This is a dramatic monologue which purports to be a letter from Cleon the poet writing from the Cretan islands to his master and benefactor, the ruler (in Greek, tyrant) Protus. We may imagine Cleon writing "even now" in response to a letter from Protus as the galley which brought the letter and several gifts is being unloaded.
1. Is Cleon's relationship to Protus friendly or simply professional? Note the formal flattery in lines 17-18: the slave woman "commends to me the strainer and the cup/ Thy lip hath bettered ere it blesses mine," and the formal syntax in lines 19 ff.; litotes (understatement) in "Nor call thy spirit barely adequate/ To help on life in straight ways"; circumlocution in "dim lulls of unapparent growth"; and the formal thou used in address.
2. In lines 43-61, in response to a requirement in Protus' letter, Cleon speaks of his accomplishments in all the arts, which he has mastered. It is important that we not dismiss his statements as mere braggadocio, since that would minimize Browning's point. Towards the end of this section, Cleon speaks of the progress that has been made over earlier times through civilization and culture, and speaks of his own place in this ongoing tradition: he is not the equal of Homer, Terpander, or Phidias, but still represents progress. What is your answer to his rhetorical question, "say, is it nothing that I know them all?" Why does a mid-Victorian poet like Browning spend so much time on the idea of progress?
3. Since Cleon has accomplished all that he has, Protus goes on to ask, does he fear death less than Protus does? Is an artist's survival through his art immortality enough to reconcile him to death? Lines 181-220 do not directly answer this question but speak of the purity of the material, animal life, perfect in its way but still unconscious of its perfection. In lines 221-272, Cleon restates Protus' charge that the birth of consciousness means the birth of discontent: as soon as man can conceive joy he begins to dream of perfect joy, which makes him unhappy with the shadow of that perfection which is all that is attainable in this world. In lines 273-300, Cleon shows that the undying beauty which the artist can create is not his beauty or his immortality. His fate is "deadlier still" the more he can appreciate the beautiful and recognize how much further away it is today than yesterday. Finally, he imagines the possibility of "Some future state revealed to us by Zeus,/ Unlimited in capability/ For joy. . ." (ll. 325-7). But Zeus has not revealed such a possibility, and he must have done so by now if it existed. So Cleon's answer to Protus' questions is "Live long and happy, and in that thought die:/ Glad for what was!" (ll. 336-7.) Almost as an afterthought he responds to another question, about "one Paulus" who may or may not be the same as "Christus," but who has been preaching just such a doctrine as Cleon has been longing to hear. But such a doctrine wrongs his philosophy, and "could be held by no sane man."
What is Browning's estimate of Cleon? Does he find him sympathetic? We get no sense of Cleon's being ironic, but there is considerable irony set up between his estimate of himself and his creator's estimate of him. Dramatic monologue depends upon the reader grasping this difference in estimate between author and character; but the turn which Browning gives to the form is that the reader's first impression, or first reading, will be mistaken. By comparison, in Burns's "Holy Willie's Prayer" or Suckling's "Ballad upon a Wedding" we see the poet winking at us over the text. There is never any possibility that we will misapprehend the "proper" estimate of these speakers.
Last modified 12 December 2006