The history of Robert Browning's shifting religious views typifies the difficulties which most thinking Victorians encountered during this period of serious challenge to established Christianity. His mother, a religious woman, both Nonconformist and Evangelical, was still open-minded enough to purchase, at her 14-year-old son's request, "Mr. Shelley's atheistical poem Queen Mab." Robert must have confirmed her worst fears when he promptly became, like Shelley, a vegetarian and an atheist. Although it is pretty clear from his poetry that he did not remain an atheist, whether he ever completely shed his sceptical views is still an open question. Many of his poems approach the problem of faith and the nature of man's religious aspirations, but whenever we think that he has offered us a resolution, a second reading will show that resolution undercut or made suspect. And on one occasion much later in life when he was asked if he considered himself a Christian, Browning is supposed to have answered with "a thunderous 'NO!'" Nevertheless, many nineteenth-century readers thought that they knew where the real Robert Browning stood, and it is easy to find articles with titles like "Browning as a Teacher of Religion." Certainly a love which is very much like Christian love is always approved in his poetry. And Browning knew the Bible so well that he called his first few collections of poems Bells and Pomegranates--a reference (to the decorations on the robes of the Hebrew priests) so obscure that even Elizabeth Barrett, a knowledgeable Bible-reader, had to ask what it meant.
It is difficult, however, to discover a system of belief which he consistently approves. Usually we find believers who have taken their beliefs to extremes shown in an unfavorable light. This pattern of discrediting the extremists may partially explain Browning's fondness for the dramatic monologue: by allowing his speaker to express views with which neither the poet nor the reader would be in sympathy (as for example in "Johannes Agricola"), he is able to undercut positions which he opposes without exposing his own beliefs. One may suspect that this rhetorical technique permits him to leave his own beliefs permanently undecided. Even when his speaker, like David in "Saul" takes a thoroughly pro-Christian stance, it is still a hypothetical position: whether or not the poet is a believer, real belief must work this way.
Last modified 12 December 2006