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.

%d bloggers like this: