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...
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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 His poetry bristles with allusions and historical references that require a specialist’s explanation.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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