Robert Browning 1812–1889
English poet and dramatist.
Though Browning was eventually considered a premier Victorian poet, his critical reputation was hard won. Throughout his career, he honed the dramatic monologue, elevating the form to a new level. His experimentation with versification and with language, combined with the diversity and scope of his subject matter, forced Browning's critics to realize that this poet could not be evaluated by conventional literary standards. Particularly devoted to dramatic characterization, Browning explored the human psychology through his characters and the dramatic situations he presented. Modern critics are concerned with Browning's poetic development, with the themes that unite the various poems in a particular volume, and with the unique elements of Browning's innovative style.
Born in Camberwell, a borough in southeast London, Browning was raised in a relatively affluent environment. His father was a well-read clerk for the Bank of England, and his mother was a strict Congregationalist. While Browning read widely as a boy, his formal education was somewhat irregular. Beginning in the early 1820s he attended the nearby Peckam School, where he studied for four years. Because Browning had not been raised as an Anglican, he was unable to attend the major English universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, in 1828 he entered the recently-founded London University but terminated his studies after less than one year. Browning decided to pursue a career as a poet and lived in his parents' home, supported by them, until 1846. He published his first poem, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession, anonymously in 1833. Browning continued writing and publishing and experimenting with the dramatic monologue until 1845, when he fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett. The pair secretly married in 1846, then departed for Italy where they settled in Florence and wrote until Elizabeth's death in 1861. Browning then returned to England, and after a period of literary inactivity, he began writing again. He remained highly prolific throughout the rest of his life. Browning died in 1889 while visiting his son in Venice. Browning's body was returned to England and buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
After the anonymous publication of Pauline, which Browning later insisted was a dramatic piece, many readers speculated that the sentiments expressed were the poet's own. In his next work, Paracelsus (1835), Browning established the objective framework offered by a more dramatic form and was thus able to distance himself from the characters in the poem. The dramatic monologue is based on the life of the Renaissance chemist Paracelsus, and the work received largely positive critical reviews. Browning then published Sordello in 1840, also based on a Renaissance subject, but the poem was less than favorably received by the critics, many of whom found it obscure and affected. In 1841, Browning began publishing a series of poems and dramas under the title Bells and Pomegranates. The final volume appeared in 1846 and failed to restore Browning's reputation among critics. In 1855, with the publication of Men and Women, containing Browning's well-known love poems and dramatic monologues, Browning began to receive the respect of some of his critics, although popular success still eluded him. It was not until the 1860s, and in particular the publication of Dramatis Personae in 1864, that Browning achieved major critical and popular success. The volume was followed shortly thereafter by his masterpiece, The Ring and the Book (1868-69). A series of dramatic monologues spoken by different characters, the work was based on an Italian murder case. The Ring and the Book cemented Browning's reputation as one of the foremost poets of Victorian England.
Contemporary critical acclaim evaded Browning for many years. Gertrude Reese Hudson observes that the poet's critics required regular and frequent exposure to his unique dramatic method in order to recognize the excellence of Browning's art. Hudson also notes that other factors contributed to Browning's winning over of his critics, including their changing opinion regarding the nature of poetry, as well as a growing appreciation for both the timeliness of Browning's writing, his intellect and originality, and the "totality of his achievement."
Browning's highly individualized style and his usage of dramatic monologue fascinate modern scholars as much as these elements troubled his early critics. John Woolford and Daniel Karlin demonstrate that in using the dramatic monologue format, Browning was primarily interested in the creation and development of dramatic speakers and dramatic situations. The two critics also analyze Browning's style, finding that his poetry, in its focus on the speaker, insists on being read aloud. Woolford and Karlin further argue that Browning develops two distinct voices in his poetry, voices Browning himself described as "saying" and "singing" voices and which the critics contend result from the influence of the Romantics on Browning's work. In a separate essay, Daniel Karlin examines Browning's use of binary oppositions, finding that "every Browning poem is oppositional in nature." Karlin studies in particular the opposition between love and hate, maintaining that Browning explores hate not simply as the opposite of love, but as a force with its own purpose, a force which can lead to love as well as self-realization.
Other critics review certain volumes of Browning's poetry as a whole, arguing that the individual poems support a larger theme or purpose. Clyde de L. Ryals studies Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) with this in mind. Ryals stresses that the theme of loyalty unites the poems in this volume, and that this theme is often expressed in an ironic manner. Furthermore, Ryals argues that while the majority of the poems may concern national loyalties, the poems also explore other kinds of loyalties, including loyalty to one's self, to one's religion, and to one's beloved. Similarly, Adam Roberts argues for the unity of the poems in Browning's Men and Women (1855), asserting that the volume demonstrates Browning's first successful attempt at balancing the subjective and objective impulses in his poetry. This synthesis is achieved, Roberts argues, through Browning's characterization. Roberts explains that compared to the idiosyncratic, often insane characters in the earlier Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, the personalities in Men and Women, though complex, "communicate on something approaching our own level," and thus engender empathy and understanding among readers. Roberts goes on to discuss how Browning's continued usage of "grotesque" style and imagery (including colloquial language, rough syntax, and precise but blunt forms of expression) helps to link the form of these poems to their content.
Considerable critical discussion of Browning's work pertains to his murder mystery, The Ring and the Book. The twelve dramatic monologues, delivered by different characters, have led critics to question which, if any, of these characters serves as the moral authority, or center, of the poem. Adam Potkay argues against assigning this position of moral authority to any one of the characters and instead considers the poem as a "decentered struggle of interpretations" in which the character of Guido leads the way in "decentering" the poem by questioning the very conception of identity. W. David Shaw likewise contends that there is no central viewpoint in The Ring and the Book and maintains that while Browning ranks the authority of the characters in the poem, the poet creates no central authority figure. Additionally, Shaw explores the way in which deconstructionism and hermeneutics pervade Browning's masterwork, finding the Pope aligned with hermeneutical criticism and Guido and Tertium Quid aligned with the deconstructionists.
Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession [anonymous] (poetry) 1833
Paracelsus (poetry) 1835
Strafford (drama) 1837
Sordello (poetry) 1840
*Pippa Passes (drama) 1841
*Dramatic Lyrics (poetry) 1842
*King Victor and King Charles (drama) 1842
*A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (drama) 1843
*The Return of the Druses (drama) 1843
*Colombe's Birthday (drama) 1844
*Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (poetry) 1845
*Luria. A Soul's Tragedy (dramas) 1846
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (poetry) 1850
Men and Women (poetry) 1855
The Poetical Works, 3 vols. (poetry) 1863
Dramatis Personae (poetry) 1864
The Ring and the Book 4 vols. (poetry) 1868-69
Balaustion 's Adventure, Including a Transcript from Euripedes (poetry) 1871
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (poetry) 1871
Fifine at the Fair (poetry) 1872
Red Cotton Night-Cap Country; or, Turf and Towers (poetry) 1873
Aristophanes' Apology, Including a Transcript from Euripedes, Being the Last Adventure of...
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SOURCE: "Dramatic Romances and Lyrics," in Becoming Browning: The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning, 1833-1846, Ohio State University Press, 1983, pp. 201-29.
[In the following essay, Ryals maintains that the poems in Browning's 1845 volume, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, are linked by the theme of loyalty, a theme which Ryals argues is often expressed ironically.]
Several months after the publication of Colombe's Birthday, Browning wrote to his friend Domett enclosing a copy of his play: "… I feel myself so much stronger, if flattery not deceive, that I shall stop some things that were meant to follow, and begin again" (Domett, p. 106). The things meant to follow seem to have been plays, for although two more were soon to be published, neither was intended for stage production. Beginning again apparently meant returning to shorter pieces of the kind that had appeared in Dramatic Lyrics three years earlier. Yet before he could begin—"I really seem to have something fresh to say"—Browning felt himself in need of a change, a trip to southern Italy to complement his visit in 1838 to northern Italy, where he had found artistic renewal. After which, "I never took so earnestly to the craft as I think I shall—or may, for these things are with God" (Domett, p. 106).
The second journey to Italy made between August and December 1844, proved remarkably...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Modern Critical Views: Robert Browning, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Bloom explores the tendency of Browning's critics to misread the nature of the epiphanies and the "visions-of-failure" in Browning's poetry, noting that epiphanies are often wrongfully interpreted as negative events, while "visions-of-failure" are mistakenly read as celebrations.]
One of the principles of interpretation that will arise out of the future study of the intricacies of poetic revisionism, and of the kinds of misreading that canon-formation engenders, is the realization that later poets and their critical followers tend to misread strong precursors by a fairly consistent mistaking of literal for figurative, and of figurative for literal. Browning misread the High Romantics, and particularly his prime precursor, Shelley, in this pattern, and through time's revenges most modern poets and critics have done and are doing the same to Browning. I am going to explore Browning, in this chapter, as the master of misprision he was, by attempting to show our tendency to read his epiphanies or "good moments" as ruinations or vastations of quest, and our parallel tendency to read his darkest visions-of-failure as if they were celebrations.
I will concentrate on a small group of Browning's poems including "Cleon," "Master Hugues of...
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SOURCE: "The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and the Book" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 143-57.
[In the following essay, Potkay suggests that contrary to the contentions of most modern critics, The Ring and the Book does not identify any character in the poem as the moral center or authority. Rather, the poem offers a "decentered struggle of interpretations, " with the character of Guido taking on a decentering role which questions the very notion of identity.]
Criticism of The Ring and The Book, with few exceptions, unites in assigning an infallible center of authority to the poem. Critics have attempted to transcend Browning's "text"—in which different interpretations of the Roman murder story converge and contend—in favor of an authoritatively unified "Book," obliquely promised by Browning in his title, but brought to light only through the auspices of humanist criticism.1 Robert D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, for example, devote their full-length study of The Ring and the Book to tracing the "basic movement" of the poem in "the coalescence of partial truths into a transcendent Truth."2 The index to the transcendent Truth of the poem is, in practice, usually either Robert Browning in propria persona, the Pope as Browning's alter ego, or Pompilia as an authoritatively privileged figure of...
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SOURCE: "Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modern Theory," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 27, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1989, pp. 79-98.
[In the following essay, Shaw analyzes the way in which Browning makes use of critical theories—particularly deconstructionism and hermeneutics—in The Ring and the Book. Shaw considers the main characters to be caricatures of various critical viewpoints and focuses on Tertium Quid and Guido specifically as the primary deconstructionists, and on the Pope as a representative of hermeneutical criticism.]
Problems associated with contemporary deconstruction and hermeneutics were familiar to Browning and already understood by him in his Roman murder mystery, The Ring and the Book. This assertion may seem less contentious if we recall that critical theories, though rich in their accidental varieties, are poor in their essential types. Deconstruction, for example, was a favorite exercise of Victorians like Pater, who dismantled metaphysics in Plato and Platonism, and of the agnostic theologian H. L. Mansel, who dissolved the idea of God into logically contradictory concepts in The Limits of Religious Thought. Mansel takes the idea of the infinite, the idea of the absolute, and the idea of a first cause, and argues that they cannot all be predicated of God at one and the same time. As for hermeneutics, though...
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SOURCE: "Epiphany and Browning: Character Made Manifest," in PMLA, Vol. 107, No. 5, October, 1992, pp. 1208-21.
[In the following essay, Tucker argues for the place of the concept of epiphany (or, "the moment of sudden illumination ") in literary criticism, particularly in the analysis of character construction in Browning's poetry. Tucker contends that Browning explores the use of "epiphanic faith" as a measure of character.]
James Joyce minted a two-faced counter when he coined the term epiphany for literary use. "By an epiphany," he wrote of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, "he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. It was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments" (221). Moment or record? Letter or spirit? On one side, a Joycean epiphany is the account of an experience, of a secular instant as sudden and complete as what was once called grace. Obversely, though, it is the account of an experience, the inspired composition of a moment of spiritual composure. Epiphany thus names something lived through, yet also something written down. At once empirical and documentary in character, it offers both a human image for recognition and a coded legend for interpretation.
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SOURCE: "Overview," in Robert Browning's Literary Life: From First Work to Masterpiece, Eakin Press, 1992, pp. 548-62.
[In the following essay, Hudson reviews Browning's critical reputation from 1833 through 1870, arguing that Browning's critical acclaim was slow in coming because the poet's critics refused for many years to realize that his unique and innovative poetry could not be judged by conventional literary standards.]
The basic elements that determined Browning's reputation from 1833 to 1870 were of course his professional activities and the opinions of critics and others. To these should be added certain significant movements in the intellectual and spiritual milieu that encouraged relaxation of conventional poetic standards by widening the scope of subjects thought to be suitable to poetry and by liberalizing the manner of treatment. This was beneficial to Browning in the fifties and sixties and helped him advance to his position of security by 1870. The complexities of his career, present from the first, can hardly be reduced to simple statements and easy generalizations.
With considerable struggle Browning and his critics persevered in different ways until his reputation was established. Over a long period of time and with difficulty critics learned that they could not judge Browning's works by traditional standards. Repeated exposure to his individual dramatic method, a...
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SOURCE: "Hatred's Double Face," in Browning's Hatred, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 169-92.
[In the following essay, Karlin examines the binary oppositions in Browning's poetry, particularly the opposition between love and hate. Karlin asserts that the interplay between such contraries exists within all aspects of Browning's poetry and is especially fundamental to the poet's exploration of human relationships.]
Following Anaximander he [Heraclitus] conceived the universe as a ceaseless conflict of opposites regulated by an unchanging law, but he found in this law the proper object of understanding; it is the Logos which spans but could not exist without the cosmic process: 'people do not understand how what is at variance accords … with itself, an agreement in tension as with bow and lyre' … This Logos Heraclitus equated with transcendent wisdom and the elemental fire.
(Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edn., 1970)
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
the hateful siege
Of contraries …
Browning's dualism has often been remarked upon. He is a writer...
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SOURCE: "Genre and Style," in Robert Browning, Longman Group Limited, 1996, pp. 38–73.
[In the following essay, Woolford and Karlin study Browning's use of the genre of dramatic monologue as well as elements of the poet's style. The critics argue that Browning's primary concern in his usage of dramatic monologue is the creation of dramatic speakers and situations. Additionally, Woolford and Karlin maintain that the style Browning employs is a vocal one—his poetry is meant to be spoken aloud—and they define two distinct vocal styles in his poetry—a voice that "says " and a voice that "sings."]
'O lyric Love!' begins one of the most famous passages of Browning's poetry, his invocation of EBB [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] in The Ring and the Book. But it is an unusual moment.1 Browning is not a lyric poet. He never wrote an ode, disliked the sonnet-form, has a mere handful of solitary effusions or meditations.2 "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad", one of his best-known poems, is in this sense one of his least typical. His poetry is primarily dramatic: it consists of a few stage plays and a multitude of dramatic poems of one kind or another.3 The titles of his shorter collections reflect this: Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Dramatis Personae, Dramatic Idyls. The...
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SOURCE: "The Decade's Work in Browning Studies," in Browning Re-viewed: Review Essays, 1980-1995, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 127-57.
[In the following essay, Maynard reviews the critical issues concerning Browning's poetry which were debated throughout the 1980s. Maynard also traces the roots of such issues, noting the dependence of modern criticism on the work of earlier scholars.]
When I was volunteered to write a summary of the decade's work in Browning criticism and scholarship for Victorian Poetry, this did not seem a too much larger task than the year's evaluations I have been turning out for most of this decade—only one-thousand percent. It was, in any event, not the entirely appropriate, but far too ambitious, task of a summary and evaluation of the century's work. The common wisdom is that criticism, and even editing practices, have (as you like it) finally come of age/gone entirely crazy or to the dogs of late so that recent critical history should, in any event, stand alone, case unparalleled.
In fact, I find now that I am not so sure that the subject easily stands alone. The more I think about what we have said and learned about Browning recently, the more I am seeing patterns that go right back to the century of criticism—so much of it seemingly outdated and overworn—since Browning's death. I should not be so surprised: one of the many things we have been learning...
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Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993, 291 p.
Studies the poetical development of Browning, observing that Browning's poetry is informed both by Browning's "biographical presence" and his "biographical absence."
Armstrong, Isobel. "Browning in the 1850s and After: New Experiments in Radical Poetry and the Grotesque." In Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, pp. 284-317. London: Routledge, 1993.
Explores the development of Browning's poetry following his 1846 marriage and the subsequent 1855 publication of Men and Women, examining in particular the poet's experiments with language and form.
Bristow, Joseph. Robert Browning. Harvester New Readings. Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, 178 p.
Provides a critical introduction to Browning's poetry, focusing on Browning's desire and struggle to impart his views regarding the "divine necessity of cultural change."
Buckler, William E. Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. New York: New York University Press, 1985, 293 p.
Book-length study of The...
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