The moral basis of Robert Browning's "Cleon" can be summed up in the first line of the last stanza which states: "Live long and happy, and in that thought die." However, before the narrator arrives at this conclusion, he takes his audience through a somewhat unpredictable maze of thematic shifts. The dramatic monologue, at first, appears to deal with the advantage of the artist over the king. In the first half of the poem, both the narrator and the secondary voice of the king seem to expose the artist as a divine figure who has the power both to create and to rearrange the physical world. The artist here has the ability to influence humanity with his insight and knowledge. In lines 55-59, the narrator (who is also the artist in the poem) affirms his godlike abilities:
I know the true proportions of a man
And woman also, not observed before;
And I have written three books on the soul,
Proving absurd all written hitherto,
And putting us to ignorance again.
However, such boastful declarations as these are subverted as the poem goes on and as the speaker reveals a more humble attitude. This wavering discourse carries its way through line 180 where the poem takes another shift into a discussion of civilization versus primitive desire. It is through this discussion that the narrator again suggests very subtly that there is a larger theme underlying the poem. This second theme climaxes when the speaker introduces the topic of desire for external joys:
For joy, spread round about us, meant for us,
Inviting us; and still the soul craves all,
And still the flesh replies, 'Take no jot more
Than ere thou clombst the tower to look abroad!'
The image of the tower becomes an emblem of the human desire to reach out and experience more and more of the external world. It is at this point that poem ceases to be a comparison between the king and the artist and begins to reveal a common denominator between the two; both characters are subjects of earthly desire. The poem takes its full turn by expanding off this latter theme. In lines 291-293 the speaker exposes desire as the basic thing which drives us not only to create but also to live:
Indeed, to know is something, and to prove
How all this beauty might be enjoyed, is more:
But, knowing naught, to enjoy is something too.
The speaker then begins to reveal the inadequacies of artistic representation, for an artist may expose desired joys and yet still not be able to experience them. The king's argument disintegrates in the next stanza when the speaker emphasizes his own mortality. Art, he suggests, does not function as the king sees it; it does not grant us eternal life. After death, the artist's representations are mere pictures of lost joys and unfulfilled desires. In death, the narrator argues, we are cut from life entirely, and thus we are left having not fulfilled all of our wants. Thus the artist suffers along with all passionate men when the speaker states in lines 321-323:
I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man,
The man who loved his life so over-much,
Sleep in my urn.
1. The repetition of the "I" and the physical action of the phrase "over-reach" seem to further dramatize the desperation of the speaker in this excerpt. Thus, it finally becomes quite clear what the underlying theme of the poem is.
2. Why then does the speaker take so long to arrive at this conclusion? Furthermore, why does he switch his tone of hubris to one of humility?
3. Even in this admission of his mortality, does the speaker still feel in some ironic way superior to the king?
4. Finally, the speaker ends by confirming the certainty of death as a finite end. In the last stanza, he translates this notion into religious terminology. Here, he seems to support the Old Testament in its belief of a finalizing death and a need to live life as fully as possible whereas he condemns the contradictory, Christian notion of an afterlife. Does this shift in voice enhance the rest of the poem? And is the discourse on desire merely another forestallment in getting at an even larger theme concerning religious criticism?
Modified 23 September 2003