Authors: Robert Browning

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

May 7, 1812

Camberwell, London, England

December 12, 1889

Venice, Italy

Biography

The poet Robert Browning was born May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, London, the son of a learned and genial Bank of England clerk. His father’s substantial library, notable for curious history, biography, and anecdote, became an important influence upon the future poet, as were his father’s instruction in languages and his mother’s Evangelical piety and love of music. Private schooling and a term at the University of London had comparatively little influence on a young man who felt himself destined to be a poet and was admirably prepared for it at home.

Robert Browning

(Library of Congress)

He came early under the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose techniques and political ideas remained with him somewhat longer than the religious radicalism which Browning repudiated in his earliest significant poem, Pauline. After this poem of personal confession, he turned to the “chronicling” of objective characters and the use of the dramatic techniques which were to remain his characteristic concerns.

The first poem of this dramatic kind was Paracelsus, published in 1835. The character examined was that of a historical person, the Renaissance scientist, who, as Browning represented him, came to know almost too late the nature of true love, without which knowledge is empty.

Turned to stage drama through his friendship with the actor Macready, Browning produced a historical play, Strafford, in 1837, which ran for only four nights. He was to make two more attempts at the stage without success: A Blot in the ’Scutcheon and Colombe’s Birthday. The earlier of these was to lead him toward his destined medium of the short dramatic poem, and his studies in seventeenth century history for Strafford confirmed him in his characteristic political liberalism and sympathy for the common man.

The promising reputation which had begun with Paracelsus was spoiled in 1840 by the publication of Sordello. Browning’s changing conceptions of the central character and an excessive concern with medieval Italian history resulted in a poem which continues to be regarded, in spite of modern criticism, as distinguished chiefly by its obscurity.

From 1841 to 1846 Browning published the inexpensive little series titled Bells and Pomegranates, beginning with Pippa Passes and including, among other titles, Dramatic Lyrics, A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, Colombe’s Birthday, and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics. Pippa Passes and a number of the shorter poems show him at his best in the dramatic monologue and lyric: “My Last Duchess,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” “Porphyria’s Lover,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church.” The last of these especially is a triumph in one of Browning’s special interests, the interpretation of the Italian Renaissance. In many of the dramatic poems of the series he illustrates the characteristic purpose of his best work: the chronicling, in concrete settings, of individualized human souls in moments of crucial and revelatory experience.

In 1844 Browning noticed a compliment to himself in a poem by the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett. A correspondence and visits followed, Barrett’s health improved, and in 1846 they were secretly married. They set out for a long and happy residence in Italy, residing first in Pisa and then moving to the now famous Casa Guidi villa in Florence. They followed the revolutionary movements of 1848 with sympathetic liberalism, though Elizabeth Barrett Browning was more interested in social institutions and her husband in liberty as serving individual growth. They differed more notably in her faith in spiritualism and his contempt for it.

Summer visits to London brought them the friendship of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and other intellects of the day. Their son was born in Florence in 1849, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning died there in 1861.

In 1850 Robert Browning published Christmas Eve and Easter Day, in the first of these emphasizing love rather than ecclesiastical forms as essential to Christianity and in the second dealing with religion in its individual aspects. The poems have been called Puritan in spirit.

In 1855 Browning issued his “fifty men and women” under the title Men and Women, highly individualized characters in concrete settings, expressing in their experiences various ideas about love, art, and religion. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” for example, affirms the goodness of physical beauty; “Saul” makes human love a prophecy of the revelation of divine love; and “Cleon” asserts the ethical pessimism of Greece as against the upstart Christian hope. In “An Epistle of Karshish,” an Arab physician is converted by a study of the case of Lazarus.

After his wife’s death Browning returned to England to edit her unpublished poems and to supervise his son’s education. He became a highly popular figure in London society. In 1864 he published Dramatis Personae, similar to Men and Women as a collection of dramatic sketches, but with even greater emphasis upon ideas and religion. He was honored by Oxford University with a fellowship and by Cambridge University with an honorary degree.

In Florence in 1860, Browning had picked up an “old yellow book” containing, in print and manuscript, the story of a seventeenth century murder trial. This became the long poem The Ring and the Book, in which the poignant story, rich in Italian background, was interpreted through monologues by nine persons involved in the trial. It is his masterpiece in his most characteristic form, the dramatic monologue.

Although his best work was behind him, Browning continued to experiment with both subject matter and form throughout the rest of a long career. While no longer popular, such poems as Fifine at the Fair and Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day certainly repay the reader for the time required to deal with Browning’s famous “obscurity.” Browning died in Venice, December 12, 1889, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Italy, religion, and the world of art had provided him with his best settings; the dramatic monologue was his triumphant art form. The chronicling of souls in growth or crisis was his central substance, optimism was his philosophical bent, and his central doctrine was the “glory of the incomplete”—the supremacy of high and unfulfilled aspiration over low-level, finite achievement. He ranks with Alfred, Lord Tennyson as one of the two greatest poets of the Victorian era.

Author Works Poetry: Pauline, 1833 Paracelsus, 1835 Sordello, 1840 Bells and Pomegranates, 1841-1846 (published in eight parts and contains Dramatic Lyrics, 1842, and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845) Christmas Eve and Easter Day, 1850 Two Poems, 1854 Men and Women, 1855 (2 volumes) Dramatis Personae, 1864 The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, 1868 The Ring and the Book, 1868-1869 (4 volumes) Balaustion’s Adventure, 1871 Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau: Saviour of Society, 1871 Fifine at the Fair, 1872 Red Cotton Nightcap Country: Or, Turf and Towers, 1873 Aristophanes’ Apology, 1875 The Inn Album, 1875 Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper, 1876 The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, 1877 (drama translation in verse) La Saisiaz, and The Two Poets of Croisac, 1878 Dramatic Idyls, 1879-1880 (in two parts) Jocoseria, 1883 Ferishtah’s Fancies, 1884 Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, 1887 The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, 1888-1894 (17 volumes) Asolando, 1889 Robert Browning: The Poems, 1981 (2 volumes) Drama: Strafford, pr., pb. 1837 Pippa Passes, pb. 1841 King Victor and King Charles, pb. 1842 The Return of the Druses, pb. 1843 A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, pr., pb. 1843 Colombe’s Birthday, pb. 1844 Luria, pb. 1846 A Soul’s Tragedy, pb. 1846 (the seven preceding titles were published in the Bells and Pomegranates series, 1841-1846) Dramatis Personae, pr. 1864 Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, pr. 1871 Balaustion’s Adventure, pr. 1871 Fifine at the Fair, pr. 1872 Aristophanes’ Apology, pr. 1875 Nonfiction: Thomas Jones, the Divine Order: Sermons, 1884 The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846, 1926 (Robert B. Browning, editor) Intimate Glimpses from Browning’s Letter File: Selected from Letters in the Baylor University Browning Collection, 1934 Browning’s Essay on Chatterton, 1948 (Donald A. Smalley, editor) New Letters of Robert Browning, 1950 (W.C. DeVane and Kenneth L. Knickerbocker, editors) The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, 1969 (Elvan Kintner, editor). Miscellaneous: The Works of Robert Browning, 1912 (10 volumes; F. C. Kenyon, editor) The Complete Works of Robert Browning, 1969-1999 (16 volumes) Bibliography Altick, Richard D., and James F. Loucks II. Browning’s Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. An important book devoted to an analysis of Browning’s arguably greatest poem of dramatic monologues. Emphasizing the comedy and realism, the authors present in ten chapters the purpose, design, and meaning as a dramatic articulation of the poet’s ideas of rhetoric, ethics, and language. Includes footnotes, an index, and a brief bibliographic note. Armstrong, Isobel. Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975. This fairly simple book provides the best general introduction to the poet, his life, his cultural context, and his work. Armstrong identifies the outstanding features of the major poems and presents sound basic readings. Supplemented by a full index and a helpful bibliography. Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. New York: Macmillan, 1903. Although somewhat dated, this medium-length book is full of perceptive insights and is one of the best overviews of the poet. Chesterton opens up the major monologues by relating them to one another and showing how they contribute to the evolution of Browning’s thought. The index is helpful for cross-referencing. Crowell, Norman B. A Reader’s Guide to Robert Browning. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972. An extremely useful volume for those interested in sampling critical approaches to Browning’s major dramatic monologues. Crowell summarizes the stands taken by various previous readers, raising questions and suggesting openings for further interpretations. Can also be used as a guide to basic research, but it does not cover the longer works. DeVane, W. C. A Browning Handbook. Rev. ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955. For two generations of literary students, this was the first reference on Browning, and it has not been superseded. Contains entries for the major phases of Browning’s life and for all of his writing. Although easy to use if the student has specific topics to pursue, the focus is old-fashioned, concentrating on a biographical and a literary-historical background. Includes a thorough index. Garrett, Martin. A Browning Chronology: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A chronology of the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Bibliography and index. Garrett, Martin, ed. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning: Interviews and Recollections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of interviews recalling Browning and his famous wife. Bibliography and index. Hair, Donald S. Robert Browning’s Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Of all the major poets who have adopted the English language as their instrument, Browning, perhaps more than anyone, has exhibited the most sophisticated and modulated command of his medium. Hair undertakes the heroic task of uncovering Browning’s theory of language. The result is a fine analysis that reestablishes the poet’s importance. Hawlin, Stefan. The Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning. New York: Routledge, 2002. A reference work that provides comprehensive critical analysis of Browning’s works and information on his life. Bibliography and indexes. Hudson, Gertrude Reese. Robert Browning’s Literary Life: From First Work to Masterpiece. Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1992. Examines the critical response to the works of Browning, throughout his career. Bibliography and index. Irvine, William, and Park Honan. The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. A standard academic biography of the poet, this study is thorough, meticulous, detailed, fully documented, and illustrated. Although rather heavy for beginning students, it collects more biographical information than any other source. Contains an index and a select bibliography. Jack, Ian. Browning’s Major Poetry. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. One of the leading scholars of Victorian literature presents detailed analyses of Browning’s primary works. Contains definitive, substantial accounts, deep and rewarding, but sophisticated. The critical apparatus is complete, with a solid index and a bibliography. King, Roma A., Jr. The Focusing Artifice: The Poetry of Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1968. Reviewing Browning’s total career, King analyzes individual poems and dramas as works of art focusing intellectual and cultural forces in Browning’s modern tradition. This book is especially useful for its inclusion of a substantial chapter that focuses on the dramas as experiments in search of an adequate form for Browning’s purposes. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index. Markus, Julia. Dared and Done. New York: Knopf, 1995. Novelist-turned-literary-historian Markus lifts the veil of misconception that has long concealed the truth about the love and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. As Markus chronicles the personal and artistic growth of this devoted couple, she insightfully analyzes their social and political milieu and how it shaped their lives and poetry. Maynard, John, ed. Browning Re-viewed: Review Essays, 1980-1995. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. This collection of essays on Browning includes a critical analysis of his poems and plays as well as several on the path of his literary career. Bibliography and indexes. Roberts, Adam. Robert Browning Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. A basic biography of Browning that examines his life and works. Bibliography and index. Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. A critical biography of the major Victorian poet which gives an account of his life and analyzes his entire creative output in chronological order. Thomas, Donald. Robert Browning: A Life Within Life. New York: Viking Press, 1983. Relying more on Browning’s poetry than on his correspondence, Thomas studies the problem of Browning’s private, interior life as a brooding Romantic at the center of the robust Victorian savior of Elizabeth Barrett. Includes a sympathetic treatment of Browning’s late writings, which are compared favorably with those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Helpful notes, select bibliography, and index. Wood, Sarah. Robert Browning: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A biography of Browning that focuses on his literary works. Bibliography and index.

Categories: Authors