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Robert Browning

Robert Browning

The English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) is best known for his dramatic monologues. By vividly portraying a central character against a social background, these poems probe complex human motives in a variety of historical periods.

Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, London. His father, a senior clerk in the Bank of England, provided a comfortable living for his family and passed on a love of art and literature to Robert. His mother, an excellent amateur pianist, gave him a love of music, while her strong and simple piety provided him with an enduring conviction of the existence of God. In 1828 Browning entered the University of London, but he dropped out after half a year. The Brownings were a small, close-knit family and Robert apparently preferred to remain at home, reading in his father's library of over 7,000 volumes.

Early Poems and Plays

Browning began to write verses at the age of 6. His first published work was Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession, issued anonymously in 1833. The hero of the poem is a young poet, obviously Browning himself, who bares his soul to a patient heroine. When John Stuart Mill commented that the anonymous author seemed "possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being," Browning resolved never again to reveal his thoughts directly to his readers. Henceforth, he would "only make men and women speak."

This major step in Browning's poetic development was evident in his next long poem, Paracelsus (1835), whose hero was a Renaissance alchemist. Though Browning later called the poem "a failure," it received favorable reviews and brought about important friendships with the authors William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle and with the actor William C. Macready. Encouraged by these friendships, Browning began to emerge in the London social scene. Mrs. Bridell-Fox, another friend of Browning's, described him at this time as "slim and dark, and very handsome … just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to lemon-coloured kid gloves." He seemed to her "determined to conquer fame and to achieve success."

Encouraged by Macready, Browning turned to writing drama. But his first play, Strafford (1837), closed after only five performances. During the next 10 years he wrote six other plays, none of which were successfully produced. All of Browning's plays are marred by overemphasis of character analysis and lack of dramatic action.

In 1838 Browning traveled to northern Italy to acquire firsthand knowledge of its setting and atmosphere for his next long poem. But the publication of Sordello in 1840 was a disaster which dealt Browning's growing reputation a severe blow. Critics unanimously declared the poem totally obscure and unreadable, and modern readers still find it difficult.

Development of the Dramatic Monologue

After the disappointing reception of Strafford and Sordello, Browning turned to the dramatic monologue. He experimented with and perfected this form in the long poem Pippa Passes (1841) and two collections of shorter poems, Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845).

Usually written in blank verse, the dramatic monologue is the speech of a single character in a moment of some dramatic significance. In the course of his monologue, the speaker reveals what this situation is, as well as the setting of the situation and to whom he is speaking. Of greatest interest, however, is what he reveals about his own motives and personality. Often the speaker, while trying to justify himself to his listeners, actually reveals the faults or even depravity of his character to the reader. Such poems as "My Last Duchess," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," in which this ironic revelation is fully developed, give the reader the pleasure of discovering more about the speaker than he perceives about himself.

Marriage to Elizabeth Barrett

After reading Elizabeth Barrett's flattering reference to him in her Poems, Browning wrote to her in January 1845. At that time, Barrett was an invalid confined to her room by a nervous disorder. But the two became frequent correspondents, and on May 20, 1845, Browning made his first personal visit. With his constant urging, she gained steadily in strength, hope, and will until she agreed to a secret marriage on Sept. 12, 1846. Such secrecy was necessary because Barrett's father had forbidden all of his children "the iniquity of love affairs."

Shortly after their marriage, the Brownings left London for Italy, and they made Casa Guidi in Florence their home from 1847 until 1861. It was there that their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born on March 9, 1849.

Mature Poetry

In 1855 Browning published Men and Women, a collection of 51 poems. Though the volume contained many of the dramatic monologues that are best known and loved by modern readers, it was not popular with Browning's contemporaries. But it did receive several favorable critical reviews and made Browning the idol of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

After gradually declining in health for several years, Elizabeth Browning died on June 29, 1861. Browning found that he could no longer remain in Florence because of the memories it evoked. He resolved to "go to England, and live and work and write." In 1864 he published Dramatis Personae. Though some of the dramatic monologues in the collection are complex and difficult or overlong, this was the first of Browning's works to be popular with the general reading public. His popularity increased with the publication of The Ring and the Book in 1868-1869. This long poem is based on a murder and subsequent trial in Rome in 1698. In a Florentine bookstall Browning had found an "old Yellow Book" that contained records of these events. The poem is composed of 12 dramatic monologues, in which the major characters give their interpretations of the crime. The accounts contradict each other, but eventually the truth emerges from behind the tangled web of deceit and self-justification.

The Ring and the Book was enthusiastically received by the public, and Browning became a prominent figure in London society. He was a frequent guest at dinners, concerts, and receptions. In the next 10 years Browning wrote with great energy, publishing a volume almost every year. But none of these works match the quality of Men and Women, and they are little read today.

Though in the early stages of his career Browning's poetic reputation was far less than that of his wife, by 1870 he had achieved equal status with Tennyson, the poet laureate. The energy and roughness of Browning's poetry, however, contrast sharply with the melancholy and polish of Tennyson's. Today, through his influence on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Browning seems the most modern and enduring of all the mid-Victorian poets.

Browning died at his son's home in Venice on Dec. 12, 1889. In the "Epilogue" to his last collection of lyrics Browning described himself as "One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,/ Never doubted clouds would break." He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Browning is W. Hall Griffin and Harry C. Minchin, The Life of Robert Browning (1910; 3d rev. ed. 1938). Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning (1891; revised by Frederic G. Kenyon, 1908), contains important additional information. An interesting modern psychological study is Betty B. Miller, Robert Browning: A Portrait (1952). William DeVane, A Browning Handbook (1935; 2d ed. 1955), is a useful source of information about Browning's poetry. Three of the best critical studies of his work are Roma A. King, The Bow and the Lyre: The Art of Robert Browning (1957); Robert W. Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (1957); and Park Honan, Browning's Characters: A Study in Poetic Techniques (1961). Recommended for general historical background are George M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After, 1782-1919 (1922; new ed. 1962); G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953); and David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1914 (1950).

Additional Sources

Maynard, John, Browning's youth, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Thomas, Donald Serrell, Robert Browning, a life within life, New York: Viking Press, 1983, 1982.

Mason, Cyrus, The poet Robert Browning and his kinsfolk, Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, Markham Press Fund, 1983.

Irvine, William, The book, the ring, & the poet; a biography of Robert Browni, New York, McGraw-Hill 1974.

Ryals, Clyde de L., The life of Robert Browning: a critical biography, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. □

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Browning, Robert

Robert Browning

Born: May 7, 1812
London, England
Died: December 12, 1889
Venice, Italy

English poet

The English poet Robert Browning is best known for his dramatic monologues (dramatic readings done by only one character). By vividly portraying a central character against a social background, these poems explore complex human motives in a variety of historical periods.

Youth

Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, London, England. His father, a senior clerk with the Bank of England, provided a comfortable living for his family and passed on a love of art and literature to Robert. His mother, an excellent amateur pianist, gave him a love of music, while her strong and simple religious faith provided him with an lifelong belief in the existence of God. Robert was a bright child creating "masterpieces" of jam and pencil at the age of two and attending day school as "an infant."

Browning went to primary school until he was fourteen, when his parents decided that he should be sent neither to a public nor a private school, but should instead be taught at home by a tutor. His training included riding, fencing, boxing, singing, and dancing along with the basics. The Brownings were a small, close-knit family, and Robert spent much time reading in his father's library of over seven thousand volumes. His father's love of the Greek tragedies prompted drawing room romps with the chairs as cities of Troy. Robert was very attached to all species of animals, hosting a wide variety of pets in his childhood. In 1828 Browning entered the University of London, but he dropped out after just half a year.

Early poems and plays

Browning began to write verses at the age of six. His first published work was Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession, issued anonymously (without his name) in 1833. The hero of the poem is a young poet, obviously Browning himself, who bares his soul to a patient heroine. When a critic commented that the anonymous author seemed "possessed with a more intense and morbid [involving thoughts of death] self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being," Browning promised himself to never again reveal his thoughts directly to his readers. Henceforth, he would "only make men and women speak."

This major step in Browning's poetic development was evident in his next long poem, Paracelsus (1835), whose hero was a Renaissance (a revival in art and knowledge during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries that started in Italy and moved to the rest of Europe) alchemist (early chemist). Though Browning later called the poem "a failure," it received favorable reviews and brought about important friendships with the authors William Wordsworth (17701850) and Thomas Carlyle (17951881) and with the actor William C. Macready (17931873). Encouraged by these friendships, Browning began to emerge in the London social scene.

Encouraged by Macready, Browning turned to writing drama. But his first play, Strafford (1837), closed after only five performances. During the next ten years he wrote six other plays, none of which were successfully produced. All of Browning's plays are marred by abundant character analysis and meager dramatic action.

In 1838 Browning traveled to northern Italy to acquire firsthand knowledge of its setting and atmosphere for his next long poem. But the publication of Sordello in 1840 was a disaster that dealt Browning's growing reputation a severe blow. Critics unanimously declared the poem totally unclear and unreadable, and modern readers still find it difficult.

Development of the dramatic monologue

After the disappointing reception of both Strafford and Sordello, Browning turned to the dramatic monologue. He experimented with and perfected this form in the long poem Pippa Passes (1841) and two collections of shorter poems, Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845).

Usually written in blank verse (unrhymed verse), the dramatic monologue is the speech of a single character in a moment of some dramatic significance. In the course of his monologue, the speaker reveals what this situation is, as well as the setting of the situation and to whom he is speaking. Of greatest interest, however, is what he reveals about his own motives and personality. Often the speaker, while trying to justify himself to his listeners, actually reveals the faults of his character to the reader. Such works as "My Last Duchess," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" are poems in which the reader is given the pleasure of discovering more about the speaker than he understands about himself.

Marriage to Elizabeth Barrett

After reading Elizabeth Barrett's flattering reference to him in her Poems, Browning wrote to her in January 1845. At that time, Barrett was an invalid confined to her room by a nervous disorder. The two became frequent correspondents nonetheless, and on May 20, 1845, Browning made his first personal visit. With his constant urging, she gained steadily in strength, hope, and will until she agreed to a secret marriage on September 12, 1846. Such secrecy was necessary because Barrett's father had forbidden all of his children to marry.

Shortly after their marriage, the Brownings left London for Italy, and they made Casa Guidi in Florence their home from 1847 until 1861. It was there that their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born on March 9, 1849.

Mature poetry

In 1855 Browning published Men and Women, a collection of fifty-one poems. Though the volume contained many of the dramatic monologues that are best known and loved by modern readers, it was not popular with Browning's peers. But it did receive several favorable critical reviews.

After gradually declining in health for several years, Elizabeth Browning died on June 29, 1861. Browning found that he could no longer remain in Florence because of the memories it brought forth. He resolved to "go to England, and live and work and write." In 1864 he published Dramatis Personae. Though some of the dramatic monologues in the collection are complex and difficult or overlong, this was the first of Browning's works to become popular with the general reading public. His popularity increased with the publication of The Ring and the Book in 186869. This long poem is based on a murder and subsequent trial in Rome, Italy, in 1698. In a Florentine bookstall Browning had found an "old Yellow Book" that contained records of these events. The poem is composed of twelve dramatic monologues, in which the major characters give their interpretations of the crime. The accounts contradict each other, but eventually the truth emerges from behind the tangled web of lies and excuses.

The Ring and the Book was enthusiastically received by the public, and Browning became an important figure in London society. He was a frequent guest at dinners, concerts, and receptions. In the next ten years Browning wrote with great energy, publishing a volume almost every year. But none of these works match the quality of Men and Women, and they are little read today.

Extended influence

Though in the early stages of his career Browning's poetic reputation was far less than that of his wife, by 1870 he had achieved equal status with the famous poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (18091892). The energy and roughness of Browning's poetry, however, contrasts sharply with the melancholy and polish of Tennyson's. Today, through his influence on Ezra Pound (18851972) and T. S. Eliot (18851965), Browning seems the most modern and enduring of all the mid-Victorian poets.

Browning died at his son's home in Venice, Italy, on December 12, 1889. In the "Epilogue" to his last collection of lyrics, Browning described himself as "One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,/ Never doubted clouds would break." He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

For More Information

Halliday, F. E. Robert Browning: His Life and Work. London: Jupiter, 1975.

Markus, Julia. Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

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Browning, Robert (1812-1889)

Browning, Robert (1812-1889)

Famous English poet, born on May 7, 1812 in London, England and died on December 12, 1889 in Venice, Italy. He sat at a séance with the medium Daniel D. Home, after which Browning published his satirical poem "Mr. Sludge, the Medium," which was generally thought to refer to Home. It contains these lines:

Now don't, sir! Don't expose me! Just this once! This was the first and only time, I'll swear. Look at mesee, I kneelthe only time, I swear I ever cheated "Well, Sir, since you press (How do you tease the whole thing out of me!) Now for it, then! I cheated when I could. Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work, Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink, Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match, And all the rest"

It was generally supposed that the poet detected in Home a fraud, but others suggested that Browning was motivated by spiteful jealousy on account of his wife's (Elizabeth Barrett) interest in Spiritualism. Evidence in the book Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister (London, 1929) suggests that Browning's husband strongly resented her attitude and that Spiritualism was tabooed in their house. Home himself discussed the incident in his book Incidents in My Life (1874) and preferred a psychological explanation for the poet's verse.

A wreath of clematis, which the children had gathered in the garden, moved from the table and started to glide toward Elizabeth Browning. Robert Browning, seated at the opposite side, came and stood behind his wife. Then the wreath rose and came to rest on Elizabeth's head. Some of the sitters thought Robert was annoyed at not getting the crown himself, but he voluntarily stated that imposture was out of question. Later he evolved a theory of artificial hands affixed to Home's chair.

In his biography of Browning, G. K. Chesterton ridicules the story and says that Browning "did not dislike Spiritualism but Spiritualists." At any rate, the poem harmed Home's reputation substantially. It was widely quoted in the press, even in America, where Sarah Helen Whitman, the poet to whom some of the finest gems of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry were written, felt prompted to write to a paper and brand it as a "blot on Brow-ning's 'scutcheon."

In spite of Browning's hostility toward Home, tradition has it that Robert Browning was well versed in the Hermetic tradition of occult knowledge and used Hermetic imagery in some of his poems. In My Browning Family Album (1979), Vivienne Browning, president of the Browning Society, revealed that her father, Vyvyan Deacon, was a practicing medium and lecturer on the occult and Theosophy and told her that he was carrying on the tradition of his grandfather Reuben Browning, the poet's uncle, who was a Rosicrucian who shared his secret knowledge and training with his nephew Robert.

Sources:

Browning, Robert. Dramatis Personae. London: Chapman and Hall, 1864.

Browning, Vivienne. My Browning Family Album. London: Springwood Books, 1979.

Porter, Katherine H. Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism in the Browning Circle. Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Press, 1958.

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Browning, Robert

Robert Browning, 1812–89, English poet. His remarkably broad and sound education was primarily the work of his artistic and scholarly parents—in particular his father, a London bank clerk of independent means. Pauline, his first poem, was published anonymously in 1833. In 1834 he visited Italy, which eventually became his second homeland. He won some recognition with Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). In 1837, urged by William Macready, the Shakespearean actor, Browning began writing for the stage. Although not especially successful, he wrote eight verse plays during the next nine years, two of which were produced—Strafford in 1837 and A Blot in the 'Scutcheon in 1843. The narrative poem Pippa Passes appeared in 1841; it and subsequent poems were later published collectively as Bells and Pomegranates (1846). Included were "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," both dramatic monologues; this form proved to be the ideal medium for Browning's poetic genius. Other notable poems of this kind are "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb." In 1846, after a romantic courtship, Browning secretly married the poet Elizabeth Barrett and took her to Italy, where they lived for 15 happy years. There he wrote Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850) and Men and Women (1855). In 1861, after the death of his wife, he returned to England, where he wrote Dramatis Personae (1864). This was followed by what is considered his masterpiece, the murder story The Ring and the Book (4 vol., 1868–69). Set in 17th-century Italy, the poem reveals, through a series of dramatic dialogues, how a single event—a murder—is perceived by different people. Browning gained recognition slowly, but after the publication of this work he was acclaimed a great poet. Societies were instituted for the study of his work in England and America. His later works include Dramatic Idyls (2 vol., 1879–80) and Asolando (1889). Browning's thought is persistently optimistic. He believed in commitment to life. His psychological portraits in verse, ironic and indirect in presentation, and his experiments in diction and rhythm have made him an important influence on 20th-century poetry. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

See variously published volumes of his letters; complete works, ed. by R. A. King (5 vol., 1967–82); biographies by M. Ward (2 vol., 1967–69), B. Miller (1952, repr. 1973), and W. Irvine and P. Honan (1974); studies by R. Langbaum (1963), P. Drew (1966 and 1970), R. E. Gridley (1972), T. Blackburn (1967, repr. 1973), and J. Woolford (1988).

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Browning, Robert

Browning, Robert (1812–89). Born in Camberwell, son of a clerk in the Bank of England, Browning read widely as a boy in his father's library, greatly admiring Keats, Shelley, and Byron. He spent only two terms at the University of London, but travelled in Russia and Italy. Much of his early work was historically based. Paracelsus (1835) was a verse drama about the 16th-cent. physician. Strafford (1837), which Macready persuaded him to write, was a lifeless poetic drama; King Victor and King Charles was on the unpromising subject of a dynastic dispute in 18th-cent. Piedmont and was never performed; A Blot on the 'Scutcheon (1843) ran for three nights and convinced Browning to abandon the theatre. Dramatic Lyrics (1842) included ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister’, and ‘The Pied Piper’: Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) added ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, ‘The Lost Leader’, and ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’. In 1846 Browning married Elizabeth Barrett, already an established poet, and they lived mainly in Italy until her death in 1861. His greatest success, The Ring and the Book (1868–9), took a melodramatic murder story from late 17th-cent. Italy and presented it from different viewpoints. Some of Browning's poems seem inconsequential and others suggest unpleasant feelings not far below the surface. He was overpraised towards the end of his life and is in some danger of being underrated today.

J. A. Cannon

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Browning, Robert

Browning, Robert (1812–89) English poet. “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, both published in Bells and Pomegranates (1846), display his characteristic use of dramatic monologue. In 1846, he and Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) secretly married and moved to Florence, Italy, in 1847. He published the volumes Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850) and Men and Women (1855) before returning to London after Elizabeth's death in 1861. His popularity increased with Dramatis Personae (1864) and The Ring and the Book (1868–69), the latter often considered to be his masterpiece. One of the foremost poets of the 19th century, Browning is also at times one of the most obscure.

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