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Robert Browning (1812-1889)


English poet, noted for his mastery of dramatic monologue. Robert Browning was long unsuccessful as a poet and financially dependent upon his family until he was well into adulthood. In his best works people from the past reveal their thoughts and lives as if speaking or thinking aloud.

"Be sure I looked up her eyes
--Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
--Made my heart swell, and still it grew
--While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
--Perfectly pure and good; I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
--In one long yellow string I wound
--Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
--I am quite sure she felt no pain."

(from 'Porphyria's Lover' in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842)

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, south London, the son of Robert Browning, a wealthy clerk in the Bank of England, and Sarah Anna Wiedemann, of German-Scottish origin.In his youth Robert Browning Senior had spent some time on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where he became disgusted at the slaves' treatment. Back at England, he thought of a career of an artist, but eventually accepted his job at the bank. Sarah Anna loved music and gardening. The historian Thomas Carlyle called her "the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman".

Browning received scant formal education. However, his father encouraged him to read and he had access to his large (6,000 vols) library. The book collection filled most of the third storey at the family's house at New Cross. In his teens, Browning discovered Shelley, adopting the author's confessionalism in poetry. Browning wrote his first poems under the influence of Shelley, who also inspired him to adopt atheist principles for a time. At the age of 16, he began to study at newly established London University, returning home after a brief period. At home his parents did not object his decision to withdrew and supported him morally and financially.

In 1833 Browning published anonymously Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession. It has been said that it was inspired by Eliza Flower, a performer and composer of religious music. At first the publication sold not a single copy. Eventually the work was noted by J.S. Mills and it sold fairly well. Between 1834 and 1836 The Monthly Repository published several shorter poems by Browning. In 1834 he travelled to Russia and made in 1838 his first trip to Italy. Paracelsus (1835), which dealt with the life of the famous Swiss alchemist, captured the attention of Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. From 1837 to 1846 Browning attempted to write verse drama for the stage. During these years he met Carlyle, Dickens, and Tennyson, and formed several important friendships.

Between 1841 and 1846 Browning works appeared under the title Bells and Pomegranates. It contained several of his best-known lyrics, such as How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and Pippa Passes (1841), a dramatic poem depicting a silk winder and his wandering in Italy. Among his earlier works was Sordello (1840), set against the background of restless southern Europe of the 13th century. It influenced Ezra Pound in his conception of the Cantos. However, Sordello's hostile reception shadowed Browning's reputation for over twenty years.

In 1846 Browning married the poet Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), and settled with her in Florence. He produced comparatively little poetry during the next 15 years. When Elizabeth Browning died in 1861, he said: "I shall live out the remainder in her direct influence, endeavoring to complete mine, miserably imperfect now, but so as to take the good she was meant to me." Browning left their house, Casa Guidi, where he had enjoyed a happy married life, and moved to London with his son Robert Barrett Browning (1849-1912). There he wrote his greatest poem, The Ring and the Book (1869), a 21,000 lines long hymn to Elizabeth. It based on the proceedings in a murder trial in Rome in 1698; Browning had bought the documents from a flea market in Florence. Count Guido Francesshini, a fifty-year-old nobleman had married a thirteen-year-old girl, Pompilia Comparini, who ran back to her parents to Rome after four years of misery. Guido followed Pompilia to Rome, and murdered the Comparinis with his accomplices. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

The Ring and the Book consisted of 10 verse narratives, all dealing with the same crime, each from a distinct viewpoint. The ring in the title referred to a gold circlet, that had belonged to Elizabeth and which he kept on his watch chain: "Do you see this ring? / 'This Rome-work, made to match / (By Castellani's imitative craft) / Etruscian circlets found, some happy morn, / After a dropping April; found alive / Spark-like 'mid underneath slope-side fig-tree roots / That roof old tombs at Chiusi..." Browning made poetry compete with prose, and used idioms of ordinary speech in his text. A typical Browning poem tells of a key moment in the life of a prince, priest or painter of the Italian Renaissance. He often crammed his meaning into so few words that many readers could not grasp what he meant.

In the 1850s and 1860s Browning's reputation began to revive. In 1855 appeared the masterpiece of his middle period, Men and Women. With Dramatis Personae (1864) and The Ring and the Book he was back in the literary scene. In 1866, after his father died, Browning lived with his sister, generally spending the season in London, and the rest of the year in the country or abroad. The history and climate of Italy suited him well, but he also developed a tendency toward nostalgia of England: "Oh, to be in England / Now that April's there," he wrote in 'Home Thoughts, from Abroad'. In the 1870s Browning published several works, including The Inn Album (1875), a dramatic poems, where two couples use the visitors' book to convey messages, and a translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon.

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873), about religious faith, illicit love, and mental illness, was praised in the Examiner as "the most useful and memorable of all the good poems that he has written", but the reviewer in the Illustrated London warned, that the poem "will be found a hard nut to crack". Some American reviewers were not pleased with the poem's subject, taken directly from life. Browning had heard in 1870 from his friend the story of the suicide of a wealthy Paris jeweler, Antoine Mellerio, and then investigated the case further, visiting Mellerio's chateau and collecting material relating to the events. The title of the poems refers to the bonnet rouge of the French Revolution, and the traditional head-gear worn by Normandian women.

Robert Browning died on December 12, 1889, in his son's house in Venice. Various difficulties made the poet's requested burial in Florence impossible, and his body was returned to England to be interred in Westminster Abbey. The Browning Society was founded in 1881 as an indication of the poets status as a sage and celebrity.

A prolific poet, Browning also was an avid letter writer. An edition of his correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett Browning was published in 1926. The Brownings' correspondence is projected to contain 40 volumes. Browning's narrative poem, 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came', inspired Stephen King's King's Dark Tower series, which began in 1982 with The Gunslinger.

For further reading: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Martin Garrett (2002); A Browning Chronology by Martin Garrett (1999); Robert Browning by Adam Roberts (1997); Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus (1995); Robert Browning, ed. by B. Litzinger (1995); Critical Esays on Robert Browning, ed. by Mary Ellis Gibson (1992); The Infinite Passion of Finite Hearts by P. Pathak (1992); Robert Browning by Joseph Bristow (1991); Robert Browning, ed. by Harold Bloom (1990); Browning As a Philosophical & Religious Teacher by Henry Jones (1989), Browning the Revisionary by John Woolford (1988); The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett by D. Karlin (1986); Browning and Italy by Jakob Korg (1983); Browning for Beginners by Thomas Rain (1973); Browning's Major Poetry by I. Jack (1973); The Focusing Artifice by R.A. King (1969); The Dialectical Temper by W.D. Shaw (1968); The Bow and the Lyre by R.A. King (1957); Amphibian: a Reconsideration of Browning by H.C. Duffin (1956); Life by H.W. Griffin and H.C. Minchin (1936); Robert Browning by C.H. Herford (1905)

Selected works:

  • Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession, 1833
  • Paracelsus, 1835
  • Strafford, 1837 (play)
  • Sordello, 1840
  • Bells and Pomegranates, 1841-46
  • Pippa Passes, 1841 (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • King Victor and King Charles, 1842 (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • Dramatic Lyrics, 1842  (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • The Return of the Druses, 1843 (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • A Blot in the 'Scutcheon', 1843 (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • Colombe's Birthday, 1844 (play; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845  (Bells and Pomegranates)
  • Luria and A Soul's Tragedy, 1846 (plays; Bells and Pomegranates)
  • Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, 1850
  • Men and Women, 1855
  • Dramatis Personae, 1864
  • The Ring and the Book, 1868-69
  • Balaustion's Adventure, 1871
  • Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society, 1871
  • Fifine at the Fair, 1872
  • Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, or, Turf and Towers, 1873
  • The Inn Album, 1875
  • Aristophanes' Apology, 1875
  • Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper, 1876
  • Agamemnon / Aeschylus, 1877 (translator)
  • Saisiaz, 1878
  • The Two Poets of Croisic, 1878
  • Dramatic Idylls, 1879-80
  • Jocoseria, 1883
  • Ferishtah's Fancies, 1884
  • Parleyings With Certain People of Importance in Their Day, 1887
  • Asolando, 1889
  • Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845–1846, 1845-1846, 1926 (2 vols., ed. Robert B. Browning)
  • Intimate Glimpses from Browning's Letter File, 1934
  • Learned Lady: Letters from Robert Browning to Mrs. Thomas Fitzgerald, 1876-1889, 1966 (ed. by Edward C. McAleer)
  • The Complete works of Robert Browning, 1969-2011 (17 vols., ed. Roma A. King, Jr., et al.)  
  • Browning's Later Poetry: 1871-1889, 1975
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, 1983-2009 (in process; edited by Ian Jack and Margaret Smith)
  • The Brownings' Correspondence, 1984- 2010 (17 vols., in process; ed. by Philip Kelley & Ronald Hudson; a projected 40 volume edition of letters)
  • More Than Friend: The Letters of Robert Browning to Katharine de Kay Bronson, 1985 (edited, with an introduction, by Michael Meredith)
  • A Centenary Selection from Robert Browning’s Poetry, 1989 (edited and introduced by Michael Meredith)
  • Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence, 1845-1846: A Selection, 1989 (ed. by Daniel Karlin)
  • The Essential Browning, 1990 (selected and with an introduction by Douglas Dunn) 
  • Robert Browning: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1991 (edited by Aidan Day)
  • The Poems of Browning, 1991- (edited by John Woolford and Daniel Karlin)
  • Robert Browning: The Major Works, 2005 (edited with notes by Adam Roberts; with an introduction by Daniel Karlin)
  • Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden, 1850-1861, 2009 (edited by Philip Kelley, Sandra Donaldson, et al.)

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