A Grammarian’s Funeral by Robert Browning Summary


A Grammarian’s Funeral is quite an interesting poem of Renaissance time. In this poem, a grammarian (quester of knowledge) has died prematurely as he spent all his life reading the books and commentaries. He gave up all the joys and dedicated his life to read and learn. Now his students are taking his corpse to the mountains as they believe that he deserves a high place to rest.

One of his students (or disciples) is narrating the eulogy while the corpse is being taken to the mountains. He narrates how the grammarian spent his life while others listen to him. Hence it is a dramatic monologue.

But, this poem is ironic. The students are praising their master for his quest for knowledge, but ironically the poet is revealing how the grammarian wasted his life by avoiding the world, its beauty, art, and pleasure (which is a gift from God). Instead of enjoying life, the grammarian locked himself in the room to read the books. In addition, there is absolutely no contribution of grammarian towards the society.

He spends his life in the room and remains lost in the books. He never does anything for society, nor gains from his life. He loses his youth (the best time of life), his eyesight, beauty and dies prematurely. He considers the joys of life useless and instead hopes for joy in the afterlife (which is ironic). He forgets that this life is a gift from God and is meant to be enjoyed.

The poem A Grammarian’s Funeral is quite long and was published in ‘The Men and Women’ in 1855. It has 148 lines and a definite rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefef which also depicts the marching of disciples.

Let us try to understand what disciple has to say and how Browning reveals Grammarian’s wrong way of living life.

Part 1

Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
Singing together.
Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes
Each in its tether
Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain,
Cared-for till cock-crow:
Look out if yonder be not day again
Rimming the rock-row!
That's the appropriate country; there, man's thought,
Rarer, intenser,
Self-gathered for an outbreak, as it ought,
Chafes in the censer.
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
Clouds overcome it;
No! yonder sparkle is the citadel's
Circling its summit.
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
He's for the morning.
Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
'Ware the beholders!
This is our master, famous, calm and dead,
Borne on our shoulders.

The disciple says, “Let us begin and carry up this corpse”. So the poem begins with carrying the corpse of the grammarian to the grave. The disciple suggests singing together for the grammarian. They now leave the common crofts and the vulgar thorpes (i.e. villages and fields of common people) which are tethered (small, as compared to the knowledge and thoughts of grammarian),

The people of villages remain sleeping safe (do not care about knowledge and philosophy) on the bosom (top) of the plain (village) and remain concerned about cock-crow i.e. worldly matters (like animals and plants).

The disciple then asks his fellows (who are carrying the corpse) to look far away at the rock-row (high land or mountains) where the day (probably refers to life) does not rim (limits the thoughts). In other words, mountains are ideal places as are high like the thoughts of the grammarian.

According to the disciple, it is the appropriate country (best place). There, a man’s thoughts are rare, intense, and remain self-gathered (united) for an outbreak as they chafe the censer i.e. they go against the restraints and limited knowledge. In other words, mountains are high and are free unlike plains (which are surrounded by things).

The disciple says that they will leave the unlettered (uneducated) plain (villages) and its herd and crop (i.e. animals and plants) and seek the sepulture (do the burial of grammarian) on a tall mountain which is citied to the top (i.e. remains high and symbolizes learning) and crowded with culture.

The word culture seems to be ironic because nobody lives there. It probably refers to learning and high morals (symbolized by the tall mountain). But ironically, it refers to something which has no value for humanity. It is like the grammarian’s own life which he spent in a room without contributing to society.

According to the disciple, all the peaks soar (i.e. remain high). However one of them is exceptionally good which touches the clouds (it is very high). But, he again says that it’s not a cloud but there is a sparkle of a citadel (fortress) that is circling the top of the mountain (where they will bury the grammarian).

The disciple says that to that place (on the mountain), they have to go. Hence they should wind up (move forward) the heights (to the mountain top). He asks his fellows whether they are waiting for his signal to move.

Next, he compares their life to that of the grammarian. According to him, their lives are low and dark while the life of grammarian was full of light (because he was a quester of knowledge).

He then asks his fellows to take steps in a particular manner, broaden their chests, keep their heads high, and tell the people (of the city) that they have their master‘s corpse on their shoulders who is famous, calm, and now dead.

This line is again ironic. The grammarian spent all his life locked in a room, never did anything for society, and was not known to anyone, yet the disciple calls him “famous”.

Part 2

Sleep, crop and herd! sleep, darkling thorpe and croft,
Safe from the weather!
He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft,
Singing together,
He was a man born with thy face and throat,
Lyric Apollo!
Long he lived nameless: how should spring take note
Winter would follow?
Till lo, the little touch, and youth was gone!
Cramped and diminished,
Moaned he, "New measures, other feet anon!
My dance is finished"?
No, that's the world's way: (keep the mountain-side,
Make for the city!)
He knew the signal, and stepped on with pride
Over men's pity;
Left play for work, and grappled with the world
Bent on escaping:
"What's in the scroll," quoth he, "thou keepest furled
Show me their shaping,
Theirs who most studied man, the bard and sage,
Give!" So, he gowned him,
Straight got by heart that book to its last page:
Learned, we found him.
Yea, but we found him bald too, eyes like lead,
Accents uncertain:
"Time to taste life," another would have said,
"Up with the curtain!"
This man said rather, "Actual life comes next?
Patience a moment!
Grant I have mastered learning's crabbed text,
Still there's the comment.
Let me know all! Prate not of most or least,
Painful or easy!
Even to the crumbs I'd fain eat up the feast,
Ay, nor feel queasy."
Oh, such a life as he resolved to live,
When he had learned it,
When he had gathered all books had to give!
Sooner, he spurned it.
Image the whole, then execute the parts
Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
Ere mortar dab brick!

From this part onwards, the disciple narrates how grammarian used to live his life and how his thoughts were different from others. The disciple says that his master whom they are going to bury in the grave in mountains and also singing together, was different from people who sleep and remain concerned about their crops and animals.

The word ‘sleep’ probably refers to ignorance. Darkling Thorpe and croft refer to people and villages who are in ignorance. Weather refers to the ups and downs of life. The disciple believes that his master was free from worldly things and affairs.

According to the disciple, grammarian was born with a beautiful face and throat like that of Apollo (who is the God of poetry). He lived nameless (did not live among the people). However, his spring (youth) was sacrificed and his winter (old age) followed. It happened quickly. He started suffering from cramps and became diminished (weak). He expressed his suffering by saying that he needs to find new ways to keep him alive as his dance (life) is finished. He says so because of the extreme pain which he is bearing.

However, it’s the world’s way (i.e. the way of ordinary people to lose hope). Saying so, he asks his fellows to keep moving the mountain-side through the city. He then resumes narrating grammarian’s life. According to him, the grammarian knew the signal i.e. he was well aware of the fact that he will have to sacrifice his joy and still decided to devote his life to studying. He considered life useless (ironically he own life was so). He was proud of what he was doing and never gave attention to those who pitied upon him.

He kept struggling against worldly problems. He would often ask what’s in the scroll (i.e. what is written in the book). As a true learner, he often remained curious about exploring the knowledge contained in the books. He would study the scholarly books of the bard (poet) and the sage (wise-men). He would go through each book carefully till the last page.

However, he became bald (his hair hell), his eyes became like lead (he could not see properly) and his accent became uncertain (he could not speak properly). Note that, the disciple mistakenly reveals the worst condition of grammarian who made his life on earth hell-like because of his craze for excessive reading.

Most people on earth believe that we should live the moment and enjoy our life. However, grammarian believed that real-life will come after death. Hence we should live this moment with patience and reading.

After learning a book, if he would see a commentary (on that book), he would start reading that as well. He would often say that he desires to read whatever someone has written (difficult or easy). He would read every word which he may come across and still won’t feel queasy (sick or bored).

Such was the life of the grammarian. After learning all the books and gathering all the knowledge, he used to say that life is like a building and should be planned before construction. For a building, we first its structure, then the material is brought, the stone is crushed to shape, and bricks are plastered using cement. Similarly, grammarian believed that we should acquire knowledge first (before living life).

Part 3

(Here's the town-gate reached: there's the market-place
Gaping before us.)
Yea, this in him was the peculiar grace
(Hearten our chorus!)
That before living he'd learn how to live
No end to learning:
Earn the means first God surely will contrive
Use for our earning.
Others mistrust and say,"But time escapes:
Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head:
Calculus racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead:
Tussis attacked him.
"Now, master, take a little rest!" not he!
(Caution redoubled
Step two abreast, the way winds narrowly!)
Not a whit troubled,
Back to his studies, fresher than at first,
Fierce as a dragon
He (soul-hydroptic with a sacred thirst)
Sucked at the flagon.
Oh, if we draw a circle premature,
Heedless of far gain,
Greedy for quick returns of profit, sure
Bad is our bargain!
Was it not great? did not he throw on God,
(He loves the burthen)
God's task to make the heavenly period
Perfect the earthen?
Did not he magnify the mind, show clear
Just what it all meant?
He would not discount life, as fools do here,
Paid by instalment.

The disciple tells his fellows that they have reached the town-gate and there is the marketplace opened before them. He again asks them to keep singing.

He then resumes telling about the life of the grammarian. According to him, the craze for knowledge was so much in the grammarian that he wanted to learn how to live (before living). For him, there was no end to learning. He believed that we should earn the means first (learn to live), God will definitely pay us after death. (Note that the grammarian is hopeful of getting mercy from God).

Other people would say that time escapes (life is short) so the time to enjoy is now or we will never be able to do so again. However, the grammarian would disagree with this and say that enjoying the moment is for dogs and apes. Humans will have time to enjoy in their afterlife. Note that the poet has made the first letters of words like Now and Forever, capital (which depicts that he does not agree with the thoughts of grammarian).

The disciple reveals that after spending too much time on books, he could not lift his head for long, he got stones in his kidney (Calculus involves stones for calculating), his eyes lost vision (due to prolonged staring at books), he was attacked by Tussis (cough).

They would often ask the grammarian to take a rest but he would not agree. The disciple again asks the fellows to be careful and take steps alongside as the way becomes narrow.

He resumes telling about the grammarian. According to him, the grammarian would keep reading remain fresh all the time. His passion for acquiring knowledge was as fierce and strong as a dragon. His soul had a sacred unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He would try to suck every drop of knowledge from flagon (pitcher which symbolizes books here).

The disciple says that if we draw a circle premature i.e. try to get quick returns of profit from life because of our greed, it will not be a good bargain. But, the thinking of the grammarian was great. He devoted his life to God and loved to bear the pain.

The grammarian believed that God has made heaven perfect for humans living on earth. hence we should not go after joys in this life. The disciple wonders weren’t his master’s thoughts high. He would not compromise with his life‘s goal by spending in luxury and joy as the fools do on earth.

Part 4

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 grammarian took the risk by devoting his whole life to study. He believed that success in heaven depends on our striving life on earth. Often people asked him whether he trusted death or not. He would answer that he did believe in death and also in the temporary joys of life which attract humans to themselves.

The disciple now compares the life of people with high thinking and low thinking. According to him, low thinking man seeks worldly things and does it immediately after seeing it. On the other hand, the man with high thinking who pursues something greater dies before achieving it (as he believes that he will get it in the afterlife).

The man with low thinking keeps adding to his fortune in the world and becomes rich. On the other hand, the man with high thinking does not go after the fortune of the world and aims at something big which he believes to get in the next world.

He devotes his life to God and believes that he will get the reward of his continuous studying and acquiring knowledge after death. The grammarian kept studying the books though he was on the verge of death and struggling to live.

He struggles hard to solve the problems relating to Greek particles like ‘Hoti’ and ‘Oun’ which mean ‘because’ and ‘therefore’. He kept reading till the last moment of his life (dead from the waist down).

Part 5

Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
Hail to your purlieus,
All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
Swallows and curlews!
Here's the top-peak; the multitude below
Live, for they can, there:
This man decided not to Live but Know
Bury this man there?
Here here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
Loftily lying,
Leave him still loftier than the world suspects,
Living and dying.

The disciples finally reach the top of the mountain with the corpse of the grammarian. The one narrating the story says that they have reached the proper place and praises it. It is a place where all the high-flying birds (swallows and curlews) visit. All the people live below.

However, this man (grammarian) should be buried on the top because he decided not to live but know. Now the first letters of Live and Know are capitalized which shows that the grammarian was not living his life but destroying in the pursuit of knowledge.

According to the disciple, it is the place where meteors shoot, clouds form, and lightenings are loosened, Stars come and go. In other words, it is the place for enlightened ones only.

The disciple wishes that joy may come to the grammarian’s grave with the storm and morning dew may bring peace. He then concludes that lofty (high thinking people) must live in lofty places (high places). Finally, he asks others to leave him to the high mountains which are higher than the thoughts of common men (who live and die in plains).

Further Reading

  1. Play quiz on the poem A Grammarian’s Funeral
  2. Questions-Answers of A Grammar’s Funeral