Document Type


Date of Award



Browning, Robert, Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Paul F. Mattheisen

Second Advisor

John V. Hagopian

Third Advisor

Philip Rogers


Two recurrent subjects in Browning’s poetry, the ideas of an other-worldly existence for man after death and of a miraculous rebirth into earthly existence, carry inherent religious significance. But the poet has doubts about the efficacy of language to render them. Whereas some of Browning's personae communicate their understanding of the conditions of “afterlife” or “rebirth” succinctly, others express the same basic ideas uneasily and elaborately. His characters find many ways to articulate their conscious apprehension of such ideas, but if, beyond rational comprehension, they confront afterlife or rebirth on an intuitional level, or the level of engagement, then their words seem to falter in expressing this added meaning. When spiritually or emotionally disturbed by such ideas, they seem to find language itself essentially unfit for the communication of affective truths. A character’s expression of feelings about the meaning for earthly existence of afterlife or rebirth is hindered by the reductive nature of language; that is, a character with an emotional commitment or a spiritual insight struggles against merely discursive expression in order to convey a reality beyond the grasp of language. When ideas involve such commitment (beyond ordinary conceptual apprehension), they may well exemplify the limits of reason and, hence, of articulation.

Ideas of afterlife and rebirth in Browning’s poetry appear to be the commonly understood religious ones: after death the soul may enter a “future life” in the one case, or body and soul may reunite after death in another earthly existence; or by metaphorical extension, various kinds of spiritual regeneration are possible in this life. One might consider these concepts only as integral parts of the religious tone pervading Browning’s poetry; or they may be discussed in relationship to dominant themes and to revelations of his characters’ personalities. But, by depicting situations in which the emotional import of such ideas transcends the cerebral, Browning artistically singles out the failure of language to communicate total, experiential values. The spiritual and emotional temper of a character’s involvement with ideas of “other lives” affects the manner in which he articulates his attitudes. Only when moved by intuitions about afterlife and rebirth beyond their rational abilities to comprehend these states, do Browning’s speakers express themselves uneasily. If a persona, therefore, presents an opinion about these ideas in a facile manner, he is probably more intellectually confident than emotionally or spiritually stirred. On the other hand, if a character supra-logically conceives (in a kind of epiphany) new existential significance in such subjects, he often reveals psychic agitation through his diffusive and elevated speech.

My foremost interest is in the forms of expression which correspond either to perceptually reaching or merely to intellectually grasping other-worldliness or revitalized earthly existence. The objective, denotative treatments of afterlife and rebirth, however, provide a helpful foreground. A preliminary examination in this first chapter of the clearest intellectual expressions of ideas about “other lives” establishes a thematic framework for these concepts. It also serves as a valuable contrast to later, more detailed explications of poems in which language is explicitly or implicitly problematic. In the following thematic ordering of intelligible ideas about afterlife and rebirth, I will formulate the purely conceptual foundations for Browning’s concern with this subject matter and determine certain overtones surrounding these pervasive religious issues.