I know that I don't make out my conception by my language; all poetry being a putting the infinite within the finite. You would have me paint it all plain out which can't be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you. —Browning to John Ruskin1
ONE APPROACH to what has been a vexing problem of interpretation in Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral" questions whether the evidence provided by the poem alone enables its readers to decide between the extreme possibilities that the grammarian wasted his life in dry-as-dust scholarship or that his pursuit of human knowledge and perfection makes his life fully admirable. Two recent commentaries, for instance, arrive at quite different conclusions. G. Robert Stange, admitting that "Browning's attitude toward the grammarian seems somewhat ambiguous," concludes nevertheless that "primarily Browning is praising a Renaissance humanist for devoting his whole soul to the complete fulfillment of a high purpose, namely, the absolute mastery of ancient literature as a key to wise living (such an aim would rightly include the necessity to understand the most subtle points of grammar) and for the faith that what he cannot accomplish here will be achieved in heaven."2 But Richard D. Altick, in a spirited, engaging article, argues the case for another possibility: denied the poet's approbation, if not his compassion, the scholar is a "dead gerund-grinder," or at best, "a Rabbi Ben Ezra of the verb-endings."3
Accurate judgment of the grammarian depends to a large extent upon our understanding of the role played by the disciple whose monologue constitutes the poem. His words rife with ambivalence of tone and assessment, the disciple, with his own death ostensibly in the distant future, finds himself in the midst of a quest for self-knowledge. Apparently, he is involved as much with reaching a decision concerning the example offered by his master for the effect that it may have upon his own future decisions, as he is in evaluating, more or less disinterestedly, the grammarian's contributions to knowledge. Yet, even at the conclusion of the poem, he gives no evidence that he has made a clear decision; on the contrary, he remains immersed in the stubborn possibilities of his dilemma. Any suggestion that such ambiguity is characteristic of the total poem disappears, however, when it is noted that the poem has a double focus. Failure to take this principle of structure into account may result in either of two distortions: if one centers exclusively on the grammarian the poem turns into a dramatic narrative with the speaker functioning as mere device; while the reader who places undue emphasis upon the speaker of the monologue, in effect making the funeral an occasion for the drama of the younger man's own self-revelation, places the poem among Browning's many first-person psychological studies of character.4
Still, to be persuaded that the speaker's attitude toward the grammarian remains ambivalent does not preclude the reader's determining the poem's inherent judgment of the grammarian. If such judgment entails, as it does for the disciple, a satisfactory reply to the question of whether or not the grammarian's life-long activity has fulfilled the potentiality of his life, then we would do well to test our response to the specifics of his study of Greek grammar, the single example of the scholar's work the poet chooses to present. For this example appears to be one of Browning's "artifices" or "outlines."
He ventured neck or nothing—heaven's success
Found, or earth's failure:
"Wilt thou trust death or not?" He answered "Yes:
Hence with life's pale lure!"
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
His hundred's soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit.
That, has the world here — should he need the next,
Let the world mind him!
This, throws himself on God, and unperplexed
Seeking shall find him.
So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar;
Still, thro' the rattle, parts of speech were rife:
While he could stammer
He settled Hoti's business — let it be! —
Properly based Oun—
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
Dead from the waist down.
The last eight lines, devoted to the grammarian's scholarship, are informed by the series of precise distinctions set up in the first sixteen lines: that-this, little-great, low-high, world here-God. In associating low, little, and world here with that the speaker provides, unwittingly, the aesthetic evidence which illuminates his later observation that the grammarian "settled Hoti's business," for the Greek Hoti means that, The world's activity of soon hitting a hundred does not entice the scholar; that Work is for the "low man." Having settled the business of Hoti (that, world here), the scholar has now, in Browning's terms, "Properly based" Oun, which in cases of inference is given as then, meaning therefore, and suggesting sequence, order, consequence. Oun is then followed by "the doctrine of the enclitic De" (towards). Pronounced as part of a preceding word which dictates its stress, De, as an enclitic, indicates movement, direction. The sequence of that-then-towards is now complete. For the grammarian the established doctrine of the enclitic De is not inconsonant with his commitment to living toward the next world—less by denying this world for the next, than by living in this world toward the next.5 Instead of the self-defeating, self-limiting accomplishments of "that low man" who "goes on adding one to one," this scholar's thirst for knowledge drives him at the end of his life to the grammar which subsumes the principles of human communication.
To be sure the disciple does not appear to make this aesthetic connection; but there is evidence that the poet did. Nearly twenty years after the poem's initial publication, defending the accuracy of his technical information. Browning explained to a newspaper editor:
In a clever article this morning you speak of "the doctrine of the enclitic De"— "which, with all deference to Mr. Browning, in point of fact does not exist." No, not to Mr. Browning: but pray defer to Herr Buttmann, whose fifth list of "enclitics" ends "with the inseparable De" — or to Curtius, whose fifth list ends also with "De (meaning towards and as a demonstrative appendage)." That this is not to be confounded with the accentuated "De, meaning but" was the "Doctrine" which the Grammarian bequeathed to those capable of receiving it.6
Beyond asserting his own learning, Browning's statement conveys his assessment of the scholar: it was not merely that he was responsible for this doctrine but that he has "bequeathed" it to those "capable" of receiving it. To confound the accentuated De (but) with the enclitic De (towards) would be to deny the sequence Hoti, Oun, De its point, to demote a three-step sequence, that-then-towards, to an example of three disparate parts, each superficially relevant to the poet's purpose, but presented more or less at random — that, then, but. The grammarian was not, after all, unlike the poet. As Browning reminded Ruskin in 1855, "A poet's affair is with God, to whom he is accountable, and of whom is his reward: look elsewhere, and you find misery enough."7
At the outset of his own amazing career, William James wrote to a friend, suggesting his grasp of Browning's achievement:
Well, neither of us wishes to be a mere loafer; each wishes a work which shall by its mere exercise interest him and at the same time allow him to feel that through it he takes hold of the reality of things—whatever that may be—in some measure. ... In this connection I will again refer to a poem you probably know: "A Grammarian's Funeral". ... It always strengthens my backbone to read it, and I think the feeling it expresses of throwing upon eternity the responsibility of making good your one-sidedness somehow or other ("Leave now for dogs and apes, Man has forever") is a gallant one, and fit to be trusted if one-sided activity is in itself at all respectable.8
That the human significance of the grammarian's scholarship remains entwined in a Gordian knot of Renaissance knowledge, historical ideas of humanism, nineteenth-century concern with the active life opposed to the meditative, antinomies of time and eternity, is reflected in James's response. Still, honestly discovering the large condition upon which the scholar's purpose depends, James does succeed in affirming its "respectability."
Last modified 27 October 2011