Are these the best Browning poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Robert Browning (1812-89) was a prolific poet, so whittling down his poetic oeuvre to just ten defining poems is going to prove a challenge. With that in mind, it’s best to view the following list of Browning’s ten best poems as indicative – there are many other classic Robert Browning poems around. Still, these are our particular favourites, and, we hope, none is out of place in a Browning top ten.
Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage …
A grotesque quasi-medieval dramatic monologue detailing the quest of the titular Roland, this poem was produced in an attempt to overcome writer’s block: in 1852 Browning had set himself the New Year’s Resolution to write a new poem every day, and this vivid dreamscape is what arose from his fevered imagination. Browning borrowed the title from a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear; the character of Roland as he appears in Browning’s poem has in turn inspired Stephen King to write his Dark Tower series, while J. K. Rowling borrowed the word ‘slughorn’ from the poem when creating the name of her character Horace Slughorn.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
So begins this classic Browning poem. The title singing the praises of the English countryside is less well-known than the poem’s opening line: ‘Oh, to be in England’. Browning reminds us that we often only manage to pin down what we love about our home country when we’re out of it: Browning spent much of the 1850s living in Italy, with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning also wrote another poem on this theme, ‘Home Thoughts, from the Sea’.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands …
Probably Robert Browning’s most famous (and widely studied) dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’ is spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, chatting away to an acquaintance (for whom we, the reader, are the stand-in) and revealing a sinister back-story lurking behind the portrait of his late wife, the Duchess, that adorns the wall.
This poem is a masterpiece because it does what Browning’s dramatic monologues do best: invites us into the confidence of a speaker whose conversation reveals more about their personality and actions than they realise. The poem is not a narrative poem because it has a speaker rather than a narrator, but it nevertheless tells a story of a doomed marriage, a man capable only of irrational jealousy and possessive force, and male pride (indeed, arrogance and privilege too) that barely conceals the fragile masculinity just lurking beneath. We should feel thoroughly uncomfortable when we finish reading the poem for the first time, because we have just heard a man confessing to the murder of his wife – and, perhaps, other wives – without actually confessing.
We have analysed this poem, section by section, here.
Come in! — the Mayor cried, looking bigger:
And in did come the strangest figure!
His queer long coat from heel to head
Was half of yellow and half of red;
And he himself was tall and thin,
With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin,
And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,
No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin,
But lips where smiles went out and in —
There was no guessing his kith and kin!
And nobody could enough admire
The tall man and his quaint attire:
Quoth one: It’s as my great-grandsire,
Starting up at the Trump of Doom’s tone,
Had walked this way from his painted tombstone …
Although this is a very well-known poem, it’s not quite so familiar to readers as a Robert Browning poem – it has the air of anonymity about it, like a nursery rhyme. This is for good reason: Browning based the poem on a medieval German legend. Nevertheless, Browning’s retelling is the version most familiar to English readers.
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm …
One of Browning’s most disturbing poems – and it’s up against quite a bit of competition – ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is spoken by a murderer, a man who strangles his lover with her own hair. It was one of Browning’s first great poems, published in 1836 (as ‘Porphyria’) when the poet was still in his mid-twenties. It was also one of his earliest experiments in the dramatic monologue, a form which he and Alfred, Lord Tennyson developed in the 1830s. Despite the poem’s reputation as one of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues, it – like much of Browning’s early work – was largely ignored during his lifetime.
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
So begins this, the first of two poems on this list to feature a medieval monk, and the first of two to feature a painter – ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ sees the titular friar being accosted by some guards one night, and ending up drunkenly telling them – and us – about his whole life. In a poem like ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ one can clearly see why Ezra Pound was influenced by Browning’s dramatic monologue, with their plainness of speech and the bluff, no-nonsense manner of Browning’s characters.
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own shelf!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for ourself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps –
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
This is another dramatic monologue, spoken by a Spanish monk who chooses to confide in us, the reader, about the monastery where he lives and works – and especially his dislike for a fellow monk, Brother Lawrence. Victorian poetry is seldom more deliciously catty than it is here. Follow the link above to read the poem and our stanza-by-stanza analysis.
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I’ll work then for your friend’s friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
And shut the money into this small hand
When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?
Yet another dramatic monologue (detecting a theme among Robert Browning’s best poems yet?), ‘Andrea del Sarto’ was inspired by the real-life Renaissance painter Andrea d’Angolo. Browning may have been using the figure of Andrea del Sarto – who had let other things get in the way of his artistic ambitions – as a way of commenting on his own sense of failure as a poet, having struggled to achieve critical or commercial success for decades.
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand …
This short poem about a lover travelling for a nocturnal tryst with his beloved is very different from many of the other classic Robert Browning poems on this list. But its use of sexually suggestive imagery to describe the ‘pushing prow’ of the boat as it enters the cove is stamped with Browning’s bold, progressive style.
Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
‘Thinketh, He dwelleth i’ the cold o’ the moon.
‘Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same …
One of the first poems to respond to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, this 1863 poem is – you’ve guessed it – another dramatic monologue, spoken by the native, Caliban, from the magical island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Setebos is the invented name for the deity Caliban worships, believing Setebos to be the Creator of all things (the name is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play; one surprising legacy is that one of the moons of the planet Uranus was named after Setebos).
Continue to explore Browning’s work with our short overview of his life and work – which includes a recording of Browning’s voice from 1889 (the first time a poet’s voice had ever been captured for posterity). If you’re looking for a good edition of Browning’s poems, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 – ca.1896), via Wikimedia Commons.