Robert Browning

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Robert Browning (1812–1889) was an English poet and playwright who found his true voice in the writing of dramatic monologues, though he is also remembered for certain lyrics, and for the fable The Pied Piper of Hamelin. His use of the dramatic monologue reached its culmination in his masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, which amply demonstrated the author's humane sympathies.


Robert Browning was born in Camberwell. His father, a clerk at the Bank of England, had collected a library of around 6,000 books, which became the main source of his son's education after trying a more conventional schooling. Robert rejected his parents' wish for him to have a normal career, though they continued to support him.

In March 1833, Pauline, a fragment of a confession was published anonymously by Saunders and Otley at the expense of the author, the costs of printing having been borne by an aunt, Mrs Silverthorne. It is a long poem composed in homage to Shelley and somewhat in his style. Originally Browning considered Pauline as the first of a series written by different aspects of himself, but he soon abandoned this idea. The press noticed the publication. Later Browning was rather embarrassed by the work, and only included it in his collected poems of 1868 after making substantial changes and adding a preface in which he asked for indulgence for a boyish work.

In 1834 he accompanied the Chevalier George de Benkhausen, the Russian consul-general, on a brief visit to St Petersburg and began Paracelsus, which was published in 1835. The subject of the 16th century savant and alchemist was probably suggested to him by the Comte Amédée de Ripart-Monclar, to whom it was dedicated. The publication had some commercial and critical success, being noticed by Wordsworth, Dickens, Landor, J.S. Mill and others, including Tennyson (already famous). It is a monodrama without action, dealing with the problems confronting an intellectual trying to find his role in society. It gained him access to the London literary world. As a result of his new contacts he met Macready, who invited him to write a play. Strafford was performed five times. Browning then wrote two other plays, one of which was not performed, while the other failed, Browning having fallen out with Macready.

In 1838 he visited Italy, looking for background for Sordello, a long poem in heroic couplets, presented as the imaginary biography of the Mantuan bard spoken of by Dante in the Divine Comedy, set against a background of hate and conflict during the Guelph-Ghibelline wars. This was published in 1840 and met with widespread derision, gaining him his reputation for obscurity. His reputation began to make a partial recovery with the publication, 1841-1846, of Bells and Pomegranates, a series of eight pamphlets, originally intended just to include his plays. Fortunately his publisher, Moxon, persuaded him to include some "dramatic lyrics", some of which had already appeared in periodicals.

In 1845, Browning met the poet Elizabeth Barrett, six years his elder, who lived as a semi-invalid in her father's house in Wimpole Street, London. They married and eloped to Italy in 1846, residing first in Pisa, and then, within a year, finding an apartment in Florence. Their only child, also called Robert, but known as “Pen”, was born in 1849. In 1855, while still in Florence, he published Men and Women, establishing the dramatic monologue as the dominant form in his writing, and continuing the gradual rehabilitation of his reputation.

Elizabeth died in 1861: Robert Browning returned to London the following year with Pen, by then 12 years old, and continued in the growth of public esteem with his Dramatis Personae in 1864. In 1868 he completed and published his greatest work, The Ring and the Book. He was never as popular as Tennyson, but had devoted followers. The Browning Society was formed in 1881. He continued to publish collections of works for the rest of his life, his last volume, Asolando (1889), being published on the day of his death.

Browning died at his son's home in Venice on 12 December 1889. He was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.