As a young man, Robert Browning was tutored at his prosperous family’s home near London. He spent much of a sheltered adolescence reading eagerly and eclectically in the fine library there, absorbing philosophical, artistic, and historical lore that would later emerge—sometimes rather obscurely—in his plays and poems. Devoted always to a literary career, Browning lived for many years dependent on his indulgent parents. They exerted a deep personal influence: the father intellectually, the mother religiously. In literature, the works and example of Percy Bysshe Shelley were Browning’s first and most enduring inspiration, though in drama itself the constant model would be, wisely and otherwise, William Shakespeare. The privately published verse and plays of Browning’s early maturity were eccentric and poorly received. Most of the drama in particular was ill-suited to theatrical production, and in disappointment, he turned increasingly to a new type of poetry, the dramatic monologue, in order to fuse the variousness and objectivity of plays with the subtle effects of poems. Yet even after 1846, when elopement and marriage crowned his long, ardent courtship of Elizabeth Barrett Browning , she was still the better-known writer of the two. The blithe years of his wedded life were spent mostly in Italy, where Browning’s fascination with the rich and enigmatic sociocultural heritage of the Mediterranean bloomed and reflected itself in the great new poems collected in Men and Women. Mrs. Browning’s sudden death in 1861 ended this golden era and was personally devastating for her husband. Thereafter, Browning resided in both England and Italy, continuing to write poetry—notably The Ring and the Book—and gradually winning a wide and appreciative audience for all of his work. This late adulation, including the international Browning Society’s admiration of his religious and philosophical outlook, was in striking contrast with the humiliation he had felt during the early years. In 1888, he saw the publication of the first volumes of what would become a seventeen-volume collection of his dramatic and poetic canon.
Robert Browning was born in a London suburb, Camberwell, on May 7, 1812. His family could be characterized as comfortably middle class, politically liberal, and dissenting in religion. His father, a prosperous employee of the Bank of England, had collected a large private library. The family was dominated to some extent by the powerful personality of Browning’s mother, the former Sarah Anna Wiedemann from Dundee, who was deeply committed to the Congregational religion. At a time when Oxford and Cambridge were religious institutions, admitting only Anglican students, Browning attended the newly instituted University of London for a short time in 1828, but he did not complete a coherent course of study. Browning was largely self-taught, and like many autodidacts, he had difficulty appreciating how deeply learned he was and judging what his more conventionally educated audience would be likely to know. His poetry bristles with allusions and historical references that require a specialist’s explanation.
As a boy, Browning showed remarkable enthusiasm for the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Such an admiration is particularly surprising in the light of their divergent beliefs. Shelley was antireligious, especially in his youth, and was in fact expelled from his university for publishing a pamphlet on the necessity of atheism, while Browning’s mother was firmly committed to a fundamentalist and emotional Christian belief. In any event, throughout his life, Browning depicted churchmen in an unfavorable light in his poems—a tendency that is perhaps understandable in a follower of Shelley, but one that suggests considerable tension between the mother and her son over religious matters. Shelley glorified the romantic rebel, as in his depiction of Prometheus, for example; Browning’s father, on the other hand, was employed by the Bank of England, and the family comfort depended on the stability and success of that existing order. Shelley’s extremely liberal ideas about politics and personal relationships must have been difficult to fit harmoniously into the boy’s comfortable, religious, suburban home life.
In 1852, when Browning was forty years old, a collection of letters supposed to have been written by Shelley was published, and Browning was engaged to write the preface. The letters were discovered later to be spurious and the volume was withdrawn from publication, but Browning’s preface remains one of his most important explanations of his artistic theory. In the preface, Browning makes his famous distinction between “objective” and “subjective” writers, which can be imagined as the difference between the mirror and the lamp. An objective poet reflects or mirrors the outer world, making it clearer and easier to understand by writing about what takes place outside himself. The subjective poet, however, is like a lamp projecting from his inner flame a light by which the reader sees everything in a new way. Although the words “subjective” and “objective” seem to get...
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Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, a suburb of London, England, to Robert and Sara Anna Wiedemann Browning. His father was a senior clerk in the Bank of England and a conservative, unambitious, bookish man closer in temperament to a scholar than to a businessman. His mother, a Scottish gentlewoman, reared her son to love the Church, music, gardening, and nature. Growing up in the urban middle class, Browning had one sister, to whom he paid a lifelong devotion. From 1820 to 1826, he attended a boarding school. In 1828, he enrolled in the recently opened University of London, but he withdrew after only a few months. His main education came from tutors and his father’s ample library.
In the view of many, Browning’s young adulthood was an essentially irresponsible time, as he preferred to stay at home rather than work or attend school. At home, he read Alexander Pope’s The Iliad of Homer (1715-1720), the Romantic poets in general, and a favorite who became his idol, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Around 1824, Browning wrote “Incondita,” a volume of poetry in imitation of George Gordon, Lord Byron. When his parents could not get the manuscript published, he destroyed it. Only two poems from this collection have survived.
Thus, Browning’s occupation became that of poet. His whole family seemed to indulge him. When his first poem, Pauline, finally appeared in 1833, his aunt paid for its publication. Anonymously printed, the poem received little notice, and no record can be obtained proving that it sold a single copy. In fact, most critics view Pauline as a typical Romantic poem characterized by excessive self-indulgence.
During the next few years, Browning journeyed to Russia (1834) and produced two long poemsParacelsus (1835), set in the Renaissance, and Sordello (1840), set in medieval Italy. Although both poems were critical failures, taken together with his trip they indicate that Browning was learning to move beyond himself, to develop aesthetic distance from his subject.
From 1837 to 1847, Browning turned to playwriting. Determined to make a career change to dramatist and inspired by actor-manager William Charles Macready, Browning threw himself into his ambition. Strafford (pr., pb. 1837) was performed for five nights in 1837 before it closed, and his play Luria was published in 1846. None of his plays made money, and he finally abandoned the theater. That is not to say, however, that the period was...
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Robert Browning stands as the transitional English poet between the supreme subjectivity of the Romantics and the subtleties of modern poetry. He masterfully showed the dramatic and psychological possibilities of verse. In the Victorian era of sexual reticence and profound doubt, he demonstrated the power of human passion and the prevalence of the human spirit.
The poet Robert Browning was born May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, London, the son of a learned and genial Bank of England clerk. His father’s substantial library, notable for curious history, biography, and anecdote, became an important influence upon the future poet, as were his father’s instruction in languages and his mother’s Evangelical piety and love of music. Private schooling and a term at the University of London had comparatively little influence on a young man who felt himself destined to be a poet and was admirably prepared for it at home.
He came early under the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose techniques and political ideas remained with him somewhat longer than the religious radicalism which...
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