Born In: Camberwell, London England
Died On: December 12, 1889
Career: Poet & Playwright
Robert Browning may be best known for his romantic courtship and unusual marriage to fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett, but there is much more to this master writer than just his love life. Browning was not a love poet, though he did write love poetry both before and after he had met Elizabeth Barrett. He is forever remembered for his proficiency in dramatic monologue and psychological portraiture. In fact, all of his great works are attributed almost completely to these genres. It was noted that in his early years, Browning wasn't as successful as he became later in life and posthumously. In last few decades, his work has been taken more seriously. Join us as we take a deeper look at the life and works of Robert Browning.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert Browning was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell near London. He was the first child of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning. Robert Sr. had fallout with his rich father, when he was sent to oversee a West Indies sugar plantation. But young Browning Sr. horrified by the institution of slavery, gave up his prospects and returned home. He became a clerk in the Bank of England. Apart from this, he was fervent reader and had a library of nearly 6000 books some of which were very rare. He then married Sarah Anna. Robert Sr. possessed an excellent imagination and pedagogic skills, while Sarah was an accomplished pianist and a keen Evangelical. The creative and ingenious resource was passed on to Robert Jr. While Robert gained the nonconformist faith from his mother, his deep interest in literature and the arts came from his father.
Much of Robert’s education was given at home. He was an extremely bright child. A voracious reader, he started reading at the age of five and composed his first poetry at six. At the age of ten, Browning began attending Peckam School, where he remained for four years. He had learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian by the time he was just fourteen. Prevented by his faith from studying at Cambridge or Oxford, Robert Browning attended the University of London in 1828, the very first year it opened. However, Browning was bored with institutionalized education and so left college to educate himself through his own methodology. His somewhat strange but broad education contributed to the obscurity of some of his poems. He was unaware that few people were familiar with his references and insinuations, which probably is sited as a cause for his non successful early period.
The Poet’s Journey
Though he was a prolific poet, Browning did not achieve much respect or fame until later life. His literary career began in 1833 with the anonymous publication of the long poem ‘Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession’. In the 1830's, Browning began to discover that his real talent lay in taking a single character and getting that character to reveal itself “unconsciously", as it were in his monologues to the audience. Thus began Browning’s tryst with dramatic monologues. His work “Paracelsus" (1835) received fairly good reviews. He also tried to pen verse drama during this period. ‘Pippa Passes’ was an example of such verse plays, written in 1841.
Browning’s budding popularity received a full stop with the publication of his long poem ‘Sordello’ in 1840. Set against the background of restless southern Europe of the 13th century, the poem turned out to be a critical failure. Critics turned against him, and for many years they continued to complain of the obscurity of even his shorter and simpler lyrics. Beginning in 1841, Browning published a series of eight pamphlets, collectively titled ‘Bells and Pomegranates’ (1841-45). The series contains narrative poems, including the above mentioned ‘Pippa Passes’ (1841) and two collections of shorter pieces, ‘Dramatic Lyrics’ (1842) and ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’ (1845). Although Browning had to this point failed to win either popular or critical esteem, his work did gain the admiration of Elizabeth Barrett, who was a respected and popular poet in her own right. In 1844’ she praised Browning in one of her works and received a grateful letter from him in response.
The Infamous Union
In 1845, Browning became acquainted with the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett, a recluse and semi-invalid. He found a way to meet her. Despite her illness and shyness, and the opposition of her tyrannical father, Browning won her hand by persistence and the two married secretly in September 1846. To escape the tyrannical Mr. Barrett, the couple eloped to Italy and settled in Florence. Though the next fifteen years was not a productive phase for Robert Browning, for Elizabeth, it turned out otherwise as the poet gained immense popularity. Their marriage, as well as Elizabeth’s artistic guidance helped Browning in his career.
Elizabeth Barrett's love for him was recorded in her famous ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’. Browning dedicated ‘Men and Women’ to his beloved, which contains some of his best poetry ever written. ‘The Ring and the Book’, a 20,000 word epic, was evidently inspired by Elizabeth Barrett and received her blessing. Browning dedicated the work to her in the brief poem ‘O lyric love, half angel and half bird’ which he included at the end. 'The Ring and the Book' illustrates Browning's penchant for the obscure and horrific. It was based on a 1698 murder trial in Rome, supposedly taken from an "old yellow book." The poem was a success and elevated Browning to the level of "foremost" poet. The couple was blessed with a son whom they named Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning.
Later Life and Death
It is believed by some that Robert Browning carried on a romance with Lady Ashburton after Elizabeth's death, though he did not re-marry. He moved with his son back to England and continued writing for another twenty years. The late '60s reflected the peak years of his career. In the 1870s, Browning published several works. Browning's ‘Red Cotton Night-Cap Country’ (1873), about religious faith, illicit love, and mental illness, was praised in the Examiner as "the most useful and memorable of all the good poems that he has written". ‘The Inn Album’ (1875) was dramatic poems, where two couples use the visitors' book to convey messages, and a translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. In 1878, Browning returned to Italy, ending the long absence from that country after Elizabeth’s death. Browning's influence continued to grow, however, and lead to the founding of the Browning Society in 1881. In 1887, Browning produced the major work of his later years, ‘Parleyings with Certain People of Importance In Their Day’. Browning became the first poet ever to record his poetry in his own voice, as he made a recording into an Edison recording machine in 1888.
Robert Browning died on December 12, 1889, at his son's house in Venice. The same day the last volume of his verse, ‘Asolando’, was published. Various difficulties made the poet's requested burial in Florence impossible, and his body was returned to England to be interred in Westminster Abbey
1812: Robert Browning was born
1826: Begins writing poetry
1828: Attends London University for a semester then returns home
1833: ‘Pauline, A Fragment of a Confession’ published anonymously
1838: Visits Italy for the first time
1840: ‘Sordello’ published
1842: ‘Dramatic Lyrics’ was published
1845: ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’ was published
1846: Secretly marries Elizabeth Barrett
1849: Becomes a father when son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, is born
1855: ‘Men and Women’ published
1861: Elizabeth Barrett Browning died
1868: ‘The Ring and the Book’ published
1880: ‘The Browning Society’ is established in London
1889: ‘Asolando’, his last collection of poems, published
1889: Left for the heavenly abode.