Browning’s Influence on Philosophers

A bit of a side-step here.  I want to write about Browning and Kierkegaard, but I thought I would first mention something about Browning I find of interest.  Browning decisively influenced the thinking of a number of philosophers.  Let me mention two–Josiah Royce and William Temple.

Now of course Temple is not known as a philosopher; he is known as Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44).  But Temple was trained as a philosopher and wrote philosophy (some I have previously mentioned on the blog).  Browning’s work was never far from Temple’s mind.  Proof of this is the stamp that Browning’s “A Death in the Desert” had on Temple’s understanding of the Gospel of John, itself the primary object of and impetus for Temple’s reflections throughout his life.

Browning was also, and perhaps more surprisingly, a constant stimulus to Royce.  Royce, so far as I know, mentions Browning far less often than does Temple, but he was perhaps as deeply indebted.  (Royce’s style, unlike Temple’s, makes little room for the direct use of poetry.  It is not that Royce’s style is wholly unliterary–it is not–but rather that it lacks the open texture of Temple’s.)  Certainly, prolonged contact with Royce’s works on Christianity reveals Browning there, supplying much of substance and almost all of the atmosphere.

I make this side-step really just so that I can underscore something about Browning’s poetry that engrosses me–it’s potential to be taken up into prose reflections, to supply something like theses or claims, remaining all the while, and unmistakably, poetry.

Critics sometimes seize this potential of Browning’s poetry and use it like a stick to beat him, presumably thinking that poetry that is so available to philosophy must have somehow or other (form not inseparable from content?) failed as poetry.  But I think that no one can deny that Browning is a poet unless that denial is theory-driven–specifically driven by a theory that has nourished itself on a one-sided diet of examples.

5 responses

  1. I was reading about the presocratics yesterday, and their choices to write in verse or prose, and what those choices might say about their ideas of poetry. Plato’s contentious (and problematic) assertion about the “old quarrel” aside, poetry and philosophy so often work beautifully together – one need only consider how frequently Plato goes back to Homer to make his points 😉
    In any case, Browning and continental philosophy are both far outside my specialty, but my work has a lot to do with how prose authors in antiquity use poets, and I am thoroughly enjoying these reflections of yours.

    • Thanks! I’m prepping for a Plato seminar now, focusing on his relationship with the sophists. I hope to be able to say a little about his relationship with the poets and how it differs from his relationship with the sophists.

      I want to think through Plato’s masterful use of the poet’s repertoire and his disavowal of that repertoire, especially since something of the same puzzle arises with the repertoire of the sophists. Plato has no straightforward quarrels.

      (Your mention of the presocratics’ verse brings to mind Jonathan Barnes’ description of Parmenides’ poetry as “clod-hopping hexameter”. Unfair, perhaps, but a great line.)

      Thanks again.

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