Robert Browning Biography
BROWNING, Robert (1812-89). An English poet, distinguished for his original and subtle thought. He was born in Camberwell, a suburb of London, May 7, 1812. His father, Robert, was a clerk in the Bank of England, and his mother, Sarah Anne, the daughter of a Hamburg shipowner named Wiedemann, settled in Dundee. The father was a good classical scholar, a lover of old books, and a ready versifier. The mother, who had some musical talent, was of an exalted and lovely character. Both parents were Dissenters; and Browning never quite escaped from the consequences of his early religious training, although in one direction he permitted himself great breadth of speculation. Cardinal Wiseman, indeed, reviewing Men and Women in 1856, detected "beneath the surface an undercurrent of thought that is by no means inconsistent with our religion." The future poet had a happy childhood, encouraged by his father and mother in his refined tastes, and learning less from his school than from them and from the books they placed in his way. Among these was Pope's Iliad, which he read and liked at the age of eight. But his first master was really Byron, under whose influence he had written by 1824 enough poems to form a volume. Fortunately, this failed to find a publisher, for the next year the works of Shelley and Keats came into his hands, and, by revealing the possibilities of poetry, dissipated his youthful ideals and quickened his own development. After leaving school, Browning studied under a tutor, then attended a few lectures at University College, London, deciding to complete his education by travel on the Continent and a more intimate acquaintance with foreign literature. His sympathetic father had left him free to choose his life work, and although he was at this time known as an artist and musician rather than a writer, evidently he had long felt a stronger inclination in the direction of authorship; and an early desire to produce a series of monodramatic epics illustrating the life of typical soul's now revived itself urgently. Early in January, 1833, he put forth anonymously his first book, Pauline, written the year before; a poem immature as a whole, but abounding in passages of great beauty. He spent the winter of 1833-34 in Russia. In 1835 he published a metaphysical drama, entitled Paracelsus, which was hailed by John Forster as a work of genius and secured for Browning the friendship of Macready the actor, to whom he dedicated the historical drama Strafford (1837). From this time on until his marriage Browning lived mostly in London and its neighborhood, studying life, nature, and books, though in 1838 he visited Italy. In 1840 he published Sordello, a narrative poem, which his really dramatic genius made very obscure. The period 1847-46 was well filled by a series of poems published in eight numbers, bearing the collective title Bells and Pomegranates, and beginning with Pippa Passes, a lyrical drama showing the power of unconscious influence, which received warm praise from Miss Barrett, afterward Mrs. Browning. This remarkable group embraced the plays King Victor and King Charles (1842); The Return of the Druses (1843); Colombe's Birthday (1844), successfully acted in 1853; the tragedy A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (1843), produced at Drury Lane that same year; Dramatic Lyrics (1842), among them "Cavalier Tunes" and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"; Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), including "How They Brought the Good News," "A Lost Leader," and "The Flight of the Duchess"; and closed with A Soul's Tragedy (1846), a work of tremendous power. In 1846 Browning was married to Elizabeth Barrett, and after that date resided in Italy, spending with his wife some months in England and Paris, 1851-52, and in Normandy, 1858, and returning to England to educate his son after Mrs. Browning's death in 1861. Before this sad termination of an ideal married life, Browning had published (1850) Christmas Eve and Easter Day, a poem defending catholicity in religion; and Men and Women (1855), including "Evelyn Hope," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and other now well-known poems. Then followed Dramatic Personę (1864), containing "Gold Hair" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra"; The Ring and the Book (1868-69), an epic in 21,116 lines, dealing with the tyranny of the passions, and considered by many his masterpiece; Balaustion's Adventure (1871) , including an English version of the Alcestis of Euripides; Prince Hohenstiel Schwangau (1871), a defense by the prince (Napoleon III) of the doctrine of expediency; Fifine at the Fair (1872), a powerful discussion of a question in morals; Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873), the story of a famous Norman law case; Aristophanes's Apology (1875), including a transcript from Euripides; The Inn Album (1875), a tragic story of betrayal and suicide; Pacchiarotto and Other Poems (1876); The Agamemnon of Ęschylus (1877); La Saisaz and The Two Poets of Croisic (1878), the former asserting his belief in a future life; Dramatic Idyls (1879-80); Jocoseria (1883), a number of narrative poems; Ferishtah's Fancies (1884); Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day (1887) , the characters serving as mouthpieces for the poet's opinions on literary, artistic, and philosophical questions; and Asolando, published in London on the day of Browning's death, which occurred in Venice, Dec. 12, 1889. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Browning was below the medium height, inclining to stoutness, with a ruddy complexion, large and bright gray eyes, fine features, a quickness of speech and gait, and a magnetic address which together with his liberal sympathy with humanity enabled him to mingle freely with all classes. His love for Italy was as deep and intelligent as that of his wife, and from that "land of lands" he drew the inspiration for many of his finest poems; though the fact that his grandfather was a German is recalled by his tendency to Hegelian philosophizing and by his questioning and speculative habit of mind, as well as by peculiarities of syntax and vocabulary.
What is called the obscurity of Browning's poetry is the characteristic that first strikes ordinary readers and in many cases discourages them from further study. It may be admitted that he was often careless of artistic and even of grammatical finish-that if it came to a choice, he valued substance above form; but the obscurity is often more apparent than real, and, where it exists, springs usually from the marvelous richness and fullness of his thought, and from the rapidity of his mental process, which passes from point to point more swiftly than the average mind can follow, careless sometimes of making the connection clear. The effort, however, which is necessary to apprehend him is not only a valuable mental tonic, but is frequently rewarded by the discovery of real and satisfying thought. The vast erudition of the poet, and his habit of casual allusion to things met with in out-of-the-way parts of his wide reading, also contribute to the impression of obscurity; but these difficulties are not sufficient to prevent his recognition as being, in his double capacity of poet and thinker, one of the most powerful influences on the spiritual and mental life of our age. It is possible that the choice of a vehicle of expression which was forced upon him by the time of his birth was in some degree an unfortunate one. Had he lived in the age of Shakespeare (next to whom he has been ranked for insight into the springs of human character and action), his genius, which was essentially dramatic, might more naturally and adequately have expressed itself in the form which characterized that period; or had he begun to write half a century later than he did, after the development of the psychological novel, he would very possibly have chosen to express in prose the vast range of thought on whose utterance the limitations of metrical law have sometimes imposed burdensome restrictions.
But such speculations are less important than the recognition of the qualities which he actually possessed and which make him a vital force. Not least among them must be reckoned his unswerving optimism, at which Tennyson gravely shook his head, calling it "depressing," but which has been the inspiration of many another soul. He saw with the utmost clearness how eternally insoluble is "the riddle of the painful earth"; he was the last who would have delighted fatuously in the arrangements of this as the best of all possible worlds; yet to the end he could describe himself, in the epilogue of his last published book, as "One who never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph; Held, we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake."
An inevitable comparison is suggested by the mention of Tennyson, whose name was generally, in their lifetime, coupled with Browning's. Their first books were published within six years of each other, and the relations between them were always of the utmost cordiality and friendliness, untouched by any suspicion of the jealousy which might have affected smaller minds. The contrast in their style was happily defined in the aphorism of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Tennyson is the light meat, Browning the dark." The laureate had a smoothness, a finish, and a grace which Browning rarely displays, though he showed at times that he could attain it; but from the cloying sweetness of Tennyson's Vergilian verses many will turn to the more manly and satisfying, if more rugged, tone of the robuster poet. The force of the first of these comparative epithets will be seen at once by recalling the attitude of the unsuccessful lovers in "Maud" and "Locksley Hall" on the one side and "The Last Ride Together" on the other.
If the Romantic movement be taken to stand for the assertion of the individual, his rights and his liberties, against the conventional order of the centuries, then Browning was essentially a Romantic. Strongly influenced as he was in his early years by Shelley, he preached a similar gospel of freedom from all restraints that hinder the growth of natural character. It was the "life of typical souls" that he set himself to write; and always it is the typical soul that interests him-whether struggling to emerge from the confining bands of the mediaeval system, or expanding amidst all the intricate complexities of modern life, which he loved precisely because it made the game harder to play and thus more of an intellectual exercise. Indeed, though he chose his subjects frequently from the bygone centuries, partly won by their picturesque quality and partly obeying the fashion of his time, even in the mediaeval period it was always the character which he sought to reproduce rather than, like Rossetti, the environment. Typical souls, whether good or evil in the world's estimation; men or women indifferently (and that he could read the one as unerringly as the other needs no further witness than the poignant truth of his analysis of a woman's heart in the poem "In a Year")- these were his subjects, and in the life of those souls, eminent moments, as Dowden puts it-"moments when life, caught up out of the ways of custom and low levels of prudence, takes its guidance and inspiration from a sudden discovery of truth through some high ardor of the heart." Browning as a poet may most fitly be classed with George Meredith as a novelist and Wagner as a composer. Alike decried as obscure and unintelligible, they have all come to be recognized by the thoughtful as supreme; and they are alike in their power to satisfy the deepest intellectual cravings with a fullness which is utterly beyond the power of their more popular rivals. The Browning Society, established in London in 1881 (four years after Professor Corson had founded the Cornell Browning Club), and the similar organizations throughout England and the United States, have by their discussions and publications done much to advance the study of his works. The Browning Society of Philadelphia has the largest membership of any like organization in the world, numbering nearly 5000 persons, and holding its meetings in theatres and other very large buildings.
The New International Encyclopaedia Vol IV. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 46-47.