The survival of the self: Love and power in the poetry of the Brownings
An indisputable, but frequently unrecognized, destructive quality inheres in most of the relationships poetically described by Robert Browning and in many of those treated by his wife. The Brownings intended their poetry to present and examine ideas and to explore human behavior and the operations of the psyche. Though the Brownings were assuredly products of their age, their love poems frequently questioned Victorian philosophical and sociological idealism. To the Brownings, nothing seems as much a principle of the evil of destroyed relationships as an abuse of power: either the indulgence of one individual's urge to subsume or destroy the identity of another, or the willingness of someone to submit to such a dissolution. The tension between these ignoble passions and the struggle to survive them constitutes the energy of the Brownings' love poems and, therefore, of the realistic philosophy of relationship which they advance. Chapter I examines the group of poems populated by slain and murdering lovers. The qualities governing the actions of these characters are exaggerated to grotesquerie but, when proportioned to experiences common to everyone, display themselves as the same egotism and lust for power which can motivate, in greater or lesser degrees, any relationship. At root, these poems testify to the Brownings' awareness that individuals lacking in emotional stamina are found, all too often, preying upon the stronger person in the relationship. The second chapter, "Psychological Slavery," deals with the exercise of power and domination in a relationship as well as the concomitant postures of vulnerability and submission. The Brownings present in these poems both forms of relationship-destroying abuses: the destruction of another's inner strength in a vampirish sapping of power and the victim's inclination to humiliation and subservience. The poems considered in Chapter III do more than warn against relational entrapment. In these poems the characters' decisions and actions dramatize the human struggle against loss of the self, implying that a psychologically stifling relationship need not be hopeless or permanent. The Brownings affirm, in the final analysis, that man's charge is to yearn for the highest aspects of love, untainted by any abuse of power.
British and Irish literature
Rozmus, Mary Amber, "The survival of the self: Love and power in the poetry of the Brownings" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8809483.