Browning’s ethical position in “The Statue and the Bust”
The ethics of Robert Browning in the poem “The Statue and the Bust” have undoubtedly provoked a great deal of controversy. In the mid to late nineteenth century one critic, Mr Mortimer, said that “The Statue and the Bust” showed that Browning “prescribes action at any price, even that of defying the restrictions of the moral law”. On the other hand, another poet, named Swinburne, greatly admired the works of Browning and was known to have “repeated or rather chanted, to his friends, a few of Browning’s poems, in particular ‘The Statue and the Bust'”.
Although in “The Statue and the Bust” Browning is retelling an old legend, the sentiments are his own. In the last stanzas, he defends himself and his poem against the criticism, which he knows his clearly stated personal opinions will evoke. It is this that makes the poem so different from any other of Browning’s monologues; the sentiments in; “The Statue and the Bust” are clearly his own and cannot be said to be those of any imaginary characters. In the poem, the two lovers are criticised for the procrastination and weakness, which prevented them from eloping.
As a consequence, Browning has been accused of implying that, under certain circumstances, adultery is laudable. However, having foreseen such criticism, Browning says “I hear you reproach, ‘But delay was best, for their end was a crime'”. The reference to adultery as a crime is in itself significant as evidence that Browning does not condone it. Browning proceeds by saying that, had they repented of their sinful passion and been prevented from eloping by moral reasons, he would have commended them.
But the reason they did not elope was through lack of courage. Their sinful desires remained unchanged and Browning maintains that they simply added to their original sin another one: procrastination. Browning believed that the two lovers were as guilty in cherishing their unlawful love, as they would have been had they committed adultery. Clearly this view is very different to that in the eyes of the law, which would not have condemned them until they had actually committed adultery.
To Browning, the most hopeless state of human nature is indifference and inaction. He has maintained in the poem that it is better to act on evil motives with vigour and resolution than to be deterred by weakness and cowardice. It is this generalisation of this into a universal standard of conduct, which has provoked the greatest amount of criticism. The situation in “The Statue and the Bust” is one of many illustrations in Browning’s poetry of the importance he attaches to a climatic moment in the lives of individuals.
Browning believed that there is a critical moment in everyone’s life, when all of the spiritual powers join together and present every individual with an all-important decision involving eternal consequences. His or her destiny depends on the response, or lack of response to the decision. In the majority of instances this is what Browning calls “the good minute”, His poems dealing with it fall into two categories. In the first, the good choice, which the moment offers, is made and the result is beneficial.
In the second, the good choice is missed, and the result causes ruin. There is, however, in “The Statue and the Bust”, and in other poems written by Browning, altogether different kinds of climatic moments than that of “the good minute”. In these, if the opportunities are seized, the result is a crime not a virtue. Yet Browning holds that if a failure to grasp them is only due to weakness of will, cowardice, or procrastination, and not due to moral reasons, it would be better for sinners to act with decision and energy, and commit the contemplated crime.
People have not only attacked Browning for this view; they also dislike the inadequacy of his concept of evil. For Browning, moral struggle was an important part of life. He believed that we were not intended to overcome evil by self-denial or the avoidance of temptation, but instead to over come evil with good. He argues that the supreme purpose of God for man is the formation of his character; and that this can be achieved only through a moral struggle, centring on choice between good and evil.
It is not difficult to comprehend that, since the development of the soul is dependent on a moral struggle, the existence of evil is necessary in order that in combating it man’s character may be shaped and God’s purpose for him realised. But what about the sinner who makes the wrong choice and follows the path of evil? For Browning, since God is ultimately omnipotent as well as all loving, every sinner must be redeemed. If the will is alive, if a man acts with energy and courage even in pursuit of an evil end, there is hope for him.
On the other hand, if a man’s will is dead, if through weakness or cowardice he refuses to act at all, his passivity is a worse sin than that of an active evildoer. His belief that, if God is omnipotent, evil must initially be transmuted, by no means implies that he is blind to the moral distinction between good and evil, or in any way implies “Let us do evil that good may come”. This has been the most commonly occurring misinterpretation of the sentiments of Browning expressed in this poem.