Robert Browning: Poems


Early years

Robert Browning was born in Walworth in the parish of Camberwell, Surrey, which now forms part of the Borough of Southwark in south London. He was baptized on June 14, 1812, at Lock's Fields Independent Chapel, York Street, Walworth,[1] the only son of Sarah Anna (née Wiedemann) and Robert Browning.[2][3] His father was a well-paid clerk for the Bank of England, earning about £150 per year.[4] Browning's paternal grandfather was a wealthy slave owner in Saint Kitts, West Indies, but Browning's father was an abolitionist. Browning's father had been sent to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation, but, due to a slave revolt there, had returned to England. Browning's mother was the daughter of a German shipowner who had settled in Dundee in Scotland, and his Scottish wife. Browning had one sister, Sarianna. Browning's paternal grandmother, Margaret Tittle, who had inherited a plantation in St Kitts, was rumored (within the family) to have a mixed race ancestry, including some Jamaican blood, but author Julia Markus suggests St Kitts rather than Jamaican.[5][6] The evidence, however, is inconclusive either way.[7] Robert's father, a literary collector, amassed a library of around 6,000 books, many of them rare. As such, Robert was raised in a household of significant literary resources. His mother, to whom he was very close, was a devout nonconformist and a talented musician.[2] His younger sister, Sarianna, also gifted, became her brother's companion in his later years, after the death of his wife in 1861. His father encouraged his children's interest in literature and the arts.[2]

By twelve, Browning had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found. After being at one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike of school life, he was educated at home by a tutor via the resources of his father's extensive library.[2] By the age of fourteen he was fluent in French, Greek, Italian and Latin. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. Following the precedent of Shelley, Browning became an atheist and vegetarian, both of which he gave up later. At the age of sixteen, he studied Greek at University College London but left after his first year.[2] His parents' staunch evangelical faith prevented his studying at either Oxford or Cambridge University, both then open only to members of the Church of England.[2] He had inherited substantial musical ability through his mother, and composed arrangements of various songs. He refused a formal career and ignored his parents' remonstrations, dedicating himself to poetry. He stayed at home until the age of 34, financially dependent on his family until his marriage. His father sponsored the publication of his son's poems.[2]

First published works

Waring (ll. 192–200)

Some one shall somehow run a muck With this old world, for want of strife Sound asleep: contrive, contrive To rouse us, Waring! Who's alive? Our men scarce seem in earnest now: Distinguished names!—but 'tis, somehow, As if they played at being names Still more distinguished, like the games Of children.

“ ” Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics (1842)

In March 1833, "Pauline, a Fragment of a Confession" was published anonymously by Saunders and Otley at the expense of the author, Robert Browning, who received the money from his aunt, one Mrs Silverthorne.[8] 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. W.J. Fox writing in the The Monthly Repository of April 1833 discerned merit in the work. Allan Cunningham praised it in the The Athenaeum. However, it sold no copies.[9] Some years later, probably in 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti came across it in the Reading Room of the British Museum and wrote to Browning, then in Florence to ask if he was the author.[10] John Stuart Mill, however, wrote that the author suffered from an "intense and morbid self-consciousness".[11] 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.[10]

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.[12] 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 the already famous Tennyson. 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.[12] 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, canto 6 of Purgatory, 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 the reputation of wanton carelessness and obscurity. Tennyson commented that he only understood the first and last lines and Carlyle claimed that his wife had read the poem through and could not tell whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book.[13]

Browning's 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.[12]


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 began regularly corresponding and gradually a romance developed between them, leading to their marriage and journey to Italy (for Elizabeth's health) on 12 September 1846.[14][15] The marriage was initially secret because Elizabeth's domineering father disapproved of marriage for any of his children. Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth, as he did for each of his children who married: "The Mrs. Browning of popular imagination was a sweet, innocent young woman who suffered endless cruelties at the hands of a tyrannical papa but who nonetheless had the good fortune to fall in love with a dashing and handsome poet named Robert Browning."[16] At her husband's insistence, the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems included her love sonnets. The book increased her popularity and high critical regard, cementing her position as an eminent Victorian poet. Upon William Wordsworth's death in 1850, she was a serious contender to become Poet Laureate, the position eventually going to Tennyson.

From the time of their marriage and until Elizabeth's death, the Brownings lived in Italy, residing first in Pisa, and then, within a year, finding an apartment in Florence at Casa Guidi (now a museum to their memory).[14] Their only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, nicknamed "Penini" or "Pen", was born in 1849.[14] In these years Browning was fascinated by, and learned from, the art and atmosphere of Italy. He would, in later life, describe Italy as his university. As Elizabeth had inherited money of her own, the couple were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship together was happy. However, the literary assault on Browning's work did not let up and he was critically dismissed further, by patrician writers such as Charles Kingsley, for the desertion of England for foreign lands.[14]

Spiritualism incident

Mr. Sludge, "The Medium" (opening lines)

Now, don’t, sir! Don’t expose me! Just this once! This was the first and only time, I’ll swear,— Look at me,—see, I kneel,—the only time, I swear, I ever cheated,—yes, by the soul Of Her who hears—(your sainted mother, sir!) All, except this last accident, was truth— This little kind of slip!—and even this, It was your own wine, sir, the good champagne, (I took it for Catawba—you’re so kind) Which put the folly in my head!

“ ” Dramatis Personae (1864)

Browning believed spiritualism to be fraud, and proved one of Daniel Dunglas Home's most adamant critics. When Browning and his wife Elizabeth attended one of his séances on July 23, 1855,[17] a spirit face materialized, which Home claimed was Browning's son who had died in infancy: Browning seized the "materialization" and discovered it to be Home's bare foot. To make the deception worse, Browning had never lost a son in infancy.[18]

After the séance, Browning wrote an angry letter to The Times, in which he said: "the whole display of hands, spirit utterances etc., was a cheat and imposture."[19] In 1902 Browning's son Pen wrote: "Home was detected in a vulgar fraud."[20] Elizabeth, however, was convinced that the phenomena she witnessed were genuine, and her discussions about Home with her husband were a constant source of disagreement.[21]

Major works

How It Strikes a Contemporary (ll. 21–33)

He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade, The man who slices lemons into drink, The coffee-roaster's brazier, and the boys That volunteer to help him turn its winch. He glanced o'er books on stalls with half an eye, And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor's string, And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall. He took such cognizance of men and things, If any beat a horse, you felt he saw; If any cursed a woman, he took note; Yet stared at nobody--you stared at him, And found, less to your pleasure than surprise, He seemed to know you and expect as much.

“ ” Men and Women (1855)

In Florence, probably from early in 1853, Browning worked on the poems that eventually comprised his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known,[14] although in 1855, when they were published, they made relatively little impact.

In 1861 Elizabeth died in Florence. Among those whom he found consoling in that period was the novelist and poet Isa Blagden, with whom he and his wife had a voluminous correspondence.[22] The following year Browning returned to London, taking Pen with him, who by then was 12 years old. They made their home in 17 Warwick Crescent, Maida Vale. It was only when he became part of the London literary scene—albeit while paying frequent visits to Italy (though never again to Florence)—that his reputation started to take off.[14]

In 1868, after five years work, he completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve books: essentially ten lengthy dramatic monologues narrated by various characters in the story, showing their individual perspectives on events, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Long even by Browning's standards (over twenty-thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was his most ambitious project and is arguably his greatest work; it has been called a tour de force of dramatic poetry.[23] Published in four parts from November 1868 to February 1869, the poem was a success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought for nearly forty years.[23] The Robert Browning Society was formed in 1881 and his work was recognized as belonging within the British literary canon.[23]

Last years and death

In the remaining years of his life Browning travelled extensively. After a series of long poems published in the early 1870s, of which Balaustion's Adventure and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country were the best-received,[23] the volume Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper included an attack against Browning's critics, especially Alfred Austin, who was later to become Poet Laureate. According to some reports Browning became romantically involved with Louisa, Lady Ashburton, but he refused her proposal of marriage, and did not remarry. In 1878, he revisited Italy for the first time in the seventeen years since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several further occasions. In 1887, Browning produced the major work of his later years, Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day. It finally presented the poet speaking in his own voice, engaging in a series of dialogues with long-forgotten figures of literary, artistic, and philosophic history. The Victorian public was baffled by this, and Browning returned to the brief, concise lyric for his last volume, Asolando (1889), published on the day of his death.[23]

Browning died at his son's home Ca' Rezzonico in Venice on 12 December 1889.[23] He was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.[23]

During his life Browning was awarded many distinctions. He was made LL.D. of Edinburgh, a life Governor of London University, and had the offer of the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow. But he turned down anything that involved public speaking.

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