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.

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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.

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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.

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Further Reading on Robert Browning

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 Biography 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.