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Toward a Psychoanalytic Reading of Robert Browning’s Poetry Charlotte Riedberger (Trinity College Dublin , 1996)
Robert Browning is a celebrated poet, and any critical adventure may appear reductive to his readers. Moreover, Browning’s humanism and psychological insights as examplified in his poetry, reveal a profound understanding of his fellow creatures. However, and despite his surface ideal relationship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, many of his poems reflect tremendous anxiety about man’s sheer capacity for love. Can a loving relationship be sustained? Is a lasting love within marriage conceivable? Will it not turn to hatred or indifference? Browning seems to have trouble coming to terms with man and woman’s essential Otherness. The very thought of an unbridgeable gap between the two sexes appears to torment him atrociously, as he deems it responsible for the lovers’ unsuccessful efforts to communicate with one another and the ensuing conflicts.

Browning’s poetry covers the span of his life time, as he was not just a full time poet, but a life long poet, a man dedicated to poetry, who designed his life around the notion of being a poet. Therefore, in so brief an essay, one cannot present but an overview of the specimens expressing the poet’s Angst as regards love. The first poem that begs notice, ‘My Last Duchess’, has long been considered a masterpiece, an exceptional carving of the sadistic drives resulting from self-doubt and inferiority complex. It consists in a dramatic monologue, whose narrator gives a remorseless account of his private motivations for having his Duchess-wife strangled (1). In ‘A Woman’s Last Word'(2), a woman solaces herself with the thought that her death will put an end to her lover’s contests and allow love to triumph over trifles. But there is a sense of doom throughout, an inextinguishing feeling of hopelessness as the two lovers’s life time cannot suffice for them to fully comprehend one another. Not unrelatedly, while celebrating Browning’s success both as poet and lover, ‘One Word More’ (3) makes a plea for inadequate mastery in the art of communication. It addresses the poet’s muse -his wife- and is one of the few instances in which Browning deliberately sets his mask aside to speak in his own person, in spite of his otherwise steady and obstinate advocacy of impersonality. His constant anxiety as regards his ability to express himself has been the subject of many of his texts as well as of many criticisms; Elizabeth herself occasionally replied to his self-depreciatory letters with sarcasm. But if her dear husband was so intent on achieving world-wide recognition there is no doubt that he both longed for and dreaded it. Therefore, we may conjecture that self-abasement was both limiting and stimulating to Browning’s creativity. Now, what can have been the core neurosis responsible for this not unusual psychic device?

According to Freud, anxiety is a warning of an external or internal (such as the impending breakthrough of incestuous desires) danger, in response to which the individual will either take action in order to cope with the external danger or mobilize psychological defenses to protect himself against the internal danger (4). As A.T. Beck pointed out, anxiety is related either to realistic fear, when the fear is based on sensible assumptions, logical inferences that one will face in the near future a dangerous situation, or to unrealistic fear, when the fear is based on fallacious assumptions or faulty reasoning (5). For instance, when a child or adult is afraid of being alone in the dark, « what he is really afraid of [Freud argues] is the absence of someone he loves » (6). To Bowlby, what is anxiety producing is the absence of the loved object. The capacity to be alone without experiencing undue anxiety is the reaped benefit from the built up belief in a benign environment through « good-enough mothering » (7). In Kleinian terms, this means that the individual has been able to introject the good object (or breast/mother) (8). Therefore, the anxiety experienced by Browning as demonstrated in his concern with loving relationships, can rightly be assumed to stem from his failure to incorporate the good object. Browning himself once declared: « I desire in this life… to live and just write out certain things which are in me, and so save my soul » (9). Browning was undubitably suffering from tormenting guilt (paranoia) which he sought to wash off (projective identification and splitting) through the cathartic function of writing (cathexis), and which perhaps derived from warded off incestuous longings.

What is striking is that the three poems mentioned above refer to the last -but not least!- word or lover of the narrator. Indeed, ‘One word More’ is the last and dedicatory ‘word’ the poet chose to add to his MEN AND WOMEN collection. Albeit an apologia for his unability to

Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues,
Make you music that should all-express me;

it reads like a vainglorious celebration of his own art which he ranks right up there with Rafael’s and Dante’s. Although clearly identifying with the latter two, Browning seems to hold himself superior to them, as he, unlike them, will not seek to express his love in a medium other than his own art allows him to and will thereby retain the loved object. He shall be camel-wiser, if dumber, and will

[…] stand on my attainment.
This of verse alone, one life allows me;
Verse and nothing else have I to give you.

For Browning appears to believe that Raphael’s Madonna and Dante’s Beatrice died because the poets’ selves were either split or incapable of splitting. In the case of Raphael, his duteous cheek hailed by the world as a painter’s kept him away from his beloved, leaving her to love his book of sonnets in his stead. As to Dante, he was a victim of the very hated wickedness that hinders loving he denounced but stigmatised in his INFERNO, and was never to draw his angelic Beatrice. Browning’s depiction corresponds to that of a man unable to integrate the good object due to intense envy (10). Thus was Raphael not so loving as he was duteous, and Dante too much a prey to his own internal wicked objects to love. Browning tries to deal with the dread of destroying his ideal object (Elizabeth) by creating and placing a potentially ideal object (his book of verse) between himself and Elizabeth to be the recipient of their love for one another. He entices Elizabeth to

Take them Love, the book and me together

and cherish both poet (him), muse (her) and verse (volume) through this object with which he identifies himself and her. As a matter of fact, there is a total confusion between artist, work of art, and art’s subject and object, since the loved Madonna is equated with the rare volume which in turn becomes Browning’s and therefore Elizabeth’s, then Elizabeth herself, then Browning (as the loved object and because of his identification with Raphael), as illustrated by the words in bold

[…] Madonnas:
These, the world might view -but one, the volume.
Who that one you ask? Your heart instructs you.
Did she live and love it all her life-time?
[…] in place of Raphael’s glory,


He who smites the rock and spreads the water

he shall not expect to be thanked by an uncomprehending, hostile and generally unworthy public, but as God did Moses, he will show his deserving wife and prophet? that he

Boats two soul-sides, one to face the world with,
One to show a woman when he loves her!

In fact, Browning perhaps for fear his wifely moon of poets might transmogrify into a moon that

Proves like some portent of an iceberg (the ungiving breast)
Swimming full upon the ship it founders (overfeeds its offspring)
Hungry with huge teeth of splintered crystals?

and embody the devouring breast of nightmarish fantasies (11), chooses to think the face she shows the public to be one of hatred (like his?). Otherwise how could she show Browning a loving face? But what of the paradoxical fact that she is praised by the public contrary to him? Well, the praise is not to be taken too seriously, as they only think they know you!, and he, obviously, knows better.
His epitaph to his MEN AND WOMEN is not much different from the Duke’s about his Last Duchess as it is just as disguisedly condescending to women. In effect, Browning’s ambiguous comment that the Duke’s portrait of his first Duchess as a brainless woman, was « an excuse -mainly to himself- for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognise his superiority in even the most trifling matters » (12), reveals notwithstanding, that Browning did feel the Duke to be far superior to his wife and she truly unworthy of his love and presents. Similarly, Porphyria’s lover (13) murders his beloved out of wounded pride, as she let him despair and grow

[…] so pale
For love of her,

until she finally fell in love and offered herself to him. Again it seems that the ideal loved object is the object of so much envy that

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good:

the subject cannot help but destroy it. My Last Duchess’s narrator addresses the father by proxy of his second future Duchess, so, in a way, he is speaking to a father figure. Porphyria’s Lover is speaking to himself, but somehow one feels he is addressing God -another father figure!- as he deplores

And yet God has not said a word!

‘A Woman’s Last Word’ is more obscure as to its addressee. Is it the divinity of Love, an abstraction, a present or absent lover, or herself, that the dying woman discourses with? However, it is noteworthy that Browning should try to adopt a woman’s viewpoint. But is it a token of earnest empathy? As the poet’s anxiety manifests itself through the overall impression that disputes make lovers more vulnerable to bringing about Atropos’s final scissors-hand’s makeshift, and the lovers’ earthly quarrels will be ’rounded with a sleep’, there evinces the conviction that woman only fully surrenders to man in death as she will

Meet, if thou require it
Both demands,
Laying flesh and spirit
In thy hands.
[…] to-morrow

when she is dead, and not to-night when she is still alive.
It seems that there will always be something to keep the lovers apart, whether it result from their own unability to refrain from arguing, or come from God’s decision to call one of them to him.
A Freudian outlook would claim that God stands for the father figure, especially as the first lover called forth is the woman. This betrays perhaps the old oedipal conflict between son and father, wherein the father (the Hawk, Death, God) stands in the way of the son (Adam or one of his sons) longing to be united to his mother (Eve or one of her daughters). The poor woman craved to be possessed by her son, but God wouldn’t allow it. The author possibly makes up a plausible excuse for his mother’s final escape from him and for the fact that he shall never possess her, by showing that it is beyond her will as God’s is stronger. Then the narrator of both ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ -who is no other than Browning himself, as he points out in ‘One Word More'(14)- seems to defy his own father through the two father-figures of Madruz and God respectively, by throwing him at his face ‘See what I’ve done to the loved object whose possession you denied me?’

As Browning was never to see his mother again after marrying Elizabeth, and since immediately after their wedding he found himself unable to write, it can be conjectured that Elizabeth’s function was that of substitute mother to Robert as much as he himself was a substitute father figure to her. For, famously, she never saw her father again after eloping with Browning, as her father had forbidden all his children -whether male or female- to marry, and the three who disobeyed « were disinherited, not only from the material things he controlled, but from any contact with their father. To him, they were dead » (15). Moreover, Elizabeth was six years older than Robert, reproducing the same pattern as in the two parental couples (both mothers-in-law were much older than their husbands). Another striking element is that she never fully recovered from an ailment she contracted at the age of fourteen, whereby she lost the usage of her limbs to remain an invalid throughout her life, although she had no disease of the spine, and found enough strength to ‘walk away’ from her father’s. Likewise, Robert had some sort of writing inhibition which started after his marriage and persisted for some time. As Freud remarked, « In some neurotic conditions, locomotion is inhibited by a disinclination to walk or a weakeness in walking. In hysteria, there will be a paralysis of the motor apparatus […]. When activities like playing the piano, writing or even walking are subjected to neurotic inhibitions, it is because the physical organs brought into play -the fingers or the legs- have become too strongly eroticized. […] As soon as writing, which entails making a liquid flow out of a tube on to a piece of white paper assumes the significance of copulation, or as soon as walking becomes a symbolic substitute for treading upon the body of mother earth, both writing and walking are stopped because they represent the performance of a forbidden sexual act » (16). There is evidence that both Elizabeth’s father and Roberts’ mother were tyrannical in their claims over their children. Robert’s sister never married and devoted her life entirely to the care of their mother, and Robert is held to have said that he loved his mother so much that even as a grown man he could not sit by her otherwise than an arm around her waist. As an adult, he could not go to bed without receiving from her the goodnight kiss of his childhood (…) Even at night the separation between mother and son was only partial : ‘my room’, wrote Browning, ‘is next to hers, and the door is left ajar'(17). Elizabeth’s room too had a connecting door to her father’s, and the latter was so over affectionate towards his favourite daughter, that it bordered on incest (18). Perhaps can their son’s nickname Pen be regarded as a symptom of Robert and Elizabeth’s incestuous relationship with one another.

Charlotte Riedberger, Trinity College Dublin, 1996.


(1) ‘My Last Duchess'(1842), in THE WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994, p.318. According to Ian Jack in his edition of the POETICAL WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, vol. III, pp.184-185 and notes, the historical Duke of Ferrara is a likely guess for the Duchess’s callous husband, and his addressee is probably Madruz, the male chaperon to his second wife-to-be.
(2) ‘A Woman’s Last Word'(1855), in THE WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, op. cit., p216.
(3) ‘One Word More'(1855), in THE WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, op. cit, p453.
(4) Beck (1976), COGNITIVE THERAPY AND THE EMOTIONAL DISORDERS, Meridian Books, New York (1979), Chapter 6: The Alarm Is Worse Than The Fire: Anxiety Neurosis, p.134.
(5) ibid., p139.
(6) Freud (1926), INHIBITIONS, SYMPTOMS AND ANXIETY, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of S. Freud, J. Strachey (ed.) in collaboration with A. Freud, The Hogarth Press, London, (1959), p.78.
(7) « Even so, theoretically, there is always someone present, someone who is ultimately and unconsciously equated with the mother »: Winnicott, quoted by Bowlby in SEPARATION: ANXIETY AND ANGER(1973), the second volume of ATTACHMENT AND LOSS, Penguin Books, (1991), p.409.
(8) Hanna Segal, INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF MELANIE KLEIN, The International Psycho-Analytical Library n°91, M. Masud R. Khan, The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London, 1973, Chapters Three and Four.
(9) Ian Jack, BROWNING’S MAJOR POETRY, 1973, Oxford University Press, p4.
(10) In the pre-oedipal relationship of the infant with its mother, the breast is split into two objects: one persecutory by its absence, the other, the ideal object that satisfies all the infant’s needs and with which the infant seeks to identify. But, at this stage, identification is understood in oral terms, which is to say that the object desired is to be eaten up. The infant seeks to deplete the breast of its goodness, and to introduce in it all that is bad and persecutory. It is through the phantasized incorporation of the good object that the infant’s ego will achieve integration. However, when the persecutory feelings predominate over the soothing ones, envy of the ideal object is reinforced, and splitting cannot be maintained, since it is the ideal object that gives rise to envy that is attacked and spoiled. Introjection of an ideal object then becomes problematic, especially as it reinforces envy. Hanna Segal, INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF MELANIE KLEIN, Chapter Four, op. cit.
(11) The envious infant aims at depleting the breast of its goodness while it fears its retaliatory attacks.
(12) Ian Jack, POETICAL WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, op. cit., note 22 on too soon made glad.
(13) ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, 1836, in THE WORKS OF ROBERT BROWNING, op. cit., pp358-359.
(14) Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth, -the speech, a poem.
(15) Julia Markus, DARED AND DONE,THE MARRIAGE OF E BARRETT AND ROBERT BROWNING, 1995, Bloomsbury, London, pp4-5.
(16) Sigmund Freud, INHIBITIONS, SYMPTOMS AND ANXIETY, op.cit., pp89-90.
(17) Nadia Abou’l Magd, THE HUMANISM OF ROBERT BROWNING, p4.
(18) Julia Markus, DARED AND DONE, op. cit., p23 & p4.