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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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Browning, Robert

Robert Browning

BORN: 1812, Camberwell, England

DIED: 1889, Venice, Italy

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:
Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)
Paracelsus (1835)
Men and Women (1855)
Dramatis Personae (1864)
The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1868)
The Ring and the Book (1868)

Overview

Victorian poet Robert Browning is chiefly remembered for his mastery of the dramatic monologue and for the remarkable diversity and range of his works. By vividly portraying a central character against a social background, his poems probe complex human motives in a variety of historical periods. As a highly individual force in the history of English poetry, Browning made significant innovations in language and versification and had a profound influence on numerous twentieth-century poets, including such key figures as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

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 his son. His mother, an excellent amateur pianist, instilled in him a love of music. Encouraged to read in his father's library, which housed a collection of over six thousand volumes, Browning's intellectual development included the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, as well as coursework in Latin, Greek, English, and German. In 1828, Browning entered the University of London, but he dropped out after half a year, determined to pursue a career as a poet.

Mixed Success with 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 (1833), which was issued anonymously. The hero of the

poem is a young poet, obviously Browning himself, who bares his soul to a patient heroine. Although his next poem, Paracelsus (1835), did not satisfy Browning, it brought favorable reviews and important friendships with fellow poets William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle. Browning also became acquainted with the actor WilliamC. Macready. Encouraged, Browning turned to writing drama. Unfortunately, Browning's first play, Strafford (1837), closed after only five performances. During the next ten years, Browning 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, Sordello (1840), but it, too, was panned by critics who called it obscure and unreadable. After the disappointing reception of his drama along with two of his poetic works, 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).

Marriage to Elizabeth Barrett Despite their overall lack of favorable attention, Browning's works had famous admirers, including Elizabeth Barrett, who was a respected and popular poet when in 1844 she praised Browning in one of her works and received a grateful letter from him in response. The two met the following year, fell in love, and in 1846, ignoring the disapproval of her father, eloped to Italy, where—except for brief intervals—they spent all of their time together. It was there that their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born in 1849. The Brownings lived in Italy during the climax of the Risorgimento, or the movement toward Italian unification, which culminated in the establishment of the unified kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Dramatic Monologues and 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 contemporaries. Nevertheless, it did receive several positive critical reviews.

After gradually declining in health for several years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on June 29, 1861. Browning found that he could no longer remain in Florence because of the memories it held for him. 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, difficult, and too long, 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 (1869). Enthusiastically received by the public, this long poem, composed of twelve dramatic monologues in which the major characters give their interpretations of a crime, resulted in Browning's becoming a prominent 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.

Later Years as a Victorian “Sage” By 1870, Browning had a solid literary reputation. In his later years, Browning became that curious phenomenon, the Victorian sage, widely regarded for his knowledge and his explorations of Victorian life's great philosophical questions. In 1880 the Browning Society was established in London for the purpose of paying tribute to and studying his poems, and near the end of his life he was the recipient of various other honors, including a degree from Oxford University and an audience with Queen Victoria. Following his death in 1889 while staying in Venice, he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Works in Literary Context

Although Browning's early poems were not successes, they are important for understanding Browning's poetic aspirations and for the opportunity they provide the reader to trace Browning's developing philosophy and developing poetic techniques. As Browning learned to temper the Romantic idealism of Shelley, he began to develop the techniques of representing character action.

The result was a combination of dramatic and lyric expression that would take form in the dramatic monologue.

Dramatic Monologue Scholars agree that Browning's place in English literature is based to a great extent on his contribution to the poetic genre of the dramatic monologue, the form he adopted for a large number of his works. With his diverse topics, striking use of language, and stylistic creativity, his groundbreaking accomplishments in this genre constitute the basis of his reputation. Literary historians define the dramatic monologue as a poem in which the speaker's character is gradually disclosed in a dramatic situation through his or her own words. In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” for example, the hypocritical nature of the narrator becomes increasingly apparent to the reader as the poem progresses. As the monk speaks, he reveals aspects of his personality of which even he is unaware; the voice of the poet is absent from the poem altogether.

Whether he chose a historical or an imaginary figure, a reliable or an unreliable narrator, Browning evolved the techniques of exposing a character's personality to an unprecedented degree of subtlety and psychological depth. As few previous poets had done, he explored the makeup of the mind, scrutinizing the interior lives of his characters. His protagonists vary from sophisticated theologians and artists to simple peasant children, spanning a range of personalities from the pure and innocent to the borderline psychotic. A considerable number of Browning's men and women, however, exemplify his overriding interest in thwarted or twisted personalities whose lives are scarred by jealousy, lust, or avarice.

A World of Words In addition to its psychological depth, critics agree that one of the main strengths of Browning's work is its sheer abundance and variety in terms of subject matter, time, place, and character. His difficult subjects demand intellectual effort from the reader and reflect the enormous breadth of his interests in science, history, art, and music. His primary source of inspiration was Renaissance Italy; its unsurpassed artistic accomplishments and rich religious and political history provided him with many of his themes and characters. Nevertheless, his settings range from the Middle Ages to his own era, reflecting a diverse assortment of cultures.

Browning's poetic diction also shows the influence of many cultures and fields of interest. He introduced a large and varied vocabulary into his works, using not only colloquial and traditionally un poetic language, but also obscure and specialized terms drawn from the past or from contemporary science. Rough syntax, contractions, and the rejection of the vague imagery of romantic poetry in favor of more exact and blunt forms of expression also characterize his writings. Like his use of language, Browning's approach to verse was frequently unconventional. In assessing this facet of his poetry, scholars emphasize the variety of his invention—his use of uncommon rhymes and his metrical and stanzaic flexibility.

Works in Critical Context

Although Robert Browning's work consistently attracted critical attention, it was not always positive. When John Stuart Mill commented that the anonymous author of Browning's first major published piece (a semi-autobiographical love poem) 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.”

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Browning's famous contemporaries include:

Queen Victoria (1819–1901): Queen of England from 1837, Victoria wrote numerous letters and over one hundred volumes of journals.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862): This American author wrote Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), his famous account of his two-year experiment in self-sufficiency.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882): Darwin was a naturalist and scientist who introduced the concept of evolutionary natural selection.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865): This British author wrote the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, which sparked controversy because it contained allegedly libelous statements that had to be retracted.

Early Reviewers The critical history of Browning's works initially shows a pattern of slow recognition followed by enormous popularity and even adulation in the two decades prior to his death. His reputation subsequently declined, but gradually recovered with the appearance in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s of important biographical and critical studies by William C. DeVane and other scholars. Browning's early reviewers often complained about the obscurity, incomprehensibility, and awkward language of his works, an impression largely arising from Sordello. When Browning did achieve fame with Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, it was considerable. His Victorian audience considered him a profound philosophical thinker and teacher who had chosen poetry as his medium of instruction. Scholars point out that if his contemporaries continued to regard his poetry as rough-hewn, unnecessarily challenging, and obscure, they found its difficulties justified by what they

considered the depth and profundity of his religious faith and optimism.

Twentieth-Century Criticism Although the Victorians were mistaken in their conception of Browning as philosophically cheerful and optimistic in his outlook on life, modern critics generally agree that this image contributed to the reaction against his works beginning at the turn of the century. In 1900, for example, George Santayana attacked Browning in an essay entitled “The Poetry of Barbarism,” setting the tone for an era that found Browning's mind superficial, his poetic skills crude, and his language verbose. Describing the reasons for Browning's poor reputation throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century, DeVane stated that the poet's outlook on life “seemed incredibly false to generations harried by war and a vast social unrest.” Despite this critical disfavor, scholars now recognize that Browning's works had a significant impact on early twentieth-century poets in both England and America.

Critics cite in particular the influence of Browning's diction on the poetic language of Ezra Pound and the effect of his dramatic monologues on the pivotal works of T.S. Eliot. In addition to its considerable influence, the value of Browning's work in its own right continues to be reassessed, with commentators focusing less on the philosophical aspects of his writings and more on his strengths as a genuinely original artist. While Browning's reputation has never again been as prominent as it was during his lifetime, few scholars would deny his importance or influence.

Responses to Literature

  1. The insanity defense typically refers to a plea that defendants are not guilty because they lacked the mental capacity to realize that they committed a wrong or appreciate why it was wrong. Some states also allow defendants to argue that they understood their behavior was criminal but were unable to control it. This is sometimes called the “irresistible impulse” defense. In Browning's dramatic monologue “Porphyria's Lover,” the speaker, Porphyria's lover, speaks in a calm and steady voice, even though he has actually gone insane and killed her. Do you think Porphyria's lover can plead either the insanity defense or the irresistible impulse defense? What criteria would you use to assess his mental state both at the time of the murder and at the time he is telling about it?
  2. You are the Duchess in “My Last Duchess.” Write a letter to your best friend telling your side of the story.
  3. In “The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning portrays an envious monk so irritated by the shortcomings of his fellow monks that he fantasizes about killing them. Do you think such sentiments might have been common among monks? Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the history of one of the major Christian monastic orders in Europe. Write a paper in which you describe the life of a typical monk.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Browning is best known for the dramatic monologue form in which a single speaker, who is not the poet, speaks to someone within the context of the poem. That audience remains silent during the monologue, creating a tension between what the speaker is saying and what that audience may be thinking. Here are other works that use the dramatic monologue form:

“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's famous short story is narrated by a mentally unstable murderer.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), a poem by T.S. Eliot. The insecure, aging Prufrock ponders his place in the universe.

“Lady Lazarus” (1962), a poem by Sylvia Plath. Plath explores the legacy of the Holocaust in this dark poem.

Fires in the Mirror (1992), a play by Anna Deavere Smith. Smith weaves multiple monologues into this powerful work that examines the various points of view surrounding the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Chesterton, G.K. Robert Browning. New York &London: Macmillan, 1903.

Cook, Eleanor. Browning's Lyrics: An Exploration. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Hassett, Constance W. The Elusive Self in the Poetry of Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982.

Mason, Cyrus. The Poet Robert Browning and His Kinsfolk. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 1983.

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

Miller, Betty. Robert Browning: A Portrait. London:Murray, 1952.

Thomas, Donald Serrell. Robert Browning, a Life Within a Life. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Periodicals

Culler, A. Dwight. “Monodrama and the DramaticMonologue.” PMLA (May 1975).

Ellis, Havelock. “Browning's Place in Literature.” The Weekly Critical Review (August 27, 1903).

Hiemstra, Anne. “Browning and History: Synecdoche and Symbolism.” Studies in Browning and His Circle (1985): vol. 13.

Timko, Michael. “Ah, Did You Once See BrowningPlain?” Studies in English Literature(Autumn 1966): vol. 6.

Web sites

Landow, George. The Victorian Web (Robert Browning). Accessed February 18, 2008 from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/index.html

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