Robert Browning

The Lost Leader by Robert Browning

In ‘The Lost Leader’, Browning criticises those who have abandoned liberal political ideologies and embraced the conservative lifestyle.

The Lost Leader by Robert Browning

Published in 1845 as a part of Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, ‘The Lost Leader‘ criticizes those who have deserted noble political causes for personal gain and social acceptance. According to critics, the poem focuses explicitly on William Woodsworth, whom Browning admired before the former grew conservative.

The Lost Leader
Robert Browning

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
       Just for a riband to stick in his coat –
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
       Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
       So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
       Rags – were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
       Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
       Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
       Burns, Shelley, were with us – they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
       – He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!
 
We shall march prospering – not through his presence;
       Songs may inspirit us, – not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done, – while he boasts his quiescence,
       Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
       One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
       One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
       There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part – the glimmer of twilight,
       Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him – strike gallantly,
       Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
       Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!
The Lost Leader by Robert Browning


Summary

Robert Browning wrote ‘The Lost Leader‘ to criticize those who have turned away from their liberal views and resorted to conservatism.

Robert Browning wrote the poem to express his betrayal when William Wordsworth, his role model, publicly known as a rebel and supporter of liberal issues, became a conservative.

Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme

The Lost Leader‘ consists of 2 stanzas, 16 lines each. The separation into stanzas serves as a partition for Browning’s emotions: in the first stanza, he feels betrayed, angry, and disappointed, whereas, in the second, he is full of hope and determination.

The poem follows an ABABC rhyme scheme and is written in the dactylic tetrameter, meaning that two unstressed syllables follow a stressed syllable. This pattern repeats four times per line.

The meter and rhyme scheme are deliberate: they establish a fast-paced tone to the poem, which is appropriate for Browning’s anger and the accusations he is putting out.

Themes

The Lost Leader‘ explores the themes of disappointment, abandonment of ideals and morals, betrayal, and perseverance. In the first stanza, he feels betrayed and angry, and in the second, he speaks of his determination to persevere regardless of his pain.

Literary Devices

  • An anaphora is a literary device that emphasizes words or phrases via repetition. Browning uses an anaphora in the first two lines of the first stanza: he starts both lines with ‘Just for a…’.
  • A metaphor is a literary device that creates a comparison without using prepositions (e.g. ‘like’, ‘as’).
  • A hyperbole is a poetic device that uses exaggeration to emphasize a point’s importance. Browning uses hyperboles throughout the poem to stress how hurt he is at Wordsworth’s betrayal.
  • Browning uses multiple literature and poetic figures to add to his side of the argument: William Shakespeare, John Milton, Robert Burns, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Browning cites the figures as examples of liberal ideals.


Punctuation

  • An anacoluthon is a punctuation device that interrupts a sentence without connectives (e.g., through dashes).
  • Enjambment is a continuation of a sentence through multiple lines.
  • Caesura is the use of punctuation in the middle of the line for purposes of repetition., emphasis, or breakup of rhythm.


Speaker

The Lost Leader‘ is written in plural first-person narrative. Browning’s use of the first-person narrative is intentional, as it creates a sense of community and more significant purpose, whereas he singles out the lost leader and makes him out to be alone.

Context

Born in 1770, William Wordsworth was an English poet credited with the launch of the Romantic Age. Browning was an avid supporter of Wordsworth’s early works and political leaning. ‘The Lost Leader‘ was written in response to Wordsworth’s abandonment of liberal ideologies and slide towards conservatism and the English Church.

Following the Reign of Terror and the execution of Robespierre (an influential figure of the French Revolution), Wordsworth gave up his radical dreams. In 1842, he received a 300-pound pension equivalent to £23,685.78 in 2021. Browning saw this as a surrender to conservatism. In 1843, when Robert Southey died, Wordsworth accepted the position of Poet Laureate, which was Browning’s final straw. ‘The Lost Leader‘ was published in November 1845 as part of the anthology Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
  Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
  Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
  So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
  Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
  Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
  Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
  Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
  —He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

The first stanza of ‘The Lost Leader‘ berates Wordsworth for abandoning liberal ideologies and the community of people that followed them.

Anaphora

The stanza begins with an anaphora: ‘Just as’ is placed at the beginning of the first two lines. Browning is angry: he makes Wordsworth seem like a cheap sell-out. ‘Handful of Silver’ is a reference to Wordsworth’s pension. In addition, Browning mentions a riband- a ribbon used for decoration. The purpose of a riband is entirely ceremonial- Wordsworth abandoned liberalism for a handful of money and a decorative piece of fabric. Moreover, the use of ‘stick’ is effective, as to stick is to shove or put out of sight mindlessly. Wordsworth sold himself for something he could not even be proud of enough to show.

Net Gain?

Throughout the poem, Browning uses juxtapositions to highlight the contrasting views of the political sides. By forsaking liberalism, Wordsworth has gained a single thing while losing many. Fortune (an embodiment of the goddess Fortuna) has given the liberals everything they could have asked for except for one thing, and Wordsworth abandoned everything to gain it.

Moreover, Browning writes that Wordsworth was ‘scammed’ – instead of gold, he received silver. While the money is real, gold, silver, and copper are metaphors for status and support. The conservatives have ‘gold’: the money and respect, and only gave Wordsworth the ‘silver’: the money. Copper represents the lack of money but the abundance of emotional support that the liberals have given Wordsworth throughout the years.

Additionally, the liberals gave everything they had to Wordsworth, yet he still left them for those who didn’t care about him. Browning feels it is unfair that the people with so much in their lives ( status, money, public respect, and support) do not extend the same courtesy to others.

Love in Vain

Browning’s tone is bitter as he recites everything the liberals have done for Wordsworth. Lines 9-12 speak of the liberals’ commitment and support. They have loved and encouraged him, supported his work and appearance, and devoted their lives to him.

Shakespeare and Co.

In the final lines of the first stanza of ‘The Lost Leader,’ Browning lists some of the most influential poets and playwrights in the history of the United Kingdom. These are famous poets who are liberal, and if Wordsworth is no longer a liberal, he forfeits his revered status as the creator of the written word. He may have politically transitioned; however, by doing so, he stopped being the great poet that he once was and became just another sell-out. The poets watch from their graves as their work and beliefs are being erased by one of their own: Browning effectively uses the mass opinions of people like him, both alive and dead, to create the atmosphere and community: so many people are on the liberals’ side, and there is only one of Wordsworth.

Browning singles out Wordsworth: who is he to stray from the path of so many great poets? He is the only one that abandoned the course for freedom and is now in the ‘rear’ with the supporters of conservatism. The use of ‘rear’ is effective since Browning considers liberalism to be the forefront of freedom and independence, whereas conservatism is the exact opposite: oppression and submission.

Stanza Two

We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;

  Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;

Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,

  Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:

Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,

  One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,

One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,

  One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!

Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!

  There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,

Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,

  Never glad confident morning again!

Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,

  Menace our heart ere we master his own;

Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,

  Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

The second stanza of ‘The Lost Leader‘ focuses on perseverance. Browning effectively uses anacolutha throughout the stanza to rebut Wordsworth’s actions: the movement will exist regardless of him.

Browning begins the stanza with ‘we’: a community of people with the same beliefs will remain unchanged, and they will still ‘prosper’. The community will be inspired, regardless of whether Wordsworth is the one that inspires them.

Browning talks about the liberals’ achievements (deeds), while Wordsworth boasts about his passivity and encourages others to be obedient and plaint.

The middle lines of the stanza encourage the reader to erase Wordsworth’s name and work from memory. ‘Blot out his name,’ Browning encourages, forget all about him! His tone is disappointed as he writes about Wordsworth’s potential: he had a path that he chose not to tread, and he had tasks that he decided not to accomplish. Therefore he has achieved nothing of merit and does not deserve to be remembered.

Good vs. Evil

Browning effectively uses metaphors when talking about the path that Wordsworth chose to take. The ‘devil’ represents conservatism: oppression and submission of people, whereas the ‘angel’ is liberalism: freedom and righteousness. The angels are sorrowful, not angry, which is effective in proving that the political left is more empathetic. Despite Wordsworth’s betrayal, the community isn’t angry (at least not in this stanza); they are disappointed to see him go.

Moreover, Browning mentions God. Wordsworth was brought up as an Anglican Christian, and his poetry resonates with the verses of the Bible. By bringing up God, Browning implies that Wordsworth not only abandoned the community and political ideologies he has also strayed from the path of God. He has sinned, but more importantly, he has insulted God.

Imagery and Pathetic Fallacy

Browning uses pathetic fallacy, a poetic technique in which weather and nature generally have deeper contextual meaning. The night symbolizes death, darkness, uncertainty, and danger. On the contrary, the morning represents beginnings, confidence, and hope. Browning insinuates that the last stage of Wordsworth’s life began metaphorically and literally: he will succumb to darkness. Moreover, twilight is the period before nighttime: everything anticipates darkness, which is precisely how Wordsworth will be perceived: barely in the light. The imagery is compelling as it reflects Wordsworth’s political journey: he started in the light (as a liberal). Still, he ended up in twilight (leaving liberalism and entering conservatism), heading straight for his ultimate demise: the night.

Forgiveness and Redemption

In the final four lines of ‘The Lost Leader‘, Browning reminds Wordsworth to remember what the liberals have taught him and to ‘strike gallantly’. The left will keep fighting the noble fight regardless of Wordsworth. Browning notes that it is easier to reflect on the community’s character rather than attempt to change Wordsworth’s way of thinking.

Finally, Browning remarks that Wordsworth should find out the truth for himself. He is sure that Wordsworth will discover the ‘new knowledge’: the atrocities of the conservative movement and re-join the liberals. Once he does so, he will be pardoned by God and the community and return to his ‘throne’.

The poem’s final line is incredibly effective as it reflects the forgiving and gentle characteristics of the left compared to the ruthless and relentless right.

FAQs

When was ‘The Lost Leader‘ published?

The Lost Leader‘ was published in 1845 as a part of Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. The poem was published after Wordsworth left the liberal movement and started accepting pensions and titles from the UK government.

Whom is ‘The Lost Leader‘ about?

It is believed that ‘The Lost Leader‘ is about William Wordsworth. However, the poem applies to any influential figure that abandoned liberal ideologies for social comfort and acceptance.

What is Robert Browning’s most famous poem?

The Pied Piper of Hamelin‘, published in 1842, and ‘The Lost Leader,’ published in 1845, are some of Browning’s most famous poems.

What is the rhyme scheme of ‘The Lost Leader‘?

The Lost Leader‘ follows an ABABC rhyme scheme.

What is the central idea of ‘The Lost Leader‘?

The Lost Leader‘ follows the idea that influential individuals should not abandon liberal ideologies for comfort and a higher social status.


Similar Poetry

Those who enjoyed ‘The Lost Leader‘ might consider looking into the following poems:

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The Lost Leader by Robert Browning
Ekaterina Kazantseva Poetry Expert
About
Having obtained the International Baccalaureate diploma, Ekaterina is currently in university. She has 6 years of experience in poetry writing and 5 in academic poetry analysis.
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