“God’s in his heaven—All’s right with the world!”; “O, to be in England/Now that April’s there”; “Grow old with me!/ The best is yet to be”; “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what’s a heaven for?” The lines are familiar from textbooks, anthologies, books of quotations, and framed mottoes. They suggest a sanguine view of life, a striving for personal success, perhaps even an unawareness, an insensitivity to social ills or individual evil. How representative are they of the dominant thinking of the poet who wrote them? Donald Thomas attempts to answer the question in his stimulating biography of Robert Browning. Departing from some earlier biographers who made extensive use of Browning’s letters, Thomas searches the poetry, believing that in it the poet revealed much of his true self, sometimes directly, often indirectly.
Thomas considers as well, throughout much of his portrayal of Browning, the odd contrast between the handsome, well-dressed, sociable fellow who entertained friends and acquaintances with wit and anecdotes, and the reclusive poet who, both early and late, seemed fascinated by man’s mental aberrations and his darker nature and experience.
The outward circumstances of young Robert Browning’s life were fortunate. His well-to-do parents were proud of their brilliant son, and throughout his life he would feel a debt of gratitude, respect, and love toward them. He was early given access to his father’s considerable library. He became a voracious reader of English, Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and German.
Browning’s oddly assorted and yet formidable reading, as Thomas calls it, was later to have an unfortunate result from the publication of Sordello (1840), which developed for its author such a reputation of obscurity that Browning had to struggle for years to gain a just appraisal of many of his later poems. As critics and biographers have noted, Browning had learned so much through his extensive reading that he mistakenly assumed in his readers a knowledge which they did not have.
Pauline (1833), Browning’s first published book, appeared anonymously and was ignored. A confessional poem, it was later an embarrassment to its author. In Paracelsus (1835), he turned from self-revelation to a verse drama based on the semilegendary life of a sixteenth century physician. The poem was a critical success, and the title pages of many of Browning’s later books announced that they were “by the author of Paracelsus.“
A meeting with William Charles Macready, a prominent London actor, led to disillusionment for Browning. Ambitious to make a name for himself, he saw writing for the stage as offering an opportunity for quick success. He planned to work with Macready in the writing and production of plays, but though the two men were associated for several years, their differences in experience, goals, and personality brought an inevitable break.
Browning’s first staged play, Strafford (1837), a political and historical drama, was performed only five nights, yet he visualized a continuing career as a writer for the stage. Macready, though, was not a poet but an actor-manager with a practical knowledge of popular taste in the theater of the time and an eye for productions that could be expected to bring ready profits. Although he rejected two historical dramas by Browning as completely unsuitable, he did put on A Blot in the Scutcheon (1843) after it had been praised by Charles Dickens. The play, which included nocturnal visits by a lover to his mistress’ bedroom, was considered scandalous, and it lasted only three nights. Angry quarreling between poet and actor ended their work together. Browning wrote only one other play for the stage, Colombe’s Birthday (1844). Written for Charles Kean, another prominent London actor, it was not produced until 1853, when Browning was in Italy.
Thomas believes that though Browning failed as a writer for the stage and failed humiliatingly with the obscure Sordello, on which he worked for seven years, he still profited from his experience. He learned to examine closely and to analyze the human mind with its puzzling complexity, and through dramas he learned “to be specific, objective, and to adopt the idiom of external reality.”
Browning’s fascination with what is now called abnormal psychology began during his boyhood with his reading of Nathaniel Wanley’s The Wonders of the...
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