Robert Browning (1812-89)

Browning parodied in Punch magazine

Like Tennyson, Browning may not be the last of the Romantic poets, but he is alone among the early Victorians in his appreciation of  the natural world in all of its richness, from the “yellowing fennel” (l. 12) and “Five beetles,–blind and green” (l. 17) of “Two in the Campagna” to the “grass  . . . scant as hair” (l. 73) and “Toads in a poisoned tank” (l. 131) of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The beauties of the natural world in Browning are often offset with an appreciation of the grotesque: “spider-web,” “mire,” and every “beast and creeping thing” (“Caliban Upon Setebos” (l. 45). Browning offers a fascinating examination of “natural theology” in his version of Shakespeare’s character Caliban from The Tempest, the monster, or perhaps we might say the “missing link,” who cannot imagine any divine force above him except in terms of the nature around him. This post-Darwinian meditation suggests that all conscious creatures, human beings included, may only be able to conceive of the rest of nature in terms of their own location in the grand scheme of things, Browning’s Victorian replacement for the Great Chain of Being. But the scheme of things is always contradictory in the world of evolution: one creature gobbles up another for no other reason than its own survival, countless creatures die so that a few can live only in order to reproduce.

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