Robert Browning

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Robert Browning

Born: May 7, 1812
Flag of England Camberwell, England
Died: December 12, 1889
Flag of Italy Venice, Italy
Occupation: Poet

Robert Browning (May 7, 1812 – December 12, 1889) was a British poet and playwright whose mastery of dramatic verse, especially dramatic monologues, made him one of the foremost Victorian poets.


  • 1 Youth
  • 2 Early career
  • 3 Marriage and major monologues
  • 4 Late success
  • 5 Browning's poetic style
  • 6 Trivia
  • 7 Complete list of works
  • 8 Timeline
  • 9 See also
  • 10 References
  • 11 External links


Robert Browning was born in Camberwell[1], a suburb of London,England, on May 7, 1812, the first son of Robert and Sarah Wiedemann Browning. His father was a man of fine intellect and equally fine character, who worked as a well-paid clerk in the Bank of England and so managed to amass a library of around 6,000 books — many of them highly obscure and arcane. Thus Robert was raised in a household with good literary resources. His mother, to whom he was ardently attached, was a devout Nonconformist, the daughter of a German shipowner who had settled in Dundee, and was alike intellectually and morally worthy of his affection. The only other member of the family was a younger sister, also highly gifted, who was the sympathetic companion of his later years. They lived simply, but his father encouraged Robert's interest in literature and the arts.

In his childhood he was distinguished by his love of poetry and natural history. At twelve, he had written a book of poetry which he destroyed when he could not find a publisher. After being at one or two private schools, and showing an insuperable dislike of school life, he was educated by a tutor.

He was a rapid learner and by the age of fourteen was fluent in French, Greek, Italian, and Latin as well as his native English. He became a great admirer of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. In imitation of the latter, he briefly became an atheist and a vegetarian, but in later life he looked back on this as a passing phase. At age sixteen, he attended University College, London, but dropped out after his first year. His mother’s strong evangelical faith prevented him from attending Oxford or Cambridge, which were then still closed to people who were not members of the Church of England.

Through his mother he inherited some musical talent, and composed settings for various songs. His grandmother was also of Creole blood. Thomas Chase wrote of Browning's dark complexion skin, and his curly hair. The same was true of his Jamaican English-born wife, Elizabeth Barrett.

Early career

A younger Robert Browning
A younger Robert Browning

In May 1833, Browning's Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession was published anonymously by Saunders and Otley. In many ways a vanity publication financed by his family, this marked the beginning of his career as a poet. A lengthy confessional poem, it was intended by its young author to be merely one of a series of works produced by various fictitious versions of himself (the poet, the composer, etc.), but Browning abandoned the larger project. He was much embarrassed by Pauline in later life, contributing a somewhat contrite preface to the 1868 edition of his Collected Poems asking for his readers' indulgence when reading what in his eyes was practically a piece of juvenilia, before undertaking extensive revisions to the poem in time for the 1888 edition, with the remark "twenty years' endurance of an eyesore seems long enough".

In 1834, he paid his first visit to Italy, in which so much of his future life was to be passed.

In 1835, Browning wrote the lengthy dramatic poem Paracelsus, essentially a series of monologues spoken by the Swiss doctor and alchemist Paracelsus and his friends. Published under Browning's own name, in an edition financed by his father, the poem was a small commercial and critical success and gained the notice of Carlyle, Wordsworth, and other men of letters, giving him a reputation as a poet of distinguished promise. Around this time the young poet was very much in demand in literary circles for his ready wit and flamboyant sense of style, and he embarked upon two ill-considered ventures: a series of plays for the theatre, all of which were dismally unsuccessful and none of which are much remembered today; and Sordello, a very lengthy poem in rhymed pentameter and loosely drawing upon a historical character who also (briefly) appears in Dante's Divine Comedy. Set against the backdrop of the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, Sordello was already difficult to understand for a Victorian audience that was accustomed to the annotation in historical fiction. Browning's syntax, style, and - perhaps most of all - his plot made an already confusing subject virtually incomprehensible, and the young poet became the butt of a number of satirical quips, such as Mrs. Carlyle's celebrated comment that she had read the entire thing through without being able to work out whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book. The effect on Browning's career was catastrophic, and he would not recover his good public standing — and the good sales that accompanied it — until the publication of The Ring and the Book nearly thirty years later.

Throughout the early 1840s he continued to publish volumes of plays and shorter poems, under the general series title Bells and Pomegranates. Although the plays, with the exception of Pippa Passes — in many ways more of a dramatic poem than an actual play — are almost entirely forgotten, the volumes of poetry (Dramatic Lyrics, first published in 1842, and 1845's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics) are often considered to be among the poet's best work, containing many of his best-known poems, such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, My Last Duchess and the paired poems Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning. Though much admired now, the volumes were largely ignored at the time in the wake of the Sordello debacle.

Marriage and major monologues

Robert Browning married Elizabeth Barrett at St Marylebone Parish Church in 1846 after a courtship that lasted two years and gave rise to one of the most celebrated epistolary correspondences in literary history. After their elopement and secret marriage, the pair left England. Doctors had recommended Elizabeth to live in Italy because the warmer climate would help her lung condition. This coincided happily with the fact that the cost of living was very much lower in Italy than England, and the couple were totally dependent on Elizabeth’s small income, since Browning had yet to earn anything much from his writing. They moved to Pisa, Italy, and then to Florence, Italy, where their son Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning (1849-1912), who was known to the family as "Pen", was born in 1849. They lived in apartments in a palace known as the Casa Guidi in Florence, although they made some trips to England and France.

During this period Elizabeth published several major works: most notably Casa Guidi Windows, a long poem, and Aurora Leigh, a verse novel. Robert published a volume of theological poetry - Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day - and wrote the two volumes on which his reputation was principally to rest during the Twentieth Century: Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864). In these collections, Browning included many of the finest examples of the dramatic monologue, a form of poetry of which he and Tennyson were the principal pioneers and that was to exert a significant influence upon such later poets as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Amongst the canonical examples of this form are such among Browning's monologues of this period as: "Andrea del Sarto", "Fra Lippo Lippi", "Bishop Blougram's Apology", "A Death in the Desert", "Caliban upon Setebos" and "Mr. Sludge, "The Medium"".

Although the period of his marriage was not a prolific one compared with Browning's youth or later life, it saw a steady rise in his reputation and produced some of his most enduring works. When Elizabeth died in 1861, Browning moved back to London with his son. Within four years, two selected editions of his earlier work and the eighteen new poems in Dramatis Personae brought him fame and critical recognition. For the first time in his life, he could live on his earnings from writing and enjoyed celebrity status in London society in his own right, rather than being known primarily as Elizabeth Barrett’s husband.

Late success

In 1868, Browning finally completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book, which would finally make him rich, famous and successful, and which ensured his critical reputation among the first rank of English poets. Based on a convoluted murder case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve volumes, essentially comprising ten lengthy dramatic poems narrated by the various characters in the story showing their individual take on events as they transpire, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself. Extraordinarily long even by Browning's own standards (over twenty thousand lines), The Ring and the Book was the poet's most ambitious project and has been hailed as a tour de force of dramatic poetry. Published separately in four volumes from November 1868 through to February 1869, the poem was a huge success both commercially and critically, and finally brought Browning the renown he had sought and deserved for nearly thirty years of work.

1882 Caricature from Punch
1882 Caricature from Punch

With his fame and fortune secure, Browning again became the prolific writer he had been at the start of his career. In the remaining twenty years of his life, as well as travelling extensively and frequenting London literary society again, he managed to publish no less than fifteen new volumes. None of these later works gained the popularity of The Ring and the Book, and they are largely unread today. However, Browning's later work has been undergoing a major critical re-evaluation in recent years, and much of it remains of interest for its poetic quality and psychological insight. After a series of long poems published in the early 1870s, of which Fifine at the Fair and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country were the best-received, Browning again turned to shorter poems. The volume Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper included a spiteful attack against Browning's critics, especially the later Poet Laureate Alfred Austin.

According to some reports Browning became romantically involved with Lady Ashburton in the 1870s, but did not re-marry. In 1878, he returned to Italy for the first time since Elizabeth's death, and returned there on several occasions.

The Browning Society was formed for the appreciation of his works in 1881.

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. Once more, the Victorian public was baffled by this, and Browning returned to the short, concise lyric for his last volume, Asolando (1889).

He died at his son's home Ca' Rezzonico in Venice on 12 December 1889, the same day Asolando was published, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey; his grave now lies immediately adjacent to that of Alfred Tennyson.

Browning's poetic style

Browning’s fame today rests mainly on his dramatic monologues, in which the words not only convey setting and action but also reveal the speaker’s character. Perhaps the most sensational of these monologues is Porphyria’s Lover. The opening lines provide a sinister setting for the macabre events that follow. It is plain that the speaker is insane, as he strangles his lover with her own hair to try and preserve for ever the moment of perfect love she has shown him. These monologues greatly influenced many later poets, including Ezra Pound and T S Eliot.

Ironically, Browning’s style, which seemed modern and experimental to Victorian readers, owes much to his love of the seventeenth century poems of John Donne with their abrupt openings, colloquial phrasing and irregular rhythms.


The last two lines of the famous "Song" from Pippa Passes — "God's in his heaven, All's right with the world!" — are parodied in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with the hypnopaedic slogan: - "Ford's in his flivver, all's right with the world!" The lines are also used in the Japanese animations Neon Genesis Evangelion, RahXephon, and Black Lagoon. In another Japanese animation, R.O.D. the T.V., the final line is a take off stating "The Paper's in her heaven, All's right in the world."

Robert Browning was the first person to ever have his voice heard after his death. On a recording[1] made by Thomas Edison in 1889, Browning reads "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" (including apologizing when he forgets the words). It was first played in Venice in 1890.

John Lennon's song "Grow old with me," which was inspired by the Robert's poem Rabbi ben Ezra, appears on his album Milk and Honey.

Stephen King's Dark Tower series was inspired by Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

In the Get Carter remake, at the opening of the film, the quote "That's all we can expect of man, this side of the grave; his good is. knowing he is bad" is shown on the screen

Complete list of works

  • Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)
  • Paracelsus (1835)
  • Strafford (play) (1837)
  • Sordello (1840)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. I: Pippa Passes (play) (1841)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. II: King Victor and King Charles (play) (1842)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics (1842)
    • "Porphyria's Lover"
    • "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"
    • "My Last Duchess"
    • The Pied Piper of Hamelin
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. IV: The Return of the Druses (play) (1843)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. V: A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (play) (1843)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. VI: Colombe's Birthday (play) (1844)
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. VII: Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845)
    • "The Laboratory"
    • "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"
    • "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church"
  • Bells and Pomegranates No. VIII: Luria and A Soul's Tragedy (plays) (1846)
  • Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850)
  • Men and Women (1855)
    • "A Toccata of Galuppi's"
    • "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"
    • "Fra Lippo Lippi"
    • "Andrea Del Sarto"
    • "A Grammarian's Funeral"
    • "An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician"
  • Dramatis Personae (1864)
    • "Caliban upon Setebos"
    • "Rabbi Ben Ezra"
  • The Ring and the Book (1868-9)
  • Balaustion's Adventure (1871)
  • Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871)
  • Fifine at the Fair (1872)
  • Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, or, Turf and Towers (1873)
  • Aristophanes' Apology (1875)
  • The Inn Album (1875)
  • Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper (1876)
  • The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1877)
  • La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878)
  • Dramatic Idylls (1879)
  • Dramatic Idylls: Second Series (1880)
  • Jocoseria (1883)
  • Ferishtah's Fancies (1884)
  • Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day (1887)
  • Asolando (1889)


See also

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  1. ^
  • DeVane, William Clyde. A Browning handbook. 2nd. Ed. (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955)
  • Drew, Philip. The poetry of Robert Browning: A critical introduction. (Methuen, 1970)
  • Hudson, Gertrude Reese. Robert Browning's literary life from first work to masterpiece. (Texas, 1992)
  • Karlin, Daniel. The courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. (Oxford, 1985)
  • Kelley, Philip et al. (Eds.) The Brownings' correspondence. 15 vols. to date. (Wedgestone, 1984-) (Complete letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, so far to 1849.)
  • Maynard, John. Browning's youth. (Harvard Univ. Press, 1977)
  • Chesterton, G.K. Robert Browning (1903)
  • Poems by Robert Browning at
  • Robert Browning biography and select bibliography
  • The Brownings: A Research Guide (Baylor University)
  • The Browning Society
  • Short Biography and Poems
  • Works by Robert Browning at Project Gutenberg
  • Poetry Archive: 135 poems of Robert Browning
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the Internet Movie Database
  • A recording of Browning reciting five lines from "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"
  • Works by Robert Browning in e-book
  • An analysis of Browning's poem.
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