Bob Griffiths Presents “Why Browning?: A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities”

Date Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

 Bob Griffiths: “Why Browning?:
A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities”

by Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us on April 14th for Bob Griffiths’ talk, “Why Browning?: A Poet of Questions and Ambiguities.”

In this world of 24-hour connectedness, with literally half the world’s population (four billion people) on social media, and the average person spending two hours and 24 minutes a day looking at it, why should we care about a 19th-century poet named Robert Browning?

Scholar Camille Paglia reminds us that “poetry envelops the imagination and focuses the soul.” I suggest that it can deal with the human condition in a unique and telling way. And in that context, Browning excels, as no other 19th-century poet does, in his preoccupation with the metaphysical and abstract. President Emeritus Steve Downey calls Browning “a surgeon of human character.” And in his dissection, Browning frequently is a poet of ambiguity who doesn’t resolve for us the paradoxes and conflicts he writes about: human and divine love, good and evil, love and hate, ambition and the greater good. Indeed, Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (720-86) wrote about the power to be found in ambiguity – and Browning is a master of it.

In this program, President Emeritus Bob Griffiths shows us why Browning still matters, how he can enrich our lives, and how we can gratefully lose ourselves in careful readings and contemplation of our poet’s gifts – a welcome and rewarding break indeed from Instagram, Tik-Tok, Facebook, Twitter, and the TV news cycle.

As a poet of ambiguity, Browning does not directly tell us what to think; he indirectly elicits realizations in the reader through our perception of the limitations and flaws inadvertently revealed by the speakers of his dramatic monologues. One particularly good example of how Browning does this can be seen in his poem, “How it Strikes A Contemporary,” which shows Browning’s view of the poet’s role through the perspective of a speaker who entirely misunderstands it.

In this monologue, Browning’s speaker recounts his encounter with a poet he once knew. He recalls that the poet meticulously studied the material world: “He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane, / Scenting the world, looking it full in the face.” In observing “all thought, said and acted,” the poet surveyed and appreciated the minutiae of daily life in the town of Valladolid. Yet although the speaker intuits that the poet had some kind of power and insight into their lives, he inverts Shelley’s notion (and Browning’s) that the poet is the spiritual legislator of humankind, conjecturing that the poet was the town’s “chief-inquisitor” who reported to the king on the daily activities of the locals.

The speaker tells of how he once followed the poet home and was surprised to find that he did not lead the extravagant and decadent life he had been rumored to lead, but rather lived contentedly and simply with little material wealth. Imagining ahead to the sparsely attended funeral of the poet, the speaker perceives the poignant tragedy in the discrepancy between the man’s seeming power and his actual lack of material wealth and societal influence. He ponders the poet’s frugal appearance and congratulates himself upon his good fortune to be dressed in fine attire, exclaiming jovially, “Well I could never write verse,” which is a statement that equates the speaker’s materialism with his shallow understanding of poetry as merely the skillful metrical arrangement of language rather than as the embodiment of spiritual truths apprehended through imagination. When the speaker calls upon his friends to join him at the Prado and to embrace the brevity of life, it is clear that he slips back into a prosaic daily existence that is unaffected by his brief interaction with a man of vision. Through the speaker’s vanity, the reader is guided to see for themselves what he has missed: the true spiritual vocation of the poet.

We are currently discussing the possibility of meeting outside for the final meeting of the season. I will be in touch soon with updates.

Leave a Reply