ROBERT BROWNING

[1812-89]

 

 

Browning and Tennyson spanned the nineteenth century―a longevity in startling contrast to the brief careers of Keats and Shelley. Both poets reflected the changing standards of their times: the economic struggles sharpened by the contradictory claims of science and religion, the grudging compromises and gradual reforms. Tennyson indicated the Victorian values from priggishness to liberation; Browning emphasized the shift from abstract morality to psychological speculation.

    During the years of his marriage Robert was sometimes referred to as "Mrs. Browning's husband." Elizabeth Barrett, who seems to us now a minor figure, was at that time a famous poetess while her husband was a relatively unknown experimenter whose poems were greeted with misunderstanding or indifference. Not until 1860s did he at last gain a public and become recognized as the rival or equal of Tennyson. In the 20th century his reputation has persisted, but in an unusual way: his poetry is admired by two groups of readers widely different in taste. To one group his work is a moral tonic. Such readers appreciated him as a man who lived bravely and as a writer who showed life to be a joyful battle, the imperfections of this world being remedied, under the dispensations of an all- loving God, by the perfections of the next. Typical of this group are the Browning Societies which have flourished in England and America. Members of these societies usually regard their poet as a wise philosopher and religious teacher who resolved the doubts which had troubled Arnold and Tennyson and which have continued to trouble later generations of less confident writers. A second group of readers enjoy Browning less for his attempt to solve problems of religious doubt than for his attempt to solve the problems of how poetry should be written. Such poets as Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell have valued him as a major artist; they have recognized that more than any other 19th-century poet (even including Hopkins), it was Browning who energetically hacked through a trail that has subsequently become the main road of 20th-century poetry. In Poetry and the Age (1953) Randall Jarrell remarked how "the dramatic monologue, which once had depended for its effect upon being a departure from the norm of poetry, now became in one form or another the norm."

    Robert Browning, the most erudite of modern poets, never attended a university. Born May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, a suburb of London. Browning was educated in the cradle. His mother was the daughter of a German shipowner who had married a Scottish woman in Dundee. His father, a well-to-do official in the Bank of England, was unusually cultured; a good draftsman, a competent versifier, and a lover of the classics. His father's library of seven thousand volumes was supplemented by a few tutors, and Browning's literary career was determined in boyhood. He discovered Shelley during adolescence, and at twenty-one published his first volume, Pauline. In his early twenties, Browning learned the delights of travel. He journeyed to Russia and the hill towns of Tuscany; he fell in love with Venice. "Italy," he declared, "was my university." For fifteen years, since their elopement to Italy and marriage, the Brownings enjoyed a rich life in Italy. Theirs was a busy idyl. Mrs. Browning's health improved, and she gave birth to a son; the once hopeless recluse entertained visitors from England and America. Husband and wife grew deeply interested in Italian politics and art, and the new spirit stimulated a warmer poetry than either had previously written.

    He wrote a drama, Paracelsus, in which the Renaissance physician seeks to save mankind. In his twenty-eighth year Browning published a long narrative poem so compressed in phrase and large in thought that it was dismissed as a piece of willful obscurity. The poem, Sordello, became the object of criticism of literary London. Douglas Jerrold, who tried to read the book while recovering from a severe illness, thought he had lost his mind, and was reassured only when his wife confessed her own failure to understand it. Tennyson said that of Sordello's 5800 lines there were just two which he could comprehend. The poems which followed were more comprehensible and far more powerful. "The Lost Leader" was written upon Wordsworth's acceptance of the laureateship and his abandonment of liberalism. His well-known early monologue "My Last Duchess" appeared in 1842. The dramatic monologue, as Browning uses it, enables the reader, speaker, and poet to be located at an appropriate distance from each other, aligned in such a way that the reader must work through the words of the speaker toward the meaning of the poet himself. In addition to his experiments with the dramatic monologue Browning also made experiments with language and syntax. The grotesque rhymes and jaw-breaking1) diction which he often employs have been repugnant to some critics. But to those who understand Browning's aims, the improprieties of language are not literally incongruous but functional, a humorous and appropriate counterpart to an imperfect world.

    The happy fifteen-year sojourn in Italy ended in 1861 with Elizabeth's death. The widower returned to London with his son. During the 28 years remaining to him, the quantity of verse he produced did not diminish. Nor, during the first decade, did it decrease in quality. Dramatic Personae (1864) is a volume containing some of his finest monologues, such as "Caliban upon Setebos." And in 1868 he published his greatest single poem, The Ring and the Book, which was inspired by his discovery of an old book of legal records concerning a murder trial in 17th-century Rome. His poem tells the story of a brutally sadistic husband, Count Guido Francheschini (who has much in common with the duke in "My Last Duchess"). The middle-aged Guido grows dissatisfied with his young wife, Pompilia, and accuses her of having adulterous relation with a handsome priest who, like St. George, had tried to rescue her from the dragon's den in which her husband confined her. Eventually Guido stabs his wife to death and is himself executed. In a series of 12 books Browing retells this tale of violence, presenting it from the contrasting points of vinew of participants and spectators. Because of its vast scale, The Ring and the Book is like a Victorian novel, but in its experiments with multiple points of view it anticipates later novels such as Conrad's Lord Jim. After The Ring and the Book several more volumes appeared. In general Browning's writings during the last two decades of his life suffer from a certain mechanical repetition of mannerism and an excess of argumentation―faults into which he may have been led by the unqualified enthusiasm of his admirers, for it was during this period that he gained his great following. When he died, in 1889, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

    

1. jaw-breaking: hard to pronounce.