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Increasing Suspicion about Browning's Grammarian
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Increasing Suspicion about Browning's Grammarian

Is it merely coincidence that three essays from the relatively small cluster of discussions dealing with "A Grammarian's Funeral" use questions in their titles?1 Or is there something about the poem that is subtly disturbing, tantalizingly dubious? Ever since Richard D. Altick proposed that the poem might be a mock encomium, in the tradition of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, there has been a nagging sense that here too a straightforward reading misses Browning's characteristic irony. Most recently, A. D. Nuttall has taken, or rather mis-taken, those complexities as a confusing failure by the poet:

When Browning is in command of his antithesis the poem is strong; when he cannot decide what kind of knower we are to wonder at it is weak. An immediate consequence is that the reader is less moved than he or she would otherwise have been. I think that Browning knew that something was wrong.

(p. 97)

While the judgment about the garbling of the tone and the message is valid, the blame should be placed on the fictional narrator, not on Browning. The mistake is easy to fall into if one begins with the assumption that the poem is an expression of Browning's unequivocal admiration for the heroic grammarian. At the root of Nuttall's misreading is an allegiance to the view that Browning spoke in his own voice to praise the grammarian-scholar.

Many critics have held similar opinions. In turn, such views have sought validation through identifying the historical model for the ideal grammarian. Various prototypes have been suggested: Thomas Linacre; Jacobus Milichius; Isaac Casaubon; Greek scholars such as Theodorus Gaza, Argyropoulos, Demetrius Chalcondyles, and Janus Lascarius; Philip Charles Buttmann; Didymus Chalcenteros; and even Socrates.2 Yet no one, to the best of my knowledge, has attempted to align Browning's grammarian with one of the most remarkable literary depictions of a grammarian, namely that of Brunetto Latini in Canto XV of Dante's Inferno. There is no need to review the evidence for Browning's undisputed familiarity with Dante's works. Browning had used the tactic of appropriating a character from Dante in the expansion of Sordello from the Purgatorio.3 "A Grammarian's Funeral" is dated to the mid 1850s and "was probably written after Browning's return to Florence" (DeVane, p. 270). It is [End Page 165] quite plausible that a sojourn in Dante's home city had returned him to the forefront of Browning's concerns at the time.

The connection to Canto XV of the Inferno has important consequences for understanding Browning's intentions. As will become apparent, the grammarian is properly situated in Men and Women beside figures such as Fra Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto, caught between the demands of the mind and the needs of the body. The allusion to Brunetto Latini entails consideration of the themes of love and gender that predominate throughout Men and Women but have been neglected in "A Grammarian's Funeral." What Roma King has said about those figures generally will apply to the grammarian as well:

Browning treats love as many things and from many points of view. Most of his lovers, however, are frustrated and unhappy, their vision of an ideal love a tantalizing dream which only intensifies the pain of their unfulfilled longings.4

At the end, the tormented grammarian emerges as a tragic figure who deserves more pity than admiration.

In order to follow Browning's argument, it is first necessary to present the case of Brunetto Latini in some detail. Like Browning's grammarian, Brunetto is no longer alive when readers encounter him in Dante's text. And, like the grammarian, he is on the move despite being dead. The Pilgrim-Poet and Virgil are passing through an especially desolate region when they encounter the sodomites running across the plain. One of them is familiar to the Pilgrim:

Così adocchiato da cotal famiglia,     fui conosciuto da un, che mi prese     per lo lembo e gridò: 'Qual maraviglia!' E io, quando 'l suo braccio a me distese,     ficcaï li occhi per lo cotto aspetto,     sì che 'l viso abbrusciato non difese...