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Robert Browning (1812-1889), English playwright and master of dramatic dialogue poetry wrote “A Death in the Desert”, “My Last Dutchess”, and “A Grammarian’s Funeral”;
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,—
His hundred’s soon hit;
This high man, aiming at a million,
Misses an unit.
That has the world here—should he need the next,
Let the world mind him!
This throws himself on God, and unperplexed
Seeking shall find him.
For many years Browning struggled to find his voice in the Victorian literary world. Charles Darwin had published his controversial theory of natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859) which was challenging orthodox beliefs; the world of religion, science, and art was in a state of change. Sometimes overshadowed by his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning's success, Robert Browning produced collections of poetry and dramatic works for the stage, but it was not until his The Ring and The Book (published in four separate volumes between 1868 and 1869) that he finally gained financial and literary success. His profound contributions to the development of poetry through his psychological portraits and use of diction and rhythm however have long inspired poets into the twentieth century including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost.
Robert Browning was born on 7 May, 1812 in Camberwell, south-east London, England. He was the eldest child of Sarah Wiedemann, of German-Scottish descent, and Robert Browning, a wealthy clerk with the Bank of England who was also a scholar and collector of books; his massive library would be a great source of study for young Robert. Both his parents encouraged him to study and write; as early as the age of twelve Browning was writing poetry. In his literary pursuits, they would support him financially for many years. They also had a daughter, Sarianna, who would be devoted to her brother for the rest of her life.
Up to the age of sixteen Browning was tutored at home, learning French, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Italian, as well as studying music (his mother was an accomplished pianist), horsemanship and drawing. At the age of sixteen, he attended the University College in London but a year later left to pursue learning at his own pace. (He would later earn honorary degrees from Oxford and Edinburgh Universities, in 1882 and 1884 respectively). Browning was also studying natural history and the romantic poets like Lord George Gordon Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In 1833 Browning's Shelley-inspired confessional poem Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession was published anonymously by his family, though many years later he was embarrassed by its naďveté and noted “twenty years’ endurance of an eyesore seems long enough” when he revised it in 1888. In 1834 he traveled to Russia and made his first of many forays to Italy.
I see my way as birds their trackless way.
I shall arrive,—what time, what circuit first,
I ask not; but unless God send his hail
Or blinding fire-balls, sleet or stifling snow,
In some time, his good time, I shall arrive:
He guides me and the bird. In his good time.—Part i.
was Browning’s next major effort, published under his own name this time. A series of poetical monologues between Swiss alchemist, physician, and occultist Paracelsus (1493-1541) and his friends, it was a promising critical success for Browning, praised by such men of letters as Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth.
It was a brief taste of acclaim however, for Browning’s next publications in his Bells and Pomegranates series, including the verse drama for the stage Strafford (1837), and his narrative poem Pippa Passes (1841), were largely ignored. Aldous Huxley would later sardonically use the lines from Pippa, “God's in his heaven, All's right in the world!” in Brave New World (1932). Browning's historical poem Sordello (1840) brought an onslaught of criticism that lasted for many years. Around this time Browning also met fellow playwright and author Charles Dickens.
Dramatic Lyrics (1842) includes “Porphyria’s Lover”;
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 listen'd with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel'd and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) was another collection of his poems that would only years later be considered among his finest. Other works published around this time were the plays A Blot in the `Scutcheon: A Tragedy (1843), The Return of the Druses (1843), and A Soul’s Tragedy (1846).
In 1846 Browning married fellow English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). They had started a now-famous correspondence a year earlier after Browning had read and admired her Poems (1844). “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,—and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,” —January 10, 1845. “I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart.” — January 11, 1845. The marriage was against her father’s wishes partly because he was so protective of Elizabeth and, since her teens she had suffered a lung ailment and treated as an invalid. Despite her frail health, the happy couple settled in Florence, Italy. They were devoted to each other, “for after their marriage they were never separated” writes their son in his introduction to The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846. Elizabeth’s health improved and she went on to write many highly acclaimed works. The few works Browning produced in the next fifteen years or so include Christmas Eve and Easter Day (1850). Dedicated to his wife, Browning’s Men and Women (1855) includes a poem inspired by Edgar from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (and which later inspired Stephen King's Dark Tower series), “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”;
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed, neither pride
Now hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.—III
After the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth `Ba’ , he moved back to London to live with his son Robert “Pen” Barrett Browning (1849-1912). Embraced by London’s literary circle again, Browning’s Dramatis Personae (1864) was followed by The Ring and The Book. It is a blank verse poem consisting of twelve volumes and 21,000 lines. In various voices it narrates the 1698 trial of Count Guido Franceschini of Rome who murdered his wife Pompilia Comparini and her parents. It was a best selling work during Browning’s lifetime.
When his father died in 1866 Browning lived with his sister Sarianna. In the 1870’s he continued to focus on longer works including the poems Balaustion's Adventure (1871), Fifine At The Fair (1872), and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873). He also produced shorter collections including The Inn Album (1875) and Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper (1876) which includes thinly veiled attacks on his critics. His anthology The Agamemnon of Aeschylus was published in 1877.
In 1881 the Robert Browning Society was founded by enthusiasts in England and America. Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887) is Browning writing in his own voice, consisting of a series of dialogues with literary, artistic and historical figures. Asolando: Fancies and Facts (1889) was published the same day that Robert Browning died at his son’s home `Ca’ Rezzonico’ in Venice, Italy, on 12 December, 1889. His wishes were to be buried beside Elizabeth in the English Cemetery in Florence, but by that time it was closed to new burials, so he rests in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, England, nearby Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson.
In 1889, inventor Thomas Edison had recorded Browning reading “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”. In 1903 Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote his biography, Robert Browning.
Other Browning works include;
Dramatic Idyls (1879),
Dramatic Idyls: Second Series (1880), and
Bells and Pomegranates. No. II - King Victor and King Charles (1842),
Balaustion's Adventure, Including a Transcript from Euripides (1871),
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871), and
Aristophanes' Apology (1875).
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.
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