Robert Browning Biography
Robert Browning had a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps more than any other nineteenth-century writer, he was able to fuse the aesthetics of drama and poetry into a truly theatrical verse. In fact, some of his most famous poems (“Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”) are structured like dramatic monologues, and storytelling was also an integral part of Browning’s poetry, as evidenced by his verse adaptations of classic tales such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Although his reputation swung between popularity and obscurity during his lifetime, his works are now considered classics and have influenced writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Stephen King, whose epic Dark Tower series was even inspired by one of Browning’s poems. Take a bow, Robert.
Facts and Trivia
- Robert Browning was married to the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote the famous sonnet beginning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
- Although a British citizen, Browning spent nearly a fourth of his life (and writing career) abroad in Italy. Its culture was incredibly influential upon his work. “Italy was my university,” he would often say.
- Browning’s most popular work during his lifetime was the dramatic poem The Ring and the Book, which comprises an astonishing 20,000 lines.
- Browning died on the same day that Asolando, his final volume of verse, was published—December 12, 1889.
- Though Browning has influenced countless poets in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, perhaps his most obscure connection is to the film remake of Get Carter, starring Sylvester Stallone. The movie opens with a quote from Browning's The Ring and the Book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229
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 hopelessly tangled as the argument proceeds, it appears that Browning views his dramatic characters as lamps, shedding their light on the world, allowing the reader to imagine the inner flame that produces such rays of fancy and imagination, shaping and distorting whatever they fall on.
At the age of twenty, Browning published Pauline, which was to be the first step in a massive work projected to be the utterances of a series of characters distinct from the author himself. The work is in the tradition of Romantic confessional writing. John Stuart Mill wrote an unpublished review of Pauline, which eventually came to Browning’s attention, in which he accused the poet of having a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than he had ever before seen in a sane man. These cutting words are particularly ironic coming from the author of Mill’s Autobiography (1873), a totally self-conscious production. Nevertheless, Browning was stung by the criticism and in the future tried to hide his own identity, his personal self, ever more cleverly behind the mask of dramatic speakers. Pauline was followed by Paracelsus and Sordello. These three works all treat the predicament of an artist or seer at odds with his environment and his historical age. The phenomenon of alienation, estrangement from one’s own culture and time, is one of Browning’s repeated topics, as is the role of the artist and the artist’s relationship to society at large. Betty B. Miller in Robert Browning: A Portrait (1953) argues that there is a close identification between Browning and the central characters in these three works, so that Paracelsus is Browning, his garden at Wurzburg is identical to Browning’s garden at the family home in Camberwell, and so on.
For about ten years, from 1837 to 1847, Browning devoted much of his energy to writing stage plays. These must be considered practical failures, although Strafford (pr., pb. 1837) ran for five performances on the professional stage with the famous tragedian William Charles Macready in the hero’s role. Browning had difficulty in treating external action, which is necessary in a staged performance, and turned instead to internal conflicts that were invisible to his audience. Although the plays simply did not work on stage, they were the workshop for the great dramatic monologues in Men and Women and Dramatis Personae.
In 1845-1846 Browning courted the semi-invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett. They were married on September 12, 1846, and fled immediately to Italy. The popular imagination has clothed this romance in a gauze of sentimentality, so that Browning appears as a knight in shining armor rescuing his maiden from her ogre of a father. Even a cursory reading of the Browning-Barrett letters suggests that the romance was rather more complicated and contradictory. Miller’s Robert Browning suggests that Browning had a need to be dominated by a woman. His mother supplied that role until her death in 1840, and then he found her surrogate in Elizabeth Barrett, who was a considerably more famous writer than he was at the time. Miller points to places where Elizabeth simply took the controlling hand in their relationship and points to the nine-year period of silence between Men and Women and Dramatis Personae as the consequence of Elizabeth’s domination of Browning until her death on June 29, 1861. The truth is probably not so sinister as Miller thinks, nor so blissful as depicted in modern popular musicals such as Ron Grainer’s Robert and Elizabeth (1964). There appear to have been areas of gross disagreement between Elizabeth and Robert that would have been difficult to reconcile in day-to-day life. For example, Elizabeth, like Browning’s mother, believed in the spiritual world, while Browning distrusted those who made supernatural claims.
The publication of The Ring and the Book, along with the earlier Men and Women and Dramatis Personae, established Browning as one of the major writers of the nineteenth century. The Ring and the Book tells, from a number of sharply differing points of view, the story of a scandalous murder case. It resembles the plan of Browning’s earliest work, Pauline, in that it represents the speech of “Brown, Smith, Jones, and Robinson,” who are characters quite distinct from the author. It was a project of which Elizabeth had disapproved in her lifetime. Browning’s later works became more and more cryptic and complex as he further pushed his ideas of dramatized poetry, but his fame grew rapidly, spurred by the formation of the Browning Society in London in 1881. Following his death in Venice, December 12, 1889, his body was moved to England and interred in Westminster Abbey.