The Man, the Butterfly, and the Heaven above: A Comparative Look at Robert Browning and Chinese Philosophy



This comparative study begins with Robert Browning’s cultural encounters, including his reading of Chinese subjects and meeting a Chinese ambassador and poet, and his feeling “deepest sympathy” between the oriental poet-brother and himself for both writing “enigmatic” poems. Being preoccupied with many philosophical issues such as truth, time, the universe, the meaning of life, living and aging, love and many puzzling issues, the poet thinker or acclaimed “interpreter of life” is seen to reveal ideas paralleling some Chinese philosophical ideas. From a global and comparative point of view, the paper examines Browning in relation to Chinese philosophy, particularly ideas analogous with Confucius’ teaching and Taoism. For example, the 16th-century alchemist in Browning’s Paracelsus reveals ideas about intellect, learning and progressive development that juxtapose Confucius’s ideas about learning. In the later poem, “Amphibian,” the narrator, when swimming in the sea, imagines himself becoming a butterfly in the sky and ponders upon the relationships between the self and the butterfly, and the flesh and soul, and other issues about the meaning of life that correspond to certain ideas of Daoism.