An introduction to Browning’s life and work
Robert Browning (1812-89) is, along with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the most famous and widely studied poet of the Victorian era. Yet for the first two decades that he was writing, he was virtually ignored by the public. In this post we offer a very short biography of Browning, a brief introduction to his life and work, touching upon the most curious and interesting aspects.
Robert Browning was born in London in 1812. Aged 14, he wrote a poem, ‘The Dance of Death’, in which Ague, Consumption, Fever, Madness, and Pestilence compete for the title of man’s worst foe; this early poem features many of the macabre hallmarks of his later poetry, dealing with death, murder, and ugliness (physical and moral) as it so often does. Although he studied at the University of London he was as much self-taught as formally educated; he dropped out of his studies after a year. His early work included a long narrative poem called Sordello (1840), which Ezra Pound namechecks at the beginning of The Cantos. Pound may have revered it nearly a century later, but to most Victorians Sordello proved impenetrable. Thomas Carlyle’s wife Jane read the entire thing – nearly 6,000 lines – without ever working out whether Sordello was a man, a city, or a book. ‘Obscurity’ is often a charge – or a compliment – laid at Robert Browning’s door. (Fittingly, Sordello is about a poet who never quite makes it in the world.)
Browning also experimented with verse dramas, writing a dramatic work, Pippa Passes (1841), which is the source of an embarrassing anecdote in the annals of the Robert Browning biography: mistakenly thinking the word ‘twats’ referred to a nun’s hat, Browning innocently used the word in his verse drama. When James Murray and the other early editors of the Oxford English Dictionary later approached Browning to enquire about the source of the poet’s knowledge of this indelicate word, Browning directed them to the 1660 poem Vanity of Vanities:
They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat:
They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.
None of Browning’s friends appears to have been brave enough to point out the poet’s mistake to him. It didn’t matter too much to the wider world, which continued to ignore him, in the main. Success would have to be won the hard way, and Browning would have to play the long game. Nevertheless, one other surprising legacy to come from Pippa Passes is that it was taken up as the name of a city in Kentucky in the US. That, and the famous phrase ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world’.
In 1844 he read a volume of poems by a reclusive invalid named Elizabeth Barrett, and wrote her a fan letter. The two struck up the most celebrated courtship in all of Victorian letters (‘letters’ in both senses of the word). Barrett’s father didn’t think Browning a good match for his daughter, however, so the couple eloped and secretly married in 1846. They spent much of the next fifteen years living in Italy, until Barrett Browning died in 1861.
It was in the 1860s that Browning’s star began to rise, and he achieved widespread popularity and acclaim. But he’d already written many of his most celebrated poems: the dramatic monologues ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, and ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ had mostly been written before he achieved any real fame. The Ring and the Book (1868-9), the gigantic verse-novel he wrote once he became a household name, is not read nearly as much now. Browning died in 1889 in Venice.
Browning was once described by fellow Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as ‘a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense’. Indeed, for Hopkins Browning was barely a poet. Oscar Wilde later quipped: ‘[George] Meredith is a prose Browning’, adding wittily, ‘and so is Browning.’ Why did so many people deny his poetry? The answer lies partly in Browning’s ground-breaking conversational style, which was revolutionary in the 1850s when the public first began to take note of it. Through the dramatic monologue – a poetic genre Browning developed from the 1830s onwards, along with Tennyson (though working independently of him) – Browning makes his characters come to life by confiding in us, the reader, and making us feel personally addressed. There are few poetic ‘frills’ in most Browning poems – though he could also write more conventional lyrics, such as ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’, with its memorable opening line: ‘Oh, to be in England’.
If you’ve found this very short biography of Robert Browning useful, you can discover more about his life and work here. But we’ll leave you with this wonderful recording of Browning reading his poem ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘, captured on a recording cylinder in 1889, shortly before his death. It was the first time a poet’s voice had ever been recorded. Attentive listeners will spot that Browning forgets the words to his own poem!
Image: Portrait of Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – ca.1896), via Wikimedia Commons.