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.
‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. 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.
‘Home Thoughts, from Abroad’. The title of this short lyric poem 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’.
‘My Last Duchess’. 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.
‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. 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.
‘Porphyria’s Lover’. 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.
‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. 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.
‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’. 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 bitchy than it is here.
‘Andrea del Sarto’. 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.
‘Meeting at Night’. 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.
‘Caliban upon Setebos’. 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.