Last reviewed: June 2018
May 7, 1812
Camberwell, London, England
December 12, 1889
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
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.