Human concerns – Robert Browning (1812-1889)

See on this site – English poet, noted for his mastery of dramatic monologue. Robert Browning was long unsuccesful as a poet and financially dependent upon his family until he was well into adulthood. In his best works people from the past reveal their thoughts and lives as if speaking or thinking aloud.

“Be sure I looked up her eyes
–Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
–Made my heart swell, and still it grew
–While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
–Perfectly pure and good; I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
–In one long yellow string I wound
–Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
–I am quite sure she felt no pain.”
(from ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842)

Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, south London, as the son of Robert Browning, a wealthy clerk in the Bank of England, and Sarah Anna Wiedemann, of German-Scottish origin. Robert Browning Senior had spent in his youth some time on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where he become disgusted at the slaves’ treatment. Back at England, he thought of a career of an artist, but eventually accepted his job at the bank. Sarah Anna loved music and gardening. The historian Thomas Carlyle called her “the true type of a Scottish gentlewoman”.

Browning received scant formal education. However, his father encouraged him to read and he had access to his large (6,000 vols) library. The book collection filled most of the third storey at the family’s house at New Cross. In his teens, Browning discovered Shelley, adopting the author’s confessionalism in poetry. His first poems Browning wrote under the influence of Shelley, who also inspired him to adopt atheist principles for a time. At the age of 16, he began to study at newly established London University, returning home after a brief period. At home his parents showed understanding of his decision to withdrew and supported him morally and financially.

In 1833 Browning published anonymously PAULINE: A FRAGMENT OF A CONFESSION. It has been said, that it was inspired by Eliza Flower, a performer and composer of religious music. First the publication sold not a single copy but eventually the work was noted by J.S. Mills. Between 1834 and 1836 The Monthly Repository published several shorter poems by Browning. In 1834 he travelled to Russia and made in 1838 his first trip to Italy. Browning’s early poetical works attracted little attention until the publication of PARACELSUS (1835), which dealt with the life of the famous Swiss alchemist. From 1837 to 1846 Browning attempted to write verse drama for the stage. During these years he met Carlyle, Dickens, and Tennyson, and formed several important friendships.

Between 1841 and 1846 Browning works appeared under the title BELLS AND POMEGRANATES. It contained several of his best-known lyrics, such as How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and PIPPA PASSES (1841), a dramatic poem depicting a silk winder and his wandering in Italy. Among his earlier works was SORDELLO (1840), set against the background of restless southern Europe of the 13th century. It influenced Ezra Pound in his conception of the Cantos. However, Sordello’s hostile reception shadowed Browning’s reputation for over twenty years.

In 1846 Browning married the poet Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), and settled with her in Florence. He produced comparatively little poetry during the next 15 years. When Elizabeth Browning died in 1861, he moved to London with his son Robert Barrett Browning (1849-1912). There he wrote his greatest work, THE RING AND THE BOOK (1869), based on the proceedings in a murder trial in Rome in 1698. It consisted of 10 verse narratives, all dealing with the same crime, each from a distinct viewpoint. Browning made poetry compete with prose, and used idioms of ordinary speech in his text. A typical Browning poem tells of a key moment in tye life of a prince, priest or painter of the Italian Renaissance. He often crammed his meaning into so few words that many readers could not grasp what he meant.

In the 1850s and 1860s Browning’s reputation began to revive. In 1855 appeared the masterpiece of his middle period, MEN AND WOMEN. With DRAMATIS PERSONAE (1864) and The Ring and the Book he was back in the literary scene. In 1866, after his father died, Browning lived with his sister, generally spending the season in London, and the rest of the year in the country or abroad. In the 1870s Browning published several works, including THE INN ALBUM (1875), a dramatic poems, where two couples use the the visitors’ book to convey messages, and a translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Browning Society was founded in 1881 as an indication of the poets status as a sage and celebrity.

Robert Browning died on December 12, 1889 in Venice in his son’s house. Various difficulties made the poet’s requested burial in Florence impossible, and his body was returned to England to be interred in Westminster Abbey. Browning’s narrative poem, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, has inspired Stephen King’s King’s Dark Tower series, which started in 1982 with The Gunslinger. (Read more here).

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