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Individual Liberty and Authority Essay

In the poetry of Robert Browning there is one dominating theme that seems to echo throughout his poems and his writing, and that is the idea of personal, individual liberty versus society’s authority and how these issues play out within an individual’s life.

Browning’s poetry is full of examples where he praises individual liberty and the accomplishments that human beings can make when they rely on their own intelligence and look inward, but in the end he also seems to feel that individual liberty only has its place within the context of a society’s authoritative guidance, yet appears to be strongly against a society smothering the individual liberty of a person. These issues are prominent in Browning’s work and continue to dominate the discussion of his prose and poetry.

The idea that individual liberty can be wonderful if used within the right context is seen fully in the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”, but the poem also demonstrates Browning’s viewpoint on authority and how it can destroy individual brilliance. In this poem Browning makes a point of showing that an individual can progress if not restricted by authority. The character dreams of giving his own interpretations of God to the world around him

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through his paintings, drawing on his individual liberty and not on what others expect or have done in the past.

Yet, when someone from the monastary views his work, he refers to it as being of the devil and insists that the painter mirror the work of other artists, thus forcing Lippo to abandon his individual genius. Browning seems to be making a statement here about how forcing the will of individual’s to conform to the rules of society is destructive because it cannot allow for progress, an idea that would have been extremely important in Victorian Britain.

Another example of Browning’s views on personal liberty can be found in “Childe Roland To the Dark Tower Came”, where through his character of Roland the reader can see how important personal liberty as an issue really is to a Victorian writer. Within a dark, miserable environment Roland must move away from the world that he knew, the road on which he is most comfortable, and forward toward the unknown.

In this way the reader is shown that the character is able to move away from the past, from the Victorian world that he is comfortable within, and toward a future destiny that is his, and his alone, to create, but instead of showing a character who flourishes after all claims by society’s authority are relinquished, we instead find a character that starts to flounder without any authority to guide him.

While he is given complete individual liberty, he becomes unable to feel compassion and is alienated from the world around him. This leaves the reader to assume that Browning views individual liberty as beneficial to the individual and society only if the product of the individual’s liberty is able to benefit society. In the end, Browning makes his point that authority and individual liberty work best together, not apart, but that both are needed to create a truly functional society.

Individual liberty is, in Browning’s beliefs, extremely important because it creates successes and progress. Authority is just as important because without it, individuals cannot possibly function and be happy, but without individual liberty there is no way for Victorian society to get better. This is why Browning favors individual liberty, and why his poetry reflects this throughout.

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