Robert Browning Browning, Robert - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Balaustion (poetry) 1875

The Inn Album (poetry) 1875

Pacchiarotto, and Other Poems (poetry) 1876

La Saisiaz (poetry) 1878

Two Poets of Croisic (poetry) 1878

Dramatic Idyls, first series (poetry) 1879

Dramatic Idyls, second series (poetry) 1880

Jocoseria (poetry) 1883

Ferishtah's Fancies (poetry) 1884

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day, to Wit: Bernard de Mandeville, Daniel Bartoli, Christopher Smart, George Budd Doddington, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles Avison (poetry) 1887

**An Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley (essay) 1888

Poetical Works. 16 vols. (poetry) 1888-89

Asolando: Fancies and Facts (poetry) 1889

The Works of Robert Browning. 10 vols. (poetry, dramas, and translation) 1912

The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning (poetry) 1915

The Complete Works of Robert Browning. 5 vols. to date (poetry, dramas, and essays) 1969-

The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. 4 vols. to date (poetry) 1983-

The Brownings ' Correspondence. 4 vols. to date (letters) 1984-

*This work was included in the series Bells and Pomegranates, published from 1841 to 1846. Dramatic works in this series are chronologized by date of publication rather than first performance.

**This work was first published in 1852 as an introductory essay to Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Clyde de L. Ryals (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12391 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8531 words.)

Adam Potkay (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6938 words.)

W. David Shaw (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 theoriesparticularly deconstructionism and hermeneuticsin 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...

(The entire section is 9676 words.)

Herbert F. Tucker (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9395 words.)

Gertrude Reese Hudson (eassy date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6105 words.)

Daniel Karlin (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8572 words.)

John Woolford and Daniel Karlin (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 onehis poetry is meant to be spoken aloud—and they define two distinct vocal styles in his poetrya voice that "says " and a voice that "sings."]


Dramatic method...

(The entire section is 13239 words.)

John Maynard (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11105 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 600 words.)