the age as a crusader against “scientific materialism”. His basic philosophy is deeply rooted in religion and with his untiring belief on immortality.
The main objective of this paper is how a prominent Victorian poet Robert Browning presents optimistic elements in his poems with especial reference to a few selected poems.
Both qualitative and analytical research methods have been used to search out the optimistic elements in the selected poems of Robert Browning. An interpretive discourse method based on analysis has been also adopted for putting things in proper perspective.
Robert Browning does not belong to any school of philosophy. He has honed his poetical career to draw out certain holistic approaches to the human life where emphasis have been given on human achievement and failure, the role of God as a supreme authority, the destiny of human being and the immortality of human soul etc. Again, Browning has not only confined his philosophical attentions to the universal issues pertaining to human life in his worldly situation but also to another universe- the unknown universe of human soul. Browning, in his poems, reaffirms God’s entity to a definite position and as a great thinker of his age; he could achieve credit in setting a convincement among his readers that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He determines God’s position above all and everything in the universe as the supreme of all beings and even Nature becomes a direct reflection and demonstration of his thoughts and plans. The Victorian society, where peoples’ negotiation with science and mechanism, bears a constant appeal to cripple the faith on God but Browning never rises a bit of suspicion and never voice a single question against the existence and capacity of God. “God is the perfect poet”, he says, “who, in his person acts His own creations.”So the whole universe is a crystallized thought of the God to the poet:
God dwells in all
From life’s minute beginning up at last
Browning has nullified the bar between earth and heaven and likewise between this world and the next world. The immortal human soul, Browning believes, gets its completeness anywhere may be in this world or in the next world. So, human being’s fulfillment of desire has a solution since soul is perpetual. The finite and infinite world that has been constructed by Browning on his logical and intellectual arguments establishes him as ‘a philosophic poet’ that Frederick Ryland is right in his comment on Browning for having “rolled back, as far as England is concerned , the morbid pessimism, the sickly disdain of active life, which infected so much of European literature.” A spiritual world is a constant demand in Browning’s philosophy which is ready to glow the human life with the divinely spark. Human soul, just like clay, gets its different shapes at the skilled fingers of the potter that is God. This belief vibrates throughout his famous poem Rabbi Ben Ezra:
“Earth changes, but thy soul and god stand sure………
Time’s wheel runs back or stops Potter and Clay endure”
‘God” as a key word appears umpteen times and His function as a supreme soul emerges in the whole gamut of Browning’s poetry. The focal point which magnets our attention in Browning poetry is his exaltation of God’s supremacy and immortality of soul. Browning firmly believes it that no impediment of human soul is possible at least in a cosmic sense because there is an omniscient and benevolent God who must appear as a saviour to all. Human destiny, at a spiritual point, will be judged not on the physical achievements but on the appeasement of the soul which is believed in the dictum: “Man has forever” i.e., an enlarged concept of the immortality of soul.
So, failure of a human being in this earth does not mean that he has measured a fruitless life –a complete failure marked by frustration and fatigue. A transcendental philosophy works within it and Browning holds to apply this by his reasons. As a result, soul is well deserved to get its final reward after life. The judgment of God does not result in earthly achievements but only on effort, dedication, and honesty of a good soul. No one is perfect according to the achievements that he credits in this earth but one’s perfectness gets its final shape in the next world. Throughout Abt Vogler, Browning assays to express this philosophy that on earth there are the “broken arcs; in heaven, a perfect round”.
Throughout his poems, Browning introduces his characters as the upholders of this belief where the undiminished capacity of soul and its unscratched existence function as an aphrodisiac to anyone who is under the grip of lassitude of imperfection. The role of human beings in this earth is not ascribed for slothful and lusterless activities. He is destined to be great throughout his painstaking efforts which will determine his destiny. Of course, evil is also doing its function in its own way only to establish truth. Without evil no one can judge the importance of good. Even, evil is necessary for the attainment of good.
“The Evil is null-is naught, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more.”
Browning holds evil in a specific purpose, according to the design of God, a gateway of perfection after the realization of one’s fault is felt. Man’s imperfection and unsuccessfulness resulted from his evil action or weakness come to perfection only working against those negative factors. Thus, evil is a splotch against good from where one can turn his path directing to one’s positive progress. Due to the consciousness of evil and realization of one’s own incompletion one can move towards perfection. Browning admits that human life is mixed up with evil and good elements and likewise virtue and vice.
Browning’s benevolent God even gives a hue of hope to a man with criminal action. Thus, the guilty person’s aspiration begets in his conviction that God will judge his misconduct on the ground that he has committed for his purpose and will ajar His door for the salvation of his soul. Porphyria’s lover, after strangling his beloved to death, affirms God’s reaction on his sin that “And yet God has not said a word,.” Browning does not present his God as an unjust one who condones the crime of Porphyria’s lover. In fact, the murder is committed for love’s sake. The degree of love that the Porphyria’s lover has shown in his criminal action is worthier than his crime because he attempts to preserve his love for eternity by screwing out it from this earthly barriers or social forbiddances. The lover tries to judge his crime from the cosmic point of view.
Browning’s philosophy on love is rooted in God’s principle that this quality is common to man and God. Love is the straight way to reach God’s closeness and thus a way to become a perfect oneself. Whether love may be successful or unsuccessful in worldly sense but true love comes to perfection after even death. There is a platform in the heaven where God mingles the departed souls. “Prospice”, one of his most personal poems, expresses this belief of Browning which was written after the death of his wife. Love is a source of courage to face any hurdles in life even in death. One’s fear for death slides away with a new hope of heavenly union where love gets its total perfection. Browning has expressed this view in this poem in which the poet hopes to meet his wife after his death. He says:
“O thou soul of my soul: I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest.”
The reason behind the immortality of soul is so strong enough to encourage Browning to face his death with courage and he is sure to be one with his wife after his death. Thus his conviction on love seems to be true as he believes that love is always rewarded, if not in this life, then in some future life.
Browning’s “The Last Ride Together” is another best example to express this same philosophy regarding the immortality of human soul. The ride in earth always and together under a mutual consent between the lovers has enough chance to be impermanent. The lover is not exulted over the ride and its face value. He, therefore, tries to uplift it to a superior stage where only permanency lasts by inviting eternity. Even the world’s permanency is a subject to question: “Who knows but the world may end to-night?”. The lover’s assumption of the destruction of the world during their last ride together will pave a way for their eternal riding together.
“The instant made eternity,
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, forever ride?”
The physical death is not an important matter to make perturbed the lover since he considers it unimportant in the mortal world where his love traced as an imperfect one. The lover’s hope to attain fulfillment of full love with its eternal configuration will become possible in the next world. Browning’s optimism and faith in heaven and in the eternity of the soul are best expressed in this poem which may be regarded as a song of the glory of failure.
Browning pioneers to handle the theme of human destiny in his philosophical world by searching out the existence of human soul and its final consequence. The materialistic world of the Victorian age which preponderates over religious faith has found an inconvenience at the stout effort of Browning in his effort to propagate of spiritual value. Browning’s concept is not a facile or blind optimism, for it does not ignore the evil, the doubt and the ugliness of this life. His optimism is based on reality that is on life’s realities. Human life is not cocooned with pleasures and successes but full of imperfections. But imperfection is a basic source of success – a foundation stone for advancement. While preaching hope and promise, Browning knows well as to what there is for man to do. Perpetual struggle is the main key to unlock the casket of success and thus continuous human endeavor will result success either in this world or in the next. For this honesty and good effort are the essential elements in the part of human life.
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Checklist (New York: Browning Institute / Winfield, Kans.: Wedgestone,
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The writer is the Asst. Professor, Department of English, Bikali College, Dhupdhara, Assam (India)