World Literature

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)

 

 

Robert Browning. Browning, Robert, photograph.

 

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 William C. 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.

 

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 selfsufficiency.

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 Bronte, which sparked controversy because it contained allegedly libelous statements that had to be retracted.

 

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 unpoetic 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.

 

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.

 

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.’’

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.

 

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 Dramatic Monologue.’’ 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 Browning Plain?’’ 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