Robert Browning

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271

Robert Browning is better known as a major Victorian poet and, in particular, as one who perfected the influential verse form called dramatic monologue. His achievement in poetry, for which he forsook the theater altogether in 1846, was unquestionably much greater than what he accomplished as a writer of stage plays, yet it is difficult and unwise to distinguish the subject matter and techniques of Browning’s “failed” dramas from those of his successful poems. Although he was by nature and inclination a dramatic writer, it became apparent that his peculiar interests and talent in that line were more suited to the finer medium of poetry than to the practical exigencies of stagecraft. The verse confirms his acknowledged preoccupation with interior drama (“Action in character, not character in action”). Browning’s verse masterpieces in this mode include “Porphyria’s Lover,” “My Last Duchess,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Love Among the Ruins,” “The Last Ride Together,” and The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). A dramatic monologue by Browning typically features an incandescent moment of crisis or of self-realization in the mental life of some unusual, often morally or psychologically flawed, character. Rather like a soliloquy except in being addressed to a present but silent listener, this type of poem enabled Browning to let his speakers’ personalities, motives, obsessions, and delusions be revealed—inadvertently or otherwise—in speech and implied gesture. This preoccupation with inward, psychological drama—with the springs of action rather than with action itself—is the origin of Browning’s greatness as a poet and of his limitations as a stageworthy playwright.

Achievements

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In nineteenth and early twentieth century criticism, Browning was widely considered to be the best English writer of dramatic literature (though not of stageable plays) since the Renaissance. That judgment was probably accurate enough, if only because of the remarkable dearth of fine drama during the two hundred years in question. Even today, especially if Browning’s splendid dramatic monologues are included in the estimate, there can be little doubt that his achievement was, under the circumstances, extraordinary. Nevertheless, any evaluation of his plays must begin by conceding that, despite his hopes, practical theatrical craft in the ordinary sense was never in Browning’s vein of genius. He was a first-rate dramatic poet, not a good technical playwright. Indeed, the very themes and methods that mark the plays’ literary value are the source of their unsuitability for successful performance.

One historical explanation of this “failure” is the Romantic concept of acted and unacted drama. Browning has been associated with a widespread and consciously antitheatrical attitude among authors that resulted in plays composed with indifference to performative—as opposed to literary or expressive—criteria. If Browning did believe on principle that actual staging is not necessary to serious drama, it is less surprising that his own plays are satisfactory chiefly as reading texts. On the other hand, Browning did press persistently to see some of his work on the boards.

In any case, Browning’s plays have never been popular and, with the exception of Pippa Passes, are not usually numbered among his most important contributions to the history of English dramatic writing. Their lasting excellence, then, is in their objective poetry and prose. As in the verse collections to which he gave titles such as Dramatic Lyrics (1842; in Bells and Pomegranates, 1841-1846), Dramatis Personae (1864), Dramatic Idyls (1879, 1880), and Men and Women (1855), Browning’s mastery of inward action is demonstrated in the plays’ delineation of moral and psychological crises and in their vivid intellectual and emotional energy. Understood as searching critiques of modern life, the psychological and moral bearings of some of these dramas—and their subversive frankness (about eroticism, for example, or respectability)—were original and significantly ahead of their time. Formal innovations in the reading plays (Pippa Passes and A Soul’s Tragedy) and Browning’s special gift for creating memorable female characters have also been praised.

Other literary forms

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Robert Browning wrote letters copiously. Published volumes of his correspondence include The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846 (1926, 2 volumes; Robert B. Browning, editor), as well as volumes of correspondence between Browning and Alfred Domett, Isa Blagden, and George Barrett. Baylor University holds extensive manuscript and document collections concerning Browning from which Intimate Glimpses from Browning’s Letter File: Selected from Letters in the Baylor University Browning Collection was published in 1934. An additional collection of about four hundred New Letters of Robert Browning has also been published (1950; W. C. DeVane and Kenneth L. Knickerbocker, editors).

For a short time, Browning also attempted to write plays. Unfortunately, the impracticality of performing his particular dramas on stage doomed them to failure. The majority of these works can be found in the Bells and Pomegranates series, published between 1841 and 1846.

Achievements

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Robert Browning is, with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, one of the two leading Victorian poets. Although Browning did not invent the dramatic monologue, he expanded its possibilities for serious psychological and philosophical expression, and he will always be considered a master of the dramatic poem. Browning’s best poetry appears in three volumes: Men and Women, Dramatis Personae, and The Ring and the Book. Browning typically writes as if the poem were an utterance of a dramatic character, either a creation of his own imagination or his re-creation of some historical personage. He speaks through a mask, or dramatic persona, so that his poems must be read as little plays, or as scenes or fragments of larger dramas. The dramatic mask allowed him to create in his audience a conflict between sympathy and judgment: As the reader often judges the dramatic speaker to be evil, he nevertheless sympathizes with his predicament. The dramatic monologue allows the author to explore the thoughts and feelings of deviant psychology to an extent seldom practiced before. On the other hand, when the author always speaks through a character, taking on the limitations and prejudices of a dramatic figure, he conceals his own feelings and ideas from his reader. His critics charge that he evaded the writer’s most important duty by failing to pass judgment on his characters, and by presenting murderers, villains, and whores without a word of moral reprobation. He is accused of valuing passion for its own sake, failing to construct his own framework of values that would allow the reader to evaluate and judge the ethical position of his characters. Nevertheless, Browning deserves to be read as a serious innovator in poetic form; his conception of dramatic character influenced modern fiction as well as poetry.

Discussion Topics

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What did Robert Browning learn from his study of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry?

In regard to Browning, what do you understand the phrase “indulgent Romantic angst” to mean?

How does the monologue form of Browning’s dramatic poems differentiate them from plays?

To what extent might the tones and emphases used in reading of “My Last Justice” aloud affect its interpretation?

Should we understand the duke in “My Last Duchess” as “shrewd” or “witless” in his obvious revelation of himself to his visitor?

How does one explain Browning’s fondness for rhymed couplets when he so often seems to be undermining their effect with enjambments and rhythmical variations?

What seems to be the best way of understanding the motivation of the bishop in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”?

Bibliography

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Altick, Richard D., and James F. Loucks II. Browning’s Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. An important book devoted to an analysis of Browning’s arguably greatest poem of dramatic monologues. Emphasizing the comedy and realism, the authors present in ten chapters the purpose, design, and meaning as a dramatic articulation of the poet’s ideas of rhetoric, ethics, and language. Includes footnotes, an index, and a brief bibliographic note.

Armstrong, Isobel. Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975. This fairly simple book provides the best general introduction to the poet, his life, his cultural context, and his work. Armstrong identifies the outstanding features of the major poems and presents sound basic readings. Supplemented by a full index and a helpful bibliography.

Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. New York: Macmillan, 1903. Although somewhat dated, this medium-length book is full of perceptive insights and is one of the best overviews of the poet. Chesterton opens up the major monologues by relating them to one another and showing how they contribute to the evolution of Browning’s thought. The index is helpful for cross-referencing.

Crowell, Norman B. A Reader’s Guide to Robert Browning. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972. An extremely useful volume for those interested in sampling critical approaches to Browning’s major dramatic monologues. Crowell summarizes the stands taken by various previous readers, raising questions and suggesting openings for further interpretations. Can also be used as a guide to basic research, but it does not cover the longer works.

DeVane, W. C. A Browning Handbook. Rev. ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955. For two generations of literary students, this was the first reference on Browning, and it has not been superseded. Contains entries for the major phases of Browning’s life and for all of his writing. Although easy to use if the student has specific topics to pursue, the focus is old-fashioned, concentrating on a biographical and a literary-historical background. Includes a thorough index.

Garrett, Martin. A Browning Chronology: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A chronology of the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Bibliography and index.

Garrett, Martin, ed. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning: Interviews and Recollections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of interviews recalling Browning and his famous wife. Bibliography and index.

Hair, Donald S. Robert Browning’s Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Of all the major poets who have adopted the English language as their instrument, Browning, perhaps more than anyone, has exhibited the most sophisticated and modulated command of his medium. Hair undertakes the heroic task of uncovering Browning’s theory of language. The result is a fine analysis that reestablishes the poet’s importance.

Hawlin, Stefan. The Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning. New York: Routledge, 2002. A reference work that provides comprehensive critical analysis of Browning’s works and information on his life. Bibliography and indexes.

Hudson, Gertrude Reese. Robert Browning’s Literary Life: From First Work to Masterpiece. Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1992. Examines the critical response to the works of Browning, throughout his career. Bibliography and index.

Irvine, William, and Park Honan. The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. A standard academic biography of the poet, this study is thorough, meticulous, detailed, fully documented, and illustrated. Although rather heavy for beginning students, it collects more biographical information than any other source. Contains an index and a select bibliography.

Jack, Ian. Browning’s Major Poetry. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. One of the leading scholars of Victorian literature presents detailed analyses of Browning’s primary works. Contains definitive, substantial accounts, deep and rewarding, but sophisticated. The critical apparatus is complete, with a solid index and a bibliography.

King, Roma A., Jr. The Focusing Artifice: The Poetry of Robert Browning. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1968. Reviewing Browning’s total career, King analyzes individual poems and dramas as works of art focusing intellectual and cultural forces in Browning’s modern tradition. This book is especially useful for its inclusion of a substantial chapter that focuses on the dramas as experiments in search of an adequate form for Browning’s purposes. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Markus, Julia. Dared and Done. New York: Knopf, 1995. Novelist-turned-literary-historian Markus lifts the veil of misconception that has long concealed the truth about the love and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. As Markus chronicles the personal and artistic growth of this devoted couple, she insightfully analyzes their social and political milieu and how it shaped their lives and poetry.

Maynard, John, ed. Browning Re-viewed: Review Essays, 1980-1995. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. This collection of essays on Browning includes a critical analysis of his poems and plays as well as several on the path of his literary career. Bibliography and indexes.

Roberts, Adam. Robert Browning Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. A basic biography of Browning that examines his life and works. Bibliography and index.

Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. A critical biography of the major Victorian poet which gives an account of his life and analyzes his entire creative output in chronological order.

Thomas, Donald. Robert Browning: A Life Within Life. New York: Viking Press, 1983. Relying more on Browning’s poetry than on his correspondence, Thomas studies the problem of Browning’s private, interior life as a brooding Romantic at the center of the robust Victorian savior of Elizabeth Barrett. Includes a sympathetic treatment of Browning’s late writings, which are compared favorably with those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Helpful notes, select bibliography, and index.

Wood, Sarah. Robert Browning: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A biography of Browning that focuses on his literary works. Bibliography and index.

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