Success and Failure in Poems by Robert Browning

Explore the concepts of success and failure in A Grammarian’s Funeral and one other poem by Robert Browning. In A Grammarian’s Funeral we get an ambiguous idea of whether the Grammarian’s life has been a success or a failure. Though there is much evidence that the poet believes he has served his life well, there is also a slight suggestion that the poet disagrees with the thoughts of the Grammarian’s students and instead believes that he has had a wasted life.

A poem to compare to this, also dealing with accomplishment and disappointment, is Apparent Failure, which discusses the destruction of a celebrated morgue and imagines the lives of those who had tragically committed suicide and who had therefore found themselves displayed for all to see. Browning uses the philosophy of the imperfect as one of the main motifs throughout many of his poems, and A Grammarian’s Funeral is a good example.

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The poem implies that the students are very supportive of the grammarian’s choice of lifestyle and believe he has given his life to doing something worthwhile, although they realise he has sacrificed a lot in order to do so. They understand that, where as any normal man would be eager to live his life, perhaps even in an hedonistic manner, “This man said rather, “Actual life comes next, Patience a moment! ” Showing that he wanted to dedicate his life to working, and then learn about living it.

Although the use of ‘actual’ highlights the realisation that he is not living his life, he is perhaps wasting it by concentrating solely on grammar and litereature. In fact, he believed focusing on literature and grammar as he did was actually a way of learning about life – almost a paradox in itself. They were dedicated, as his students, to carry his coffin all the way up this mountain which could surely represent their view that he was “This high man, with a great thing to pursue”. So, it is difficult to decide just how Browning himself feels about the Grammarian.

He criticises the grammarian quite frequently, commenting on how the way he lived seem to tire him, he had to go “Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head: Calculus racked him:” Two lots of alliteration can emphasise his tiresome existence and Browning seems to portray him as a man always exhausted with his life choices. Many view Browning as a man who agrees with the students, and supports the Grammarian with his sacrifices. However, considering what we know about the poet, his love for and admiration of true art and the power of the renaissance, we can ee that the Grammarian’s choices were in a fact a major denial of these things. Browning believed in combining living and learning, not separating them out so that you could only participate in one. By looking at the poem in this light, the ideas behind the words change, you see some of Browning’s classic irony and that his actual opinion was that the grammarian shouldn’t have wasted his life and should “Live now or never! “. This short, simple, commanding sentence portrays, perhaps, Browning’s true feelings, hidden amongst waves of seemingly complimentary stanzas supporting the Grammarian.

This quite tenuous and ambiguous portrayal of Browning’s views (as was quite common in his poems) can also be seen in Apparent Failure, where the tragic death of the people in the morgue are described. It’s the tone of the poem that is quite hard to describe. The dead people – who had committed suicide by throwing themselves in the Seine and which was a sin – are almost described as royalty by the speaker. They sit “enthroned Each on his copper couch”, making this probably quite horrid image seem rather relaxed and very regal. The speaker also calls them “poor boy” and poor fellow” which, if taken at face value, could show his sympathies.

This could be further emphasised by his saying that they will have their “sins atoned” thus he believes they are due for forgiveness when they get to heaven. However, much of what he says could be taken with a hint of sarcasm and a sardonic tone. In almost a patronising way, the speaker describes the man’s downfall; “Oh women were the prize for you! Money gets women, cards and dice”. What follows are three phrases of similar structure arguing that “it’s wiser being good than bad” and two similar points of advice. Is there a hint of sarcasm when he says this?

Along with his frequent repetition of religion and God – for example the end of the poem that argues “nor what God blessed once, prove accurst”. Could this be a reference to his nonconformist views and that actually this poem is a comment on how traditional Christians view suicide? Again, it is quite ambiguous as Browning intended, but if you think to his views, perhaps he is trying to portray the fact that he doesn’t think these men who have committed suicide are to be scolded and that instead it is the life they are escaping that should be looked at.

Another way failure can be seen in A Grammarian’s Funeral could be by the representation of the countryside and life up the mountains (perhaps an allegory for the cities). It’s a common stereotype that country people are stupid; uneducated and lacking completely in any sophistication. The students describe the land as “common crofts, the vulgar thorpes”, thus very critical and dismissive and again some harsh alliteration to draw attention to the point and make it more cutting.

They also describe them as “Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain”, which could imply the people stay on their farms, with no desire to strive for better, to become more knowledgeable. The use of the word ‘bosom’ emphasises the way they are ensconced in their own life, comfortable with this boring safety. This is in comparison with “a tall mountain, citied to the top, Crowded with culture! ” The exclamation mark really highlights the greatness of the culture and the excitement in the student’s desire to reach the top.

In broader terms, the countryside could be seen as the failure and the success is represented by the cities on the top as they have people more interested in life, more cultured – hence the reason for taking the grammarian up there as the students believe he has been successful in his life for being very intellectual and sophisticated. Although, again here Browning’s famous irony could again sneak back in as he could infact pity the people in the countryside, for having such a bad reputation. Especially as he himself liked the countryside for a place to free his mind, attempting to let his artistic talent loose.

Therefore this could be his way for showing the student’s lack of understanding and knowledge themselves, therefore when they share their opinions on the grammarian, they could be easily discounted as they don’t appreciate the lives of the those in the countryside; they haven’t thought about them deeply. To conclude, Browning represents the themes of failure and success in A Grammarian’s funeral fairly clearly when comparing the sleeping countryside folk with those of a higher class in the metaphorical cultured mountain tops.

However when looking at the grammarian himself, the lines become a lot more blurred. I feel that Browning does not support the Grammarian’s life choices and there is much irony lying beneath the students undeserving praises. There could, it is argued, even be irony with the contrast of the country people and those who live in more cultured towns as Browning tries to cut up the stereotypes, perhaps unfairly given to these people or highlight the students’ exaggerated praise of the grammarian.

In Apparent Failure, the themes of success and failure are just as ambiguous. As is suggested in the title, the lives of these people could, on the surface be seen as failures, but perhaps they are just responding to the troubles in society that have affected their lives so badly that they felt the only escape route was to give up life. Does Browning support this? I myself am not too sure as i sense pity but also condescension in much of the poem. However, this, I believe, is how Browning intends his poems to be read.

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Success and Failure in Poems by Robert Browning. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from