Biography of Robert Browning

Henry James wrote of Robert Browning, in relation to the poet's burial at Canterbury: "None of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd." One of the most enduring Victorian poets, Browning is renowned for both his virtuosity of language and eccentricity of subjects. His sense of psychology precedes Freud, and his refusal to commit to any prevailing worldview marks him as a precursor to modernist thought.

Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812. Due to both his natural brilliance and the support of an educated father, he accomplished himself as a writer, scholar and musician early in life. He realized his calling as a poet when he was introduced to the work of P.B. Shelley. From Shelley, Browning developed the Romantic ideal, which sought to find transcendence through exploration of the individual's sensibility. Though he would later renounce it in favor of what he saw as a more sophisticated approach, Browning's early life and work was largely defined by this sensibility.

Browning's attempts at education proved unsuccessful; he tried several vocations and dropped out of university several times. His first published work, Pauline, was a great success in 1833. But his subsequent publication, a long, difficult poem called Sordello, was a great failure. It was the first time he would be labeled difficult and obscure, a charge that would haunt his reputation and his work for most of his life. His subsequent foray into writing stage plays saw brief success but ultimately led to him being criticized as unfit for the dramatic form because of his lyrical flourishes and overly intellectual approach.

He continued to publish – next through a series known as Bells and Pomegranates – to middling success, even though he was beginning to establish the dramatic monologue form that would ensure his legacy. This form uses a narrator, usually of dubious morality, who addresses someone in a high-stakes situation. His most famous works were written in this form, including "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess." These works helped cement his interest in psychological complexity and the human tendency to constantly shift perspectives and opinions.

Browning's life greatly improved when, in 1845, he fell in love with poet Elizabeth Barrett through her work and began to visit her. Elizabeth was a long-time invalid who lived secluded in her London home under an extremely over-protective father, all circumstances that meant the two had to elope in order to marry; they were disowned by Mr. Barrett. Nevertheless, the poets lived a happy life together, mostly in Italy, where they had a son named Pen. In 1855, Browning published a collection called Men and Women, which contains most of his best known poems but was again only a modest success, especially when compared to Elizabeth's work, which was quite popular.

After Elizabeth died in 1861, a distraught Browning moved back to London, where he would finally achieve the success that had long eluded him. He published other collections like Dramatis Personae, but it was his long work The Ring and the Book that finally made him famous. His subsequent poetry, much of it long-form, continued to expand his fame in later years, to the point that a Browning Society was formed and he became a celebrity known for dining out in fashionable spots. At the time Browning died in 1889, he was perhaps the most famous poet in England next to William Wordsworth, and his legacy has only improved since that time.

Study Guides on Works by Robert Browning